How to Get an Honest Fare From a Cab Driver


There is an international conspiracy. I’ve said it before. They get all the people who want to be taxi drivers, to a secret location, indoctrinate them in how to milk a fare and then send them to countries they haven’t been to before and where hey don’t speak the local language. 

This morning I read a blog on Freakonomics, entitled Why Don’t More Professional Drivers Use Traffic-Enabled GPS?. It’s obvious isn’t it? They want to get the biggest fare out of you that they can.

One way to get an honest fare out of a cab driver is to agree on it in advance. That’s easy if you know what it is worth.

Airports

Airports

Airports are a prime opportunity and I’ve been ripped off in more countries than I can remember at airports. In New Zealand there is a great service called Air New Zealand Taxis. You can select from 14 airports, enter details like your start or end address, what flights you are taking and then select from a variety of taxi types. I note they even offer helicopter now, but I don’t think that’s an option for the budget conscious.

So you choose which mode of taxi you want and they guarantee to get you to the airport on time. You pay in advance and they even monitor the flight arrivals and departures so if your flight arrives a couple of hours late, your taxi driver will still be waiting for you holding up one of those cool board with your name on it.

If they make a mistake, as one did with me last year and overshoot your freeway exit and have to take a 15 km detour, it’s their problem, and doesn’t decrease the thickness of the lump in your back pocket (if you still carry folding).

Back to traffic. I have been a TomTom Go Live product user since they launched in New Zealand and Australia and it is awesome! It is good because they have good data derived from a combination of fleet managed vehicles (large numbers of them) and data from TomTom users. The GPS Car Nav PND’s have a SIM Card in them and get their data in real time (within seconds despite coming via Berlin). What makes it really powerful is the algorithms in the background that know how to interpret data.

I have been involved in car nav and the development of real time traffic in NZ and Australia and have worked with several brands of car nav. I have seen good systems and not so good systems. Now I must admit that my current TomTom is a little dated, but it has the latest map data. It’s probably time for me to do some testing of the latest devices and apps from various brands, but if you are wanting to know what the best device is for you, this blog is still worth a read.

Like a lot of guys, I believe I have a great sense of direction. However, I have learned that the GPS car nav is better at it than I am. It looks at all the possible ways I can go and pretty much every time I thought it was wrong, it was me that was wrong. It also keeps evaluating, when it has real time traffic. Often while I am driving, my TomTom tells me that I am still on the fastest route, or that there has been an incident and there is now an alternative route which will save me (x) minutes. I now trust it.

That doesn’t mean I trust all real time traffic apps. I have tested other apps in the past which interpreted normal rush hour traffic as an incident and led me to take a longer route which was unnecessary. There have also been times when I knew where I was going and didn’t bother using my TomTom with real time traffic to disastrous results,

So back to keeping the cabbie honest. The easiest answer is to take your trusted car nav application with you and tell the driver where you want him to go. Remember, you are the customer. If he isn’t happy with that, grab his taxi number, get out and find another one who is more trustworthy.

So, how about it? Tell me your taxi stories. I’m keen on the good, the bad and the ugly. Please share a comment. What real time traffic navigation  products have you used? How did you find them?

More on In Vitro Meat


A couple of years ago I wrote about the potential to grow your own food including  in vitro meat. The first experiments produced something rubbery and inedible, but things have moved on since then.

For a country like New Zealand the idea of creating artificial meat is anathema. We made history in 1882 when the SS Dunedin successfully arrived in London carrying 4931 refrigerated carcasses  of  mutton, lamb and pork.

Whilst in the past meat represented better than 50% of NZ’s export revenue, in 2009 it was a modest 13.2%. On the other hand biotech is becoming so important in New Zealand that it has even made the Secondary School curriculum. Significant consideration is being given to Animal Biofarming in NZ as evidenced by this comprehensive document from the NZ Foundation for Research Science and Technology FRST.

Why would you consider doing something like this. Simple really. A large chunk of the population of the world is hungry and unable to feed itself. Over 1 Billion people fit the definition of living in hunger. That’s more than 3 times the population of the USA! Then there’s water. There is debate in some places that there is no water crisis, but fresh water represents only 3% of the total water on the planet. I won’t go into the countries where drinking water is an issue, its common knowledge and drought as a news search on Google draw almost 13,000 results.

According to Fred Pearce who wrote the book When the Rivers Run Dry, it requires around 24,000 liters of water to grow the feed to make a kilo of beef, or 2,400 liters for a Quarter Pounder.

Now while a cow also produces leather and pet food, and other product a massive amount of each beast is expensive waste product, even if some of it goes back in the ground as fertilizer. Wouldn’t it make sense to be able to just make the meat if you could?

I’ve focused on some of the why’s. I haven’t even touched on the widely held ethical views on growing animals purely so we can eat them. I definitely like my meat, don’t get me wrong. Anyway I will leave with a link to the In Vitro Meat Foundation and a quote from Winstone Churchill in 1932:

“Fifty years hence (…) we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium”

The last word goes to Jason Metheny of New Harvest

Brain Controlled Prosthetics


As you do, conversation at the dinner table last night went to prosthetics. It started with her school planning assignments on innovation and her plan to get her class thinking about how people could cope without the use of their hands.

She mentioned the story of Mariatu Kamara who had both her hands hacked off in Sierra Leone, which is the subject of her book Bite of the Mango. She decided that she would get her kids to spend a day not being able to use their hands and then get them to think about how they could cope with this. The next step would be how to use innovation to come up with a solution to this problem.

I told her about the Kiwi company Rex Bionics who are helping people who are wheelchair bound and thought they would never walk again, to get on their feet with an exoskeleton. This is a topic I have covered on a number of occasions including my recent blog on Singularity.

Anyway, this is an area that is being well researched and just to prove that learning to control a prosthesis via the brain, check out this video where a University of Pittsburgh team trained a monkey to feed itself using a prosthetic arm controlled via a brain implant.

Now I do have to warn you not to try this at home folks. Implants produce scarring and scarring inhibits conductivity. Now of course the problem is how to produce this technology at a price that is affordable. Probably decades away, but pretty exciting, don’t you think?

Food scarcity and arid land


In my last blog post I wrote about the importance of agriculture to our economy. Then I started hearing stories that farm sales were down, especially dairy. Apparently of over 4,000 farms on the market, only around 200 sold last month.

Good news for some of the farmers who want out, because there are foreign investors who want to buy them. One company wants to spend $1.5 Billion dollars buying NZ farms. You would have to wonder if we can’t make a good living out of farming how can other countries do it? If we do sell them, where will the earnings from those farms go? Not into our pockets I would suggest.

China has a problem. They have a large dry land mass and not enough water to grow the crops they need and a huge and growing population. What are they doing about it? They and other countries such as Middle East are buying good arable land wherever they can get it for a good price. For example China is buying farming land in Mozambique, Angola, Malawi, Nigeria and even Zimbabwe. It’s not all bad, they are teaching local farmers better techniques in animal husbandry, improving crop yields etc.

What are the motives of China and Arabic countries in buying this land? They need the food. In Ethiopia, one of the worlds poorest countries, not only are they selling land to foreign countries, they are giving them tax holidays for a number of years, but what is of greater concern is the expectation that most, if not all of the crops will be going back to countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

I ask myself therefore, again, why can’t we produce high yield crops on our fertile soils and sell it to the countries that need it. Once those countries have bought our land, we won’t be getting it back and I wouldn’t expect us to gain much in GDP from the crops they grow.

As I said in my last blog, the ‘good old days’ were when we were largely an agrarian economy, we had plenty and we also had plenty to export. Now we have fantastic biotechnology and the ability to increase yields, quality and in many cases without using GM technologies.

I would hate to look into our future and see a country that can’t feed itself, that grows crops on farms owned by other countries, go straight offshore to feed them with minimal economic benefit to us. I would welcome someone to explain the logic of this.

We have expertise, maybe we should be assisting some of those countries who are unable to maximise the return on their land, help them thrive and clip the ticket. That would be a win win. While we do that, we also continue to research and improve product, the grasses and other food sources for animal feed etc. We do have some successes such as Fonterra, Livestock Improvements and many other thriving areas of research and results in biotechnology. We should stick with what we are good at and rather than give our farms to the Chinese, Arabs and others who want them, let the Government buy them. They could be run by unemployed people, who would get training on the job and perhaps even interest free loans to purchase some of those plots and use the skills they have obtained to build themselves a healthy asset and income, while increaseing our balance of payments. Is that silly? What’s wrong with my thinking?

In February this year there were around 168,000 people unemployed. Lets put them to work on those farms, teach them a trade, help them make something of themselves and help them earn the money to buy there way in with low interest loans and subsidies. What could we produce with 168,000 people working instead of paying them to do nothing. The single person benefit is around $160. That works out to a wasted loss of around $26,880,000 per annum. I say lets buy those farms and keep them in New Zealand hands.

This Video from TVNZ gives an example of what is happening.

The ANZAC Currency is approved


Yesterday evening agreement was reached between the NZ Prime Minster, John Key and the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, to create a common currency. In a joint statement they said that this had been on the table for many years and successive governments had decided to see how the Euro fared as a shared currency. Given this success they have announced that within one year of today, there will be a new shared currency between Australia and New Zealand called the ANZAC Dollar, or ZAC for short.

There will be a commemorative ZAC Dollar silver coin minted next month as a collectors item. Given the relationship between Australia and New Zealand, whose soldiers fought side by side in 2 World Wars, the commemorative coin will be minted on two sides. One side will feature Sir Charles Upham, possibly the most decorated Kiwi, with a Victoria Cross & Bar, Greek Medal of Honor and African Star. The other side features Australian War Hero, Alfred Shout, who earned many citations including the Victoria Cross, Memorial Scroll and Kings Message.

The existing currencies of each country will be phased out over a 2 year period and from 25 April 2010, the date of the ANZAC Day commemmoration, either currency will be accepted in both countries until the new currency is released.

“This will herald a new era of a close relationship that has existed for over 200 years”, said John Key  from his Beehive Office in Wellington, where he quipped that he had of course not been around at that time. He went on to sayb that in these difficult economic times, a joint currency would have a stabilising effect on the local economy.

In Vitro Grown Meat – Feeding the Future


The other day I was thinking about the proposed manned Mars trip and trying to get my head around how to feed a number of astronauts for a 1,000 day trip in a small space craft. The thought was started while reading an article about Cosmic Rays, which are a potential threat to astronauts, but that is entirely another discussion.

Our planet today has a number of problems in being able to feed a growing population, which combined with major droughts in some parts of the world and heavy rains in others, exacerbated or caused by global warming, we are already in a situation of food crisis. If you are reading this blog, you probably don’t personally have a problem, but the problem is nevertheless there.

The first problem, which is the most difficult, is poverty. According to the World Hunger Education Service, almost 1 billion people have incomes of no more than US$1 per day. That doesn’t buy a whole lot of food.

Given the climate conditions, growth of population, finding the ground to plant sufficient crops that are not labour and water intensive is difficult and another issue is lack of certain key needs such as proteins.

One option for this going forward could be to grow food in vats. All kinds of food could be grown in vats and they have been doing this in Science Fiction books for close to 100 years. Now vegetable matter, fungus and yeast are relatvely easy, meat is a different story.

As I continued on my thread, I was thinking about chicken being one of the most popular if not the most popular meat being eaten today. The way they bread chickens in poultry farms for meat or eggs is commonly regarded as cruelty although the farmers will argue that they have little choice.

Tissue engineering is a science that has been around for quite a while. In fact if you have a child today, you already have the option of harvesting the stem cells from your baby’s umbilical cord. Cordbank in New Zealand offers cryogenic storage of your baby’s umbilicus, so that if your child ever got cancer and needed fresh stem cells, they are there and ready. The Stem Cells have your child’s exact DNA, so there are no risks of rejection if they are needed and at this stage they have no age damage. Stem cells have the inherent ability to become pretty much any human organ.

Tissue engineering has the potential to not only save lives, but also to prolong it. In future it could be used to help people recover from brain injuries and perhaps condiions such as Parkinsons Disease. It can help with regenerating heart tissue and much much more.

It can also be used to generate food. Distasteful as it may sound, I’m sure in the future if you were offered fish chunks that were made in a lab in a double blind test with real fish of the same sort, you would struggle to tell whch one was real. This isn’t Sci-Fi, it has already been achieved. One of the motives for this research was the type of space travel I mentioned at the beginning of this blog.

If you could eat nice white chicken meat that was tender and had the same texture you expected, but no chickens were mistreated or battery grown in cramped conditions, i.e. no sentience and no pain. Why wouldn’t you? If you could provide healthy food to millions of people in environments where they otherwise couldn’t get it and would suffer from malnutrition and eventually die a horrible death, why not?

I’m not sure what, if any research in tissue engineering is happening in NZ, but we have the credentials to do it and government support for biotechnology. In the medical world there is plenty happening such as the orthopaedic research at Otago University. If I’m lucky, I could live longer because of this research. I would love to see 120 or 130 years on this planet, and not vegetating in a rest home, wouldn’t you?

Is that a Blackberry in your pocket or?


I’ve spent the last 3 days at the GeoCart’2008 Conference. It was an academic conference with speakers and attendees from all over the world. The content was excellent and I found it fascinating to see not only the results of academic research in the modern world of geography, location based technology research and web mapping, but also some of the great products that have and are being developed. But this is not what today’s blog is about. Perhaps more on the conference in the next few days.

I was an exhibitor at the conference and during the quiet times, was checking my phone for messages and emails as the Internet services at the venue at Auckland Univesity were shocking. I was in a building next door to the Auckland university IT Campus and the best local internet I could get was 128kbps. This morning I was listening to a podcast while I was in the shower about Internet services in Mali and how their pipe was only 2Gbps. Being landlocked they have to rely on other countries for access to the submarine cable. They would be horrified at the speed I got in Auckland, but I digress.

A number of people asked if my phone was a Blackberry and how did I like it. My answer was, yes, indeed it is a Blackberry, as issued by my company. Do I like it? I intensely dislike it. I’m a power user of mobile internet, after all I wrote the book, Unleashing the Roadwarrior and I taught companies how to improve efficiency in the field using mobile and wireless devices. Unfortunately I no longer walk the talk.

You see, to me mobile and wireless computing is about efficiency and touching things as few times as necessary. I’ve come from the world of touch screens and along with the book, published texts including Mastering your Palm and Mastering your Pocket PC.

For people who only use the phone ‘killer apps’ of voice and text, the Blackberry is a wonderful device. It has a qwerty keyboard so if you don’t use txt abbreviations, you can type your messages without having to remember the buttons and as a phone, it is perfectly adequate. If you are a Baby Boomer, the ability to do these things as well as read, send and receive email is wonderful. Attachments are another story, but you can send and receive email and you can do it securely through your MS Exchange Server which makes the IT Department happy. It does also synch wirelessly with Exchange for my contacts and calendar, but that’s pretty much where the fun and utility ends for me.

Here’s what I did with my Blackberry over 3 days at the conference. I sent and received a couple of urgent emails. I sent and received a couple of Twitter messages (which all but exhausted the ability of the browser.

Here’s what I could have done if I still had a Windows Mobile or Palm device. Actually I do still own old models, but they are old and I don’t really want to carry multiple devices anymore, although I could possibly consider a new Windows Mobile, Palm or iPhone, given the right opportunity, especially since there is now an iPhone Reader:)

I could have made lots of notes using handwriting recognition on the touch screen. I can write Graffiti or block characters without having to look at the device, so that I can concentrate on the speaker. These would have been written straight into MS Word, so that I would have them available for other purposes, such as copying and pasting into my blog. Instead I used scraps of paper, one of which I have already misplaced.

I could have taken photos of exhibits, slides and delegates for future use and reference.

I could have beamed my digital business card to others who used similar devices.

I could have shown off some of our mapping technology on the IE browser, even richer if the phone also had GPS, which my Blackberry doesn’t. (Mine is probably 2 years old) Relevant given that I work for a mapping company, specialising in web mapping API’s, routing, tracking and car navigation.

I could have quickly referenced web sites discussed during the papers and bookmarked them on the spot for future reference and integration with my favourites on the desktop.

I could have drawn mind-maps to enhance my note taking.

I could have read one of my eBooks, after setting up and while waiting for the delegates to arrive in the morning, or checked the daily paper.

I could have made audible notes and embedded them into an email, or even recorded segments of a presentation.

I could go on, but if you want to know all the other things I could have done, read my eBook, which you can purchase at ReadingIt.

It’s about efficiency, about touching things once but having access to them in lots of ways. It’s about being able to combine real time research with the discussion on the browser. You see, we can think and take in a lot more in the time that a presenter speaks, and in terms of our points of reference. It’s about then being able to access any of those pieces of information, communicate them and collaborate with other people.

Instead I have a few pieces of paper that I hope I won’t lose.

I guess this is about the dichotomy I live and work in. On the one side there is an infrastructure designed to keep data secure and cater to the lowest common denominator, for the most of whom, without training and motivation, even a Blackberry is overkill. On the other side, a busy person who wants to make the most of the information, people and media available at any given point in time. To leverage it.

The conference providers gave the delegates a CD with copies of all of the presentations, which was great. But it is pretty analogue and although I am very interested, I will probably never get around to looking at it. I will hopefully get to some of my notes, along with notes from other events that I havebeen to recently, scribbles on pieces of paper or the backs of business cards.

Then of course there are podcasts. I am big on maximising my time and whenever I am in the car, walking, exercising or doing chores, I am connected to my iPod.

So, yes it is a Blackberry in my pocket. Would I recommend it to anyone? No. Not unless all you want is a phone that does exchange / text email really well. That’s all it was designed for. I want more! I’m a busy person who wants to multitask. I want a touch screen, preferably multipoint. I want efficiency.