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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Bespoke is Back

The tailors of Jermyn Street are up in arms over the distinction between bespoke and made to measure. The difference between the two is important, but it seems both are becoming more popular. My tailors (the fantastic Long, Berry and Wild, so traditional they don’t have a website so email me if you want details) are rushed off their feet at the moment. That’s limited evidence but amongst my male friends I’ve seen increasing interest in higher-quality, made-to-order clothing and shoes.

Even the big retailers are getting in on the act. There are local shirt-cutters that I would like to use, but their prices are a little out of my league for a workwear staple that I go through at an incredible rate. The last quote I was given was over £100 — fine for very special purchases but not something I can afford to wear every day. So when I discovered M&S; was offering made-to-measure shirts from just £30, I figured I’d give it a try.

I’m becoming a big fan of M&S.; I’m not sure if it is my age, but it seems to be gaining sufficient style to make its practicality socially acceptable. Both style and practicality carry through to the very simple web site. You just choose a few styles and features, select size and cloth, and place your order. A couple of weeks later your shirt arrives in the post. I’m really pleased with my first purchase. And at £30 it’s cheap enough that I can experiment a bit with future designs. Bravo M&S.;

It would be nice to see this trend begin to penetrate other sectors. Food and drink have already fallen to the organic movement, but how about a little more quality and personality being injected in to people’s choice of cars, gadgets, and and other consumer goods? The first in that list is particularly important. With a huge proportion of a car’s carbon footprint coming from its manufacture, we need them to last longer, as well as being more economical with fuel.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Beer + Geekery = Short Circuit

You can imagine the expletives.

After hours of effort, I’m almost at the end of my well-documented attempt to turn an old laptop in to a LinuxMCE-based digital picture frame. I have fixed all bar one of the bugs (disabling the powersaving that kept turning the screen off).

I decide to have another dig around in the bios, which requires pushing buttons on the original keyboard, now taped to the back of the motherboard. Thanks to my beer-blunted dexterity, one of the remaining mounting points for the keyboard is depressed to the point where it touches the voltage circuitry. There’s a flash of blue and then a whining noise. The project is dead.

What annoys me most is that I had considered this possibility earlier in the day but hadn’t done anything about it. Doh!

So, I’m now on the look out for an old, broken laptop to start all over again. Unfortunately my first port of call, RealCycle, is refusing to accept my posts, however I submit them. I have emailed the administrators but to no avail — they won’t tell me what I’ve done to offend them or what I’m doing wrong. So if you have an old laptop with a cracked case and/or a dead battery and/or broken keyboard, do let me know.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

GrillSlinger

I was looking forward to trying out my latest gadget this weekend with a barbecue, but like the rest of the country my plans have been foiled by the weather. The GrillSlinger is a heavy-duty holster for your barbecue tools, and so far it has generated mixed reactions from those to whom I’ve shown it. The split is very much on gender lines. Women just laugh; men laugh then ask where they can get one. Weather-permitting I hope to give it a proper test soon.

The GrillSlinger came from Firebox.com, and was originally meant to be for a review of outdoor gadgets on Sam Walker’s Life Lessons. Unfortunately the package didn’t arrive in time for the radio show, so the kind PR team at Firebox has le us hang on to the contents a bit longer. While I’ve got the GrillSlinger, Sam hopes to test out the QuickPitch tent at Glastonbury, and producer Gaelan will be testing the Shock Ball. I think I got the best deal there…

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Eco Towns and Halfway Houses

The government has announced plans for a series of eco towns. On face value you’d expect the green lobby to be very pleased. Unfortunately the greenest aspect of these towns seems to be where they will be constructed: on green field sites in lush green parts of the country. Understandably the current residents of those areas aren’t too happy.

If these new developments were genuinely valuable in the fight against climate change, I’d be inclined to dismiss the complaints as conservative (with both a small and large ‘c’) nimbyism (especially given the social profile of the areas in which they have been proposed — Tim Henman’s father is leading one of the ‘no’ campaigns, for example).

If these were sites that had been chosen as ideal for wind farms or solar installations, I’d be arguing that the local residents had to put up and shut up. The need to reduce our dependence on oil overwhelms arguments about local natural beauty, when you consider the much greater havoc that climate change will wreak on every area of natural beauty.

But the green aspects of these eco towns seems to be little more than a veneer. A thin coating designed to make them palatable to the public. The problem they are really solving is social rather than ecological: a lack of affordable housing.

In Germany this week I’ve seen what appears to be a much better solution to this problem. Better socially, economically and ecologically. It’s not new and features no sexy green technologies, but on first appraisal it seems very appealing.

My wife and I are staying in a flat that her family owns in a small-ish town called Heilbronn. The flat is actually almost halfway to being a house. It is one of eight in a block, four on each side. Each side of the block has a communal staircase, and shared loft and cellar space for laundry, storage and hanging out washing. The buildings are pre-war and the ceilings high. Over time the configuration of each flat seems to have diverged considerably from the others in its block, but this one has three bed/living rooms, two of which are very large, plus a kitchen, bathroom and separate toilet.

The buildings (‘blocks’ seems to conjure up the wrong image) are set in a designated family area, a small grid of wide, leafy, part-cobbled streets through which cars are allowed but restricted to ten kilometres per hour. Playing children take priority on these roads. The whole area exists just five minutes walk from the town centre, and this being Germany, the public transport links are numerous.

The compact nature of the buildings, their location, and the shared facilities, mean that they are cheap (and relatively green) to run, and that there is minimal need for car use. Everyone seems to have a car but you don’t hear them starting up all that often. The area is mixed use, with restaurants, hairdressers, shops and various office-based businesses dotted amongst the housing, so that there are people around throughout the day, reducing the opportunities for crime. The kindergarten and school are both in walking distance — as is the supermarket.

In the UK we don’t seem to understand this type of medium-density housing. We either have towering blocks of flats in city centres where any sense of community is lost, or houses in the suburbs that consume vast quantities of space and generate car-bound commuters. There are alternatives, and I have lived in a few — notably in Reading and Edinburgh. But I haven’t seen an example where we have the recipe just right. In Reading the flats had plenty of outdoor space, but the buildings were uninspired. Dull on the outside, cramped on the inside, and constructed with no appreciation of the need for natural light. In Edinburgh the buildings were gorgeous and the flats enormous, but faced a busy main road and had no garden, or even dedicated parking.

I’m sure that good examples do exist in the UK, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have more. The vast former industrial sites around the UK’s cities are ideal for this type of development. Large, affordable places in family-friendly zones, close to town centres, constructed in a manner that engenders community. I’m not sure how it would work in the UK but here families take turns to be responsible for cleaning communal areas, including the street outside their building. The only enforcement is possible chastisement from your neighbours: no ASBOs here.

As usual this is a half-hour opinion and not a rigorously researched study. But I find it hard to believe that this approach is more complex, more expensive, or less green than the government’s proposed eco towns. And if these halfway houses lack some of the sexiness of the alternative, they could always add an eco veneer: a wind turbine here, a grey water scheme there…

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Flashback: 1973 and 1997

Flashback time again — check me out on BBC Radio Manchester at 16:20ish today talking about 1973 and 1997 with Becky Want. 95.1 FM or online on Listen Again.

1973

  • This year my favourite technology losers put out their most famous invention. Researchers at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center demonstrated the Xerox Alto workstation, which had a graphical user interface and a controller for moving a cursor around on screen. Inventions you and I now know as Windows and the Mouse. Steve Jobs was the first to rip these off at Apple, followed by the even more successful Bill Gates at Microsoft. But when was the last time you saw a Xerox PC, mouse or operating system…?
  • Also in 1973 the first Voice over Internet Protocal call was made. If you’ve used Skype or MSN Messenger, you know what VoIP is — sending a voice call over the internet rather than the traditional phone lines. What you may not realise is that just about all calls internationally or over certain networks such as TalkTalk, use VoIP — whether or not you make them from a normal phone. Carrying voice calls over Internet Protocol (IP) is cheaper, so quite often your call will be converted to IP and then back again before it reaches its destination.
  • Bic launched the disposable lighter. Gilette had a working model in 1972 but Bic quickly came to dominate the market with a low price and clever, and very sexual, advertising. Flick my Bic became a part of the slang Lexicon in the US.
  • Gene splicing was invented by Stanford scientists Stanley Cohen and Paul Berg. We seem to be suspicious of anything involving genetics, but it’s hard to argue with the medical value of this innovation. For example, by splicing specific genes in to bacteria scientists can create little microbial factories for the production of human hormones, growth factors and other medically important chemicals.
  • The first UK link to ArpaNet, what would become the internet, was made from University College London. The Department for Trade and Industry didn’t even offer moral support and wanted evidence that it would offer value from companies in the IT sector.
  • British scientists Clifford Cocks and James Ellis discover cryptographic public key mechanism
  • The SWIFT (Society for the Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) network is launched to enable secure electronic communication and transfers between banks. Twenty-five years later and it still takes three working days to send money between accounts…

1997

  • A much less exciting year bizarrely. It seems that all the exciting stuff really happened in the 1970s! But there was some good news. IEEE released the 802.11 (WiFi) standard, which means we can all work on the sofa, in the garden, or if you’re feeling really lazy, in bed.
  • The dancing baby appeared, becoming one of the first Internet’s first fads. The short 3D animation spawned a recurring apparition in Ally McBeal.
  • Bill Gates became the world’s richest businessman
  • And the Lithium Ion (Li-Ion) battery came in to commercial use, extending the life and reducing the weight of laptops and making innovations like the iPod possible. It’s now being used in performance electric cars like the Tesla eV1.
Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The Icelandic Model

Great article in this week’s Observer about Iceland. The country has the highest birth rate, the highest divorce rate, and the highest percentage of women working outside the home in Europe. It is also the best place in the world to live according to the UN. It has a booming economy and a very strong society, with almost no crime. It is as close to a Gene Roddenberry-style Utopia as we have on this planet, yet ignores many commonly-held notions of what is important for a ‘good’ society.

The principles on which Icelandic society is built are very interesting. The country was never converted to Christianity, so approached the modern world with a value set based on paganism. This has driven a respect for the, often harsh, environment, but the spiritual aspects seem to have been largely replaced with an appreciation of science and a love of progress.

This practical, open-minded approach contrasts strongly with much of the debate that has taken place around the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill over the last month. I try not to talk about religion in this blog because of the ease with which I could cause offence, both to prospective clients and to friends and family. But it seems that all the major religions are increasingly attacking the principles of science and humanism that form my ‘faith’. So though I will continue to try to avoid offence, there are some issues that really should be addressed in a blog looking at the future.

The article about Iceland reminded me that our value system is coloured by our historical religion, and the disproportionate sway that it continues to hold in our media and parliament. We all need to examine the natural bias in ourselves that this produces. Even an atheist such as I can subconsciously value a classic ‘nuclear’ family over other models, whether they be gay or lesbian couples, or other systems in which children may be raised.

Throughout the debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill, those lobbying to maintain the guidance that a father is vital in raising children have referenced unspecified ‘research’. This apparently shows that the absence of a father figure means children are more likely to commit crime, take drugs etc. Yet surely the weight of global evidence shows the opposite. In parts of Africa children are often raised by the community. And in Iceland, a tradition of strong women comes from the fact that Viking men were off pillaging often for years at a time, raising the children together in their absence. The fact that children may suffer in a broken version of our traditional model does not mean that other models are not just as valid, if not more so.

If we are going to continue human progress, and work towards a day when the whole world shares the quality of life enjoyed in Iceland, we all need to be open-minded about our beliefs and values. Are they based on fact and reason, or misunderstanding and prejudice? Or worst of all, on the values of a many-thousand year old civilisation that knew nothing of our reality and the potential of our society?

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Flashback: 1963 and 1995

Flashback time again this afternoon. You can catch me on BBC Radio Manchester on 95.1 at 16:30 or on Listen Again via the iPlayer. This week’s years are 1963 and 1995.

1963

  • The American Standard Code for Information Interchange (Ascii) system was introduced. Dull but vital — before this came along all computers spoke different languages making it tricky to exchange information between them.
  • The first Touch-Tone phones were introduced, beginning the end for the electro-mechanical dial introduced in 1919.
  • Syncom 2 became the first artificial satellite to go into a geosynchronousorbit. Without this capability there would be no satellite TV and no satnav.
  • Philips introduced the ‘compact cassette tape cartridge’, the standard for for recording and playing music for many years after. The mix tape was born, as was the classic slogan ‘Home taping is killing music’. You can draw your own parallels with the modern day debate about downloading.
  • “Instant” color film, or self-developing color photography, is introduced by the Polaroid Land Company.
  • Robert Kearns invented the intermittent windscreen wiper. Car manufacturers infringed his patent until 1990 before they agreed to pay him royalties.
  • The first emoticon — the smiley — was invented by Harvey Ball

1995

  • The Java software platform was launched, with the dream that a piece of software could be written once and run anywhere. Though this dream hasn’t come true exactly, it has reached more than 4.5 billion devices and is probably on your PC, your mobile phone and possibly even your TV and Bluray player. It is an integral part of many ‘Web 2.0’ applications.
  • DVD was announced in November 1995
  • Windows 95 was introduced, making the internet much more accessible to the mass market.
  • Apple tried, and failed to enter the console market with the ‘Pippin’. Though it was never marketed as an Apple product (it was produced and badged by Bandai) it is still known as one of the company’s biggest failures
  • Nintendo had its own failure in 1995, the Virtual Boy, a console built in to a set of monochrome 3D goggles. It was no match for the PlayStation.
Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

DIY Digital Picture Frame (with LinuxMCE)

I am planning a LinuxMCE-based home automation and entertainment system. As well as all the fully multimedia units that will do voice, video and music, I wanted a rather simpler node on the network: a digital picture frame.

Using LinuxMCE for this is something of a ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’ approach, but it will allow me to control the frame over the network. And I figure I might as well keep one consistent software system across the whole house.

Having seen a few articles around the web and in Custom PC on the subject, I started digging around in my box(es) of spares for some parts. In the end I settled on an old and very battered Sony Vaio notebook. The battery was completely shot and the case was falling apart, so it was neither economical nor practical to keep using it as it was. But it worked OK and had a very slim case, so it seemed to make an ideal donor.

In the photo above you can see the semi-dismantled laptop alongside the frame it was to be mounted in. This is a 30x40cm Copenhagen oak frame from Habitat with matching cutout.

Once the laptop was dismantled and the screen separated from the body of the machine, the next step was to mount both on a piece of foam artboard. I chose this for its strength to weight ratio, and the ease of cutting. Double-sided adhesive foam strips were used to hold it all together.

In the final image above you can see the loading screen for Kubuntu running on the device. I installed this and LinuxMCE before I dismantled the laptop, but with a USB keyboard and PCMCIA-mounted CD drive, it’s pretty easy to muck around with the software even with the whole lot inside the frame.

Unfortunately the software is proving tricky at the moment. LinuxMCE remains a little fiddly, and with the slightly unusual hardware combo found in a Sony Vaio, it is refusing to play ball at the moment. Sure that can be solved though and I’ll put a post up about how I solved it when I do. I will also post a photo of the finished item — somehow I forgot to get a shot of that!

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Flashback: 1971 and 1992

It’s Flashback time again and today at 4:15–4:30ish I’ll be talking about 1971 and 1992. Listen on 95.1 FM if you are in the Manchester area, or check it out online via the BBC iPlayer. I have a stinking cold so I’ll be trying not to sneeze and snuffle all the way through.

1971

  • Intel released the world’s first microprocessor, the 4004. There’s some debate about whether this was genuinely the first — the other candidate is Four Phase Systems’ AL1. But the Intel 4004 seems to have been more influential in the future development of computing. It first appeared in a calculator from Japanese company Busicom and ran at 740KHz. My (now relatively slow) 2GHz office computer is more than two and a half thousand times as fast in clock speed alone. It’s real-life processing power is astronomically greater.
  • The first pocket calculator was launched in Japan by Busicom — the LE-120A. There’s lots of confusion about this one too. Texas Instruments owned the patent for the pocket calculator but it appears the Japanese were the first to market. It was the UK’s Sinclair who dramatically dropped the price of the devices, introducing the Cambidge for just £25.99 by 1973.
  • The first commercial CAT scanner was built by EMI, allegedly funded by the success of the Beatles! CAT stands for Computer Assisted Tomography, and requires the machine to take multiple images of the human body slice by slice. The first example was installed in Atkinson Morley hospital in Wimbledon.
  • The email address was invented by Ray Tomlinson. The idea of electronic mail had been around for five or six years by this time but this was the first time the @ sign had been used to separate the name of a person from the name of their machine.
  • IBM introduced the floppy disk. This was even bigger than the 5.25in disks that the older ones amongst us will remember. It was 8 inches wide! Over time it was replaced by the 5.25 in disk, then the 3.5 in, then finally the CD-ROM and flash disk.
  • Liquid Crystal Displays ( LCD ) were patented in Switzerland and the US by different inventors. They quickly made their way in to wrist watches but it took another twenty-five years before they became commonplace in home computers and TVs.

1992

  • Windows 3.1 was released by Microsoft, bringing the graphical computer interface to the masses for the first time. Windows 1, 2 and 3 were not exactly resounding successes, but third (and a bit) time lucky. Given how much time has passed, the standard computer interface has changed remarkably little today.
  • BT and AT&T; in the US both launched video telephones. The UK version cost around £400 while the US one started at $1,499. They weren’t exactly a huge hit…
  • Nicotine patches were licensed for use on prescription to help people stop smoking. they became available over the counter a few years later.
  • The First Person Shooter or FPS became popular with the launch of Wolfenstein 3D. This was the predecessor to the Doom series of games that even spawned a film, and more recently Halo on the X-Box.
  • SMS: the first text message was sent in 1992 by British engineer Neil Papworth. It said ‘MERRY CHRISTMAS’. The success of SMS and the subsequent creation of text speak took the mobile phone operators totally by surprise. Today it remains a major source of income for them, and has become the basis for a range of new businesses, such as Pop Idol and X-Factor.
Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

HomeEasy

True to my word I have acquired my first pieces of HomeEasy kit — a remote and three sockets. Each one switches up to 3kW and is configurable to respond to up to six remotes, and each socket can be assembled in to a series of groups. All this for just £20. The equivalent in X10 would cost over £50.

The equivalent in X10 would also not perform anywhere near as successfully — at least not in my house where the powerlines are dirtier than a stag weekend in Amsterdam. The HomeEasy sockets switch instantaneously and successfully on every test so far.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Automating the Home

Sometimes I start a post, and before I finish it, I find out something that completely turns it around. A week ago I wrote the following:

“One of the biggest sci-fi dreams of the fifties was the automated home. A collection of smart appliances that stepped beyond labour saving to intelligently manage the home environment.

The dream has evolved from the days of Robbie the Robot. Today ‘home automation’ generally refers to the networked control of lights, curtains and blinds, heating, home entertainment and security. Unfortunately it remains a reality only for the very rich or very geeky.

Remember the remote control that Ozzie struggled with on The Osbournes? Sadly that is all too often the reality when you try to implement some form of home automation on a budget. I tried a couple of years ago, using a system called X10 — one of the most popular (and cheap) home automation technologies. If you’re not familiar with it, it consists of a wide variety of modules that sit between the power supply and a device and control their operation by controlling the power. They talk to each other using signals sent over the power lines themselves, so there’s no complicated wiring involved.

It’s a beautifully simple idea, undone only by reality. Powerlines are not great conduits for data, because many devices connected to them generate ‘noise’. PCs, fluorescent lamps, motors and pumps all output considerable noise to the power system, sufficient in many cases to drown out the X10 signals.

My experiment didn’t last long before my wife started unplugging the X10 devices so that she could simply turn a lamp on. Home automation became labour generating rather than labour saving — not the idea.

It’s a shame, because I think the world is ready for some simple home automation. Look how quickly remote-control sockets have taken off. My in-laws have some so that they can control hard-to-reach switches. You can buy them in Tesco and B&Q.; They are pretty widespread.

I think it would only take a couple of moves for home automation to take off in a big way. Firstly, all of these little remote control socket kits should conform to a standard, so that they can be controlled not just from the supplied handset but from a PC or other device. Secondly, a big home store such as IKEA should start offering remote control as an option on all of its lamps and light-fittings. This way the cost of the control units becomes marginal. Those who just want to control a couple of sockets can do, and those (like me) who want to control their whole house, can make a start at a reasonable cost.”

One week later and guess what? Bumbling around B&Q; and I find the HomeEasy system. It’s been around for a couple of months but I hadn’t been down the right aisle. It appears to be cheap, robust, and flexible — everything I was after. Check out the full review at AutomatedHome.co.uk, but suffice to say, I’m buying.

Tom Cheesewright