Saturday, 24 February 2007

Vive la Diversité

Last Friday, a friend made a joke aimed at me about the French. I suddenly realised, well I have a specificity which makes me recognisable from others. Information systems are great in the fact that people from different countries, cultures, opinions can now share theirs experiences, visions, etc. without any pressure and to anybody in any country in the world. But I have to emit some concerns about the direction these world wide communications are evolving into. It seems that English language, more or less already universally accepted as the business language, is also becoming the language for people to communicate through internet chats or other ways of communication. I understand that it is useful for people speaking different languages to have a 'speaking' agreement so that conversations can take place without the need to buy a CD "learn mandarin in 3 lessons" to reply to the first question of their interlocutor, therefore a conversation can continue without any delay from consulting after each sentence the infamous foreign language CD. But the fact is that it looks like we are moving towards a sole speaking language which could soon lead people to discuss universally same topics and who then would agree on common worldwide interests which could become uniques and big (i.e. a news website would become from general agreement the world best news system and watched by most of the population, as it would be considered the best to watch, therefore leaving few variety discussed from the same topics described by minor networks). I have fears that it would achieve a sort of intellectual eugenism with people more and more lookalike in their way of communicating, having interests and developping and sharing ideas; who will lose their specificity, their uniqueness of thinking which had allowed creativity so far because of the exchange of different ideas driven by experience, culture, etc.

To illustrate this warning towards this culture lobotomisation, I believe it is essential to mark this article with comments in my native tongue as a contribution to the cultural diversity.
Je voudrais décrire mon village natal qui me semble la parfaite illustration de ce besoin de préserver notre identité. Bien que né à Arcachon, j'ai vécu toute ma jeunesse à Biscarrosse et me considère comme Landais pur souche matiné vraisemblement de Basque de part les origines de ma famille. Les Landes dont fait partie Biscarrosse doit son nom à ce que fût son paysage composé essentiellement de landes marécageuses jusqu'à ce que tout d'abord des plantations de pins furent réalisées fin XVIIIe siecle pour repousser la pénétration des dunes vers l'interieur des terres qui ensevelissaient les villages côtiers. Ensuite les plantations furent étendues à l'ensemble du departement en vue d'assainir les marécages pour donner aujourd'hui la célèbre forêt des Landes. Cette lande marécageuse était occupée majoritairement par des bergers montés sur échasses conversant en patois local. Aujourd'hui les échasses font partie du folklore local et des associations essaient de ressusciter le patois ou gascon. Entouré de grand lacs Biscarrosse fût au coeur de l'effervescence aéronautique avec l'avénement de l'hydravion en première moitié du XXe siecle réunissant des pilotes tels que Jean Mermoz ou Antoine de Saint Exupéry. Les loisirs à Biscarrosse se partagent entre tradition du rugby et l'émergence du surf. Toute cet environnement a contribué à constituer mes premiers repères et élaborer ma spécifité.

As a conclusion, it is essential that we find a right balance between a necessary uniformisation to improve the communication of the information and the preservation of our precious cultural identity to create a new breed of worldwide tribes. I believe these tribes would constitue the right fuel blending for the drive of an ingenious system to continue the drive through the journey to our technology evolution.

Friday, 23 February 2007

Hair today, gone tomorrow - will online friendships Flickr and die?

Everyone on Flickr is so damn nice. Sure enough, there are some breathtaking images on display. Absolutely worldclass stuff. But there's some pretty mundane shots too. And even the better ones could do with a tweak here and there.

In my experience real world photographers are a pretty miserly breed. Stood alone waiting for the sun to fall, you may exchange a pleasantry or two with the fellow stood beside - but there's no eye contact. You clutch your lens and face forward. That's if you have a companion. Often you haunt the sunset alone - an outcast, a wanderer questing for mysterious images - truths - with which to amaze civilisation upon your return.

There's lots of sneering in technical photography too. Lots of F-stops and apertures and shutters for one to misplace, lots of room for some scientific type to lavish you with dismissive snorts and "hahs".

Online, however, the photographer is, so Flickr leads me to believe, a breed apart. Comments crowd about your capture with praise and applause. "Great capture", "Nice one", "Cool", "Love it!!!" - with such a vocabularly and nothing more you could interact with all and never would anyone think sneer to another about your limited lexicon - let alone your F-stops.

My first assumption on visiting the page was that there'd be an awful lot of "tried too hard and f*cked the exposure - lousy work - pack it in". There is not. Of course, praise can be plentiful or it can be scarce. Perhaps the harshest comment is no comment at all.

Photography, however, seems to play second string to community on Flickr. What can one say of a community with a shared exchange of some ten words - nine if you don't count "nice", as one quite rightly should not.

My immediate reaction is to say that it will be a shortlived community at best. Imagine a real world friend with whom you often spoke. In two word couplets "great, mate". The relationship would lack a certain frisson. It is easy to look at the vast tracts of positive global whitewash and denounce Flickr as something trivial and banal. Transcedent images, washed with a stream of effluent praise, no stronger than cowgum.

This would be incorrect, however. Behind the scenes, there is more meaningful contact, in niche groups. The discussion is as much social as it is photographic. The photos are in some cases the tip of the iceberg, and it is beneath the water that groups of friends share their private thoughts as well as their public back slapping. Moreover, the photographs, as catalyst, give focus to some rather esoteric niches. Have a look if you don't believe me - maybe you have been waiting all your life to join the "Japanese Red Hunting Lizard" pool. You won't find that in the back of the Express.

At this stage you realise that not everyone on Flickr is a professional photographer (myself excepted). For others, this is not a showcase of artwork, but a diary of life. Friday nights out, Birthday parties, the mundane shared not to argue aperture, or poo-poo shutter speeds, but simply to bring their friends in this global community up to speed on what they're up to.

If they want to throw a few words of congratulations about whilst they're at it, where's the harm in that? At the end of the day, that's the point of the thing.

This great shot of Ms. Spears pre-sheers the work of, of Flickr.

Thursday, 22 February 2007

Last evening I watched a fairly dull game of football (or soccer, if you like baseball). My team got an away draw so I am quite happy. But this got me to thinking about the impact this new media world I am slowly being dragged into introduced to will have on the world’s favourite source of information and entertainment: television. Being a bit of a follower, where technology is concerned, I did not imagine the tele-media we take for granted was facing such a huge paradigm shift.

This was in part motivated by an article on blogs written in March 2005, which was one month prior to YouTube being founded and two months before News Corp bought MySpace. This article predicts that:

“Mainstream media companies will master blogs as an advertising tool and take over vast commercial stretches of the blogosphere. Over the next five years, this could well divide winners and losers in media. And in the process, mainstream media will start to look more and more like -- you guessed it -- blogs.”

Now from my point of view I have always though of television as the main method of getting information in-front of people, and thought of people who get most of their entertainment and information off the web as a niche audience of slightly quirky people (no offence intended). However, the natural follow through of this article is that we will all get lots of our entertainment and information from blogs or blog-like phenomena such as “MySpace” and “YouTube”.

The article has clearly been borne out to some extent. But I have to admit a time when the majority get their entertainment/information from blogs seems some way off. There is no doubt that this technology is being embraced in a big way. So what is the future for the BBC and ITV? Indeed do they have a future, perhaps that belongs to independent entertainers and programmers.

Given the statement that “social competence lags behind technological capability” I would imagine this is the beginning of the end for television as we know it. But at the same time it must be the start of truly global entertainment as the same programmes will be available on the web all over the world at the same time. The potential impact of which is massive for governments and programmers alike. I am not sure global un-censored television is a good thing.

So essentially what I initially thought was an interesting development in people writing diaries is actually going to change the distribution of entertainment and news beyond recognition. Best start thinking about how this will render all by current expensive gadgets obsolete!!

On the up side, I may be able to watch all my teams games live for 20p a half as Peter suggested the other week – but then will people still go to the ground?

And, as an aside, who will be winning these in the future?

Cash is for losers

Smaug would be turning in his grave. Lounging on plastic isn't too dignified a pursuit. But if the Economist is to be believed, the days of horded coins and the pleasing weight of wealth may soon be over.

Imagine - you are stood at the till, with any item costing £1. Would you rather pay just 97p? A saving of 3p - the sort of thing I like. What if by adding a penny sweet to your bill, you could reduce the total cost to 2p? A saving of 98p.

I hope you'd agree that option 1 (cost £1) is the least attractive. If you're the sort of chap who pays cash, this is your only option.

With an American Express or Morgan Stanley Platinum card, you'd only be paying 97p though, thanks to their 3% cash back. With a Lloyds VISA debit card with "save the change", your £1.01 of purchase will only cost you 2p. They'll round it up to £2.00, pay your 99p into a savings account and match it with an extra 99p (until 31 March). Something of a windfall if you're skilled with a fuel pump.

The basic fact, hammered home by Natwest with their "the penny's dropped" campaign in recent months, is that cash seems less attractive than electronic alternatives. And that's now. Scroll things on a couple of years and it will become even more so.

The Economist (17th February), their wonderful cover lavished upon left, conduct a lively review of the history and probable demise of cash.

Payment with mobile phones, or "wave and pay" cards or "smart cards", along the lines of Oyster, is cheaper and quicker. It doesn't fill your pockets with deadweight copper. It's also proven technology, in daily use the USA and Japan, where smart card operator Edy processes 15m transactions every month.

If you're a Londoner you will soon be able to do so yourself with the "Squid" card - an Oyster for convenience stores. Like payment through mobile phones, this instant electronic transaction does away with a retailer's need to carry a cash float. Japanese retailers are offering discounts to incentivise electronic payment.

So electronic payment - whether through a phone or a card - is faster, more convenient and saves you money. Why wouldn't you convert?

It's a stark question for a chap working in the ATM industry. People pay a surcharge to withdraw their cash from our ATMs, as it is more convenient than finding a free machine to use. Convenience is king. This is the real worry - as well as cheaper and faster, the alternatives to cash are much more convenient.

It's a problem faced universally by industries that rely upon the real world physics of trading matter. If someone else can offer the essential same or more whilst largely defying physics - by side-stepping those real world rules and limitations - it may be time to get those share options out of the draw.

The Economist rightly points to one advantage cash retains - anonymity. I've heard stories of shops where people buy photographic nudes. Though I've never seen one myself, I'd imagine those shopping at one of these places might chose a method of payment which will ensure the transaction is not logged against their name, address, etc.

In the mucky, twilight world of vice and crime, perhaps cash will rule on - King of the Underworld.

For the Economist story:

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Benevolent dictator

It's Sunday night outside a Blackpool Tesco Express, and my girlfriend has refused to get out of the car. She's not happy, but it's a compromise - I'll go to the pub quiz with her, so long as we can go via Tesco. Not to make a purchase, but for a few goes on a lucky dip where points mean prizes.

Tesco's Clubcard is a source of some suspicious mumbling in cynical quarters. The conspiracy theorists shake their heads dolefully as, for a few pennys savings, we offer up the contents of our baskets to the scrutiny of the Corporation's evil quants. Such is the suspicion of some, that they will not sign their souls over. Their unclaimed points, recorded in barcode at the bases of their receipts, haunt it even after death.

For those willing to trawl about the car park peeling waterlogged receipts from the tarmac, or fish crumpled tallies from the bin, these points may be resurrected and claimed against one's own account. I am one such unfortunate addictee.

Pity then the computer or technician charged with decoding my purchase history. Some weeks my grocery bill will stretch into the thousands. I think my best haul was over 1200 points - £1,200 spent on groceries in Blackpool, Norwich and Edinburgh, in a week. Though I don't smoke, some weeks I'll appear to spend a sudden £100 on tobacco, without any brand loyalty (no points on this, we note). Two cars are insured against our Clubcard account, both unleaded - yet some month's the two of us buy hundreds of litres of diesel.

You can imagine the wild fluctuations in product choice and spend as it appears on their systems. My point is not to boast about the £50 pounds or so I make each year by sifting through other people's rubbish (though it's interesting to note that on a crude pence/hour basis I'm better doing so on Tesco's car park than I would on a Guatemalan landfill). The point is that unless their tyrannical software fuelled strategy to rule the world isn't as efficient as we're led to believe, they must surely be aware of my sordid games.

Why would they let it continue, then?

Well, I suppose that for all the obfuscation, my core purchases could be deduced with reasonable certainty. All the peripheral noise of other people's discarded chicken drumsticks easily filtered away to expose that 2 pint full-fat organic milk that trundles the rubber week on week.

And that noise does reveal on additional fact - that I am so bargain obsessed that I'll hit the bins - even as they scalp me for an extra 30p on that organic milk. No doubt that amuses someone with an MK postcode. Perhaps they scalp me for enough 30ps on organic this and thats that I'm profitable enough for them not to risk offending me by confronting my post-transaction kleptomania.

Perhaps, when they rule the world, they will be a benevolent dictator. Offer Clubcard points on the executioners bullets and the like, when the greiving kin are billed.

Seeing beyond blind

Californian technology company Second Sight has created a revolutionary piece of technology able to give blind people the power of sight.

As shown above, a chip, light signals are translated by first camera, then implanted chip, into impulses the brain can understand. Whilst at present the quality of image produced is sufficient for a blind person to navigate their way through a building, in the future the technology should give enough clarity for recognition of individual faces.

Trials for the latest iteration of the "Argus" has just been given FDA approval, which if successful could see the device on the market two years from now, at a probable cost of around £15,000. If this price cannot be driven down, accusations will no doubt be levelled of exploiting the vulnerable, tempting them with snake oil (albeit functional snake oil), and so forth.

One target market will be the over 75s, of whom 15% suffer from the macular degeneration this device overcomes. With all the cynical takes on pension shortfalls and equity release in the press at the moment, one suspects that pitching the high ticket treatment to the elderly and generally short on cash may generate increased controversy.

Perhaps the uniquely appealing functionality - giving the gift of sight - will prove enough to overcome suspicisions, but will this elderly segment be keen to adopt cutting edge cybernetic technology? Our cash machine business has trouble encouraging this segment to use our ATMs, hardly a recent innovation!

Leading the charge to Main Street may be a big ask of those who are traditionally unwilling to adopt.

The BBC give a good summary at, whilst inventor Second Sight offers greater detail, with little corporate spin, at The Telegraph also gives coverage at, and was the source of the image above.

Sunday, 18 February 2007

Return of the Geek

From the time of the Z1 computer conception in 1936 (see picture) to the daily use of the internet in 2007, seventy one years have passed with an extreme development of information technology. Today, web 2.0 is conquering the internet with websites such as wikipedia, youtube and others flickr, which provide a network of shared information accessible by everybody. Also constantly updated softwares are used for applications as diverse as car assembly, plane flying or even writing a letter. These information systems have considerably modified our lifestyles and it would be difficult now to live in this modern world without a basic knowledge of their use. Who has not noticed the evolution of the employment in the UK or other western countries where demand for IT specialists is increasing considerably (IT sales executives, IT startegy consultants, IT support specialists, IT project engineers,... have a look on a job search website, type 'IT' for keyword and there they are!!!). On the other hand traditional heavy industries are disapperaing from our landscapes, being de-localised to countries offering cheaper labour. Chimneys and red brick buidings have been replaced by nice glass bubble's IT desks.
The counter effect of the today situation is the concern for people over 30 years old like me who have difficulties to catch up with this revolution. Former IT geek in the beginning of the 80's, programming in basic, pascal, I was on top of the game, knowing everything about the sinclair ZX 81 with its 1K ram to the revolution of the apple IIc and macintosh while enjoying top games on a commodre 64 (any nostalgic also remembering them?). It has been a mere 20 years gap from this period to nowadays for me to fall from specialist to this status of total ignorant.
Manchester BS MIS course has shaken me up and I realised how disconnected I am now. What if I don't want to or cannot re-plug myself, what for the other people like me? We are already talking about web 3.0 (see John Markoff article on the New York Times) while I am just discovering web 2.0, can't they leave me breath a little bit, trying to technologically re-surface? Why no regular updated on-line instructions are available on the internet to follow-up? Please give a chance for the return of the geek before the web 3.0 strikes back!

I thought we created the machine adapted to human need but now what I want is to be adapted to the machine!

Where all is this going, what is the purpose of this technology evolution if people cannot follow, maybe it is time for alternative technology to appear.