Apple’s about to end the age of the credit card

The standard if slightly lazy shorthand you see online when Apple starts to hype an event is: “OK tell me this: what’s so interesting about this product? Samsung/Sony/Rio/whoever already sells this. Apple customers = sheep.”

And I understand it. Computers existed before the Macintosh; MP3 players before the iPod, phones before the iPhone, and so on. We’ve all been over this a thousand times. It should be clear to anyone with a balanced viewpoint that Apple rarely creates entirely new product lines (in the global sense, I mean). Rather, it observes trends and identifies ways to create exciting new products which people will want to buy, generally with one or two exclusive features – a novel UI, for example, which place the Apple product ahead of the rest.

For the last couple of years, the rumor has been that Apple would release some sort of wearable device. Most likely a watch. I reckon that Apple allowed this puff of smoke to escape, fully aware that its prime rivals, Samsung (a company which really is less innovative than Apple), et al, would rush products to market in an attempt to preempt Apple’s big reveal. And if I’m right about that, it means that the competition has played into Apple’s hands.

Because none of the smartwatch products currently on the market has mass appeal. But they do have market presence, which means that Samsung, Motorola, LG and others have helped Apple with a bit of real-world market research. They’ve made the mistakes. And none of them have realized that they’re missing one key ‘killer’ application.

Yesterday’s confirmation by the WSJ (when the story is in the WSJ 5 days before an Apple press event, it’s 99% a confirmation) that Apple’s iWatch (or whatever) will include a Near Field Communications (NFC) chip for payments, is by far the most important fact we think we know about the product.

It just so happens that I work in a lab that tests payment systems. So although I’m no expert, I know a little bit about some of the technology involved. And it’s public knowledge that while the payment schemes (Visa, MasterCard, Amex and Discovery) would like us all to use our phones to pay in stores, only 1% of all transactions in the USA are made this way. Which is kind of strange when you think about it: all these people with their Samsung Android NFC-enabled phones ready to use Google Wallet as a mobile payment system, and yet nobody’s using it.

Part of the problem is probably that people don’t see other people using it. These things need a mass of users in stores and coffee shops to get moving. The other part of the problem is that if you need to get your phone out of your pocket or bag just to pay, well you may as well use your contactless credit or debit card as that’s no less convenient and it probably feels safer (more ‘official’).

Which is why Apple’s adoption of NFC in both its phone and its smartwatch is so important. Apple spotted one critical, ubiquitous technology that – in form factor if not in technology – has remained the same since the 1960s. The credit card is a dinosaur. Visa/MasterCard/EMVCo. know this. They’ve been trying to get people into mobile payment systems for years. But people don’t much listen to Visa, MasterCard or EMVCo. They take the card and payment scheme their bank gives them.

People do listen to Apple. Apple has hundreds of millions of generally satisfied customers, many of whom have already given Apple their payment details. And when Apple makes it clear that they have a product which allows for quick, secure payments,  plenty of people will take the plunge. And then, sometime next spring, other consumers will start to see them paying for their groceries and their morning coffee using just their wristwatch. And the beginning of the end of the credit card will have begun – with the explicit support of the very banks and payment schemes which introduced it.

It’s highly likely that in a couple of years, I’ll at the very least be leaving my credit and debit cards at home when I go out. Probably my wallet too (although I suppose I’ll need some identification, so wallets may live on for a while). And a couple – maybe four – years after that, I’ll be wondering whether I should keep my expired cards for posterity. Because they won’t be replaced.

That’s what Apple will announce on Tuesday. If you can’t see how significant this product will be, well go and comment about it on some website, I guess.

On the big screen

The closure of Club Coliseum, one of Barcelona’s last ‘full size’ cinemas was one of the smaller news stories in the city this week. Even though I never went there, I feel that it’s a shame. I’m sure there are plenty of lazy sods like me who feel the same way and yet never went to see a film there. But who has the time, right?

Given that your cinema-going experience will soon be limited to tiny salas with small screens and digital projectors, why not just save yourself the hassle and set one up at home? You don’t even need to dedicate a room : a retractable screen and a projector fixed to the ceiling don’t take up much space.

So that’s what I did. In our spare room, used approximately 3 times a year, I’ve installed a screen and an Epson projector. And it’s fantastic. Such good fun. Seriously, every home should have one.

Let’s go for a walk: Cerdanyola to Fòrum Barcelona

I’ve been trying to up my walking game recently. As a youth, I ‘did’ the 10 Tors on Dartmoor (45 mile route), and walked about 500 miles that winter and spring to train for it. I’ve always been keen on a good walk but laziness – both intrinsic and environmental – often gets the better of me.

The other day I finally did a walk I’d been talking about for ages: from Cerdanyola to the sea at Port Fòrum, by way of the river Besos. It’s a 21km route. So not too long, but not exactly a short stroll either. The walk leads you down the Riera de Sant Cugat to the river Besòs at Montcada, down through Santa Coloma (the Besòs has a great river bank path so much of this bit can be done walking on grass, if you prefer that sort of thing), and on to Sant Adrià de Besòs.

It’s a pleasant walk because it has a bit of everything. Annoying bike fascists, abandoned industrial colonies, and giant concrete white elephants. I also spotted a windmill under a bridge. If you’re willing to make a small diversion, you can witness the majesty of the Orange metro line, whose station at Can Peixauet is 40m deep – an unusual sight in Barcelona. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll see a yacht in Port Fòrum where a bikini photo-shoot is taking place. Or maybe they don’t do that every day.

At some point, probably more likely next year than this because of the dog, I plan to do the final section of GR10 from Canigou to Banyuls. More on that plan another day.

Larry, crate training and the Genius of Dogs

It seems like the goddess of spring had a lot planned for me this year. I’m no longer working where I used to work but instead have quite a lot of time on my hands. While looking into master’s courses at the local university, I’ve also been reading quite a bit about canine behaviour and intelligence. It’s a fascinating subject, but I’m probably over-fascinated because of Larry. He’s a Spanish Water Dog and he moved in with us around a week ago aged 8 weeks. Here he is with a toy I got him the other day:

Larry with his toy

While I grew up with a dog (Jack) and my mum has two dogs (Rosie and Skippy), I’ve never actually trained a puppy. It’s a big responsibility because I want Larry to be well behaved at home and outside, and a great walking partner. So before he arrived, I started to seek out advice and that’s when I stumbled upon crate training.

Crate training seems to be the big trend in the USA at the moment, and it’s popular in England too. Many of the kennel clubs and dog websites recommend it as a ‘must do’ element of training a new puppy. The amazing thing about it is that crate training really consists of keeping your puppy locked up in a small cage for hours on end and ‘rewarding’ it with moments of freedom.

I’m really quite shocked by how popular crating seems to be. As with many other barbaric ways that humans treat animals, its adherents are viciously defensive of the technique. Which reminds me of Louis CK’s story about pony punching  which ends with the delicious line: “People who don’t punch their ponies in the face make me sick”.

In my studies, I’ve been re-reading parts of In Defence of Dogs and I’ve stumbled upon The Genius of Dogs – and both make for good reading even for a non dog-owner. The latter’s updated theories about the process of how wolves became domesticated are particularly interesting.

Spring is as good a moment for changes as any other and dedicating time to reading, training a dog and considering my academic options seems like a good investment.

Summer birds

We moved house earlier this summer. We’re still in Cerdanyola, a town we love, and are living in exactly the district we prefer. The barri de Sant Ramon is effectively the casc antic – old quarter – of Cerdanyola and our views are now of cases de poble and a few factories, much as any Vallès town has to offer.

A new house means new views and new wildlife. While the exact species haven’t changed much – same old swallows, swifts, sparrows and magpies (and, thankfully, fewer damned catorras) – our view of the first two has improved impressively. While they don’t nest on our house, they do nest nearby. They swoop over our low terrace, buzzing us in a maverick way, and shitting on us from low heights.

We’ve just returned from two weeks’ holiday in Menorca – and three weeks ought to be the mandated minimum, if you ask me – to see our winged friends changed. Previously, they were still parents and a few adolescents, learning the ropes. One such youngster had taken to sleeping in the tree on our neighbours’ terrace. An independent mind, perhaps. Or maybe just not enough room at home.

Now, the adolescents seem to hold sway. They’re all fledged and practiced and they have doubled or tripled the number of birds – and droppings – we can see from our table. And in this newly augmented flock, we see the augur of autumn. I can’t remember the date they normally leave, but they arrived two days early this year.

I can’t make out the different species, beyond swift and swallow. Might there be some martins in there too? I guess so. All I know is that I have five days left to enjoy my summer vacation. I shall spend them sorting out the boxes that remain in the old flat, drinking a bit of wine, taking some sun and watching this ever-growing family of birds as it starts to prepare for its trip home to Africa. And cleaning up the mess as they perform their bombing runs on our laundry, drying in the sun.

A game of GeoGuessr narrated

 A trip to Canada in GeoGuessr

 

OK I’m on a bridge. It’s made of metal and looks to be a couple of hundred metres long.

Mountains to the south and east

Sign: Tourist Attraction – Hagwilget Canyon So it’s an English-speaking country. The snow on the mountains rules out South Africa, I think, and this is definitely not the UK or Ireland.

Head west along the highway.

Speed limit sign indicates 30 KM/H. So it’s not the USA.

Sign: Hazelton 2. Gas, Food, Lodging, Camping, Tourist attraction.

I’ve got a suspicion that this might be Tasmania. The vegetation would fit, I think. Maybe New Zealand but I don’t know for sure that they use metric distance measures there. They probably do. Hmm.

Continuing northwest along the highway, there’s a commercial building, white with a blue roof, and another road sign in the distance. Also, a pcik-up truck. They’re popular in Australia but I’m now realizing how little I know about New Zealand.

The building is a garage. The sign says Two Mile Services. So we’re two miles from something. And that despite the kilometres on the road sign. Hey, are they metric in Canada? I see more pick-up trucks in the parking lot and on the hill behind, a large and quite brashly designed house. Or a small modern church, not sure which.

The entrance to Two Mile Services says Auto Parts. I can’t make out any markings or bank logos on the door, so it’s no help.

I’ve just noticed a U-Haul trailer in the parking lot. Not sure how relevant that is. But maybe this is North America after all.

Another sign that says 2-Mile and then something illegible beneath. The sign’s illustrated with a picture of a man trying to drag a mule into action. There are some boats covered with tarpaulin in a yard nearby, so we’re close to a lake or the sea. Probably.

Sign: Silver Standard Rd (or Rt?) Ahead. Coupled with the mule, this sounds like mining country.

Ah, now here’s Silver Standard Rd and some sort of Adventist church, and the Triple Creek Ranch B&B. Ando now a sign that reads Suu Dee’s Local something or other. Not helpful, Suu Dee. Not cool.

A truck in a lot on the side of the road gives me a big clue. E.W.J. Kendall – Highway 63 – Hazelton B.C.

So we’re in Canada. British Columbia. Near Hazelton possibly on Highway 63, north of some pretty big and spiky mountains. Possibly near water.

Sign: Welcome to Historic Hazelton – Founded in 1866. Elevation 720ft 220M. I guess Canda must have gone metric some time in living memory.

Sign: Gitanmaax/Hazelton Reservoir. Please protect your water.

But where is Hazelton? And where’s Highway 63? I can find 93 but that’s no use.

Hazelton village is on a river. And it has a pleasant little riverboat on the bank which is used as a pizzeria. So not a lake. And not the sea.

Back to my starting point and heading East to get a better picture. I was being followed by a police car!

Sign: Hitchhiking – Is it worth the risk?

Aha! Found another highway route sign: Route 16 East- West. Back to the guessing map. For about 15 minutes. I follow Route 16 for hundreds of miles and suddenly: Hazelton! Look for the right road… look for the bridge… GUESS.

6.12 KM away. Damn. Still, I feel like I’ve learned a lot about Hazelton, British Columbia and Canada during this short trip. Thanks, GeoGuessr!

April pollen in Barcelona: the perfect storm

In which, overcome by an apparently record year for pollen in Barcelona, I attempt to contact an expert in the field for some explanation.

I don’t know about you but to me, this spring seems like it has been very polleny. At the end of March, just as winter lifted, my head’s immune system freaked out in a way that I’ve never previously experienced. The symptoms are fairly ordinary: blocked nose, itchy eyes. But this year, they’ve been particularly acute. I’ve also noticed that the further away I am from the centre of Barcelona, the better I feel. In the end, I decided to test my location theory by travelling to California for a week, just to get away from the airborne tree microgametophytes apparently so prevalent in Barcelona this year. It worked: either San Francisco doesn’t have pollen, or it has a type of pollen that doesn’t get into my poor, wretched eyes. Upon my return to the Capital of the Western Mediterranean, my symptoms resumed.

Pollen in Catalonia

I’m fortunate enough to live in Cerdanyola del Vallès, a town I really like, just outside Barcelona proper. Indeed, I like it so much, I’ll still be living here after we move house next month. I work in the district of Sant Andreu. And I recreate in the fleshpots of Gràcia and Plaça Reial. I’ve noticed that my symptoms have been moderate in Cerdanyola, moderate to strong in Sant Andreu and strong to very strong in the city. And what has the city that’s so special? Why, plane trees, of course! And these apparently trigger the worst allergic reaction in me.

The department of aerobiology at UAB, also here in Cerdanyola, publishes a forecast for different pollen types in Barcelona and across Catalonia. I’ve contacted professor Belmonte, the head of the department to ask if pollen levels this year have been particularly high. I shall update when she responds. In the meantime, I recommend some inert eye drops and the nasal cortisone spray Rhinocort as good remedies against the symptoms. There’s no point going to the CAP for something so easily remedied with over-the-counter potions.

Why haven’t ringtones died a quiet death?

This isn’t just another post-work rant about colleagues and their noisy phones. It may have started out like that but the more I think about it, the more I think that I’m onto something. Anyway, it didn’t really start with colleagues. It started with my microwave.

My microwave, like most, has an audio alert function that lets me know when whatever I asked it to heat is done. Or rather, when the time I set it to work for is up. The particular alert pattern employed by Bosch in my microwave is that of a short, high-pitched beep that sounds once every two seconds for about a minute. In a small apartment, it can get quite annoying. The other day I thought to myself how nice it would be if I could disable this function. Then I reconsidered: why have that function at all? Can I not come back to the machine after a minute or two? What does it say about modern humanity that if I heat a cup of tea for 80 seconds, I need to be urgently notified when the heating process is complete?

Because the truth is that it’s not just microwaves. Washing machines play alien melodies to alert us that their noisy spin cycles have just ended. TVs have beeping sounds built-in to say machine “Hello!” when you switch them on. More and more home appliances are getting bells and whistles as built-in features.

Of course, it all started with the phone. Phones had a bell built-in that rang to let you know when someone was calling. This was because phones were generally fixed to a wall or a desk and their owner might well be in another room when they received a call. So it’s understandable that when the first portable phones were manufactured, their designers didn’t think twice about including a ringing function: it was seen as an integral part of the device. And so it has remained: the ringtone is still one of the most basic features phones have, showing up even on app-free ‘feature phones’ by default.

Then, in 1996, Motorola introduced the StarTAC, the first hugely successful cellphone to include a vibrating call alert. And it made perfect sense. Because whether on your desk or in your pocket, a vibrating alert is just as effective as a ringtone but far less irritating to other people. And that’s really the point: ringtones are so tacky and annoying.

So why didn’t the ringtone die out then? I think the answer is that they had wormed their way into a set of default features on phones, and no one gave them a second thought. As with most terrible decisions, no one actually decided to let ringtones live on: everyone just assumed they would. And so they did.

Nowadays all mobile devices, even iPads, have audio alerts for calls and messages and appointments – despite the fact that we’re constantly checking in on them anyway. It’s highly unlikely that I’ll miss an email on my tablet because my phone already vibrated to tell me about it. And if it’s a super important call I’m waiting for, I should just dedicate some time to waiting for that call.

In an age when we’re already giving our devices more than enough attention, we no longer need to equip them with the means to make an irritating noise whenever we receive a message or call. Most of the time, we can survive without immediate notification that an email has come in and besides, vibrating alerts are enough to warn us about important calls.

It’s time to reconsider the ringtone’s place in what we consider essential in a cellphone. Ringtones are a hangover from a time when technology wasn’t personal or portable but was bolted to the wall. Let them die a quiet death now and forever hold their peace.