Archived entries for Technology

The energy generation

I’ve got an idea. First, though, I thought I’d set the scene.

According to a recent article in the Observer, there are lots of new graduates, fresh from university with good degrees and strong CVs, and yet due to the recent economic turmoil, this new generation of bright young things are all failing to find those high-flying jobs as advertised in the numerous career brochures which float around campuses across the country. In other news, we learn that Russia and Ukraine have been squaring up to each other in a standoff over gas supplies, a row which apparently has now been resolved according to the latest reports, but which only serves to highlight the increasing dependence of European countries on Russia for this sort of traditional energy. It’s about time we shifted the focus onto newer, more self-sufficient ways of generating power, which we’re going to have to think about anyway due to the recent agreement among EU countries to increase the amount of energy that the EU gets from renewable resources from a measly 7 per cent up to 20 per cent by the year 2020.

So what we have, then, are lots of graduates who are all dead keen to get stuck into something exciting and cutting edge, something which makes a genuine difference and could even have international implications. OK, so they might not have given that impression when they were still students. In fact a more accurate description might be that genuine excitement came in the form of a special offer on vodka jelly, cutting edge research involved keeping up with Eastenders and the international side of things didn’t feature too heavily beyond trying to get into bed with the lovely Italian exchange student down the road.

University was fun, now for the world of work. Given the context that I’ve outlined above, what better way to employ these young people than to get them involved in helping to develop the next generation of renewable energy? If you’re a graduate reading this, by the way, don’t run off screaming at the thought of having to put on bright yellow wellies and trudge through the countryside doing environmental impact assessments for wind farms. There’s something for everyone here, if you think about it. Renewable energy is no longer just something for hyper-environmentalists and bearded scientists. It can’t be, because we’re all going to have to get involved sooner or later. Already, we’ve read reports and seen pictures of people in places like Bulgaria, freezing in their homes this winter because of a lack of gas. Isn’t it time we learnt how to become more independent?

It’s something that everyone can get involved in, and in the case of these graduates who are now all looking for meaningful jobs, whatever subject you studied and skills you have, you can all bring something to the table. For the physicists, the chemists, the maths graduates, for example, I think it’s pretty clear that these are skills which can be put to immediate use. What use, I hear you ask, is a degree in history when it comes to this sort of thing? Plenty. Historians are generally very thorough people, good at checking facts and spotting arguments that work and those that don’t. Perfect, in my view, for fine-tuning the propaganda that will be needed if we’re going to win mass popular support for energy change.

Psychologists also have their part to play, looking at for example the difference between the anxieties that people have about what it might be like to live near a windfarm, or a hydroelectric dam, compared with the actual psychological effects of doing so. We might find that people soon forget they have solar panels on the roof once they’re actually there. (The solar panels on the roof, that is, not the people. I imagine if you were stuck on a roof, you wouldn’t worry too much about some solar panels).

English graduates can help explain the case for renewable energy in clear, easy-to-understand language, and marketing graduates can help sell the idea. Those with degrees in sports science can win support from people that do sports that use natural energy like windsurfing, kiteboarding and downhill mountain biking.

I think we can all see that renewable energy is something that’s got to be done, and it’s something which I personally think is A Good Thing. This isn’t a moment of sudden eco madness on my part, by the way; it’s something that I actually feel quite strongly about, enough at least to do my bit to help win the recent support for the Gwynt Y Mor wind farm. There are plenty of celver, energetic people out there, looking for work, and at the same time we’ve got a so far pretty empty-looking government department which is dedicated to the task and waiting to get started. What could be simpler?

Sharing the sound

I’ve written previously about bad experiences whilst shopping, so here’s an interesting twist I encountered last weekend. I went into a Philips audio shop to look for some headphones, and I found myself checking out a pair of swish Sennheiser wireless headphones that looked a bit pricey but pretty good. My bad hearing however means that I’m lucky if I notice there’s actually sound coming out of the things, never mind luxuries such as “analytical sound reproduction”, but I was interested in these headphones as a way of hearing the TV better without trailing a wire acorss the room, the coffee table and no doubt the other people watching TV.

I was curious to know, however, just what I’d get for the steep price of what looked like a promising, wire-free solution that might bring an end to other people taking stray headphone wire out of their coffee, or falling towards the door, dinner going everywhere, as a result of the mischievous headphone cable hidden in the shadows. Could I, for example, listen to the TV at the same time as other people, or would I cut off the sound? Could I do the same with my hi-fi? So I called over the assistant of the shop, and here’s where the usual routine differed.

Normally, I might expect an intense barrage of sales-speak, a complete overload of technical terms, functions, some 30 second financial advice and, before I know it, a brisk handshake and a deal done. It usually ends up with the shop assistant insisting that we take a good, all-round tour of not just the product I’m interested in, but, it seems, all the products that everybody else is the shop is interested in as well. Have I, sir, seen this on offer? Did I know, sir, that today and only today I can lay my hands on the first production model of the new Z7000 “Nuclear meltdown ready” mobile phone?

This time I was the one doing the talking.

“With these headphones, will other people hear the TV?”

“Oh no, sir, with these you can listen to the TV without disturbing anyone else. Your very own private cinema.”

“Well, that’s no good, is it? What if my girlfriend wants to watch as well?”

“If you plug the TV into your hi-fi, sir, then she can hear out loud and you can still listen with these.”

“What, so even though these are wireless, you still need to buy an extra wire for connecting the TV to the hi-fi?”

“Er, yes…but only for when you both want to hear the TV. Or your girlfriend could watch with headphones as well.”

(Think about that, for a second. I’d be wearing headphones because I need them to hear. Zoe can hear just fine, so I can hardly imagine both of us sat there, headphones on, snuggling up to a Sunday night film. The sitting room would have all the romance of a flight control tower.)

“Would I also be able to listen to my music with these, on my hi-fi?”

“Why of course, sir. They’re specially designed with a total harmonic distortion of just-”

“Yes, yes, never mind all that. What about other people? Could they listen as well? Can we test it on one of your hi-fi machines here?”

Now he had begun to look like he wanted to cry, I’m sure he had been hoping I would just buy the damn things on the basis of their “intuitive control elements”. Half an hour later, there he was, routing through product catalogues, trying to find something that would satisfy my not overly taxing request for a system which would allow me to hear TV or music better but also share the sound with other people. It was a refreshing break to feel in control as a customer, for a change, rather than be made to feel as if I’m being lectured at by a 12-year-old with a degree in electrical engineering.

I didn’t buy the headphones, in the end. A private cinema would be no good to me, anyway. I need other people there to keep me up to speed when I don’t quite catch the crucial bit in the film where, say, Bond is told precisely where the secret weapon in kept. I bet he never has any trouble in a hi-fi shop.

Taking risks…

With Marta at the Commission press area

 

Security seems to be this week’s theme. I wrote an article about security at football matches for the briefing before the plenary session in Brussels, and in the report the committee called for the establishment of national football information centres, which would exchange personal information with the police about high-risk supporters, in accordance with domestic and international rules governing the exchange of information.

I also forgot my identity pass twice this week, the second time much to the amusement of the man on the security desk:
“Do you mean, you’ve lost your ID badge? So you need to get a new one?” asked the security guard, wearily.
“No, sorry…I’ve just forgotten it, that’s all.”
“Wait a minute…didn’t you forget it yesterday as well?” he inquired, a slight grin forming at the corners of his mouth as he savoured the moment.
“Yes” I replied, sheepishly.
“Hang on, so you’ve not lost it” he continued, “Just forgotten it again. Yesterday…and now today.”
“That’s right, yep. Sorry…” I said. “If you think about it, though, forgetting things makes life a bit more exciting, in a way…”
(Rule 1: Don’t try and be funny in another language.)
“What? I don’t understand. Forgetting things is exciting?” he asked, bewildered.
“No, what I meant was, if you got everything right all the time, wouldn’t life be so boring?”
(I should have just shut up.)
“Do you like getting things wrong? I don’t understand.”
“No, I don’t like getting things wrong, exactly, but solving problems like forgetting stuff…makes life a bit richer.”
“Problems make life richer? Are you crazy?”
“Probably, yes. Could I have a Visitor’s Pass now, please?”

It reminded me of my first day at the Parliament when I managed to get into the main building without first registering for my ID card. As I was walking away from the first introductory meeting, the lady who was showing us around asked me where my ID card was. I told her I hadn’t got it yet, and after a short, puzzled pause she asked me how I had managed to enter the building without an ID card. Was I escorted by another member of staff?
“Not exactly”, I replied. “I just walked in.”
Maybe this answer would have carried less of an impact had I been clean-shaven, and without my a large rucksack covered in environmental campaign badges…
(The football security article – I wrote the second half- can be read here.)

iCame…iSaw…iConquered

Heard about Apple’s new iPhone? Hard to avoid it, really. How about the man behind it (and chief executive of Apple), Mr Steve Jobs?

If you don’t know anything about him, it certainly seems like certain newspapers are trying their best to make sure people know what a great person he is.

In the Guardian a few weeks ago I saw an article about him, and here are just a few of the phrases the author used:

“Yet it’s an amazing experience to take part in a briefing with Steve.”

(So a meeting with Mr Jobs is up there with Skydiving and tripping on Acid, then.)

“…customers’ reverence for him usually overwhelms any hostility”

(Replace “customers” with “followers” and hey, it could be Jesus.)

“When Steve enters a room, everything stops and attention turns to him.”

(What, does he walk in without a head? Hideously deformed? Also, note that everything stops, apparently. Time itself, it seems, cannot continue without his permission.)

“When he walks in you get the feeling that he has sucked all the other thoughts out of the room.”

(That’s not really a good thing, though, is it? I mean, what use is a board meeting with a group of human vegetables, no longer capable of original thought?)

I mean, fair enough, he’s made Mac a cool brand to own (though from my experience a Mac is a bit like having a shiny silver toothbrush with no bristles…) and, of course, I’m sure the Korubo tribe of the Amazon own iPods by now…but all this emotive talk is a bit too flattering for just one person.



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