Bunker Mentality

“…they shall beat their swords into plowshares” Isaiah 2:3-4

During the Cold War many nations dug holes into their lands, even tunnelling into mountains like frightened moles, to find safe places for their generals and governments to hide if the worst happened, the buttons were pushed and the general populations were unceremoniously fried. Who they thought they would have left to govern is anybody’s guess.

These “secret” bunkers are dotted around the country, often disguised – like the famous one, now open to the public, at Kelvedon Hatch which I thought was an appropriate name for the local village, which had as its entrance not a hatch but what was supposed to look like a farmhouse but most resembled… a standard MOD gatehouse. They have for the most part been abandoned now and sold off to any member of the public or bond villain in need of a secret lair.

Many have been turned into museums to educate future generations about the fear and madness we lived through, others have become homes, movie or game sets or glorified adventure playgrounds for grown-ups to play real-life versions of their video games.

Others have a new use that they seem pretty much designed for. Originally they were built to withstand both an explosive detonation, hence they’re physically strong; they were intended to support living humans so had electrical cabling, air conditioning and filtration and other utilities such as water supplies; then they had to withstand a by-product of a nuclear blast which is an electromagnetic pulse or EMP which tends to disagree with electrical equipment, especially computers. This was done by incorporating a metal cage into the outer structure, a Faraday Cage, which channels electrical energy around what’s inside it, like a car struck by lightning, protecting the occupants.

Theorists of future warfare have predicted that the best way to destabilise or even paralyse a country in the future would be to detonate a nuclear weapon above their enemy and simply wipe out their means of planning and communication – the computers and internet, basically. But it’s not just humans who can generate such destructive events, so can nature.

The sun ejects massive amounts of charged particles into space and we orbit through this flow, the solar wind, and it interacts with our planet, the particles are redirected around us and to the poles, causing aurorae in polar regions. These beautiful displays are also a hint of the destruction that can be caused when the Sun throws a tantrum, or perhaps burps more violently in our direction. A coronal mass ejection aimed at us throws an even larger amount of energetic particles at us and that can also affect electrical equipment – it knocks out satellites, overloads power grids and so on.

With all this in mind the organisations who operate the banks of server computers that store all our online data and channel it around the world have started reusing many of these old bunkers to house their equipment and they’re perfect for the job. Mostly underground, kept cool, shielded from electromagnetic interference and even secure from intruders. The internet itself grew from a military project, and now even much of The Cloud’s physical home will do too.

The Speed of Feedback

Radio Daze

Radio Daze

Once upon a time if you wanted to complain about a tv show, or make a suggestion, enter a competition, or send in a drawing you’d done to Blue Peter, you’d send it “on the back of a postcard” or in a “stamped, addressed envelope” to the Beeb or whomever and after a couple of weeks you’d see or hear it on the telly.

Taking off my nostalgia hat and rose-tinted specs I return to today and find that as with so much media feedback or interaction is now lightning fast. Any live show on tv or radio will have email, text and a Twitter feed in front of the presenter so they can receive on the fly praise or abuse dependant on the subject and opinion of the viewer. Sports reporters carry tablets to field questions and comments.

The internet as a communication medium is making media more interactive than ever and allows faster access to those in front of the cameras – particularly useful when it is, for example, politicians being grilled in real-time; no more need to queue up for a place on a Question Time audience.

Of course it’s just as well that not every tweet appears on-screen, or on the speaker – as the Rev Richard Coles said on QI of his twitter feed for Saturday Live on Radio 4 he often received some less than complimentary comments, which I imagine could get distracting and even depressing while trying to present a programme.

The other aspect of course is public voting, though not a new idea (it was phone voting in the old days of course) it seems that everything has to have some public choice built-in rather than the decision as to who’s the best cook, candidate or singer being left to experts. One of the latest examples is that Formula E motor sport features the potentially race-changing Fan Boost, powered by online votes, by popularity, hmm. The problem is when the choice is made with the heart rather than an expert head. But at the end of the day it’s all just entertainment.

As we move towards increasingly connected, two-way tv, I can imagine that these features will become integrated into the remotes, new buttons to like or dislike and as for voting people off shows like Strictly Come Dancing, I’m a Celebrity or Big Brother then the Red Button could have a use metaphorically more like it’s Cold War namesake…

Smart Uses for Dumbphones

Nokia 8250

Nokia 8250 (Photo credit: xcode)

Smartphones are everywhere now it seems, especially as they become increasingly intuitive to use, more powerful and as such multi-functional.  However what are now referred to as dumbphones still have uses.  People who just want something for making and receiving phone calls or texts appreciate them, one iPhone user turned his into a dumbphone by removing all the apps except the SMS and dialer and found the experience refreshing – I wonder if he’d have found it as easy to sell the shiny, touchy-feely one and buy a £20 Nokia.

In much of the world though dumbphones are the most used phones, often for reasons of cost – both the hardware and the costs of data which make smartphones unviable.  As an article in Wired said amongst our world population of seven billion there are six billion mobile-phone subscriptions, in Columbia, Egypt and Indonesia the mobile penetration is over 90 percent and it’s more than 100 percent in Brazil, Vietnam and Russia.  The same article is about how marketers are using the ubiquity of basic mobiles to reach new markets.  The cost of mobile minutes in emerging markets are high and as such are a precious commodity, or currency.  The article author, Nathan Eagle’s company Jana provides services whereby mobile users can be rewarded with airtime for trying new products, filling in surveys and looking at adverts.  74 percent of users in Brazil would be happy to receive adverts in return for airtime.  Multinationals are catching on, P&G have launched a campaign and Jana helped Danone doubled sales of yogurt via a similar campaign.  This kind of targeted marketing that we’re used to with our smartphones is now reaching more emerging markets and according to Nathan Eagle using advertising budgets to give emerging markets consumers these airtime bonuses would give them more disposable income.

Also, in Wired’s April 13 edition is a piece about an Indian startup called Innoz and its service SMSGyan which is a search engine without the internet – again perfect for basic mobiles.  Founded by Deepak Ravindran, Mohammed Hisamuddin, Ashwin Nath and Abhinav Sree who dropped out of the Lal Bahadur Shastri College of Engineering in Kerala to persue the project to give more people access to information, and answers.  “Gyan” means “knowledge” in Hindi and the service has partnered with Wikipedia, Bing, Wolfram Alpha and others to enable the system to answer questions sent to their servers by text message.  Costing the equivalent of 1p per query it returns an answer as a text message.  The networks gain revenue, the service’s 120 million active users gain information.  The next step is expansion of the service beyond India, as the ability to gain access to info when you have no data service can be vital just about anywhere.

As Wired’s Jana article pointed out this is the second time basic mobiles have created a communications revolution in emerging markets.  The dumbphone’s not that dumb after all.