Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Christmas 2008 wishlist - top 10

Dear Santa

Most of the stuff I'd like for Xmas isn't actually easily available, if at all. You know me. But hey, don't you like a challenge? And it's not impossible to get them - the technology's up to it, it's just that no one is making them. Or making them anymore. Or, maybe, I just don't know where to get them from.

Yep - the things I want the most are things that could be, but aren't. Or things I used to be able to get, but can't now (why oh why do they stop producing good stuff, anyway? Classics will never stop being in demand).

So here's my very random X'mas wishlist: high tech, low tech, or just no tech.

(I'll leave out pyjamas that button up all the way to the top and my even more specific requirements as to undergarments, for now. And the answer to why there's no single word for "trouser leg" when we use "sleeve" instead of "shirt arm"!)

10. Motorbikes / scooters - big wheels, reverse gear, fuel gauge and clock

Why do most scooters have tiny wheels that make you feel every bump in the road? Is it because, hey, scooters are mostly for women (who wouldn't throw their dainty legs across rough, tough motorbikes, oh no), and women have more cushioning in their nether regions don't they, so they can like it or (literally) lump it?

Well never mind women, think joints. For both genders. It ain't that easy to get your leg over, so to speak. Especially as you get older and creakier. Scooters are much easier that motorbikes in that regard. But not if bumpiness cancels out that advantage.

Why can't they make more scooters with bigger, more stable wheels, dammit? And more powerful scooters with bigger engines, too.

And while I'm on the subject, why don't all scooters and motorcycles come with a reverse gear and a fuel gauge and built-in clock as standard? (Crash helmets, well, you just have to keep trying till you find one that fits your shape of head.)

A friend also whinges about many motorbikes being too high for most women, and indeed many men, even if you get the seat lowered to the lowest possible height. Maybe BMW and the like think that their image would be tarnished if anyone less than a beefy 6 foot tall man was to be seen riding one of their bikes around. But in these economic climes, wouldn't it be better to sell more bikes to the many shorter people who'd buy your brand if only you made motor bikes that were lower in height? Especially tourers.

9. MP3 recorder / player with Mini Disc-like editing

Because I record speeches at BarCamps etc, or rehearsals, or (with permission only of course) shows e.g. concerts I'm singing in, I want an MP3 / WAV recorder - not just a player.

I do have one (a Zoom H4 Handy Recorder field recorder, photo below), but it's quite bulky and not very user friendly in its controls especially in terms of recording and playback.

Zoom H4 - photo from Wikipedia, by Ed Poor

It would be great to have a small, user-friendly music player that also has decent recording facilities - built-in microphone, line in, with high quality recordings (or better still selectable quality) - particularly if it's geared for vocal recordings. It should handle as many formats as possible - MP3 and WAV minimum - and take memory cards that are 2 or 4 GB in size, ideally bigger. And could I have one at a reasonable price, pretty please?

So far, so possible. But what I've not found yet is a portable MP3 /WAV recorder that has editing features as powerful and flexible as you could get with the now pretty much dead MiniDisc format. I'm talking really easy divide, combine, erase, move of tracks. To quote Wikipedia:

"MiniDiscs can be edited very quickly even on portable machines. Tracks can be split, combined, moved or deleted with ease either on the player or uploaded to PC (only with the latest version of Sony's PC based SonicStage V4.3 software) and edited there."

I hope we'll get that in the future (and bookmarking specific spots in tracks for playback would be great too). A player / recorder combined with DAB radio and the ability to record from the radio would be the icing on the cake. But better editing on portable recorders will do me just fine!

8. Huge, microwaveable, dishwasher safe coffee / tea mugs by Brookshaw

I like a huge cuppa tea. Or coffee. Most mugs are too small for me.

I thought I'd found the ideal mug when I came across Dunoon Stoneware's "Nevis" range with a big 0.48L capacity and lovely large handles.

Thing is, I liked Jane Brookshaw's cheerful bright animal cartoon designs the best. In fact I loved them, and still do. They make me smile. I bought one or two of every single design in her range.

But, I can't replace my chipped mugs because Dunoon don't do those particular designs anymore (just wishy washy pastel ones, or mugs with less comfortable handles, or mugs that are simply too small).

Bring back Brookshaw's punchy funny designs, please! I'd buy more, I really would. It's an own goal there for Dunoon because I don't buy their mugs now. Yet I would if they still sold the classic Brookshaw range, pictured below (photo by me, licensed under CC - see bottom of page).

7. Straight backed low chair (see, I did say "no tech"!)

It seems impossible to get a chair that has a 90 degree angle between seat and back. They all slope backwards. I know it seems to be received wisdom these days that a 135 degree angle is best for the back, but I still want a straight back chair.

As Alexander Technique practitioners will tell you, a straight backed chair is useful for Alexander. I'm no expert but learning Alexander Technique has really helped me, though I'd be the first to admit I don't do it often enough.

But it's near impossible to find a totally straight backed chair in the UK. Like I said, they all seem to slope at an angle. I'm still looking.

(And I need it to be low because I'm short, and on most chairs made for grown ups my feet don't touch the ground!)

6. Old-fashioned roller skates, updated

(Credit: photo by bulldog1, licensed under an Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic Creative Commons licence)

Remember those skates you could wear over your trainers? I want something like that, portable, lightweight, easily removable and packable away, which you can slip on quickly over your shoes when you emerge from the Tube. Wouldn't that make commuting much faster? (if perhaps more risky for those people who won't get outta mah waaaaaay!).

Better still, comfy roller shoes with retractable wheels which pop out with the push of a button, and just as easily pop away again.

I've seen some but they're not easy to walk in or the wheels are too flimsy, like toy skates. I want real, usable, hardwearing ones.

And it's got to be quad i.e. four wheels, for extra stability. As I probably will fall over, given the chance. (I tried Heelys, once. Couldn't keep my balance and nearly had a heart attack. Cross that one out.)

The closest I've come across online are Aircoast sneakers but I don't know anyone who's tried them (and their site somehow doesn't inspire confidence in me - plus, their roller skate shoes are out of stock, not a good sign). The idea of electric powered roller shoes sounds excellent to indolent me, though!

(Talking about footwear, I've given up on LL Bean Puff Boots. Best indoor slippers I ever had: warm, comfy, hardwearing, you could step in and out of them easily, but they don't make them anymore. They'd probably be on my wishlist if I thought there was any hope of their being manufactured again. Which there isn't.)

5. Hip belt bag / holster for large PDA / mobilephone / cellphone

I lurve my gadgets but I don't want to be too weighed down carting them round in a backpack or bag.

I've tried Krusell cases; I've tried (and hated) the possibly fashionable but definitely impractical UrbanTool hipholster, which I rated as more for victim than fashion. No luck there.

I don't want a bag that you have to thread through a separate belt (I may not always want to belt my jeans, for a start).

Nope, the belt bit needs to be integrated, in my view. So that I can just strap the whole thing on in a jiffy. (No sniggering, you there at the back!)

So, I think they've got the right idea with "bumbags" ("fanny packs" I believe the Americans call 'em, and no sniggering again I say!). I don't care that they're the height of unfashion.

I like that you can strap the bag round your hips just by clicking the fastening into the buckle or clasp. Easy release too. Perfect. That's the sort of thing I want. No hands needed, and hips can take the load far better than shoulders or back, so they're much more ergonomic too in my view.

However, they need to be larger and stronger, and have big enough pockets / compartments for gadgets not just a purse (and have several pockets not just one). The fastenings have to be made of strong metal too, not plastic. (I've used bum bags with plastic buckles for phones etc. Trust me, the plastic teeth bend, the clasp slips out, and the whole thing falls down!)

A nice strong shoulder holster would be a good possible alternative - but with pockets or holders / holsters suitable for gadgets rather than guns, obviously.

The closest I've seen are these Happy Cow belt bags ("Happy Cow", I know, I know!), some of which even convert into a holster - but you can't click it on and off easily, and I'm too lazy to put on a belt with a tongue etc. I want an easy snap on / off fastening, just like on a bum bag. And I want zips for the pockets, not buttons.

So, I'm still looking for the ideal cellphone / gadget belt. One day, I may well have to get one made to order.

4. Endless Pool

Treadmills for runners and stationary exercise cycles are all very well, but I'm not much of a runner or a cyclist. Yet I'd still like to keep, err I mean, get, fit.

I swam a lot in my teens. Almost every day, in fact. Never up to swim team speeds, but I was very at home in the water.

But I've not swum for years now.

Partly because these days most public pools are too cold for wimpy me (I tried a posh hotel pool once - weekend in the hotel courtesy of my then employers. Beautifully warm, bliss!).

And partly because I've become more and more fastidious with age. When I think of pools, I'm immediately reminded of a brilliant Private Eye cartoon I once saw, of a public pool with separate lanes labelled something like: "Veruccas". "Plasters". "Other people's wee".

You understand why I'm not exactly drawn to swimming these days.

But, I'd love to have a private swimming pool. I'm talking a tiny pool that's like a treadmill for swimmers, which generates a perpetual current you swim against: the Endless Pool swimming machine. Unlike many of my other wishlist items, this is something that you can get, even in the UK. My place just isn't big enough to have a "real" pool, but maybe it's possible steal a small patch from an already small garden?

And oh, Santa, while we're on the subject, the £13,000-plus needed to pay for an Endless Pool (and to put a roof and walls round the bit of garden, as an open air pool in England is to me only for the terminally masochistic) would also come in handy!

3. Virtual machines for the masses

I've loved the idea of virtual machines since I first heard of them a few years back, where you can run different operating systems on the same hardware as "virtual machines". As Microsoft put it in relation to their Virtual PC 2007 product, you can:

"create separate virtual machines on your Windows desktop, each of which virtualizes the hardware of a complete physical computer. Use virtual machines to run operating systems such as MS-DOS, Windows, and OS/2. You can run multiple operating systems at once on a single physical computer and switch between them as easily as switching applications—instantly, with a mouse click."

But I have in mind not so much being able to switch between different operating systems (which could include Linux etc as well as Windows), as being able to use virtualisation for security and convenience - even if you run just the one operating system on your virtual machine.

Wouldn't it be great if you could run a base operating system like Windows XP, on which you could install your favourite programs, and then use it to your heart's content - but if anything goes wrong or it slows down (or it catches a virus or other malware), you can just wipe it all out with a few keystrokes or mouse clicks, and then quickly and easily reinstate a fresh, clean (previously-saved) copy of your virtual machine with all your favourite programs already on it?

Virtualization technology does exist now, e.g. the open source VirtualBox, or the fairly well known VMWare, but it seems to me that it's still not quite there yet, especially in terms of the average consumer being able to use it effectively, easily and reasonably cheaply.

I hope it will get there sooner rather than later.

2. Proper mobile internet, and non-geographic mobile phone calls

There are 2 things I'd like to happen in the mobile industry, from a consumer viewpoint.

Mobile data charging

First, I wish that UK mobile phone network operators would offer combo voice, text and data price plans.

Plans like T-Mobile's Flext do let customers use their monthly allowance for voice calls and SMS messages in whatever combination the consumer wishes, but data isn't included e.g. mobile Web or email access. It really should be.

To me, that would be a lot fairer than so called "unlimited" data usage plans which really aren't. And people would be paying for what they're using, within their allowance.

Alternatively, if truly unlimited data at a fixed monthly tariff were a reality (rather than a pretence), it would really help the mobile internet take off - which would be good for all involved.

Calls from mobile phones to non-geographic phone numbers

Second, I've always thought it was unfair that consumers who use a mobile phone to call a non-geographic telephone number (0845, 0870, 0871 and the like) get charged more than if they phone via a landline telephone, and furthermore that the cost of that call is not within the customer's inclusive minutes allowed for the month, but is charged extra on top of that.

My wish here: they should cost the same as geographic numbers, and be included within the standard voice call allowance (unless they're special premium rate numbers whose much higher rates are clearly made known to the consumer).

Of course, businesses advertise those telephone numbers and make consumers use them because of "revenue sharing" - the business who is called gets a cut of the (higher) price paid by the consumer to the telephone company or network for the phone call.

In May 2008, as a result of consumer concerns about the lack of transparency on the cost of calls, UK comms regulator Ofcom did consult on changes to 0870 and on Extending Premium Rate Services Regulation to 087 Numbers (see the news release "Tightening the rules on 08 telephone numbers": 0870 charges should be reduced and tariffs better displayed and 0871 numbers subject to new regulation).

However, disappointingly in October 2008 Ofcom decided to suspend work on 0870 call charges. While they said they aimed to "publish a further statement on implementing any changes to 0870 policy by the end of the year... " and "publish a statement on its proposal to bring the most expensive 087 numbers (including 0871, 0872 and 0873 numbers) within the remit of PhonepayPlus, in the autumn", it's now nearly Christmas and there's no sign of either statement.

I don't know why Ofcom aren't protecting consumers by putting a stop to this very obvious "rip off" (as many have called it, for years) - there was an attempt in 2005 which got nowhere, and I fear that this latest effort will go nowhere too.

More consumer organisations (like the Communications Consumer Panel, formerly the Ofcom Consumer Panel) and consumers ought to lobby Ofcom and the government on this issue. Meanwhile, we consumers can try to protect ourselves by using (and contributing phone numbers to) Say No to 0870 - a site which lists geographic alternatives to non-geographic numbers. If you call the geographic number instead, it will be included in your inclusive minutes, so obviously you're better off using the geographic number, especially when calling from your cellphone.

It's not all bad news - Ofcom recently tried to publicise the use of 03 phone numbers, which are "real" non-geographic numbers. They're non-geographic numbers which consumers can safely use in the knowledge that calls to them aren't charged more than calls to national rate 01 or 02 numbers, and furthermore will be counted within the customer's inclusive minutes. (Ofcom itself has 03 numbers for the public to use to contact Ofcom.)

Indeed, recently (as Ofcom noted) the UK Department of Health issued a consultation on the use of 084 telephone numbers in the NHS, as they're considering banning the use of 084 numbers to access NHS services because, as they put it, "patients who use 084 numbers are paying more than the equivalent cost of a local rate call to access services provided by the NHS". The consultation ends on 31 March 2009 so if you're interested in this area, please do consider responding.

Of course, that doesn't mean that non-government departments (or indeed government departments outside the NHS) will start using 03 numbers instead of 084 numbers. But I hope it's a sign that momentum towards 03 numbers is building up, at least within some government departments. I'm a bit more cynical as to whether private commercial businesses will adopt 03 numbers unless the regulators make them.

1. Truly mobile computing - and Net access everywhere

For this biggest wish of mine to come true, a number of things will have to happen.

  1. Mobile computing devices need to get lighter and more usable and allow faster, more efficient data entry - but in my view netbooks aren't quite it, nor smartphones. Convergence of mobile devices is on its way, but who knows how long it'll take.
  2. Internet access needs to be ubiquitous - we need truly mobile, flexible, full Net access everywhere, at decent speeds, without having to pay a fortune or being forced to hunt out WiFi hotspots. Including free public wifi and full mobile phone / cellphone coverage in Tube trains and on Tube platforms, which is well worth putting up with "Honey I'm on the Tube" for, in my view! And as I've said above, unlimited data access including Web, bulletin boards, chat etc. That would be the real killer app for wireless.

We're certainly nowhere near there with wearable computers yet. For visual output devices, a.k.a. monitor screens, there are video glasses or head mounted displays like the Vuzix iWear "video eyewear" "personal video displays", but these headsets don't (yet) connect to computers, only DVD players, gaming consoles and the like. And you can't wear them if you wear glasses (they could make them like sunglasses that fit over regular spectacles / glasses, but they don't seem to yet.) Plus, some people just don't want to look like a cyborg. Believe it or not.

More small laptops (i.e. UMPCs, mini-notebooks, subnotebooks or netbooks as they're variously called) have become available this year, at long last - triggered in part by the (to me, not at all unexpected) phenomenal success of the Asus Eee. Problem is, any portable computer that's just over 1 kg in weight is still too heavy for me, and their size is still too unwieldy when you're standing up on the Tube.

By the way, if you're in the market for a sub-notebook, I wouldn't recommend the Eee myself, because I feel Asus messed their customers round. And I'd also strongly advise against the Vye PC: much as I'd like to recommend a small British company which makes what at first sight seems a nice product, the "support" I got, even from the supposedly customer-friendly USA, was nothing short of appalling, and what should come as standard with the model I bought, didn't. However, people I know with true tech expertise have actually bought, and liked, the Acer Aspire One - so it's probably worth a try especially if you want to use Linux

It's also interesting that recent models of the Acer Aspire One even come with a SIM card slot so you can use it for mobile internet if you have a data plan with your mobile phone network provider.

But, it's still too large and heavy for what I want.

It will come as no surprise to regular readers that (as I've said many times before) the device I most crave is a handheld computer / H/PC / palmtop computer along the lines of an updated Psion 5mx, with the same weight, form factor / size and long battery life, and the keyboard exactly as it is, but with added mobile phone SIM, wifi, Bluetooth, email, fully fledged web browser (with Javascript and Java), and colour screen (with backlighting), which runs at a decent speed. User friendly. Sold at a fair price. Which lets you use third party applications e.g. your preferred email or chat / Twitter client. And allows easy transfer of data to and from a desktop computer with copy and paste.

(As an aside, one feature of a Psion application, Datasafe, which I really like is that when you leave an open password-protected page by switching to another application, when you switch back it asks for your password again. For better security all password-protected documents on all operating systems should do that, in my view.)

(Another aside - it may seem a minor point but devices, especially smartphones and the like which are aimed at business users, must be able to be made silent, and stay that way, when in a quiet environment - like a classical concert! No hidden nasties that spring to life suddenly despite your best efforts. That was a major defect of the Nokia 7710, that if you turned it on (e.g. to check email during a business meeting) it played the Nokia "welcome" tune and you just couldn't disable that.)

Comparative photo of Psion 5mx (top right), Asus Eee and Evesham laptop by RTPeat, licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA licence

The Psion 5mx was more than just a PDA and I'm still waiting for someone to deliver a modern computing device that has the features and advantages of a 5mx.

It's light and portable. Only 350 grams, including 2 AA batteries, which last for 15 - 20 hours. That's right, hours.

It's "instant on" (and off), whereas my XP computer takes at least 15 minutes to boot. It even saves stuff in RAM if you forgot to save before you switched it off, though obviously it's a good idea to always remember to save.

Zoom features are built in, so you can zoom in and out of any application - essential for something that doesn't have a full sized screen.

The landscape screen is perfect for Web access.

But most of all, I need easy, quick text input via a decent built-in hardware keyboard, or at the very least a non-miniscule onscreen keyboard with non-losable stylus (attached with a retractable cord perhaps!).

Why? Because two hands are still faster than one. Touch typing on a QWERTY keyboard is much faster than linear speech, even though voice recognition (speak orders to your computer?) is progressing. Mobile phone keyboards I use only when I have to, not because I want to. I don't reply to SMS texts as quickly as I should because most phone keys are too painfully slow and error-prone to pick text out on - even with predictive text.

The 5mx's integrated slide-forward keyboard is a design classic, a real keyboard with proper travel, which you can touch type on (at least if your fingers aren't too sausagey). An add-on Bluetooth keyboard might be livable with if it was very small and portable and had good travel on the keys. A decent on-screen keyboard like the one on the Nokia 7710 smartphone might do too, as long as it came with with non-losable stylus (attached with flexible cord!).

Granted, something the size of the 5mx would be a bit bulky to be used as a mobile phone: it wouldn't be very comfortable to hold to your ear. But that's exactly what Bluetooth earpieces / headsets are for. Keep the device in your bag or pocket (or belt bag, dare I say!), and use the earpiece for phone calls.

0. World peace

Just in case you thought I'd forgotten that one. (Hey, it seems a lot more likely than getting an Obama for the UK, anyway.)

Happy holidays, one and all!


Kirk said...

Awww, kitty.

I'm asking Santa NOT to bring you roller skates. An Imp on wheels is dangerous.

But I hope you get the rest of your wishlist.

Feliz Navidad

Improbulus said...

Thanks Kirk! Yeah I thought an awww kitty pic would be a good one to start with. But yer right, an Imp on skates would be dangerous. Though mostly only to Imp!

Márcia W. said...

Amen, Improbolus !
Please let me know about developments concerning item 8. As to item 0, if it happens, I guess I´ll notice;)

Admin said...

Feliz Navidad, monsieur, though it may be a couple of days late!

I ran across your post about using HaloScan trackback with Blogger, and upon following the instructions, I learned to my chagrin that HaloScan is now powered by "JS-Kit" which seems to lack a trackback function and doesn't actually allow you to register (WTF?!). It would seem that people who were using HaloScan before the switch can keep using it. Are you aware of any alternative for receiving trackbacks?

Improbulus said...

Marcia, hey! I'll let you know if I hear anything but why not email Dunoon and ask them to bring back the Brookshaw mugs too? The more of us who ask, the more likely perhaps that they'll do it! (And yeah world peace, you'd notice!)

Anon, don't know which post you looked at, this one (which shows how to use Haloscan trackback)? - but Blogger does have backlinksthough you can't screen and delete those easily.

TitansFan said...

I have the same problem with water, too cold is 75 degrees F. I bought my Swim Spa specifically for the reason that it has a hot tub integrated. It works wonderfully! I hope you've got all your wishes by now B-)