Category Archives: Consumerist

Do motor industry executives dream of electric cars?

Apparently, “yes: they do”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/8001254.stm: the relentless obsession with Carbon emissions (while important) has led us into a blind alley of thinking that electric vehicles are somehow “green”. A clue: they’re not, unless the energy used to propel them comes from a renewable resource. Otherwise, all you’re doing is swapping local pollution and emissions for those far away; you know what they say about “out of sight…”.

Carbon emissions are only one of the car’s many downsides. An electric car:

* will still get stuck in traffic,
* will still be driven at reckless speeds, even by the “otherwise law-abiding”
* will still kill people in crashes
* will still insulate people from their surroundings, sucking the life out of communities
* will still prevent occupants from getting any exercise

We need more cycling, not hare-brained schemes like this. In fact, paying people to cycle is a positive step that would be a net benefit in reduced health costs and road maintenance costs.

Improving Freecycle

I’ve been a member of our local “Freecycle”:http://www.freecycle.org/ mailing list for a few years, successfully using it to offload and acquire various items, from a double futon bed to an mp3 player.

In 2006, “Giles Turnbull blogged about Freecycle’s shortcomings”:http://gilest.org/2006/09/freecycle-webapp.html, from a usability and webapp point of view. It boils down to “Freecycle is a great idea unsuited to living inside a mailing list once the size of the list is >100 people”. Giles’ proposed solution was a web app, and his post contains some pretty detailed design descriptions. I’m sure that there’s an interaction designer in Giles trying to get out :)

(There’s probably something interesting there about group psychology and Dunbar’s Number, but I’m more interested in finding a practical solution.)

Other people have tried to build Freecycle-like philosophy in a webapp form, e.g. “SnaffleUp”:http://www.snaffleup.co.uk/, but they (so far at least, but it’s early days) lack the one thing Freecycle has in spades: a critical mass of users. Oh, and a snappy brand.

What if, instead of building a Freecycle-like webapp in competition with Freecycle, an app were built on top of the existing mailing lists, teasing out all that lovely data and metadata and making it queryable, sliceable, diceable and geo-plottable?

There are three pieces of information pertinent to an item on Freecycle:

* what it is
* where it is
* whether it’s still available

There’s no API to Yahoo Groups at the moment, but it’s possible to get Freecycle mails sent to a mail account on a *nix box, where they could be parsed and inserted into a database for querying by item name, description or location. If we group items by sender, it should be possible to determine that when a “taken” follows an “offered” with the same/similar subject line, then that item has changed from being available to unavailable.

All of that data is present in a Freecycle email, but the inconsistent way in which people format their subject lines makes parsing out the item and location a bit of a challenge.

An ideal Freecycle subject line looks like this:

bc. [BathFreecycle] OFFER: Cat basket (Combe Down, Bath)

However, they are often more like this:

bc. [BathFreecycle] offered cat basket bath

(As an aside, Bath’s Freecycle list is a great test case, as the name of the city is also the name of an item. Supposing someone wrote “Offer: baby bath”, one would assume that they weren’t trying to offload their offspring but had merely omitted their location. Formalising this in the parser would be hard, if not impossible, such that it may have to be flagged for review by a human.)

A way around this would be to prime the parser with a list of possible locations. Once you remove the list name, the offer/wanted/taken/received prefix and the location, you’re left with the item.

The variability of people’s use of grammar, spelling and format (despite the fact that your messages are moderated until you’ve demonstrated that you can write a subject line properly) makes the subject parser the biggest challenge in implementing this solution.

All of this does raise the issue of increased ease of, and cross-group, querying. Already there are scammers on Freecycle lists, making bogus offers then directing people toward pyramid schemes and the like. Also, it’s seen as bad form to post the same item to more than one group simultaneously; having said that, it’s ok to subscribe to several lists (if you can keep up with the volume of email).

This geocoded database would make it much easier for people to snap up “big ticket” items, possibly to sell on (it happens at the moment). If Freecycle’s aim is purely to keep usable or servicable items out of landfill, does this really matter? Also, I can imagine the central Freecycle organisation not being happy if this “hack” were built on Freecycle outwith their blessing and control.

I know other people find Freecycle frustrating. Does this (very rough) outline of a solution sound like it makes sense?

Upsizing our car

!http://farm1.static.flickr.com/62/196222499_82457835d9_m.jpg!:http://www.flickr.com/photos/cokeeorg/196222499/

“Renault Scenic”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/cokeeorg/196222499/

Originally uploaded by “CokeeOrg”:http://www.flickr.com/people/cokeeorg/

*Our Christmas trip to Basingstoke (hello, glamorous life!) took place before Abigail arrived; nonetheless, the sheer amount of stuff we took with us and brought back (presents, kids’ toys etc.) rather emphasised how small our little “Honda Jazz”:http://www.parkers.co.uk/cars/reviews/Review.aspx?model=291 is. Its small size but generous interior space is one of the reasons we bought it in the first place and its boot is one of the largest in its class, but now we have two kids we’re starting to consider upsizing to a larger car.*

At first, I wanted to stick with Honda; the “Accord”:http://www.parkers.co.uk/cars/reviews/Review.aspx?model=307 seemed like a good step up, with plentiful supply in our price range (under £4000). Having driven one on Sunday, though, I soon went off the idea. The example in question was a bit older (2000/W), cheaper (£2750) and more untidy, but the low-down driving position and low ceiling common to most saloons & hatchbacks really put me off the idea of _any_ Accord.

The Jazz, while short, is quite tall. It’s not as tall as some full-on MPVs, but it’s got a nice amount of headroom (less important for me at 5’6″ but Kathy, at 5’10”, appreciates it). Consequently, the move to a regular saloon or hatchback just feels…wrong.

Kathy’s dad suggested looking at the Citroën Xsara Picasso or the Renault Scenic (which Kathy’s uncle has). So I did:

* “Citroën Xsara Picasso [00 on]“:http://www.parkers.co.uk/cars/reviews/Review.aspx?model=141
* “Renault Scenic [03 on]“:http://www.parkers.co.uk/cars/reviews/Review.aspx?model=744
* “Renault Scenic [99-03]“:http://www.parkers.co.uk/cars/reviews/Review.aspx?model=741

The newer Scenic has better reviews than the facelifted original, but is a rarer find in our price range. The older one is more common and is the definitive mini MPV(Multi Purpose Vehicle) but is older technology. Argh! What to decide?

“Big Dave”:http://www.soda-pop.co.uk/ has owned both the Scenic and the Picasso and says he prefers the Picasso overall, but admits the Scenic looks better.

And then, using Parkers’ “also consider” feature, I stumbled upon the Vauxhall Zafira:

* “Vauxhall Zafira [05 on]“:http://www.parkers.co.uk/cars/reviews/Review.aspx?model=1388
* “Vauxhall Zafira [99-05]“:http://www.parkers.co.uk/cars/reviews/Review.aspx?model=995

The older model is, again, more plentiful, but I’ve found an 2006/06 1.6 Life in red for under £4000 on “Auto Trader”:http://www.autotrader.co.uk/. Is it too good to be true? I’ve emailed the advertiser; watch this space…

h3. UPDATE

+We bought a 2002 52 reg Citroën Xsara Picasso 2.0 HDI Exclusive in metallic mauve. Phoebe calls it “our purple car” though it’s not _that_ purple.+

Catching up

Oops – it looks like I’ve been having one of my occasional blog hiatuses. My apologies! Since my last post in May, the following exciting things have happened:

* We (i.e. Clive, with occasional help from us & Claudia) started (and pretty much finished) “building the conservatory”:http://flickr.com/photos/t1mmyb/sets/72157594155380849/.
* Phoebe had her “first birthday”:http://flickr.com/photos/t1mmyb/223856040/.
* After nearly ten accident-free years, we had two minor bumps in the car. First, “I pulled into a Cornish field entrance, skidded on gravel and hit a rock”:http://flickr.com/photos/t1mmyb/154375389/. Two weeks later, I hit some metal framework (From a lorry? A tank? A roadsign? Who knows?) on the A36 near Warminster while travelling at 60mph, damaging the suspension arm, floorpan, exhaust and sill. The first bump was knocked out by the garage but the second required an insurance claim, lightening our bank account by £350 (Note to self: negotiate a smaller policy excess next time). Talking of the “garage”:http://www.brislington-honda.co.uk/?group=0, they managed to completely miss the damage under the car when we took it in for a service, _despite the fact that I told them I could see damage to the floorpan and sill_. We weren’t best pleased, I can tell you.
* I turned 31. Not in itself notable, but I suppose I’m properly in my thirties now.
* There have been two more “Bradford-on-Avon Geek meetups”:http://www.timandkathy.co.uk/journal/2006/05/18/bradford-on-avon-geeks-meet-up/. “Photos of the last one are on Flickr”:http://flickr.com/photos/t1mmyb/sets/72157594234118502/.
* Phoebe has started walking; we’re glad we got the stair gates fitted! She can also repeat, parrot fashion, many many words, so Kathy and I have to be careful what we say. She can also say words in a non-parrot capacity, like “milk”, “up”, “down”, “no”, “more”, “please” (Yay! She’s a polite girl!), “bowl” and lots more.
* Kathy has started child-minding, for the child of a co-worker of mine who was in our NCT(National Childbirth Trust) class. The nice early start means I get into the office by 8am, giving me scope for a lunch break.

So that’s it really (I think!). Work carries on apace: we released “another web site”:http://medicalphysicsweb.org/ back in June; we’re now scratching our heads over the eternal “build vs buy” conundrum vis the way forward. Lead times for new sites need to be reduced, it seems.

Baby-growing update

Kathy has complained that I’ve written 22 blog posts since my last baby-related one (back in January), so I’m attempting to redress the balance. Football has been rather distracting…

I’m sure that you’ll know that the Baby Production Unit (Kathy) & I are currently engaged in a Baby-growing project. The milestone for the first public release of Baby has been set as June 8th by our Midwifery Contract Partner.

Anyone fleet of mental foot will work out that this means we have two weeks and two days to go. Anyone knowledgable in the ways of Baby Production will know that babies rarely turn up on time (only 5% arrive on their due date).

We’ve booked a birthing pool, and we’re collecting it from Bristol on Wednesday (“in our existing car”:http://www.timandkathy.co.uk/journal/2005/05/04/new-car-shopping/, unfortunately, as our MEW(Mortgage Equity Withdrawal) hasn’t completed yet). We also spent some not-inconsiderable dosh at “Born”:http://www.borndirect.com/ on Saturday, but as yet we do not have a buggy or car seat, two of the most expensive items on the shopping list of any parents-to-be. Thankfully we have been offered an uncrashed car seat on loan, and we’re investigating the possibility of purchasing a second-hand buggy from friends at church.

That’s enough about the “stuff”. What about Kathy? I have to say that this pregnancy has been kind to her: she positively glows with femininity and impending motherhood, and much of the discomfort experienced by others in our “NCT(National Childbirth Trust)”:http://www.nctpregnancyandbabycare.com/ group (breathlessness, sickness etc) has passed Kathy by. She gets occasional heartburn but, because she’s so tall, the baby hasn’t squished her insides as much as some mothers’.

What about me? We watched a waterbirth video last night, and I wasn’t as squeamish as I thought I would be (I was even eating at the time!). I do hope that the actual birth, rather than just labour, will take place in water as the baby has more chance of emerging cleaned of goo! It will be Kathy, though, who will have to make that decision at the time, depending on how she’s feeling and how the labour is going.

I’m getting quite excited now. The redecoration of the spare room (*not nursery*) continues apace (though I wish we’d had the time and inclination to use lining paper – never mind) and it may turn into our “zeitgeist room”: the walls are a slightly pinkish mushroom colour, and we’re looking at getting a brown sofabed and curtains. You can’t resist a meme forever.

New car shopping.

The Peugeot 106 is faltering. We’re considering replacing it with one of the following cars (in order of preference):

# Honda Jazz
# Toyota Yaris
# Skoda Fabia
# Nissan Micra
# Hyundai Getz
# Fiat Panda

Why the Jazz? June’s _What Car_ (UK) magazine contained the results of the annual _JD Power Customer Satisfaction Index_ survey. The Jazz came first. _Out of all types of car_. Not bad for a supermini.

We’re keen on it because it’s a roomy small car. I like the 106’s size – parking is easier for a start – but interior space is limited. The Jazz has the largest boot in its class, and has innovative seats that fold up as well as down, creating more vertical or horizontal space as required.

The downside? The price. They’re popular little cars, it seems, and finding an SE model (with air conditioning) within our budget of around £7000 will be a challenge.

“Google Froogle is a good way to search for cars, though”:http://froogle.google.co.uk/froogle?price1=2000&price2=&scoring=p&price=between&q=honda+jazz+se&btnG=Search+Froogle&tiled=1.

Morrisons: cheap and nasty

Morrisons (buyer of Safeway UK): you’re cheap. Your “brand image is cheap and ugly”:http://www.morrisons.co.uk/. Your image is distinctive, but distinctive in the way that “Janet Street-Porter’s teeth”:http://images.google.com/images?q=janet+street+porter&hl=en&btnG=Google+Search are distinctive. Not good.

Oh, and your products suck too.

Is that OK for you?

Another quick rant. I’m working at home today, which means I’ve had to field two telemarketing calls already, and it’s only lunchtime. Both calls were from companies that I am already a customer of, but they both used a technique that I’d encountered in the past but only recently got wise to: the “Is That OK?”

Rather than asking a question that’s unambiguous, like “would you like to take advantage of this offer?”, the New Telemarketers are asking “is that OK?”, or “how does that sound to you?” A positive response on your part, meant to indicate that the offer sounds interesting but you’re not committing to anything, is taken as an acceptance of their offer. Sly, very sly. But I’ve got wise to you now: ha!

Apple Expo Banner, Paris

!http://photos2.flickr.com/3456273_00fe5136ef_m.jpg(Apple Expo Banner, Paris)!:http://www.flickr.com/photos/t1mmyb/3456273/

“Apple Expo Banner, Paris”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/t1mmyb/3456273/

Originally uploaded by “t1mmyb”:http://www.flickr.com/people/t1mmyb/

We’ve never been to San Fransisco (maybe we will one day), but we did manage to go to Apple Expo Paris back in September.