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Top Gadgets 2008

Posted by Mark Harrison on December 30, 2008

It’s odd, but despite becoming Europe’s number 1 real estate blog, the post that attracted the most comment off-line have been the occasional “technology in the real world” ones.

I realise that it’s been two years since I wrote a Top Gadgets post – so while we had Top Gadgets 2006, there was no similar thing last year. Later on in this post, I’m going to go back and see which of the 2006 list I’m still using…

However, firstly, my top gadgets 2008.

I only really have 5 to make it onto the list this year (since some of the most useful things are still from the 2006 list.)

1: The Mac Mini. You know how irritating those Mac users get, forever banging on about how much better their computers are compared to Windows PCs. Well, I spent about ten years arguing with them that, while I was willing to believe this was true, their PCs cost so much more than ones with the Microsoft O/S that the point was moot. Then Nik Butler made the simple observation that I didn’t base my car choice on specs and price, but on a whole bunch of intangibles, and that I should consider the Mac Mini as a sort of Jaguar. I tried a Mac Mini, and I’m hooked. We’re now a 2-Mac family, since Mary has a Mini also. In the words of Tom Peters, it’s about design! (It’s also about productivity, and, less tangibly, how I feel when using it.)

2: The Drobo. I wrote a long review of the Drobo back in September. Basically, it’s an external enclosure that takes up to 4 hard drives, and applies a RAID-like algorithm to them, so that even if one drive completely fails, your data is safe. High-end servers have done this (expensively) for years, but this takes cheap, standard, SATA drives, and just works.

3: The ASUS EEE Pc. At the opposite end of the computing spectrum to Apple lies ASUS. The EEE Pc is a small laptop, with a tiny screen, and a fiddly keyboard… that is nonetheless the size of a hardback novel, runs on battery for “sufficiently longer than I need that I really can’t tell you how long it lasts”, and has built in wifi. It also creates far less of a psychological barrier than a big laptop when I’m in a meeting, and I can use it on a plane or a departure lounge. OK, it runs Xandros Linux, but it comes with Firefox (qv), and OpenOffice, so does pretty much 90% of what I need. As a result, I don’t really have a “real laptop” any more.

4: The DVD Duplicator. Bought from the ever-reliable APR Media, this beast has saved me a whole bunch of time, since I can just stick in a DVD or CD in the top tray, up to 5 blanks in the lower trays, and press the “duplicate” button. It meant that, this Christmas, we were able to get the playgroup nativity DVDs out to all parents who pre-ordered before Christmas… wheras last year we had to write them from my laptop, and they didn’t come out until the new year. (The playgroup is a charity of which I’m a trustee, and the Christmas nativity DVDs are a big fundraiser for us.) Plus, work-wise, it’s made a huge difference to our ability to run off 50-60 CDs for corporate orders.

5: A normal, non-smart Nokia handset that is just wonderfully designed and optimised for talking to people. I do not have a smartphone. I do not want a smartphone… for the same reason that I don’t have voicemail. My clients know that I’m busy, that when I’m working for them, I’m focussed on their needs, not on checking my email in case other clients want my time… but that cuts both ways. If it’s important enough to interrupt me, phone me! If it’s for general info, and can wait a few days, email me! The last thing I want, however, is for clients to believe that I’m just sitting around waiting for their crucial message to come in – hence, no smartphone, no voicemail.

Now, what happened to the 2006 list:

1: The iPod. Hardly use it any more – I tend to read on the train, and use the car stereo.

2: The Dell laptop is still in use, but the battery has long since failed, and the replacement cost of batteries is, well, ludicrous. Hence, it’s now in use as if it were a desktop PC.

3: The Domia Lite system. Still working well, still in everyday use. However, I ought to point out that the system is now known as “Bye Bye Standy”, and the energy-saving features are what are promoted.

4: The “Skype headset”. Honestly, I’ve lost it. From time to time, I wish I could find it, not least because my brother has a Skype-enabled mobile. I, however, use it for IM rather than voice!

5: Software choices… Firefox, now on version 3 is still what I’m using (even on the Mac) – I used Flock for a while, which was great, but not optimised for what I do. I’m also running NeoOffice, a Mac version of OpenOffice. (I’m told that OpenOffice 3 for the Mac is probably better, and still free, but what I have works, and I’m loathe to change it.)

6: The aircon unit now has a friend, so we have aircon upstairs and down. Truth be told, we only ran it for a couple of weeks in 2008, but who knows what 2009 will bring.

7: Another year with paper diaries 🙂

8: Really Useful Company 35 litre crates. These have moved out to the garage. We had someone build some shelving that takes about 20 of them. Works very, very, well.

9: The Satnav. How did I live without one? We now have his and hers.

10:  The cars. Both of the 2006 cars have gone – the Morgan 4-seater was, alas, written off when someone drove into the back of it in September 2007. The Bentley just got too expensive to justify – it was costing over a grand a month to keep running, so we now have a Volvo Estate that runs on LPG (49.9p/litre.)


Posted in ASUS, Drobo, EEE PC, Just for fun, Open Source, Technology | 4 Comments »

Trick or Healthy Treat?

Posted by Mark Harrison on October 31, 2007

I have many goals in life, but this evening two of them coincided nicely.

Firstly, I like the idea of improving people’s knowledge (heh, you probably guessed that from the fact I run a training company.)

But I also enjoy increasing the amount of humour in the world. (You may not have guessed that, and Mary says I’m not entirely successful.)

This evening was, of course, All Hallows Eve, or Halloween for short. I find it slightly odd that virtually no-one remember what tomorrow is, of course, but that’s another blog post for another day.

In the last few years, Trick or Treat has certainly caught on big-time in the UK – however, here in West Sussex, we appear to have a relatively benign version – small groups of well-dressed, and well-spoken young men and women, inevitably accompanied by a responsible adult, have been ringing the doorbell, and saying “trick or treat” in a way that makes it clear that the response “trick” would not, in fact, lead to any serious harm.

However, they have been carrying, what can only be described as buckets, typically half-full of sweets by the time they arrive.

So, we offer them a healthy option. Mary or I stand on the doorstep, explaining that we don’t have sweets, but have a choice of organic plums or carrots (which we’ve quartered), for healthy, immediate consumption.

Carrots, the Healthy Trick or Treat option

Based on our, admittedly unscientific, survey:

  • Most teenagers are DELIGHTED to be given such a choice.
  • Most teenagers did NOT, until this evening, realise that carrots can be consumed raw.
  • Teenagers will, overwhelmingly, choose the raw carrot option over the plum


I’m a bit saddened by point number 2, but points numbers 1 and 3 have increased my

faith in “the youth of today” (you’ll have to imagine the voice of a 37 year old pretending to be a grumpy old man here.)

And, to plug a company I love, the Healthy Treats came from Abel and Cole, who deliver an “organic box of seasonal fruit and veg” to us, including, well, carrots.

Posted in Companies I Like, Just for fun | 1 Comment »

Half term fun – building a geodesic dome, Part III

Posted by Mark Harrison on October 25, 2007

Following the success of Dome I and Dome II earlier in the week, we decided to make a more complex dome.

Both Dome I and Dome II are what’s know as 2V domes. The notation was introduced by Buckminster Fuller, who developed a version of the dome in the States in the 40s. (The dome was originally invented by Walther Bauersfed for Carl Zeiss, and the first was built in 1922)

Dome III was going to be more complex – it is a 4V dome. Wheras the 2V domes each had 65 struts, the 4V required a total of 250.

drilling the dome

This time round, we learnt from the previous two construction jobs – the struts were made of rolled, reused paper, a whole bunch from a company that was renamed, plus a set of printouts from a failed mailmerge for Mog007. This time, though, we used the “short side” of A4 (21cm) for the longest struts. Again we used butterfly fasteners to put it together. However, this time, we used a bit more Scotch tape, so that most of the struts were completely covered, rather than just using it

“along the join.” This has given them a bit more rigidity, as has the fact that we’re using the shorter side, and therefore each roll has a “long-side’s worth of paper” in it. Drilling them took quite a while.


The net result, though, is a dome that is just big enough for me (if I curl up.) The children have, of course, loved it – they can both fit in easily, and have spent the last 15 minutes watching TV from inside it 🙂

Posted in Just for fun | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Half term fun – building a geodesic dome, Part II

Posted by Mark Harrison on October 21, 2007

Well, the first dome is now wrapped in cling-film, and outside in the back garden as a “science demo”.

The last two nights, we’ve had a light frost, and I’m hoping to be able to demonstrate that having what is effectively a small greenhouse makes a difference (even with an insulator as small as clingfilm), because it’s the trapped air that is ACTUALLY insulating the plants, not the glass.

Of course, it’s possible that the dew will actually rot the paper sufficiently, or the cold will brittleise the tape enough that the dome collapses. Also of these will also count as a science demo in the morning 🙂

However, spurred on by the success of Dome I, we made some modifications to the design, and now have Dome II.

dome detail

Like Dome I, this is also made of paper – but this one’s a bit bigger. We’ve used the long side of A4 (29.7cm) as the A strut, which makes the B strut 26.25cm, so we cut that to length.

This time, rather than using tape for the joints, we’ve used “butterfly fasteners” (see pictures.) We solved the “paper too thick” problem by drilling holes through it first. These have given the newer dome a lot more structural rigidity, to the extent that it can quite happily support our duvet (again, see picture.) [Note that, for obvious reasons, I don’t normally put photos of my children on the blog, but this one struck me as sufficiently anonymous that it was OK.]
kids in dome

Like Dome I, it’s another “2V”… though later in the week (if the kids’ attention holds) we might make a 4V or a 6V as well.

Posted in Just for fun | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

Half term fun – building a geodesic dome

Posted by Mark Harrison on October 21, 2007

It’s half term this week, which of course causes a few problems (because there are one or two things business-related I’d hoped to finish), but has many joys (because I can just take a few days out to spend with them.)

Anyway, on the list of things to try with a little girl keen on maths was building a Buckydome / geodesic dome.

I found a great site that had an on-line calculator for the lengths of “struts” I needed. The site is run by a Californian maths teacher, who uses the summer holidays to build these domes for Americans to use as shade shelters, particularly at the Burning Man festival.

We weren’t intending using this as a shade shelter, just a fun thing to do, so rather than making the dome out of metal piping, we used A4 paper (reduce, reuse, recycle.)

We made a “2V” dome. The dimensions we decided on ended up with the “short side” of an A4 sheet of paper being the “B”strut at 21cm, so up I rolled 30 pieces of A4. That meant that the “A”strut 23 3/4 cm long… so sure enough, Mary cut 35 sheets to size, and we rolled them the “long” way.

maryindome-bigFixing them together wasn’t hi-tech. We’d intended using butterfly-type fasteners, but the rolls of paper ended up too thick, so we just used loads of scotch tape.

The resultant structure is very wobbly during construction, and then just tightens up, as if by magic, at the end of the build.

In fact, it was (just) big enough for Mary (age 34) to curl up in (see picture!). Pippy (age 5) got involved, and helped roll the paper at first… but then preferred a game of counting how many struts we’d made, and substracting to work out how many were still to go.

Posted in Just for fun | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »