COMMENT

A global archive of independent reviews of everything happening from the beginning of the millennium



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Comment reviews:

OLEDs

An Alternative Hypothesis

Mutt's Dinner

Margaret Thatcher

Arbitration and the Press

Public Speech

Driverless Cars

The New Faustian Pact

Strands of Change





COMMENT 2013


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Automation

11 March 2013

Having made a case for robotics (in the Driverless Cars review - see the side panel for all 2012-2013 comment reviews), not all automation is impressive and forcing real humans to do what computers want is the wrong way to tackle things. So I rigorously avoid the self-checkout tills at supermarkets. The error rate of these machines is too high and it is pleasanter talking to real people at the tills. The supermarkets have not yet made a cast iron case for them. Speeding throughput and cutting down on staff numbers suits them more than the customers. (Waitrose does it slightly better; you have a scanning wand with which you can scan items as you place them in the trolley or basket but except for large loads it does not necessarily beat queueing at the tills).

Computers and robots must always serve humans.

Corporations have often got it the wrong way around. Banks write algorithms and programs that force the staff to do things the computer's way. The staff then set up rules to force the customer to do what they want. The result is customers avoid those banks till they change their ways. With near field technology and other technologies there is a real possibility that new institutions will spring up to replace banks for non-complex payments.



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Media


18 June 2013

The editor of the Financial Times' suggestion that Lord Grade mediate on the subject of press regulation is an excellent idea. His business nous and get-to-the point commonsense is evident to all and if anyone knows how to navigate what government wants and the media needs it is probably him.

If criminal activity is being stamped out it is not at all clear what the present compromise achieves. Some clear principles that everyone can understand would help - and an outcome that demonstrates to the world that Britain has a free press. Otherwise, why bother.



12 October 2013

The most puzzling aspect of the raging debate about press regulation is why the Privy Council need be involved at all.

As Lord Justice Leveson is reported as saying at the culture, media and sport select committee this week:

I am certainly frustrated that people talk about statutory regulation of the press which I do not believe is what I recommended.


and

You are right to say the concept of the royal charter was not mine. I did not think of it. What's more nobody suggested it. I received submissions from hundreds of people, dozens of bodies, and it wasn't a concept that came to me then or at any stage over the course of my deliberations.


and (of the arbitration scheme):

I wasn't proposing compensation for complaints about facts and accuracy. It was purely for breaches of the law.

Taking the last point first: So it doesn't look like an arbitration scheme would unleash a wave of vexatious claims that could not be handled because in the light of recent history breaches of the law are what most publishers are going to strenuously avoid. Furthermore, if the law is breached (most probably in relation to privacy or libel) one would have thought that many publishers would prefer to see the matter resolved by a private tribunal rather than in open court - the latter, amongst other things, being more likely to invite copycat claims.

As to the involvement of the state, there is no reason at all why the 'recognizer' need have anything to do with the state at all if the press trade bodies and the main publishers contractually agree to it being the recognizer. So it could be any independent body that has established a reputation in overseeing disciplinary and dispute resolution matters (like the Jockey Club though it is not being suggested that it should be lumbered with this hot potato).

Of course, there is the possibility that some publishers might not sign up but if the idea of awarding exemplary damages were dropped doubtless they might be persuaded to sign up by their peers to avoid the involvement of the state.

Certainly, the arbitration scheme needs to be at arms length from the regulator in the manner that the Court of Arbitration for Sport has found its way to be independent of the IOC.


[Whatever people's views of the Jockey Club no one can say it was unjust in relation to disciplinary matters in its centuries of self-appointed governance of racing. Its powers have passed to a state influenced body, the British Horseracing Authority, which does the job well, but that was the result of another government power grab. The good reputation of the Jockey Club is still intact and, one assumes, its residual expertise.]



16 December 2013

The lack of any volunteers amongst the newspaper groups to join the new Privy Council sponsored regime means it is probably now dead in the water as we draw towards the close of 2013.


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Life Expectancy

21 June 2013

All told, Jeremy Hunt has done a pretty good job since being appointed Secretary of State for Health. You cannot allow yourself to be subject to too much institutional capture and as far as we can tell he has not. As he says:

In the wake of Mid Staffs, Morecambe Bay and many other shocking lapses in care, we must ask ourselves whether we, along with other countries, have become so numbed to the inevitability of patient harm that we accept the unacceptable. That grim fatalism about the statistics has blunted the anger that we should feel about every single individual we let down, anger that should be the fuel of an uncompromising determination to put things right. It is time for a major rethink....

....This is a tiny proportion of the total number of people treated. But even those figures amount to nearly half a million people harmed unnecessarily every year. And 3,000 people who lost their lives last year – not despite our best efforts, but because of failures in our efforts. That's more than eight patients dying needlessly every single day in our wards and operating theatres....

....This is the silent scandal of our NHS. Yes, still, the NHS fails too many times.

Say it softly but Labour mismanaged two areas disastrously: 1) the economy and 2) the NHS and care in the round and it may be that the latter was the greater failure. The was no shortage of money pumped in, some of it PFI money where the bill was largely deferred, and NHS managers mushroomed in number and internal power to the detriment of doctor-led medicine.


Yet national life expectancy figures do not mislead. They are, after all, based on averages. They mean that some people had dramatically foreshortened lifespans because of NHS failure and very many others did not have the extra months or years they could have had.

The NHS is not very good at ensuring good quality later life across the board for everyone and excuses about lack or misallocation of resources will not do.

Some reports were seminal in their importance - Scarman, Macpherson - and to their credit all parties, including the institutions criticised, took on board enough of what was said to bring about beneficial change.

The Francis report is another such seminal report.


It has been mild in not allocating particular blame to individuals but its criticisms have been far from it.

After Scarman and Macpherson, institutions slowly emerged stronger but with the NHS everything cannot be left to ministers, with Francis' criticisms and recommendations left unaddressed at local level awaiting central guidance.

In the countries with which the NHS would wish to compete on life expectancy there is no 'envy' of the NHS, a fictitious political or media construct.

Only self-examination and actual change can now save this institution.



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Electric racing cars

25 June 2013


Former Labour minister, Lord Paul Drayson, set the world speed record today for an electric car in a Lola B12 69/EV, developing 850 bhp, at the RAF Elvington racetrack in Yorkshire reaching 204.2mph (328.6 kmh).


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OLED televisions

27 June 2013

Samsung has just announced its first consumer OLED television. The screen will give sharper pictures, a better range of colours and more realistic blacks.

OLED screens are already used by it in higher end mobiles like the Galaxy S4. The 55-inch televisions will be curved, so no mixing them up with the ordinary LCD product, which is perhaps just as well as they have a list price of $13,000.


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Smartwatches and OLED screen watches

12 July 2013

With smartwatches soon to be the rage and one capable iteration at least, from Sony, being on the market, could we have some lateral thinking?

At least one type of smartwatch needs to let us leave the mobile phone behind. It could pick up and send data as it passed wifi hotspots, forgetting bluetooth and mobile networks. This could make communication for some similar to what it used to be - in the city keeping in touch was potentially easy, out in the countryside everyone accepted that you could be incommunicado until you got near a telephone. Town communication could be intermittent, allowing you to get on with other things rather than devices demanding constant communication.

Nor do you want to take a mobile when doing some activities, like sailing a dingy, but a watch would be fine.

The smartwatch would pick up texts, email, notifications, tweets, images and low bandwith short video files as you passed the hotspots and send off any waiting for despatch. Single images and animated gifs could carry adverts, navigation information, even product information if you were in a shop. Near field communication and payment using it would be possible.

Instead of the text saying 'Mummy, can you pick me up from school later today than usual because...?' a low bandwidth 10-second video clip could say the same thing but much more information about demeanour and so on would be visible and readily viewed in the course of doing other things.

Then the watch form factor should change.

Square and round we are well familiar with. Oversized watches are boringly clichéd as a status symbol.

What we need is landscape format watches, all the better for watching the short video clips and providing more space for the innards, especially in the case of watches for children and women.

OLED screens, which some smartwatches already have, would provide better colours and allow screens to be curved and, to some degree, flexible.


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Smartwatches

26 July 2013

Surely smartwatches should be in the mould of disruptive technologies - cheaper than the technologies they replace and reaching customers not reached before?

So they should allow you to leave both a more expensive watch, if you have one, and the mobile at home. Perhaps it is not mobile phone manufacturers who should bring them to market after all but whoever wishes to displace them.

Such as watch manufacturers even. The design heritage could be compelling.



2 August 2013

So after the self-driving car ,Google-owned Motorola has announced the Moto X, which it calls a self-driving phone on the basis that it will operate entirely off voice commands, if you wish it to, as the prototype Google Glass already does, but with the full range of functionality of a smartphone. One of its eight processor cores is continually listening so you do not have to waken it first. The phone also provides 'persistent' time and notifications displays without awakening. It is also not expensive.

So it has some of the desirable characteristics of the type of smartwatch advocated here.

Motorola says you are what you wear and so you could wear both the Glass and the customisable Moto X but is it the smartwatch that you wear somewhere between the two that will take the market of both? After all, if the tablet replaces the laptop for some surely the smartwatch will replace the mobile for others.

If the mobile is always listening this is intriguing. Could you place it in the top pocket of a jacket (which does not help those who do not wear something with a top pocket), assuming it could be anchored in so that it did not slide out when you bend, and still hear your commands? Or will the microphone be too muffled? If it could still hear your commands it would perhaps be a preferred alternative to a smartwatch or Glass for some.

What Motorola is right about is that people want choice.

****

Glass creates all kinds of uncomfortable privacy issues.

The ever listening mobile could transform customer service. Telephone an institution like a bank and the calls are likely to be recorded 'for training purposes' without the customer ever getting the transcript.

Go into a bank with an ever listening mobile and the position will be reversed - the customer gets the transcript of the conversation (an app will soon appear that allows this, as night follows day).

So which would you rather have - an ethics-based society where both parties try to do the right thing anyway or a contract-based society where evidence is gathered by both parties to right imbalances?



26 September 2013

Steve Wozniak has recently said that he does not want smartwatches to have the same form factor as traditional watches and it is hard not to agree.

It is good of Samsung to bring out the first iteration of its Gear watch so early but it disappoints.

It is not remotely fashionable or even good at displaying the time.

The display is square within a portrait format watch. It needs to be landscape in a landscape rectangle or landscape oval so that mini video clips can be seen on it (to be watched instead of working when at a desk).

Or so the surgeon can monitor vital data whilst operating. Or so the cook can learn how to cook whilst cooking.

The microphone needs to be good enough to pick up voice clearly without being held near the mouth.

The architect should be able to do a drawing whilst dictating a letter.

The builder should be able to climb a ladder and talk to the person below at the same time which means the watch should be an independent telephone.

The space taken up by the Gear's camera could perhaps be taken up to make these things possible.

To what extent does a camera invade other people's privacy? It does with Google Glass but not much with a watch because of the difficulty of maintaining it pointed in one direction for long but if there is to be a camera it should be able to take short 10-second videos of 240 x 160 pixels, say, which can be watched on similar devices.


[The Gear does produce 15-second videos but there is no indication that they can be routinely sent to like devices in the manner of text.]

****



Commenting on consumer electronics is, of course a mug's game. Next system update and they are out of date, don't go up in value like fine wine but possible hang around a little longer!



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The age of the tricycle?

11 October 2013

The chatter in cycling circles that driverless cars will mean that cyclists will be able to lane hog safe in the knowledge that cars will automatically slow for them or, alternatively, that they will find themselves banned from road use entirely because of this potentiality is far off the mark.

There will for a very long time be vehicles on the road that are not automated - legacy cars to start with - that will pose a potential hazard to both driverless cars and cyclists.

Not quite seriously, if ever there was a vehicle that is an anachronism it is the bicycle - a horse designed by a committee, neither a pedestrian nor a car.

Looking at the scooters used by disabled people - usually with four wheels, broad and with heavy battery packs - one wonders couldn't they be lightweight and narrow like a child's tricycle, with lithium ion batteries in the frames and with some navigational aids, and then couldn't we all have one?
(Some two-wheeled electric bikes are already very space efficient).

No, no, in good central planning mode, cyclists will have to convert to tricycles if they want to use the pavement and queue up behind baby buggies, pedestrians and everyone else with automated braking and bell ringing, and regenerative braking and pedalling.


Whatever next? - the Tour de France starting on the pavement and in England!

In practice, driverless cars will greatly reduce the number of accidents with bicycles as they, in most cases, can 'see' 360 degrees and are 'looking' at all times.


7 November 2013

Press reports announce that driverless cars will be available in Milton Keynes from 2017. They are likely to have three wheels and we now know they will be driverless pods using the town's broad pavements and are currently being designed and built in Britain by RDM in Coventry. The proximity of the new Transport Catapult in Milton Keynes will be useful as the LUTZ pathfinder technology and social trials pick up steam.

[3 December 2014 The LUTZ project is to be subsumed into a larger consortium project, UK Autodrive, and will trial autonomous vehicles in both Milton Keynes and Coventry.



2014 pod


2013 pod
Photos: Dept of BIS

When LUTZ was announced I had a good discussion with the project director about whether the pods would be three-wheelers. It looks like four wheels have won out.


With the welcome expansion in UK input to autonomous technology announced this month Worldreviews will continue to provide Europe's most influential commentary on driverless cars and pods].



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NHS

11 November 2013

As we draw closer to the end of 2013, a small political side bet could be placed on electoral fortunes improving in 2014 for politicians who advocate or help Britain become a place where citizens are kinder to one another however competitive the environment is in which they live. It will not be good enough just saying it. The public will discern who can deliver it.

In 2013 the politician who stands out as having done something in this direction is Jeremy Hunt. We cannot go back to the situation in the late New Labour years for the areas he is trying to reform.

Critical now is how the government reacts to the Francis report and how fast his recommendations are irreversibly implemented. It would be a brave person who says implementing Francis would not make Britain a kinder place.


16 November 2013

The Prime Minister demonstrated yesterday the government's willingness to act firmly and promptly to check some of the worst excesses in the NHS. Speaking from the Commonwealth summit, David Cameron said:

Mid-Staffordshire hospital showed that sometimes the standard of care is not good enough.

Never again will we allow sub-standard care, cruelty or neglect to go unnoticed and unpunished.

A new law will be announced next week affecting all NHS personnel including managers, doctors and nurses introducing criminal sanctions for wilful neglect.

The Prime Minister said:

This offence will make clear that neglect is unacceptable and those who do so will feel the full force of the law.


****


Though more well qualified doctors in the NHS is a necessity, it is clear that putting patient safety first is not solely a matter of staffing levels.

In advance of the legislation there can be no excuse for neglect this winter.

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Professor Don Berwick's formulation of 'wilful or reckless neglect or mistreatment' would be preferable to 'wilful neglect' because the great majority of such neglect or mistreatment is reckless. Different penalties could be available for wilful or reckless.

To clear the lines once and for all, as many of Francis' recommendations as can feasibly be implemented, fully or with some modification, should be adopted at the same time.


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Markets

26 November 2013

It is no surprise to see George Osborne acting to cap pay day loan charges. It makes Britain a kinder place. Blatantly usurious loans rates have no place in a well functioning free market. Markets have always been bounded by ethics though we used to derive these ethics from religious morality (and to some extent still do). Central bank base rates also have to mean something, not just the cost of last resort wholesale money. They have to be a guide for general interest rates, including consumer credit, and it was in the Labour years that this role was broken down most.

Part of Labour's solution, to tax pay day lenders more is ethically dubious. Taking a cut from this type of usury need some justifying.

Likewise whilst all Labour seem to be offering on health is a fifth reorganisation in two decades, after three of theirs and one by the coalition, by implementing nearly everything in the Francis report and changing the parameters of GP provision of services including the extending of hours, concrete action is being taken by the government to make Britain a kinder place and health provision more accommodating to the patient.

With Labour's proposal to freeze energy prices for 20 months, the principle of taking on an oligopoly of providers that behaves in many respects like a monopoly is a worthwhile one but the proof is in the pudding. The likely result of this proposal is that energy companies will hedge part of the cost of their supplies for the period in question in advance and the cost of the hedging will be charged to the customer either before or after the freeze. If world energy costs rise in those 20 months the pudding will taste good, if not it will be ill-baked.

It cannot be ruled out either that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will act on energy prices in other ways soon enough.



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A one nation policy - really?

4 December 2013

Need an example of why Labour gives the impression of a party with only one general election left in it before disintegration? Here is one, its latest policy position for the disabled:

Labour believes all disabled people who are able to work should work, and should have the chance of decent employment. That's why we want to make work work better for disabled people, developing better support to help them gain the skills that they need.

Four times 'work' in two sentences and unreconstructed social authoritarianism.


Tougher? - yes. Kinder? - no.


Alternatives? How about a free transport obligation within a 5-mile radius and not just to get to the polling booth?



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Provision for the disabled

4 December 2013


Help in this area is not mainly about an authoritarian insistence on work as the panacea or even about the government spending much money. In John Major's time I had responsibility for the access for the disabled building standard and attended the building regulations advisory committee in the time the regulations were being modified. Some of the outcomes that flowed - ramps to front doors or low thresholds, wider front doors and corridors, WCs on the ground floor - imposed costs on developers and building owners and annoyed architects who had to worry about other things like water ingress across the thresholds but time has proved the changes worthwhile for the physically disabled at least.

I suspect the next leap forward should be in terms of transport (a peripheral reason why I'm in favour of driverless cars). The next generation of London taxis, for instance, are going to be much better.



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Comment 2014