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11 things about geography everyone voting in Scotland’s referendum should know

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Dauvit Alexander / Flickr 

You know when you hear something and you just have to respond?  

This is one of those posts … 

News this week in Britain is full of the imminent independence referendum in Scotland. BBC Newsbeat has been covering it too, with a particular emphasis on teen voters. The 9th of September edition heard from two 19-year-old girls in Edinburgh, both called Sarah.

One was for independence, the other not.  Here’s what the first Sarah said when asked why she thought Scotland should leave the United Kingdom.

I feel like Scotland should be independent, there’s not really other unions in Europe.

I thought this was a slightly odd reason, and it wasn’t challenged by the reporter, so let’s examine it now in a rough blast through Europe and with apologies to history scholars everywhere! 🙂

1. France

France has been getting bigger gradually with various unions since 843 AD. Many gains came from marriage, such as Brittany in the north-west of France. (One might say ‘speared’ onto the side of France, lol) Brittany was semi-independent but joined France in 1491 when Anne, the heir of Brittany married the King of France, Charles VIII.

2. Spain

Spain as we know it has been around since about 1492. Before it united, much of Spain was run by Muslims from north Africa. Historians called it an unusually tolerant society where Christians and Jews and Muslims lived in relative peace. Oh to be back there now.

3. Belgium

Tiny Belgium is currently a union between French and Dutch and Flemish speakers. It used to be an even smaller collection of around 6 independent states. There are occasional calls from the Dutch-speaking side, that they should make a union with the rest of the Netherlands.

4. The Kingdom of the Netherlands

Netherlands was created from a group of provinces under the Union of Utrecht in 1579, after a fight with Spain over religion. (The war theme – actually quite a strong driver of unions in all these countries to be honest!)

5. Greece

Greece is particularly difficult to summarise, the story of this country goes back thousands of years, Ancient Greece, natch. Philip of Macedon started unification during 300 BC. His son was Alexander the Great, who continued in the unification tradition by marching into new places with a large army and saying: “You’re all part of us now”.

6. Sweden

Sweden was probably consolidated from separate towns into a single nation around 1200 AD. It’s hard to say for sure, because no one in Sweden appears to have written anything down.

7. Switzerland

Switzerland is a union of self-governing Cantons. Assessment: Mostly harmless.

8. Italy

Italy as we know it didn’t exist before 1861, it was created by a union of dozens of different regions and city-states. Important factors: All spoke same language and enjoyed olive oil with everything.

9. Germany

Before 1871, Germany was a series of large separate states including Bavaria, Saxony and Hanover who were united by Otto von Bismark, who was running yet another separate Kingdom, Prussia.

Germany was artificially separated after WW2 and East Germany was run by a communist government. In 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, East and West Germany united into a single nation again. Also, Berlin is fun. You should go.

10. Russia

There have been two significant breakups of country unions in recent times. The big one is the break of the USSR in 1991. Russia had run out of money.

11. Yugoslavia

This contributed to Yugoslavia falling apart the next year. It was a federation of republics that had been pushed together after World War 2. When they broke apart in 1992, it led to another conflict with over 100,000 deaths.

Bonus fact for getting this far …

Not part of Europe of course, but let’s not forget the USA.  Starting in 1776, it is a gradually growing union now with 50 separate States, each with their own parliament and laws.


Written by Robert

14 September, 2014 at 3:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The sale of stuff from TV Centre – Valuable? Or Junk?

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Useless things – worth more than they cost to make

The contents of a building where I used to work are being slowly sold off.

The closure and sale of BBC Television Centre has ignited strong emotions and there was a protest to prevent planning permission for a redevelopment, involving some high-profile celebrities of British culture, to no avail.

As an armchair economist it’s fascinating to pick out a couple of results of some of the completed parts of the auction, because for me at least, the prices just don’t make any sense.

Take for example, lots 1455, and 1456. These are what’s left of some of the interior signs.

TV interior sign sold for £660

Lot 1456 sold for £423

They sold for a combined total of over £1,000!

I’m amazed, particularly as there’s not much about these which is scarce. The BBC still occupies three buildings across the road from TV Centre – I’m in one of them most weeks – and there’s still a machine that makes these signs and labels. If they’re worth this much money, someone should be running that machine night and day cranking more of them out!

How about lot 1444:

SFX door


£55 for a door to nowhere, and you could surely make this for half that price with bits from a DIY shop. With this piece though, I can understand more why it is valued highly

It would be interesting to know the history of this door. It’s possible it was originally made for radio drama and came over to Wood Lane if it was needed to re-dub sound effects for TV. Or it could have a longer heritage and started life in a film dubbing suite, maybe in Ealing, or in Lime Grove. It could however just as easily been knocked up in 20 mins by a TV Centre carpenter in the 1980s.

It’s clearly the possibilities of this history, and the unusualness of the item which make it worth more.

Time for a reality check though.  TV Centre was also full of functioning valuable equipment. Great for radio stations, universities, or small TV / film companies.  Let’s take a look at the going rate for something still being used, like a professional digital videotape recorder.

Sony digi beta recorder

New, they are sold for thousands. Even second-hand, you’ll get hundreds for them. There were many like these for sale in TV Centre’s auction. Here’s lot 1505.

Lot 1505 - Digi beta recorder

I think ‘thetoplens’ got a bargain there!

The sale of stuff from TV Centre isn’t over yet!  Two more auctions are scheduled, more equipment here, and you can still buy the satellite dishes and comms equipment. Although being unmaintained and exposed to the elements for well over two years, I’m not sure how much operational value there’s left in them. Plus for a domestic bidder in need of a new birdbath, you’re going to need a very large garden, and probably planning permission!


flickr / peterdaniel

Let me know in the comments if you got a bargain, or whether you consider you got something valuable, no matter what you paid.






Written by Robert

21 August, 2014 at 4:07 pm

Found in a drawer: Palm m125

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Palm m125And it still works perfectly!

While rummaging in the back of my odds and ends drawer today, I came across my old Palm device.

Welcome back to 2001! Palm called this a ‘handheld computer’, although I think I thought of it as a digital diary. I put in a couple of AAA batteries and it powered straight on (no proprietary batteries or connectors – yay!).

The m125 had a 33Mhz processor, was the first Palm to include an external memory card. It sold for $250 thirteen years ago, about the cost of a top-end Nexus 7 or a mid-spec iPhone 5S today.

Incredibly, you can still buy them new from between $50 and $150!

Although, before you decide you should read this excellent review from Ed Hardy.

The memory card in mine was still in place and still had applications installed!

Let’s see what we have:

Palm m125 screen and applications

AK Mirror: Could turn your palm into a torch. Maybe on a different model. This has no camera, no flash and a black & white screen. AKeysoft now nothing more than an abandoned WordPress page.

Avantgo. Now part of Sybase and appears to be some kind of mobile content pushing system, if it’s even still being used. That’s a shame. Avantgo was the RSS and Instapaper of its day. – still around and same logo. was bought by Rakuten.

And a couple of games. Dopewars is basically a free-market simulator. It’s still around online, and mobile.  Here’s the Apple version with modern graphics, and an android version that’s much closer to the original.

And just to prove the thing does work, here’s me playing Hardball (a version of Breakout)

Written by Robert

21 March, 2014 at 3:16 pm

Skype to make group video chat free

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Skype group video

Not so exclusive anymore.

If you’re one of the people who got a free year’s subscription to Skype Premium as part of the Christmas collaboration offer, and are congratulating yourself for saving over $100, then hold on! It might not be as great a deal as you think.

Skype are about to make some big changes.

First the ‘Collaboration Premium’ freebie doesn’t include any free phone calls to real phones (one of the main parts of Skype Premium), the other important part, group video calls is about to be offered free to everyone anyway.

Skype is also ditching both the 12-month subscription offer (with its 50% discount) and the 3 month version.

Here’s part of the email reply I got from Skype when I enquired where the 12 month option had gone.


The reason behind these changes is that Skype will soon include Group Video Calling for free for those users who will link their Skype Accounts with MSA [Microsoft account]


I’m guessing this means if you have a hotmail, outlook or email address.

So, if you’re about to buy or renew your Premium account, might be worth waiting to see if you can do with just Skype Credit (which is 30% off at the time of writing if you buy a git card)

Written by Robert

8 January, 2014 at 10:47 pm

Posted in Business, Software, video

Tagged with ,

How to give your lost phone a much better chance of being returned

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Gecko iPhone toolkit - An entirely unsophisticated brute force passcode crack.

Frankly I’m surprised any lost phones make it back to their owners at all.


Last week I found a phone on a train. It was well after 11pm and with few people around, I took the phone home, aiming to try tracking down the owner myself, else hand it in to a staffed office.

Find him I did, but the whole exercise made me really wonder how any lost iOS devices ever get returned (assuming they haven’t been stolen).

I made a short film about what happened …

… but I want to use this post to detail a little more about how it was done.

I’d been on the train since it started in Brighton, and was walking up through the carriages after we left Clapham Junction when I found the phone, so I’m guessing that’s where the owner got out in a hurry.

It was an iPhone 4S, lying on the edge of a seat . There wasn’t anyone else in that part of the carriage. It was in flight mode, so the ‘Find my iPhone’ function would have been inoperable.

I don’t have an iPhone, but I’m prepared to bet there are lost property rooms packed with dozens of lost iPhones/Pads all over the world, particularly in airports and train stations.

They are unable to be reunited with their owners because Apple’s security features make it impossible and the owners themselves haven’t planned for their possible loss.

Here are the issues:

The lockscreen

This is the first hurdle most people will fall at. Unless you know the code, you can’t get into the contacts to start ringing obvious numbers, eg. Home, or Mum/Dad.

The simplest thing here is to take a photo of your contact details and use this as your lockscreen wallpaper. It’s in the Settings menu.

iOS wallpaper setting screen

I don’t know anyone who alters this.

There were a couple of other things I thought were worth trying before resorting to phone hackery.

SIM card details

I removed the SIM card and tried it in another phone. ‘Find my iPhone’ wasn’t running, but if the SIM was still enabled, the owner would hopefully try to ring their phone.

Alas, the AT&T SIM was either blocked already, or had never been enabled for the UK phone network. I also had a look for any contacts that were saved on the SIM. Nothing there either.

The hack

Now the technical bit.  Getting past the passcode is boringly unsophisticated. It’s a brute-force attack where your computer runs through every possible 4 digit combination and then tells you what the code it. It takes about 30 minutes, max.

I used the Gecko iPhone Toolkit for this.  This exploits a previous iPhone vulnerability, so you must also put the phone into firmware update mode and inject an earlier version of the firmware into the device.

The beauty of this hack is that it maintains all the existing phone data.

Once I had the code, I was immediately able to see the owner’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, so I contacted him on both.

In the contacts. I found a number for Mum/Dad. I also saw the phone did have the icon for Find my iPhone, so I turned off the flight mode and connected the phone to my own Wifi, so the phone could start signalling home.

Finally I flicked into the Email, to find that address too. Here I struck lucky.  With Wifi now on, the phone updated the inbox and the first message to pop in there was the copy of the online form the owner had filled in with the railway company.

It had a UK number in there as a contact point. Bingo!

I rang the number, and learned that unfortunately the owner was on a plane back to the USA, but his friend Nick, (who handily lived on the same tube line as me) would come and get it straight away.

So I found the phone at 2300 on a Sunday night, and it was in Nick’s hands by 1800 on Monday. Warren, the owner got it back later that week and was mightly pleased.

For the rest of us – plan for loss

I firmly believe that most people would do the right thing and try to get the phone back to its owner. But good grief, how many people would be as geeky as me?

I suspect many phones, even finding their way to an official lost property office, just languish there.

If you have a smartphone, take a look at it and think how anyone would get it back to you if you lost it. Why not put your contact details on the lockscreen right now?

iOS users can do this by replacing their lock screen wallpapers (screenshot above) .

Android users go to Settings > Lockscreen > Owner Info (if you have Jellybean).

Settings > Security (if you have Ice Cream Sandwich).

I always invite comments, or you can tweet me @robf.

Written by Robert

21 July, 2013 at 11:12 pm

Posted in Mobile, Technology

Tagged with , , , ,

A quick test post – cheerfully ignore this :)

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I’m playing with WordPress features with some Qatar University students at the Thomson Reuters Foundation this week.

Here’s one of the blog posts from Nada, who writes about feminism.

Esraa’s has been shopping.

Hamda wants to see Instagram in the new Blackberry, and soon!

2011-11-02 Qatar

From William Saito / Flickr

Written by Robert

20 June, 2013 at 9:47 am

Posted in training

Tagged with ,

BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat – How to stay relevant

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Facebook – only part of the current solution

For completeness – here’s the full version of the piece I wrote for the BBC’s College of Journalism website.

It’s since been republished in full by the EBU on their Eurovision Journalism Now site,

On a side note, Newsbeat won Gold for Best News and Current Affairs programme at this year’s Sony Radio Awards. We’re all very proud.

As always, comments are invited, read and appreciated.


About 18 months ago, I was asked by the BBC’s College of Journalism to go to a meeting in Radio 1’s newsroom. The instructions were vague: “Not sure what they need, but they’ve asked for a social media specialist.”

While I’d listened to their main programme, Newsbeat, I’d never actually been to Radio 1 before. It’s different from the rest of the BBC, even geographically. For decades it’s been in a separate building and even now, in the rebuilt Broadcasting House, it’s on its own floor, it has a different entrance, and you need a special access pass to get in.

The newsroom produces hourly bulletins and daily programmes for Radio 1 and 1Xtra. These are tailored to the target audience, 16-29 year olds and the core news topics reflect that: music, technology, entertainment, health, politics.

The main Newsbeat editions pack a huge amount into their 15 minute timeslot, and sound like nothing else on the radio.  Have a listen to a recent edition. 

So what did Newsbeat want?

“We need to know what the future of news is, for our audience”, said one of the Assistant Editors.

(So, nothing too big then!)

This turned out to be a fascinating question, and one that’s relevant to the entire organisation. What the future of news is for a 16 year old, turns into the future of news for the bulk of the working population about 25 years later.

Mandate for innovation and debate

Radio 1 has a very specific direction from the BBC Trust in its service licence, to “experiment with new technologies”. For News in particular “listeners should be encouraged to … provide feedback, ideas and stories and offered regular opportunities to engage in debate.”

Debate and conversation would be a key component of the next few months, both within the newsroom and with our audience. We wanted to be sufficiently plugged in and accessible, and extend the methods we used previously – email (already choked with press releases) and phone text message.

The shakedown of early social media sites was over, both MySpace and Bebo, had slid into irrelevance. Twenty-whatever-year-olds don’t use email, and figures from audience research suggested that text messaging was on the decline as well.

Newsbeat already had a page on Facebook, it was performing well.  The statistics suggested that nearly 40% of Facebook’s UK users were in Radio 1’s target age group of 16-29 which meant us potentially reaching millions more people. But we didn’t understand necessarily why we were there. We didn’t have a strategy yet.

I had two questions: How much better could we do if we put more effort into it? And, can we increase online engagement, try to attract a different audience to the one already listening on the radio?

Let me point out, that the existing audience isn’t bad, radio industry listening figures from early 2013 put Newsbeat’s reach at over 2 million people a week, but, this audience is falling quarter-by-quarter and the FM radio audience is older than Radio 1 has been told to aim for by the BBC Trust.

Fostering conversation

In surveys we’ve conducted in 2012 the standout comment was that our audience wanted more opportunities to share their opinions.

We know those opinions are worth listening to, and our aim is to keep the quality of that conversation high, but we didn’t have the resources to read and moderate everything all the time. The BBC has long had its ‘house rules’ for web boards. These didn’t seem appropriate on Facebook, after all, it wasn’t an area the BBC controlled. So we slimmed them down. We’d hide a post from general viewing if it was:

a) abusive (Radio 1 has led campaigns on anti-bullying online)

b) illegal or encouraged a crime

c) off topic

The quality of the discourse really took a jump up when started to talk more with our audience. When the conversation looked like it was getting off-topic, we would try to steer it back on course. If someone had a question, we’d answer. We asked questions back. Question, clarify, it’s what reporters do.

Newsbeat’s style is informal, but the web can be more so. That doesn’t mean we relax our language further, but we don’t get distracted when our audience does. Teenagers vent and swear, but they’re doing this on Facebook and Twitter (usually using their real name) not the BBC’s website. Their friends can see what they writing and if they’re ok with it, we generally are too.

The effect it’s had on listener engagement has been pronounced. We regularly mention on-air where people can join in the conversations and our presenter, Chris Smith, has become adept at summarising several of those messages live as they come in. We’ll often ring people back to record comments in their own voice. It’s a great way to prove that we actually use all this interaction and that there is a benefit to people taking the trouble to share what they know.

Being active on a platform you don’t control felt liberating for me. I once helped run BBC News’ first web comment forum, ‘Talking Point’, which later became a successful World Service Radio programme and a couple of name changes later is called ‘World Have Your Say’.

‘Talking Point’ was exclusively email based and worked by a journalist painstakingly cutting and pasting comments back into a webpage. Here’s an example of the early days.

Technologically and socially, it feels like we’re light years away from that now.

Fit in – stand out

One of the first things we looked at online was Newsbeat’s tone-of-voice. When the info you’re posting gets mixed together in a newsfeed of (normally) real friends, you need to fit in, lest you be unfriended/unliked.

However, when some of the stuff you’re telling people may be important to their health (a recent story looked at side-effects of dermal filler injections) you want those stories to stand out.

Social media is image driven, photos get attention. Apart from anything else, they take up more space on newsfeeds and stand out a little more. Photosharing apps get heavy use; No wonder Facebook bought market-leader Instagram.

Pictures are our highest rating type of content for social media, they can explain with a single glance. Any modern phone creates them fast and shares them faster.


While communication gets ever more mobile, the humble SMS text message seems to being replaced by chat applications like WhatsApp, and by 2012’s top social media tool for us, Twitter.

Newsbeat’s gone from zero to over 21,000 Twitter followers in 2012. When we started, we knew that there were 6 million people in Britain using it, the majority in the 18-34 age range, a significant part of Newsbeat’s audience.

Part of the increase is down to increased smartphone use. About halfway through the year we reached the tipping point where the stats showed that more people we accessing us on their phone, than on a desktop computer.

Day-to-day, one of our reporters is on hand to talk to the audience on Twitter, and while the programme is on-air, provides a live feed of additional background information. It’s “second screen” for live radio.

How effective has it been?

We more than doubled our online reach in 2012, and the engagement – people talking about Newsbeat stories on Facebook – tripled.

We’ve also been able to increase the number of stories we can cover. Newsbeat would normally rack up around 2,000 web stories in the course of a year. When we added in the social media platforms, we found the amount of content we published had increased around 60%.

Social media views can amount to a 10% increase in our audience overall, important at a time when traditional radio listening is falling.

The type of stories we’re able to cover has changed, some that we’d have huge difficulty in getting otherwise. Recently we covered the unusual cases of rape claims against men which turn out to be false.

We received several private Facebook messages from men who were affected and wanted us to know what the accusation was like for them. Had we not been a simple button push away, I don’t think we would have received these.

We’ve been able to provide an active forum for the opinions of our target age group that we can represent every day. The debate over 18-24 year olds having to work to receive a benefit payment achieved a record, with 800 people commenting on a single story.

We had a viral hit for this photostory about a fire in Chicago which turned the building into something like an ice sculpture.

One in three who saw this the pictures we posted, shared them with someone else. That’s massive, not just for Newsbeat, but for social media response as a whole.

I’ve also learned that a lot of things are completely outside your control. You can’t implement a set of procedures and then sit back anymore. The environment is changing too quickly. New tools constantly appear, the use of familiar ones shifts little by little meaning the way you handle them has to alter as well. Sometimes you’ll wake up and find a site has been completely redesigned, with functions you used daily, suddenly no longer there.

Next steps

Relevant news and information is a core part of Radio 1’s offering but staying accessible is getting harder. Fewer people in our target age group listen to the radio and those that do are listening less.

In the last year we’ve succeeded in increasing the reach of our original journalism. We’re making up the difference in falling radio listeners online and are able to use sites like Facebook as an extension of our own publishing platform.

It’s clear we need to continue to position Newsbeat’s tailored news service in front of the people it’s designed for, and the stats show 15-24 year-olds continue to desert live radio. Why would you carry on listening when online music and TV services, and social networks fulfil your needs?

Bar the relatively new Newsbeat website, the last time Radio 1 made a big shift towards where to audience was drifting to, was in 1988 when the station transferred to FM.

With Tony Hall, the new Director-General placing emphasis on future strategy, the time is arguably right for change. The audience is clearly drifting mobile now. Newsbeat, rather than being primarily news on the radio, will become a mobile news brand, inherently social, more visual, and with the ability to go live to any of our users, and with a much better way to listen and interact with our audience.

The key question for us now is: For someone just starting to listen to Radio 1 now, aged 16. What does Newsbeat look like in 5 years?

The issues haven’t changed, but how we report and deliver those stories must.

Written by Robert

13 June, 2013 at 1:40 pm