Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Tips to reduce your electricity bill

Things I learnt by using a CurrentCost meter

For the last month or so, my wife and I have been using a CurrentCost meter to track our electricity usage - with a view to helping the planet as well as the more direct benefit of reducing our electricity usage in the face of pending increased utility costs as part of the so-called "credit crunch".

The meters cost around £40 and have a small box that clips onto the wire by your electricity meter (no wiring necessary). This box wirelessly transmits the current power usage to a display unit which can be anywhere in the house (We have it in the kitchen so we see it regularly) and displays your current usage in Watts. The display unit is programmed with the price you pay per kWh (typically 9p) so it can calculate what your cost is for today, this week or this month (if you continue the current level of usage)

Lots of people are getting into exporting the data to draw graphs and publish their usage stats online, and all manner of other interesting things. I haven't got this deep into it yet, but I have learnt a great deal by becoming more aware of my own electricity usage. I thought I would share some of this knowledge in the form of some electricity saving tips.

1. Watts means pounds

One of the first benefits of using the meter is suddenly watts have a real tangible meaning. I knew that lightbulbs were 60-100w, a microwave is 750 or 850watts, etc, but that didn't really have a meaning. When your current electricity usage suddenly leaps up by a 500w and the meter says your cost per day will go up by £1 if you sustain that usage, it becomes a lot more meaningful - and all the more compelling to do something about it. By watching the increase or decrease in current usage when you turn things on or off, you can get a good idea how much power things actually use, and therefore, how much they cost to run. This allows you to make more informed decisions about what you use. Here are some figures based on my observations.

What is it?How much power
does it use?
How much
does that cost?
Lightbulb (energy-saving)
14w0.001p/hour ; 3p/day ;
92p/month; £11.04/year
Lightbulb (standard)
100w1p/hour ; 22p/day ;
£6.57/month ; £78.84/year
Computer/Server/Laptop200w2p/hour ; 43p/day ;
£13.14/month; £157.68/year
Toaster700w6p/hour ; £1.51/day ;
£45.99/month ; £551.88/year
Washing machine
800w7p/hour ; £1.73/day ;
£52.56/month ; £630.72/year
Microwave1,100w10p/hour ; £2.38/day ;
£72.27/month ; £867.24/year
Kettle1,800w16p/hour ; £3.89/day ;
£118.26/month ; £1,419.12/year
Grill2,000w18p/hour ; £4.32/day ;
£131.40/month ; £1,576.80/year
2,200w20p/hour ; £4.75/day ;
£144.54/month ; £1,734.48/year

These figures are based on constant usage which is obviously unrealistic for a lot of appliances - but it makes it easier to compare their relative cost.

You can calculate the cost of a running a given appliance over a given period using the following formula:

Cost (in £) =
power usage (in kilowatts)
× time appliance is running (in hours)
× cost per kilowatt hour (in £)

For example, based on a rate of 9p per kWh, a a 200w computer that is always on, over 1 month (730 hours average) will cost 200/1000 x 730 x 0.09 = £13.14 . Over 1 year it will cost 12 times that i.e. £157.68 . Are you really sure you want to keep that server or computer on all the time?

If you prefer not to do the maths yourself, you can use an online electricity calculator such as this one.

If you want to estimate how much something will cost which is not on all the time, all you need to do is estimate your weekly, monthly or annual hours of usage, and use that figure for the "time" value.

2. Lightbulbs use more electricity than you think

I've always been a little bit slack about leaving lights on when I leave a room - sometimes I remember but not always. Now I can see the impact of doing that more directly, I am much more careful. And I've found that energy saving lightbulbs really can make you significant savings.

For example, let's say you are around the house and using lights for about 5 hours on a weekday and 8 hours on a weekend day (averaging over the year since it's darker in winter & lighter in summer). This works out at about 41 hours of using lights a week. Let's say you have lights switched on in three different rooms on average across that time (the one you're in, and two you forgot to turn off). Let's allow an average 80w per lightbulb. So we have a total weekly wattage of 3 × 80 = 240 watts, for 41 hours = 9.84 kilowatt hours. This would cost 89p a week, £42.51 a year (allowing 4 weeks away from home per year)

Now consider you become a bit more careful and never have more than one light on at a time. Your costs go down to 30p a week, or £14.17 a year.

Now let's consider you go even further, and change all your lightbulbs to energy saving lightbulbs (which typically use 11-14w instead of 60-100w). I've just done this recently and changed all 8 lightbulbs to be energy saving lightbulbs. You'll see why in a moment.

Allowing the same 41 hours a week of lighting, and still being careful having only one on at a time, you get down to 0.574 kWh a week, which would cost only 5p a week, £2.48 a year!!

Even if you were still slack and left 3 light bulbs on at a time on average, you're still only looking at 15p a week, or £7.44 a year.

To put it another way, each energy saving lightbulb you buy could save you up to £10 a year. Which, given they can be found for well under £5, should make them a very worthwhile investment!

3. How many appliances do you have on standby?

I also discovered that appliances plugged into the wall, can use anything between about 5 watts and 30 watts while in standby or even when switched on at the socket but the appliance itself is switched off. I recommend doing a mental audit of every appliance in your house and ask yourself, "Could it live switched off?"

What is it?Could it live in a "switched off at the wall" state?
Kitchen radio, Food mixer, Bread maker, Microwave, Kettle, Oven, Toaster, Bedside Light (x2), File server, Monitor, Computer Speakers, Desktop computer, External Hard Disk, Digital Photo Frame, Printer/Scanner, TV(x2), DVD(x2), VCR, Laptop(x2), Shredder, Wii, XBox, Amp, Tape Deck, DAB Radio, Analog Radio, CD player (x2), Second phone extension, Lamps (x2)Yes
Telephone, PVR (V+/Sky+ etc), Modem, Router, Bedroom Alarm Clock Radio, Wi-fi Ethernet Bridge

As you can see, by far the majority of the appliances (in my house anyway) really don't need to be left switched on. We were able to get our "ambient" household power usage down by around 150 watts by ensuring the bulk of our 30 odd appliances are by default, switched off at the wall.

One of the ways this can be done more easily, particularly at computer desks or TV/hi-fi units with a great many appliances in one place, is to put all the "always on" appliances on a different 4-bar/8-bar than the ones which can live switched off. For example, I have 12 appliances on my TV/hifi unit, but have now moved 8 appliances which can live "off" to a separate 8 bar, which can be kept switched off at the wall by flicking one switch, except when I need one of those appliances. You could also break them down by how frequently you use them - for example I have added the TV & DVD to the "always on" block, for convenience - that way the 8 bar rarely needs turning on.

And it goes without saying that making sure you don't leave your TV, PC etc on standby, will reduce your usage too.

4. Laptops & Computers can have a big impact on your bill

When we realised that our 4 computers (2 laptops, 1 Mac desktop, and 1 linux file server) collectively use around 650 watts of power when they are all on - and that the server and the desktop were "always on" - we made some major changes to our computer usage, which should save us a good £20 or so per month. First, we decided that our server will only be turned on when we need it on (typically 2 or 3 times a week). That saves £7-8 a month right away. Likewise, the Mac is now shutdown whenever it is not in use.
And one final tip, we now run our laptops on battery power until they really need to be plugged into the mains (the thinking being much of the time if it is a short session you will have time to run it on battery). This last one probably only really works because the laptops recharge when in use at work.. I guess it's kind of cheating a bit, but it can help!

In conclusion

I hope that you have found some of this useful, or at the very least, thought-provoking. It really struck me how this is one example where the old adage "Information is power" really does hold true. Once you know in real terms how much you are spending on electricity, you can make informed choices and change your behaviour to save money. Without that knowledge, you may well be burning pounds that you don't need to, which doesn't do the planet or your wallet any good. With forthcoming raises in electricity charges, I am hoping that I am now reasonably well prepared. So - go out and get a CurrentCost meter - you won't regret it. Or even if you don't get a meter, use the information above and out there on the web to work out how you can reduce your bills. By the way, you can also borrow CurrentCost meters from some libraries.. I saw this sign in my local library earlier today.

Disclaimer: All the figures and calculations are my own. If I have made any errors or bad assumptions please do let me know, and I will update this post!


Monday, 21 July 2008

Wall•E: Top-notch entertainment!

Pixar does it again!

I know there are many reviews saying great things about WALL•E, the latest creation from Pixar, but I want to add mine into the mix.

Films that really stand out seem to come along less and less often these days, as the Hollywood money machine churns out more and more sequels to scrape the maximum profits from each franchise (the trailers before the film seemed to confirm this - High School Musical 3, Madagascar 2 and Ice Age 3). Which makes it all the more refreshing when a really original and thoroughly entertaining film like WALL•E comes out. Pixar really did save Disney!

It's hard to know what to say without spoiling the film; it certainly has a very engaging plot which is presented in a very believable way. What's amazing is how animated blocks of metal can be brought to life so convincingly. It's very telling that the first 30 minutes contain no dialogue, yet you don't even notice it. I haven't seen such a lovable robot since Johnny 5 in Short Circuit (which WALL•E bears more than a striking resemblance to!).

In case you don't know, and haven't seen the trailers, WALL•E is the a trash compacting robot on an abandoned Earth, left behind to clean up the planet while the human race goes on an intergalactic cruise. Unfortunately for whatever reason, the "clean up the earth" plan didn't go so well, and WALL•E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) is the last of his kind.. But he trundles along quite happily cleaning up the planet, and develops a fascination with various human artifacts he finds. Then, a hi-tech robot called EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) arrives, sent to inspect the habitability of the planet, and everything changes...

The film manages to suit a variety of audiences; Kids who enjoyed The Incredibles, Toy Story, and Shrek will love the playful fun style of the film (and adult fans of animated films will be pleased by the numerous in-jokes and Easter eggs); Science-fiction fans will enjoy the post-apocalyptic Earth of the film, the references to Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the sheer amount of consistent, coherent detail; movie buffs will love the cinematic shots and the convincing but not over-the-top special effects, and let's not forget, this film is ultimately a feel-good love story (yes that's right, a robot love story!), so I'd be very surprised if anyone watching doesn't leave feeling warm and fuzzy.

I've said more than enough, I hope you get the message now, if you haven't already, go and see this film!!

To finish up I just want to highlight one more genius touch, make sure you watch the credit sequence all the way through, which is an amazing piece of filmmaking in its own right, telling the "what happens next" story in a truly original way, and is perfectly placed to ease viewers out of the film gently without being left itching to find out what happens next.


Sunday, 20 July 2008

How to write Java software for your mobile phone

How to write a "Hello World" program using J2ME

So, I've just managed to get a Hello World program running on my mobile phone. Thought I would share this as a simple set of steps, since it wasn't obvious. To figure this out I referred to this guide plus the Sun Wireless Toolkit manual which you will find in {install-dir}/docs/UserGuide-html/index.html after install.

OK, without further ado, here are the steps. This is just one way of doing it!

  1. Install a current Java J2SE Development Kit (such as JDK 6 update 7 (or later) from Sun
  2. Install the Sun Java Wireless Toolkit for CLDC
  3. Run the toolkit ({install-dir}/bin/ktoolbar.exe on Windows - shortcut in Start Menu)
  4. This is the build/compile environment for J2ME apps. Note that bizarrely, it has no text editor, so you need to use your own text editor to create/edit the code, then use this tool to compile/build
  5. Click the "New Project" button
  6. Enter HelloWorld as the Project Name
  7. Enter Hello as the MIDlet Class Name (corresponds to, your main java file)
  8. Click OK
  9. Choose your target platform (to keep things simple, use MIDP 1.0 for now)
  10. Make note of the text in the main toolkit window ,this tells you where to put your code and other files. Mine said "Place Java source files in 'C:\Documents and Settings\Administrator\j2mewtk\2.5.2\apps\HelloWorld\src'"
  11. Using your text editor of choice, open two new text files in that directory, called and The code for these can be found here. Copy and paste the code into each, then save them.
  12. Go back to the tool, and press Build. This compiles your code. Assuming no errors, continue to the next step.
  13. Click Run, this will launch your program in a mobile phone emulator. It should work.
  14. Now, to transfer it to your real phone, you need to generate two files - a .jar file (Java archive) and a .jad file (Java application descriptor). Go to the Project menu, Package submenu, select "Create Package"
  15. You can now navigate to 'C:\Documents and Settings\Administrator\j2mewtk\2.5.2\apps\HelloWorld\bin\' and see your generated JAR and JAD files
  16. Now use your phone's file transfer software to connect to your phone (via Bluetooth, USB etc). I used Nokia NSeries PC Suite from Transfer the JAR file and the JAD file.
  17. If your phone does not pick up the app as installable automatically, navigate to the JAD file on your phone and execute it, this will install the app.
  18. You should now find an installed icon for your HelloWorld program in your phone menu (on N95 this is in the Applications sub menu). Click the icon, and voila! Your first mobile phone app!
So, now you can write HelloWorld, in theory you can write any mobile phone application you like - the rest is just programming!!


Saturday, 12 July 2008

Random Scenes From the South Bank

I thought it was about time to add some colour to this blog, since I've written a lot of long posts lately.

While in London on a work trip, we had some free time. I wandered along the South Bank, and after taking a few traditional shots of the Tate, St Paul's, etc which looked very much like every other tourist photo, I decided to do something a bit different and capture some random views and images you wouldn't normally stop and photograph. Click the photo montage to see the photoset on Flickr.


Mission Control - another alternative to GTD

I've just listened to episode 39 of The Productivity Show, where the host, Tony (sorry I don't know his last name) interviewed Doug Fisher of Mission Control, which is another productivity methodology to add to your productivity toolbox alongside Getting Things Done, Do It Tomorrow, and the others.

I haven't fully digested the technique yet but I did pick out some really interesting ideas that I think might help me be more productive, so I thought I'd share them here.

Getting everything done is impossible!

The first was the idea that in many of these systems we are subconsciously saying that we should get everything done, and that we are failing if we don't. We need to be realistic and realise that we will never get everything done, so once we can accept and believe that, that will be a great stress relief. In other words -
making a conscious choice about what you are aren’t doing gives you more control and puts you more at ease.

I can certainly identify with this myself.. As someone who has been dabbling with productivity methods and tweaks for two and a bit years now, I have just started to come to this realisation myself. This is a world full of stimulating, interesting and appealing ideas, activities and so on, not to mention all the things we need to do or feel we should do - no wonder that productivity is becoming such a hot topic, we are basically trying to find coping strategies for dealing with information overload and the feeling that "There's never enough time". I'm starting to realise that all you can do is focus on the things that are most important to you, and the things that really have to be done - a mix of what is necessary, and what makes you happy.

Give yourself more power to change your habits

Apparently Mission Control is all about giving people
more power to change their habits, which is often very hard since we are still using habits that we have been doing our whole life, even though the world has changed around us. This makes a lot of sense - I know that for me, these are the times I have struggled with GTD, I understand the theory - but changing my natural habits of just winging through life without planning & lists & reviews has proved very tricky. (Recently I've finally found a way that works for me of getting into the review habit - but more on that in another blog post).
So I can definitely relate to this idea that the key to productivity success is in actually changing our habits. There are a couple of key ways that Doug proposes empowering yourself to do this.

"If you're going to do it, schedule it"

One of the key ideas of Mission Control is that if you really want to get something done, there's no point putting it on a list, deferring it to some non-specific time of "Later" - better to really plan to do it, every task will take at least some time, so why not actually assign that time on your calendar for that task. (The related tip was to schedule 50-100% more time than you think you will need - sounds like a good idea to me since I always procrastinate and am not too good at sizing how long something will take!)

Make your calendar & tasks more compelling by keeping the reason visible

Another key idea is that you need to make your calendar entries (or tasks) more compelling and appealing - The most common reason for not doing something is because it sounds boring or there is no clear benefit. The example was discussed was doing your tax return.. If you just put that on your calendar, there's a high chance you won't do it.

The solution proposed is to frame every task or block of time in terms of the reason why it is important to you. For example,
"edit & publish podcast recording"
which might seem a little unappealing, could be changed to
"make a difference and leave a legacy by editing & publishing podcast"

This sounds like a really great tip.. I've already found that knowing the reason for why a task is on your list can really help focus you. There's something about having the reason clearly visible that makes it much easier for you to make intelligent choices and prioritizations. I experimented when using Thinking Rock with using a different Topic/colour for each reason.. in a way it's a little like moving up to the 10 or 20,000 ft view in GTD. I even transferred my tasks under these categories when I moved from TR to Protopage for my task management. Eventually I stopped doing this type of categorisation of tasks though, either because the tools didn't make it easy, or because having to categorise and colour code things became too much work, in other words I couldn't see an easy way to build consideration of the reasons for a task into my task management system. But maybe it's easier than I thought - just put it as part of the description of the task... only problem is they could get a little wordy.. It's definitely something I plan to try though.

To finish, I'll share the list of "reasons" I broke down my tasks into, in case you find this useful (If nothing else, it's a good list of stimulus when doing a GTD-style head-emptying exercise, or stimulus for a monthly review) Naturally, these are my own personal raisons-d'être so YMMV!

  • Because I want to put time & effort into relationships
    (Friends & Family) - includes everything from calling home to planning special events with my partner or catching up with/visiting friends
  • Because I want to save for the future & watch my money more
    (Budgeting & Saving)
  • Because I want to learn and be intellectually stimulated (Learning & Stimulation) - includes browsing blogs & RSS feeds as well as hobby programming, tech projects etc
  • Because I am required to do it
  • Because I want to be more organised
    (Organisation) - includes all productivity related stuff as well as physical tidying etc
  • Because I want to look after things & keep things stocked
    (Maintenance & Restocking) - includes DIY, mending/fixing things, errands to buy parts or accessories for things
  • Because I want to do it for myself
    (Entertainment, Leisure & Social) - includes computer games, reading, films etc.
  • Because I want to create & invent & write
    (Ideas & Writing) - includes hobby programming, creative writing, etc.
  • Because I want to share & give & help others
    (Volunteering & Sharing) - includes blogging, charity work etc
  • Because I want to be healthy & look after myself
    (Health & Wellbeing) - includes planned exercise,
  • Because I want to stand up for my & others' rights
    (Complaints & Rights) - includes writing letters when left out of pocket or walked over by companies, writing to MP, petitions etc


ThinkVantage Access Connections - now with extra bugs!

Having recently had my IBM Thinkpad T42p reinstalled (the now-standard annual Windows de-bloating surgery), I now find myself with a later version of IBM Lenovo ThinkVantage Access Connections. And it seems this new version is, ahem, shit. I find I really need Access Connections as I switch between multiple wireless networks and wired networks with different security, static/DHCP/DNS settings, etc.

It seems this new version can't add a new profile without crashing with the not so helpful message "ThinkVantage Access Connections Main GUI Application has encountered a problem and needs to close. We are sorry for the inconvenience". You'd think that this might have been a good feature to bug test a bit more thoroughly.

I even went to the trouble of installing System Update and through that, got the latest version of Access Connections - still the same version.

It seems I am not alone in encountering this problem, and fortunately, I found a workaround via this link (number 1 link on Google for "access connections crashes" - impressive!) which I thought I would share.

The workaround is to copy another profile then modify it. Far from ideal, but it'll keep me going for now. Anyone encountered a better solution?


Friday, 11 July 2008

Is the increase in choice bad for society?

"Content is King"

Since getting my N95 8Gb I've been listening to a lot more podcasts (I set them to download overnight) and have been particularly enjoying Stephen Fry's Podgrams, which are basically random musings by Stephen Fry, who I've always found intelligent and witty in equal measures, a rare combination. I'm met him too and he is very down-to-earth. Anyway, this isn't a Stephen Fry fan blog, I have a serious discussion point to raise, so without further ado..

Podgram #4 "Broadcasting" consists of Stephen delivering a speech that he gave in response to OFCOM's proposal that the UK TV licence fee should be shared between the BBC, Channel 4, ITV and five. (For more info on this, check out these links - [1],[2],[3]). This is a worthy topic for debate in its own right, I can see both sides but ultimately think it's a bad idea and would agree with the point of view "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"

The thing that I found most thought provoking though, was not the licence fee issue, but the idea that "Content is King". Stephen talked a lot about this; the idea that we have completely changed the way we consume recorded content - be it television, film, radio, podcasts, music or audiobooks. He makes the point that we do not think in "channels" any more, thanks to 24 hour channels, digital TV and its hundreds of niche channels, PVR systems, DVD-rental-by-post services, digital downloads, torrents, podcasts, iPlayer and the like.. As viewers we simply seek out the content we are interested in, get hold of it in whatever form we can, and watch it. In general, we do not care about a channel in its own right, we are far more interested in particular shows or types of shows that appeal to our interests. Hence the phrase "Content is King".

Stephen argues (I hope I'm summarizing his view correctly) that this is not a good direction for television, and that the BBC is one of the last channels that people have brand loyalty to because of its reputation for good quality programming across a wide range of areas - not just the big audience "entertainment" shows like Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing, but wildlife shows, current affairs, documentaries, science, religion, arts, music etc. He argues that this would be eroded by the so-called "top-slicing" of licence fee revenue, because we then would be totally abandoning the idea of channels, abandoning the BBC as a viewing destination in its own right and reducing it to a producer of public service content.

He paints a picture of a future world where there are no broadcast channels - everyone has their own "narrowcast" personalised channels, with only those shows they like, catered to their exact demographic and interests, with advertising tailored to them. You can really see this happening already, with services like TiVo in the broadcast space, and with RSS aggregators for podcasts & blogs in the Internet space. The only real difference is that we form our personalised channels manually at the moment, by our selections from the plethora of content that is out there. It won't be long before it's done for us (TiVo is already ahead of the game on this one).

This really struck a chord for me, especially when I consider how my own viewing habits have changed since Sky+, V+ and BitTorrent. I'd already observed that I really don't watch live TV anymore - with all the Series Links I have set up, as well as the shows I can only get via BitTorrent (such as Lost), I have such a choice of things I am interested in, which I rarely get to the end of, and this has meant far less "random" viewing - I watch a lot more of the things I know, and a lot less of the things I don't. At first glance this seems a good thing, but if I'm honest I know that I watch far fewer documentaries, current affairs programmes and the like, even though I sometimes set series links - because why would I watch Dispatches or Newsnight when I have a backlog of The Gadget Show, Top Gear, QI or The Apprentice to watch? I am as guilty as anyone else of going for a short term highs rather than something that will be more mentally exercising but better for broadening my knowledge.

It's when I think of this in terms of how much entertainment television is now watched versus "public service" programming (think of the rising popularity of Big Brother, X Factor and Shipwrecked and the declining audiences for current affairs programmes), and the wider picture of how these changes affect society as a whole, that I begin to be a bit more concerned..

Personalization of content - More of what we want, but at what cost?

The whole point of public service broadcasting is that it raises the level of education of the population, covering issues and spreading knowledge on topics that would be not be commercially viable to produce programming about. For this to succeed, it seems there needs to be some element of "chance discovery" of content - like when you turn to a channel you know produces good content, like the BBC, and find something interesting that you weren't looking for. I'd not really thought about it from this angle before, but it seems that this is something that we are all overlooking with the abundance of seductive and appealing content before us, not just in broadcast media but on the Internet too. (Maybe this partly explains the appeal of StumbleUpon!) We need exposure to things we were not seeking and did not know about, in order to challenge our thinking, expose us to new ideas and general broaden our minds.

And there may be other disadvantages too, to the personalization of content - because the more we are drawn to specific interests, given the raise of social media, we are likely to form communities around those interests as well... So the viewers of a highly personalised channel, be it fishing channel, a goth music channel, a single mums' channel, a Christian prayer channel or a new age spiritualist channel, will form communities around those channels and only interact with those people and those ideas. And just like we see ethnic minorities or social classes clustering in certain areas of cities, seldom mixing outside those circles, we will start to see an intellectual, or rather an "information" segregation, where people polarize into different specialized groups that do not cross paths or spread knowledge, potentially resulting in even more segregation, discrimination and "tribal" problems. This can't be a good thing for society.

This struck me as a really important message - and I know I have gone way beyond the point of Stephen's speech, but for me this debate about public service broadcasting and the BBC licence fee was just the tip of the iceberg - This "Content is King" ethos that we all eagerly feed on, perhaps without realising, is something that could spell a real "dumbing down" of society if left unchecked. We need to make sure we continue to be exposed to new ideas, unfamiliar subjects and a balance of public service and entertainment content. And we need to remember that more and more content on the Internet is written by individuals or corporations with their own agendas, and thus, the truth will be harder to find. (Relevant book: Cult of the Amateur - I confess I haven't read it yet)

Choice in news media - is it a good thing?

So, we can now see that the abundance of choice we have today encourages us to select & personalise content we find most attractive, and that while this has advantages it also has some dangers to society as a whole.

It seems to me that there are other potential pitfalls of too much choice, particularly when you look at the effect that 24 hours news channels and websites have had on the quality of journalistic output, and on public opinion.

Overwhelmed with news stories, and often feeling too busy to read stories in depth, it seems we often believe that which is easiest to believe - a story about someone who is being questioned in connected to a crime, gets summarized as "so and so is guilty of that crime", and then that story spreads around the net, and before you know it, the person is guilty. The truth as commonly believed and the truth as based on actual facts, diverge. We are no longer innocent until proven guilty. Similarly, a story about a scientific development gets exaggerated by the media, and by people believing what they want to believe - extrapolating an early step in the right direction through to the technology that might be possible if developed further (e.g. "OMG! Scientists invent Holodeck")

Is society dumbing down?

In our rush to consume as much information as possible in a an ever growing sea of information and content, we over-summarize and cut corners. We forward heartfelt e-mails of tragedies and brushes with death without checking them for authenticity or accuracy. It's ironic really that the the Internet gives us more power to research the accuracy of information, and yet we seem even more inclined to just believe what we read without doing so. Children are losing the skills to analyse the relevance and accuracy of information.

Negative feedback loops

It's really concerning to me as well, how there is now a feedback loop between media stories and reality itself. 24 hours news reports come out every hour for days that Northern Rock is in crisis - and a panic is created, making a possibly recoverable problem into an unrecoverable situation that spreads out to affect the whole industry.

Newspapers report that a politician is "tonight under intense pressure to resign" even though he only pressure is from the media, suddenly they are under intense pressure, and resign. TV reports that "people are up in arms about a possible emissions tax" and people are put off the idea before they even get the chance to work out the facts of how it will actually affect them. Constant reports of problems in the property market make people even less inclined to buy property than they were before. Collectively, the media and newspaper outlets notice (or create?) trends in public opinion or public behaviour, and report them in a sensationalised, exaggerated way, designed to have the maximum emotional impact, because the most sensational stories are those that will be easiest to digest, and will stick in our minds most - this usually means those stories most likely to induce negative emotions such as outrage, distrust, fear or disgust (Good news reporting has died out) Before you know it, the media reports has affected what people behave, which in turn affects how we act, and what started as nothing more than a story or an idea has actually affected the reality of the situation itself. It's like some sort of societal version of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.

The other effect of this is that even though there is more choice of media sources, there is less breadth in coverage, everyone jumps on the bandwagon and the same stories get regurgitated for weeks on end (think Princess Diana inquests, 10p tax rates or Madeline McCann hunts - Was the public really so interested in those stories or was it just the media getting into a frenzy and feeding off each other?).

The media believe they are giving us what we want, so they produce more of the same, and the repetition of the same type of stories again and again forms a vicious circle, reinforcing the nation's out-of-proportion obsessions with child protection, fear of terrorists, suspicion of immigrants, distrust of government, and so on.. (I recommend Noam Chomsky's book Media Control for more on this topic)

In summary

It must be time for me to get off my soapbox now! :-) I hope that I am wrong that the overwhelming choice we have won't mean the dumbing down of society, and that we can find a way to be less affected by media coverage in what we think and believe.. I'm very interested in noticing trends in society and this does seem to be one possible way things could go if we continue on the current course. Let me know what you think!

Disclaimer: This is very much an opinion piece, which I will have on my blog from time to time. It is not my intent to force my point of view - just to share ideas & stimulate debate - which I welcome through the comments, whether you share my concerns or think I've got it all wrong, provided it remains courteous! I look forward to reading your comments!


Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Photo sharing dilemma

Random musing for today: I can't decide the best way to share my photos online.
Currently I sometimes use Flickr and sometimes Facebook, and have also considered setting up my own instance of Gallery or some other customisable self hosted solution. Ideally I would like to settle upon just one solution to avoid duplication - But it seems like each option has some advantages and some disadvantages.


  • Effectively unlimited storage, because the allocation is "amount uploaded per month" not in total. This can be increased by upgrading to pro, which is possibly worth the cost
  • Stores much higher resolution images (even higher if you upgrade to pro)
  • People can download images at different resolutions
  • Has some degree of privacy controls - can choose if any given photo or album is viewable by all, or friends only, or family only, or friends and family.
  • No way to download a whole album at once
  • Typically friends/family won't already be on Flickr - so will have to sign up. Although, you can share a particular album with non Flickr members (with no privacy controls)
  • Privacy controls quite coarse grained (can't distinguish between close friends, work colleagues, different friend groups)
  • Can't customise the site appearance


  • Because of the social network mantra "go where your friends are" it turns out Facebook is the best way for me to share some photos and know that many of my friends have a good chance of seeing them. There's something nice about just putting photos out there and knowing they will show up in friend's homepages ("Alex has added new photos") and they can choose to look more or not - rather than me having to purposefully send out links by email which seems a little more intrusive
  • People tagging. It's really nice being able to tag people in photos so that those photos show up to that person, and other people who know that person, without them specifically seeking them out. Again this seems a great way to bring an audience to your photos (the people/social ones anyway)
  • Fine grained privacy controls, can limit to particular groups of contacts or combinations of groups.
  • Some chance of people discovering your photos via flick friend feeds, flickr facebook plugin, but not to same degree as with Facebook
  • Doesn't seem to have an upload quota (although only 60 photos allowed per album)
  • Only a low resolution stored or viewable
  • Can download but not high enough quality to print - seems more for fun/browsing.
  • Can only give the full tagged/organised experience to other people signed up on Facebook (Although, you can share a particular album with non Facebook members (with no privacy controls)
  • Can't download a whole album
  • Can't customise the site appearance
  • No people tagging
Gallery & custom built photo apps
  • fully customisable site appearance
  • can download whole albums
  • can store & download hi-res photos
  • storage only limited by your web hosting capacity
  • full fine grained privacy controls
  • need your own web hosting (not a problem for me as I have some - but space may be more of an issue)
  • no chance of people discovering your photos - they have to come to your site - which means you have to send out links
  • no people tagging
  • to get the full grained privacy controls you need everyone to register for your site - and then recreate your entire social network and the different groups for different levels of privacy, within your gallery app - some people probably won't bother, and this is a lot of work for everyone involved. Not sure I want to put my friends through that.

The ideal system:
  • Would integrate fully with existing social networks, to allow friends to discover the photos and to make privacy controls be able to use existing identities & groups
  • Would have fine grained privacy settings so I can restrict with detail who can see what photos
  • Would allow people tagging to help bring the photos to people's attention, like Facebook
  • Would have storage per month, like Flickr, rather than a finite cap
  • Would allow high res downloads (like Flickr, Gallery)
  • Would allow full album downloads (like Gallery)
  • I would be willing to pay a small fee for such a system, if it existed. I don't think it does.
I'd be interested to hear other people's thoughts on this problem. What system do you use? How do you get around problems I've mentioned? Is there another solution out there that would be closer to the ideal I have described?


Tuesday, 8 July 2008

When to use something other than Google

When Google invented PageRank, they became the best search engine on the Internet, a default place to find anything online - and I like many other people changed my search habits from trying multiple engines (AltaVista, Ask Jeeves, Webcrawler, Lycos etc) to just one. What I am starting to find now though, is that while Google is still the best for straightforward keyword based searches, there are a few specific types of thing where Google is not my first point of call:

"How To" videos

I have found that VideoJug is an excellent place to find really good quality instructional videos. Recently my wife and I held an Egyptian-themed murder mystery party and I used VideoJug to find this excellent video on how to tie a turban. Just today, I was looking for something I could make out of paper as part of my present to my wife for our first ("Paper") wedding anniversary and found just what I was looking for.

General overviews of a topic

If there is a topic, person or area which I know nothing apart, I have found that it is far quicker to go directly to Wikipedia than to bother searching Google. Wikipedia is excellent for giving an overview of a topic. For example I found myself using this yesterday when I wanted not specific information, but just a quick general high level overview of what Java Web Start is, and how it works.

I also use the Googlepedia Firefox add on so that when I do a search, the page is split and I get both Google and Wikipedia results. This is not only very useful, but also due to the "I'm feeling lucky" effect I sometimes learn some weird and seemingly unconnected things on the right hand side of the page when I am not looking for a wikipedia type topic.

Movie cast information

There's no competition - if I have any wonderings about a film "who is that actor? What have I seen him in before" I cut out google and go straight to IMDb, the Internet Movie Database, which has the best film information anywhere online.

Checking out email forwards and suspicious facebook FunWall posts

Whenever anyone sends me any "heartfelt true stories" or anecdotes attributed to a particular famous person, I always get the urge to find out whether they are true or not. One way is to put a key phrase into Google and add the word "hoax", but an even better way is to go straight to Snopes, the Urban Legends Reference Pages, which is almost certain to have encountered your email urban legend before and give you the lowdown on what truth, if any, is behind it.

Blog searching and "opinion" finding

If you specifically want to find the opinions of Joe Public, general ordinary people rather than journalists and media outlets, I have found that Technorati's blog search is by far the best way to pick up only results from Blogs.

In summary

I guess what I'm saying is, if you know what "type" of information you need, you can sometimes speed up your search by cutting out Google (where the results will not be in a consistent order) and go straight to the best quality source of that type of information. Maybe this is obvious but I just caught myself doing it a lot recently so I thought I would share!

I am sure there are others I have forgotten, these are a few off the top of my head. How about you, what places do you shun Google for when you want certain types of information ? Add your tips to the comments and we'll build up a list of really useful sites!


Monday, 7 July 2008

Gmail misbehaving in Firefox 3 on Leopard

How to get back your lost GMail features on Firefox 3 on OS X

Having become more and more aware of how slow and bloated Firefox 2 had become, and having downloaded Firefox 3 on my Windows laptop at work and noticed a definite improvement in load time and CPU usage, I decided to follow suit and install Firefox 3 on my Mac Mini at home which is running OS X Leopard.

It worked fine for a while, then today something strange happened - I clicked my usual GMail link on the toolbar and found myself presented with the HTML only view of GMail and a big flash saying "For a better Google Mail experience use a fully supported browser".. wtf? Why would GMail not support Firefox 3?

I checked the provided link and confirmed that yes, GMail does support all versions of Firefox after 2.0. I clicked the "Mac" link on that very page and was told by Firefox's download page that "Mac OS 9 and earlier versions not supported". Since that page detects your system to give you the appropriate link, this suggests something is reporting my system as pre-OS X, and that is stopping Firefox and GMail from thinking they can support my operating system... How very bizarre.

I did some googling and while I did not solve the problem, I quickly found a workaround... all I needed to do was change my GMail links to point to:

which is a link through to GMail which skips the browser check. Using this link, GMail and other apps work fine. Which is a relief, as I thought I might have to revert back to using BonEcho (OS X custom builds of Firefox 2). I did download and try Minefield (OS X custom build of Firefox 3) but got the same error message saying I had an old version of OS X. So I've not seen a need to switch to Minefield yet.

Update 9 July: Just noticed a similar problem with Google Docs. In this case, the URL has to be changed to Very strange that these Google apps would suddenly break. I hope Google fix this! (or if it's something at my end, hope I can work out what!)

Update 14 July: I just got a similar message (unsupported browser) from Yahoo when using Flickr.. so it must be something in Leopard rather than anything on Google servers.

Update 8 Jan 09: This problem has continued to resurface. Google Docs for example does not seem to have any "don't check my browser" option. Determined to get to the bottom of this, I dug deeper. One thing I found is that on my Firefox About window it was reporting the browser as "undefined GoogleToolbarBB". This can be confirmed by typing the following into the address bar:

javascript:prompt("My userAgent is:", navigator.userAgent)

This led me to conclude two things - firstly that the problem relates to my browser misreporting itself, and maybe that it's something to do with a Google toolbar (which is odd, as I don't have one installed - but maybe it relates to the built in Google search box?). Anyway, pursuing this line of thought a colleague pointed me to the Firefox User Agent Switcher add-on, which allows you to change how your browser reports itself. I installed this and then found some correct settings for Firefox 3 on Leopard. I created a new profile in the add-on and set it up as follows:

(The rest of the line that is too long is just an o to make Gecko)

The good news is the problems seem to have stopped! So I have a much better workaround although I never really found the cause. I suspect a clean install without bring forward my profiles, settings, add-ons etc might solve the problem - but this is not something I want to try so I am happy with this workaround for now!

No doubt this problem will come and bite me again, so If anyone has any further ideas please let me know! But at least I have a workaround.

Alternative Google Bookmarks Add-On for Firefox 3 on OS X

While on the subject of Firefox 3 - I have found that almost all the add-ons I use are now available for Firefox 3, although for some reason the Google Bookmarks for Firefox add-on, which adds a handy menu to firefox to add & retrieve your bookmarks and have them the same on all your computers, is no longer available on the OS X version of Firefox 3 (although it is available on Windows).

This risked being a show stopper for me as that is my main way of using Bookmarks. Fortunately, I have found an equivalent add-on called Deng Google Bookmarks which does pretty much the same thing (although it looks slightly different).
Hopefully the Google Bookmarks for Firefox add-on will be available for Mac in future - but Deng does a good job in the meantime.

How to improve your GMail interface (and other Google tools) by enabling trial new features

Thought this might be a good opportunity to share a couple of other Google related tips.. Make sure you go into your GMail settings and set your language to US English (not UK English or any other language). This is because new features always get added first to the US English version - for example the RSS feed "Clips" along the top of your messages was added first on the US English version. More on the differences between UK & US versions here.

You can also enable even more features by adding GMail Labs to your account (article at Lifehacker).

You can do a similar thing in iGoogle to enable an experimental new interface, as detailed at Lifehacker here.

There are even experimental features for Google search itself!