Yearly Archives

19 Articles

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

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

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.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The connected home reality

What I mean by the term ‘connected home’ is a loose network of interlinked appliances and gadgets that combine to make our lives easier, more secure, and more automated, and our media more accessible. The connected home has long been a dream of futurologists and science fiction writers, and over recent years it has increasingly become a reality for the super rich. In 2008 and 2009, I think it will start to become a reality for the rest of us.

The first component of the truly connected home, and the one that will drive much of the infrastructure for the others, is access to media. Be that the web, music, video, photo, or games, we are purchasing more and more media devices that conform to home network standards. Home media servers, network MP3 players, BluRay players with Ethernet ports, broadband video services, and online gaming-capable consoles. Making the most of these devices means a wired or wireless home network and a decent broadband connection. It also means having a server of some description at the centre of it all to store, provide, and control everything else.

The next component is security. Even though crime levels have fallen dramatically (42% in the UK since 1995), our paranoia levels have continued to climb. Security hardware, such as networked cameras, alarm systems, and baby monitoring devices, increasingly conform to IP-based network standards. Not only that, but prices are falling. Now there is little barrier to people integrating their home security and monitoring with their media systems. Streaming images of your kids and nanny to your office? Easy. Setting your alarm to text you when there is a break in? Cheap to do.

The final component is home automation. This has been the biggest dream of many futurologists. Not just a home that responds to you (lights that come on when you are in the room), or the environment (turning the heating on when the house temperature drops below a certain level at certain times), but a home that actively eases your life. For example, the robot vacuum cleaner. These devices are now available, in the UK, for less than £200. At John Lewis no less! Robot mowers are also available. Currently the price of a second hand car, there’s little doubt they too will fall in price. There’s no robot housemaid yet, and internet fridge isn’t yet a practical reality, but we’re getting there.

In the way that the last ten years has been dominated by smaller and smaller gadgets for the person, I think that the next ten years is going to be dominated by connected appliances for the home.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Ethernet: The most important technology you never hear about

Ethernet is one of those inventions that few people know about, and rarely gets discussed outside of businesses and the very geekiest of homes. If you are only vaguely familiar with it, you might know it as the square ports on the back of your broadband router. Yet Ethernet now underlies much of our global communications infrastructure, and its reach is only going to grow in the coming years.

Ethernet is a standard that defines the physical connections, and the electronic operations that allow groups of computers to communicate over cables made from either copper or optic fibre. Today your network in the office or at home almost certainly relies on Ethernet. But in the near future this reach will be drastically expanded.

Already much of the core infrastructure that drives the internet relies on Ethernet. Soon the mobile phone networks are going to be increasingly reliant on Ethernet too. It is fast becoming the universal language for digital communication, whatever form that communication may take. CCTV networks use it, music systems use it, games consoles use it, banks use it — almost every transaction we make in life will soon be sent over Ethernet.

The exact date on which Ethernet was invented is not clear, but many trace it back to a memo sent by Robert Metcalfe to his employers at Xerox PARC, the development powerhouse that also spawned many of the ideas now incorporated in the modern PC (the mouse, the graphical ‘windowed’ interface). Like many great ideas, his proposal was initially rejected. Well done that man for sticking with it.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

BBC iPlayer: Broadband Bottlen

I spoke briefly to an executive in the telecoms industry yesterday. I mentioned that many people I spoke to had seen a fall in broadband performance (based on anecdotal evidence). He suggested the biggest problem is the change in the type of applications that people are using, and cited the BBC iPlayer as an example. I don’t know why this simple thought hadn’t occurred to me but it makes perfect sense. I feel a bit daft having not jumped to that conclusion myself.

Even the simplest websites increasingly include sound and video clips, animated introductions, and large graphics, all of which take advantage of the increasing bandwidth available to users. That’s fine when just a few people are using those rich-media sites while the majority browse email or train times. But when the rich-media applications — such as the iPlayer — go mainstream, the experience degrades for everyone as the pipes clog up.

All the points I have made previously about our creaking national broadband infrastructure remain, but I now believe the problem is going to worsen quickly. All the more reason for us to begin the painful and expensive process of rolling out fibre optic connections to the home, before all the clever business models we have built on the availability of broadband data begin to collapse.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Spam Spam Spam Spam: The History of Spam

Quick pop in to the BBC Radio Manchester offices yesterday to comment on the 15-year anniversary of the term ‘spam’. It was coined on a user group to describe unsolicited marketing emails, and comes from the Monty Python sketch set in a cafe selling little else.

Yesterday was not the real anniversary of spam, which can apparently be traced back to a marketing executive for the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) almost fifteen years earlier. And some would argue there’s a big difference between that sort of legitimate business contact and the rather more illegitimate content that floods our inboxes today.

The problems stems from one simple fact: being a spammer is profitable. So profitable that the rewards outweigh the small risk of prosecution and the ignominy of being one of the most hated people in the world — certainly during the period between 8:30 and 9:30 that so many working people spend clearing their inboxes of junk.

As I was leaving the studio, another guest made a suggestion: charge 0.1p for every email sent. The economics are vague but the idea makes sense. The only way to stop spam is to make it economically unrewarding to send. This is of course hugely complicated, and punishes everyone — not just the offenders. But it is quite possibly the only way to halt the problem: the spammers are as technologically capable as those fighting the problem, and there is no prospect of international law-enforcement tackling the issue any time soon.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Media Moguls: Get On Or Get Out Of The Way

The last two posts have been about companies aiming to simplify access to digital media. This is a noble aim but one that can only be accomplished if the companies producing and distributing digital media wake up to the realities of life in the 21st Century. I have covered this point before but I wanted to reiterate just how important it is.

What has spurred me to attack this topic again is the continued idiocy of the music and film industries in their efforts to protect revenues from sales of music and video content. Nothing about the way these companies are addressing the problem makes sense. Everything they are doing seems to be completely contradictory to the lessons of the past. ‘Home taping is killing music’ anyone? It was nonsense then, and it is nonsense now.

It has been demonstrated time and again that people would rather do the right thing than the wrong thing, whether or not they are forced too (read Freakonomics for a great example from a bagel seller). What prevents people doing the right thing is not an innate desire to do bad, or to screw the system. They will do the wrong thing when it is easy and doing the right thing is hard.

At the moment it is still easier in many cases to acquire media illegally rather than legally. Illegally acquired media is free of restrictive Digital Rights Management controls that prevent the user from consuming media as they would like to. Legally acquired media is overpriced because it continues to support the extremely inefficient industries that were built to control it in the last century.

Rather than reduce their overheads, respond to consumer demand, or invest in innovative ways to distribute and consume content, the music and video industries spend millions on adverts and lobbying designed to scare people. They have failed: their efforts leave them looking daft and outdated (for example, the current ‘you wouldn’t steal a car…downloading is a crime’ ads).

I’m not saying that there doesn’t need to be a ‘stick’ with which to beat persistent offenders. But surely it is clear by now that offering the right ‘carrot’ is a much more efficient way of changing consumer behaviour on a large scale?

To the music and video industries the message is this: get with it, or get out of the way. Plenty of people believe they can do a better job, and they will if you continue to give them the opportunity.

Tom Cheesewright