Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Geek toys for Christmas

Today on Radio New Zealand National I have a light hearted look at things to buy for Christmas for your friends of a geekier persuasion, or, let’s face it, things to just go out and buy for yourself! Read on for my notes or download the audio as ogg or mp3.

Q: What to buy a geek for Christmas?

A: I’m sure you’ll be glad that I’ve been doing this research so you don’t have to…

This year, the USB rocket launcher has grown a webcam. So, you can look at someone and take careful aim before firing a rubber foam weapon of mass destruction at them. It even works over instant messaging on the Internet.

Q: How do you fire a missile over the Internet?

A: You need your victim to have the missile launcher, and for them to be silly enough to let you take control of it from a distance. Then you can take pot shots at them, using the web cam for aiming.

Q: Right…

A: Then there’s a USB turntable for converting vinyl records straight into sound files on your computer. That strikes me as quite useful really, and it might keep a geek who still has some vinyl records quiet for quite a few days after Christmas.

Incidentally, downloads are beginning to overtake CDs as the way in which music is distributed. That’s legal downloads from places like iTunes or You’ve noticed some CD chains getting into difficulties recently – that’s likely the reason. In a couple of years we may end up in the situation where CD volumes shrink to below vinyl. You can still buy vinyl, and it delivers a different experience, it’s analogue and you can DJ with it, whereas a CD is just a physical way of distributing digital files and the Internet is better doing that, frankly. I wouldn’t be surprised if music CDs disappear reasonably soon.

Q: What about the cover art for albums?

A: The digital downloads are getting better at that now. Apple’s iTunes and most of its iPods show you all the cover art, and so does Songbird on Linux. You can get quite a lot more information on a digital download than on a CD insert if you try, of course.

Then, there’s the Star Trek communicator.

Q: What does that do?

A: It looks the part, and it makes the right kind of little chirping noise when you flick it open. More a stocking filler than a serious present, I think.

Q: Ok…

A: Then, if you are botanically inclined, how about a plant that uses Twitter to let you know when it needs watering?

Q: How does that work?

A: Well, Twitter is a microblogging service where people upload very short messages about what they are doing as they go about their business. And you can subscribe to people’s Twitter feeds, and get them on your mobile phone as text message if you really want to. So here, you have everything you need for your plant to upload Twitter messages saying “water me!”

Q: What else?

A: If you’re still looking for ideas, how about a camera on your cat’s collar so you can see where its been all day? Your cat wears the camera which takes a picture every minute or so, and when the cat comes home you download the pictures and see where the cat’s been. You’re also looking at the world from a cat’s eye view which is quite interesting. It’s all in today’s links.

Q: What about digital cameras?

A: They are expanding in both directions – smarter electronics, and nicer SLRs as digital moves into more serious photography. Most of them now have face recognition for instance.

Q: Why?

A: So they know what to focus on. I’ve tried that – it’s very good – you look through the viewfinder and a little square appears around any face the camera can see, warning you that its going to focus on that person. Apparently some have smile detection so they know when to take the picture. I thought that last one was a joke, but I’ve seen it written on the outside of actual camera boxes so maybe it isn’t!

And digitals are moving more and more into the SLR market. An SLR is a camera with multiple lenses that you can remove and change. Digital SLRs have got much cheaper and are beginning to take over that end of the camera market as well.

Digital photography changes so much, because you can just blaze away at anything and delete the pictures that don’t turn out. And of course you can use your computer to keep your photo album, and to clean up pictures – you know, get the sea level, that kind of thing.

Also, if you have a point and shoot Canon and you don’t mind playing around with it, you can upgrade all its internal software and make it do things that only the top of the line cameras do. Essentially it’s a hack on the camera software. You don’t have to program, and its all reversible – you can go back to the original software in the camera whenever you want to. In the links for today.

Q: What about computers?

A: There’s a good crop of laptops out there. This time last year we were celebrating the arrival of the Eee, a very small and very successful machine which has spawned a series of imitators. Generically these are called Netbooks – the point of the name I think is that they are great for surfing the Net, and for doing some light word processing. These laptops are cheap and small – the cheapest are less than $500.

Then you go to the other end of the scale. There’s Apple’s finest, which British online technology newspaper The Register calls:

simply one smash-down, full-bore, dampness-inducing sex machine, beautifully built and impeccably fit-and-finished. Nobody really needs a Porsche when a Jetta can get you home just as quickly and safely. But a Porsche is a fine ride.

And who can argue with that?

But the really, really best things in technology are absolutely free. The Linux operating that runs a fir chunk of the Internet, and lots of computers world wide – that’s free and open source software. So are the programming languages Python, Ruby, Perl, C and C++. So is the world’s favourite webserver, Apache. There’s Firefox of course. Then there’s the Gimp graphics package, Blender for animation, OpenOffice which does word processing and spreadsheets – these are all high quality programs with millions of users. In fact, if you load Linux onto your home PC you find a vast list of free software available for the download.

Finally, let’s just remember what its all about – He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. It is people, it is people, it is people. That’s what gift giving should be, and although we all get sucked into the mad whirl of stress and consumption, what we should be focusing on is time with our friends and family.


Star Trek communicator, and a USB Missile Launcher.

A USB record deck for converting all that old vinyl to digital.

House plants using Twitter to call for water.

Getting the latest Google phone, or just the plain old iPhone

Catcam and how you can make your own.

Hacking your Canon point-and-shoot camera.

Some cheap laptops, and some expensive ones.

posted by colin at 9:20 pm  

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress