Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Blinded by the light

Now, this seems like bullshit. The Sunday Times reports:
Roman Abramovich zaps snappers with laser shield
[Abramovich's] boat’s most unusual feature is perhaps the anti-paparazzi “shield”.
Infrared lasers detect the electronic light sensors in nearby cameras, known as charge-coupled devices. When the system detects such a device, it fires a focused beam of light at the camera, disrupting its ability to record a digital image.

Tech mag Wired uncritically repeats the story (some blog comments there are rather more sceptical), as do many other organs that really should know better, and Amateur Photographer ponders the legalities of it.

The claimed tech makes very little sense, though. Most paparazzi use digital SLRs. In these, the sensor is hidden until the very millisecond that the photo is taken. Also, most professional DSLRs use CMOS sensors, not CCDs - even if this putative detection tech will work on both, that's very sloppy reporting.

It's not entirely made-up, though - there is technology that can detect camera CCDs and blind them with lasers. In 2006, Georgia Tech Research News reported on tech in development aimed at stopping illicit recording of movies. That notes:
Current camera-neutralizing technology may never work against single-lens-reflex cameras, which use a folding-mirror viewing system that effectively masks its CCD except when a photo is actually being taken.

It's entirely possible that Abramovich's people have installed a similar system in the belief that it will work against well-equipped paps. But whoever sold it to them is doubtless laughing - and not just at the Russians.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Tech off the geek beat

The Guardian Media section has a slightly annoying article from the paper's technology editor Charles Arthur on why technology journalists are terribly important trend-setters:
Why, though? Because technology is the second-fastest changing field in news (after fashion). You'd watch what the fashion writers are wearing to find out what's going to be in next season. It's the same with technology, but with a longer timelag. Cellan-Jones joined Twitter in March 2007 – long before it became popular. Jemima Kiss, one of the Guardian's best-known Twitterers (and with the largest total of "followers"), joined in December 2006; the service had only been open to the public since July 2006. Ditto for Facebook.
Thus technology journalists were often the first in an organisation to get (or demand) email, the web, to discover Google, YouTube and so on.

Smugness aside, it's annoying because it assumes such a narrow definition of what technology (and technology journalism) actually is. Arthur's talking exclusively about consumer IT, online media, and associated gadgetry - what the venerable blog calls the geek beat. That's a very small area of technology - and, in significant part, a rather trivial one (the comparison to fashion is accurate). If Twitter or Facebook are at all interesting, it's not because of their enabling technologies.

I'm largely a tech journalist, but I'm more often writing about next-gen solar power (in the current Cleantech Magazine), say, than about the latest ICT gizmo (admittedly I do do that regularly for Crain's Manchester Business, though I try to mix it up a bit with proper tech like aerospace composites). At the moment, I'm finishing up a piece on medical devices - a tech area of which I'm rather keen not to be an early adopter of its products.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

Memories of the Space Age

Memories of the Space Age (by tim2ubh)
These are a few of a small set of slides that my parents bought in 1971 (when the Apollo 10 command module visited Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet, Sheffield, as part of a travelling exhibition) showing key images from the Apollo 11 mission, the first landing on the moon, 40 years ago this week.
This is before my time, really - I was born just over a month before Apollo 17, the final manned mission to the moon, left the surface.

Memories of the Space Age 2 (by tim2ubh)

The slides, now somewhat aged, were digitally captured using a Canon EOS40D and 100mm macro lens, simply lit by a 430EX flash positioned directly behind the slide, and manipulated in Canon DPP.
The camera alone has more processing power than all the hardware used in the Apollo missions.

Memories of the Space Age 3 (by tim2ubh)

"What happened to the Space Age? Its once heroic vision of our planetary future now seems little more than a mirage, fading across the sandbars and concrete of Cape Kennedy like the ghost of a forgotten advertising campaign of last year's science-fiction blockbuster." - JG Ballard (1930-2009).

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Small wonder

Faced with spending most of yesterday on the train to London and back, I finally entered the 21st century and bought myself an iPod. I know - despite writing a lot about technology, I'm not exactly an early adopter.

I went out shopping for a basic model, and settled on what turned out to be the new Shuffle model. And it is bloody tiny. About the size and shape of a moderately showy tie-clip, it'd be worryingly easy to just lose it, or even blow it away with a good sneeze. If you really wanted, you could hide it in various places around your person without too much awkwardness, or even have it fitted subcutaneously. Blimey, it's small.

It holds 1000-odd songs (albeit as just-about-adequate MP3s) and has a claimed battery life of 10 hours. The memory isn't all that impressive - it's just a flash chip, and I've got equally diddy camera memory cards and USB drives that hold more than this gizmo's 3.8GB. It's the battery I'm more impressed by - I've not used it to its limits yet, but it had no problem with seven-odd hours on the trains yesterday. It's apparently a 3.7V lithium-polymer battery, in which the electrolyte is held in a solid polymer.

Here's how it all fits together, courtesy of the techno-vivisectionists at iFixit.

There's some damn smart engineering gone into this. And it cost less than the day's train tickets.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Nuclear future and past

This week's Crain's Manchester Business includes a technology focus section mostly written by myself. The lead story explores how the University of Manchester is positioning itself as a centre of nuclear R&D to serve the planned new generaton of nuclear power stations.

It's a fairly controversal move, as the Manchester Evening News picked up a few weeks ago. Personally, I've come to conclude that nuclear power has to be a key part of the UK's energy market for the near-future - but, at best, it's a medium-term solution with very long-term costs and consequences.

Local worries are likely to be fuelled by a report in the Guardian today on some of the long-term consequences of the university's previous nuclear work -
Radiation left over from 100-year-old experiments by Ernest Rutherford, the father of modern nuclear physics, may be responsible for the recent deaths of two Manchester University lecturers. Hundreds more former lecturers and students at Manchester University could be at risk from nuclear materials they were exposed to. At least as late as 2006, there was still contamination in the building in which Rutherford worked, known as the Rutherford Building[...] A confidential report given to the university in June, written by three academics who worked in the building, claims that the university suspected that there was a potential radiation hazard, but allowed staff to continue working in the building.

It's extremely unlikely that any of the uni's current or proposed research facilities will feature yer actual messing-about with radioactive materials in the centre of the city, but the university management's apparent response to the pollution problem will hardly inspire public confidence.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Broken blades

Regular readers will know about the long and thorny saga behind the new wind turbines at the University of Sheffield's Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre. The two turbines have been up for a couple of months now, and have become something of a landmark on the M1 and Sheffield Parkway.

Regular commuters might have noticed something a little different this morning, however.
Broken blade

One of the turbines suffered damage to both blades during yesterday's 'rare summer gales'. As is now rather obvious, one broke clean off.

From the AMRC statement:
One of the AMRC's wind turbines suffered a failure dring the extreme weather conditions this evening.
Prior to the blade failure, engineers were on site monitoring the situation and ensuring the safety of workers and the general public. Police were informed and diverted traffic.
An investigation is now underway by the manufacturers - Wind Energy Solutions (www.windenergysolutions.nl) - any enquiries should be directed to them.

Broken blade 2

On the face of it, it's not the best advert for the centre's high-tech materials and engineering expertise. But the turbines were bought in as complete units, so its hardly the ARMC's fault. Although really, that shouldn't happen to what is now a pretty well established technology...

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Monday, July 30, 2007

Let's do the dotcom again

Oh lord. The Guardian's technology section has come up with a list of top 10 British dotcoms to watch:
The boom is back. In Britain, the internet doldrums took a long time to disappear – but in recent years the startup buzz is back in the air and fresh ideas are starting to blossom.
Driven by the surge of Web 2.0 sites and the widespread penetration of broadband, Britain's dot economy is growing fast and – for now at least – there are no real signs of a bust on the horizon.

And the ten are, apparently in order:
1. Dopplr - Social networking for frequent travellers.
2. Extate - Intelligent search of property websites.
3. Garlik - Online identity management.
4. MindCandy - Alternate reality gaming.
5. Moo - Print on demand: cards, notes and stickers.
6. OnOneMap - Map-based property search.
7. Touch Local - Local directory services.
8. Trusted Places - User-created local information.
9. Zopa - Peer to peer lending.
10. Zubka - Recruitment 2.0.

Should I be concerned that, as far as I can recall, I've only really heard of one of those before? (And that was Zopa, which has been around for quite a few years now.) I'll have to have a poke around them when I've got a mo - as it is, some of them hardly sound ground-breaking (Local directory services, user-created info? Like no one's lost money on them before), while others just sound, well, a bit naff. Still, so long as no one's raising millions to sell online dogfood again...


Thursday, June 07, 2007

Clean Ventures blog

I've just launched a new blog, Clean Ventures, focusing specifically on clean technologies and cleantech venture capital. There's a number of US blogs on a similar theme of course, but I'll be doing it from a UK and European perspective. I'll be documenting VC deals in cleantech companies, new research and analysis on the sector, and policy news of interest; pointing to emerging technologies, companies and services; and exploring issues such as the possible investment bubble in listed cleantech businesses, and what that might mean for companies and investors. It's starting out quite modestly, but I'm aiming to introduce new services and content as things develop.

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed an increasing number of posts on cleantech and related concerns in recent months. If you've found these interesting, I hope you find the new blog to be a welcome addition to your personal blogosphere - and if you've not been that interested, it's also good news as there'll be less of that here.

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Solar scale

Good feature in Business 2.0 on the (mostly US) companies pushing big solar power projects:
This is not Jimmy Carter's energy crisis, when government subsidies ran ahead of market realities and launched a thousand solar projects that never saw the light of day. Their rusting hulks can still be seen scattered around the test fields: 1970s-vintage solar dishes, a 200-foot solar tower, parabolic mirrors surrounded by the detritus of bygone experiments.
This is the real deal. This is industrial-strength solar energy, sold to public utilities in 20-year contracts measured in gigawatts.

Author Todd Woody is putting up extra information that couldn't fit into the main feature on his blog, the unfortunately named Green Wombat. There's a very good point raised in his initial post focusing on Stirling Energy Systems:
[Stirling VP Bob Liden] argues that scaling up from the six dishes the company currently operates in New Mexico to tens of thousands of dishes isn't as daunting as it seems. "If you’re talking to a finance guy, he might take a look at it and say this going to be absolutely impossible to make happen," says Liden. "But if you take someone who comes out of manufacturing, like at Ford or GM, they say, hey, we do this all the time. Yeah, you have to start some place, with some hand-built units. That’s what they do when they build a new car. Once you figure that out, you turn it over to the guys who know how to do the manufacturing engineering, the industrial engineering, and before long, bango, before long you can put these things out pretty darn fast."

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Cleantech bubbles again

Following the recent cleantech report from US analysts Lux Research (as mentioned below), Rob Day of the excellent Cleantech Investing blog sits down with Lux's Matthew Nordan to talk about possible bubbles:

It’s certainly true that the press loves downside stories. We’ve tried to be pretty specific about the two subsegments where we see an excessively high ratio of money and enthusiasm to opportunity: solar and biofuels. It’s hard to look at, for example, New Enterprise Associates’ pursuit of SolFocus and not see flashbacks to the Internet in the late 1990s[...]
Solar and biofuels get outsized attention because they are easy to understand (everyone’s seen a solar cell and everybody’s pumped gas), they’re both experiencing big technology shifts (crystalline silicon to thin-film and corn/cane to cellulosic), they both have government incentives and news flow working in their favor, they both have established valuation comparables (you’re not creating a new category), and they both have enormous headroom for growth – solar was 0.02% of U.S. energy last year! There aren’t many other subsegments where all of these factors line up.

A very good point. Not that this particular corner of the press is overly fond on 'downside stories', of course...

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Cleantech bubbles on

Couple of weeks late on this one, but the Guardian only picked it up yesterday - further warnings about a developing cleantech investment bubble:
According to Lux Research, which has just completed a comprehensive report on the sector, "the warning signs of a bubble are flashing in the energy technology segment, where initial public offering values and venture capital deployments more than doubled last year – setting the stage for a boom and bust".
Lux reported around 930 startups in global solar energy and biofuels arena and that some 200 of them have received some venture capital money[...]
Says Michael Holman, a senior analyst at Lux: "I think from looking at the sheer amount of money that is being invested right now we have to think that a lot of that money is now chasing after some opportunities it wouldn't be in a more sober climate."
Later stage institutional investors have also been caught up in the hype. Lux reported that in the energy segment where IPO value rose from $1.6bn in 2005 to $4.1bn in 2006.

Lux press release here, and further info here.

As I mentioned below, I'll shortly be working on a dissertation examining share price characteristics in the UK listed cleantech sector. The worry isn't that the companies winning too much investment are actually crap, as was the case in the dotcom bubble, but that when the bubble bursts, some decent companies developing much-needed technologies will be taken down with it. The costs of the bubble bursting will be high - what it needs is just to have a some (clean) air taking out of it.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Simmering, if not bubbling

Provocative piece from John Naughton in yesterday's Observer on the evidence for TechBubble 2.0 (see previous posts).

Naughton notes two phenomena. First, the almighty Google:
On 31 January, for example, the company announced fourth-quarter profits that had nearly tripled ($1.03bn profit on a 67 percent jump in revenues to $3.2bn) This indicates a year-on-year growth rate of 70 per cent. And yet the main consequence of the announcement was a 2 per cent drop in the share price to $494, which suggests that investors had expected even better results. If this isn't bubble thinking then I don't know what is.
Second, the massive multiples being paid for social networking and user-generated content tech:
Colossally inflated valuations are an infallible indicator of a bubble. In the late 1990s, dotcom start-ups with 50 employees and zero profits were briefly valued at more than the market cap of Fortune 500 companies. In 2005, Rupert Murdoch paid $649m for MySpace and eBay paid $2.6bn for Skype, a VoIP [internet telephony] company. Last year, Google forked out $1.65bn for YouTube. Such valuations provide terrific incentives for ambitious geeks because the new web services require less upfront investment than the original dotcoms. What is YouTube, after all, other than some smart software for converting every uploaded video clip into a Flash movie, plus server capacity and bandwidth? Skype adds 150,000 subscribers a day and buys almost no hardware because it uses its subscribers' computers to do the heavy lifting.

All fair points, and I certainly agree there's plenty of bubble-like behaviour going on. Opinions do vary though. I'm writing a piece on the tech M&A market for Corporate Financier at the moment, so talking to a lot of sector advisors. Some acknowledge that there are some 'headscratching valuations' being paid at the moment, but note that these aren't feeding through into the mainstream of deals. Most are all-paper deals (as many of deals were in the dotcom bubble, of course). Others take the opposite view, with one saying: "There's absolutely no evidence of any bubble at the present time. It could be argued if it's erring anywhere, it's on the side of caution... There's absolutely no evidence of a bubble and I can't see anything happening to dramatically upset the balance in 2007."

It'll be fun seeing how it all pans out again.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Wind and fury

Peel Airports, part-owners of the former Sheffield City Airport and owners of the slightly more active Finningley (sorry, Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield), have lodged a curious objection to a proposed wind turbine at the Advanced Manufacturing Park on the Sheffield/Rotherham border.

The Star reports:
AIRCRAFT could be put in danger by a giant wind turbine set to be built near Sheffield airport, it was claimed today.
Worried aviation bosses fear the 270ft high structure, with 90ft blades, could potentially lead to a disaster near Sheffield Parkway.
Peel Airports says the turbine, near the approach funnel for the runway, would "constitute a serious obstacle to the safe operation of aircraft".

The curious thing is that Peel has done pretty much all it can to stop planes flying into Sheffield City - last time I spoke to them, their plans involved a massive expansion of the business park and housing across the runway, retaining only a heliport. Their investment in the site during the run-up to their development of Finningley raised a few eyebrows at the time. (To be fair, Sheffield City Airport was never an entirely viable venture - it seems typically Sheffield endeavour to have an international airport with a runway too short to take most commercial aircraft).

Knowing the topography of the site, I'd also guess that any plane in danger of hitting a 80m windmill (which is, after all, outside the approach funnel) would also be in danger of scraping trucks on the nearby Parkway dual carriageway. Or, with a sudden gust of wind, reenacting 9-11 on the Tinsley twin towers (each barely 4m shorter than the proposed windmill).

Local residents are also reported to have objected about the plans, which they believe will lead to an overbearing presence and possible noise pollution. Yes, keep those unsightly windmills off our slagheaps! God knows what they'd say if anyone threatened to re-open the collieries, or even to fly planes over their heads.

I'd love to see a wind turbine on the site, particularly if the Tinsley towers are finally demolished. It'd be a great landmark for Sheffield, and a statement of intent for the new Factory of the Future development which will have a large focus on developing more environmentally-friendly technologies.

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

Market environmentalism

The Observer has an interesting interview with James Cameron of specialist investor Climate Change Capital. This comes in the wake of the Stern report on the economics of climate change which, even if it didn't exactly tell us anything new, seems more likely to get the message across to those who are more susceptible to economic than scientific argument -

If [Cameron] and his team at CCC, which invests in building green energy facilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, succeed they will, he says, 'show we can reduce emissions, and prove that money can be made from doing that'.
It sounds very grand, and this tall 44-year-old sometimes says things that sound overblown. But who doesn't when they're talking about the environment? At least he's honest. On the one hand, he says that he could change the world. On the other, he says: 'I have no interest in putting on a hair shirt. I don't want to be told I can't live well.'
Cameron's insight is that environmental damage is behavioural and the best way of changing behaviour is not by regulating people but by offering individuals the chance to win and lose through their own decisions.
'Stern is absolutely critical in terms of the necessary shift in consciousness in the upper echelons of political and business decision-making,' he says.
Excuses for inaction from politicians and businessmen exasperate him, as do those who say the UK produces only 2 per cent of global emissions, and that the developing world, particularly India and China, is not listening to Stern or anyone else. 'One persistent lie is that China and India are not part of Kyoto. They are, but their response is differentiated. They have hundreds of millions of people living on less than a dollar a day.'
He is haunted by the possibility of failure, but the fact that big money has arrived has given him confidence that he is no longer in the wilderness. He is not a boastful man, but does have an air of vindication about the compromises he has made to bring environmentalism and capitalism together.
As he puts it: 'The tree-huggers were right. We have to tip our hats to them and get on with the solution, which frankly we would not trust them to implement.'

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Monday, October 16, 2006

Hype 2.0 in the UK

There's more blowing and poking of the emerging Bubble 2.0 in the Guardian today, with a YouTube-referencing feature on "British web entrepreneurs [who] are trying to catch the wave, while avoiding another dotcom disaster".

It's a fair general-interest article, though focusing on the "potential for deals worth millions, or billions, of pounds" rather than creating much of actual economic value. A lot of these 'Web 2.0' businesses are just enabling forums for fickle consumers, who could abandon them in an instant if they're subjected to conspicuous efforts to monetise them (a large part of the reason why YouTube proved more successful than Google's own video-sharing offering).

The 2.0 market is also throwing up a familiar complaint about the behaviour of VCs -
Sam Sethi, editor of technology news website Techcrunch UK, says the atmosphere has changed markedly. "We have seen in the last 12 months the big venture capitalists coming over to the UK to invest." Mr Sethi, a veteran of the first dotcom bubble, believes investors could endanger potential success stories by pushing for too much profit. "The trouble is that it's a bit like Dragon's Den. The minute there's a half-decent idea the venture capitalists want 100% of the company for very little money."

Compare with the sentiments in this Venturedome piece I wrote in the dying days of the dotcom bubble six years ago -
The most enthusiastic reception was reserved for Atari founder and serial entrepreneur Nolan Bushnell, who declared that a deal with a VC was a deal with the devil - and a particularly dumb devil at that.
Many of the entrepreneurial attendees shared Bushnell's lack of faith in venture capitalists - although some were also complaining that there weren't as many VCs available for pitching to as they expected.

The Guardian piece again notes how This Time It's Different -
The crazy days when heavy spending was not allied to profits are gone. "We're not at the level of 1999 or 2000, there's a lot more rationality," says Paul Lee, director of research in Deloitte's technology, media and telecoms team. "But there is quite a bit of money around at the moment. At times like this you get bigger winners but also more losers."

For an entrepreneur's introduction to tech VC, see the recent article I wrote for Real Business earlier this year.

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Saturday, October 07, 2006

Bubble 2.0

It's front page news in at least one mainstream paper that Google is lining up to buy YouTube for up to $1.6 billlion

And yesterday, the news came through that MySpace founder Brad Greenspan is having a hissy fit about having sold his company to the Murdoch empire for only $580 million, as it's clearly going to be worth $20 billion in a year or two.

The signs are becoming ever clearer that we're already some way into a second internet bubble. Like last time, all the justifying blether is of targeted advertising and eyeballs. The sense of deja vu is further heightened by the fact that MySpace, say, resembles nothing so much as the web circa 1994, with lots of horribly designed personal sites linking to and copying content off each other. The market might be bigger, but it's still crap.

It's not just the valuations being paid for these nebulous businesses. It's that the deals are being judged as front page news (on a Saturday too). Fingers will be burned, once more.

UPDATE, 10/10/06 - here's a feature from BBC News explaining how This Time It's Different.

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Friday, September 15, 2006

Bradford Space City

News from 'business accelerator' Velocity Bradford (ie the former Bradford Business and Innovation Centre) about a space-themed promotional day -

SpaceCity is a city-wide day of space and business related activities masterminded by Velocity to raise the enterprise agenda within the Bradford district and to celebrate both the beginning of Enterprise Week 2006 and the innovation taking place in Bradford on a daily basis.

speaking to astronauts onboard the International Space Station
having lunch with astronauts from the recent Challenger Space Shuttle mission.
Meeting delegates from:
the European Space Agency.
Russian Mission Control.
SME's involved in satellite navigation systems and emerging space technologies.
Richard Branson's new venture, Virgin Galactic... to name a few.
accelerating your business growth and increasing profits.
helping to inspire the next generation of space travellers, explorers and entrepreneurs.

The primary focus of the day will be the links between education and innovation in the space industry here in Bradford where, believe it or not, we have something of a ‘space cluster’ with satellite communications and space technology companies of varying sizes, Velocity, a specialist business accelerator and the Leeds/Bradford University Wireless Centre for Industrial Collaboration.

It's a good approach, I reckon - even if the Space Age is long past, it's an appealing way to raise interest, particularly in schools given the popularity of the relaunched Dr Who (which, in its earlier incarnations, was what got me interested in space and science). Fred Hoyle, iconoclastic astrophysicist and local boy, would surely approve.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Barnsley biomass

Today's Society Guardian highlights another aspect of environmental innovation in South Yorkshire, with an increasing use of biomass power in the former coalfields -

Instead of following its neighbours, which long ago replaced coal boilers with gas equivalents, Barnsley is now installing wood heating in all new public buildings and refurbishments, embracing biomass fuel as a preferred energy source.
Because wood is considered carbon neutral - any CO2 released in the combustion process is mopped up by growing trees - the move could slash the council's CO2 emissions by 60% by 2010, 40 years ahead of the government's 2050 target.
For [Barnsley MBC chief engineer, Dick] Bradford it is a simple equation. "From an environmental point of view, heating goes from being highly polluting to no carbon," he says. "It's a no-brainer."
Bradford says Barnsley's plants, which burn 6,500 tonnes of coal a year and generate 15,000 tonnes of CO2, will eventually be replaced with biomass, including the new town hall and nine new secondary schools, which will be replaced with new biomass-heated buildings under the Building Schools for the Future programme. The town's coal is currently sourced by UK Coal from various pits to create a "Yorkshire blend". "Soon, we won't be burning coal any more," says Bradford.
Like the one-time coal economy, biomass could provide a real boost to a depressed regional economy, says Bradford. It could provide employment - an estimated 15 jobs for every megawatt generated; bring neglected woodland into active management; and turn wood waste, which would otherwise be sent to landfill, into a commodity. "We get those big wins and we make the carbon savings targets 40 years ahead of where we should be making them. That's not bad."

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Clean tech, big money (and the JAMBOG trap)

Interesting news feature in the new Real Deals on VC funds specialising in clean technology, centred on a round table discussion involving three managers of such funds. As well as specialist funds, big players like 3i and Apax Partners are also increasing their exposure to the sector. As James Cameron of Climate Change Capital notes:
"Wind energy, solar energy and biofuels are each bigger markets globally, at $13bn, than e-commerce, at $11bn."
That's an eye-opening statistic, given the hype given to the likes of Amazon, and the continued disdain from some quarters for anything smacking of environmentalism or that dread word 'sustainability'.

There's also a piece by Real Deals editor Ross Butler on the importance (or otherwise) of regional offices for private equity firms. As I've noted in countless previous features, there's been a general retrenchment away from the regions, with a few firms such as Isis as notable counter-examples. Ross did ask me to write a side-piece for this article on the Leeds market, which unfortunately I couldn't fit into the schedule - mainly because I was deep into another long deals piece for the sister mag, Real Business, this time looking at expansion or development capital. That's a market that's been largely ignored in recent years, but many of the advisors and VCs I spoke to reckon that there's more money moving back in. In large part, that's because the VCs need to secure themselves a niche in a crowded market and not just be seen as JAMBOG - an acronym, we also learn from this RD, for 'just another mid-market buy-out group'.

Seems slightly odd that something as innovative as the latest clean technologies, and something as traditional as mid-market minority-stake development capital, are both seen as niches. Maybe it says more about the state of the mainstream.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Steam powered internet machine

Another great piece of art (or whatever you want to call it) from Jeremy Dellar - an Apple Mac powered by a steam engine. According to the Guardian report, which includes a wee picture of the gizmo, it's a Merryweather boiler from 1945, originally used to pump water for fire engines. A handsome object, the boiler has brass taps, a fine whistle and smart teak cladding.

Dellar, whose previous works include the inspired re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave and brass band arrangements of acid house anthems, is again working with collaborator Alan Kane. The Guardian notes:
There's a marvellous impracticality to the machine. But it does work - unlike the disused Richborough power station, whose cooling towers loom, and the abandoned wind turbine at the end of the field. "We like inverting economics," said Kane, adding, perhaps unnecessarily: "This is a very uneconomic way of having a portable computer."

Not that coal-fired computers are a great idea for mass use, what with greenhouse gases and all. Here at 2ubh, all our hardware runs off the wind and the sun. Really.

The steam-powered internet machine is touring Kent this month.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

How the dead live (and earn)

Odd story in the Wall Street Journal about that old Futurama favourite, cryonic preservation of the post-mortem rich. Now, it seems, the canny corpsicle-to-be is endeavouring to ensure that their after-life is a comfortable one through a little financial engineering:

Like some 1,000 other members of the "cryonics" movement, [Arizona resort operator David Pizer] has made arrangements to have his body frozen in liquid nitrogen as soon as possible after he dies. In this way, Mr. Pizer, a heavy-set, philosophical man who is 64 years old, hopes to be revived sometime in the future when medicine has advanced far beyond where it stands today.
And because Mr. Pizer doesn't wish to return a pauper, he's taken an additional step: He's left his money to himself.
With the help of an estate planner, Mr. Pizer has created legal arrangements for a financial trust that will manage his roughly $10 million in land and stock holdings until he is re-animated. Mr. Pizer says that with his money earning interest while he is frozen, he could wake up in 100 years the "richest man in the world."
Though cryonic suspension of human remains is still dismissed by most medical experts as an outlandish idea, Mr. Pizer is not alone in hoping to hold onto his wealth into the frosty hereafter.
At least a dozen wealthy American and foreign businessmen are testing unfamiliar legal territory by creating so-called personal revival trusts designed to allow them to reclaim their riches hundreds, or even thousands, of years into the future.
Such financial arrangements, which tie up money that might otherwise go to heirs or charities, are "more widespread than I originally thought," says A. Christopher Sega, an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University and a trusts and estates attorney at Venable LLP, in Washington. Mr. Sega says he's created three revival trusts in the last year.

It still doesn't answer my basic question on cryonics, though. Even if it ever is technologically possible to revive and heal the subjects, what exactly would be the incentive to do so? This new trend would seem to make it even less likely that the corpsicle's descendents or executors would find it in their interest to do so:

In addition to heirs or charities, estate lawyers are also naming their cryonics clients as beneficiaries. If they come back to life after being frozen, the funds revert back to them. Assuming, that is, that there are no legal challenges to the plans.
Thomas Katz, an estate planner at the law firm Ruden McClosky in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., believes cryonics could raise fundamental legal quandaries. Upon coming back to life, for instance, would a person have to repay their life insurance? "Our legal notion of death is pretty fixed. The scientific notion might not be as time goes by," Mr. Katz says.

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Monday, August 22, 2005

Baying for broadband

Interesting piece by Martin Wainwright in the Guardian on the revival of the Yorkshire coastal village of Robin Hood's Bay (or, rather, its avoidance of the tourism trap). The credit is given to broadband internet allowing home working, although it's rather annoying to see the village's renewed economic vitality defined primarily in its ability to attract downsizing professionals from Leeds and London.

In Bay, they set up a co-operative provider to bring broadband to the village. Here in Halifax, we get the BT ADSL service (a perfectly satisfactory service so far, and just upgraded to 2Mbps), but down in the valley, the good folk of Hebden Bridge also set up a pioneering broadband co-operative, Calder Connect Cooperative. That's helping support the thriving freelance community there, though again things seem largely driven by the offcumdens.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Pennies in the wind

Interesting report from the New Economics Foundation on renewable energy sources. Advocates have often claimed that all the world's energy needs can potentially be sourced from renewable sources - wind, solar, geothermal, etc. The UK is particularly well placed for wind power, both offshore and on. Small wind farms are an established feature of the Pennines along the Yorkshire-Lancs border, a graceful addition to the moorland landscape of old mills and viaducts. I use a renewables electricity suppler at home, so it's fair to say that all my writing is wind-powered (including the odd feature on this very subject).

The NEF report largely focuses on micro-generation - household or community scale generation, such as small wind or solar projects, or CHP boilers. Key to the spread of these technologies is the simple fact that they can pay for themselves in a few years, and then be cash-generative as you sell excess generation back to the grid.

The case is charmingly illustrated by the islanders of Gigha, who bought their island in 2002 and have now installed three second-hand wind turbines named Faith, Hope and Charity. The Guardian report quotes the no-less-charmingly named spokesman, Willie McSporran: "You just hear a little swish as the blade passes overhead. You can speak beside them as you would normally ... . When you hear the noise, it's saying pennies, pennies. It's making money for the community all the time."

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Thursday, June 23, 2005

Chasing air

To the Paris Air Show last week, where all eyes were on Airbus' mammoth offering, the A380. (Click here for more pics of this and other eyecatching tech from the show.)

Inside the exhibition halls, almost everyone was boasting of their connection with, or trying to catch the eye of, Airbus and its trans-Atlantic rival Boeing. And not just the equipment suppliers, pushing everything from complete engine and landing gear assemblies to improved rivets and sheet titanium. The regional development agencies were out in force.

Yorkshire Forward had a large stand in Hall 4, alongside the Japanese delegation. The RDA had made a deliberate decision to position itself away from the main UK presence over in Hall 2. There, the reps from Wales, the North West, the Midlands, the South West, and most points in between were crammed together, trying to get a slice of global aerospace pie. In between, you'd find the stalls set out for everywhere from Ile de France to New Mexico. Everyone, it seems, has or wants an aerospace cluster.

The industry ticks all the regional development boxes: it employs everyone from engineering PhDs to trolley-pushers, and pays them well; it can draw on and support traditional manufacturing industries that otherwise face decline; there are plentiful opportunities for academic collaboration; most of the signs are for continued growth in the sector; and, not least, it's real gee-whizz stuff.

But with every region chasing the two big players, and their first tier of OEM suppliers, it's obvious that most are going to be disappointed. Yorkshire has a good toehold with the 'AMRC with Boeing' on the border of Sheffield and Rotherham - an enginnering research centre spun off from the University of Sheffield, to which the US giant has lent its name as a centre of excellence (I'll have to admit some vested interest here, as t'other half works there - but for more info, see this feature from 2003).

The AMRC is intended to form the keystone for a wider cluster development, the Advanced Manufacturing Park - but building on this first success has proved difficult. The AMP, a joint venture between Yorkshire Forward and landowners UK Coal, has so far only attracted a handful of other research centres, not any of the promised private sector investment. For a development that's supposed to be bringing 7,000 hi-tech jobs to South Yorkshire, this is obviously a problem.

The park has not been short of interest - there's been plenty of inquiries from businesses wanting to move on, mostly from elsewhere in Yorkshire, but these have been judged to be not of the necessary technical calibre. In terms of Yorkshire Forward's long-term cluster development, that may well be the right strategy. But practically, it's risky - UK Coal will sooner or later want to realise the value of its land, whether or not it fits with the RDA's aims. That'll be a particular worry if Alchemy Partners succeed in their takeover approaches and set about maxing the group's bottom line.

Yorkshire's marketing efforts at the Air Show also featured a gourmet cruise along the Seine. A very pleasant time was had by all, but filling the AMP - and landing a slice of the aerospace pie - certainly won't be plain sailing.

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