Archive for the ‘Miscellany’ Category

I noticed on Twitter that many people are not happy by the lack of trains from the south coast into Waterloo Station over Easter, and thought the pictures contained in this post might be of interest explaining why the rail service is so poor.

It turns out that in this case “rail replacement service” is literally apt. The bridge shown in the photos below might appear innocuous and no different from the dozens of similar railway bridges we drive and walk under every day, but this one is the source of this weekend’s disruption for the very simple reason that it’s not been there this weekend.

Here’s the current state of the bridge on Easter Sunday 2012, first from the Lovelace Road side of the bridge looking into Surbiton:

And these from the Surbiton side looking the other direction:

The bridge has been in a deteriorating state for some time and has been receiving increasingly frequent patch-up jobs in the last few years. Looking up at the underside of the bridge, it’s been disturbing to see big patches of sky showing through and parts of the rails literally suspended in mid-air. Finally it seems even patch-up work is no longer sufficient and a longer-term solution is needed, which is what this weekend’s work is about. As well as rail replacement, it’s a total bridge replacement service.

Here’s some pictures from the past of the bridge before this Easter’s work:

During previous restoration work in 2009:

Surbiton Railway Bridge closure - view into Surbiton

During the snowfall in December 2010:

Snow in Surbiton - December 2010

Condition of the underside of the bridge:

Surbiton Railway Bridge - underside

The position makes this a particularly awkward bridge to replace: it’s just outside of Surbiton Station, and is the only way for trains to continue travelling south. Take it out and trains can go no further (and because of the places where trains can be turned around, it means that Wimbledon is really the furthest out of London they can come, although local loop lines to Teddington Wick, Dorking and Dorking can still come out as far as Raynes Park and New Malden.)

A planned bridge replacement can be done (they hope!) in four days over the long Easter weekend, whereas an unscheduled closure for a structural failure could wipe out the service for a month or more, so rail commuters have much to thank National Rail for in this case. Whereas motorists come out of it particularly badly, with the road under the bridge closed for 3-4 weeks to allow for the preparation and follow-up work that needs to be done. It’s no minor road either: it’s the A243, the main link from the M25 through to Chessington, Surbiton and Kingston-upon-Thames.

Closing the road also means the buses are suspended, which is a genuine concern to the many elderly and handicapped residents in the area for whom the bus service is a literal lifeline. Some of the buses are diverted through sideroads in the area, but then there is the issue of (a) finding out where they go, and (b) persuading the bus drivers that they should actually stop while on diversion – some have contrary feelings on this point.

Here’s the nearest alternative route, under the railway bridge that runs over St Mary’s Road:

And then there is the issue of pedestrians: on the Upper Brighton Road side of the bridge, a five minute walk to the local Sainsbury’s becomes a 20-minute-plus detour even for a relatively able-bodied person. To their credit, National Rail have limited the closure of pedestrian access to just five days over Easter during the period when the bridge is literally being replaced and when the overhead work makes it genuinely impossible to allow anyone through.

[There’s a ‘bus service’ for pedestrians advertised, but it turned out to be one 13-seat mini-bus running an hourly service only. Considering you’d normally get a dozen people walking this way every 5 minutes, I think you can label this “the very least they could do” in every sense, and strictly for the most disabled groups – although how the disabled and elderly could stand around (no seats provided) for an hour waiting for the service is another question entirely.]

Even so, it’s an interesting psychological effect that the whole thing has as a result. The empty A243 – usually full of traffic at most hours of the day – has that unearthly silent feel that you associated with end-of-the-world scenes like the start of 28 Days Later… Similarly the lack of trains is rather spooky; and the inability to get to the local shops or into London without taking a long detour also has a peculiarly isolating effect.

That brings out the bloody-minded streak in me, and I’ve found myself going out of my way (literally!) to get to the other side of the railway tracks over Easter, more than I would likely have done over a similar period when the road was open on a normal weekend. Today’s excuse was to take the pictures to take here (which my brain insisted had to show both sides of the bridge for the sake of the public record.) And I threw in the purchase of a Sunday paper while I was round there, just to make it feel even more worthwhile.

Hopefully the railway line will be open on time on Tuesday morning for the resumption of the commuter peak time rush, and the pedestrian access along with it. Even so, it’s estimated to be another two weeks or so before the work completely finishes, the road itself reopens and life in the area around the bridge gets back to normal.

There are lots of reports today that the iPad 2 is in production and will be officially announced and in US stores soon (although the signs are that the UK will have to wait a couple of months, just as we did for the launch of the original iPad.)

Now the iPad 2 story has been picked to death by news outlets and tech blogs almost since the day after the original iPad was released, and frankly I’m sick to death of speculation about what it might or might not contain in the way of new features. It used to be accepted in computing that however long you waited, however wise you were in selecting a PC to buy, it didn’t matter: it would still be out of date the day after you finally put down the money. These days it’s even worse: the speculation about new products (and particularly Apple products) is so incessant that the product feels old hat and is yesterday’s news some six months before it even exists.

Hence now, as the iPad 2 launch finally grows near, we’re seeing stories like ReadWriteWeb’s “iPad 2.0: Can Faster, Thinner, Lighter Compete with Android Tablets?” which are taking the “oh – is that it? Is there no more?” line of disappointment.

To recap the story (which itself is similar to hundreds of others about iPad 2), it seems that – as the headline states – the new iPad will be faster, lighter and thinner; and that it will gain at least one front-facing camera for use with Apple’s Facetime video conferencing software. And, err, that’s about it. It might have slightly improved screen resolution, but it won’t be anything of the order of an upgrade to the stunning Retina-level display debuted on the iPhone 4 last July.

As the ReadWriteWeb article asks, “Where is the “wow” factor, though?” The reality has been thoroughly eclipsed by the wild speculation online for the last six months, which has been so overheated that frankly an iPad 2 that doesn’t boast artificial intelligence, come with a free jetpack and hovercar, and is altogether more capable than you are of running your life and pleasuring your partner is just going to be a bit of a damp squib.

But then, what do Apple really need to do with the iPad to make the follow-up sell like hot cakes? The answer, ironically, is: as little as possible.

A lot of people I know were very interested in the iPad when it launched last year, played with it in the Apple Store – but pointedly held off buying. “I’ll wait for the second generation model”, I heard time and again. I’m going to dub this “the Windows Mindset”, because I think it stems from peoples’ experiences with previous Windows products where the first release of anything (including some versions of Windows itself) has all too often been shockingly poor and bug-ridden, ill-developed and barely good enough to be labelled a work-in-progress.

No one in their right minds gets the first gen version of such flawed products, waiting instead for the second gen when the problems are all worked out. That way, they gain some extra, new features in the process and possibly a lower price to boot. (However, anyone holding off the original iPad expecting prices to go down over time doesn’t know Apple at all: the company sees itself as a premium product retailer and doesn’t discount or drop prices, until a given model stops being at the “top” of the line and is downgraded to a budget position while a new model takes up the top price spot.)

But I think with Apple, that “Windows Mindset” is irrelevant. Apple’s products these days seem to be good to go and pretty much flawless from the very first generation. Even the very first iPhone remains serviceable and problem-free to this day, and my own iPhone 3G (the second gen) is absolutely perfect for my needs despite its relative age. In fact, strangely enough it’s not the older iPhones that have been problematic but the most recent iPhone 4 that’s had all the issues and which I still wouldn’t personally buy as a result.

As far as I’m concerned, Apple certainly nailed the iPad concept right from the start, but then they had to – failing to make the iPad a huge hit from its very start would have killed the entire tablet concept stone dead and left the company with a Newton-shaped hole in their accounts. The iPad had to be perfect and glitch-free from the get-go, and … It was. (There were a few early software issues with wifi connectivity at the start but these were quickly fixed; I’m not aware of any hardware problems in the range whatsoever.) Compare that to the other manufacturers like Samsung or those using the Android OS who are having to scramble to get into the market after the iPad’s success, and who have ended up fielding typical flawed first gen tablets in line with the “Windows Mindset”.

So those people who held off on getting the original iPad because of potential flaws have been thwarted – they could have bought nine months ago with peace of mind, it turns out. The only thing now that stops them from buying is the fact that the first generation is genuinely approaching end of life as a premium product, and the iPad 2 is nigh. Who wants something that looks so 2010 when the 2011 model is upon us? In other words: Apple could pretty much bring out the same product again, whack a ‘2’ on it in white correction fluid, and they’d still unlock that huge potential market of people who have been waiting for months and kicking themselves for their caution.

Given that Apple really doesn’t have to do that much to get the delayed first-time purchasers and the eager second-time upgraders to shell out their cash for any new model they put out, it’s no wonder that they’re sticking with pretty much low-key tinkering around the edges: “thinner and lighter” addresses one of the few criticisms of the original iPad made last year; “faster” is mandatory for any new computer product. And the camera is really only there because Apple are pushing Facetime as an international standard in order to dominate the video conferencing market; it’s already on the latest iPhone and iPod Touch, and also available on the Mac computer ranges, so it’s important for the growth of Facetime that iPad users now swell the ranks. Hence the camera addition – it’s about Apple’s ambitions for Facetime, not about the iPad.

But beyond that, why should Apple do any more? For one thing, it presumably leaves them with more ideas and potential left over that they can start planning to add to the functionality of iPad 3, rumours about which you should be able to start reading within minutes of iPad 2 going on sale. (I sometimes think that Apple use the internet blogs and forum speculation as a useful arm of their R&D department to generate new ideas to pursue – in which case, if they do, good on them. Listening to customers and delivering at and above their expectations is what makes a successful company.) For another, if any iPad 2 is already likely to be a sell-out, then why even try and over-excite demand when there is no hope of the supply chain being able to meet it for months to come? You’ll only frustrate potential buyers and possibly drive them into the arms of other manufacturers that way.

Another reason for not wanting to fiddle with the iPad too much at this point is that sticking with the basic model and just tinkering around the edges will exude an overwhelming confidence in the product: “Yes, it’s so good, why mess with it? It’s a winner, tried and tested and proven, all but perfect – come on in, the water’s fine.” It’s reassuring to potential buyers to see a manufacturer serene and confident in their product to the point of smugness, whereas too much tinkering can give the impression of insecurity, of basic problems, or just that any buyer is going to find their purchase out of date in five seconds because of the latest tweak.

In fact Apple’s only potential problem is if they really can’t actually think of any way of improving it in the future, if they can’t think of any more features to add to later iPad models. And the creative well does go dry at times, even for Apple. The development of iPod range, for example, is looking like being reduced to shuffling round the colours and bumping up the memory chips because there’s not much else you can do to them now; the iPhone 4 also lacked any big new ideas and indeed many of its well-publicised problems (antenna-gate; the failure-to-fly of the white model; problems with the all-glass case) seem to be the result of having to push things too far, too soon just to be able to come up with something that could go on the press releases boasting the all-important new features critical to moving units of any new retail product.

But Apple’s problem is that the iPhone as it stands is pretty much perfect, at least as perfect as the current state of technology allows and in accordance with people’s actual requirements of a mobile smartphone. It will take a seismic shift in thinking to produce something genuinely new to simulate a whole new growth spurt – as big a shift as the one the original iPhone itself wrought on the mobile phone handset market. Does anyone have any genuinely new ideas, or have we restored equilibrium for now?

The iPad didn’t so much create a seismic shift as magic a completely new market out of thin air. The iPad now defines the tablet market; and it did so by delivering everything that people wanted out of such a device, even if they didn’t know it before they saw it. But if the iPad already does everything, and near-perfectly at that, then where does it go from here other than the odd new feature and refinement of form factor and newer chips that allow older models to be slowly dropped from support by later releases of iOS and apps to cajole people to upgrade eventually?

That’s already the reason why, when the “faster, thinner, lighter” and camera-enabled new iPad comes out, I won’t be buying – for the very simple reason that I love my current iPad and there’s no improvement I need to it. But hopefully those hold-outs who recoiled from buying a first gen product will be lining up at the checkouts and joining the club, and that’ll do very nicely for Apple’s corporate accounts in 2011.

The iPad 2 may turn out to be “the very least Apple can do” in a second generation product, but that’s likely to be more than enough.

I’m long overdue a first post of the new year, so even though I don’t have much to write about at the moment, here goes.

The last few weeks – almost a month – seem to have been an unusually long cumulative break from the norms of reality. Somehow – despite the shops generously giving us three months’ warning with in-store displays – Christmas nonetheless caught me by surprise, suddenly appearing on the near-horizon and sending me into a major meltdown of preparation and holiday planning which seemed to take over my days completely.

I’m tempted to say “I don’t know how I ever managed to prepare for Christmas when I had a job, because it’s difficult enough even without one and with all that spare time”. But in fact I know just how I managed in previous years: by taking a whole week (or more) off work to just knuckle down to it. In other words, even in previous years I never got the hang of combining the two successfully. In that failure to multitask, I am clearly quite typically male.

Also in previous years, I’ve had a tendency to “spend my way out of trouble” when time has got too short, and this year – while money is far from a problem – I was determined not to do that and stick to “austerity” mode as far as possible. Just to handicap the whole process. Needless to say, that resolution lasted right up till the moment when time started to get too short …

Things weren’t helped by that amazing run of winter weather we had, where every day’s plans became subject to late delays and cancellations depending on exactly how much snow had fallen or ice had formed, and the capabilities of the nation’s public transport and road systems to cope. I’m not afraid to admit that I’m not good with ice underfoot: there were days when I opted to stay indoors and hunker down rather than risk setting foot outside and taking a potentially disastrous tumble.

Partly as a result of this caution, at least this year I didn’t do what I did 12 months ago and put my back out. I’d just done all my Christmas shopping preparations in 2009 when I managed to move awkwardly and absolutely disable myself for three days during which getting up and walking was impossible, and then gradually it got better over the following few days, but if I hadn’t already been ahead of schedule then Christmas would have been well and truly cancelled. It was just one of those weird, out-of-the-blue things – I’ve not had any similar back problems before or since, although it’s fair to say I’ve been rather careful ever since to make sure I don’t do anything so stupid again.

Then there was Christmas itself. In previous years I’ve been working – I tended to be among those who took on the ‘skeleton shift’ that come in over the Christmas/New Year, so that the holiday spots were freed up for those with young families. I actually always rather enjoyed working during this period, since the buses, trains, streets and offices were ghostly quiet, there was precious little work actually possible other than minding the phones and the email lines, so it was really quite restful in the “change is as good as a rest” sense. And then I’d take a week off in January instead.

That did mean that I haven’t spent Christmas Day itself with my dad and family in Southend-on-Sea for some ten years, since working on Christmas Eve and then back in immediately after the Boxing Day holiday cut everything too tight, and the capitulation of public transport meant getting places in time before the great Christmas shutdown never worked out. This year, however, I had no such constraints and was able to spend five days with the extended family before briefly coming back home, and then heading back down there for a family 60th birthday celebration, and then charging straight back to Surrey for New Year’s. It was all rather packed, busy, and full-on, the sort of Christmas that I would have found impossible to cope with if I’d been back into the office straight afterwards. Not having any work duties is really quite liberating, and now I was able to look forward to a few days of peace and quiet and “r and r” to allow me to recharge.

Which of course is when the ‘flu hit. Just about everyone’s had it, or knows someone who did, and certainly it seemed that everyone in Southend was either recovering, suffering or coming down with something, and I rather feared that I would be next in line. Sure enough I was, and the second day of the new year I was feeling pretty dreadful.

Actually from the stories of others, I got away very lightly – ‘flu-lite, and I’m really not complaining. There were only a couple of days where I was literally unable to get out of bed, and otherwise I just felt pretty grotty. It was bad enough that, if I had still been at work, then I would definitely have ended up taking the first three days off on sick leave; and then on the Friday I would got up feeling rather brighter, resolved to go to work … And made it all the way to the railway station before finding myself feeling so unwell that I had to turn around and go home again after all.

Finally this weekend I was feeling a lot more sustainably human: unfortunately the cold/’flu has left me with the nasty hacking cough that seems to be a trademark of everyone who has been afflicted with this particular ‘flu strain that is still persisting and proving incredibly annoying and tiring. While I’d have been back at work this week, I suspect a lot of my colleagues would have been less than delighted about having me around and gently hinting “why don’t you GO AND WORK AT HOME OR SOMETHING” in more or less subtle terms.

So it’s been a busy and rather odd month; a bit of a total break from reality thanks to that combination of activities. I feel I’ve rather derailed myself from all my good intentions, and that I should be doing all sorts of things but that I can’t quite get into gear. I have at least got around to upgrading my Mac OS software to ‘Snow Leopard’, which I had put off as non-essential right up to the moment when the new Mac App Store opened last week and demanded all Mac Acolytes immediately upgrade to 10.6.6. As I owned the upgrade already, and as Mac OS updates are absurdly simple and drama-free, this was not exactly a major task.

Partly it’s still feeling under the weather and really rather tired; it’s also a rather fallow time of the year where the motor sports freelance writing that I am contracted to do won’t kick off for another few weeks. But I can’t decide whether I should be using this time constructively to get on with something unspecified, or whether actually it’s an opportunity to read some books and watch some DVDs that I always intended to but which – quite genuinely – I don’t seem to have had the time for in November and December.

Having at least made a good faith first gesture by writing this blog post, I’m off to consider this. Or to be more accurate: I’m off to spend half an hour hacking and coughing, followed by a good 15 minutes of self-pitying groaning and moaning, to the accompaniment or a nice hot cup of tea and some doses of cough medicine that may, if I’m really lucky, add to my doped-up feeling and send me drifting off to lah-lah land.

A new home for BIS

Okay, another of my periodic attempts to shake this blog out of its slumber with a promise of a couple of finely crafted but exquisitely short entries per week.

The main reason for not having posted much last month is simply the amount of work: it’s a busy time at the moment, with the usual pressure of end-of-year supplemented this year by an unusual number of high profile changes in government organisations shutting down, setting up or reconfiguring, such as the old Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) becoming QCDA and Ofqual on April 1. Plus of course there’s the small matter of the imminent general election to factor in to everything.

So it seemed appropriate to start this blog reboot with a story in that vein – the launch of the new, integrated site of the Department of Business, Innovation of Skills. For the last few months, the BIS website has been a small front-end stop-gap site trying valiantly to pull together the legacy websites of the old BERR and DIUS departments from which it was created last October. But today sees the soft launch of the real deal – a properly integrated website at last.

What’s particularly notable is the amount of “behind the scenes” information that BIS are making available behind this, in an effort to be genuinely transparent and open about the whole project. There’s Neil Williams’ blog post about the launch (and while you’re there, check out his posts on the perfect Fantasy CMS for government and the perfect page, the former partly inspired by a post by David Pullinger on the COI Digigov blog).

Then there’s Steph Gray’s quick round up over on his Helpful Technology blog (and it’s worth catching up on his earlier post on WordPress and consultations from February, too) together with Simon Dickson’s lament for the passing of the interim site built at speed in WordPress and which did a great job filling in. As Simon points out, that experience will be in valuable in future; indeed, one of my clients has already been using a very similar approach to bridge a gap between intranet systems.

Perhaps the best thing about the BIS relaunch though is the amount of behind-the-web-scenes information that BIS are making available on the site itself – the results of user insight research, information on set-up and running costs and usage of the site, not to mention direct access to the website traffic data via Google Analytics’ API. There’s even a community-powered support site for reporting any problems you might find and for suggesting improvements.

Oh, and the site built on top of this looks pretty nice at the end of it, too!

New BIS website homepage

Mouse traps

So this weekend I finally managed to get my hands on one of those new-fangled Magic Mouse devices from the local Apple Store. They were announced a couple of weeks ago but have been slow appearing in the wild: but this weekend, finally, there were mice to behold and purchase.

Now I should say that I’m not usually the type of person to rush out and get the latest gadget – even the latest Apple gadget – just for the hell of it when it’s released. I was about 18 months late getting an iPhone, for example. But seeing how I also went out and got a new iPod nano the minute I could, I realise that my protestations of not being a new gadget whore appear rather weaker than they might have done previously.

So I’ll try and explain my reasoning and rationale.

Have you ever used the Mighty Mouse, the Magic’s predecessor? (The name change is the result of a copyright infringement court case that went against Apple, by the way.) One of its features is the little “nipple” scroll wheel, which – like all things Apple – is quite beautiful and aesthetically done, but tragically flawed in the pragmatism stakes.

Put simply, the “nipple” wheel gets gunged up very easily. Okay, most scroll wheels on mice do, but here you have Apple a little too in love with the beauty of its products and not wanting to ruin it with anything crass – such as a way of getting into the “nipple” wheel compartment to clean it out. instead you have to make the most of what you can do with paperclips and Sellotape to clean it out, which is a hassle, hard work – and doesn’t work for long.

The Magic Mouse does away with this problem by … doing away with the scroll wheel entirely. Instead, the upper body of the mouse is touch sensitive like a trackpad or an iPhone, and stroking a finger up and down (or left or right or in circles if you’re so inclined) will scroll the window on screen. Sounds good? Well, in practice it’s even better – it’s scrolling as it should always be done. And no more gunging up the “nipple” wheel ever again. Bliss!

The other selling point for me was that the Magic Mouse boasts an improved “laser precision” optical tracking system. For some reason, all the mice (PC as well as Apple) I’ve tried on my desk surfaces end up suddenly shooting off in same random direction, and after a while it gets seriously irritating. It’s the kind of torture they should use in interrogations if they want to drive someone psychotic. So I took a gamble and hoped that this new laser tracking system on the Magic Mouse would fix this. And you know what? It has. Perfectly.

On the flipside, the concern I had in getting the Magic Mouse was that the side profile is very, very low. It looks immediately as though it’s going to be an ergonomics disaster and cripple users within a single sitting. Apple don’t have a very good track record with making ergonomic mice for some reason, and I particularly remember the original iMac’s “hockey puck mouse” as being the worst such device I’ve ever tried, literally unusable. It drove me to buying a Microsoft mouse in replacement, it was that bad!

So it was with some trepidation that I tried thr Magic Mouse in store, decided it didn’t feel at all bad, and decided to risk it nonetheless. But how would it feel after two days of use?

Surprisingly – pretty good. No problems at all. In fact, better and more comfortable than the previous Mighty Mouse. The low profile meant that my hand isn’t held arched over the hump so much, which means that raising fingers to scroll on the surface (rather than on a scroll wheel) feels perfectly comfortable. I’m not saying it’s going to win any ergonomic awards, but I can see that it’s been shaped as it has to do its best in this area even if aesthetics still reign supreme as they always do with Apple.

The biggest different is probably the fact that you can choose how to hold the device – your positioning isn’t determined by where your finger has to fall on the scroll wheel, because you can scroll on any part of the mouse’s top surface. It’s a small distinction but one that makes a big different in comfort.

And in some minor, miscellaneous points about the Mighty Mouse, I’ll add that it feels far more solid and high quality that its predecessor (the added weight is thanks to the batteries – more of which in a minute), and putting the Mighty and Magic Mice side by side suddenly makes you realise that the Mighty Mouse is dumpy, frumpy and old by comparison with the sleek sportscar model that replaces it.

But there has to be at least one downside to all his, right? For me, it comes in the form of Bluetooth: the Mighty Mouse only comes in a wireless version, since obviously sticking on a cable for a USB version of the mouse would offend the beautiful lines of the product and have the Apple designers running screaming form the building, right?

I’ve never seen the problem with having a short cable from my mouse; why are people so obsessed with wireless mice and keyboards? I start obsessing over the battery life of these things and then I get all anal about turning them off when not in use to make the batteries last longer, as opposed to their nice, perfectly behaved cabled counterparts that turn off when the computer turns off. And Bluetooth devices do strange things when you try and turn them off; all of a sudden your sleeping computer wakes up, startled, wondering where its little buddy has disappeared to. “Connection lost!” it insists on waking up the screen to tell you. “Yes, I know, I pressed the ‘off’ button” I have to tell it, before putting it back to sleep, hoping it doesn’t have a second or third anxiety attack that wakes it up again. I’ve never known people with half the separation anxiety disorders of Bluetooth-enabled computers.

Seriously, I’d rather just have a cable. But the cable version of the Magic Mouse doesn’t exist; or rather, it does – it’s a renamed but otherwise identical Mighty Mouse. In the world of Apple, you can have your Magic Mouse anyway you like it, as long as it’s (a) Bluetooth and (b) solid white.

But I guess that’s a minor quibble. Slightly more important is my hope that over the longer term, the mouse doesn’t leave me crippled with RSI. While the signs are good so far, I’ll let you know if there’s any change; although such a blog post would of course be slow coming, as it would have to be typed one-handed…

Been ages since I’ve done a blog post, which is doubly annoying as I’ve been meaning to write a quick review/recommendation of the film “Moon” for a week now.

“Moon” is a fantastic low-budget science fiction movie which is unfortunately getting only a limited release. That’s because it’s a grown-up piece of film-making that isn’t going to appeal to anyone who needs things to blow up or open fire every five seconds in a film. Fans of “Transformers 2” and “GI Joe” will be bored rigid by this film, in other words, and are better off staying with the blockbusters.

“Moon” instead shares its DNA with the SF films of the 60s and 70s. The one it is most compared to is “Silent Running”, a new age oddball SF film which indeed shares the themes of a lonely astronaut, left tending plants and doing maintenance among the stars with only some anthropomorphic robots for company. But cineastes can have great fun spotting a slew of other influences throught the film, with “2001” in evidence, and the slow pace of the original “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” misfire, but with the set design owing much to “Alien” while the countdown clock evoking memories of the Sean Connery “High Noon”-inspired film “Outland”.

In many ways, “Moon” most reminds me of a scuffed, dirtied version of the Gerry Anderson TV series “Space: 1999”, which also had high minded aspirations of science fiction, and was itself more “2001” than “Star Wars” which has begat the noisy, action-packed blockbusters of today.

A lot will depend on how you take to the leading man, Sam Rockwell. If you like him then you’ll love this movie; if you don’t, then – well, he’s pretty much the entire thing. He gives a beatitful, complex, intelligent and (ahem) multifaceted performance in this film, often with only a computer called GERTY voiced by Kevin Spacey to bounce off of. The film’s small cast and Amiga-style CGI FX are the only signs of a low budget for this film of high aspiration.

It’s difficult to say too much more about the film without giving away the plot. It’s not that there are shock twists and turns – to anyone who knows their SF this is actually all fairly well-traveled roads once the one big reveal is out of the way relatively early on after a mining vehicle accident. The film doesn’t rush its revealing of the plot, and there are times when you wish it would get a move on a bit, but at the same time it’s a relief that it never succumbs to the temptation to liven things up and throw in some action. The closest we get is a shambolic, messy punch-up between two of the astronauts which ends up with a lot of blood. This future hurts.

In the end, the film is interesting in the things left unresolved. There are at least four different ways to read the film, including the “it was all a dream” one; and many seemingly important plot points such as a sudden cut in a ‘live’ video transmission go unremarked upon thereafter, or why GERTY suddenly starts to help Sam find out the truth. They can be interpreted as plot holes or poor continuity – or equally, the mark of intelligent film-making that doesn’t feel the need to spell everything out for us and reckons we have a brain of our own.

It’s a lovely, refreshing view that I’ll take anytime over the cynical money-making machines that bring us the unasked-for “Night at the Museum 2” and “Transformers 2” for no reason other than the first film made a truckload of money. Do go and see it if you can, and quickly, because most of the screens are taken up showing this week’s latest blockbuster and there’s precious little space for quiet, quality films to set up shop for long.

I’ve always been just a little bit dubious and sceptical of these “grass roots”, “from the ground up”-type mashups. Do they really, genuinely happen? Can they ever achieve anything of real value, or do they just create toys for the geeks? Well, this week I saw such a mash-up evolving close up, and I admit – I’m a convert.

It started on Sunday afternoon, when the forecasters were issuing warnings of a “severe weather event” (honestly, is no corner of our daily lives free from corporate speak?) All we were seeing was a few isolated flakes, or the briefest of flurries instantly clearing up to be replaced by some glorious sunshine, which we shard with a few isolated tweets on Twitter. “Is this it?” we wondered; “Have the forecasters just been crying wolf once too often.

Then a few people in places like Cambridgeshire started reporting more sustained flurries; and the #uksnow hashtag started to appear, which I cheerfully adopted. Apparently I was one of the very early adopters, because I got a message from twitter trends aggregator twopular pronouncing me to be “among the top trend setter for trend ‘#uksnow'”. Oooh, the accolade.

And then up popped Paul Clarke who commented that it would be a good idea if these snow findings were recorded in some sort of usable format so that – if anyone fancies it – they could be mashed up with Google Maps to paint a real-time picture of the snow front’s progress.

I was sceptical that this would actually catch-on or get picked up by anyone, but I was game and started adding #uksnow KT6 1/10 to record a very light trace of snow in KT6 (Surbiton, South-West London) because it seemed like a nice idea to format posts if nothing else. And then whaddaya know, the #uksnow [Postcode] [scale out of 10] format was everywhere I looked.

The big test was whether anyone would actually take any of this spontaneously organising data and make something of it. Lo and behold, developer Ben Marsh did exactly that – creating the #uksnow Tweets mashup. And it was … very good. Really, very impressive for something thrown together on the spur of the moment. It even got a mention from the BBC on Rory Cellan-Jones’ dot.life blog. And what was really cool about this was that it had delivered a system that millions of pounds worth of space satellite was struggling to achieve: a real time picture of the progression of snow across the UK.

Since I procure web projects for a living, I couldn’t help but wonder how long a project like this would have taken to do commercially. Nothing fancy, just exactly this sort of project. I immediately envisaged hours of briefing and scoping meetings, discussions about functionality and design and interface. The procurement would easily have taken the better part of a month, and the project itself probably getting on for as long – even if anyone had found a workable solution. And yet instead, the whole thing had manifested itself – without project management, without a brief, without a client – and it had simply happened out the time and contributions of tens of thousands of people. It really was the most perfect jewel of an example of crowd-sourced mash-up potential being realised, enough to convince even the most hardened sceptic (as I had been) of its true benefits.

As a follow-up to this, on the Monday there was a Twitter challenge from Tom Watson MP, the Minister for Transformational Government, to reconfigure the Directgov site to carry news about school closures. He even bought a URL for the purpose, www.schoolclosures.org.uk, telling them that “if you did it for tomorrow am, you’d be heroes“. And could they do it? Well – yes they could, a feather in the cap for Directgov’s newly unveiled Innovate microsite.

Reactions to this have varied. Tom Watson himself was thrilled, Emma Mulqueeney put aside any quibbles to delight in the fact that it had simply been done, Simon Dickson gave a characteristically informative, interesting and even-handed account – and “Irish opportunist” Paul Walsh hated it.

The problem with it – compared with the #uksnow example – was that it just wasn’t organic. instead of evolving from a group of people, it had been the (admirable) work of a couple of developers in response to a Minister’s suggestion. There was no crowd-sourced information to rely on – all that could be done was to link back to the various council websites for information, so it came across as a rather unnecessary extra search engine layer which still resulted in frustration when the destination council site contained nothing more about what was going on than you already knew sitting at your keyboad 5 minutes ago.

The beauty of #uksnow was that it produced information where none was available before, and then used a Google Map mashup to deliver the results visually. But there was no new information for school closures, and it was the lack of on-the-ground information together with a centralised approach that meant School Closures lacked some of the “gee, wow” sense of the #uksnow adventure.

So why can’t we crowd-source information on school closures? Well, you can imagine how quickly that would be overrun and corrupted by hoards of school kids Twittering false information that their school was closed so that mum and dad aborted the school run. There was no such self-interest involved in mapping #uksnow, and any variations in reports quickly evened out statistically. But it’s a shame to have started a project like School Closures and then not think it through further – how to analyze the incoming tweets for frequency, reliability, contradictory reports, “trusted” accounts and the like to make it possible to gather this information from the ground and not rely on local council websites to get staff in to update their websites.

SchoolClosures.org.uk is a decent first step for Directgov’s innovate team, make no mistake – especially since it was just hours after their official unveiling. But let’s hope for some follow-through and sustained innovation on this and many other fronts, and not just quick “stunt” bursts that are quickly shelved and forgotten.

And so it’s actually happened. The American electorate did something I wasn’t sure they would be able to bring themselves to do: they put a Democrat back in the White House.

President Barack Obama – who’d have thought it, just two or three years back? Even today it feels … Unreal. A dream.

At the end of August, I wrote a post “McCain’s all-or-nothing choice” in which I discussed John McCain’s campaign and his selection of Vice Presidential candidate. I really did think it would be the critical moment of the campaign, and while conceding that “after things settle down and she starts campaigning, this may yet prove to be an inspired choice that wins the Republicans a third term” I decided that, in my view that day, the selection was “overkill, a knee-jerk overreaction to the Obama threat, a desperate attempt to overcompensate but which instead does far more damage than the original problem.”

I stand by that, and by the view that this was the moment when John McCain lost the election. Sure, other things happened afterwards with a huge impact on the election: the collapse of the global banking system, for example, and McCain’s chicken-with-no-head response just before the presidential debates, all sent his campaign into a death spiral. But I really think it all stems from the moment he chose Palin as his running mate.

That was the point he lost faith in “the maverick” and all that he had been until then. I’ll admit, I was quite a fan of McCain back in 2000 when he was the outsider challenging Bush. What would the story of the last eight years have been like if he had pulled that off back then? He seemed decent, honourable, and full of common sense non-ideological policies. And by the start of 2008 he seemed to be back in that same groove and I was liking him better than the strident, rather obnoxious messages coming from the Democrat front runner – Hillary Clinton.

But once he won the nomination, something happened to McCain. It was almost like that was his last fight – he hadn’t expected to get past that one, and didn’t have anything left for the final push. He was out of gas. And as he ran out of momentum, so the Republican establishment machine jumped on board and hijacked his candidacy, leaving McCain looking like he was being worked on strings out front barely believing what he was now saying.

Was Palin McCain’s choice or the GOP’s? I like to think it was imposed on him, because I want to think the best of McCain: that the GOP advisors ground him down and told him that Palin was the only option, and beat all the reasons why she was the best choice into him until he felt there was no other choice. In which case I also have to confess to believing the conspiracy theory – that the GOP machine was actively intent on self-destructing the McCain candidacy in order to set up Palin 2012 for their resurrection. Only, I don’t expect they thought she would crash and burn quite so badly: by pushing her into the limelight so soon they may have made her unelectable in four years time too.

Once Palin was selected, McCain never seemed in control, and only occasionally seemed passionate about the campaign. Ironically some of his best moments were when he stood up to his own party for Obama, embarrassed by racist and ignorant comments from his own core constituency.

I’ll be honest: back in the summer I didn’t think Obama would be able to win this. I wanted Hillary to get the nomination because I felt that she had the better chance of beating the Republicans. All her dirty laundry was long in the public eye (was Obama’s?); her negatives were high, but then again they were unlikely to get any worse now (whereas would Obama’s positive ratings hold up once he was the official candidate?); she was a seasoned campaigner who would keep going remorselessly till the bitter end (could Obama?); her campaign machine was ruthlessly efficient (was Obama’s?)

Turns out that Obama didn’t have dirty laundry to emerge, despite the Republican attack machine digging for dirt with all its might; Obama’s positives not only held, but rose as he proved himself to wider audiences in the debates; and as for campaign machines, ave we ever in history see a team so inch-perfect than the one that Obama put together and which propelled him to last night’s victory?

Obama should have been an easy rival for McCain: just the experience card alone should have been decisive for him. Obama’s tendency toward cerebral, intellectual arguments should set large parts of the country against him; and yes, Obama’s skin colour should have given McCain an unassailable lead in key parts of the American heartland.

But McCain threw away the experience issue when he selected Palin – in fact he ended up with it being the GOP ticket’s Achilles Heel instead, which was quite a feat. The economic situation played perfectly into the Democrat’s hands too, as the voters – worried for their homes and their pension funds – wanted someone who looked like he knew what he was talking about, not running around waving their hands in the air in blind panic like the Wall Street traders – and McCain – were doing.

And as for skin colour … Well, there are plenty of analysts today saying that Obama’s election – and the fact that all American citizens will now be represented to the world and to the US itself by a young, black family means that the US has finally laid to rests the divisions of slavery, of Civil War, and of civil rights marches just four decades ago. Well, I’m afraid it doesn’t – large parts of the country will be as bitterly, implacably opposed to a black president now as they would have been in the 1960s.

But it’s undeniable progress. A huge leap in the battle to end racial divisions once and for all. If Obama can live up anywhere close to the hopes and expectations that American (and world) citizens have for him this morning, then in eight years time the idea of a black President of the United States won’t be a novelty, won’t be a dangerous radial idea: it’ll be the norm, A success. An everyday part of life. And that will be the way to change hearts of minds, because the children of America and the world who grow up under an Obama presidency will look at the world, at race, and at America in a profoundly different way than those of us who have been labouring under a Bush presidency.

So, no pressure then, Mr President. All that we ask is that you become one of the greatest and most inspiring leaders of all time, and to change the world. If that sounds like an outrageously tall order, well – you applied for the job! And millions and millions of people think you can do it. Don’t let us down.

Today is Blog Action Day, an annual non-profit event that aims to unite the world’s bloggers and get them to post about the same issue on the same day with the aim of raising awareness. The idea is that a complex, global issue can be illuminated by thousands of posts examining the issue from different perspectives, political points of view and locations.

The Department for International Development is leading the UK government’s fight against world poverty, and so it’s particularly good that they got their new DFID Bloggers section up and running in time to join in with today’s’ post on Poverty in Helmand. Likewise, FCO Bloggers has an entry from Britain’s Embassy in Moscow on how Russia is participating in international development initiatives to tackle poverty around the globe.

But this is emphatically not a day just for big government departments or large companies to dominate the signal. Indeed, the strength of the ‘blogosphere’ is that all blogs are genuinely created equal and in the thousands of entries you’ll find on the Blog Action Day you’ll find entries from everyone and everywhere – check out the featured posts on the Blog Action Day website for a cross-cut of the very best from around the world. Overall I’m finding it hard not to think of the day’s activity as the blogging equivalent of a Live Aid conference: a massive cast from all over the world, all performing to one worthy end.

I’m hesitant to contribute much in the way of my own thoughts on the issue of poverty for the basic reason that I have very limited experience about it. I’ve been very lucky in my life and never been been desperately poor: I’m by no means rich and my family was entirely average middle class when I grew up, so obviously there were times when money was tight; but that’s a far cry different from being in poverty. And during the recent banking crisis, when a collapse of the entire banking systems seemed all too feasible and threatened to take away the savings that I’ve built up over the last 20 years of working, I confess I was stressing over whether and how I could live without the comfort blanket of a healthy current account balance behind me.

The fact is that for most of us, it’s hard to understand what poverty actually is in practical terms. The academic definitions don’t really help either, as they tend to couch ‘poverty’ as being a lack of income and wealth such that someone is excluded from the social norms of the society in which they live. Which means that here in the UK, poverty ends up being defined as someone who doesn’t have a mobile phone, or a television, or a car.

I’m not sure that definition would resonate with a lot of people, who would perceive poverty instead as not having enough money to eat, not having anywhere to live, having nothing in the world other than what they wear on their backs and carry in their hands. That sort of poverty does exist in large parts of the world, but fortunately is extremely rare in the UK with our social welfare system. And quite right too, a nation as rich as ours should certainly be able to stop its own citizens falling into poverty, just as it should be out there in the world helping to lead the wider battle to raise people from such desperation.

But the wealth of a nation doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be any poverty in a country, and we shouldn’t be complacent or blithely assume that ‘poverty is for other people’. I’m reminded of my time in the richest nation on the planet, the United States of America, back in 1998: I was traveling around the country on trains and Greyhound buses; one of the stops I made was in New Orleans on a bright Sunday morning.

I made a wrong turn and headed off in the wrong direction; instead of heading into the impressive midtown of towering office blocks and hotels, I ended up lost in an area of shacks and slums, where the roads petered out without warning to grass dirt tracks. Here, only a mile or two from the typical United States advanced civilisation we know around the world, was a shanty town more appropriate to some third world country. Thsi is where a large proportion of the city’s black population lived: in the world’s most prosperous country, they existed at a level of poverty I had never known or been closed to before. How could a nation be so thoroughly schizophrenic in such a short physical distance?

Apparently this was an area of New Orleans that really, really wasn’t safe to be in, and I’m lucky to have got out alive and with my belongings. Actually I had no trouble there at all, either because it was a sleepy Sunday morning and no one was up yet, or because the danger of the area was overstated by the respectable folk in midtown – as a good reason for never going there, never looking too close at this part of their otherwise fair city.

This part of New Orleans doesn’t exist any more of course – it would have been wiped out by Hurricane Katrina seven years later. Problem solved? No, of course not. The problem was just displaced, with the poor hardest hit and forced to flee to new, temporary shanty towns across the US. Maybe some of them got new starts out of it, but I suspect that for many it was just the backdrop of their misery that was changed. Too many even today still have no food, no home, no hope.

Our world should be a better one than that.

Other Blog Action Day links

  • Neil WIlliams writes: “I am a selfish person. That’s the main finding from my 59 days thinking about poverty: or rather, thinking about how little I usually think, let alone do, anything about poverty.”
  • Jon Bounds writes: “Social media can help in the fight against poverty, in a number of ways — but it’s still down to people.”
  • Emma Mulqueeney writes: “I would like to talk about the middle ground of poverty, the line that we could so easily cross – especially in the current climate. And I am speaking about poverty as in lack of cash, rather than lack of morals, education or access to clean running water.”
  • Gallomanor writes: “Living in Bombay the drive from the airport to downtown involved passing by shanty-towns and beggars with limbless babies pressing themselves against the window of the air-conditioned Mercedes as we stopped at the traffic lights.”
  • Peeebeee writes: “Call it middle-class guilt if you wish, but reading other Blog Action Day posts has been a humbling experience.”
  • Laura Whitehead writes: “Instead of writing my views on poverty, I’ve decided to highlight a few nonprofit websites to give inspiration to other organisations with their own design ideas.’ (And a great, worth selection it is too.)
  • Mike Butcher writes: “Technology can ease poverty, but tech companies need to get on board.”

Walking home from the office one day, we couldn’t help but notice some strange markings had appeared on the streets of Lambeth.

Road markings

So is this the demented work of some surrealist mathematician relation of Banksy? Alas, no – just the contractors hired by Lambeth Council who go around using maps and detection tools, marking out the locations of the various power, water, telephone and cable lines under the tarmac. That’s so that when they come to dig up the road as part of the mammoth ongoing project to replace London’s decrepit sewage system, they don’t accidentally hit something else in the process.

And then it occurred to us: as useful as these markings were in avoiding accidentally drilling into London’s infrastructure … Didn’t that also make them just as useful for anyone who wanted to drill into them and cause damage, chaos and confusion? In these “times of increased security awareness” it’s rather surprising that key information about London’s vital utilities is not only not jealously guarded and restricted – but flaunted for all to see in highly visible, highly colourful street art.

Perhaps exploiting this type of opportunity isn’t as easy or as damaging as it appeared to our layperson’s perspective. But still, the chance of flooding streets, cutting communications, disrupting power supplies to thousands of people would seem like a reasonably tempting opportunity to the neighbourhood cell. And even if all this information is on file at the local council for all and sundry to come and ask to see – it’s quite another thing to actually splash it out at the feet of absolutely everyone and anyone walking by.

Or maybe we’re just getting too paranoid these days.

(With thanks to Seb, who spotted the markings and made the point in the first place.)





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