Sunday, 20 November 2011

Car Insurance - Unaffordable for new Drivers

As many of you probably know, car insurance has always been one of those things that is a bit of a pain but is a requirement to drive. It's like a toasted sandwich maker - you'll be wandering around the gadget section of a big store and you'll see a toasted sandwich maker and you think to yourself "Yes! this is the answer to all of my dinner problems!" you then swap a lovely crisp (or mangled) tenner for a toastie maker and you're off!

Just like your car insurance documents, the toasted sandwich maker will inevitably end up in the dank recesses of some cupboard and not emerge for 26 years, until it's really needed which is probably going to be never.

Unlike a toasted sandwich maker however, car insurance is needed if you want to actually own and drive a car. Think of it if you will as like hiring a body guard when you visit a dangerous country in Africa. Sure you could try and skip out on hiring a body guard but then, you're likely to get mugged, kidnapped and paraded around on television much like in Big Brother, except you might actually get shot in the face. You have to buy car insurance or the police will come around your house and kick your door in, this is inconvenient as it may interrupt your thoughts as you're debating with yourself as to whether you should make a toasted sandwich.

This brings me to my real point here though, new drivers are charged exorbitant sums of money to even consider driving a car, I'm talking sums close to the value of David Camerons pay cheque, or at least the final 4 digits of it.
I went on the internet today and found that as a new driver I will be charged the lovely sum of £2400 ($ 3,778 for the Americans here) if I decide to buy a 1.3 litre engined, Suzuki Swift GLX 5 door hatchback with 58,000 miles on the clock. Let me put that into perspective, that's like going out and purchasing 240 toasted sandwich makers. The only difference is you probably have room in your desk drawer for the insurance papers, assuming of course your insurance policy isn't the height of Mount Everest. I suspect the insurance papers will be closer to the height of 240 toasted sandwich makers stacked on end however.

So a 24 year old newly minted driver can't afford insurance for a car worth £450 (For the Americans here that's $700) "So what?" I hear you say! Well it's not just newly minted motorists who are facing these exorbitant fees, it's also Joe Bloggs and wife who have lived at ye olde village lane for the last 35 years. People who have never had an accident, never claimed on insurance and are responsible motorists are suffering this as much as new drivers, hm.

A typical twenty something driver will more than likely be a student, and if not is quite likely to be just starting out in the career world or job hunt, so this puts them immediately at the point in life where they're quite likely going to need to drive to get to a job. This is an issue as most people in this age bracket are economically disadvantaged or will be if they have to fork out thousands for insurance.

Buying a second hand car isn't really an issue, a second hand car can be acquired from the tin'ternet for about £500 to £1000 which is about $800 to $1600 respectively. A student can forego their typical alcohol allowance to get a cheap runabout car for next to nothing, a person out of work can save £20 a week from their job seekers allowance and potentially buy a cheap car within about 5 to 6 months. All is well in the world I hear some people thinking! Well that's not quite right...

To insure such a vehicle you're going to need to pay very close to five times what the vehicle is actually worth. So let me get this straight, do the insurance companies believe that new drivers will completely destroy their car FIVE times in a year?! Is that even possible? I suppose it is if you keep welding it back together after it's been smashed to smithereens. I know, I know, insurance is primarily to protect other peoples assets, if a new driver gets the brake pedal confused with the gas pedal and plows through someones Gazebo the insurance will cough up. The issue according to those in insurance is that people are driving without insurance which is driving the cost of it up, although I can see circular logic here; if people can't afford insurance but need to drive, they'll drive without it.

Insurance companies are assuring us that their prices are going up to match the dramatic rise in insurance claims that have been occurring in the last year or so. I can understand that, but considering that they're claiming record profits such as here I think it's safe to say this isn't really the case.

If something isn't done soon, there will be record numbers of jobless twenty something graduates who can't get jobs because they can't physically commute to job interviews and/or their places of work.
Maybe we'll get lucky enough that we'll only need to buy a more realistic 90 or 100 toasted sandwich makers a year instead? Who knows!

Monday, 24 October 2011

Augmented Sensory Perception

I'm not really sure about what it is most people who actually ever bother to read this blog do, but as you can probably gather from this blogs title, it's about tech. And so with this in mind I shall discuss my current university project which also happens to be my thesis subject material and is tech related.

Currently there is a gigantic variety of differing technologies which are aimed at aiding people by providing the user with additional information about the environment around them. I see this revolution in portable information to be an incredibly good thing, for one I can't even begin to say how many times google maps has helped me out when I've been lost. I'd just whip out my smartphone and load googlemaps, tell it to find me and then input my destination and away I went.

Solutions like google maps, G.P.S and what not are all brilliant, but all have one or two snags. For one google maps and G.P.S technologies in general rely on static information being true, for example google maps may display that the nearest bank is two blocks away but when you arrive you discover it's been knocked down and a starbucks built over the top. My point here is that a lot of technologies can't give real-time information about the environment at large around the user, and those that can tend to rely on providing the user the information via audio or visual cues.

My project, Augmented Sensory Perception is meant to partially address this issue by providing people with VibroTactile feedback directly proportionate to the physical distance between a person, and physical objects around them.

Ultrasonic VibroTactile Belt
As can be seen in my rough sketch, VibroTactile units will be attached to a belt, these units will transmit short bursts of ultrasonic sound much in the same way that dolphins or bats do to 'see'. The unit will calculate the distance between the sensor and the object that the sound has bounced off of, as is normal in echo location. The unit will supply the wearer with vibrational feedback on the belt at differing intensities according to the distance between the wearer and the physical object.

It is using vibrational feedback that this technology is different to many existing technologies. Specifically this kind of setup can aid visually impaired individuals to navigate the world at large by providing vibrotactile feedback to give them a better understanding of their proximity to objects within range of the ultrasonic sensors. The main issue that visually impaired users have with most existing technologies is that the existing tech specifically relies on the second most prevelant human sense - hearing. As visually impaired users rely on their sense of hearing to perform tasks that most would use their sense of sight to perform, it seems counter intuitive to use the sense of hearing for assistive technologies as they will tie the visually impaired users most prevalent sense.

Having established that VibroTactile feedback can be beneficial to users who are visually impaired, this same technology can also be adapted to be used in vehicles. Whilst it is not uncommon to find vehicles that use ultrasonic sensors to aid the driver by providing auditory and visual alerts on a screen when the vehicle is getting dangerously close to solid objects, it IS unusual to provide the driver with VibroTactile information with regards to the proximity of objects around. It would not be difficult to modify a car seat and seatbelt to provide vibrotactile feedback according to objects around the vehicle.

My project therefore does not target one specific group of potential users, but rather the project is to design, develop, build and implement an abstract technology that can be adapted to various applications.

I have designed a rough schematic for part of the system, the ultrasonic array, micro controller for the array and a way of interfacing the sensor and microcontroller to a P.C (or another embedded system).

I'll be updating this blog with my progress as I go, It is my intention to keep the entire project open source and all schematics and hardware I design will eventually be released under an unrestrictive license for others to expand upon and use in their own research.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Steve Jobs Claimed that Android was a blatant ripoff of Apple products

As the title says, the late Steve Jobs declared that the Android O.S was a 'stolen' idea from Apple.
I refute the claim that Android is a stolen Apple concept. Read the following excerpt from this BBC article.

"Steve Jobs said he wanted to destroy Android and would spend all of Apple's money and his dying breath if that is what it took to do so.
The full extent of his animosity towards Google's mobile operating system is revealed in a forthcoming authorised biography.
Mr Jobs told author Walter Isaacson that he viewed Android's similarity to iOS as "grand theft".

Now I fully understand that if Android was a rip off of Apple iOS (iPhone OS) then yes, he had every right to have such animosity toward the Android O.S on smartphones. The truth however is exactly the opposite of this. To those of you who not aware, Android, Inc was the name of the original company developing the operating system and began it's work in 2003. Yes 2003 - that's 4 years before Apple announced the iPhone. To put it into perspective, google acquired Android, Inc in 2005.

I believe this alone is quite enough to show that Android took an independent route during its development. Indeed the way the O.S works and looks is intuitively designed for a mobile device BUT is nothing original, similar to Apple's iOS.

Both developers noticed that many users of home computers keep all of their files, software shortcuts etc... on their desktop as it makes it much easier to access quickly. The idea that Apple 'invented' the iOS software selection menu is stupid. All they did is take what p.c/mac/linux users have been using for years and modified it to work on a phone. I don't believe Apple, Google, Microsoft or indeed ANY company can argue that they hold patents on the 'desktop shortcut' and as that's all iOS and google use, I truly believe that Apple claiming that Android is 'stolen' technology is absurd, rather both are simply extensions of existing mechanisms.

The tech industry doesn't reinvent the wheel for each new technology - rather the tech industry modifies the wheels original concept to different purposes. After all you wouldn't use a tractor wheel on a bus for example. The same is true for software technologies.

Apple is behaving like a spoiled child that can't have its own way. If Apple truly want to compete in the Android sector of the market, they need to lay off the frivolous court cases and develop a budget iPhone model to compete in the same price bracket as Android phones.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

U.K government to discuss 'cyber anti-terrorism' measures

There is currently an article lurking on the BBC located here that leaders and industry experts from around the globe will be holding a conference on the current state of cyber terrorism and ways to combat it.

Now much like the leaders who will be convening, I believe there are some legitimate concerns about potential threats on the web. What concerns me are the comments by Mr Hague. The BBC article states that:

"Ahead of the summit, Mr Hague said the internet was revolutionising people's lives but required a "global co-ordinated response" to ensure its transformative power was fully exploited and channelled in the right direction."

Now I may well be reading into this too much, but what exactly is the right direction? And will it infringe upon the law abiding citizens rights in the world of cyberspace? I suppose only time will tell, but as is fairly typical I imagine that government agencies will be able to read whatever you've posted for the last few years on social networking sites and arrest you if they believe that you are a terrorist.
Perhaps most worryingly is the line toward the top of the article that reads: "The UK now regards the threat from cyber warfare as seriously as that from international terrorism, while a recent report warned that extremists were increasingly turning to social media to recruit followers and plan attacks."

I understand there is a legitimate threat, but where does the threat end and our rights begin?

 I suppose the final paragraph sums it up really:
"The threat is rising exponentially from states and from criminal networks in what they do in cyberspace.
"This has to be addressed. What is unacceptable in the physical world is also unacceptable in cyberspace."

The problem is, many physical world crimes are impossible in cyberspace and will likely have very heavy punitive measures for relatively ridiculous crimes. Don't be surprised if some day you get a knock on your door because you posted some silly comments about how you dislike the government on facebook, this would not happen if you happened to say you thought the current politicians are full of bollocks in a conversation in a pub however. It's my opinion that officials are being overly heavy handed with relatively petty crimes and vice-versa for the more serious crimes online.

Take for example this man: Sean Duffy . Whilst he was indeed an idiot for trolling a facebook memorial, surely the correct measure is to ban his facebook account and potentially remove his ability to access the web via court order, 18 months in jail is very serious and will effect this man for the rest of his life, he'll have difficulty finding a job in the future. This sort of punishment rarely occurs if people speak their mind in the real world.

Make of it all what you will however.

Adobe Flash Player 10.3 for Sony Ericsson Xperia X8

With all of the current android handsets on the market these days it can really be quite confusing choosing one. In the low to mid-range it's quite difficult to find a specific handset that gives the most functionality for the least amount of money. And for many the tipping factor can be something as simple as "Does it support flash player?"

I myself am a Sony Ericsson Xperia X8 user, the X8 is a great little android phone and the one thing that really got on my nerves with it is the lack of any real flash support. Sometimes I want to browse the web and view 4oD which to those of you that aren't British is a youtube channel streaming British T.V shows. Unfortunately my handset lacked  any real support for adobe flash player and the one 'hacked' flash that was available was absolutely terrible. That is until now!

A fellow who goes by the alias Paul1989 over at the XDA forums (a forum dedicated to android modification located here) kindly gave me permission to link to his original thread that provides a handy .apk file that brings a fully functional, stable and most importantly - smooth port of adobe flash 10.3 to the Xperia X8.

Paul has spent a good amount of his free time developing this and if you like it, feel free to donate to his paypal; or leave him a thanks - you can find his paypal here if you feel he deserves a donation. You can view the original thread here and download the appropriate .apk file paul1989@xda_flash_player.10.3.apk from his thread. Additionally Paul has provided a BBC iPlayer .apk for U.K users to watch iPlayer on their android handsets.... good stuff!