What have you agreed to?

Padlocked gateImage Credit

Whilst reading Animal Farm in school, my English teacher at the time had a reasonably poor memory, and as a result we would reread chapters several times, and we never actually finished the book. I did however get to see a (very impressive one-man) theatre production of the book, and I have seen the 1999 film – who’s idea was it to have a happy ending!

Anyway… today, in a BBC article it is reported that according to Fairer Finance, many car insurance policy documents are longer than George Orwell’s Animal Farm. One of the longest of the documents they found was Danske Bank’s terms and conditions which  contained almost 70,000 words – that’s more words than Animal Farm put together with Of Mice and Men – which was incidentally another book I read at school.

Of UK financial services companies, HSBC came in top with 34,162 words, whilst LV was the lowest with 6,901 – 27,261 fewer words.

Why?

For financial institutions legal jargon is important. Terms and conditions provide organisations with legal protection and are in some ways a measure of credibility and assurance – would you place trust in a bank which didn’t have any terms and conditions? I understand that they are important, but why do they need to be so long and full of technical jargon?

Do you think companies are aiming to dissuade people from reading their terms by making them so long-winded? If so, what could a business put in its terms? Could a social media site claim ownership of your face? Don’t be silly.

Do long, wordy terms of service not discriminate against slower readers, and people who have a life? Sometimes I struggle to keep up with my university reading, so how/why on earth am I expected to read a novel length script of jargon each time I open a current account?

Help is out there!

Facebook, Google and Twitter are no angels either, many websites also have ridiculously long terms of service. There is however consumer help for judging these sites, thanks to Terms of Service Didn’t Read. I use their browser extension for Firefox, and it is helpful.

YouTube tosdr

YouTube is rated D by Terms of Service; Didn’t Read

Fairer Finance have started a petition to try and bring down the small print and force organisations to be more concise and consumer friendly. Visit the campaign page and you can also send them any examples you have of annoyingly pointless small print.

Vehicle Reversing cameras, a real safety improvement?

Congratulations on a beach

Congratulations Jonny! You have the honour of posting Technology Bloggers 500th article – which is also your 125th! It is also the first post of Technology Bloggers fourth year. (Image Credit)

A car reversing cameraImage Credit
At the end of last month the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (USA) finalized long-delayed rules that will require automakers to install back-up cameras in all vehicles by May 2018. This was a long fought battle, the auto makers not wanting to be forced to adapt such measures.

And we must consider the costs, possibly between $500 and $900 million a year, to be borne by the purchaser, manufacturer and of course the state. The legislation is aimed at avoiding death or injury caused when drivers reverse over their own children or the elderly (the main victims in such accidents).

All well and good I say, maybe the rules will save some lives, and we should bear in mind that they did take 10 years to pass. But how many lives will they save?

A Typical view in reverse

We have to bear in mind that auto-mobile manufacturers estimate that upwards of 60% of all cars would have had the technology as standard by 2018, we are talking about the remaining 40%, so an incremental improvement on an already rolling ball. But how many people are killed each year in the USA in accidents of this type?

According to this article, fittingly enough from the Detroit News, 60 to 70 lives a year would be saved if all the fleet had rear view cameras, but of course as stated above 60% would have already had the cameras, so the legislation itself would save about 15 lives a year and save 1300 injuries. But how many injuries and deaths are there a year in the USA?

On average in recently in the USA there have been about 35 000 deaths and more than 2 million injured in motor accidents. According to the US Census Bureau most of those were caused by speeding and alcohol.

Now I would question the rationale of spending the amounts of money required to install cameras in all cars when the number of lives saved is going to be so small. We are talking about between 15 and 25 million dollars per life, when there may be better ways of spending this money and saving more lives.

If we look at the legislation in context, I think there are other questions that need to be asked too. The US government Distracted Driving website offers another bewildering array of statistics and related information, with mobile technology use once more taking the blame for accidents. But we might imagine that it is illegal to text and drive, but it is not in all states. Several states still allow you to send a text message while driving. Texas for example bans texting for bus drivers and novice drivers, and in school areas for everyone, but I can drive and text in Texas perfectly legally. Arizona only bans bus drivers from texting, and in south Carolina there are no rules about using mobile technology while driving.

Although road deaths have come down dramatically in the USA, those related to driver distraction have gone up. This could be related to changes in how the statistics are reported, or might be related to increased usage of mobile devices, I cannot tell that from the data provided in the census.

A table is available here that summarizes the current situation.

As a quick comparison in the UK you can be charged with reckless driving if you are involved in any accident, and texting and hand held telephone use is against the law. If you are eating or drinking however this can also be taken into account, and there is research that suggests that eating and drinking while driving can dramatically slow down reaction time. Check out this article in the Telegraph newspaper.

So I want to ask a serious question about this US legislation that we could ask about a lot of other legislation. Do these new rules really make driving safer, or do they make us feel that we are safer, or do they just make us feel that we are doing the right thing?

I don’t honestly believe that this legislation will really make driving much safer for anyone, although this is of course my own opinion. I am not making light of accidents that involve reversing over children or old people, but there must be plenty of more efficient ways of cutting down road deaths than this (like taking action to deter mobile phone or texting use for example).

Marketing High Quality Digital Music, PONO

I have never managed to get into digital music for several reasons. I don’t like wearing headphones, I get paranoid as I hear people calling my name in the background, and I think that they distract people’s attention. This is really noticeable while I am riding my bike on the pavement with the kids. People who are walking while listening to headphones are less aware of their surroundings, they tend to zig zag while they are walking and they cannot hear you coming.

This report in Businessweek addressed the problem a few years ago, although it has many methodological issues, and this article on the Treehugger website offers similar data while raising some good questions about the intentions and interpretations.

In Kenya they seem to be taking the problem seriously and in fact it will soon be a traffic offense to cross roads in Mombasa while wearing headphones or on the phone if legislation proposed by the Mombasa County Assembly is approved.
So no headphones means I don’t have one of those miniature storage devices to listen to. But I have never really got into digital downloads either. The problem there is quality. I like vinyl, take a look at the photo below of my record player.

My Sharp Record Player

My Sharp Record Player

This is a beautiful machine, 1983, plays both sides of the record, sumptuous quality, style personified and even comes in a portable version (mine also runs on batteries but the speakers don’t attach as the portable versions do).

So I have never had a system to play digital music that is half as good as this, although recently I have got closer with the Studio Pro 4 speakers that I found by the side of the street here in Cambridge (see this post for details). But even taking that into account, the sound is just not the same.

I have a vinyl and CD copy of the Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats, and playing the two together the difference in enormous. The digital version is sharper and the sounds are purer, but that was not what the boys had in mind when they were recording it. On MP3 the differences are even more noticeable. But convenience rules nowadays, and streaming of low quality music reigns.

Now Niel Young is with me on this, as are Sting and various other musicians. Niel wants to offer high quality music reproduction to people like me, and is preparing to launch his new baby Pono.

The player looks a bit like a regular MP3 player, but the files are much bigger so not as easily stored or downloaded, but the quality is much higher (say those who are marketing it). You can find some statistics in the article above. The data would suggest a vast improvement in quality, but as ever the proof of the pudding as they say.

And there is a cost issue. The player will cost about $400, and an album maybe $25. This is obviously marketed at people who have some disposable income and are looking for quality, probably musicians in their 40’s just like me.

We might wonder how big the market is, but if we note that the project raised about $2.5 million on Kickstart in a few days, maybe there is enough money and enough people around to make it a success.

So the question is for the technology community, will you (or more importantly I)  buy it?

Wasted Food

It is estimated that in the USA between 40 and 50% of all food produced is wasted. There are about 320 million people in the US, so we could safely say that this wasted food could feed at least 100 million people.

The European Union fares little better. According to the European Commission about 90 million tonnes of food is wasted annually in Europe alone, with global waste at about 1.3 billion tonnes. In developing countries, over 40% of food losses happen after harvest and during processing, while in industrialized countries, over 40% occurs at retail and consumer level. According to the US Food and Agricultural Organization food waste in Europe alone could feed 200 million people, and that if global waste could be cut down by 25% it would give enough food to feed 870 million hungry people.

Obviously the so-called developed nations are the worst offenders. Per capita waste by consumers is between 95-115 kg a year in Europe and North America, while consumers in sub-Saharan Africa, south and south-eastern Asia, each throw away only 6-11 kg a year.

The main causes of waste are:

  • Lack of awareness, lack of shopping planning, confusion about “best before” and “use by” date labels, lack of knowledge on how to cook with leftovers (households).
  • Standard portion sizes, difficulty to anticipate the number of clients (catering);
  • Stock management inefficiencies, marketing strategies (2 for 1, buy 1 get 1 free), aesthetic issues (retail);
  • Overproduction, product & packaging damage (farmers and food manufacturing);
  • Inadequate storage (whole food chain);
  • Inadequate packaging.

Fortunately the EU offers a free downloadable brochure explaining how as an individual you can cut down on waste, get it here.

But most of the waste comes from industry, with millions of tonnes of food thrown into skips at the back of supermarkets every day. Systematic waste we might call it, but what can be done about it?

Plenty of bread products

Plenty of bread products

Well let me tell you a story, I have a friend who describes himself as a freegan, he only eats free food, and he eats well. He lives in a large housing cooperative in Massachusetts, and he does the shopping for the entire group. He has his rounds, every Wednesday he goes to the orange juice processing plant and gets a few gallons of discarded juice. On Thursday a supermarket, on Friday after the farmer’s market there are boxes of discarded vegetables, if he didn’t have a trailer he would need a truck!

I must warn you though that climbing into the skip outside your local supermarket might be dangerous or illegal. In Germany, England and Wales for example it is theft, although rarely prosecuted. In Italy it is legal, but in the US you may be charged with trespass.

And plenty to drink

And plenty to drink

Here is a great article about what they call in the US dumpster diving, with an interesting shopping list of what was found, and the pictures in this post are taken from the event.

And it is not just rotten old tomatoes here we are talking about. Many things that are close to their sell by date are thrown out. In Cambridge Mass where I live there is what I refer to when speaking to my kids as ‘the expensive coffee shop’. It is good coffee, and the cakes are fantastic, but it is a little on the pricey side. But if you go 10 minutes before closing and buy a coffee they offer you a free cake, and as they are pushing you through the door at closing time you are expected to take scones, cakes and left over bread home, for free. Better than throwing it out they say, and they are right. It does however pose a problem for the economy, with people like me giving their secret away and the place filling up 5 minutes before closing time, although you have to be shameless to go every day (get your friends involved).

One thing that we have lost is the skill of home preserving foods. When we have all of these extra ripe vegetables we eat what we can, but when there are just too many they end up in the bin. Well if we learned to pickle food we could preserve it and avoid all of these problems, there are plenty of pickling lessons on YouTube, you can also freeze almost anything if you know how to do it correctly.

If you are not up for climbing into a skip and you are ever in Copenhagen, why not try the restaurant that serves only waste food? See this report on the BBC, it looks good, and I am glad to see someone is doing something with all of this good valuable nutritious stuff.

And the moral of this weeks story is that people are hungry because of economics, politics and logistics, not because there isn’t enough food to go round. You might like to think about that when the industrial agricultural food companies are touting GM as the answer to global hunger.