Sunday, 23 December 2012

Gravity Light

I admire the concept of kickstarter funding, but until now, I have not seen anything that I really wanted.
The funding concept is simple, some genius has an idea, but needs money to take it further, so they set up a web site explaining the invention and make possible customers an offer; in exchange for one of the, as yet non existent items, you send some money. If all goes well enough cash is sent to get the project off the ground, and eventually you are the proud owner of the relevant gismo.
What the various kickstarted sites do is to provide a single site where these projects can be displayed. I suspect that they also require some standards and financial discipline, but I haven't checked that.
There are obviously risks, the thing might not be made, or the early prototypes are rubbish etc. etc. As I understand it, when it all goes wrong you are supposed to get your money back. I love the idea, but one way or another I am usually not quite filled with enough enthusiasm to actually send cash.
Today was different. I came across some guys who want to make a light that runs on gravity. They think they can make these things so that they sell for a few dollars and can potentially replace kerosene lamps, which are all over the third world and are smelly and dangerous. They cause indoor air pollution, contributing to asthma and such, and they cause fires.
The lamp works by having a pulley that drives a small generator. The force comes from hanging a sack of rocks from the pulley and letting it slowly fall to the ground. So actually, it doesn't run on gravity, it runs on the muscles that have lifted up the sack of rocks. According to the bumph the device comes in a sturdy sack, which once unpacked can be used to hold 9 Kilos of rock, mud, or whatever you have available.
It seems such an obvious idea that I am amazed that no one has thought of it. I suspect that it was waiting for the LED to be invented so that there was a light source available that does not need much power. I did find some similar ideas in student projects from a few years ago, but they did not get made, I presume because older lightbulbs used too much power so the sack of rocks would have been too heavy to lift
If these guys do manage to make lots of them it should only be a matter of time before bright young kids all over the world have figured out how to power all sorts of other things from them. I can picture Raspberry Pis being connected as we speak.
Will it charge a phone I wonder? The possibilities are endless.
If you are interested, the link to the project is 
You can watch a video of the thing working.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Radio Prank

I’ve been to Australia twice and I loved it both times, even though I nearly drowned surfing on Bondi beach, I still love the place. It is important to be clear about that. So what comes next is not aimed at Australians in general, neither, if any of them happen to read this, am I doing a whinging Pom act.
Two DJs from the Australian radio station 2Day FM called King Edward VII hospital in London and pretended to be the Queen and Prince Charles. They phoned at about 5.30 am and hence the call was taken by a night nurse, rather than a trained receptionist. That nurse put the call through to the ward, where another nurse was taken in, and gave out some details of their royal patient.
One of these nurses now appears to have killed herself.  Details are available all over the media, including three BBC reports at:- and On the face of it, this is just another example of the media not caring a damn about anyone other than themselves. To my mind, the matter has been made a lot worse by the chief executive of the radio station, Rhys Holleran, defending his reporters by saying:
"I think that prank calls as a craft in radio have been going on for decades. They are done worldwide and no-one could reasonably have foreseen what happened.”
He should have said that the whole thing was his fault. He is the chief executive, and therefore responsible for the culture of the station that thinks it is OK to try to deceive hospital staff. That thinks it is OK to phone a hospital at five am and see if nurses can be caught off guard.
Why should the hospital have to act as though everyone phoning them is a possible fraudster or some lying prankster? Is nothing sacred? Has no one at the radio station ever had a relative in hospital? Is there any difference between this prank call and the Levenson Inquiry description of blagging in order to try to obtain information illegally? This sort of stunt, and hacking Milly Dowler’s phone come right out of the same stable that says “fuck you” over the door.
Was it actually illegal in this case, I don’t know, there is obviously some work there for international law experts, who will no doubt charge a lot. I was under the impression that you were supposed to tell people if you were recording them, and certainly if you then intended to broadcast the material.
Whether it was illegal or not does not alter the fact that it was bloody stupid, and more likely to lead to adverse consequences than good ones.
I can understand all the people who have hurled abuse in one form or another at the two radio presenters who carried out the prank. I hope they survive, the last thing the world needs is another suicide. The DJs obviously did not ask themselves how they would feel if a member of their family was on the receiving end of that sort of trick. It is probably reasonable to say that it would be difficult to imagine that the nurse might kill herself, but it is not hard to think that she might have been disciplined or fired. Do we want to live in a world, where radio presenters phone people, who are going about their normal job trying to help the sick, and pull tricks on them that might get them fired?
If one uses a little imagination, it is easy to see another possible side effect from this. Every relative phoning to ask about their loved ones in hospital in future is likely to find it harder to get through and harder to find out anything about a relative in hospital. As I write, armies of PR people are probably busy writing new protocols for how to take calls from the public. I can just imagine all the additional data being collected in every patient’s record in order to ask bank style security questions every time a mother phones to find out if their child is getting better.
I find it sad that Jeff Kennett, the Chairman of Australia's national depression charity, Beyond Blue, said the radio pair had no intention of causing any harm and urged the public not to condemn them. He has an odd definition of harm. They must have known that at the very least anyone who fell for the joke risked public humiliation and possibly being disciplined or fired. If that isn’t harm, I don’t know what is. It is not clear exactly who dreamed up the stunt, but neither they nor the two DJs should be blamed on their own, others too, have a responsibility to bear.
We are given to understand that lawyers approved the transcript. I went to a seminar by a very senior British judge a few years ago, where he said that there was hardly any teaching of ethics in law schools, so it may be too much to expect ethics from lawyers, though they ought to have an eye on risk management. Someone at the station should consider getting new lawyers.
The buck really stops with the chief executive. He is the one is responsible for the culture of the organisation; he should have considered whether this was a sensible thing to do. He should have asked what the downside might be if this went wrong. Hopefully the station will lose a lot of advertising revenue and the trustees or owners, or whoever sits on top of the chief executive, will fire him, unless he has the decency to resign first.
The station also ought to compensate the nurses family. Just because they say they meant no harm, it doesn't let them off. 

Monday, 3 December 2012

The Leveson Report

I started reading the Leveson Report, partly because I thought I should, and partly because I just finished the NaNoWriMo. In my case that amounted to 52000+ words in 28 days. I gave myself an extra day for a quick edit, and had it validated in on the last day.
It leaves a bit of a hole in your life, so why not read Leveson, it's apparently 2000 pages long.
I have to admit that I have not got very far. No doubt Lord Leveson is a clever chap, and I can’t say I’d want the job of listening to all that stuff. In general, what I have read is clear and reasoned and I imagine, for many people, very boring. That seems to me to be a big mistake. Having spent months learning how the press distort things, one might have hoped that he would produce a short punchy version that everyone could grasp. As it is, he has put himself in the hands of the very press he was set up to investigate. It will be their versions of his report that everyone reads. That seems to me to be sad and frankly stupid.
Having got that off my chest, there is one brilliant sentence in paragraph ten which, I think, sums up completely the need for something to be done that the press cannot escape from.
 “There is no organised profession, trade or industry in which the serious failings of the few are overlooked because of the good done by the many.”
That is the powerful case for doing something that cannot be got around or undone. That is the reason why we regulate doctors, nurses, social workers and a host of other people. Meaning well, or being attached to well meaning organisations, or following a good cause, or the public interest, does not justify individuals doing wrong in order to do right.
There is one caveat, I guess, and that is the situation where the laws themselves have been corrupted. In that case, the law may no longer be seen as the arbiter of right and wrong. That is the argument for every revolution, and sometimes it is right. I don’t think that hacking Milly Dowler’s phone, or Charlotte Church, or any of the others, falls into that category. The newspaper people who transgressed did not do it in order to make society great, to correct terrible wrongs, or anything remotely like that. They did it to sell newspapers and advance their careers. To hide behind the noble purpose of a free press just shows what a bunch of unprincipled bastards they were. All the newspaper people who are now trying to make sure that they are not properly regulated in the future would do well to try and think of any example where the sort of behaviour described by Levenson was crucial, and the only way, to investigate and publish a story of great national interest, so important that the very fabric of our democracy would have been threatened if it was not exposed.
The most recent story of that importance that I can think of was written by the man from the Guardian who exposed the whole thing. As far as I am aware he did not have to resort to dirty tricks in order to write the story, and what's more, most of the so called free press did their best to rubbish what he wrote and tried to stop him.