SciBlogs

Archive February 2011

Amid carnage media bears brunt of disaster Peter Griffin Feb 24

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It was only a couple of months ago, one sunny morning that I visited science reporter Paul Gorman and tech editor Will Harvie at The Press in Christchurch.

ctvThe beautiful old building housing the newspaper was devastated in Tuesday’s earthquake and at least one of the newspaper’s staff was killed when the roof crashed down on the upstairs newsroom. This harrowing account from Vicki Anderson, music critic at The Press describes the terrifying moments as the top of the building collapsed in:

After what seemed like forever the shaking stopped and my colleagues emerged and checked each other.

“Get out,” screamed one, “stay where you are,” said another.

Somehow I had the presence of shaken mind to dig out my handbag and cellphone from the rubble.

We walked down the back stairs which were OK, as we left I looked to my right. All I could see of the busy newsroom was the roof of the three-storied building. No people in sight. I had just walked through there 10 minutes prior.

Last year I popped in to meet some of the crew at CTV, Canterbury’s dedicated and active TV channel. The team there were subscribers to the Science Media Centre’s news feeds and regularly contacted us looking for experts.

To see the building now a pile of rubble is almost beyond belief. It is human devastation and the dismantling of an organisation on a scale that I can only really compare to the footage I watched of the 9/11 World Trade Center collapse, where entire workforces and divisions of companies were wiped out.

To be a journalist at the centre of such a disaster must be a peculiar thing – and interviews with the likes of Press reporter Rebecca Todd, who was on One News this morning describing the chaotic destruction of her workplace bear that out. Despite everything, the grief, the shattered infrastructure, The Press managed to get a paper out and its team have regrouped to report on the web. As Rebecca explained, it helped them take their minds off the immediate reality of their part at the centre of the disaster.

The CTV disaster is on a different scale, as chairman Nick Smith explained on radio this morning. Of the 25 staff at the TV station, only 10 survivors made it to a meeting yesterday to regroup. Imagine that level of destruction and loss of life in the organisation you work in.

There was intense scrutiny of the media’s coverage of the first Canterbury earthquake, and for that matter Pike River.

While there have been conflicting reports and shaky live crosses in the course of coverage of this latest disaster, the New Zealand media has actually responded impressively, with dignity and respect for the people of Christchurch. Sadly, the journalists in our media organisations are becoming expert at covering disaster.

Finland’s fortunes in balance as Nokia opens Windows Peter Griffin Feb 17

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Wow, I’d love to be a fly on the wall at the Nokia booth at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week – well on the wall of the meeting room housing the companies top executives and emissaries from Microsoft, Google and other operating system makers.

Nokia-MicrosoftThe Barcelona show is always a colourful one – I’ve been four times over the years and there’s usually a good deal of exciting new technology to see – though as with the Vegas gadget-fest CES, Apple usually boycotts the MWC, leaving the rest of the pack feebly attempting to look cool and innovative.

But this year will be particularly interesting given Finnish mobile giant Nokia’s decision to drop its long association with the Symbian operating system for smart phones and get into bed with Microsoft.

The implications of the move for the mobile industry and the mobile phone maker itself are monstrous. Nokia had to do something to address its slide in the smartphone market (in Q4 2010 it had 30% of the smartphone market, down from 40% in 2009), but the deal with Microsoft hasn’t been well received at home in Finland or abroad by the tech community.

Take shareholders for instance – a group of them went ballistic at the news, launching “Plan B” to sack Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, limit development of Windows Phone 7 Nokia smartphones and re-jig R&D and software development at Nokia to try and jumpstart innovation. That plan stalled before it even got off the ground:

“…the responses that we received from institutional investors were not encouraging. These institutions have a fiduciary responsibility to their customers and are legally bared [sic] from supporting radical initiatives like seating a bunch of kids on the board of directors. If they do not agree with Nokia’s plans, they are better off simply divesting and putting their money in other companies that better fit their investing strategy (which is exactly what they have been doing).”

John Dvorak hits the nail on the head when he says the partnership is a bad move for Nokia – but better than the inevitable slide towards oblivion the mobile maker was and may well still be heading for.

Microsoft was single-handedly responsible for perception that the smartphone was a dog of an idea. The smartphone languished under Microsoft tutelage. Then the iPhone came along, and Microsoft was dumbfounded and slow to react. Years had to go by before a kind of iPhone-like Windows Phone 7 appeared too little and too late.

Windows Phone 7 is a decent operating system, but it literally took Microsoft ten years and the arrival of both Apple iOS and Google Android to get its act together. I was at CES this year – Microsoft spectacularly  failed to create any forward-looking buzz around WP7. Having your Xbox 360 avatar pop up on your phone is not the way to win hearts and minds in the smartphone space.

Symbian is a dog of a mobile operating system. I have given away well-designed Nokia handsets – the Communicator and the N7 because I can’t stand the cumbersome software they run on. MeeGoo, the Nokia-Intel Linux based system developed in the wake of Symbian’s slide towards extinction appears to be much better, but Nokia lost its nerve, consigning the fledgling operating system to oblivion in favour of a deal with Microsoft, reportedly resulting in massive money and marketing support being lavished on Nokia.

Personally I think Nokia should have embraced Google’s Android platform and become the premium develeper of handsets and tablet PCs  optimised for the Android operating system, levering off the Android app store and integrating Google’s search and location-based services properly into the mobile world. It has instead chosen a laggard as a partner in the mobile software space and has such, the future prosperity of a country surrounded by the PIG countries of Europe could well be affected.

Others were quick to seize on this, even before the announcement of the alliance with Microsoft:

There’s one other reason that Nokia would not make any substantial move away from Finland: the terrifying impact it would have on the Finnish economy. While shifting HQ to another country would not result in the immediate draining of all money from the country – for starters, Nokia would most likely remain listed on the Helsinki stock exchange – it would have dramatic consequences almost straight away.

The future of Nokia and the health of the Finnish economy and intertwined. It is the flip side of the rosy Nokia success story – when a company that big is responsible for turning around a country’s economy, it could also be the company that destroys the economy when it takes its eye off the ball and fails to innovate.

Nokia is perilously close to that position at the moment. Sure, it employs 132,000 people around the world, has revene of euro 42B, proft of euro 2 billion and is officially the biggest manufacturer of mobile handsets in the world. But look what happened to Motorola, another mobile giant that five years back was on a roll with its Razr handset but has since been broken up after a string of failures in the mobile handset space. One thing is undeniable about Motorola – its software was always a dog.

If you want to get an idea as to what extent the fortunes of Finland rest on those of Nokia, read this piece in the Helsingin Sanomat:

The role of the Nokia sector as a motor of growth was crucial for Finland in 1995-2000… It accounted for an additional growth of 5-6 per cent in Finnish GDP. At the same time… the proportion of exports in Finnish GDP rose from 20 per cent in the 1990s to nearly 50 per cent in 2000.

When growth in world trade collapsed in 2000, exports of electronics was cut in half in a year, reducing the growth rate of GDP by 2.5 percentage points.

Since then… electronics production has gone up and down like a yo-yo, causing confusion in cyclical analysis and in political debate.

The closest New Zealand comes to the likes of Nokia is our biggest company, dairy giant Fonterra, the health of which is correlated with GDP. But while Fonterra has thousands of dairy farmers as shareholders and serves customers around the world, its ecosystem of suppliers and customers is nowhere near as vast as that of Nokia’s.

Finland is literally in the palm of Nokia and the executives who steer it. A bad move for the company is a bad move for the nation that created it. In that sense, former Microsoftie Elop is playing it safe cosying up to cash-rich heavyweight Microsoft. But Apple and Google have shown how the mobile sector can turn on a 10 cent piece on the back of innovation.

The decisions Nokia makes in the next year or two could spell the success of failure of the company. It has bought itself some time with WP7, but its longterm software roadmap is far from certain. If it is smart, it will court Google in the background and prepare for a potential switch to Android.

This intereseting Harvard School of Business paper documents the spectacular success of Nokia, but the serious level of exposure Finland’s economy has to the fortunes of a single technology-driven company.

Good science presentations – don’t forget to chunk Peter Griffin Feb 13

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Listen to past and present world leaders like Barack Obama, Tony Blair and even George W. Bush and you’ll hear a particular speech-making tool in action – chunking.

I was introduced to chunking today at a presentation at the Foo Camp “unconference” held at Mahurangi College just out of Warkworth by Olivia Mitchell, a speech expert with Effective Speaking.

She had a room full of scientists and technologists who had similar hang-ups when it came to getting across often highly-technical concepts in speeches to laypeople.

Many in the room talked of getting tongue-tied, using fillers like “um” and “ah” to fill awkward silences and talking too fast due to nerves. For myself, I’m definitely familiar with the latter, particularly in front of large crowds, when the presentation can feel like a hurtling train ride to the final slide. The only time things seem to slow down is when there’s a glitch with the presentation or your computer crashes – in which case a few seconds can feel like a minute.

Enter the method of chunking, which is designed to slow down your speech, give you time to think and your audience time to absorb what you are saying.

The key to chunking is to think about how you want to break up your sentences to deliver aspects of the concept you are explaining. Talking for a few seconds followed by a pause of a second, then another burst of speech and so on, is an effective way to deliver an impactful speech without becoming flustered and adding in those clunky and noticeable fillers.

It takes a bit of getting used to, but after a few tries in the session today, I was talking fairly smoothly in chunks about a fairly complex science-related topic. The regular pausing means you can collect your thoughts to find the right words to start your next sentence and means you are lest likely to ramble on just to fill dead air, which the public speaker naturally dreads.

Chunking teaches you to make good use of regular pauses, which also allows you to pause for impact as you let your audience absorb your words.

Tony Blair is apparently the master of chunking, as numerous Youtube clips illustrate. Blair earns in the region of $600,000 per public speaking engagement, such is the effectiveness and impact of his speeches. He had extensive training in the art of chunking early in his political career.

Mitchell touched on an aspect of speech delivery that is particularly distracting and unfortunately, fairly common among public speakers in New Zealand – the high rising change in tone at the end of a sentence. It’s particularly common among females apparently. Here’s Mitchell’s tip to avoid doing it – think about the end of the sentence – where you want to end up with this particular chunk of speech. If you know the final words you are going to deliver in the sentence, you will have more confidence in the style in which you delivering, eliminating the uncertain, questioning tone that the rise in tone suggests.

We only had a short workshop with Mitchell, but I’ll be working on my chunking ahead of my next presentation!

More on chunking: http://speakingaboutpresenting.com/delivery/dont-slow-down-effective-presenter/

What would you do with $500 million? Peter Griffin Feb 10

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Before you list the super yachts, luxury cars, mansions and round-the-world first-class trips you would buy, observe the caveat – $500 million… to transform the New Zealand economy.

ipenzAh, a bit harder to think of good ways to carve up the cash, isn’t it? Well, that is that exact question engineers orgainsation IPENZ posed when it came up with Catalysing Economic Growth, an ideas piece it launched this week in Wellington that looks at how we can try and boost innovation and expertise in the private sector.

Fellow Sciblogger Peter Kerr has covered the details of the report in two excellent posts here and here.

Eseentially however, IPENZ is proposing the Government find $500 million additional expenditure to put into initiatives to encourage innovation and co-investment in ventures between publicly funded research institutions and New Zealand businesses. IPENZ suggests that this level of spending, if allocated properly, would generate $1 – 2 billion in additional private investment, generating 5,000 – 8,000 R&D jobs and “an annual demand for several hundred post graduates by the private sector”.

There’s a pragmatic sensibility to the document, best described by the quote IPENZ chief executive Andrew Clelland prefaced his presentation at the Intercontinental Hotel in Wellington this week with:

“No one gets rich until they make something that someone else wants to buy.”

The quote is from our own titan of innovation, the late, great Sir Angus Tait, founder of Tait Electronics. It assumes that we want to get rich(er). That’s an easy assumption to make when a million of our people are overseas, many of them homesick but professionally more fulfilled than they could ever be back here.

Look, $500 million is a drop in the bucket and could be sliced and diced any which way to add up to not much of a difference. Where IPENZ, in its blunt engineer-like approach gets closer to the bone, is in the “disruptive” approach it is taking.

Consider this for instance: imagine if the PBRF (performance-based research funding) dished out to academic researchers in New Zealand was dependent on those researchers securing equivalent funding from the private sector. Think of all those heads of departments at the universities who currently measure their success by the number of papers their academics publish in peer-reviewed journals. What if their success was measured by how much co-investment they did with the private sector in R&D projects and the number of graduates they placed with companies.

It would turn the academic thinking on its head.

“This will not be popular,” admits Clelland, a former academic who undertook research in research interests in energy, refrigeration, and food process engineering.

“We actually need to get to a disruptive level of R&D,” he told the audience in Wellington this week.

A disruptive level of R&D in Clelland’s book is equivalent to three per cent of GDP (gross domestic product) – one per cent from the public sector, the remainder from private companies. That level of spend would put us ahead of the curve in OECD countries in terms of our spending on R&D. Those countries that spend more, typically have healthier hi-tech economies and higher-skilled workforces.

Is it realistic? I can hear the howls of outrage from the universities from here – it even caused a murmur among the the audience of business folk Clelland first floated it with. But if we want a step-change in the economy, maybe that is the type of transition we need to make.

One of our other great thinkers, Sir Paul Callaghan, a man who has been showered in accolades in the last year, including most recently New Zealander of the Year, seems to agree. He paints a compelling picture when he quantifies the challenge we face in our bid for a more prosperous country.

Our current gross domestic product per capita corresponds to $120,500 of revenue per employee. To match Australia, we need $174,000 a job. By contrast, tourism in New Zealand earns $82,800 revenue per employee, a mere two-thirds of what is needed to maintain our current per capita GDP. Tourism may provide valuable employment for underskilled New Zealanders, but it cannot provide a route to greater prosperity.

Productivity is not about how hard people work. It is about the nature of the work they do. Samsung, which makes silicon chips and consumer electronic products, earns NZ$850,000 a job while Apple Inc earns $1,700,000.

The backbone of our prosperity is dairy farming, with $350,000 a job, but environmental limitations prevent us from scaling up.

So how would you spend $500 million to try and transform the economy? Do you agree with IPENZ?

Rural broadband – safe hands win out Peter Griffin Feb 07

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You don’t have to read between the lines to sense the bitter disappointment of wireless broadband provider Woosh Wireless, fibre network operator FX Networks and state-owned infrastructure player Kordia at missing out on a juicy Government contract to push high-speed internet services out to the rural sector.

The press release today lamenting the Government’s decision to opt for a consortium of Telecom and Vodafone to undertake its $285 million rural broadband tender makes no bones about the fact that the unsuccessful rival bidders see this as a mistake:

’This is not the right decision for rural New Zealand,’ Kordia chief executive Geoff Hunt is quoted as saying.

’The opportunity to quickly close the digital divide with urban New Zealand has been lost. Effective and future-proofed wireless communication requires critical investment in the latest technology and the upgrade path that it will offer. Sadly the government has chosen to invest in what they know – copper and 3G, both of them well down the path to obsolescence.’

Communications minister Mr Joyce, in his own release on the rural broadband tender, said Telecom and Vodafone’s bid “is based on proven existing technology, and provides the government with confidence that it can be deployed”.

And that pretty much says it all. Lacking confidence in the ability of new fixed wireless technology to deliver, the Government took the safe option and went with providers relying on mature technology to provide what might be a slower broadband service than is possible via the alternative but is in the eyes of an understandably risk-averse government, is more likely to deliver on the promises the Government has made of delivering network speeds of at least 5Mbps (megabits per second) to 86 per cent of rural homes and businesses – in excess of 250,000 sites.

The battle for government money to provide broadband to the rural sector really embodies the larger tussle still under way worldwide between technology companies looking to employ a new generation of fixed wireless systems to deliver broadband to hard to reach places and those who see existing mobile network infrastructure as the best platform to extend high-speed internet coverage beyond the reach of wired networks.

Kordia and Woosh, who have for years been in the business of delivering wireless broadband to customers both in urban centres and in rural areas via Kordia’s Extend network, constitute the first group. Telecom and Vodafone, who have nationwide networks of mobile phone towers and offer widespread access to mobile broadband via those towers, are firmly in the second group.

Fixed wireless deja vu

In December, I attended a briefing in Wellington held by the Woosh-Kordia-FX Networks consortium that made a compelling case that fixed wireless technology is the best way to deliver decent broadband speeds to rural dwellers. Geoff Hunt and Woosh CEO Rod Inglis said the consortium would use TD-LTE (long term evolution) fixed wireless technology to deliver “city type services at city prices for rural New Zealanders”. Latency would be lower than with existing mobile broadband services and the consortium dubbed OpenGate would actually be able to deliver 20Mbps to 68 per cent of the rural sector using wireless services delivered from high sites throughout the country Kordia and Woosh have already secured.

A host of technology vendors at the meeting gave technical updates on the status of fixed wireless LTE, but its here that I began to feel I’d heard the whole story once before. In fact I had, when both Woosh and Kordia (then BCL) embarked years ago on separate ventures to roll out fixed wireless services to deliver broadband to the rural service. The companies selected proprietary fixed wireless technologies that were heavily marketed at the time, to build their networks, subsequently finding that they had selected technology that had no long term upgrade path. Woosh in particular has suffered the consequences, racking up large losses as it struggled on providing services via a dead-end technology. Rod Inglis admitted as much at the briefing:

“We have had quite a string of losses which we’ve just reversed recently,” he said.

“The [IP Wireless] technology we chose didn’t really scale. We didn’t want to make the same mistake twice.”

Kordia didn’t do much better with its technology path and now both companies were looking to TD-LTE technology to get themselves back on track with a technology that has a decent future. The problem however is that the technology is just a bit too new. The slides the technology vendors put up in Wellington showed equipment only just deployed, network roll-out case studies that really constitute pilot projects and consumer equipment that’s scheduled for a 2012 launch. That’s not the type of maturity in a technology a government is willing to bet hundreds of millions of dollars on.

What killed the Kordia-Woosh-FX Networks bid is the poor track record of fixed wireless technologies such as those originally backed by Woosh and Kordia and the over-hyped under-performing WiMax technology that has given fixed wireless services in general a bad name. Woosh’s repeated losses over numerous years can’t have given the government confidence either.

Mobile mature enough

The upshot of all this is that the Government has foregone an opportunity to stir up the broadband market by throwing a lifeline to some marginalised players in favour of going with the tried and tested duopolists and their reliable technology. It means that rural customers will get their 5Mbps broadband access via a compact little modem that connects to a local cell tower. The rival consortium was offering a plan that would have delivered higher speeds sooner via an antenna receiver, but couldn’t convince the government that the equipment would be available in sufficient quantities at the right price and that the network would deliver the required speeds reliably.

It is disappointing that fixed wireless technology has to date been unable to deliver sufficiently to give investors – private or public, the confidence to back a true alternative to the mobile network operators. The rural broadband tender win by Vodafone and Telecom effectively kills development of fixed wireless services in New Zealand for the foreseeable future. Vodafone and Telecom are on standardised upgrade paths, so rural customers can expect improved connection speeds -  eventually, and there is merit in Joyce’s claims that the Telecom/Vodafone plan will allow for the expansion of mobile voice coverage in rural areas.

But competition drives the push to roll out better quality services and with Telecom and Vodafone sewing up the rural broadband space, don’t expect these two companies to be falling over themselves to exceed the Government’s targets for broadband access speeds ahead of schedule.

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