Friday, 24 April 2009

Want to save money? Scrap the ID card

We've heard a lot lately about the desperate financial straits our country is in, and how eager the Government is to save money. All this is very worrying, and it certainly needs to try to ensure we're not deep in debt for a whole generation. There's one area where definite and large savings could be made with only a relatively minor degree of political embarrassment - i.e. by the Government admitting that its plans for a National Identity Card are misconceived and vague, and scrapping the whole project.

The aims of the project are very vague, and the Government has been publicly criticised by its own advisors for trying to do too many things. Every citizen who knows anything about information technology knows that all of our recent governments have been technically naive on databases, and have an appalling record in both getting large databases to work (at a cost anywhere near their original budget) and in securing confidential data. We are told that the scheme will protect us from terrorism, but without any convincing explanation of how it will do this.

The official projected cost of the project is currently around 5 billion pounds, with rumours that insiders believe it will rise to at least 10 billion. Unfortunately, David Cameron has said that the project should be cancelled, almost guaranteeing that it will not be dropped in the foreseeable future.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it"

I really wish companies selling technology-based household appliances would adopt the above motto.

For some time I've fancied a DAB clock radio for my bedside. I've put off buying one for years because none seemed to have a design that came close to what I need: a clear display and simple alarm operation. Now I've been given one and, sadly, it's even worse than I'd expected. As a radio, it's great - good sound quality and much better reception than I've ever had on FM; as a bedside alarm clock it's almost useless.

So what are the problems? First, the display. Why does apparently no-one make a DAB clock radio with an LED display? This is fairly obviously the only kind suitable for bedside clocks. It's easy to see in the dark, even by short-sighted people like me, and it doesn't keep you awake by casting its light across the room. Every DAB clock radio I've seen (including the one I've got) seems to have an LCD display. This needs a backlight to be seen in the dark. Even on the dimmest setting, it's like having a light on in the room; regardless of the backlight setting, without glasses it's impossible to read unless I put my face right against it.

Then there's the alarm. My twenty year old FM radio with LED display has a simple slide switch to select between alarm off, buzzer and radio. I hold down a button to set the alarm and then press one button for hours and another for minutes. The new DAB clock radio has four alarms that can be set only when the radio is off; then I have to set them with a complex series of button presses (hold ALARM for 3 seconds, use up and down keys and then use ALARM again within a couple of seconds). Once an alarm is active, the display doesn't show this unless it's set to "small text" - then I can't see the time from bed. This means I can't set it with any confidence that it will go off at the right time. I need a reliable alarm clock so, reluctantly, I will have to give it back and revert to my old one.

I can think of other examples where things worked perfectly well until the powers that be decided they needed "upgrading" and, in the process, spoiled them. Microsoft is particularly prone to this. In versions of its Word software up to 95, bulleted and numbered lists worked perfectly. In Word 97, for some bizarre reason they decided to store the information for these in each PC's registry instead of the logical location, the document template: in every version since, creating a bulleted or numbered list using anything other than Microsoft's default settings has been a complete nightmare. Then there's Windows itself. XP was a rather bloated but still usable OS that was "upgraded" to Windows Vista, which offers no major improvements and slows down a dual core PC with 3 or 4GB of RAM to the extent that it runs like a dog with three legs.

What do you think? Have you any other examples of technology that has been "upgraded" and now doesn't work as well as it used to?