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My Gadget

My Gadget: @PigSpotter really likes his Blackberry

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We know his first name is Cliff and we know he has the ability to tweet the whereabouts of endless accidents, speed traps and stolen cars ‚ all at the same time. He also tweets faster than most MECs can drive and he goes by the Twitter handle @pigspotter. SEAN BACHER asks PigSpotter about his favourite Gadgets.

Pigspotter views himself as any other ordinary South African citizen, and he lives in an ordinary province. But he has an extraordinary view on corruption and ways in which it can be controlled. Quite understandably, he is not willing to reveal too much about his personal life, and his reason is quite novel. ‚It kind of makes things a little more exciting. I can walk straight past the Police In Gauteng without them being any the wiser.‚

1. What is the earliest gadget you can remember buying (when, where, why did you buy it)?

I think it was back in 1990, when I begged my dad to buy a Casio D2000 Electronic Personal Diary which could store all my numbers, calendar events and memos. I used to write down all my thoughts and ideas in there, along with numbers of every friend I had until about standard 6.

I actually found it about four years ago after misplacing it for a while and was so excited to press the on/off button and read through all my old thoughts. Sadly though, everything had been erased because the battery had died.

2. What phone do you use and why?

I currently use a BlackBerry Bold 9700. It replaced my BlackBerry Bold 9000, which had given me endless grief. I choose to use BlackBerry as it is very versatile and customisable. Reliability issues and battery life are a worry though.

3. What is your favourite gadget (aside from the above)?

This is going to sound pathetic but I love my XBox and all the Guitar Hero equipment. The 80GB iPod with video runs a close second.

4. What gadgets do you use that allow you to fulfil your Pigspotting role?

The equipment I use is very basic. For PigSpotting I use my Blackberry, and an Acer notebook with a 3G connection.

5. What is your favourite online tool or useful site and why?

I don’t spend much time online, but the sites I use most are Google, Twitter and Facebook ‚ all purely for PigSpotting use. Otherwise I like to jump onto Google maps and search for random monuments like the Eiffel Tower or statue of Liberty and even the Las Vegas strip.

6. What is your favourite mobile tool or app and why?

That has to be UberTwitter. So much cleaner, easier and quicker to use. BlackBerry Messenger is a massive favourite as well. Great way to stay in touch.

7. What gadget do you wish would just go away?

The iPhone. Simply because I feel BlackBerry users have an unwritten law not to like iPhones. I do however have a great love for other Apple products. Unfortunately, my pockets don’t stretch that far.

8. What is the best piece of gadget-buying or -using advice you can give to gadget consumers out there?

My best advice would be firstly to do as much online research as possible, ask yourself if you really need the gadget. And, if all else fails, log onto Twitter and ask @AkiAnastasiou for his opinion. He really knows his gadgets and will go out of his way to give you some advice.

You can follow the PigSpotter on Twitter on @pigspotter

Follow Sean Bacher on Twitter on @seanbacher

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Pratchett’s gadgets that helped mould the Discworld

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During Terry Pratchett’s first visit to South African in 1999, the planet’s leading fantasy writer reluctantly revealed to ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK the secret to the gadgets that helped mould the technology of his Discworld. Pratchett passed away on 12 March 2015. This is the text of the original article in Gadget.

“If I didn’t use computers, would you ask me about my pens?” is Terry Pratchett’s testy response to the obvious gadget question about his writing tools.

And the answer, frankly Terry, is Yes.

Eventually, Pratchett succumbs. Perhaps it’s the Italian food we’re eating. Perhaps it’s the chemicals in the Johannesburg air. It’s certainly not the fact that this interviewer has been introduced to him as “a fan”.

He dreads being asked questions by fans who remember obscure punch lines long after he has retired them from his best-selling Discworld series of satirical fantasy novels. Or questions about his computers.

But persevere, and he begins to wax lyrical.

“If I still used a typewriter, it would be an old Imperial 58. That’s the one I had most fun with. After that I got an electric typewriter, but typing a page was so final. You felt you had control of the Imperial 58; it was purely manual.”

“When computers became available I began using a computer immediately. My first computer was a ZX-81, but I did word processing on it only for fun. The first computer I used for writing was an Amstrad 464. It was really a games machine with a tape drive built in, so my first word processor was on a cassette.”

Pratchett then “graduated” to the personal computer:

“In the last 10 years I got through six PCs, six portables and a couple of handhelds. Which is less odd than it sounds, since the real life of early machines was very short – from the XT to the AT and then pretty soon the 386, which let one use Windows with one window open. No one would expect an author of my input to use a PC bought 10 years ago.”

“I always had a policy of having two machines to work on and at the moment it is a low end and a high end Pentium. If one blows up, I want a maximum of 10 minutes before I am working on the other machine.”

Pratchett likes his computing as portable as possible, but is not wildly impressed with Windows CE. “It looks nice,” he says, “but it just doesn’t have the capacity.”

Instead, he uses a Toshiba Libretto when travelling.

“The nice thing about the Libretto is that I am writing a novel on it, I have all my other novels on it and my letters are on it, so if I need to check on something, I’ve got it there. With CE you can’t have that. And the Libretto is not much heavier than a high-end CE. I’ve also got a Palm Pilot with me. It’s fun and quite useful.”

A little more useful, indeed, than Hex, the hilarious, elaborate computer housed at the Unseen University in the Discworld series. Although Pratchett might disagree…

Pratchett’s gadget put a Hex on his work

Hex is a computer like no other the world has ever seen. Or rather, that the Discworld has ever seen. For it is the one and only computer on the bizarre world created by Terry Pratchett, Britain’s best-selling author and the world’s favourite fantasy writer.

In the Discworld series, Hex evolves under the watchful eyes of apprentice wizard Ponder Stibbons, who by default becomes what we might think of as the IT manager at the Unseen University in the city of Ankh-Morpork.

As Pratchett puts it in his Christmas send-up, Hogfather, “Hex worried Ponder Stibbons. He didn’t know how it worked, but everyone else assumed that he did.”

Sounds like most IT managers we know, doesn’t it? But this is different: Hex is activated by “initialising the GBL”, which Stibbons reluctantly admits stands for “pulling the Great Big Lever”. This releases millions of ants into a network of glass tubing, hence the sticker on Hex that reads “Anthill inside”. And it is all powered by a waterwheel covered with sheep skulls. That is, male sheep. In other words, RAM.

“Hex is a lot brighter than most computers,” says Pratchett, discussing the properties of this very insane machine in the very sane light of a Johannesburg afternoon.

In The Last Continent (his new book, set in Australia), Stibbons says that after he has been working with HEX for a long time, it is easier to talk to senior wizards, because he has to break every idea into small bits and mustn’t leave any room for ambiguity.

“It always amazes me that people who spend a great deal of time programming computers don’t spend time programming their fellow human beings.”

The inspiration for Hex, which evolves through seemingly unexplainable upgrades like extra cheese, a CWL (clothes wringer from the laundry) and “small religious pictures” (that is. “icons”), came from Pratchett’s own early experiments with unfathomable upgrades.

“I started off with a ZX-81 which I put together myself. It was very easy to add things to it. By the time I was finished with it, it had a speech card, a sound card, and eight or nine sensors: a barometer, solar sensor, temperature sensor and various light sensors.

“I invented Paged RAM; effectively, I gave ZX-81 lots and lots of memory, but it could only access a certain amount of it at one time. It was important that information was at specific memory locations and stayed there. I had lots and lots of 2kb memory chips. One program would dump all kinds of sub-routines on all these RAM chips, and the next routine would run the whole damn show.

“I no longer knew why that sub-routine was there or what it was doing there but it was vitally important that it was there. I couldn’t figure out why, except that it stopped working if I took it out.”

This Hex prototype still exists today, and would probably be a fine exhibit in a literary museum, if they could prize it from Pratchett’s grasp. But he does not share the same respect for it.

“It’s still lying in a shed. It’s a real rat’s nest, and I no longer know how I got it to work.”

Pratchett got the ZX-81 do do things that the computer industry is still trying to get right in the consumer versions of multimedia PCs and artificial intelligence. In those early days, the world “multimedia” did not even exist.

“I would get up and it would sense me when I went into the office and say good morning, tell me what the weather conditions were, and whatever the forecast for the day was. It had a wind sensor too. If you know the wind direction and what the barometer is doing today, and you have a lookup table, it’s not difficult to forecast the weather.”

“It had a lovely sound card with the sound of waves breaking. It had to do things all the time. Eventually there was too much to do, and BASIC (the computer language that founded Bill Gates’ empire) couldn’t keep up.”

He pauses, and with a practised sense of timing that would have done a stand-up comedian proud, adds: “The voice recognition system was probably a mistake.”

But it did provide inspiration for the Discworld.

“Hex is pretty much the same thing. The wizards are not quite sure why it works and not sure that everything it’s got is what they added. For instance, someone gave me a box of relays, so relays became part of the system. I’m not sure why. It was all done with a soldering iron and a box of spares and a bit of BASIC. Once I stopped using it for a while, I completely forgot how it worked.”

One can never be sure if Pratchett is being serious, but there is no denying that he has a unique view – if rather a strange one in a way that would interest the medical fraternity – of the world and the things in it.

While it is almost comforting to know that our reality helped shape his lunatic ideas, perhaps we also need to look at it from the opposite perspective: if the Discworld is inspired by the real world, we have to question the sanity of our own existence.

As the Unseen University’s Archchancellor, Mustrum Ridcully, would probably say, “Sanity? Now there’s an interesting concept. Totally impractical, of course…”

* Follow Arthur Goldstuck on YouTube at http://bit.ly/GGadgets and Twitter on @art2gee. See Terry Pratchett’s touching Twitter farewell on @terryandrob.

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My Gadget

My Gadget: Chris Norton ‚ 300kph is not fast enough

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Chris Norton is regional director at VMware, one of the world leaders in cloud computing and virtualisation services. He also happens to own thousands of gadgets, and shares his philosophy about them…

Chris Norton, AKA Naughty Norton, says he was a lazy student with a penchant for sports like swimming, water polo and rugby. He started his career at IBM as a call centre operator, but quickly moved up the IT ladder. He has survived a brain tumour and a near fatal motorcycle accident. Married to Caroline, they have two daughters, Kamryn (10) and Ashley (7), both of whom have inherited his love of all things gadget.

Chris is intrigued by gadgets and owns thousands of them. The worst gadget he ever bought, he says, was a 16MB Sony Walkman MP3 player: it was the beginning of 2002, he paid R5000 for it and it could hold all of 25 songs.

He cites his best gadget yet as the TomTom Go 1000, ‚an awesome piece of kit, especially the LIVE functional traffic updates‚ . His attitude to biking encapsulates his gadget philosophy. Asked why anyone would ride a bike at 300kph, his response is: ‚Because they don’t make one that will do 350kph.‚

We asked him about his gadget life:

1. What is the earliest gadget you can remember owning?

A Commodore 64 gaming console.

2. What phone do you use and why?

Blackberry Bold ‚ I believe that it is a business tool and the most effective communication device, given the diversity of countries that I travel through.

3. What is your favourite gadget (aside from the above)?

My generator, my AR Drone and under-counter bar fridge. Even if there are no power failures, I really enjoy the prospect of being able to be completely self-sufficient for days, week or months if I need to be. And I like the concept of flight: the Drone makes it very easy and fun at the same time. The Bar fridge is always full and I am always happy to see it ‚ and use it, of course. With the generator, I will always get to see the rugby and drink cold wine or beer.

4. What is your favourite online tool or useful site and why?

The AccuWeather site ‚ when you have very little downtime, it makes it easy to plan activities in advance. It means I am able to make the most of the time that I have.

5. What is your favourite mobile tool or app and why?

Skype ‚ I believe in communication options that make the burden of travelling more bearable for both me and my family, as I can stay in contact and talk as long as I need to.

6. What gadget do you wish would just go away?

My Garmin. It’s just a backseat driver and never really seems to recognise the places I want to go. I need it for the speed trap info and warnings.

7. What is the best piece of gadget buying or using advice you can give to consumers?

Ask yourself if you want it or need it. If you need it, then it is not classified as a gadget. And remember, if you came home one day and your wife has sold that box of gadgets in the corner of the garage for what you said you paid for them ‚ you will more than likely lose quite a bit of money.

8. Which gadget are you looking forward to being launched in SA?

Buggati Veyeron ‚ technology and poetry in motion ‚ would love to test drive one, could never afford one. Not yet anyway.

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