Yearly Archives

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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

‘Broken Britain’: Why are we so convinced things are getting worse?

Hard though it may be to believe, by most metrics, things are getting better in Britain. Maybe not year on year, but certainly decade after decade, crime is falling, poverty is falling, education is improving. There are blips and blots on this record: sometimes for a period society becomes less equal rather than more; rates of pay may not balance as fast as we might like; we still have recessions, as we all know.

Yet it seems the majority of us remain convinced that the world is falling apart. Phrases like ‘Broken Britain’ get bandied around by politicians and the media and we believe them. What happened to our pride and optimism to make us accept such negativity so readily?

It’s hard not to blame the media. In a survey about the NHS a few years back people were asked about their general impression of the NHS, and reported that it was in a terrible state. Asked about their own specific experience, they largely raved about it. Having been told repeatedly that the NHS was failing, they convinced themselves that their experience must be the exception.

The same seems to happen with crime: fewer and fewer of us are victims of crime in reality, yet we are convinced, often without specific examples, that things are getting worse. Why? In my opinion it is in part because reporting has improved: less crime feels like more.

But I think it is a little lazy to blame the press. Are we so incapable of looking at our own experience, and more importantly, engaging with our own communities, to develop our own impression? If we did we would more easily recognise the gap between the theoretical ‘Broken Britain’ and what seems to me to be a country moving slowly, falteringly, but consistently, up.

My hope is that our increasing switch to community communication and user generated content online might spur us to rely less on the national media. As digital media becomes ever more about the local, it might even get us talking to our neighbours. There may be such a thing as society after all…

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Flashback on BBC Radio Manchester: 1979

It’s Flashback time again on BBC Radio Manchester, with two years I haven’t posted about before: 1979 and 2008. Listen live at 4:25 this afternoon on 95.1FM if you’re in the Manchester area, or on iPlayer if you’re not.

First up, the tech stories of 1979:

  • VisiCalc was launched, the first spreadsheet program for PCs. Accountants rejoiced, or at least the more progressive ones (like my dad) did.
  • The rise of the robots began: an industrial robot at a Ford car plant in Michigan killed Robert Williams, resulting in a $10 million dollar lawsuit.
  • Hayes introduced what was to become the industry standard in modems for the next twenty years, enabling dial-up internet access for the masses.
  • Atari introduced the arcade version of Asteroids.
  • CompuServe launched the first commercial email service.
  • The Post Office launched Prestel, a predecessor to the internet using proprietary systems to provide access to 160,000 pages of information via telephone, computers, and TV sets. Content included news, train times, stock market prices and even early e-commerce for travel reservations. Early systems were expensive but it soon switched to per-usage billing.
Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Flashback on BBC Radio Manchester: 2008

Second Flashback year of the day on BBC Radio Manchester this afternoon at 4:25 is 2008. Listen live on 95.1FM, or via the iPlayer if you’re outside the Manchester area. I’ll be talking about the technology stories of 1979, and 2008 — details of the latter below:

  • Blu Ray defeated HD DVD, with the HD DVD consortium surrendering on the 19th February.
  • The Tesla EV1 Roadster became available to the public. This Lotus-based electric car redefined what was possible, with an electronically-limited top speed of 125mph and a 0–60 time under 4 seconds. A seven seat hatchback model is launching in 2011 and I want one.
  • The Large Hadron Collider went live, and then went off again nine days later following an electrical fault. The fault caused six tonnes of liquid helium to be released and the force from this gas flooding into a vacuum caused 10-ton magnets to shear from their mountings. It will restart in November this year and contrary to popular belief, the world will not end.
  • The Global Seed Vault in Svalbard opened, a gigantic repository for plant samples that will enable us to jumpstart nature in the wake of an ecological disaster.
  • 23andme began offering genome scanning on a retail basis. For $399 and a sample of your spit you can find out about your risk from genetic diseases, and your ancestry.
  • The first bionic eyes were implanted into two blind patients at the Moorlands Eye Hospital in London. They can now see light and dark using a camera mounted on a pair of glasses that sends a signal back to an implant at the back of the eye.
  • The SpaceX Falcon 1 becomes the first privately developed space launch vehicle to reach orbit. Last month it was used to deliver the RazakSat, a Malaysian imaging satellite.
Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Lib Dems: Too sensible to be elected?

You have to feel a little sorry for the Liberal Democrats. And if, like me, you consider them the party that most closely represents your own beliefs, you also have to feel a little frustrated by them.

I feel sorry for them because, as a marketer, there’s nothing harder to promote than the middle ground. Common sense just isn’t sexy. Being practical rarely attracts fanatical support.

Yet it is the pragmatism that appeals to me. Unlike Simon Jenkins, writing in today’s Guardian, I don’t want a radically liberal party, unlikely to ever get elected but with sufficient clout to drag the political debate in their direction. Sure I’d like to see a little more vehement rejection of the current incumbents’ more authoritarian tendencies, but I couldn’t comfortably vote for a party that pursued the liberal principle to its fundamentalist extremes. I don’t want ID cards, but I also don’t believe in wholly abolishing regulatory controls on finance, business practice, or health and safety.

To me the fusion of the Liberals and the SDP created a party of reason and balance, rather than the one without principle described and decried by Jenkins. In both manifesto and behaviour, the Liberal Democrats have consistently appeared to me to be the most genuinely progressive party on show. It is the greenest party other than the Greens; the one that recognises the need for a state that is more than a safety net, while acknowledging that the books need to balance; the one willing to set tax levels to pay for its policies while aiming to maintain a business environment that encourages growth and investment. It is the party that seems to have the most detailed policies based on its members’ beliefs, not on the current headlines from the most influential papers.

And this is where the frustration comes. Because while practicality may not be the most promotable characteristic, it’s a far from impossible brief. There are threads that could be pulled together to create an overarching vision for the party; some imagery that could be used to explain what the party stands for — a common question, even from the politically aware. Throughout the coverage of the current conference, I’ve heard nothing from the key figures about what the party stands for, yet for me this is the biggest challenge they have to overcome in attracting votes from their potential supporters.

Without this vision, the party makes for easy pickings from the other parties’ more astute political operators. Cameron’s ‘cigarette paper’ jibe was picked up and ably wielded by Eric Pickles, the Conservative party chairman, in an interview on Radio 4. Chris Huhne responding was made to sound petty and childish by comparison with his barbs about the Tories’ European associations. He would have been much better using the time to talk more about the Liberals’ policies and how they differentiate the party from the big two.

With a wishy-washy Tory party straying from its safe ground in a bid to bolster its ageing support base, and a Labour government staggering along after the damage sustained during the years in power, there is a great opportunity for the Liberals in the next election. But my fear is that, without radical change, the party’s practical message will fail to connect with the voting public.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Car lover not planet hater

I love cars. I love their complexity, their style, their power and their function. I was lucky enough to have a car from a young age: while I was still learning to drive my parents very kindly bought me a slightly dilapidated 1970 Volkswagen Beetle, which I proceeded to clean up and respray (following the application of copious quantities of filler), and fit with a series of ever-more Heath Robinson-esque stereo arrangements.

This fabulous transport became the group taxi for my friends for the next few years, and took me down to Cardiff and up to Manchester, as well as on more prosaic lunchtime trips to the nearest drivethru McDonalds. I think the fact that it also allowed me to ferry my younger sister from place to place encouraged my parents’ generosity, but I was no less grateful for that. It was an incredible thing to have that degree of freedom at such a young age.

I’m not sure I truly appreciated the freedom a car brings until a few years later. After University I went without a car for a few years, following the sad, quiet collapse of the Beetle’s engine/bodywork/chassis/suspension, and the passing on of my next car, a hand-me-down Metro Mayfair that had belonged to my Grandma. While I didn’t have a car I coped fine, getting the train to work and everywhere else. But after working for a few years I decided I wanted a car again — as much, I confess, out of sheer consumerism as a real need. I set my heart on a BMW 3-series coupe.

What a revelation. I started driving out to a local watersports lake just outside the centre of Reading where I was living at the time. It was only miles from my house but it was totally inaccessible by public transport and the cost of a taxi would have been prohibitive. Having the car enabled me to participate in a sport that was otherwise closed to me, and through which I met a great new set of friends. The car also made me more valuable at work: with it I could travel to client meetings without the help of a (usually more senior) colleague, which meant that I was let off the leash to handle more client contact on my own. Once I had the car again, giving it up would have meant giving up my major social activity, and becoming reliant on colleagues again at work. There was no going back.

Unfortunately the BMW was neither the cheapest car to run, nor the most environmentally friendly. A few months after moving to Manchester I sold it and bought a rather more eco-friendly turbo diesel.

I can’t imagine not having a car now, especially with the arrival of a baby. I know people can and do manage, but our whole society is built around individual transport to specific destinations. I could say I wish that it weren’t the case, and certainly I would like public transport to provide a more viable alternative. But the honest reality is that I like the freedom and individuality that the car offers. The ability to go exactly where I want in a manner and environment that I have defined.

So does that make me a bad person? I don’t think it does. The things I love about the car do not make it a bad thing. I’m not wedded to the petrol engine: I’d love there to be a real and environmentally friendly alternative. I know a lot of the carbon footprint of a car is laid down in its manufacture rather than its use, but again this is a challenge that can be addressed, if not totally overcome. I don’t think it is the car per se that is the problem: it is just today’s cars.

Likewise I don’t think being a car lover necessarily makes you a planet hater. The environmental impact will always be a factor in my future choice of cars and I think anyone for whom it’s not should rightly be pilloried (that means you in your Chelsea tractor). Wherever it is most practical I will continue to use public transport (I’m sat in Euston station typing this).

But I will continue to love cars, and I confess, will dream of driving a V8 monster when I’m chugging along in my somewhat more eco-friendly diesel.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Fun and Games: The history of the console

Just been down to the BBC studios and not for Flashback as usual — I was too slow confirming my availability with the producers so they replaced me this week. Instead I recorded a short interview about the history of computer games for a show going out tomorrow might at 10pm — 95.1FM in the Manchester area or nationwide on iPlayer.

Being more of a tech generalist than a games specialist I did a bit of digging around in advance and came across the great site at: http://www.thegameconsole.com/. The copy tells you enough to see how the technology has changed and the pictures provide a great history of the style of gaming technology over the last 30 years. Check out the wood veneer!

The point I made on the radio was that for all the advances in the technology, the mechanics of gameplay have remained largely the same. What sucks us in and keeps us playing is the thrill of the chase, the fear, the competition, and that is still achieved through very similar constructs to the first games: Wii Tennis is only a more sophisticated PongPortal a graphical Granny’s GardenCrysis a super-slick Beach-head. Great graphics, intuitive interfaces and awesome sound might mean we need a little less imagination to immerse ourselves in the action, but the fundamentals of a great game are the same today as they were in 1972 when the Magnavox Odyssey, the first console, hit the shelves.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

High-Speed Rail

Just been interviewed by Real Radio about the newly announced high-speed rail link between London and Glasgow. I haven’t expanded my remit to cover transport now — just a random collaring at Piccadilly station. Good topic for a quick blog entry though, while I ride the standard speed train down to London.

Do we need a high speed rail link? My natural inclination is to say ‘yes, of course’. It’s cool new(ish) tech; it will make me more time-efficient; it cuts the arguments for the more carbon-intense options of flying and driving. But I find I’m not without concerns.

At £34bn, it’s not going to be cheap, and somehow that cost will inevitably be transferred to the traveler. Now that I have other people booking trains for me (in advance), I’m finding the costs a little less oppressive, but the trade-off is the lack of flexibility. The nature of work travel means that sometimes it is hard to predict when you will want to travel, but the price of open off peak tickets is absolutely prohibitive. I can already foresee a situation where I know the train could get me home in an hour, but I have to wait three hours for the next train my ticket allows me to take.

Higher speed also doesn’t fix the main problem with trains: they get you to where the tracks end, not where you want to go. Even if it only takes an hour to get into London, I would still choose to drive to meetings around the south east because of the cost and complexity of getting to smaller stations, and then from the stations to the meetings themselves. Without a car it takes huge amounts of time and money — neither of which I or most people can afford in a working day.

Despite all this though, on balance I am in favour of the new link. On occasions it will be very useful, and, I hope, the price might not be too painful.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

This blogger is on paternity leave…

It has been a hectic few weeks. And Digital, the main business with which I am involved (as shareholder and ‘strategy director’) is rising rocket-ship fast, and has been consuming all the time I could spare to keep it flying on course. Since ‘launch’ at the start of June we have added three full time staff to supplement the support we have from our close colleagues at new parent company And Partners. The latest achievement for the company has been appearing on the 5 Live breakfast show with Nicky Campbell this morning to comment on ITV’s results.

Originally I was meant to be talking about the new Ofcom report, but I’m always happy to be flexible for an opportunity like that. Apart from getting cut off while calling ITV Digital a ‘poor concept, poorly executed’ (will have to listen again on iPlayer to find out how much of that was heard), I think it went pretty well. Though I may change my mind when I hear it back… Be interested in your feedback.

Anyway, marvellous though all that is, it pales into insignificance when set against the other big development in my life. On Monday morning at 5:02, my daughter Isabelle was born. To quote one of the other fathers from our NCT class: “Fatherhood. Blimey.” The las three days have been utterly mind blowing; fantastic, exhilirating and exhausting all at once. So I will be on paternity leave for the rest of this week and next, working intermittently as required.

If I find time I’d like to add an update about the new Toy Cupboard, but if you don’t hear from me for a while, you will know why. This blogger is on paternity leave, and loving every minuted of it.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Babylon 5 and the problem with futurology

I’ve been watching Babylon 5 for the last couple of weeks. One of those sci-fi shows I never got into when it was on originally, but felt that I ought to know better.

The special effects are definitely of their time (early 90s), the sets are cheap, the scripts less than subtle and the acting occasionally hammy. But the consistent plot arc over the series is fantastic and highly addictive.

As with most sci-fi though, what’s really intriguing is the technology and the culture. This was a series that was made less than 20 years ago, yet it seems as out of touch with modern reality as the earliest Star Trek series.

For example, newspapers are customised but still delivered on paper via voice controlled vending machines. Computers have voice-activated interfaces yet take hours to process complex data queries. Work still largely takes place on paper forms.

It just shows how hard it is to forecast the fast-paced development of technology, and how quickly our culture adapts to new norms.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Flashback on BBC Radio Manchester: 1991

Over at the BBC this afternoon for Flashback with Becky Want, talking about the gadgets of years past. Listen live around Manchester on 95.1FM, or on the iPlayer if you’re more digitally inclined.

Today’s years are 1991 and 2002. The latter year I’ve already posted some notes on previously, so here’s a few points on 1991 — not the most exciting year in technology…

  • The World Wide Web went live, which is clearly huge, but I believe much of the work on it including its specification, was completed the previous year.
  • Trevor Baylis introduced the wind-up radio, inspired by stories that safe sex messages weren’t reaching rural parts of Africa because of the lack of mains power and the price of batteries. Baylis is the archetypal potting shed inventor, an eccentric ex-stuntman with a creative mind, and I think he probably did much to kickstart enthusiasm for inventing stuff in the UK.
  • IBM exited the type-writer business as PCs made the devices increasingly obsolete.
  • The first phones appeared on passenger planes that could make calls from anywhere in the skies. Weird to think that was almost two decades ago, when soon we’ll have mobile phones working on flights.

100 years earlier there was a much more important gadget arriving on the scene. One that makes even the Web look unimportant (well, almost). The electric kettle first appeared in 1891.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Digital Britain: Investing in the transport network

Popped down to the BBC this morning to talk with Alan Beswick about the Digital Britain report, unveiled yesterday. The papers have been full of news about the ‘tax’ to pay for the future of the UK’s broadband infrastructure. The government has proposed a 50p per month levy on all copper lines to go towards a next generation fund for ‘superfast’ broadband — i.e. fibre to the home (FTTH).

Personally I’m all for this. Think of the internet as a transport mechanism, the successor to the motorway and the train line rather than an evolution of the phone. It performs the same functions: connecting people to their places of work and leisure, carrying products from the vendor to the consumer. Looking back, who would baulk at a small levy to pay for the trains or the motorways? (Apart from environmentalists with the latter)

The only problem for me with this report, is its lack of ambition. 2Mbps by 2012 is a noble target for universal access, but the risk is that it sets the bar a little low. Alongside this I would have liked to see a little more detail about what the stretch target should be for FTTH. This is a point I made in the consultation process for the report through the response from the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce’s IT Committee (which I helped to draft).

It’s a small gripe though: the report acknowledges that a lot of the drive towards FTTH is unlikely to come from massive investment from BT, and is more likely to be driven on a regional basis — good news for groups like our own Manchester Digital Development Agency, currently rolling out fibre in north Manchester. The phone line levy should provide them with a pot to keep pushing the rollout forward.

In all it’s great to see the government taking a holistic view of the digital economy in the UK. If the only thing the papers can find to gripe about is a £6/year ‘tax’, then the report’s authors should consider it a job well done.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Twitter Clients and Adobe Air for Ubuntu Netbook Remix

I confess I’ve gone from a convert to a zealot in 24 hours. Ubuntu Netbook Remix is cool.

OK, cool might be taking it a little far, but it is far and away the best option I’ve seen for a powerful, lightweight OS for netbooks. Latest evidence? Twitter clients.

More specifically, the ease with which you can install Adobe Air, the platform on which so many Twitter clients are based. Here are some modified instructions taken from Sizlopedia:

Download Adobe Air to your Home directory from http://get.adobe.com/air/

Open the terminal and run the following commands:

chmod +x AdobeAIRInstaller.bin

then

sudo ./AdobeAIRInstaller.bin

Wait a while — it will look like it’s not doing anything for a bit. Eventually though, the Adobe Air installer will appear and take you through the process.

Once you have Air installed, you can add sorts of cool apps, including the popular Twitter client, Twhirl. I’ve tried all the others and I’m fast coming to see what everyone’s been raving about. Just download the file from the website, open up the appropriate directory, and double-click on it to install. It’s that simple.

Now you can tweet to your heart’s content.

Tom Cheesewright