Chip-in-Bin nonsense

I don’t understand people’s resistance to theChip-in-Bin scheme being
developed as an idea to control landfill, reduce the throw-away society and
increase propensity of households to recycle. The tabloid papers say it is a
“spy in your bin” and that it erodes civil liberties. Nonsense! The chip is
essentially an electronically encoded reference number. It could easily be a
barcode, but probably isn’t because a chip is more secure and resilient in the
rough environment experienced by your average wheely-bin. It does not erode
civil liberties, as it does not know what you have thrown away and it
does not identify you as a person where data sensitivity is paramount – unlike
the proposed ID card which seems to have gained more weight, possibly due to a
reduced level of propoganda from the tabloids.

To me, there are three key benefits which people are not getting:

  • If the scheme is truly fair, shouldn’t the refuse handling portion of the
    council tax bill be reduced? Therefore, lower Council Tax
  • Customers now have some control over how much they are charged, It isn’t defined exclusively in the council chamber, it can be affected by your own habits. If you pay too much, think about reducing how much you throw away.
  • We improve the environment by reducing our dependancy on landfill.

There are of course down-sides. People are averse to making extra effort to
imrpove the lot of themselves and others, and especially when it costs, even
though it should (in a fair world) be cheaper). The potential for fly-tipping
would doubtless increase, for example, and no-one wants that.

New XBox 360 Experience – Avatars networking on the cloud

The third post in as many days. I’m not on a roll, there’s just a lot happening.

Microsoft’s successful XBox 360 console received a bit of a makeover last
night, in the form of the much anticipated “New XBox Experience“. Previously,
the XBox user interface when turned on was a series of “blades”, representing
distinct actions and tasks within the console such as playing games, playing
music and videos and making purchases from the various stores. All in all a
functional if uninspiring interface.

The New Xbox Experience was pushed to users last night, in a very impressive
global rollout of the software. This itself must have been a technical
nightmare! The new user interface is very 3D-based, concentrating on “slides”
rather than blades which come in and out of focus (literally). It is very

Where the clever bit comes in is with the use of Avatars. Previously, gamers
were represented in the community by a GamerCard. Much like an ID card, the only really customisable part of it is the icon used for the image.

Avatars are becoming increasingly popular in various applications, so I’m
sure you’ll know that an Avatar is a computer-representation of yourself that
exists in the digital world. Games like Second Life centre around users’
avatars. Whether it is on the XBox 360 console or Facebook. The New XBox 360
Experience invites us to create an avatar to represent us in the XBox 360
environment. Gamers have been playing on line with each other for years, and
forms the hub of major games such as Rock Band, Call of Duty and Halo 3. Gamers
are often required to join up into teams to complete tasks, for example. Where
the New XBox Experience improves things is that your avatar can now appear in
games themselves, reinforcing your digital representation. This idea has been
criticised as a copy of the Nintendo Wii Mii idea, which works on a similar basis. A number of “Party Games” are also going to be launch which allow gamers to participate in “live” games, much like TV gameshows where the gamers’ avatars take part in a digital game occuring – to all intents and purposes – on the “cloud”.

I’m not a gamer, indeed, I actually represent a small part of an increasingly
successful market that gaming companies are targetting – that of the “casual
gamer”. The casual gamer market consists of people who may be 30-something and who enjoy a quick stab at a game to come down after a day at work. Whether they are just wasting time or re-living retro-classics, they can’t afford the
commitment required of the mainstream games such as Call of Duty, Grand Theft
Auto, etc. We still enjoy playing PacMan and Frogger in original blocky graphics
on our expensive HD gaming systems.

The significance of Microsoft’s work hasn’t passed me by, however. The new
user interface re-inforces the community of gamers in the living room. No longer
are fellow gamers hidden behind a subscription-only service, now they appear on
your dashboard using their own avatar representation. You go to them and point
to them to join in a “party”, conversation or compare successes. The concept of
the gaming community is quickly becoming like that of Facebook or MySpace,
allowing social networking to occur in the living room in a safe environment.
Gamers, particularly young gamers, can socialise with their friends using their
console (no complicated PC to configure) in a “sandbox” which comes with
parental controls and a hefty terms of use agreement which is rigorously
enforced. Avatars take this to the next level, and Microsoft promise a number of
other improvements to increase the networking opportunities of gamers.

The YouTube video below shows how the new Avatar system works.

Unfortunately, however, these networks are very vendor-based. Your XBox 360
personality can’t exist in a Wii Mii context, even though it is the same idea
and you and your friend are running the same game, for example, Rock Band. I
guess it’s only like Facebook vs MySpace vs Bebo, but a £160+ investment in a
social network that may or may not include people you get on with is a bit of a
risk. Obviously, you buy the console for the gaming possibilities (amongst
others) but the networking opportunities will form an increasingly more
important aspect of the marketing of the product by the producers and the
selection of the console by the consumer.

The XBox 360 and platforms like it are also becoming a more attractive
purchase for people who don’t play games. As Windows Vista rolls out, more
people are realising that they can watch, record and manage their TV, music and
picture libraries using an XBox 360. XBox 360s can play DVDs, can rent HD video
content from the internet for viewing on HD sets (not requiring the expensive
Blu-Ray player) and form a controlled access point for the internet, and
therefore, the “cloud”. Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform looks very
exciting, coupled with Mesh, Office Live, Windows Live and XBox Live some
seriously cool applications could be developed that bring us away from the
conventional desktop and returns us to the living room for social networking,
video download, etc.

Mental Illness – how can you tell?

Tonight, I watched a sobering, but thought provoking investigation into how
one defines the line between sanity and mental illness. “How Mad Are You?” was a
two-part programme as part of the Horizon series on BBC 2 and tonight saw the
concluding part. The show sets about identifying whether it is possible for both
trained and untrained observers to identify which of 10 volunteers exhibited
mental illness and which of the 6 mental illnesses these people potentially
suffered from. Sound like more cheap reality TV, though I think this was very

Three professionals of distinguished psychological training were tasked with
identifying the individuals and symptoms based on not having seen the
individuals’ history, having had no contact with the individuals and instead
relying on video taped footage and 3 brief 5 minute interviews. A difficult
task, if unrepresentative of the real world. The idea wasn’t to show the
psychologists up as being ignorant, though. The idea was to show just how
possible it is to suffer from, hide (or fail to hide) or recover from mental

The mental illnesses being identified were:

  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • Social Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Bi-polar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Eating disorder

Viewers and the doctors were invited to label the volunteers as having a
mental illness, and if so, which mental illness based on a series of tasks each
of which specifically tailored to highlight certain traits of individuals
suffering from one of the illnesses. What was alarming, however, was that as the
programme briefly summarised each condition, how common the symptoms can be.

Which one of us has not been “down” in the past (depression)? Maybe we’ve had
euphoric moments (Bi-polar)? We’ve all become fed up and found ourselves being
insular, just wanting to avoid people (social anxiety). The programme claimed
that 1 in every 10 women have suffered from eating disorders at some point in
their life, is this because they decided to go on a diet now and then? We all
have suspicions (Schizophrenia) and suspersitions (OCD) that affect how we go
about our everyday lives, whether we consciously realise it or not. Looking at
these traits, then I guess I should be locked up right away. I can put a tick in
every one of those boxes.

“Obviously”, I am not ill – but how do I know? At what point should I become
concerned that I might be exhibiting concerning signs? In the past three years,
I have been involved in a very stressful project with Work Connexions that
stretched relationships both professional and personal, I have just left a job I
was distinctly not happy in and I am still finding my way around an island that
can be very small – you never know if people know you before you’ve met them!
All these situations have stressed me to a point that maybe I should become
concerned. Luckily, bouts of colourful language and tantrum or two, I’ve come
out of these situations well. I don’t think this is because I am a particularly
strong person, mentally, so I can’t see what distinguishes me from someone who
may succumb to the symptoms. Which one of use can honestly say we haven’t known someone who has had problems? Mental illness can touch us all and it can be devestating.

So how did I do, and how did the pscyhologists do?

Of the 6 people who had a history of mental illness, I correctly identified
4. The psychologists correctly identified just 2.

Of the 6 illnesses, I correctly “pigeon-holed” Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
and Bi-polar. The psychologists also only got 2 out of 6.

Now think of it the other way round, by getting 2 right, the psychologists
“labelled” 4 apparently healthy people with mental disorders. Turns out two of
these people just described themselves as “quiet” or “naturally down”. They were
quite happy with themselves. The individuals that were not “spotted” were
clearly very pleased as the work they have been undertaking in overcoming their
difficulties had clearly paid off.

I can hardly claim any great degree of success in my own observations. I am
increasingly getting teased that I exhibit tendencies of OCD (if liking things
to be clean says I have OCD, then sign me up now) so have become aware of
idiosyncracies that people may exhibit. I was pleased with my diagnosis of
Bi-Polar in one of the volunteers. I made the decision early in the first
programme, only going off past experience, so am quite impressed that I picked
it out and kept to it throughout. The psyhologists picked it out correctly
(after I had 😉 ) and then changed their minds. This programme certainly brings
out the amateur psychologist in you.

Update (19 November 2008):

This programme was also discussed in the Media Guardian web site.

New host, new software

Unfortunately, due to a compromised SQL Server, my site has been down for a
few days. This is most frustrating for me, it’s hard enough finding the time,
topics and tantalising writing style  without my server having to be taken

As a result of the rather poor support response on my previous host, I am
trying out 1&1
hosting. This site is currently running in a very fine VPS which seems to be a lot more responsive than my previous VPS at my old host. I actually ordered it on Friday evening, having threatened to take my custom elsewhere, but unfortunately it didn’t get provisioned until yesterday due to the requirement to check my
identity. This meant I lost all weekend, which I was going to use to migrate a
few sites over to see how it performs. Not to worry, I guess it’s the sign of a
professional host. The sign up process was sleek, the administration controls I
have access to are comprehensive and the VPS runs like a dream.

As I said, I lost the weekend due to the delay in provisioning the VPS, but
that’s not to say the weekend was wasted. I thought I’d try out the latest
version of Community Server, which has steadily been improving over the last couple of years. My BloggingAbout.NET blog is actually based on a Community Server install, which is managed by a LinkedIn friend who kindly let me have a blog on the site. While Community Server is not the most flexible of systems (it is, after all, not a Content Management System), it certainly ticks all the boxes for blogging and community generation. I was very impressed with the software and how “easy” it was to theme to my previous site style. The flexibility is quite impressive. I can, for instance, at the flick of a few checkboxes create a blog and have it adopt a completely different theme to the rest of the site. All RSS, trackbacks, REST API and aggregation is all taken care of for me. I was previously using Sitecore Xpress, which although is really incredible, was requiring too much effort to be able to create a site equivelant to the standards of blogging services such as WordPress. I don’t want to lose Sitecore Xpress completely, though, I just need to figure out what content I can put in it that doesn’t contravene the extremely tight license agreement (I really want to be able to put it into a
client who is a charity, for instance) and how I can integrate the two systems.
(The Forum module of Sitecore is actually an old Community Server forum, and it
is very badly implemented and caused one particular Sitecore site to be very
unreliable, particularly under load, so my hopes aren’t too high).

I’m not sure what went wrong with my old host, to be honest. I had been with
them for nearly 10 years, and have recommended them to many others and sung
their praises. Their “can do” attitude was exactly the opposite of what is wrong
with 99% of hosting companies. If I was stuck, they would personally reply
within the hour. They were also very accommodating during the Work Connexions
project, despite some stiff load going their way and a number of low-level
configuration changes the team made to help improve performance while a new
server was specified and paid for. Unfortunately, they were messed around and
the particularly poor reponse to them from others caused difficulties with my
relationship with them. I also think that they might have over-reached
themselves with the VPS systems they have commissioned. My questions are either
not getting answered or are just waiting too long. The latest incident being
delayed due to one of the guys being on leave. With their new ticketing system,
I find it difficult to understand how my queries could not be automatically put
back into the support pool during the individual’s absence.

I’m going to run the two hosts side by side for a while and see how it goes.
I will be very sad to leave my old host, their service has been outstanding in
9/10 cases and I do admit to feeling slightly guilty for jilting them.
Hopefully, though, this new blogging software I am using will help things, too.
It can do Blogging, Wikis, Groups, Forums and Media libraries so there is lots
of scope for experimentation. All I need now is the content – and that is the
hardest part.