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31 May 2006

Cough, cough. Pay attention please.

Having been bothered by a cough for the last few days and been singularly unimpressed with the variety of medicines on offer, I decided to try a different approach.

I have always wondered why when you have a chesty cough that you drink something that goes in your stomach. The logic seems perverse, like pouring something into your ear for a sore eye. Sure, your body might absorb the liquid and the ingredients might end up in the right place, but this also seems like a waste of time, like taking a pain tablet for a stiff ankle rather than just rubbing something onto the ankle itself. Why not have a directed cure rather than something that affects the whole body?

As someone who did singing fairly seriously for about 6 years (solo, small groups, choirs, Mod Gold Medal competition) as well as taking a keen interest in training singers (article on Gaelic singing technique), I've been aware of vocal sprays for a while.

So I looked for a cough spray, since something inhaled is likely to hit the spot quicker and go into the lungs, somewhere that would be difficult for cough syrup to end up. A search for "cough spray" in returns no pages at all.

The US seems to have got its act together on this one, with several products on the market. Given the advantages of:

1. You don't need to bring a spoon, or wash it afterwards
2. You get an exact metered dose
3. There's no chance of spilling it and making a great sticky mess.
4. The bottle is more compact
5. The container is a lot lighter than a bottle

One wonders why such a product has not caught on in the UK.

Meantime I'll borrow an inhaler, seems to do the job better than the cough mixture.

Sprays: the coffin of coughing (groan).

30 May 2006

100% suckers all the time

Dyson's motto is "100% suction all the time" or "The vacuum that doesn't lose suction".

The consumers' association's verdict in the June 2006 Which?, however, is:

It is bad news for Dyson as for the seventh year in a row it has come bottom of our reliability survey for upright cleaners. This year a scary 31% of Dyson vacs up to six years old needed a repair

More serious is the fact that Dysons are also prone to breakdowns because of problems with power and suction - nearly twice as many as other cleaners, in fact.

Dyson. The cleaner that doesn't lose suction. Well, except when it has a problem with suction. Or power. Also, except when it's broken down, and also except when it's been chucked in the bin as ours was earlier in the year. Ours lost suction when the intake of the barrel started to get filled up with dust (even though the barrel was nearly empty).

The respondents of the Which? survey indicate that Dyson has over 50% of the vacuum cleaner market. Are we 100% suckers all of the time, ready to shell out for an expensive gimmick that is bottom of the table for reliability?

James Dyson was famous for the thousands of prototypes he went through before we got the vacuum with (ahem) no loss of suction (except when it's broken down, etc). Given the above, maybe it's time for a few more prototypes - for someone worth a few hundred million pounds, it's surprising someone with his intellect hasn't already sorted it. Maybe he's too busy writing another book on how to be a successful entrepreneur. Straight out of the Bill Gates school of success - build an unreliable product and with enough marketing you can dominate the market even though the quality (like emptying a Dyson into the bin and getting a face full of a dust cloud) leaves something to be desired.

If you manage to fix the reliability issue, maybe the next autobiography could be James Dyson: Against the odds, discovering the reliable vacuum cleaner.

28 May 2006

Big Brother

(to be said in a Geordie accent)

Most of the house mates are in their living rooms.

Slowly getting their brains turned to pulp watching Big Brother and wondering why they have such sad lives that this is the best thing they can do with their spare time

The rest of us are perhaps wondering why the society we live in is becoming more like the Big Brother of 1984, having ID cards and our movements tracked at every opportunity.

If you leave the country you may be fingerprinted. If you buy things in a shop they might track your purchases with RFID. If you apply for a passport, you'll end up on the "optional" national ID scheme. And of course from birth every child will now appear on the national child register to allow their movements to be tracked. There is of course no truth in the rumour that at age 16, the child register details will be transferred to the National ID Card which in 16 years time will contain your medical history.

Truth stranger than reality (TV) ?
Way, aye man.

Citizen blogger logging off

27 May 2006

Scotland to follow Montenegro's democratic example?

With news that the recent vote for independence in Montenegro has passed peacefully, and been widely accepted, it would be useful for us to look at how Scotland could achieve independence.

A bill is about to be introduced to the House of Lords which will give democracy in Scotland an opportunity, and irrespective of your views for or against, like Montenegro we should be given the opportunity. Or will Labour stand in the way of democracy?

You may view the bill on this site at the following link:

Scotland Referendum Bill (application/pdf Object)

24 May 2006

King of the Internet. How the Royal Family can help us with privacy.

King of the Internet, or Queen depending on which you prefer. You too can have a Royal birthday online.

The monarch has a tradition of having two birthdays. Queen Elizabeth (no number 2 as I'm posting from Scotland and there was no Queen Elizabeth I of Scotland) celebrated her 80th birthday on 21 April 2006 and will celebrate her official birthday on 17 June 2006.

What a great idea. Two lots of presents! A chance for people who forgot the first one to make it up on the second. Even better you can have a birthday when it's likely to be sunny. Or if your birthday is on a date like 25th December or 1st of January when people usually have other plans, you can have an official birthday at some other time of the year.

Anyway, a frivolous point but with with serious implications for the web, especially in light of today's announcement that there are Privacy worries over web's future. You don't say! I've been writing on this for at least 3 years and I mentioned it on a recent blog.

The "mandatory date of birth" field seems to be getting increasingly prevalent on the web and I have already had one small success against the government in fighting this worrying trend. In light of what was said at today's WWW2006 conference, I think the case for online privacy is only strengthened. We should stop the trend of having dates of birth on sites "to validate you" or "as a login security measure" since this will result in the date of birth becoming the equivalent of the US Social Security number. This is something that is supposed to be private but is in fact widely used as a citizen ID and you don't exist without one.

In other to address this, we should all be Kings or Queens of the Internet and draw some inspiration from the Royal Family (thanks, ma'am). To do this, you simply declare another day of the year to be your "official" or "Internet birthday". Furthermore the year doesn't have to be the same as the real year of birth either.

Obviously if you're applying for a passport online as I did recently, then clearly as this is an official site, you need to give your real date of birth. That's a legitimate site with a legitimate reason and importantly they capture your date of birth via a secure form. The more nefarious sites who capture date of birth for "marketing reasons" or "for their records" and other bogus reasons invite identity fraud by not capturing the date of birth on a secure form so who knows where it is cached en route to their server.

So the challenge is, what Internet date of birth should you invent that's memorable?

Can I suggest that you choose one of the following (but obviously don't tell the site which rule you use). It also makes sense to have an internet date of birth that isn't going to get you into trouble (e.g. lying to get access to a site that otherwise you would be too young to get into).

Some ideas:

  1. The date of your wedding minus 30 years

  2. Your spouse's or sibling's date of birth

  3. Your eldest child's birthday minus 30 years

  4. A well known historical anniversary, e.g. 4th July 1976, Pearl Harbor Day + 30 years, the first man on the moon etc

Alternatively, in much the same way as has been adopted as a disposable email address for forms which require an email address to be filled, we could adopt a universal Internet Date of birth as a disposable date of birth field. I suggest the Universal Internet Date of Birth to be the 29th of October 1969. This is documented here and here as the day the Internet began, so it seems an appropriate date.

My privacy matters more than your right to define a field on a form as mandatory without good cause.

Sorry if this actually happens to be your real date of birth. However, on the bright side, it's going to be a very busy 40th birthday party in a few years time...

The (haptic) butler did it.

Under the theme of looking for a job a number of opportunities have come up that are not in easy commuting distance from where I live.

Could I do them remotely? Unlikely.
Would I have to stay away for a few days a week? Possibly.
If I didn't limit myself geographically could I have more opportunities? Probably.
Do lots of people have these problems and have to spend time away from home. Definitely.

Many jobs, especially involving consulting and visits to customer sites can involve a lot of travel. I was once offered a job by IBM which had "extensive and extended" periods of travel in the contract, they certainly weren't mincing their words.

This then raises the issue of what's the best way to attempt to maintain a family relationship when you're hundreds of miles away most of the time. Difficult, but certainly technology could help.

The idea of buying a laptop with wireless connectivity would allow me to appear on the laptop reading bedtime stories even though I might be hundreds of miles away. Certainly an opener, but what about haptic technology?

This is the technology which is now being adopted in medicine where surgeons can operate at a distance through special gloves that record their movements, transmit those movements across the internet and remotely operate a corresponding robot hand, possibly in a remote location.

This could have applications for the unfortunate remote worker. Faced with whiling away the boring hours in a sanitised hotel bedroom channel hopping, they could have a haptic robot at home copying their movements.

This would allow the remote worker to do the ironing at home, tidy away the clothes, vacuum the house, wash the dishes, load the washing machine, cook dinner and do all those interesting chores that they think they've escaped from. A remotely controlled haptic robotic with a webcam would be able to do them all, with a little help from the teleworker seeing what the robot sees and directing its movements.

Just think, if your partner lives in the UK and you're sent to the US on business, you could even do all the housework for them while they're asleep.

You need never be bored again.

23 May 2006

TV in the real world - DVD films come alive

There's a lot of reality TV on these days and I've already blogged about changing their format into something more useful.

However, we think of reality TV as us sitting watching a TV and the TV showing us some people off the street in some situation or other, usually hopelessly contrived.

What about if rather than us watching the situation, the situation came to us? That would be Reality TV 2.0 in Web terminology.

Rather than us watching the film on TV, the experience of the film came to us?

How would we do this?

On a DVD and successor formats there is ample space for additional material that runs alongside the film in real time. For instance, subtitle options. This additional material takes up a tiny amount of the available space on the DVD and alongside text options, other simultaneous digital tracks could also be embedded.

These additional tracks could then be used to drive devices in the home, in sync with what was happening in the film.

Since only a tiny amount of information is required, these could be embedded as their own track or even included as part of the sound track but on an ultra low frequency. If it was on the sound channel, a device would then sit in between the audio out on the DVD box and the cable taking the sound to the speakers and intercept the low frequency audio and convert it in to commands to work wireless devices.

The possibilities include:

  1. In an earthquake film, your chair could shake.

  2. In a movie with driving, you could be in a seat that tilts in sync with the film (e.g. like a flight simulator). Similarly horse riding, etc.

  3. In a scary moment, the remote in your room could dim your lights in sync with the right part of the film.

  4. In an X rated movie, your adult toys or "marital aids" could operate in sync with what is happening on-screen.
The rest I'll leave to your imagination. Did the earth move for you too?

UFOs and small beings with two stomachs

As every parent knows, small children have two stomachs. One gets full up really quickly and that's where the healthy food seems to go. Then when they've sat there for 10 minutes complaining about being full up, the second stomach comes into play and that's where the ice cream ends up. But I thought you said you were full I say, yet there is always room for something they want to eat.

When these children grow up, as adults they'll do the same thing. Especially if they end up working in finance, they might become UFOs or Unbelievable Financial Officers.
As unbelievable as the two stomach scenario is, many companies run their budgets along similar lines. How many of these can you spot?

We're downsizing, but we're taking on contractors.
But aren't contractors more expensive?
"That's a different budget"

We can't afford to send you on a course, there's no money in the budget
But you're giving me a generous layoff package, and with the money I can go on the course ten times over.
"Yes, but that's a different budget"

We need more staff to do the work we keep getting, but the recruitment never gets approved.
There's some consultants coming in to tell the management team the same things that the staff has been telling them for the last 2 years.
"We can afford the consultants instead of more staff, they are funded from another budget"

"I am being held up by slow equipment and hardware. I would be 5% more effective if my PC had an upgrade. This would cost less than 2% of my annual wages and the PC would last for 3+ years."
"The hardware budget is frozen, you'll have to make do on 95% effectiveness even though this costs the company more money".

"The net development costs will be much higher if we cut these corners, the system will be more unreliable and performance will suffer".
"Don't worry about that, we can transfer the costs to the support dept. They have a different budget."

Could all be straight out of Dilbert.

When I do business planning, I add up all the income, subtract all the expenditure and the net result is profit - the bank has no record of what internal budgets I use. In XP terminology, it's the simplest thing that works, and it does the job for me.

The next time the Unbelievable Financial Officer tells you about the multiple budget problem, tell them you've spotted a UFO. It's probably more believable.

22 May 2006

Prawn mayonnaise and genetic algorithm sandwich

When I was at High School in the 1980s I took it upon myself one summer to take the school's only computer (!) home and teach myself programming. By the end of the summer I had written a 3,000 line program (back in the days when lines of code mattered!) that managed the school's shop for snacks and drinks. I wrote to Apple, who were really impressed and suggested I entered a competition they were running, which I ended up winning 2nd prize in - Young Programmer of the Year.

However, what is more surprising is that the basic elements of quality control, getting close to the customer and applying simple arithmetic when I wrote that program still seem to be eluding multi-billion pound companies. It doesn't take an award winning program to sort it out, it's something that's easy for us all to understand.

Roll forward about 15 years. I was working for a very small company with no on-site canteen and when I went out for lunch I went to a very large supermarket for a sandwich. It was fine if you got there before 12 but as lunch wore on, if you got to the sandwich bar anytime after 1pm, your only choice was prawn mayonnaise on white bread. I have nothing against prawn mayonnaise and wouldn't be averse to having it with a meal, but the idea of trying to eat a sandwich of it and the prawns and or mayo oozing out between the bread and all over my desk and keyboard is a scary thought - why don't they have keyboards you can actually clean, there's a thought!

Anyway, here's the "rocket science secret formula" I devised at High School.

X is your current stock level of a product just before going to the shops.
Y was the stock level of the product at the same time last week
Z was the amount of stock you bought at the shops last week after the stock take.

So the amount you had at the start of the week was Y+Z.
The amount you've sold is this number minus X, or Y+Z-X.
Therefore if you know you go through Y+Z-X in a week the amount you need to buy is this amount minus what you've already got, or X
Hence, what you need to buy this week is Y +Z -X -X

So last Friday you had two boxes of crisps left (Z), you bought another 3 (Y) and at the moment there's one left (X). So this week you need to buy 2+3-1-1 or three.

It's not perfect, and doesn't deal with the fact you could have sold more if a stock ran out half way through the week. Nor does it deal with seasonal variations such as no-one wanting to buy creme eggs after Easter. But it does the job, and it does it a lot better than major supermarkets manage, hence the glut of prawn mayo at 1pm. Also, being aware of the shortcomings, it can be improved over time.

Genetic algorithms are the same. They are a way of trying lots of different ways of solving a problem and of trying to get close to the optimal solution but usually a good solution rather than the optimal solution is good enough. One example is playing chess - so long as the computer chooses a decent legal move within a reasonable time then it's good enough - there simply isn't the computing power available to wait for the perfect move. These algorithms are great at problems for where there are multiple correct answers and which are difficult or impossible to solve via more traditional means. However, they really score when all you want to do is make a good choice in a reasonable time frame, it doesn't have to be perfect.

The concept is just as true for delivering a completed project to a customer - it may not need a genetic algorithm to solve it, but cracking the core of the problem and coming up with a good solution in a reasonable time-frame is usually far more preferable then a great solution in a completely unrealistic time-frame and at astronomic cost. A good solution which delivers on time is what the customer wants. In XP terminology, it's do the simplest thing that works.

This customer wants a bit more choice and for supermarkets to look at their algorithm for making sandwiches. It doesn't have to be perfect, but three simple changes will be enough to improve it.

1. Note which type sells out soonest, and make more of these tomorrow.
2. Note which type sells out last, and make less of these tomorrow.
3. Listen to your customers and what they tell you.

Lettuce remember this, make no beef about it and remember which side our bread is buttered on.

The customer is king, and a happy customer keeps both supermarkets and programmers in business.

Food for thought.

21 May 2006

Chip and PIN Number ARRGGHHH

It's chip and PIN. Not "chip and PIN Number". A PIN IS a number, since PIN stands for Personal Identification Number.

Asking me for my PIN Number is the same as asking me for my Personal Identification Number Number, which is of course ridiculous.

Now, repeat together after me:

Please enter your PIN, NOT Please enter your PIN Number.
Please enter your PIN, NOT Please enter your PIN Number.
Please enter your PIN, NOT Please enter your PIN Number.
Please enter your PIN, NOT Please enter your PIN Number.
(that's once for every digit).

15 May 2006

Stop ID cards and the database state!

NO2ID:stop ID cards and the database state!

We would like to promote the above campaign which is recommending that people renew their passports in May (irrespective of how much time is left on them). That way, you will avoid having your details placed on the national ID register for a few years at least.

It'll also save you a few pounds as well as the renewal cost is likely to go up by about 30 pounds to pay for all the additional bureaucracy.

Anyone who replies with "have you something to hide" or similar can put in their comments, their annual salary and raise, what they dislike most about their boss and how much money it would take (remember Indecent Proposal) for them to sell their partner for the night.

Nothing to hide, or just decent privacy?

13 May 2006

Find and fix broken links via a hosted broken link prevention service

The Broken Link Preventer: Stopping broken links in real time.

A tool developed by a contractor at my company. We're now launching this as a hosted service for all you webmasters, ISPs, Web hosting companies etc out there.

Broken link checkers have been around almost as long as the web. However all they do is tell you at the time the check ran which links aren't working. They can't tell you what's broken in real time and they can't report on how often a customer saw a broken link.

This tool runs in real time and intercepts broken links so that the customer does not see a broken link at all. Moreover, there is minimal server load to run the
tool, it does not interfere with existing site statistics and it produces reports on the broken links. However, it does something a conventional link checker can't do - it tells the webmaster how many times each broken link was clicked on and where people go after leaving the webmaster's site.

Innovation from Scotland's Silicon Glen. See the link for more info.


US Patent for a full body teleportation system

United States Patent Application: 0060071122.

Well, full marks for trying I suppose. Short term memory loss when walking to the bus stop and it results in a patent for something from Star Trek!

Anyone for patent reform?

12 May 2006

Seeking new opportunities - looking for a job

I've been on the lookout for new work for a while. Largely because where I currently work (not mentioning any names here) has a fairly small IT department and as such opportunities for progression are limited. Having been there 6+ years it's time to move on.

However, given my continued frustration with most job search sites, which caused me to work out how to write a better search, I'm still stuck with the problems of Jobserve, Spring and s1Jobs and their PANTS search functionality. Indeed, more than two years after noting the S1 Jobsite as PANTS for telling me about jobs outwith my geography of interest, I still had to send them a mail this week with the content:
My filter is "Full time permanent jobs in Scotland". Why am I being spammed with info about jobs in Germany?
To which their response was
"they are posted to a generic location, which then returns on an Anywhere in Scotland search"
Maybe I should put that site in the "generic dustbin of broken searches".

Anyway, I've got 5 months left to run on my contract and although my employer is keen for me to stay to the end, they are also very flexible about me leaving early. I'm interested in looking around to see what's on the go and recently posted a brief resume on CraigsList.

With an eye to moving around, I was shortlisted recently for a Chief Technology Officer position and have also been shortlisted by for a Technical Manager position running two teams. I guess that's the benefit of having run a Ltd company for 6 years, I don't just have the employee skills, I've got a lot of the senior management skills too including business planning, negotiating deals, developing business relationships, doing accounts, fulfilling legal obligations and so on.

Basic qualifications:
B.Sc Computer Science (Edinburgh)
M.Sc Software Development, (Napier, Class medal and distinction)
Chartered Engineer and IT Professional
Member of the Chartered Management Institute, PRINCE2 awareness.
Starting year 2 of a 3 year part time MBA in September, working towards Chartered Manager status.
Significant and broad technical experience, successful delivery of many high profile projects including team leading and people management.
Proven ability to lead the field and deliver solutions ahead of competitors.

Any senior technical management position could be of interest, ideally Central Scotland although telecommuting is fine and I've done telecommuting work for two major US companies recently.

Positive endorsements listed on my LinkedIn profile.

Too bad the apprentice is over, although I rather prefer the Ken Olsen style of management to Sir Alan Sugar's. After all, I do have a certificate of praise from Ken himself, not bad coming from one of the most successful people ever in American business.

CV/Resume available on request. Certainly a bit more out of the box thinking developing a blog with several hundred visits a day on it to spread the word than just endlessly trawling broken websites....

thanks for listening.

11 May 2006

Phishing - a counter tactic

Phishing is a big problem. Can I suggest that the banks set up dummy phishing bank accounts with no money in them and issue logins to the bank accounts to all their customers. Maybe this could just be done via one central bank account and simply present a logical account number via the online banking.

Then when customers receive a phishing mail, they go to the phishing site and type in the dummy details.

The crooks then capture the dummy details and to all intents and purposes they can't tell the different between this account and a real one because the crooks would then be using the real banking site. The site could even be modified to show an account balance.

Then they try and move the money from that bank account to their own bank account and by typing in the details of where they are trying to send the money to, we might stand a better chance of being able to catch them.

At the very least the very large number of false bank details would tie up the crooks' time and make successful phishing that much harder.

Just a thought, anyone got any better ideas?

06 May 2006

Inspirational management

I started learning management techniques at Digital. Run by Ken Olsen, in 1986 Fortune Magazine named him the "most successful entrepreneur in the history of American business". The following quotes from that article are especially relevant:
"(Ken was) someone who believed in employees. The culture he created at DEC was one of employee recognition and empowerment, innovation, customer focus, total quality management, employee and company loyalty, frugality, family and work balance, and integrity. Moreover, Olsen regularly had coffee with his production-line employees, drove an older model car and provided no privileged parking for executives...

Companies such as Cisco Systems, Microsoft and Hewlett Packard have all benefited and grown out of the leadership, principles and success of Ken Olsen and DEC."

DEC may have run aground on the twin icebergs of Unix and the PC, but I was interested to read John’s Little Book of Useful Principles. John Harper who worked in the same group as me at DEC.

I recall the interesting and inspirational talks by Jac Simensen and still believe this today:
"Get the right people doing the things they’re good at, and then let them get on with it."
I also like the quote
"It is easier to obtain forgiveness than permission".
This quote is relevant for Google and employees devoting 20% of their time to their own projects, for which no permission is required.

It is a mark of a great leader that more than 20 years on, people still quote you and praise your principles.

Something to think about for the leaders of today, and tomorrow.

04 May 2006

RFID, privacy and domestic bliss

RFID - Really For Interesting Development?

You may have read the controversy surrounding RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags. There are passive tags (which require no power source) and active tags (which require a power source and have a greater range).

Much of the controversy has surrounded their deployment in shops and on consumer goods and the associated invasion of privacy, especially when passive tags can be made in volume for less than 7 cents.

However, why were those people not complaining when websites over the last 10 years have routinely been doing the same thing?

I've long been an advocate of setting an appropriate privacy level on the web - see this press release from 2003.

In a normal shop, it's perfectly possible to do your shopping, pay for your goods and then go home without the shop forcing you to "register", "supply a password, min 8 characters including a number" "set up an account" "give us your date of birth" "your mother's maiden name for security reasons" "think up a username that no-one else has" and "you'll need to tick this box if you don't want spam". Yet many of these are routine questions when shopping online. Not only does shopping on line force you to set up an account, but the shop then tracks all your purchases under this account and builds up a shopping profile.

Fantastic news for the shop, not so fantastic if you simply want to shop and not build up a life story in the process or waste 10 minutes setting up an "account". Shopping online is like shopping in a store and using a loyalty card, your every purchase is tracked and collated. However, people were wary of the invasion of privacy that these loyalty cards posed and so the stores introduced an incentive for people to use them - money back. 1% for many shops but up to 10% in some cases. But for the web, no such problems existed - people were forced to register, forced to set up an account and forced to have their details tracked from purchase to purchase if they wanted to use the site. Where was the loyalty bonus for handing over all this data? Which purely online stores offer between 1 and 10% back for purchases? Other than online versions of existing stores, hardly any!

I'm not against people having to enter their details to make a purchase online, clearly you need to enter an address if you want things delivered. You need to enter your credit card details if you want to pay by credit card. There's also an advantage in registering in that you don't have to type your details in again the next time you use the shop. But forcing people to set up an account every time, and often gathering spurious information such as date of birth and mother's maiden name "for security reasons" does seem to be going too far. Especially when such data, often gathered via insecure forms, is a treasure trove for any identity theft merchant. Especially if the data is sent unencrypted, who knows what cache on your PC or en-route the data will be stored.

So to the controversy of RFID. Once again there are potential privacy issues but this time there doesn't seem to be any payback for the public or opt-out. I'm not against RFID, it's not the technology that's the issue it's the way it's applied.

As an example of a positive use of RFID, let me say that living in a house with three young children, things often end up in unusual places despite my best attempts to be organised.

Popular pastimes in our house include Treasure Hunt For The Lost Remote Control for the TV or VCR or DVD or Digi Box. Another game is Where Have My Keys Gone This Time. Unlike lost DECT phones or mobiles you can't just simply dial them and listen for the ring. So perhaps a really productive implementation for RFID would be to deploy it in the home, fit the things you tend to lose with tags and then track their locations via a central box the same way that RFID is used to track products in a warehouse.

Now to think what I'll do with all that spare time I've just created. In the meantime, I'd better not buy a cordless mouse, who knows where it will end up.

Is Web 2.0 the big idea for solving our problems?

In Jan 2004 I decided that Simon Cowell was making far too much money out of rubbish television that largely benefited his own pocket a lot more than the people entering his TV shows.

So I thought, wouldn't it be good to have a TV programme that the public voted in but instead of benefiting a few people, society as a whole benefited.

I developed the idea a bit and in Feb 2004 got in touch with someone I know who runs his own independent TV company.

He thought my idea was very interesting and in the end the idea went to BBC Scotland as a programme concept. BBC Scotland wasn't interested but they thought some of the ideas in it were worth taking further so it then went to the BBC in London. It was discussed there but nothing much more came of it. In any case, there was always commercial TV, so my contact suggested sending it to some commercial companies. Back in 2001 I had some correspondence with Channel 4 about their E-millionaire show and thought they might be interested. The people behind that programme then got back in touch saying they were already doing something similar. That was October 2004.

18 months later, still no sign of the TV programme they had in production.

However, we now have Web 2.0. One of the key differences with what I was suggesting is that this wasn't just a programme with a social conscience but it was one that worked in a variety of media and tied together local papers, the Internet as well as TV and phone voting.

With the advance of Web 2.0, I thought that now is the time to revisit the concept. Certainly as one that got both a production company and BBC Scotland showing some interest, perhaps Web 2.0 is the forum that will make this happen. Not so much a TV programme with an Internet element, but a Web 2.0 site that happens to have its own TV programme (program for those in the US).

Is this the chance for Web 2.0 to make its break into TV?

Here it is:

Turning problems into answers into solutions.

A series for Television and the Web.

What big idea have you got - for your own, your family'’s, your community'’s or your country's future? Are you the next Trevor Bayliss with a terrific idea but struggling to find the right people to bring it to market? Maybe you're the next Stelios with a new business model in need of momentum? Maybe you're the next James Dyson needing significant finance to get a revolutionary idea off the drawing board. Hey, even the Beatles and JK Rowling had a tough time finding a route to market. Why does it have to be so difficult?

The initial idea.
I'm Scottish - – my country has produced some of the world's greatest thinkers, scientists and inventors. Yet, where are they now? The easier it becomes for the big thinkers to get attention for their ideas and bring them to market, the more of these ideas will be able to get into the world and make people's lives better in many diverse ways.

Better in what way? Everything. The BIG idea will cover the whole spectrum of ingenuity. One person's BIG idea might be a new ultra labour saving vacuum cleaner -– another's might be dealing with environment waste more efficiently. There will be no limit or limitation to bringing any idea about anything into contention, practical or impractical, very large or very small. The BIG idea is a can do programme not a can't do one.

All over the UK there are men and women with projects and ideas that could be the next big thing. The BIG idea will get those out of the drawer and onto the screen – and the public will vote to choose the best. The IDEA of the YEAR.

The idea in practice.
The BIG Idea starts with a national trawl for plans, possibilities and potential. Press promotion and road-show days in a number of places across the country will produce the long list. This isnÂ’t just a TV programme, itÂ’s a national event which works at the local level too with local papers promoting community based ideas and entries and local enterprise companies assisting people keen to take their ideas forward and presenting prizes to local winners.

Step 1
People are invited to text, email or submit via the web very short (a few sentences of ideas/invention/social change that they would like to see happen and why. Doesn't have to be patentable.

Step 2
Inventors are then invited to submit in detail their ideas for solutions to these problems. They can of course submit their own "problems" as well. It is important that they enter what the idea is, not how it works.

However, access to the new database above has major advantages:

1. If many people are requesting the idea, this is an incentive to further refine and develop the idea before submitting it since many other inventors might also have seen the opportunity. The requests could show against the idea like votes on a story on
2. If not many people have requested the idea, it could indicate the idea is truly innovative.
3. Seeing what has been requested could help develop new lines of thought and spot opportunities - a brainstorm database. Like comments on a blog.

When a solution is submitted, it is attached to a problem and people searching can see how many problems have prospective solutions, but not what the solutions
are. Like

Step 3
Judges then review the thousands of ideas submitted by inviting the inventor of the most promising ones in the database to do an elevator pitch on each one (ie. like Pop Idol phase 1).

However, the people reviewing the elevator pitches have no prior information about the idea. The reviewers of the "elevator pitch" recommend who should go forward.

This next list is then put back to the Internet.

Step 4
Each idea at this stage is then published in a form carefully checked by a patent agent that reveals enough to make the idea interesting but not jeopardise any prospective patent application. Note it is not a requirement of the competition to have a patentable invention - EasyJet is a huge success but isn't patentable, yet is exactly the sort of radical solution which might have come out of a competition like this. Similarly "Freeserve", etc. New business models are just as valid as the next wind up radio or bagless vacuum. Hey, maybe someone could actually figure out why Dysons get such lousy marks for reliability from the Consumers Association!

What is revealed about the idea at this stage is a short "What it is" rather than "how it does it" plus key points detailing target market, market size, principle benefits.

I've invented a super widget which analyses your diet and makes recommendations
based on your calorific content, nutritional balance and dietary needs. It
assists with your online shopping, cutting your online shop from minutes to
seconds and ensuring your are buying your weekly shop from the cheapest
Target market : Anyone interested in diet or saving money.
Market size : Global, billions
Benefits: Saves time and money. Makes diets simple.
(this would be based on the principle that you could tie up bar codes on food roducts with their associated nutritional information and then tie this back to a central database which recorded what you had already bought that week or eaten so far that day).

At this stage, each idea is given a shortcode which can be used to vote by SMS or phone with touch-tone. Shortcodes are viewed on the web.

Businesses can also bid for the exclusive rights to take a product to market. Supposing a phone vote cost 20p, well a business could put in 1000 votes for £200, etc. Bit like E-bay but the winning business would buy the first refusal rights to take the product to market. Money raised is used to fund patent applications and take out advertising in national newspapers to raise awareness of the ideas, develop a market.

Competition progresses by having intellectual rights in the businesses registered then revealing more and more about what they are about, the benefits, building a prototype, facing challenges etc (e.g. a competitor has started, how would you deal with that; you have a week to find a real company to manufacture your product etc). The public votes for the business and leader each week who they most want to see to market.

Key points about the competition:
Open to anyone. Age completely irrelevant (that one throws out the rule book right away!! Today's Trevor Bayliss or tomorrow's Branson - each has an equal chance. No ageism, sexism, racism etc here.

Sex irrelevant, background irrelevant, etc. Ideas and their markets are being assessed not people. Questions about age, gender etc will not be asked on the forms. (this is where funding goes wrong - some funds are only for under 30's, the Innovation Fund is only for people at University, and so on).

It is a competition that is open to anyone regardless of ability or background.

The point is to get people excited about solving problems, being innovative and encouraging people who are good at ideas but who don't necessarily see themselves as managing directors or for various reasons can't commit the time or don't have the money to launch via other routes.

The long list will be chosen by the production team, working with outside experts. Each item on the long list will be allocated a "celebrity champion" (for example Stelios, Richard Branson) who will state during the show why they like the idea.

The BIG idea will seek to work with these bodies and companies whose job is to produce the goods – bodies such as Scottish Enterprise (for Scotland), the Arts Council and the venture capitalists. Their support and expertise will be invaluable. Successful and innovative project sponsors will also be sought. But above all it is the participation of PEOPLE who want to succeed that will essential – for the show is about celebrating not only innovation, but the power of society to be positive and create change.

The money generated from the phone vote and from sponsorship will provide a prize that helps to do that either in the form of a commercial exploitation, or in the form of a publication, an art work or even the foundations of a building. The BIG idea is about making things happen, and the winner (or winners, for some of the long list projects will undoubtedly attract interest from others) will be guaranteed the chance to do just that.

The BIG idea.

The BIG idea is participation television, it is interactive television, it is the Internet complementing television, it is positive thought, it is community involvement - it is television that thinks, it is television that entertains and it is television that actually makes a difference rather than being couch potato material. It is, in itself, a big idea which the UK and nations need in order to move forward. It is the kick start to getting Britain and the world to think about itself and about what it needs.

(at the very least this will stop Simon Cowell with coming up with something similar and then saying he thought of it!)

May the fourth be with you

Are you Darth Vader, a borg or a dalek?

On Star Wars day, May the Fourth be with you, a chance to look at some top villians from science fiction and see who you can spot in the world of business.

Darth Vader from Star Wars?
The Borg from Star Trek (discounting the Tom Baker Dr Who episode with a character called Borg in it)
The Daleks from Dr Who?

What's all this about then? Ever watch The Apprentice? Don't suppose Sir Alan Sugar wouldn't get on too well as an employee, he's too much his own boss and certainly isn't a team player. Just as well he started his own business, I doubt many would want to hire him. The same is also true of many other sucessful people who spent very little time as employees before they set out to make their fortunes. Bill Gates and Sir Richard Branson spring to mind. Yet each has a very different technique for success.

The world of business and the world of employment have a conflict of philosophy.

In the world of employment, you need to be a team player, if you recruit then discrimination is usually illegal.
In the world of business however, it pays to be ruthless. "You're fired" as Alan Sugar says. It's every person for themselves. If you don't win market share then someone will steal yours. Finally, discrimination in the world of business is rampant and encouraged. Well of course there's plenty "woman of the year" awards, especially when there is no male equivalent. Do you think a company could get away with having "female employee of the year" and no male equivalent? There's also ageism - many startup funds are only available to people who have had a certain number of birthdays or less. This rampant discrimination seems to be par for the course for startup funding, business awards and so on yet quite rightly ruled illegal in the workplace. Maybe those who fund such awards should look more closely at the message they send out.

So the world of the business leader is often a rough one, dealing in a world of discrimination, trying to outplay the opposition, using every trick possible to succeed. The world of the employee is tough enough with redundancies, downsizing, outsourcing and so on yet the team spirit is enouraged. Working together is encouraged. The "no blame" culture is encouraged. Collaboration rather than confrontation. One wonders how these people will ever fit into the culture of the leaders.

Back to science fiction.
Darth Vader works in collaboration with the evil empire that attempts to appear as the one true way.
The Borg assimilate the opposition and incorporate them for their tools and knowledge.
The Daleks eliminate all who stand in their way

Microsoft, Oracle, and sir Alan Sugar anyone?

May the fourth be with as as we look for a leader that as a role model for the next generation of enterprise is a Jean Luc Picard, Luke Skywalker or Dr Who. someone who can truly Do No Evil.

Beam us up- there's no intelligent life down here, Scottie.

02 May 2006

Extreme Management, investment in people

In my earlier post on extreme management (XM) I mentioned there weren't many books on it.

However, Kent Beck's reference work "Extreme Programming Explained" is about more than just programming. It isn't just about software engineering either (documentation, analysis, design, code, test, deployment, support, close).

Much of the book covers the extreme team and roles within it such as the customer, coach, tracker and also the more managerial activities such as management strategy and business issues. However, these are still written from the point of view of people in a small team working alongside the extreme programmers.

Taking a step back, if the principles of XP work for programming, what about the other aspects of running a company which have nothing to do with programming? What about the levels of management in a Big Company that are 2 or 3 levels removed from the programmers? Would a board meeting work as an agile scrum rather than a long meeting with lots of nice executive food laid on? It might even decrease boring meetings with buzzword bingo the main entertainment.

Could XP work for sales, marketing or business development? I'm sure it would shake up Dilbert's view of some senior managers..

Let's look at some of the principles and characteristics of XP and rather than thinking about programmers, see if they could also be applied to other departments and/or senior managers:

  1. Incremental planning. Flexible scheduling

  2. Lightweight, efficient, low-risk, adaptable, fun.

  3. Able to try things out and get results back quickly in response to business needs

  4. Relies on good, frequent interaction. Close collaboration and regular meetings.

  5. Relies on the four values of communication, feedback, simplicity and courage.

This looks to me like a set of attributes that are relevant for everyone in a company. XP in a company is like the company's attitude to quality, voice of the customer, or employee development. It works best when the whole company has the same work ethic.

So if you see your management team locked in a room for hours or days doing waterfall development for a business plan, why not suggest that a small incremental change to the business plan every week might work better than a big bang approach every 2 years? Their programmers might be able to teach them a thing or two as well. XP Knowledge can spread upwards.

I like an advert that's running in Computing at the moment which says "Meet the CEO of cubicle 36". In XM, everyone is a CEO, all that changes is the size of technical, financial or business responsibility that you are CEO for. Everyone does a much more similar job and there is more crossover between skills in different departments. Great if you like engaging your whole brain sometimes rather than just the techy bit.
This isn't really new however, it was a work ethic I picked up at Digital where in my first job I was given significant responsibility dealing with the company's biggest customers worldwide and authorising their networks for connectivity to public networks. Management empowerment can spread downwards.

In the XM world, it isn't just empowerment that sweeps down an organisation though, it's the cross sharing of knowledge across departments. Did you know for instance that the financial formulae that your financial director uses to make decisions can be applied to a small software team? You might have heard of Net Present Value and Internal Rate of Return (IRR) for calculating whether to embark on a project, but the same formulae can be used to estimate the financial benefit of any work task, such as "having an offsite meeting" "conducting market research" "attending a conference" and so on. Skills and knowledge of the problems and solutions can circulate.

By spreading the work skills around an organisation and managing empowered people, not only does the organisation as a whole start using its whole brain but the transitions in terms of responsibility up the corporate ladder become less severe in terms of either "technical" or "managerial". This in turn allows for smoother career transitions and promotions, more opportunities and greater staff retention.

People are a company's #1 asset. That #1 asset also leaves the building each night, a risky prospect for any asset manager. If everyone feels they are their own CEO, not only will they likely enjoy their jobs more but will have invested in its people and gained their respect.

Perhaps XP will come to mean eXtreme People rather than just programmers.

Craig (CEO of this blog)

01 May 2006

Mayday, Mayday - Beltane out for help

The 1st of May is of course Latha buidhe bealltainn, the golden day of May and the start of the Celtic summer.

The Celtic year was divided into 2 halves - the dark winter half and the vibrant summer half. Each half was then divided again to mark the seasons.

The year began with the dark half at what is now Hallowe'en. 6 months on and today we enter the summer half. I recall when I was a student in Edinburgh that there were no formal events to mark this occasion, other than washing one's face in the morning dew to symbolise cleansing and renewal. Since then however, Beltane in Edinburgh has (with the help of the School of Scottish Studies) become something of an event with the Beltane fire festival now attracting up to 15,000 people. It also happens to be the day in 1989 when the Gaelic-L list was founded, a list I jointly managed for many years and which was the Internet's first list for a minority language.

Perhaps if there were more schools of Scottish studies around Scotland or indeed if we took more interest in the customs of our country, then observance of the start of summer would be more widespread. After all, Hallowe'en has now become highly commercial and American customs such as "trick or treat" are taking over from guisin'. By contrast, Beltane would be an ideal opportunity for us to look at our past in a more traditional way, especially as the US is about the only country not to recognise the May Day holiday which falls on the first Monday in May and often coincides with Beltane.

Beltane out for help - it shouldn't just be Edinburgh which celebrates this event, as an important part of the Celtic culture which has influenced Scotland, it should have greater recognition throughout the land. Especially as it often coincides with a holiday, it's an ideal time to promote culture and benefit from the knock on effects on tourism. Certainly the 15,000 people celebrating it in Edinburgh would agree and there's an opportunity here for other places in Scotland to take similar advantage.

Yet as a country we are sometimes reluctant to nationally embrace Celtic aspects, even though we have readily embraced the Celtic kilt as a national symbol. It is even difficult to find any teaching of Celtic customs in Scottish schools - so the children learn their "authentic Celtic customs" from TV and the High Street shops rather than as part of their education. Curious how we introduce Scotland's favourite novel, Sunset Song, as part of Scottish literature yet don't explain the more ancient standing stones from which the principle character draws strength. An opportunity missed that the main character Christine Guthrie 1896-1999 didn't explain it all.

Is it Mayday (help) for Scottish culture? Or is it the start of a renewal- a symbolic revival and the summer of a culture's confidence and growth? Certainly if we learn to embrace our nation's cultural past, it is a sign that we have emerged from the winter of the Scottish cringe into at least the springtime of our national identity.

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