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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

EggHeads On The Telly

First time on TV this morning, apart from appearing on the BBC Holiday programme as a small child. I was reviewing Christmas gadgets for Manchester’s local TV station, Channel M. Have to say it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and one I hope to repeat. Might try to get some better gadgets next time though. The highlight — thanks to http://www.crazyaboutgadgets.com — was a remote control car with a built in metal detector. For the thoroughly lazy treasure hunter.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Half A World Away

Half the planet now has a mobile phone — ish. There are now 3.3bn mobile phone subscriptions worldwide according to Informa Telecoms and Media, but many people in richer countries have multiple subscriptions. In the poorest countries mobile penetration is often under 10%, and mobile phones become public amenities.

The contrast between rich countries and poor is stark,. But it is often the poorer regions that bring the most interesting uses of technology. Following the example of some enterprising individuals, some African operators are turning mobiles in to payphones, bringing telephony to rural regions for the first time. In Eastern Europe wireless infrastructure has been used to bypass the crumbling landline system to enable shopkeepers to take credit card payments and provide widespread access to broadband.

While we might all be dribbling over the latest mobile devices, a slightly modified version of the old adage holds true: ‘necessity is the mother of the [most valuable] innovation’.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Science’s Bad Rep: J’Accuse

As I’ve noted before in this blog, I’m a big fan of Dr Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog and Guardian column. His latest piece on the myths of homeopathy is certainly worth a read. In it he raises an interesting point: why is there such a broad distrust of ‘mainstream medicine’ and science in general?

It’s a big issue, and getting to the root of it could be the work of a PhD thesis or three. Whatever the root cause, there’s certainly some people, groups, and organisations who can be accused of promoting the view that science isn’t to be trusted.

J’accuse just about every religious group for a start. I don’t like to cause offence to the religious — in part because I am related to a large number of them and it could make family gatherings a little awkward. But accepting the tenets of just about any mainstream religion is a fairly fundamental rejection of science.

Dr Goldacre has covered homeopaths, and I think it is safe to roll most of the rest of the alternative medicine movement in there. I have relations who have been convinced that they can test for intolerance to a specific food by putting some of it in their mouth and trying to lift a heavy weight. They claim that they can lift the weight under normal circumstances, but it becomes impossible with milk/wheat/whatever under their tongue. I’ll stop there to maximise my chances of still getting a Christmas present, but you get the picture.

Politicians have to take some of the blame. In this country for their equivocation about supporting the sciences; elsewhere for more serious charges. Like promoting herbal remedies to AIDS over safe sex and real medicine, while millions die. A number of religious figures are on the charge sheet for the same offence.

Finally — at least for my list — the media’s up there too. Falling for every entertaining quack (Gillian McKeith) or sciency-sounding press release promoting fish oil, herbal remedies, and wacky diets. Or indeed pieces of dodgy research, like that linking MMR and autism. Step forward Daily Mail.

I could talk about many more groups, and give many more examples, but this would become an essay rather than a blog post. The fact is that when you look at the constant abuse and misuse of science, it is hardly surprising that the general public seems sceptical. The legitimisation that is given to alternatives to reality — often alternatives that are more palatable than reality — means it is no great surprise that people choose to believe them.

My worry is that society begins to regress towards an Age of Disenlightenment (a word?). Unless the world of science gets better PR, we might return to the days of shamans and faith healing. We need an army of Johnny Balls touring the country, expounding on the wonders of modern science to the nations schoolchildren. Might be a good use for cloning at least…

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Wanted: Business Partner

Just over a year ago I started a company called Eggheads — consumer technology advisors helping people to choose, buy, set up, and use modern technology. Everything from broadband to digital cameras, iPods to home cinema and digital TV. When I started the company I had plenty of time available but now lots of other commitments have overtaken it in my priorities. It ticks over OK, but it really needs someone to run it properly, to inject some life in to it and turn it in to the business it could be.

So I’m looking for a business partner to take on the running — and growing — of Eggheads. Someone who can inject a little bit of cash (just enough to demonstrate that they are genuinely committed), and a fair amount of time. In return they get a ready-made company, space to work from (assuming they are in Manchester), phone line and broadband, marketing support, a share of the profits, and — depending on how much money and time they are willing to invest — equity.

There are some pre-requisites for anyone who might take it on: financial security for a start. This isn’t going to be a big earner overnight. They will also need the time, skills, competence and confidence to do it right. Other than that I have limited pre-conceptions about who the right person might be.

This blog post isn’t my only attempt to find the right person to take this on. But I figured that it makes sense to open the idea up to the ether and see what comes back. If you’d be interested in finding out more, email me at headegg@eggheadsuk.com and we can have a chat.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Killer Kids: Do Games Make Children Violent?

Popped in to the Beeb this morning for another little comment spot on violent computer games. This was all spurred by the launch of the FPS Vest, a new peripheral that looks like a flak jacket and replicates the feeling of being shot for players of first person shooter games. They wanted to know if this accessory was a step too far.

There’s no proven link between violence in games, films, books or music and violence in real life. There will always be a tiny minority of people who are already unstable and are affected by such things, but legislating for that minority would quickly limit the scope of any creative endeavour.

The accusation that violence in games desensitises people, and particularly children, is the most commonly wheeled out when the tabloids decide that ‘Something Must Be Done’. But however engaging games may become, particularly with the addition of accessories like the FPS vest, there are very few people who won’t recognise a massive difference between wielding a mouse and wielding a real weapon. The visceral reality of real-life violence is hard to replicate in any medium.

But despite this I do think that age controls on games — and their enforcement by parents — are important. For a start there is the simple preservation of innocence. People have plenty of time in life to experience some of the darker plots and themes explored in fiction of all forms. It becomes progressively less socially acceptable for people — particularly boys — to engage in the softer side of fiction and fantasy as they get older. In my opinion, the longer they can hold on to innocent dreams, the better.

There’s also the issue of learning rules and boundaries. Although I think children of even a very young age can differentiate between fantasy and reality (my wife’s godson loves Ben 10 but doesn’t expect to be able to transform in to a monster), there’s no need to taint their learning with violent games before the boundaries of acceptable behaviour have been established in their heads. An age limit at least increases the chance that they will have been taught right and wrong sufficiently well before exploring those boundaries in fantasy. (Any child psychologists reading, I’d appreciate your views.)

Finally there is the simple issue of sleeping at night. I am a grown bloke and I find games lake Doom 3 genuinely terrifying. OK I’m a softy who doesn’t watch horror movies, but the terror of giant demonic monsters leaping out of the shadows is enough to give anyone bad dreams. Replace the monster with more realistic violence in a modern day setting, and the impact is potentially greater.

The FPS Vest is going to be controversial whether sold in black or pink (yes, they do it in pink, ‘for girls’ I am assuming). And the idea of it may be a little unpalatable for some. But it really doesn’t change the age-old habit of playing war games, whether that be by kids in the playground with fingers for guns; or by adults with paintball guns running around in the woods.

(Thanks to Eamonn and Diane for having me on. Thanks particularly to Diane for the complement on my suit, from Long, Berry, and Wild, a fantastic local tailors who I can’t recommend highly enough. Less thanks go to Eamonn to baulking at my suggestion that I was in my late twenties. I am, still, just about…)

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Downloaders Done for Dodging Damaged Goods

The UK music industry’s latest crackdown on illegal downloads smacks of panic. I’m not saying there is no justification in their actions: you can argue that downloading copyrighted music is stealing as much as walking out of the shop with the CD. And there is some truth in the argument that without the ‘stick’ of potential prosecution, the ‘carrot’ of easy to use, legal downloads (iTunes) won’t succeed in bringing everyone to the right side of the law.

But prosecuting individual downloaders makes the record labels look petty and bullying. They are already perceived as greedy because of the ridiculous proportion of profit they take from artists. And incompetent for letting the online opportunity bypass them. It doesn’t add up to an appealing picture for customers, or investors for that matter.

You have to question whether they have done what is needed to sweeten the carrot for consumers too. I believe (and it has been shown by Steven Levitt in Freakonomics) that even with no ‘stick’, people will most often choose the legal path rather than break the law. Unless the legal option is sufficiently unpalatable, or the illegal option is so distinctly more appealing.

Legal downloads are priced at what appears on face value to be an appealing figure. Yet when you think about the cost of delivering them (tiny) and what proportion of the figure goes to the artist (also tiny), you begin to question the price. Especially since the price per track is not dissimilar to that of CD singles or albums, which have massively higher overheads to deliver and are arguably offer more ‘value’ to the consumer.

When you buy a CD, there’s the innate value of physical ownership (something that appeals to me and many people I speak to) plus the sleeve notes, the future tradeability, and importantly, the lack of copy protection. This last point is vital. If I buy a CD, the music will quite possibly reside in five different locations: the original CD, my media server, my office PC, my backup at home, and sometimes my phone too.

I can only listen to it in one place at a time. My wife doesn’t share my music tastes (or not entirely), and I don’t share music files with friends or over the internet, so I’m not breaking the spirit of any copyright law. Yet if I downloaded all my music from iTunes, this would be impossible (without some bypassing of the in-built DRM). Unless I buy all iTunes-compatible hardware, I would have to let the digital music revolution pass me by.

If the record labels are to embrace digital music, they need to do it properly. I don’t have a problem with going after criminals. Ultimately artists need to, and deserve to, get paid for their work. But when the record labels consume such a massive proportion of the income from music sales, and insist on selling DRM-damaged goods at inflated prices, it is hard to feel the downloaders are wholly responsible for trying to find a better option.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

SonyEricsson P1i: Plain Jane SuperBrain

I haven’t generally gone for reviews on this blog to date. But I’ll make an exception here. The gadget? The SonyEricsson P1i.

I feel a little sorry for SonyEricsson. Launching a phone around the same time as the iPhone. The P1i is never going to get as much attention. It is

Sure the P1 has more features (better camera, faster broadband wireless, wide range of readily available apps) but the iPhone is just so damn sexy!

To be fair the iPhone’s beauty isn’t only skin deep. The interface is both fabulous and functional; PC synchronisation is apparently excellent; and the various in-built features like web browsing are excellent. But the more I use the P1i, the more I feel it is going to whip off its sensible glasses, let down its hair and dazzle everyone at the fashion show (yes, I watched a few episodes of Neighbours back in the day).

I used to be a total SE fanboy. From my first Ericsson T28 through to the T610 I always had SEs until I got tempted by the lovely Qwerty-ness of the Treo. I got so used to all their little ways and quirks that using them became second nature. Much as I have liked the Treos, I’ve never got so comfortable with them as I did the succession of SonyEricssons. The P1 is starting to get me the same way.

Its something to do with the interface. The way you can jump between scroll wheel, stylus and keys to do what you need to. I’m still slow at finding what I want, but I can feel the potential there. The gratification may not be as instant as with the cheerleader. But in the long term, I think the SuperBrain is going to be the far more rewarding partner.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Gadgets for Girls

Sexism and sweeping generalisations alert. Asked to comment on the rise of gadgets — and specifically gaming — for girls on the beeb on Monday, I identified three trends:

1. Build it (in pink) and they will come
As a confirmed feminist, I was sceptical about the appeal of brightly coloured goodies to the fairer sex. Turns out that the stereotype isn’t far wrong. In a straw poll of women, taken very unscientifically over the weekend (i.e. in the pub), my wife was the only dissenting voice. The rest quite happily admitted that they would be more likely to buy a device if it was pink.

This unscientific research is backed by (some) empirical evidence. Anyone remember the clamour for the first pink iPods?

2. Content is Queen
Button mashing first-person shooters (generally) only appeal to young(ish) men. Shoot ’em ups, beat ’em ups, and sports games were never going to get girls on to consoles. For that we needed games about dancing, singing, and looking after pets. I wish I were joking, but however much this might follow Victorian expectations about female identity and personality, simple fact is that you are far more likely to see women playing Dance Dance Revolution or Singstar than Far Cry or Halo.

This applies to the general function of gadgets, as well as the content of games. The following responses seem to be typical: iPod? ‘Great’. Blackberry? ‘Useful’. High Definition TV ‘Why?’. Men care more about the bits and bytes; the stats that say I have more inches/pixels/megabytes than you do. They want a bit more information about what’s going on under the hood, even if they don’t really understand it. Women just want something that fulfils a function and fulfils it well.

3. Make it Friendly
The interface is vital in making gadgets appeal to women, and that doesn’t just mean ensuring that it is well designed (or ‘simple’ if you are looking to take offence). Anecdotal evidence suggests that active interfaces that are closer to real-world activities appeal more to women. The obvious example is gaming, with the introduction of cameras, microphones and motion sensing. But you could also argue that this applies to the scroll wheel on an iPod, which is more like leafing through a stack of CDs than the prior button-based interfaces.

Just to make sure I’m not misunderstood here, I’m not saying that women don’t like or can’t use gadgets. US sales figures show that technology buyers are split roughly 50/50 between men and women. There are plenty of technology literate female gadget lovers (witness the success of the shinyshiny blog), and plenty of female gamers who love the more violent or sport based games. But to appeal to the majority rather than the minority, these are the criteria that manufacturers seem to be applying.

Tom Cheesewright