In through the outfield blog

16 posts from February 2008

22 February 2008

BBC radio talks on intellectual property

The BBC is broadcasting talks on intellectual property daily next week, from the 25 February. They will be on Radio 4, and the five-part series will be called Mine all mine.

They will be 15 minutes long and will be broadcast at 15.45. Each will be on a theme: My Idea, My Name, My Music, My Pictures, My Words. "My Name" is about trade marks. Chris Ledgard is the presenter, and it will include his talking with staff from the UK Intellectual Property Office.

The name of the series intrigues me -- I can only think of its being the catchphrase of Stingy, one of the puppet characters in TV's Lazytown. Or is it Gollum ? A slightly odd tone, perhaps, to set for what is one of Britain's biggest industries.

The web site for the series is likely to feature "listen again", where for a limited period the talks will be available as (free) audio over the Web.

19 February 2008

Blu-Ray technology wins the high definition war

I've just seen a BBC story stating that, as predicted, Toshiba has given up in the battle over high definition DVDs. It means that Sony's Blu-Ray technology will become the industry standard over Toshiba's HD format.

Sony of course lost the battle over video formats back in the late 1970s and the 1980s. VHS® defeated Betamax which was technically superior but could not record longer programmes such as films, and was generally outmanouevred in the publicity war.

Although there has been (mainly Korean) work on machines that can take either format, most machines that can take high definition DVDs can only cope with one format. High definition has become very popular as its means far more clarity than you get on a normal television screen. If you want to see what it's like, try playing a DVD film on a PC and see the clarity.

High definition is very demanding in memory, and standard DVDs would only be able to show about 10 minutes of such films.

In February 2002 Sony, Matsushita and Philips announced their new DVD concept, Blu-ray. I believe that the relevant invention is this patent, which was applied for by all three companies. Here is its main drawing.


Oddly, it carries a “priority date” of the initial filing for May 2002, which is later. Four Japanese and two Dutchmen are listed as the inventors. It uses a 0.1mm disk substrate layer that allows up to 23Gbytes of storage on one side of a DVD. That requires new tooling and equipment, raising production costs. It is backwards compatible with DVD or CD. It uses violet-blue lasers, which have a shorter wavelength (450 nm) than normal lasers, so that substantially more data can be stored on a Blu-ray Disc than on the DVD format, which uses a red 650 nm laser.

Because Blu-ray places the data recording layer close to the surface of the disc, early discs were susceptible to contamination and scratches, and had to be encased in plastic caddies for protection. This would have been likely to hurt sales, and the discs now use a layer of protective material on the surface through which the data is read.

Like many others, I have a digital, “HD-ready” television. The number of HD televisions in the UK is huge and growing, but fewer than 10% of owners can actually watch HD programmes on them. Many of them subscribe to channels such as Sky. Freeview is not the answer, as the technology is not appropriate.

The first titles were only released on Blu-ray in June 2006. The fact that Columbia Pictures and MGM were owned by Sony was a huge, and perhaps crucial, boost. Gradually more and more companies switched their allegiance to the format. What was, perhaps, a fatal blow in the struggle for market share was struck in June 2007, when Blockbuster, the largest chain of video game and DVD rental shops in the world, announced that its next batch of HD DVDs would only be in the Blu-ray format. If films are mostly available in one format, customers will naturally buy the machine for that format.

An example of a patent specification that offers to cater for either format is Warner Home Video's WO 06/071809, published in July 2006.

Australian inventions

Australia has been responsible for some interesting inventions over the years. Here are some notable ones which I am aware of.

Most people would assume that the combine harvester was an American invention. It fact it goes back to Hugh McKay, a young Victoria farmer, in 1885. He seems to have only had patents in the Australian colonies.

In 1914 George Julius of Sydney applied for a Totalizator, the so-called “Tote” for working out bets at racecourses. I wonder what his father, a bishop, thought of it.

In 1939 Franklin Barnes of Scoresby, Victoria applied for a Protective Means for Ships Against Mines, and Torpedo Attack. This is the degaussing method which makes ships non-magnetic. Just in time for World War II.

Then in 1964 Thomas Angove, a South Australia winemaker, invented the wine box, which was published as AU 280826, not on the Web. Keeping air out as it deflates makes the wine last longer.

In 1991 Craig Johnston, a former Liverpool FC footballer born in South Africa of Australian parents, applied for a patent for a Sports Shoe. This was marketed as the famous Predator® boot. The point is that like a tennis racquet it has a “sweet spot” to enable better control when striking the ball. Here is its main drawing.

First page clipping image

Finally, in 1997 Graeme Attey of South Freemantle, Western Australia applied for a Skateboard which started the sport of being a Dirtsurfer®. Like many extreme sports it combines elements so that you surf on a hill.

There’s also the flight recorder, or “black box”. Dr David Warren carried out work into this idea for an aeronautical research laboratory in Melbourne and made a prototype in 1957, but it was not patented. Australia was the first country to insist on its being used in civil airliners.

No doubt there are many more. The Notable Australian World Firsts and the White Hat Guide to Australian Inventions, Discoveries & Innovations sites look interesting for those wanting to know more.

IP Australia has the official site for granting patents which, good as it is, has databases which do not cover material older than about a decade old.

14 February 2008

The cool Wattson from DIY KYOTO

In the networking area of the Business & IP Centre are several illustrated examples of ’success stories’. These are entrepreneurs and inventors who have made use of Centre and gone on to achievement.

One of my favourites is the Wattson from DIY KYOTO who’s wonderful motto is, “to value simple things, and seek to produce products of perfect convenience and utility, elegant in their conception and efficient in their operation.”

The WattsonIf you have been reading this blog for a while you may have noticed my interest in product design and the Wattson is a perfect example of form and function combined into one. Not only does it look elegant whilst showing you how much money you are spending on electricity, the coloured glow emanating from its’ base gives you an immediate sense of your consumption as it changes from blue (good) to red (bad).

This achievement has been recognised by Stuff Magazine who awarded the Wattson number 8 on the cool list of gadgets for 2007, beating the iPod nano into 10th place. An amazing achievement for such a young company.

The librarian as sherpa

One of the earliest links to my blog was from Library Sherpa.

tensing-norgay.jpgThe reason Tracy, the creator of the blog chose the name made me wonder if this could be a good way of describing what librarians do in the modern age. I like the idea acting as someone’s Sherpa Tensing, navigating them through the treacherous world of information peaks and troughs.

“Why Library Sherpa?!
According  to the American Heritage Dictionary, a sherpa is defined as:
“A member of a traditionally Buddhist people of Tibetan descent living on the southern side of the Himalaya Mountains in Nepal and Sikkim. In modern times Sherpas have achieved world renown as expert guides on Himalayan mountaineering expeditions.”

I came up with the name as an homage to the indigenous people of the Himalayas, combined with my profession. The original intent for this blog was to be a forum for me to assist or guide people through the rocky terrain of the library and librarianship.”


13 February 2008

The woes of technology

I have accidentally deleted every comment that’s been submitted to this blog. I was carrying out some tidying up and deleted the comments within the site that I use to write the blog, not realising that this also deleted them on the blog itself.

I had assumed that the act of “publishing” the comments put them permanently on the blog. I suppose it does make some kind of sense, as otherwise you wouldn’t be able to amend what was on the blog. No message warning me of the consequences appeared.

To say that I am sorry goes without saying. I am also very cross.

Technology, and software in particular, has many problems when the creators do not think through how a product or service might be used.

A good example is video / CD/ DVD recorders, which are notoriously difficult to use. All such machines should have a display that shows precisely what you have asked for, and asks you to confirm or amend it. My current machine is so badly designed that I have no idea if it has agreed to graciously go to a certain channel at the requested time – it often records a different channel for no obvious reason.

Then there is word processing software. I’m sure I’m not the only one to sometimes hit a key and something weird happens to the toolbars or something else on the screen. Not only do I not know what key has been pressed, I don’t know how to reverse what’s happened. It ought to be law that such software has the following three functions prominently on the toolbar:

Restore default toolbar & format

Personalise toolbar & format

Restore personalised toolbar & format

The most notorious example is the fact that in many PCs you still have to click on "Start" to shut the machine down. My father -- a university graduate -- spent two hours trying to figure out how to come out of his PC the only time he bought one.

For anyone thirsting for more examples of poor thinking, try the Bad Human Factors Designs site, which, it has been pointed out, is itself poorly designed as a web site. The occasional victory for common sense does occur. Dell colour codes the connections on their computers so that you know that a green cable goes into a green plug.

All companies have to do, often, is to ask some novices to try something out and observe their reactions. Then adapt the product. All too often experts assume that because they know something, the whole world knows it as well. Not so...

The Mosquito® teenager-repeller

There has been a lot in the news the last few days about the Mosquito® device which emits an irritating noise which only the young can hear, to deter them from hanging about shops.

This is the invention of Howard Stapleton, from Merthyr Tydfil. He is the managing director of Compound Security Systems. He says that the idea originated in an experience he had at the age of 12. He was visiting a London factory with his father, who was the chairman of the British arm of Ever Ready Batteries. The boy could not bear the noise from the ultrasonic welding equipment, which used high-frequency sound to melt and fuse plastics. He had to walk out, but none of the adults had heard a thing.

By the end of your twenties few can detect such high frequencies. The Children's Commissioner says it is wrong to single out the young, as reported in for example The Daily Telegraph.

The patent was granted in January 2007. I should have mentioned in my last blog that an advantage of going first to the Patents Status Enquiry database for a British patent number is that, besides identifying the status of a patent application, the record links to PDFs of the published application and also to the granted patent (but only if it was published in January 2007 or later).

The patent title tells it all: High Frequency Sound Teenager Dispersal Device. Apparently there are moves to boycott the company in protest at the way the bored young are being singled out.

The company is also making money by selling the same noise as ring tones. This came about in an interesting way. Some Welsh teenagers began using the same sound as a ring tone on their mobile phones. This meant that they could be alerted to a text message arriving without the teacher in class knowing. Nicknamed Teen Buzz, it spread rapidly through British classrooms and then abroad.

When Stapleton's 16-year-old daughter, Isabel, came home with the ring tone on her phone he realised that he was missing out on making extra money. He quickly came up with the "official" ring tone, Mosquito Tone®, now available via text message for £3, which he says is better. Stapleton’s father, still active as a director, replied to his son’s suggestion that the ring tone would be the icing on the cake with the riposte that it could be the cake itself.

12 February 2008

Lucy Kellaway: Puncturing egos and praising good service

I have been a fan of Lucy Kellaway’s columns in the Financial Times for many years. Her humour, usually at the expense of corporate gobbledygook and management fads, would often brighten up a dull day in the office.

I now get to hear her columns via the wonders of podcasting as I walk to work, which adds a personal element to her columns.

A recent target was Accenture’s group chief executive for management consulting in a column entitled “Accenture’s next champion of waffle words“. This gives a good indication of the content of the item, but I can’t resist including a short quote:

“The memo starts with some background to the announcement: “…wanting to give you continued visibility of our growth platform agenda…” it says. Visibility is the latest thing in business. Companies and executives all crave it but, until last week, I didn’t know that growth platform agendas were after it too. What is he saying here, I wonder? I think, though couldn’t swear to it, that he wants to tell his colleagues how the company plans to make more money.”

However it would be a mistake to assume all of her output consists of (well deserved) barbs aimed at self-important executives. A more recent article concentrated on (an admittedly rare) case of customer service that created a warm glow inside, rather than an icy chill, or getting hot under the collar. Unpolished exchanges put soul into shopping, concentrated on the rare experience in today’s consumerist world of having something repaired, in this case shoes. As Lucy points out:

“An immaculate, luxurious shop gives pleasure the first time, but after that diminishing returns set in. By contrast, having something mended has become an exciting novelty, a nostalgic return to how things ought to be.”