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On Traffic Lights…

I was disturbed by Martin Cassini's report on Newsnight proposing the abolition of traffic lights, which surely don't deserve such a fate.

Being fascinated by many forms of technology and their place in their world, traffic lights are often one of the first things I have seen when I go on business trips around the world.

Although most other people will not have spotted it I am sure (or be remotely interested), there is actually quite a variation between countries, and the style of lights can maybe even indicate something about the self image of the parent country.

For example, Paris has those pointlessly tall, rather haughty and arrogant faux-gold painted posts (so tall indeed that they need little repeaters at driver level), largely ignored by everybody.

In Dublin, I have seen a huge variety of different types from that looked like they had been bought in job-lots from the US and UK when they had some money to spend – a bit like the apparel of a deranged and eccentric old maiden-aunt.

US lights are for the thrill-seekers amongst us who love that random moment when the red light flicks to green.

In Sweden, lights are very logical and have a green-amber phase instead of a plain amber to bring balance to the coruscating display.

In Switzerland, the lights are totally prescriptive, every red and amber filter light has a simulacram of the green arrow carved on it in black. No confusion there then, unlike the UK, where modern installations leave you wondering just which red light you should be watching (usually the wrong one).

Actually racking my brains, I cannot remember much about the traffic lights I encountered in Australia as I was negotiating the notorious “Melbourne hook turns “.

And to Nigeria, where the only traffic lights I saw there in the glittering capital of Abuja were switched off…

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Functional Specialism: the Dead Hand of Adam Smith

In his seminal book “Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation”, James Utterback described the seemingly inevitable process by which young, thrusting innovative organisations become sclerotic.  In particular, they are typified by:

  • Mechanistic, functional hierarchical organisation
  • Low level of innovation
  • Low interaction with market place
  • Not customer focused
  • Fragmented processes (following Adam Smith and functional specialisation)

By happy coincidence, whilst reading Utterback, I was also reading  Hammer & Champy, “Reengineering the Corporation”, which describes the consultants approach to taking these sclerotic old companies, and revitalising them and getting them fit for the 1990’s…  The new pattern was a mix of process-orientation, supported by coaching from centres of competence.

As we now know with hindsight, this model is itself flawed, but it did offer a solution to the dead-hand of Adam Smith, and functional specialism, killing off innovation.

Here is the chart I drew for myself when I was originally puzzling through this conundrum…Charting a New Course for Growth

Of course, the next question is (with 10 years hindsight), what should be the shape of organisations for the 21st and 22nd century?

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Single Retail Banana: How does that work then?

“How does that work then?” is one of those phrases like “What’s that all about, then?” used by stand-up comedians to punctuate their observations about life and “that”.

One of the curses (and blessings) of my personality type is that I probably can tell you how “that” works, or have a very good guess at synthesising an answer. This ability derives from my encyclopaedic knowledge of how stuff does actually work, built up from lifelong study driven by unending curiosity.

Knowing how stuff works is very useful, but sometimes of course, the curosity can lead one into strange directions.

And so to the Single Retail Banana (SRB), which I have now observed in various motorway service areas, and wondered on how it came to be.

The Traditional Bunch Banana (TBB) is quite a good product with its own fully recyclable packaging, in multipack format (i.e., hands/bunches). The SRB is however an interesting development – somebody has managed to get bananas to grow as singletons, rather than in bunches with a little vestigial stalk, rather than the full monty torn off a bunch (see the picture below)
Comparing Banana Stalks

The SRB could of course be a variety of banana that just grows that way, but my guess is they stick a little band/ring on the stalk to restrict total growth and make the fruit drop off (just like farmers do with lambs tails)

So, imagine the excitement as the group of fruit design consultants and edible plant engineers got together and realised that they could make a banana that saves money by picking itself, requires no processing to tear the bunches and with less stalk, costs less to transport. What a thrill!

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Sir John Harvey-Jones: Unsung Technology Hero?

It would be a shame to pass by the death of Sir John Harvey-Jones without mentioning that he is possibly an unsung hero of Information Technology.

He will probably be more likely remembered for many other things, but I recall (dimly) that he experimented with building a live Company Board Operations Centre (akin to that of air traffic control, or military “war room”) with real-time information feeds and graphics displays to display business intelligence on the state of health of ICI, and so direct the business.

Unfornately, the technology of the day was unlikely to be a match for the soaring ambition, and it was a step too far for the management too, so it came to nothing.

Now, with Xbox 360 and PS3 power, just think what you could build today…

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…Died in a Blogging Accident: Who could be at Risk?

Until I read XKCD this morning, I had never thought that blogging could in anyway be a risk to my or anybody else’s life. But then I thought further, if it was true, who might be at risk, and what might make one more succumb when blogging?

Well, I don’t know any better this evening than this morning, but a quick glimpse at the QDOS top 20 bloggers makes an interesting checklist…


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Web 4.0: Watching the Web Grow Old

I was interested to see in a recent article in The Economist, Sir Tim Berners-Lee gave an analogy between Web 1.0 being, to paraphrase, the “Net in Nappies”. With Web 2.0 we now entering the teenage years (going out, getting drunk, making a fool of yourself, showing off, sharing stuff with your mates, generally extraverting in many ways).

Which, although the article does not say as such, extrapolates to the Semantic Web (Web 3.0) being the grownup “web of data”, or the adult Internet (note the lowercase 'a', as the Adult Internet was hijacked years ago).

But extrapolating further still, what will Web 4.0 be then?
The Beige Bulletin Board?
The Cardigan Connection for Crumblies?
The Stannah Stairlift of data?
The Walk-in Bath of Bytes?

I hope it is more exciting than that…

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Creating Picture Blogs

I fancied the idea that it would be good to be able to create blog postings that look more like that standard text plus a picture.

I actually achieved the goal of tweaking SPHPBLOG so that it can display HTML cut out of a Microsoft Publisher created web page.

Of course, this suddenly makes production of each entry much more of a performance than just text + a picture, and raises the pain threshhold beyond that which would make me actually want to create anything.

So, now I am happy I could create Picture Blogs if I want to, I'll just give the simple format a go to see if anything flows from my virtual pen…

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New Technology Awards 2006

Before the New Year gets too old, I thought in an atypical moment of whimsy that I would just briefly mark the transition into another year by putting forward nominations for a select few things that annoyed, amused or excited me in 2005.

Oscar Wilde award for Technology as Art – Beautiful but Useless

Mobile technology is a fertile area for lovely looking “boys toys” and gadgets that never work quite as you hoped when you get them out of the box…

Runner-up: The Filofax Digital Organiser with Nokia SU-1B Digital Pen – Beautiful leather, high quality paper, and a snazzy looking pen, but it fills your Outlook calendar with meaningless scribble and unreadable appointments due to poor handwriting recognition

Winner: The i-Tech Virtual Keyboard , for the second year running. Now it uses Bluetooth and needs no cables, just a perfectly flat table to work on and an RSI-inducing typing posture. Maybe third-time lucky.

George Orwell award for Techno-Paranoia

According to recent estimates, the UK has over 4m surveillance cameras, reportedly as many as the rest of the EU put together, and accounting for 1/5th in the world. Although there was some solace in the recently announced curtailment of speed camera installation, we seem to be the most observed nation in the world – Truman Show UK…

Runner-up: The Intelligent Road Stud Camera with its mate, the Intelligent Road Stud Sensor, which replace “cats-eyes” in the road with active systems that record speed, number-plates, weather conditions and such like, communicating with roadside boxes by GPRS mobile telephony.

Winner: The Government, which revealed “Bigger Brother” plans to develop a national “vehicle movement database” capable of processing over 35m identifications daily eventually storing information on 100m vehicles for up to two years. This is linked with the rollout of new Automated Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras – every 400 yards on the motorways, if our most senior traffic police man gets his way!

Flat Earth award for `spin' over substance

There are so many candidates on their well-intentioned, misguided path to Hades that it is hard to choose. Fortunately, most of them come from outside the sphere of technology-based businesses.

Runner-up: “Deferred success” which achieved eponymous deferment

Winner: The inter-departmental Government spat over the funding of the UK `Respect Coordinator' – “Never mind the evidence, get a sense of conviction”, to paraphrase what senior ministers were told (allegedly)

If attempts, like these, to bring about the death of rational thinking, rigorous analysis and plain commonsense get you going, then two excellent books tried to resist the wave of irrationality: “How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions” by Francis Wheen, and “Bad Thoughts: A Guide to Clear Thinking”, by Jamie Whyte

Best Newcomer

In the area of interesting technology developments is `e-paper' which showed its head in 2005. E-paper can be used to make flexible, foldable electronic display screens. It could significantly change the format and shape of computers, maybe to trouser-pocket sized, disposable full-colour moving-picture advertisements – the Kleenex Komputer…

Runner-up: The Seiko e-Paper Watch which looks like something out of Star Trek and will probably give you eye-strain reading the numbers

Winner: The Readius , a “concept car” from Philips in the form of an e-reader with a 5 inch roll-up display.

Time is too short to continue and nominate candidates for, say, the Nuremberg Award for nonsensical adherence to daft rules, the Watson-Hartree Award for getting the “numbers” wrong or the Mary Poppins award for magical revenue models and incredible business plans.

If you have any nominations for your own irrititants and stimulants, then do add a comment

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Challenges of Rural Telecommunications

For those of you who have never ventured outside major urban areas, the pleasures of country living may yet have escaped you, especially with the easy availability of 8-20Mb broadband in many towns and cities.

Lincolnshire is a very rural county in a neglected corner of the UK, sandwiched between the bracing North Sea winds and the smoke and dirt of the declining industrial areas in the spine of England. In Lincolnshire we grow the potatoes and harvest the seas so that the ex-miners and steel workers can eat fish and chips with the knives and forks that used to made in the factory, that is now a call centre (or retail park).

It is one of the largest counties in the UK, yet it contains almost none of the population so has some interesting physical and economic challenges when it comes to telecommunications. Geographically, it is mostly flat with a couple of small lumps – I live on one, at the stately height of 130 metres above sea level, and Lincoln Cathedral is on the other, about 17 miles away to the South West. It is a bit like the The Netherlands, but the hills are much higher there. Their tallest is 321m, although only 1/3 is actually Dutch, the rest being shared with the Germans and Belgians – though Lincolnshire's hills might beat some of those in the Great Plains of America.

You expect to drive at least 5 miles to buy a carton of fresh milk, along roads that have the third highest death rate in Europe (after Greece and Portugal). These are mostly single carriageway roads, of course, there being few dual carriageways, and no motorways/freeways at all in the whole county. We are physically 150 miles away from London and about 40 years behind virtually, with communications technology genrally being “Miss Marple” to the rest of world's “CSI”.

This sort of geographic isolation and emptiness means that there is a dearth of modern technology here as nobody was able to defend the business case (until recently). When I had a fax line installed, it took three men over a day to string the new cables across the countryside from the access box about 3 miles away in the next village – all for the bargain price of BT's regulated fee of £99 at the time. I do however possess what must be one of the few ISDN video conferencing systems in the county, cows and sheep tend not to use them because the buttons are too small for their hooves and cleats, and the farmers just shout louder at each other after a good “dagging” session.

However, one of the biggest excitements (yes, I have finally got there) is that Broadband finally arrived and we got hooked up to a 1Mbps service so my emails now arrive much faster than before. The kids can also now enjoy online gaming with XBox and PS2, and learn new words from various Beavis' and Buttheads around the world. Of course, this all means very little to the outside world, but the lights of the cyber-culture just came on a bit brighter in this windy out of the way place.

The arrival of broadband has given me the excuse of finally solve one of my domestic technical challenges, that of getting the network throughout the house. In some places the walls are over 27inches thick and made of stone and well nigh impossible to drill so structured cabling is out. Being a stunted H-shape, there are usually quite a few feet of stone by line of sight between any two points in the house which also creates wireless challenges. Voice comms by using wireless DECT phones works OK (with a repeater), but WiFi just doesn't cut it – three networks down and counting.

I was therefore very impressed to discover PLC technology (based on the Homeplug standard) which links the Ethernet network over the power cables (originally 14Mbps, now 85MBbps and beyond) – quite adequate for piping Broadband connectivity. Bearing in mind the typical complexity of any networking solution, this just works with stunning simplicity straight out of the box!

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