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The Wiki Man

The Wiki Man

Last month I bought from eBay a strange little electronic gadget called a Chumby, an item not yet on sale outside the United States.

15 October 2008

12:00 AM

15 October 2008

12:00 AM

Last month I bought from eBay a strange little electronic gadget called a Chumby, an item not yet on sale outside the United States.

Last month I bought from eBay a strange little electronic gadget called a Chumby, an item not yet on sale outside the United States. It worked happily for ten minutes and then died. I duly performed a hard reboot (that’s the technical term for ‘switching it off and on again’) only for the same thing to happen again. And again.

With hindsight, of course, I should have simply called the government pretending to be a banker and explained that I had bought something that at first looked clever but turned out to be worthless crap. I would then have had my money refunded in full at the taxpayer’s expense while continuing to own a six-bedroom house in Sevenoaks and an Aston Martin DB9. At the time I was unaware of this ruse, so I went out and paid for a second Chumby instead. This one works fine.


Why the persistence? Amazingly, in those few minutes before the original device conked out, I was already hooked. Online readers can click to www.chumby.com to find out why. Those of you who prefer their Speccie in the traditional dead-tree format should read on.

The Chumby is a cuddly little ball-shaped thing; essentially a Linux clock-radio on steroids (or perhaps LSD). You connect it to your home wifi network and then watch as it downloads your choice of elegant Chumby informational widgets and displays them in constant rotation on its cute little touch-sensitive screen. What’s marvellous about these widgets is that they are developed not only by Chumby themselves but also by hundreds of enthusiasts — a practice known as crowd-sourcing. So along with the wearisomely predictable (a live stock ticker, yawn) you find the gloriously unexpected.

As I write this, my Chumby is displaying my Facebook friends’ updates, the weather forecast for my local town (in Fahrenheit, thank God), real-time baseball scores, the next raising time for Tower Bridge, live departure times for trains at my local railway station, a live trafficam view of the Blackwall Tunnel approach road, the current status of London’s Tube lines, breaking BBC headlines… Oh, and a clock called clockr which is really a work of conceptual art. (It is a digital clock which forms its digits at random from thousands of user-submitted photographs of the digits 0 to 9 which have been uploaded to flickr, the photo-sharing site. Hence a tourist in Barcelona can snap a mobile phone shot of a pretty ‘9’ from a rusting street sign and five minutes later, at say 23:09, that ‘9’ is briefly a digit on my clock in Kent. To online specialists this is known as a mash-up; to anyone else it’s known as utterly bloody gorgeous.)

Why, since the device is only available in the US, are so many of the best widgets specifically British? Step forward the brilliant Matt Sephton (‘Gingerbeardman’), a Londoner who has lovingly created some of the best Chumby widgets — including, bizarrely, a series of nostalgic TV continuity clocks from now defunct ITV regions.

Crowd-sourcing raises ethical questions. Why do none of the profits from Chumby sales go to volunteers like Mr Sephton, who create half its value? In this case I really don’t care. A more pressing question to ask is which of your transatlantic friends can be arm-twisted into buying you a Chumby for Christmas.


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