Category Archives: Miscellany

More Resilient Cities

Dr Judith Rodin, president of the Rockerfeller Foundation



What does it take to make cities resilient? In a thoughtful talk to the RSA Dr Judith Rodin, current president of the philanthropic Rockerfeller Foundation, summarised some of the findings of the foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities project.

In a nutshell she argues that cities can’t plan effectively based on past events – which is what they have a tendency to do.

Instead, she argues, they should build resilience focussed on their key risks (maybe earthquakes,  or flooding for example). But they should do this in a generalised way which makes them more resilient to a wide variety of different possible events.

The example she used was Boston which put in place a number of key policies (Governor in charge of communication, FBI taking the lead etc) which then served them extremely well when the bombing of the Boston Marathon occurred. This particular event couldn’t have been predicted, but because of the city’s general level of preparedness much loss of life was avoided.

The keys to resilience, she says, are: awareness of the risks, diversity in social and economic spheres, integration and cooperation , self regulation and adaptability.

A tale of two Virgins

My daughter, a second year student at Royal Holloway, University of London, has just moved into her new student house Egham. She was offered a student-only deal of a 9 month contract instead of the usual 12 months.

Meanwhile, my son Alex, who spent last year in the States and has now returned to do this third year in Leeds tried to get the 9 month contract deal he had two years ago but could not find this deal anywhere. He and his housemates have taken a 12 month contract even though, in common with most students, he will only be needing it for 9 months.

I wonder whether this is anything to do with regional market share?

Comment spam

I moved to WordPress on August 29th and one of the plugins which I was recommended to install immediately was Akismet from WordPress themselves. This turns out to have been a very smart piece of advice. In under a month I have 121 comments caught in its spam filter.  Now I appreciate what people who have moved to WordPress and Moveable Type have been talking about all these years.

The future for self-driving cars

In 2004 the US defence research organisation Darpa set cars the challenge of navigating a 150-mile desert course without drivers none of the cars finished and the two leaders only managed seven miles.

Ten years on and Google’s tricked out Priuses have travelled over 700,000 miles around California without a single accident.

And recently Google unveiled its very first custom-designed autonomous car which breaks the mould in several important ways. It only has a start button, for instance, not all the controls we normally associate with driving. And it looks less like a car and more like the sort of transport you would take in Disneyland.

It’s quite clear from what Google has revealed about how the sensors and algorithms work that enormous progress has been made, and despite the challenges still ahead it is now possible for forecast with confidence a time when  autonomous cars could be ubiquitous.

self-driving car
Google’s first prototype car and an artists impression of where it might go next

And this could be truly revolutionary. Google’s design choice is I think intended to point out how different a self-driving car can be from what we think of as cars. The self-driving car could usher in a world where owning a car becomes completely unnecessary – we could simply summon a car from our smart phones and rent it for only the specific journey we need to make. Parking would be a thing of the past – the cars would simply drop you off and either go to their next job, or back to the charging station to recharge themselves.

Given that 96% of the time our cars are parked and doing nothing, a complete move to self-driving rented journeys would vastly reduce the number of cars required, saving resources and parking space at home, work and on city streets. There could be massive benefits to our urban environments with concrete making way to green space again.

This is to say nothing of the tremendous life-saving potential. The World Health Organisation estimates there were 1.24 million deaths caused by cars worldwide in 2010. The promise of autonomous cars, always awake at the wheel, never getting angry and frustrated, never getting drunk or texting at the wheel is of vast reductions in these numbers and all the suffering and economic loss which comes with them.

Given the enormous benefits in economic, resource and health terms surely we will see a world which quickly adopts this marvellous technology?

Sadly, I doubt it.

Although the technological hurdles are clearly eminently solvable and in a relatively short time frame, other difficulties remain. Firstly, the complex regulatory and legal issues which will need to be addressed are not trivial. How will be liability in an accident be handled, for instance.

The most tricky issue, though, is likely to be the libertarian arguments about the right to drive. According to the FBI in 2012 there were 8,855 total firearm-related homicides in the US. And yet the gun lobby continues to insist on the right to carry guns despite the carnage. Expect similar freedom-related arguments about the right to drive.

And the transition from driven to self-driving cars could have unexpected consequences. Self-driving cars are very good at avoiding hitting things, so good in fact that the behaviour of other road users may become more and more reckless and traffic speeds as a consequence may drop considerably as self-driving cars become more and more cautious. This may be true of pedestrians and cyclists too – again leading to slower and slower speeds.

As so often, the technology will likely be much more advanced that the soft issues around it.


Now on WordPress

I’ve spent the day moving my site from Blogger to WordPress, hosted on GoDaddy. Apart from a little glitch when I corrupted a php file on an early template and had to reinstall, it all went remarkably smoothly. And I’m really impressed with the migration tools and also the huge range of excellent templates. So far, so good…..

Cambridge’s Area 51?

Something very weird happens each time I drive up a particular stretch of the M11/A14. My car’s radar system goes off line.

This is the system which enables my car to spot approaching danger from overtaking cars, to warn about obstacles in front of the car (and even brake) and to automatically adjust the car’s speed when driving with cruise control on.

The systems shuts down just after the Imperial War Museum at Duxford on the way north and comes on again around Bar Hill on the A14. In the opposite direction the same thing happens at the same spots.

I’ve Googled to see if others have the same problem but come up with nothing. So I decided to plot this on a map and see what I could come up with. Making the assumption that the interference was not geographical, but was likely transmitted, I assumed that whatever was causing the failure was transmitting from the centre of a circle who’s circumference bisected both points (see map). There are obviously two circles which fit the bill – the centre of one is in the middle of a very unpopulated area of farmland; the centre of the other falls close to Cherry Hinton, therefore the likelier candidate.

Looking at the map closely around Cherry Hinton there are few things which stand out. Two that do would seem to be ARM – the mobile chip maker, and Cambridge Airport.

Whatever is causing the outage it does make me glad my car isn’t self-driving….

UPDATE…. One of my US journalist friends Stephen Trimble suggested my analogy was not quite correct and provided a possible explanation: “Several major US and Five Eyes intelligence installations are in that neighborhood. Area 51 is probably not the best comparison, since that’s basically just a remote airfield. But it may be more like Fort Meade, the headquarters of the NSA.”

Reappraising my blog

I’m reappraising my blog. When I first started blogging on Thursday August 11th, 2005 the world was a very different place. I started initially as a living example of how easy blogging was during an RBI Editor’s Conference. It did an excellent job. So much so, that I kept blogging regularly to the largely internal RBI editorial audience and the blog evolved from there.

In the beginning I used the blog to point to things on the web which I felt would be important for journalists in a media company to know. I found these either through searches or, more often than not, through my newsreader which was consuming the feeds from lots and lots of blogs across the world.

But that function has long since been usurped by Twitter and Facebook. Google canned Google Reader at the beginning of 2003 and so I, like many, moved to Feedly.  However, I find I rarely look at my newsreader any more. And mostly I simply re-tweet a link to something that has caught my eye. And practically every site makes it really easy to do this through “Tweet This” buttons.

Although my blog evolved over the years to include many longer and, I like to think, more thoughtful posts, the time I spent keeping it up diminished as the alternatives proliferated. I am now on Facebook, Twitter and, half-heartedly, Google+.

Recently, however, I’ve started to rethink, partly inspired an excellent presentation which Aral Balkan gave at the RSA (and again – more or less – at Thinking Digital). Called “Free is a Lie”, the premise is that the business model of free is leading to “digital feudalism” as we give away more and more of our privacy in return for “free” services. He argues passionately for well designed, independent tools (phones, social networks, messaging systems) which can compete with Google and Facebook but which fundamentally respect the privacy of the individual.

One of my early journalist colleagues got in touch recently to encourage me to sign up to her blog Notes On A Spanish Valley. It was really nice to see a blog being used as it used to be – a mixture of pictures from the location, thoughts on life, even recipes – some of which I have cooked and which have joined the repertoire. She could have done this through Facebook, but somehow all mixed up together in her own style on the blog she designed it is much more powerful and personal.

Robert Scoble, one of the pioneers of blogging, recently announced he had given up blogging and moved completely to social media. I realised that I was unintentionally sliding down that same path.

And I realised that I didn’t want to.

So, I’ve decided to try to come back to my blog with more persistence. And I’ve decided to migrate it from Blogger where it’s been since the beginning and move onto the WordPress platform. The usual reason people do this is for the increased flexibility of WP. For me, though, it is more because Blogger is firmly part of Google and I have to sign in with by ubiquitous Google username and password to use it. Aral Balkan’s talk has make me wary of this, so this is my first small step away from the big platforms.

If I make the move smoothly, nothing should change. If not, well, time will tell!