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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.

Tom Cheesewright