Archive for November, 2009

Generations and car ownership

November 27, 2009

The Times piece about petrolheads that I referenced in the previous post got me thinking about one other point.  Around where I live, you don’t often see souped up, modified, cars.  However, you do see significant numbers of older, classic cars, which have been preserved.  They may be a very small proportion of the cars on the road, but think of any model of car which was sold in the 1960s/1970s/1980s in the UK, and there’s probably at least one still running within a few miles from me.  Just last weekend I saw a 1960s Lotus Elan, now an extremely rare car, which somebody had obviously put a lot of effort into maintaining, parked up the road from me.

I’d noticed this and assumed it to be a curious little demographic ripple around north London; the sort of thing that doesn’t show up in the Acorn categories that appear in .  But I wonder if this effect is in fact more widespread, and it’s really a sign that baby boomers, and not the younger generations, are the people who might spend money on a slightly frivolous car.


Green driving

November 26, 2009

I’ve had a couple of conversations lately about environmental issues and the motor industry.  Most of them have focused on alternative fuels, and electric vehicles such as this stylish and sporty example that I came across by chance while looking at Boris Johnson’s use of the web.

But the other area where there’s scope for innovation is in new approaches to car ownership and use.  Car clubs such as Streetcar are now heavily advertised in London, and for somebody who doesn’t commute by car they clearly provide an attractive alternative to car ownership.  I also wonder if there’s a generational issue, that being attached to the idea of owning a car is almost a baby-boomer concept that  younger generations value less highly; Carl Mortished in the Times has some remarks on this.   Incidentally some of the comments suggest that Carl Mortished’s readers think that petrolheads aren’t obsolete, but have been priced off the road.  I’m not convinced: insurance for young drivers has been very expensive for as long as I’ve been driving, and conversely I think there are many more ways for young people to express their individuality than perhaps customising a car.

But I can also see a connection between car clubs and the use of different fuels.  Streetcar is a one-size fits all (OK, strictly two sizes, since they do delivery vans as well as cars) outfit at present, but I can see potential for a car club with cars using a blend of different fuel types.  Consider the case of a Londoner who commuted by tube, and used Internet shopping for their main weekly food shop, but who used their car regularly most weekends for a few local journeys, and very occasionally for longer journeys at weekends.  The default would be that they picked up an electric car from the car club every Friday evening.  Each Thursday they’d get a text message, remining them to reply if either (a) they didn’t need a car at all that weekend, or (b) they expected to drive more than 40 miles in the weekend so wanted a petrol or diesel car instead.

All Borders wants for Christmas

November 26, 2009

… is to be able to fulfil its online orders – judging from 

For some years from around 2001, neither Borders nor Waterstones sold books online, but both had their own co-branded Amazon stores – so you could go from the Borders website to a version of Amazon with Borders branding.  This always seemed eminently sensible as a strategic move.  Borders and Waterstones recognised that their core strengths were to do with selling books in particular physical spaces, and if their customers really wanted to buy books online, they’d pass the customers on to the best-known people in the business.  It was also a sign of Amazon doing something else that it has always done very well, in building effective alliances with business partners.  But in the last couple of years Borders and Waterstones have set up their own online bookshops and I suspect that hasn’t proved a good move.

A new google goodie

November 26, 2009

Google’s sidewiki has just landed on my toolbar as part of the latest set of updates.  It’s a simple idea but proving quite controversiol, as it’s almost an invitation to discuss web pages, blogs, etc in Google’s space, rather than in a web page’s own space.  It’s notable that the example on Google’s own page at shows some fairly anodyne comments about the best time of day, or year, to view the Golden Gate bridge.  I’m interested to read one take on it from Forrester Research at

An example of sustaining technologies

November 23, 2009

Ironically I read David’s comment on my managment gurus post last week, which mentioned a workers’ cooperative, just as I was waiting for the British middle classes’ favourite workers’ cooperative to deliver a new washing machine.  It’s actually a significant contrast with (say) getting a new laptop: this one replaces an equivalent machine that stopped working once it was 10+ years old and is functionally almost identical; the new one has a couple of extra programmes, one of which is actually useful to me, as it’s a superfast programme, though in practice, like most broadband connections, it isn’t quite as fast as it should be in theory.

But of course there have been significant advances in washing machine technology, most of them to do with using less water and less electricity.  This is an example of sustaining technology – the opposite of disruptive technology – where there can be major innovations but the effect is a steady and gradual improvement in a product.

If only he’d switched his phone off…

November 23, 2009 wouldn’t have happened…

Finding where links come from

November 13, 2009

WordPress allows blog owners, like myself, to get some idea of how people find the blog: are they following links, or are they using search terms?  I discovered that as of yesterday there’s a link to my previous blog entry, from an experimental BBC site called .  This should be hardly surprising, given how much I’ve linked to resources on the BBC website, but perhaps significant is that it’s picked up, not on my link to Andrew Keen’s online musings about the weaknesses of the Internet, but on my passing reference to a children’s science programme.  The point being that Shownar sets out to track online activity that’s promoted by television content

An enemy of the Internet?

November 12, 2009

Something that comes up repeatedly in getting information from the Internet, is how you judge whether something is authoritative.  But it’s also important to realise that people might be authoritative and influential, but might also be strongly biased towards one view or another.  One example is Andrew Keen, who has created something of a niche as an active contributor to Internet discussions, who at the same time is highly critical of the Internet.  In fact his BBC piece at comes with a disclaimer that this doesn’t reflect the BBC’s views – as you might expect given the BBC’s commitment to digital content.  I’m conscious that my views on the Internet are going to get much less exposure than Andrew Keen’s (that’s a statement of fact, not of envy or self-deprecation).  But I really find his arguments hard to accept.

He makes a reasonable point (that the Internet hasn’t led to the downfall of the nation state) and observes (as I would agree) that the Internet ‘is simultaneously authoritarian and anti-authoritarian’.  But he extends this to suggest that its effect on society is purely ephemeral, which is far from being the case at the day-to-day level.   Of course the BBC offers a kind of case study in this: 50 years ago they were broadcasting the Woodentops  on one of just two terrestrial TV channels now my children are into Richard Hammond’s Blast Lab but much more likely to watch it on-line than on television.  Internet shopping, internet booking of travel, much greater transparency of information (it’s a bit anorak-y, but i was able to find my great-grandparents’ family on the 1901 census, then put their address into and find out about the current demographics of the area, without leaving my computer), using email or instant messaging or whatever in place of phone calls, all have a profound effect on the way that we live.

And the Internet can change the fortunes of nations – I’m thinking particularly of its use in Africa and the potential for wireless services to bring connections to places which have been isolated in the past.  But also, this week marks twenty years since the Berlin Wall fell, and as a thought experiment, it’s interesting to wonder what would have happened had the Internet been available when the Berlin Wall was still standing.

Sifting through the information

November 12, 2009

An interesting example of putting infomation that already exists on the web has just appeared on the National Rail site that represents the main line train operators in Great Britain: go to , choose a station name, or the three-letter abbreviation that’s associated with the station in the train companies’ databases, and select ‘stations made easy’ from the list that appears.  This will give you a whole lot of information, much of it intended to help you if you need level access through the station, with a plan of the station and photos of some of the facilities.  For example gives you a plan of St Pancras, and if you hover the mouse over various points you’ll see photos to help orient yourself, plus very detailed information on access for people with disabilities.  This isn’t limited to major stations or those in London either: would have been useful on my trip to Merseyside earlier this year.

If this wasn’t the Internet, it might seem churlish to criticise something that’s obviously taken a lot of effort and is a useful resource.  But in the spirit of the perpetual beta (a term promoted by Tim O’Reilly as part of Web 2.0) I’m going to offer some comments.

First a couple of minor ones.  ‘Left lugguage’ would be an inexcusable typo even if it only appeared on one station – it actually appears in quite a few stations so is presumably part of the template.  The plans are good but the simple, chunky, graphics do have a touch of the web circa 1998 about them, and I think could be made much more attractive with a little tweaking.  Those simple graphics should load quickly – which is good – but I can’t view the entire St Pancras plan on my desktop computer without scrolling.  Therefore I can’t imagine that the plans would look that good on a smartphone, which is a pity because that’s one obvious use for the site: point to one of the photos while you’re using a mobile device at the station, to check that you’re in the right place.

More seriously, it’s a pity that the plans couldn’t be mashed up with the live departure boards, so that you could click over platforms 11 and 12 and get the appropriate entries from .  I appreciate that station facilities and accessibility and train running are probably the responsibility of different people in the rail companies, but once all that information is on the web it should be possible to integrate it more effectively than has been done.

But to me the biggest problem is one of wording, and it could possibly be addressed with more guidance on exactly how to interpret the information.  For instance click over Carluccio’s at St Pancras, and you’ll get , telling you that there’s one entrance and no steps into the building.  If I didn’t know better, I’d assume that ‘the building’ referred to the station.  As it’s a recently refurbished major public building, there is level access to most parts of it, including Carluccio’s, using lifts, but the station has multiple entrances, and one way to get to Carluccio’s is up a staircase from Pancras Road.  To be fair, all of this can be inferred from the plan, but it’s not clear from the wording, which actually means that Carluccio’s itself doesn’t include stairs, and has one entrance.  Similarly the description of the gents’ toilet at says there are no disabled-accessible toilets or baby change facilities (though it says that there are accessible toilets elsewhere in the station) because there aren’t any in that unit, although both are provided in the corridor next door.  The same effect means that at Finsbury Park Station – a sprawling mixture of Victorian and 1960s construction that definitely wasn’t designed with wheelchair users in mind – tells you that the AMT coffee kiosk is wheelchair accessible because it’s on a level with the immediately surrounding area.  But this surrounding area is a mezzanine level which you could only reach, either from the street or from the platforms, using enough stairs to make it inaccessible to most wheelchair users.  Nothing on the site says this, although you could deduce it from the plan.  I love maps and plans, but other people have difficulty in using them, and a bit more explanation would help.  It reminds me of the IT developer who conceded that you needed to read his documentation very carefully to understand things, which is great in principle but not always achievable in practice.

Still, it’s a very useful resource, and if by chance anybody from Network Rail is reading this, I hope they’ll take the criticisms in the constructive vein in which they are intended.

A different kind of generational issue

November 12, 2009

This week the BBC at has been looking at a product aimed specifically at computer users from the generation before the baby boomers.    Its main distinctive features are that it’s Linux based, has a simple interface with large text, and the involvement of Valerie Singleton, who was a children’s TV presenter in the 1960s, and subsequently went on to work on the Money Progamme.   I do think it’s an interesting idea, though I take the point that many retired people are very IT-literate and that this product isn’t for them.

It’s a pity that much of the discussion on the BBC blog page seems to have descended into Windows/Linux rivalry.  Talking of which, the same computer got a bit of coverage at – a Linux today site which comes up on my computer with banner advertising for Microsoft…