Engineering calm

A TV programme about reconstructing a lawnmower should make good TV for insomniacs, but the first episode of James May’s The Reassembler (BBC4, last night) managed to be simultaneously fascinating and calming.

ReassemblerBetter known as part of the presenting triumvirate on Top Gear, James May’s other programmes have always interested me more, revealing his deep interest in how things work and a quiet reverence for the remarkable people who created them.

With precisely zero technical skills myself, I can completely understand this awe of technology and engineering; which is why it was so interesting to see someone with a modicum of these skills work their way through the reconstruction of something as prosaic as a 1959 Suffolk Colt lawnmower.

How does the internal combustion in a lawnmower (or anything!) work? I sort of know the theory, but seeing all the component neatly laid out like a work of art on a table, then gathered up and reassembled, revealed more in 30 minutes than any amount of books would.

But it’s May’s subtly rambling commentary on the reassembly process, interspersed with the lawnmower’s history and development, that transformed this 30 minutes of nerdistry into a  little piece of TV nirvana: I could feel my body relax – heart rate slowing, muscles relaxing, mind clearing – as, piece by piece, a lawnmower took shape once more.

It was TV as meditation!

This, I suspect, is because it brought back memories of being small and watching as my dad performed miracles in the garage: welding iron gates, fixing broken electrical appliances, making his own bricks for a wall, affixing a fold-down workbench to the wall. He would pick his way through endless drawers full of ancient and mysterious tools (passed down from his dad) to to fix or create anything.

Sadly, I haven’t inherited his practical skills, but my innate curiosity about how things work is all his doing (which is why I’m quite good at fixing computers). And that curiosity is a real gift: it taught me you’ll never ever be bored if you can recognise the artistry and complexity of the world all around you.

So, thank you, James May; but thanks more to my Dad. 🙂

Exciting experiments in NFC technology!

I’ve been trying out something called NFC, which is very exciting if you’re a bit geeky (like me).

For everyone else, here’s a picture of a cute badger to keep you happy.Cute badger cub picture

OK, if you’re still here, NFC stands for Near Field Communication.  It’s a little bit like Bluetooth, except smaller.  And simpler.

My new Galaxy S3 mobile has NFC built-in, as do a few others, and it’s set to become a lot more widespread.  So I decided to find out what it can do, why I should care and how to get in on the action.

Turns out it’s simple, useful and very easy to set up.

Round whitel NFC tags
Two NFC tags

First, the basics: wave an NFC-enabled mobile phone over an NFC tag and it will do stuff – automatically.

Er, that’s it.

Except that the kind of “stuff” it can do automatically is actually pretty cool useful.  Last night, I set up three different NFC tags: a “home” tag, a “bed” tag and a “work” tag.

I stuck the “home” tag just inside the front door; if touched by my phone on the way out it will turn the ringer and alert volumes up to full, enable vibration alerts and toggle the wi-fi off.  So I’ll save wifi battery and be able to hear/feel my phone ring.  Come home, touch in and the wifi is back on.

The “bed” tag, next to my bed, switches off the vibrate and turns all the volumes down to minimum – except the alarm volume, which it fixes at 75%, ensuring an uninterrupted night’s sleep, but a working alarm in the morning.

The “work” tag connects the phone to work wifi network, turns vibration on and all annoying alert sounds off.

All by simply tapping a small, unobtrusive white disc. 🙂

The Lovely Melanie sighs and says “Why can’t you do the volume and the wifi yourself? Why do you need communion wafers to do it for you?

To which I say because:

  • I forget to turn my wifi off (wasting battery)
  • forget to turn my phone ringer off at work (annoying my workmates)
  • I forget to turn my phone down at night (scaring the hell out of both myself and the Lovely Melanie when it BUZZES! with an irrelevant Facebook update just after midnight).

And I can do all of these things in less than a second!

NFC tags can also be programmed to send you to websites, deliver contact details, flash up a message, launch apps – all kinds of simple but potentially useful actions (I’m tempted to set up a message on the “bed” tag reminding me to take my statins and anti-depressants).

And again, all you have to do is tap your phone on a certain spot.

I bought five tags from eBay for not-very-much-money-at-all and a great little app called NFC Task Launcher from the Android Store (sorry, Apple people, your phone doesn’t have NFC) – and look at me now – en route to the future! 🙂

Ambient intimacy

As someone who really enjoys using the oft-maligned Facebook I found this positive piece about social media jolly interesting and quite reassuring (although it is posted on a site billing itself as “The Social Media Guide” so it’s not exactly unbiased…)

In particular, the phrase “ambient intimacy” might seem purpose-built to annoy the Lovely Melanie (a determined Facebook agnostic) but in my opinion sums up the point of that site (and others like it) very well indeed.  I love the idea that you can keep abreast of what people you know – to a greater or lesser degree – are up to, and that they can do the same with you without all the complex social implications of a full-blown letter or phone call or visit.  The Lovely Melanie sees it as lazy or impersonal – or possibly even nosy – but the Lovely Melanie also thinks that playing computer games online with people isn’t really socialising with them.

Probably the Edwardians felt the same about telephone calls.

I’m making this sound as though my wife and I butt heads on a regular basis over these sorts of issues, but we don’t – the main difference between us is that whereas I’m fascinated by the future and new technologies she feels that the way things work now is pretty much fine, thank you kindly.  She’s enthusiastically embraced VoIP and MP3 having seen their benefits, but is in no rush to change the way she talks to her social network.

I was going to write “friends” before instead of “social network”, but a good percentage of my friends in the Facebook sense aren’t what I’d call friends in the real world sense, although I like to keep in touch with them, occasionally chat when it’s convenient for me and generally know what’s been happening to them.

Which is, I guess, what’s meant by “ambient intimacy”.