Category Archives: Technology

To err is human

Moreover's Classical music news as viewed through Amphetadesk in Opera 7.01While the debate about human editors versus machines still rages, observers should note that filed the recent ZDNet story
Opera: Microsoft is hurting our style under “Classical music news”. I can well believe that these guys may know nothing about classical music, but you’d think their technological expertise would tell them that Opera is more than just an art form.

According to their web site:

Moreover’s XML technology and proprietary rules-based categorization process ensure unrivaled quality of coverage and speed of delivery.

Unlike automatic statistical approaches to classification that are limited to 85% percent accuracy, Moreover’s hybrid technology that combines automatic techniques and human editors guarantees near-perfect accuracy, continuously.

Near-perfect accuracy? Although you can’t see it in the image above (click on the image for a larger view), the same mistake was repeated twice more with the same story from other sources. Someone needs to change the rule that references to “opera” should always be classified as classical music.

Finland’s senile dog problem

My Sudsy Dame and I both have mobile phones, and on a couple of occasions we’ve been forced to call one another in order to track each other down. Once, when we’d agreed to meet at London’s Elephant and Castle (that’s a large intersection, not the pub) we had to phone one another after both waiting 20 minutes without finding each other. On another occasion Sudsy Dame called for help to get out of London’s notorious Barbican complex.

Benefon Esc! GPS Mobile PhoneIt wasn’t long before I could see the benefit of combining a mobile phone with a global positioning system (GPS), and after a little research I discovered that they already exist.

Today’s Guardian reports on a new application of this idea - Finns can now home in on their hounds thanks to location-based services (see Guardian Unlimited | Online | Dog and bones):

Dogs wear a small mobile device and the hunters carry a Benefon mobile phone with built-in GPS and software from Pointer Solutions. If the dog goes missing, its exact position, bounced off a satellite, will be displayed on a map on the mobile’s screen. The hunter can also listen to the dog, which could be up to 100 kilometres away.

If keeping track of your spouse in this way sounds a little too manipulative and invasive, think again:

Tracking services such as this are among the more successful location-based services, according to Jeremy Green, head of wireless research at London-based consultancy Ovum. KTF of South Korea offers child-tracking and OAP-tracking
[Old Age Person]. Of its 5,000 customers, 20% have senile dementia.

So that’s what’s wrong with Finnish dogs - they’re all senile! I wondered what was wrong with a little old-fashioned obedience training.

Sudsy Dame has yet to develop senile dementia (I think), but the GPS phones could come in handy for the growing sport of Geocaching, of which we are both becoming fans and which I may write more about later.

The Minky Dishjet Powerpad

Click to view a larger image.I’d like to introduce the latest entry in the battle of the dishmatiques, the Minky Dishjet Powerpad!

Credit must once again go to my wife for spotting this new rival to the classic Easy-Do Dishmatique in our local Sainsbury’s (you may remember that she was the first to find the Easy-Do Bathmatique), and there can be no doubt that it also qualifies as a true dishmatique since it meets Jonathon’s specification:

  • a handle that is filled with liquid detergent; plus
  • snap-on replaceable sponge heads.

In fact, the packaging boasts that “Refill heads include brush, non-stick and tough scourer”. It has an on/off switch built-in to the handle so that although it “Dispenses Liquid As It Cleans”, it also “Saves Washing Up Liquid”. It has a screw cap at the end of the handle, so unlike the Dishappointing Dishmatique Flex, washing-up liquid can’t leak out. We’ve been using it for a week (in great secrecy) and can attest that it holds up well when compared with the original Dishmatique. It’s a little shorter, but stouter, and feels more durable. However, only time will tell.

It’s produced by Minky Homecare Vale Mill (Rochdale Ltd), who’s website address is given as, and I must admit that I’d never heard of the company before this discovery, which is perhaps a telling admission because…

Royal Warrant on Minky packaging … Minky holds H. M. The Queen’s Royal Warrant for cleaning and laundry products. This is the Dishmatique that Prince Phillip uses at Buckingham Palace! Now, wouldn’t he be a great addition to the Sudsy Studs Calendar? Just think what it could do for sales.

It’s all about the food

On the day when Tesco refuted claims that it was supplying spiders along with its grapes, comes news of a new on-line grocery business serving New York City (well, the Upper East Side at any rate).

According to the BBC (BBC News | UK | Tesco denies using deadly spiders):

Tesco has admitted that a drive to use less pesticides in its food could mean more spiders turning up in bags of fruit. But the supermarket denied that food producers are using black widow spiders, after three customers found them in bags of grapes. In separate incidents, the three women discovered the deadly spider among American-grown grapes bought from Tesco stores. Two of the spiders were alive. The company says producers do use natural predators to protect fruit, as an alternative to chemicals. But it strongly denies that the distinctive spider, whose venom is 15 times more potent than a rattlesnake, is deliberately used on suppliers’ crops in the US.

If that sounds like a scary disincentive, consider FreshDirect, a new on-line grocery delivery business based in Queens and currently serving the East Side of Manhattan.

According to Fortune magazine (The Online Grocer Version 2.0):

Their cargo–meat, fish, cheese, fresh-baked breads, produce, and other foods–sells at prices about 25% below what most New York grocers charge.

FreshDirect does deliver specialty-store-quality fresh food and prepared food at strikingly low prices.

It’s a measure of the times that Fedele and Ackerman [the company’s founders] refuse to call FreshDirect a dot-com. And while they admit that the company could not exist without the web (orders are placed on for delivery the following day), they insist that efficiency, not technology, is the point. “Our idea was to build the ultimate food company that could scale,” says Ackerman. “The only reason we chose the Internet was that it helped us reach people at a lower transaction cost. It allows us to do for food what Michael Dell did for computers.” One of the great unfulfilled promises of the Internet has been that it would enable manufacturers to sell directly to consumers. But few companies other than Dell have actually done it.

And of course Webvan failed spectacularly. That first great Internet grocery scheme spent more than $1 billion on huge distribution facilities in seven cities before closing shop in July 2001.

Why should these guys do any better? It’s a question they are asked constantly. Fedele and Ackerman insist Webvan was merely a distribution company that missed the point. Says Fedele: “This is a company based on food people, not dot-com people.” FreshDirect’s motto: “It’s all about the food.”

Hmmm…this is interesting. Up to now I had rather assumed that the attraction of on-line home delivery services was the convenience of the service rather than the quality of the food, which I have always assumed would be identical to that purchased in person at any given store. Certainly, here in the UK the food delivered by Tesco, Sainsbury’s, et al., is identical to that found in their stores. In most cases, the food actually comes from your local shop, so it is literally the same food that you would buy if you went shopping in person.

The interesting aspect of FreshDirect’s strategy is that it is offering better food at lower prices, as well as the convenience of on-line ordering and home delivery, which quite frankly sounds too good to be true. I find myself wondering what exactly "specialty-store-quality" really means and how it compares to the quality offered by the average grocery store in the UK. I also wonder if this approach would work outside of Manhattan, or more specifically in places where food is less expensive. Presumably shoppers in Queens already pay less for their food than residents of Manhattan. Will FreshDirect be as appealing to them?

Of course, Ocado (about which I have written previously, and on which the Economist reported just last week, see Off Their Trolleys) claims to be offering similar benefits here by supplying only food from Waitrose, which is generally considered to be the UK’s highest quality grocer; but Ocado is definitely not cheaper than food sold in Waitrose’s stores, in fact the delivery charge makes them more expensive still.

So perhaps FreshDirect’s approach will be limited to places with unusually high food costs. Of course it’s early days, and it remains to be seen if they can even make it work in Manhattan.

Just a bunch of pamphleteers

It occurred to me some time ago that webloggers are the modern equivalent of pamphleteers, and last weekend I did a little research on this idea. As you might expect, it’s been suggested before, most notably by Dan Bricklin, creator of the very first spreadsheet program, Visicalc (see Pamphleteers and Web Sites).

Now from the BBC comes news (BBC NEWS | Technology | Life lessons for web users) of a recent conference on the Internet’s potential to change society (Beyond the Backlash: Where next for the digital economy?). According to Mark Ward, who reported on the conference for the BBC:

John Naughton, professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University, said there was a pressing need to nurture public discussion spaces online and to keep them free of the usual vested interests that can hobble debate.

His comments were echoed by John Perry Barlow, founder of US cyber-liberties watchdog the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who feared that badly drafted laws would severely curtail the freewheeling spirit of online discussion.

"I thought we would be spared the governments impositions by its incompetence," he said, "but we cannot trust to that anymore."

Instead, he said, the US Government and corporations were pushing a unified agenda that stressed control, censorship and the removal of basic rights over freedom of discussion and action.

Challenges to the corporate and federal axis were limited because, so far, net activists and protesters were not fighting on a united front.

"What we have now is 10 million lonely pamphleteers crying out on lonely street corners and not getting together as a block or getting together as opposition to traditional institutions," said Mr Barlow.

He said there were profound dangers in letting the government and business-backed view of what can be done online prevail because the net was at a pivotal moment in its development.

"If we design it to serve existing models of business and government and to follow short-term goals we will be bad ancestors," he said. "Do not, I beg you, be bad ancestors."

I don’t know enough about the history of journalism to compare the effectiveness of the pamphleteers with that of webloggers, but it seems to me that it might be premature to draw any conclusions. Perhaps the "10 million lonely pamphleteers" will get together soon.

A number of interesting organizations appear to have produced this conference, including Demos, The Work Foundation, and vitamin-e.

The reality of text

Yet more interesting stuff from this week’s Economist ( | European telecoms). It seems …

One of the fastest-growing uses of text messaging, moreover, is interacting with television. Gartner’s figures show that 20% of teenagers in France, 11% in Britain and 9% in Germany have sent messages in response to TV shows.

I hate “reality television” shows, such as the Big Brother series, which have been the prime source of this interactive television trend. I have yet to see or hear any participant or fan with anything significant to say on any of these programmes. As far as I’m concerned the primary benefit of getting them all to communicate by text message is that each one is limited to only 164 characters. You can’t have too many run-on sentences with that reality!

Computers and people

Here’s an excerpt from an interesting editorial in this week’s Economist: | Computers and government (subscription required). Although it’s really commenting on IT projects in government, I think the same points are relevant to all organizations. In fact, it shouldn’t be titled "Computers and government" but "Computers and people".

Most private-sector bosses - especially since the bursting of the dot-com bubble - hope for nothing more than a return on their investment through lower costs and some improvement in competitiveness. But politicians (vide Mr Blair), desperate to find quick fixes and unencumbered with any understanding of what technology can and can’t do, often expect miracles. And one of the things that technology can’t do is to alter people’s attitudes towards change. "Change management" is never easy, but in the public sector it is especially hard because there is too little competitive pressure pushing it, and there are too many powerful unions holding it back. The commonest reason for IT failures is that custom-made systems are built to fit existing ways of working. Such systems, which consultants are only too happy to create, are expensive, deliver only marginal benefits and are inherently likely to go wrong.

So how can civil servants avoid disaster? First, they should regard installing new software as an opportunity to re-engineer the way they work in the light of both the Internet and how they want to operate for the next 20 years. Consultants cannot make those decisions for them. The new business processes must also fit unmodified software, not the other way round: the more modifications to the software, the greater the risk. Second, they should beware of incomplete automation: if one area of operations still depends on hand-written forms, little will be gained. To this end, they must buy business applications that have been engineered from the outset to work together. These may not individually be the "best of breed" that consultants often recommend, but they are more likely to be properly integrated - think of Microsoft Office. Finally, IT systems should provide managers with vital information; most fail to because data are fragmented and hard to find. With an Internet-based system, important information can be kept in one place, and managers can get at it when they need it.

US Radio Wants a Digital Revolution

Here’s an interesting article from the Associated Press (via Wired) about the advent of digital radio in the US: Radio Wants a Digital Revolution. As I read it I wondered if the author would mention the experiences other countries have had implementing digital radio, but no such luck. Only at the very end do we learn that…

Canada and parts of Europe and Asia have had digital radio for years, but those broadcasts are carried on a frequency reserved in the United States for the military.