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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

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

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