Video game buildings

Buildings don't have to be boring. How about a game of snake or tetris?

Property confidence hits a new low

Not much happens in the summer but it does give people time to take stock. Grant Thornton have just published their latest International Business Report which among other things takes a snapshot of business confidence. It makes grim reading:

The level of optimism amongst UK privately held businesses (PHBs) has plunged by 57% in the past twelve months, taking the Grant Thornton International optimism/pessimism barometer to an all-time low.

The figures released today form part of Grant Thornton's International Business Report (IBR), which canvassed 7,200 business across 36 countries. In the UK it sought the opinions of CEOs, MDs, Chairmen and senior executives of 600 large and medium business.

67% of UK PHBs have a slightly or very pessimistic outlook for the economy in 2009 compared to a mere 20% that declare any optimism. The UK's result is the most pessimistic recorded since the survey began in 2003 and places it firmly in the bottom ten internationally.

The number of senior executives expressing pessimism was highest in construction and real estate companies (80%), retail (72%) and manufacturing (67%).

Not surprisingly construction and property is furthest into the doldrums with little to get excited about until at least the autumn.

We can probably expect that September will see some relaxation of finance to business and consumers but it looks like being a long heard slog and it's difficult to predict if there will be any recovery. It's quite likely that this is it for the foreseeable future so we had better get used to it.

China gives 50% - 70% subsidies to solar projects

China’s Ministry of Finance has unwrapped plans to subsidise half the cost of building independent solar-array projects in the country, including new power transmission and distribution systems to link projects to the grid.

The subsidy will stretch to 70% for solar projects in remote regions with no current power supply, as the country continues searching for ways to create demand for its domestic PV industry.
But in order to qualify, solar projects must be built within one year, according to press reports.
The Chinese government says it seeks to build 500 megawatts (MW) of capacity over the next three years. Initially it will put a cap of 20MW on the subsidies given to projects in any one province in order to ensure the industry is spread throughout the country.
Earlier this year the Ministry of Finance gave the Chinese photovoltaics industry a shot in the arm when it announced a feed-in tariff of 20 yuan ($2.93) per watt for building-integrated projects.

Anglesey Aluminium go bust because of energy bills

We have just heard that Anglesey Aluminium have just closed down because they haven't been able to agree a deal for their electricity costs with the local nuclear power station. This terrible news might be part of the first wave of failures because of energy costs rather than straight forward business.

They are part owned by Rio Tinto who are having their own problems at the moment along with the other miners, but it demonstrates that energy security is a key issue that cannot be taken for granted in the future.

The eco town shortlist

The list will shortly be announced. The word is that Nottingham and Leicester are not in the first wave.

What an airbrained idea!

This Shorts 360 small commuter aeroplane has been saved from scrapping and put to use as a classroom at Kingsland Primary School in Stoke.


Eco towns - new towns with a green veneer?

Tomorrows announcement that there will be another ten eco towns must be taken with a pinch of salt.

Eco towns are a key Government regeneration and housing policy but so far we have yet to see a single one come to fruition. Since the idea was muted in 2007 there have been around fifty locations promoted, most of these on in-use airfields and military bases. These were whittled down to fifteen sites and many of these are rapidly falling by the wayside, but more of that in another post.

Let me declare an interest here because I have a private pilots license and I develop and promote development, so I have a foot in two conflicting camps. I'll try to be objective.

Airfields sit in a strange planning limbo where they are usually classed as brownfield land (iepreviously developed) but 99.99% of them are actually huge undeveloped green spaces in the middle of the British countryside.

Let's call them what they are. Eco towns are new towns that won't stop at 15,000 new homes. They will need road infrastructure (dual carriageways) retail ( hypermarkets) and employment (factories). They are serious developments promoted by serious money.

Eco towns maintain the illusion of meeting brownfield development targets while creating enormous new-towns in the greenbelt. I cannot think of any other circumstance where building tens of thousands of new homes in the middle of nowhere would be permitted and actually encouraged by the planning system. All new development schemes will need to meet 'eco' standards anyway even if they are in a city centre.

So what's driving this initiative?

I suspect that the answer is local politics and finding the line of least resistance to change. Experience says that most airfields have a vocal minority of local residents who find the passing of a few Cessnas more annoying than the noise of traffic, lawnmowers, agriculture and all the other racket in our not so quiet countryside. It seems that perception plays a large part in this issue but as the case of the former airline pilot who moved next to Kemble Aerodrome and then tried to get it closed down shows, objections can come from the most unexpected quarters.

Objectors should carefully consider the alternatives though. An airfield may be seen as a bad neighbour but they should consider that two hundred acres of mainly green and quiet space is probably a better option than 15,000 new homes and twenty years of building site muck and disturbance.

Genuine engagement with all sorts of local interests must be a priority for all parties. Government targets must not be the main focus because there is a more rounded package to look at. That mightwell conclude that a new town needs to be developed but the current locational focus is more about where 'brownfield land' is available rather than whether the land is actually in the right place.

Sites are often owned and promoted by large organisations including some that consider themselves to be especially ethical such as the Co-Operative Group with their scheme to redevelop Leicester Airfield. It's certainly an interesting scheme that is shot through with environmentally sound ideas but the fundamental issue remains... should it be there at all? Who benefits apart from the Co-Op and Government statistics?

Perhaps a thin green veneer is all it takes to push something through but on the other hand perhaps we all need to wake up to how policy is being implemented while being realistic that something urgently needs to be done to house the growing population. We need 22 thousand new homes a year. We are building around 7 thousand. We need an honest look at how the entire nation operates and how we are going to house and feed people in future.

Are new eco towns on airfields the answer to our housing problems? I'm not convinced. There seems to be little that is ecological about building on fields in the countryside. Skylarks, hares, badgers and kestrels will be replaced with moggies and guinea pigs. The foxes will no doubt approve of their new urban status though.

One thing is for sure, some people might get more than they bargained for when they complained about their little neighbourhood airfield. With choices like that, who would want to be a NIMBY?

Life without MS Office - Day 2

Not too much of note to report today, just work. A busy day out and about so the only real use has been with Google Calendar. This app seems to work quite nicely and in the past I've found that it syncs nicely with MS Office packages. It's definitely one of the smarter apps.

I'm miss being able to sync Tasks. As a recent GTD convert (at least in part) I've come to expect my task lists to be wherever I want them instantly. Gmail is more successful though and I'm using a partial workaround by using the drag and drop labels to categorise email, then filtering. It's different to how it operates in Outlook and not quite as elegant as having numerous inbox's but it does work.

Contacts are not yet up to date but if I can find a spare fifteen minutes I'll get them up to date, thereby somewhat ironically saving me far more than fifteen minutes.

Will Microsoft Office 2010 be an online package?

Yesterday saw the news from Microsoft that Office 2010 will be an online office system like Google Docs, but of course Office is traditionally a real heavyweight in all respects so it will be interesting to see if it remains as powerful or if there will be cuts made to speed it up. MS might be playing catch-up with Google but they are big and ugly enough to make their mark if they are serious.

The cynics are already saying that it is a commercial reaction to the recent legal decision forcing them to separate Internet Explorer from the Windows OS. If Office 10 needs IE and Silverlight you will still be forced into the Microsoft package. The Office 10 video in the above link needs Silverlight to operate - perhaps that is a hint to the future of Office 10.

Life without MS Office, Day 1

So how is it going - life without MS Office? Not quite as I expected to be honest.

On Sunday I reinstalled my desktop PC system and in the process removed MS Office completely to avoid cheating. That was my first mistake.

I needed to create a template letterhead and there isn't any really satisfactory way of doing this easily and quickly with Google Docs. But I then realised that I have oodles of storage space - none of which is on my machine. So my answer was to create a letter and use an image as the header - in this case the Provesta image grabbed from this blog. It works pretty well though it isn't what I set out to do.

It looks like this week might be one of finding workarounds, but it's occurred to me that this might throw up some new ideas and solutions that I wouldn't have considered before. There might just be some better ways of working that come to light.

Is it possible to survive only on Google Apps?

Since moving more and more of our work onto cloud computing, in particular using the growing Google suite of applications I'm now in a position to see if it really is possible to live without MS Office.

So from Monday I'll not to use any MS Office applications to see if it really is possible to use nothing but the free tools in the Google Suite - Gmail, Google Docs, Google Sites, Blogger, Chrome and the various small tools that come in handy. On paper it's certainly possible but I want to know if it is a practical proposition for us mortals.

I can already see a couple of challenges. The first one is that Google Tasks isn't really integrated with anything apart from itself. Synchronisation is clumsy and I'm not sure if it will handle contacts properly. That might seem unimportant but I'm mobile during the day and if it won't go in the backpack it doesn't come with me if I'm on the pushbike around town. So reliable syncing with my mobile phone is vital.

That's enough for now, let's see how it goes.

Something very big from Google

Google have announced their Chrome OS. Any new operating system is pretty big news as tech news goes. Google seem to have their sights set on Microsoft Windows and maybe they are on to something. Putting aside the various debates about global corporate strangleholds there is a lot of merit in the Google philosophy of small and lightweight systems that push as much as possible through the internet. Perhaps we are past the stage where we need a

Cloud computing has a lot going for it and now that netbooks are taking off there are lots of advantages to running data and applications online as the power of the machines in use is actually going against Moore's Law.

I use two PC systems - no Mac's here. One a pretty powerful Vaio R series desktop and the other a super lightweight Sony Vaio T series, though both are now five years old so have quite modest specifications when put alongside their modern counterparts. Even a £150 netbook has a faster processor than my baby laptop!

So having a poverty spec' system that does a perfectly good job I appreciate small and unobtrusive programs so I'll be interested to see what Google are up to. I sense now that since PC's became mainstream consumer white goods rather than the preserve of geeks, if Google gets this right they will make themselves very popular with people who don't care how it works, just so long as it does.

If the Chrome OS is going to be big it will need to be very small indeed.

Is there any real point to secure wi-fi?

Sat having a beer in sunny Paradise Square, Ian Drabble and myself were chatting about the architecture business but there was no wi-fi access for us to have a look at a few interesting websites. We were in the heart of Sheffield city centre surrounded by professional offices, bars and cafés and there was not a single free wi-fi point. Even the Wig and Pen had its wi-fi secured to its customers.

Everything was securely locked down. I say securely with a caveat. No network is really secure unless you go to an awful lot of trouble and expense.

So all these buildings were occupied by people who use wi-fi inside but as soon as they are out of range they are stuck with expensive 3G access or the ubiquitous but restrictive BT cloud. We agreed that the idea of paying for access was totally counter productive for a business - we'll just go somewhere* that doesn't charge.

The obvious answer is to have your router unsecured and let anyone and everyone use your connection. Real internet security is on the other side of the wireless system and anyone who isn't secured server side might as well hand out the bank PIN number as well. If you are really careful or paranoid then you could have a separate publicly open wi-fi

In short there is no real benefit to having secure wi-fi, but the benefits in opening up your access to all (including yourself) are enormous.

* This is a shameless plug for the excellent Café Moco on West Street where there has always been free gratis wi-fi access, and where I'm sat posting to the blog with a great coffee to hand. Unlike Starbucks and their ilk they realised years ago that wi-fi is a part of the furniture that brings you in, not a way of extracting a pittance and annoying your customers.