23 October 2006

The Media and Science...

Heard at the end of a BBC Oxford traffic announcement while driving down from a weekend in Edinburgh (more on that soon):

Scientists say eating a Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of Alzheimers Disease; for the truth, we speak with a nutritionist.

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18 October 2006

Once a monopoly....

There is a big brouhaha going on around the blogosphere about Microsoft's new EULA (license agreement) for Windows Vista. The basic issue is that a user license (not an OEM license which is even more highly restricted) will no longer allow you to transfer the license as you see fit. You will have just one opportunity to move the license to another machine after de-activating it on the original machine it is installed on. Thereafter you have to buy another.

Credit to Paul Thurrott (who originally said it wasn't a big deal) for giving space to Koroush Ghazi who has written an excellent rebuttal of why the new EULA is actually very unreasonable and will hurt the very people that are some of Microsoft's biggest customers (and fans).

Ars Technica has posted an article on the subject too with it's usual impartiality, though I think it's being a little trusting when assuming that just because Microsoft didn't enforce some of the restrictions with XP, that it won't enforce some of them with Vista. As usual, the comments to the Ars story give a good idea about what the majority think. When the comments are 90% plus against something, perhaps it's time to take notice!

My impression is that it will hurt a lot of enthusiasts who build their own machines, as well as those who use one or more Windows environments in a virtual setup. That will include some Mac users too who wish to use either BootCamp or solutions such as Parallels to run one or more Windows environments.

Could they have done it differently? Well, yes, of course they could. It seems to me a much fairer choice would be to allow people to deauthorise a computer and then re-authorise another as many times as you wanted (within reason). That's the way the iTunes Store works.

For someone to pay good money for a software license and have it limited to only running on the next 2 computers they own (and reduce that to just one if you have a catastrophic hardware failure) seems like the Microsoft of old - taking its customers for granted. I know of no other software company that would impose such a limit on retail software. Shame on you Microsoft.

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13 October 2006

How (not) to fix Airbus

As a European (and an ex-plane spotter!) it is sad to see the situation that Airbus has found itself in lately. It managed to take the talent of wilting country civil aerospace programmes and show that such talent with reasonable investment could compete with the best. (The ongoing debate about tax breaks is too much for here, but I would argue that the US companies have benefited from effectively similar breaks at state level, and particularly through Federal defence spending).

While Boeing descended into despair with its own management failings, corruption and older aircraft, Airbus seemed to go from strength to strength - and in the process perhaps vindicating that the Chirac/French Establishment view of European industrial collaboration COULD be successful.

Now, as most of the problems appear out in the open (I hope), it's quite clear that all is not well and hasn't been for some time. The business of civil aircraft development is a tough one indeed. But success and change can only be talked about in terms of decades, not years. What is worrying however is how when problems happen governments resort to interventionist behaviour.

Read this article from the BBC to see what I mean. The focus is on Chirac (as usual) supposedly batting for the French worker, but in fact undermining efficient corporate governance which in the long run will cost the very jobs he so wants to protect. But, he's not alone. Even right wing Angela Merkel is considering the German government intervening to buy the shares from Daimler Chrysler (that will help their debt problem). And, of course, Spain is considering doubling its stake to safeguard the jobs in its own country.

Nothing of course from the UK. I come from near the main factory that builds the wing assemblies for most Airbus aircraft. They have transformed themselves from a business jet building factory to an efficient provider of leading edge (sorry for the aviation pun) wings, even as the pound has risen. There will probably be no UK government help for them (as indeed there shouldn't be). But how that must irk when their supposed colleagues are getting taxpayer subsidies to put them out of a job.

Will France ever get a government that is prepared to be honest with its population and show that it must grasp change not fight it? How long can the average French citizen really believe that massive subsidies to small contingents (farmers, state-run firms, etc) are really a good use of their taxes? I have a high regard for most French people I've met as individuals. They're not stupid, and their country has a great amount to offer the world.

But, if Chirac goes ahead with his plans and dictats, Airbus will be a weaker international competitor in a market of just two companies. That will be a waste of an opportunity that has been won by hard work and European ingenuity.

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12 October 2006

Imaginative Terrorism

While terrorism is not of course to be laughed at, I had to confess to a snicker or two as I read this story at the BBC today.

The defendant also plotted to blow up three limousines "packed" with gas cylinders and explosives in underground car parks in the UK, the court heard.

The story goes on to say how the plot was known as "the Gas Limos Project". Thus distinguishing it from the parallel "dirty bomb project". I haven't been to terrorism school myself, but I might take a guess that one of the first lessons learned should be about how to conceal your activities, and that perhaps a little more invention is required for naming projects than this?

11 October 2006

Bad Decision #2: Science Education

The second bad news story of the day was about changes to science education in the UK.

It's not often I agree with Richard Sykes, rector of my alma mater, Imperial College, but his comment was exactly my initial reaction:
"Science should inform the news agenda, not the other way round"

Is it too cynical to suggest that at least some of this thinking came about along the following lines: "How can we solve our problem of lack of science teachers?" "How about changing the curriculum so we can use all those unemployed media studies students?".

If you want to write an essay about how bad GM is, then that's for English classes. If you want to understand, that's science. The consequences of this sort of change are monumental and will only be felt by subsequent generations. We need the Royal Society and other bodies to stand up and fight such changes NOW.

Bad Decision #1: Alzheimers Drugs

News from the BBC today about the Government's refusal (via it's cost/benefit arm - NICE) to sanction the use of certain drugs in combating Alzheimer's.

I have first-hand experience of this situation, and all I can say is the reaction from one person after finally getting the treatment "I've got my husband back". Sure, it wasn't for a long time, but the benefits were tangible. The costs, at £2.50 a day, are surely trivial compared with the other costs both obvious and hidden? Indeed, subsequent costs such as attendance allowances, were way in excess of this sum. Independence and relief was given for £2.50 a day. My regret is that we didn't search this treatment out much sooner when the benefits could have been greater. Again, I have serious concerns that policy is to avoid for as long as possible producing a rational diagnosis that places costs on the system that does the diagnosis. Getting appointments at so-called "memory clinics" is a far-too-torturous process and allows the disease to progress from mild to moderate before any treatment can be attained.

Contrast this with NHS Breast Enlargement Treatment, or NHS IVF and we have I'm afraid lost sight of our priorities.

10 October 2006

Upgraded to Beta Blogger

I've just upgraded Hobsblog to try out some of the new Blogger.com features (on beta of course in usual Google style) which include a comments feed, and also categories (finally). I'll be using these and other features over the coming weeks. Do let me know any questions/comments on the changes.

The url for the dashboard is "beta.blogger" (beta blocker!). Typical Google.

05 October 2006

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

A couple of notes about Jon Stewart's The Daily Show (which, Charles, I know is on Freeview More4 - channel 13 - at 8.30pm most weekday nights, but I'd still like to be able to buy some shows from iTunes!).

Today, "scientific" research has been reported via Ars Technica proving that The Daily Show's news content is as substantive as "real news" (but also a whole lot funnier)!

Last week, Jon got the scoop with an interview with President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan! I can't imagine Tony Blair being interviewed on this, and neither would he come off as cleverly as did Musharraf. It was better and more enlightening than most other political interviews I've seen in recent years.

Do yourself a favour and watch the Monday night highlights - World Edition - from the previous week's shows! 20 minutes very well spent.


The Weather

Back when we had the scorcher in July, my blogging friend otan2 beat me to the punch with this post noting how much higher the average temperature had been for the WHOLE of July in Scotland. I commented that the England figure was slightly higher still at 3.6Celsius over normal.

August of course was a different kettle of fish entirely - a real washout and disappointment. But strangely, the average temperature in England was still above normal - though only just. Given one of the worst Augusts that I can remember, that was amazing to me.

Now the September figures are in, and once again the month was 3.2C above the normal average in England and Wales.

These are statistically massive variations, and we should be very worried indeed by the range of variation and especially that even cool wet months are warmer than typical good summer months.

While I know that this is just the English weather and doesn't get too much attention outside these shores, I'm assuming these extremes are being regularly repeated elsewhere around the globe. George Bush: How many Katrinas is it going to take for you to wake up? (or to put it in a completely different American-only context: Do you not think the negative influences of states like Iran and Venezuela would fade if America made major strides to reduce its dependence on oil?).

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Boris Johnson - Eccentric or Prat?

Those who know me, know that I am NOT a Tory - at least of the Thatcher kind. I sit somewhere in the middle ground - perhaps a ground that used to be occupied by the Lib Dems until they lost touch with reality. Neither am I a supporter of privileged private school educations - especially Eton.

So, on the surface, I should think that Boris Johnson is a complete idiot who represents the worst type of private-school delusional right wing views imaginable.

Recently, Boris has come under sustained fire for a number of "gaffes", encapsulated here in the Guardian recently.

William Hague - former Tory leader for my American friends - called him eccentric in a niceish way.

But I actually think "eccentric" is an unfair term and shows just how politically correct our politics have become, stifling debate because we won't call a spade a spade. Do we have to label people as eccentric just because they say something controversial. Boris may be eccentric, but not for much of what's he's said.

A couple of years ago, Boris was forced to eat humble pie in Liverpool after criticising the people for wallowing in "disproportionate grief" over the murder of Ken Bigley in Iraq. But, Boris was absolutely right. I am, of course, a scouser, and therefore able so say such things (another indication of our politically correct society when only a person of that group is allowed to criticise it). Liverpool is a wonderful place, and there are wonderful people there. But for too long it HAS wallowed in self-pity. It would rather receive handouts than do what it has to (I can list a few other parts of the UK similarly). I made my decision as a teenager to get the hell out of there, and I have no regrets. Score 1 to Boris.

Now, Boris also got criticised for making remarks about that wonderful pillar of the establishment, Jamie Oliver. So much so, that the Tories were forced into allocating time at their conference to introduce an emergency motion praising Mr Oliver. Whether you support Jamie's school dinners campaign or not (is there ANYONE who is against in an argument that goes something like "would you like good, wholesome school dinners, or crap?"), one can't help thinking that Mr Oliver's own self-publicity had just a little to do with the whole scheme. The people who should be praised are those who have fought unsung for such changes since times when Jamie Oliver was himself still at school. But who are, of course, ignored by the very media who will only give the airtime to a celebrity.

Politics needs Boris Johnson like it needs Tony Benn, Tam Dalyell, and, dare I say it, Anne Widdecomble to name a few. Heh, maybe even that dour Jack Straw could make it into that group if he continues to say what needs to be said.

And, I'll take the Tories more seriously when they don't resort to spin to protect the reputation of a celebrity who is quite capable of looking after himself.

Boris, I'm not going to agree with you on many things, but on the prat vote, Jamie Oliver wins over you anytime. And, you may be eccentric, but not because of these things. Keep speaking out!

Too Quiet

Sorry it's been a bit quiet here. I lost the will to live a bit after Charles' last comments! (only joking - just the will to blog!). But I've been working on a Hobsblog vs Guardian riposte, and it will be here real soon. In the meantime, I've posted some views on mp3 phones - following a (dire) review of an LG model. Let me know what you think on these. Do you love your music phone? Has it replaced an iPod or similar device? How well does all the software work in terms of keeping it in sync? How well does it fit into other aspects of your life - gym usage, car usage, home usage, etc? And, have you bought music with it? If so, how was that experience?

A couple of other brief stories that have got my attention recently will also be posted shortly!

How not to make an mp3 phone...

Excellent review/case study by Joel Spolsky on his experience with an LG phone from Sprint (via Daring Fireball link).

I'm not going to say that ALL mp3 phones are as bad as this - I know they're not. But when faced with simple stats like "100million phones sold with music players built in", it's important to remember that the vast majority of them have not been bought with that as the major feature, and also that it is highly doubtful that the vast majority of such phones are regularly being used for music (or other multimedia).

Joel highlights some of the fundamental problems here - the manufacturer and the network operator with misaligned business objectives being key. While the networks are struggling to find revenues to pay off their foolish investments in 3G, others are going to come from behind and deliver a compelling mobile strategy that makes sense. The networks don't get the internet, and nor do they get media. While their thinking is focused on how to use and ringfence that network to maximise revenues, others can come along with a clean slate and deliver a mobile strategy that is integrated, affordable and genuinely compelling.

What could a company without the ties of a network operator do differently?

1. Supply a multi-network phone that worked and that didn't try to force you into using an expensive data network all the time. By this I mean a phone that automatically picked up Wi-Fi (WiMAX? and other) networks first for its default connection.
2. Provided VoIP client and IM on the phone - eg through a Skype partnership and/or the Gizmo (SIP) approach. Make it work as cheaply as possible (eg using wifi when it can), giving you the option to switch manually or automatically into higher cost networks depending on availability.
3. Easily let you manage your data connections between free and paid.
4. Supply content to the phone as part of an overall strategy of supplying content to ALL your devices.
5. Provided a number of additional services - free/ad-supported/paid that genuinely added value to the device and encouraged use - both on the device itself and on your other devices.
6. Support access to your normal email service in a synchronised way and possibly access to your data via a virtual hard disk (or vpn to a server).

Who could do all of this? Well, Nokia can today. But something seems to be stopping Nokia from completing the picture. My guess is that it is the networks themselves, who, after all, are Nokia's customers in reality (not you and me). While most of the pieces are there on current high end Nokia phones, and the reality is much better than Joel's review, things are still a bit all over the place. My phone for instance always establishes an orange data connection after being switched on (which is often the case because it switches off frequently of its own accord!) without giving me a chance to stop it. Fortunately, I don't have any apps running that take the data, but it is annoying to find a data connection active. Also, I can't turn wi-fi off and save battery. If there's a wifi network I've setup, the phone detects it when within range. Experiences with the music player and media player leave a lot to be desired.

I'm sure Sony Ericsson is up to the task too, but has the same problems as Nokia. Motorola, while making the best looking phones at this time, doesn't seem to understand UI, so I'm not sure about them.

I know which company you think I'm going to suggest, but actually you're wrong! Microsoft is the company that had most to offer in this area and had the capability to deliver it. It is far less tied in to the network operators than Nokia and the other manufacturers, it had much of the technology in place with Windows Mobile, and with all it's back end infrastructure - MSN, WindowsLive etc, probably could have delivered some compelling services (finally finding a way to monetise MSN better). And Microsoft also has/had the resources to throw money at this area. It could probably have found good partners in the network operators that are least successful, and/or piggy-backed on a good virtual network operator. In the UK for instance, could a Microsoft-BT partnership or a Microsoft-Virgin partnership not delivered a compelling mobile service? It probably wouldn't have faced huge regulatory hurdles because there is lots of competition already and a dynamic space.

Instead, Microsoft has focused on XBox, and, now on trying to hurt the iPod. It may well have defeated Sony in the games market - time will tell. But if so, I think that's more down to Sony's rash of disastrous mistakes and poor execution. By the time they land significant punches on the iPod, I think the world will have moved on.
Sure, they will no doubt be working on a Zune phone etc. and you might make the (fair) argument that they've still not worked out how to be a hardware company, but I really think this is a space they could have owned or at least muscled into a strong position next to Nokia and the like.

So that brings me to the company you first thought I was going to say! Of the other capable companies out there, only Apple has the design skills to bring all this together. But Apple doesn't have at least two things that Microsoft has. It doesn't have a phone OS. Symbian and Windows Mobile have both cost huge amounts to develop, and this is not a trivial problem to overcome. Perhaps Apple has something up their sleeves, or perhaps it will do a deal with Symbian or somebody (though that is quite un-Apple-esque).

Neither does Apple have a great services strategy. Sure, it can deliver media content and that is one of its compelling angles in this space. But in services it is WAY behind others. .Mac I find useful, but it is certainly not free and not for everyone. And, it doesn't offer many of the things that people like Yahoo, Microsoft and, of course, Google bring.

I touched on this when talking about Eric Schmidt joining Apple's board, but it is increasingly clear to me that Apple's next push will be into the mobile space and that it will do this with Google's help. Google has a lot to gain by getting searches done on mobile devices and increasingly using its location services. To say nothing of GMail, Blogger.com, GoogleTalk, Picassa, GoogleGroups, Calendar etc. It must be frustrated that such services are not being used by mobile users more frequently. Only Google has the clout to provide many of these data services for free or at least at low-cost. It might even be able to make a dent in handset costs too - given that most people pay nothing or close to nothing for their handsets due to subsidies, this is another obstacle Apple and Google will have to overcome.

If I was a network operator, I'd be courting these guys very closely, no matter how successful I currently was. But for turnaround situations (eg Softbank in Japan who took over Vodafone's failing service) or virtual network operators (Virgin, BT), it is a no-brainer.

I used to think that Apple had no chance in this space and wouldn't try. But how things have opened up through greed and incompetence. And, Microsoft, who could have seized this easily, will as usual be playing catch up from behind by throwing money at it until their dominance is established.

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