Jan 22

How smart are your houses?

© 2011 The Intelligent Business Company, publisher of Housing Technology magazine

A number of years ago, when I was the Business Manager for Futurelab Education, we looked at a couple of projects around technology in social housing and how internet access could transform lives. I began talking to George Grant (Founder, Housing Technology) about several projects across Bristol that were refurbishing PCs and providing them to communities at no, or very low, cost. This great work is continuing with ByteBack and the associated projects through Connecting Bristol.

Anyhow, I stayed in touch with George from those conversations and always looked forward to the latest issue of Housing Technology. One of the keys to being a good connector of business opportunities is to be aware of what’s going on in sometimes seemingly unconnected sectors. Those sectors connected towards the end of 2010 when George and I were catching up over a coffee in Hamilton House and I mentioned a couple of recent technology innovations that I’d become aware of.

George suggested that I write some of my thoughts down about how the massive potential of social games and device level smart metering could be used to bring about motivated social change. That rather than trying to make people feel guilty about their energy consumption through financial penalties, we use anthropomorphism and social games to align energy efficiency with game design strategies.

So I did, you can download the full article as part of the January issue of Housing Technology or read the png file linked from the thumbnail.

Jan 17

What’s great about Bristol? Let me count the ways…

Ok, minor confession; I haven’t pulled this list together. Iain Gray (CEO, Technology Strategy Board) is a passionate champion of all UK technology & innovation, and he recently tweeted a list of technology and innovation examples from Bath & Bristol. Enjoy!

[Update 1: Iain’s just dm’d me to say there are plenty more to follow, keep an eye on his twitter stream for latest updates!]

[Update 2: Last few added for the full list of 50 great companies and organisations encouraging technology & innovation in Bristol. Thanks Ian!]

Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 50. Bristol Science City http://bit.ly/3ChqOG .. youtube http://bit.ly/erTi8e #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 49. Selex Communications http://bit.ly/fxINRA #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 48. Slingshot street and pervasive games http://bit.ly/hcKjbP #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 47. SetSquared Business Acceleration Centre http://bit.ly/e6AKll #innovate #SETsquared
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 46. City of Bristol College http://bit.ly/hv0HYb #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 45. Stirling Dynamics Specialist Engineering and Design http://bit.ly/guCdWI #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 44. Orange research http://bit.ly/8YKuIg #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 43. National Composites Centre http://bit.ly/h1B5ZV @NCC_Bristol #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 42. Interactive Places phone apps for specific locations http://bit.ly/fLpEoE #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 41. Bristol University – research intensive university http://bit.ly/ezBYj3 #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 40. Bristol and Bath Science Park –Spark http://bit.ly/e0zTer #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 39. teamrubber – grow successful creative businesses http://bit.ly/dPF8c6 #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 38. Rolls Royce –Defence, Marine and Operations http://bit.ly/erl5k8 #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 37. Calvium Immersive mobile apps http://bit.ly/fOCchK #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 36. Garrad Hassan & Partners Renewable Energy http://bit.ly/hxGaLI #cleantech #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 35. Provision – Wireless Video http://bit.ly/ijct4d #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 34. MOD Defence Equipment and Support http://bit.ly/gcMNFn #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 33. Bioinduction – treatment of chronic pain http://bit.ly/eGdEGq #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology & innovation examples 32. Dycem Manufacture high performance non-slip products http://bit.ly/hPfnP4#ktp #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 31. Infineon – 32bit embedded microprocessor cores http://bit.ly/e74PXg #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 30. Bristol Heart Institute – cardiovascular research http://bit.ly/hum6AX #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 29. Simon Games Mobile Social Game Engine http://bit.ly/fuBbQ1 #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 28. GKN Advanced Composite Facility http://bit.ly/aZDjah #innovate #composites
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 27. Pervasive Media Studio http://bit.ly/DTabc #innovate @PMStudioUK
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology & innovation examples 26. Atkins –The Hub– awarded Best Corporate Workspace by BCOhttp://bit.ly/h3sbiv #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 25. Epimorphics software tools and information services http://bit.ly/e9rf5j #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 24. 3C Research digital media and communications http://bit.ly/hDvOff #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology & innovation examples 23. University of the West of England Research & Business http://bit.ly/er724n #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 22. DECIPHer-ASSIST public health improvement research http://bit.ly/huZWEu #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 21. BBC Anchor media innovation testbed http://bit.ly/3GZUTV #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 20. Tidal Generation – renewable energy http://bit.ly/gSGl7N #innovate #cleantech
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 19. Toshiba Research Centre Telecommunications (TRL) http://bit.ly/hpsKHs #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 18. Nameless Digital Agency – web design http://bit.ly/2jyor0 @namelessdigital #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 17. 422 South – visual effects and animation http://bit.ly/ajS63d #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 16. GKN Advanced Composite Facility http://bit.ly/aZDjah #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 15. Centre for Nanoscience and Quantum Information http://bit.ly/7eVETO #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology&innovation examples 14. TasteTech- pioneer of microencapsulation technology http://bit.ly/gos6Qd #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 13. Gnodal – Ethernet for high perf data centres http://bit.ly/as9pkC #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 12. OC Robotics Snake-arm® robots http://bit.ly/fggW6i @ocrobotics #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 11. Bloodhound – Technical Centre http://bit.ly/fmCeCA @BLOODHOUND_SSC #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 10. ARKive multimedia guide to world’s endangered species http://bit.ly/fWqnne #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 9. Airbus Wing ,Landing Gear and Fuel Systems http://bbc.in/fj4XpB #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 8. DocCom networking company for healthcare http://bit.ly/axwPez #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 7. XMOS chip technology http://bit.ly/ffHORP #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 6. HP Labs among premier corporate research labs in Europehttp://bit.ly/ekhQ6F #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 5. BAESystems Advanced Technology Centre, Filton http://bit.ly/h5c6ae #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 4. CFMS design simulation processes http://bit.ly/gLoI7D #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 3. Marine Current Turbines http://bit.ly/fa0Fj6 #innovate #cleantech
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 2. Bristol Robotics Laboratory http://bit.ly/anILB5 #innovate
Iain Gray good #Bristol technology and innovation examples 1. Aaardman animations http://bit.ly/60RAZ @aardmandigital #innovate
Nov 15

Ignite Bristol 3

After the excellent Ignite Bristol #2, I wanted to have a go myself. I decided not to present anything connected to the ‘day job’ and thought that Octopush would make a great topic.

Ignite is a beautifully simple concept;

“Enlighten us, but make it quick”

Specifically 5 minutes quick. And you have 20 slides, that automatically advance every 15 seconds, whether you’re ready or not!

Octopush was an easy choice. Its not that widely know so I’d be enlightening folks about a new sport to them, and it has great entertainment potential! This is a dissection of how my talk was put together.

Any presentation takes much longer to put together than deliver. I had a broad outline for the talk fairly quickly but making sure I had enough to fill 5 minutes, without over running or leaving … long … pauses … took a lot longer.

There needed to be a gentle introduction, assuming no one in the audience had ever heard of the sport. I wanted to give a bit of history, talk about the equipment and the basic rules. In the end I didn’t really cover the rules, but I think there was enough other information, and some entertainment.

I had a great title that I borrowed from Sam’s undergraduate psychology dissertation “Octopush: Whether ’tis nobler to push lead’. We’d just had the World Cup and Paul the “Psychic’ octopus was all over the news so that was a good opening slide. I was doubly lucky (though Paul was less so) as he died on the Tuesday before the talk. That required a bit of a last minute re-write but actually made the introduction much smoother.

For some time I then had a slide referencing the Shakespearean aspect of the title, but somehow that never quite worked for me in this context. It was only when I went back to the slides after putting them aside for a couple of weeks that I decided I really wasn’t happy. I took another angle on the ‘pushing lead’ and found the Pencil Museum and that gave me my second introduction slide and a good link into the fact that the lead I was pushing was a hockey puck, specifically underwater hockey or octopush. So that was slides 1 & 2 sorted out, though slide 2 as shown was almost the last one into the deck.

I wanted to have some humour but I know that I’m not a natural ‘funny man’ so decided to let my slides do the jokes and play the straight man. The first picture of an octopush game, taken by me at the Student Nationals in 2009, was intentionally not a great picture but gave the first ‘joke’ of not being a great spectator sport. Slide 3; and getting into my stride.

Slight aside; the guy that introduced me to Octopush way back in Gibraltar (Steve Warren) now runs the fantastic Ocean Optics.

The pretty picture of the fishes was a good ‘filler’ slide to introduce some of the history, but I couldn’t get everything into 15 seconds so put in the diver shot & made a joke about UK diving at the same time. The exact invention of octopush is genuinely lost in time (though it is mentioned in the club’s magazine which is how we know the year). However, I was introduced to octopush by pushing a diving weight around with a snorkel so figured that was a good story to go with. Slides 4, 5, 6 & 7 sorted.

Finding the photo of players in 1977 was a godsend as it made a great link and showed some of the older kit.  I could then talk a bit about the modern kit. The image of the Dacor Bandit mask was one I’d used over 10 years ago when I first did the Plymouth University club’s website, its still a great mask and one of the lowest volume ones on the market. I can’t remember where the ‘wet poodle’ bit came from but I do remember using my Dad’s Jet Fins and they were as heavy and hopeless as described. However, the reason they’re not used in Octopush is more to do with their metal buckles than anything else. Slides 8, 9, 10 (halfway), 12, and 13 sorted.

And no, I haven’t forgotten slide 11 (the four pucks in a row). That one came quite a bit later when I realised that I hadn’t found a decent photo of their evolution. The octopush puck, along with the bat, is genuinely unique to the sport and represents a significant part of what makes the modern sport. Officially the pucks belong to Sam Harding (@samharding), I ‘m not much of a collector. :)

Fortunately, there are some really good photos of Octopush on the web and I was able to find a couple that show how the game is played at international level. The bit about having around 20 seconds to do something useful with the puck is true, and something that most people don’t believe. I’d found the closing shot of the puck flying towards the camera that would give a strong visual finish. Slides 15, 16 and 20 sorted.

The eagled eyed will have noticed that I’m still a few slides short!

I had lots of content, but not many laughs. The ‘Answer List’ was something that Sam & I put up on the Plymouth University Octopush Club website back in 1998/99 and I think was originally taken from a newsletter. I wanted to have a shot of me playing to prove that this wasn’t completely made up, there aren’t any decent in-water shots but the shower photo does the trick I think. That gave me 18 & 19.

I was still a couple of slides short, but hadn’t really talked about the game or its rules so pulled slide 14 in as a link from the kit description to the great photos of game play.

Finding a picture of a puck ‘in flight’ was a nightmare! I ended up with a couple of YouTube videos and screen grabbing them, paused at the appropriate moment. I eventually had nearly a dozen frame grabs with blurred orange, green or pink blobs on them. As I mentioned in the talk, orange is medium hardness, you also have green for the hardest coatings and pink for the softest (though its still coating a metal core so ‘soft’ is a relative term). I had my final slide (17), and a new respect for video editors!

So that gave me my slide deck and basic framework. A couple of trials identified where I had too much to say, and overran, and where the long pauses were. Fortunately, I had begun this some time before the event so was able to put everything to one side for a couple of weeks and come back refreshed to put together the talk as delivered (mostly as prepared) on 31st October. Right until Sunday afternoon I was refining the talk and making small changes.

Was it worth it?

Definitely!

But what do you think?

Nov 10

War, what is it good for?

Quite a lot as it turns out.

Both of Monday’s talks as part of the Festival of Ideas (@festivalofideas) Autumn Programme looked at how much of the technology that we all rely upon started out with military funding.

(Disclosure: I was invited to attend both talks in return for writing this short review)

Whilst both speakers were looked at technology from war (and other base instincts) they were separated by over 150 years. Peter Nowak (Sex, Bombs and Burgers: How War, Porn and Fast Food Created Technology as we Know it) looked at mostly post World War II innovations that were now commonplace, and Rachel Hewitt (Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey) looked back to the 1790’s and the birth of the Ordinance Survey.

Peter’s book is an enjoyable romp through just about every gadget, meal and (ahem) alternative entertainment you’ve ever heard of (and a couple you probably haven’t) and how they can trace their roots back to either military research projects or the companies that produced them. If anything was missing, it was a sense of grand narrative. A couple times during both Andrew’s interview and the subsequent Q&A he was pressed on the ethical questions raised but never really answered them.

Peter did make one prediction that robotics are now, where the PC was 20 years ago and that in 20 years time robotics would be as ubiquitous as the computer is now. Not quite sure I agree with that, there are lots of deeper sociological issues with robots such as challenges to our sense of self, issues over robot rights (robot is, after all, literally serf labor, in Polish), and the sheer creepiness of human-like robot forms.

A very interesting comment from the floor suggested a fourth base instinct to go with war, food & sex which was our innate curiosity and desire for the next shiny shiny thing. Whilst some of these companies can trace their origins to military activity, their current innovations and particularly their speed of innovation, are driven more by consumer competition rather than warmongering.

Map showing Trig Points used in the 1936 Ordnance Survey "Retriangulation of Britain" between 1936 and 1962.

By contrast, Rachel gave a fascinating and engaging talk about the origins of the Ordinance Survey and the people involved. It was quite clear that whilst the maps were commissioned to provide Britain with a military advantage in the event of invasion, the cultural impact of having a unified map of the country was also very important to those early cartographers. I was especially taken by the notion that William Mudge encouraged alternative uses of the original map series.

Rachel also noted that the early trig points were located at the sites of the national chain of warning Beacons (as these were on natural sight lines around the coast). Their rudimentary theodolites frequently needed flares to provide them with sufficient light to focus upon, and these flares naturally gave rise to the very real fear of imminent invasion!

In the equally entertaining and informative Q&A that followed, Rachel explored the cultural importance of maps and the role that the Ordinance Survey played in the cultural life of Britain, national rivalries with France, technology advances, and the location of the original Base Line (now mostly under Heathrow Airport).

A great evening all round!

Oct 17

Empire of the Skies

(Disclosure: I was invited by Andrew Kelly to attend this talk & receive a complementary copy of James’ book and encouraged to blog about it afterwards, I did so I am.)

James Hamilton-Paterson’s new book “Empire of the Skies” has the official sub-title “When Britain’s Aircraft Ruled the World“, but from the interview with Andrew Kelly (Director, Festival of Ideas) it could more accurately be sub-titled “Decline and Delinquency of a National Industry“. Coming to Bristol during celebrations of 100 years of aviation engineering & innovation (BAC100) was thus akin to walking into the lion’s den and giving the lion a slap round the head with a fresh sirloin steak.

In fairness to James, his book begins at the end of the Second World War and focuses mainly on the military jet story. For the most part it is a boys-own style recounting of the early years in jet aircraft development. James’ own fondness and passion for that era is evident throughout and where he dips into melancholy it is for opportunities missed and advantages squandered.

Right at the start of the interview James made the point that, post-war, there were some 23 companies making aircraft from original R&D to production, and a further 9 engine manufactures. The almost mythical status of the RAF and associated planes, meant that politically the companies that built them “couldn’t be allowed to fail”, and where else have we heard that recently?

The following Q&A was predictably robust in defence of the aerospace sector, though too many rambling commentaries without discernible questions left little time or opportunity for a real Question Time cross examination.

From all the post-war jets, four are put forward as ‘great’; the Canberra (in service from 1951 and operational with the Indian Air Force until 2007); the Hunter in the same year (although only from the Mk6 onwards) and still operational with the Lebanese Air Force; the  Vulcan (1952), for which James describes Operation Skyshield in 1961 to test NORAD’s new DEW (Distant Early Warning) radar system where these remarkable aircraft effortlessly breached the US line and landed in New York State, less than 20min flying time from New York City; and the Harrier (1967) which was only the second post-war jet (after the Canberra) to be bought by US, and the last wholly British designed & manufactured military jet. This is also the de-facto end of the story for the book. English Electric Canberra at the 1951 Farnborough Air Show

If I have a criticism of the book it’s that there’s no grand narrative. There’s not enough depth and analysis in this book to genuinely think of it as a dissection of the post-war aerospace industrial decline. Although James apportions blame roughly equally between incompetent management at the companies and dithering short-termism in Government, he doesn’t go into the wider industrial-political story that might have explained why this happened. Its not really the story of Bill Waterson, though he is often the human face to the story. Other characters, such as Flight Lieutenant Al Pollock ‘buzzing’ the Houses of Parliament & flying his Hunter at full tilt through Tower Bridge on 4 April 1968 in protest at the lack of celebration for the 50th Anniversary of the RAF (for which he was discharged without a Court-Martial), are dropping in as vignettes but it’s not really a story of the decline of the RAF either.

The book, much like James during the interview, is at its best when recounting the undeniable bravery and honest patriotism of the people involved in pushing the technological limits of aviation long before the science was understood.

I did learn one cool fact, in 1971 we launched the satellite Prospero on a Black Arrow rocket (another wholly British undertaking) to test solar cells and detect micrometeorites, it’s still up there and probably will be for another 100 years.