The Place Where an Ape is a Bee

We just had a holiday in Italy, where one of the things we always do is play “Spot the Ape”. If you’re familiar with Italy you will have seen the tiny three-wheeled vans and pickups made by Piaggio, and if you’re familiar with Italian you’re probably itching to tell me that it’s not an ape, but an apé. (Tell that to Wikipedia…)

It’s a key difference, because in Italian ‘apé’ means ‘bee’. These funny little vehicles were the worker-bees that laboured to reconstruct Italy’s postwar economy at a time when few could afford a conventional commercial vehicle. The famous Vespa (‘wasp’) scooter had arrived in 1946, an innovative mobility solution for a country with finances that were every bit as ruinous as the roads: a year later, aeronautical engineer Corradino D’Ascanio (1891–1981) adapted his Vespa, giving it two rear wheels and a box for cargo. The Apé was born.

Early Apé with no cab, seen in a museum.

In the wild, Apés never look as clean nor as well cared for. [Image: Flickr user “monkeyhel”]

The Apé was just about perfect for its time and place. In the 50cc variant, the Apé didn’t need a registration number and driving one didn’t require a license – rather like the arrangements in France with the VSP or voiture sans permis rules for microcars. Even the most powerful Apés in the early years had only a 125cc engine so it was never going to set any speed records, but low gearing made it ideal for hauling loads up the steep streets found in so many Italian hilltop towns. Its small size made it perfect for negotiating narrow lanes and tight bends, and for parking in awkward spots while making deliveries.

Apé Pentaro with a baby elephant on board.

If three wheels wasn’t enough for you, there was the Pentaro variant…

1956 was a significant year for the Apé. The model C finally lost its Vespa-style saddle and acquired a car-like seat. They also offered an Apé with an enclosed cab for the first time, and an electric starter was an option. (Hold out until 1964 and you could even get one with a heater in the cab. To this day, a steering wheel remains an optional extra: most have handlebars.) The vehicle was diverging from its Vespa heritage, but it remained an affordable alternative to a conventional van. People did all kinds of quirky things with the Apé… and they still do. If you see one in the UK, the driver is almost certainly selling artisan coffee – but in Italy they were used by people in trades of all kinds.

A 1963 model Apé

A 1963 model Apé. What’s not to love?

The Apé is being made under license in India; I’ve seen them used as airport runabouts in Dar Es Salaam, and they’re popular in Portugal, too. Although auto rickshaws (‘tuk-tuks’) are found in dozens of countries, most aren’t Apés, and are nothing to do with Italy. Even so, these three-wheelers are a practical format that won’t go away.

It appears that the Apé is becoming a rarity in modern Italy, and that’s a shame for those of us that always look out for them. (Bonus points for an Apé with two people squeezed into the cab together.) The disappearance of the Apé is a sign of progress, of a kind: people can afford four wheels instead of three, and the traffic moves a bit faster than it used to, at least in between towns: in urban areas we all crawl at the same speed. I can’t help wondering if there isn’t an Apé-shaped space in our modern logistics networks. Any of the light vans that call at my house to deliver small packages could be replaced with an Apé. (Preferably an electric-powered Apé that departs with a hum instead of a puff of exhaust smoke, but… whatever.) So many of the things that get hauled that final mile are lightweight packages: it’s absurd, but instead of picking things up while I’m at the supermarket, I save money by getting all my toiletries from an online retailer – despite the obvious cost of delivery to my door. Some people are doing the same thing with groceries, and it’s only a matter of time before most of us decide that it’s cheaper to cut Sainsbury’s (etc.) out of the loop.

And then? Perhaps the world is ready for a resurgence of the Apé.

Ape panel van

Social Marketing

I’ve been reading ‘Rise of the Machines: Human Authors in a Digital World’ by Kristen Lamb, as recommended to me by Pip Marks after I wrote a few weeks ago about my efforts to build a “personal brand” in cyberspace. It’s been a real eye-opener, because although I’ve been dabbling in social media (very cautiously) for a couple of years now, I still have a lot to learn.

Maybe I’m thick, but I needed it spelled out for me… just like I found ‘Great Answers to Tough Interview Questions’ to be a revelation. (I used to just bumble into job interviews and try to answer ‘live’ when asked a question. Can you imagine? It never occurred to me that other people in interviews are less than entirely honest, and are prepared to game the system with techniques they learned out of a book.)

In the same way, I used to think that I was too busy writing to spend time on llllarch engine optimisation or promotion… which may be a more honest approach to self-publishing, but is kind of dumb if you write in the hope that people are actually going to read your output, someday.

Social media wordcloud

The simplest plans are the best ones…

Social media has involved a steep learning curve for me, not so much technically as personally. When I left school, I went straight into a job where I had to sign the Official Secrets Act. Thus, I became accustomed to a “need to know” culture that continues to affect my thinking to this day. My Facebook page is set to ‘private’ and has a very small number of friends on it. I seldom post there anyway. I shudder when my son’s nursery puts out photos and they’re geotagged, not so much because I believe that there are paedophiles or kidnappers lurking everywhere, as simply because unknown people on the Internet don’t need to know. You might have seen my son’s leg appearing at the edge of a picture on ‘A Logistically Challenged Holiday’, but you won’t find his face on this blog. Need to know.

I wouldn’t fare at all well if I were a character in ‘The Circle’ by Dave Eggers. His dystopian future features a thinly-veiled Google-like entity that dominates the whole Internet, demanding that people share everything about their lives. The book (love it or loathe it: opinion is divided) introduced several wonderfully Orwellian pronouncements, such as “Privacy is Theft”, and “Secrets are Lies.”

Trouble is, Kristen Lamb argues that we need to be real people in order to reach out to our audience. Acting as a real, social human being breaks down the barriers that everyone has in place: the unconscious filtering out of sidebars, pop-ups, and everything else that we didn’t request. Like the way that everyone ignores the second item on their LinkedIn feed, because that’s the spam slot… you tune it out. The things that you don’t tune out typically come to you from people who appeal to you on a social level: your 21st century ‘tribe’ vet and validate content for you. That’s why your own personal brand is so important, and shouldn’t be diluted by endorsing any old thing.

It seems that in trying to ‘sell’ a blog about the sustainable supply chain, I’ve neglected the personal aspect. Capacify puts out a tweet automatically each time I publish a new post, but (as Kristen has made plain) that isn’t social. Why should I expect strangers to care about my tweets, if I’m not a real person to them?

I’m going to try to do better, but it’s hard for a person who used to keep secrets for a living. It’s also prompted some interesting discussions with colleagues about the extent to which an educator should be ‘accessible’ to his or her students, and communicating in a medium where they don’t have control. Most of us feel that it would be unwise to go out on the town with our students, so why would we mix it up with them on Facebook?

I’m unconvinced by claims that social media enhances learner retention (which is teacherspeak for “saves the ones who are in danger of failing and finishing”) because boring old messages from educators must inevitably be drowned out by diversions such as the Jedi Chipmunk Lightsaber Battle. We try to make our teaching interesting, but Jedi chipmunks will always be more fun than exam revision tips… so I tend not to expect miracles from social media.

There are exceptions, inevitably. When Salman Khan was providing tuition for friends and relatives, he used YouTube, and inadvertently acquired a mass following, leading eventually to the establishment of Khan Academy, a major force in online education since 2009.

I learned something about the unpredictable power of the social Internet on a rainy day last year. We were disembarking from a train and I struggled to carry my son and a share of the paraphernalia of parenting, which is to say a changing mat, baby wipes, spare nappies, nappy bags, changes of clothing, push chair, toys, etc. To achieve this I stuffed his toy cat down the front of my coat.

We made it onto the platform and as the train pulled away with a cloud of diesel smoke we set about opening up the pushchair, putting its waterproof cover on, and stowing the aforementioned bits and pieces. Then I had to say the thing that every parent dreads most:

“Uh… where’s [favourite soft toy]?”

A quick search of the the immediate vicinity and ourselves revealed that I’d messed up. The cat must have dropped out of my coat while I wrestled with everything else.

We hurried back to our holiday cottage, and started making inquiries, such as telephoning the lost property office. Inevitably, it was closed for the evening, but while I frantically searched the Internet to see if a replacement could be bought, Mrs. F. hit upon the idea of tweeting an appeal for assistance.

As Dillie Keane of Fascinating Aïda likes to say, it “went fungal”. Everybody wanted to help… and they all wanted news of the missing cat. Many people will sympathise with a child who’s crying because he’s lost one of his favourite toys, and everybody wants to hear a happy ending… but there was tangible assistance as well. An off-duty member of staff for the rail company sent us messages of advice… and a short while later we heard from The White Company, from whom the stuffed cat had originally come. Unfortunately they couldn’t find us another cat as the product was discontinued, but they sent my son a free ‘Harry Hippo’ instead. How’s that for customer service?

Have you seen this Jellycat?

Lost: one Jellycat ‘Maddy Cat’. (Also, another partial view of my son. Knee and elbow: still no face.)

Sadly, we never did get the cat back. She was still quite clean and new-looking (unlike so many really well-loved Kuscheltiere) so perhaps somebody decided to re-gift the lost cat. Or maybe a member of railway staff just found it quicker to stuff the cat in a binsack than to hand it in as lost properly. We’ll never know… but even though we were unsuccessful I was astounded by the support we received from strangers all over the country.

Pardon me while I try to save the planet with my writing on green manufacturing, where a new article probably gets 25 hits in the first few days. If you report a lost soft toy you pick up several hundred new followers within hours…

For a more up-to-date example of the unpredictable Internet, consider the Natural Environment Research Council, who recently invited suggestions and votes for the name of their new research vessel, currently being built at Cammell Laird on Merseyside. When James Hand flippantly suggested that ‘Boaty McBoatface’ would be a good name, he had no idea that it would attract 27,000 votes, and that the surge in interest would crash the NERC website.

They’ve had more publicity than they could ever have dreamed of… at the cost of having to explain that they might decide to overrule the British public, and choose a more sensible name for their £200m ship.

Back in 2013, suggested that only one percent of companies were “doing anything with social media for supply chain planning”. Perhaps this is unsurprising because it’s so hard to know which products, services or stories will “go fungal”, and which will fail to inspire action. It’s also hard to glean much information from users who use pseudonyms, choose not to reveal their location (that’s me…) and perhaps communicate on the Internet in ways that they wouldn’t do in a face-to-face situation. Call it the Boaty McBoatface Effect: it’s too good a name to waste.

Will social media enable more accurate planning and forecasting, presently? Perhaps, but our time is precious and we use a whole slew of tactics to ignore and actively rebuff those who seek to harvest our data. My web browser exterminates cookies at the end of every session. I prefer that the advertisements that manage to struggle their way onto the web pages that I view are for products and services I have no interest in, because it saves me money. I’ve got an extortionate mortgage to pay off, and a son with an expensive Lego habit as well: the last thing I need is advertisements that persuade me to buy things that hadn’t occurred to me… so I withhold information. Facebook thinks I was born in Canada, and work in China. Why? Because Facebook doesn’t need to know. It appears Dave Eggers was right: secrets are lies.

Perhaps we now value the opinions of our ‘tribe’ far more than we care about glitzy messages from professionals. I could share my opinion of the Fiat 500L we had as a hire car last week (surprisingly roomy, comfortable ride: horrendously bad satellite navigation by TomTom…), and my small social following might actually take note. They almost certainly won’t pay any heed to paid content, however nice the graphics may be.

It’s a funny old world, and it’s getting funnier all the time. Particularly the parts that involve Jedi chipmunks – and Boaty McBoatface, obviously.

How Green was my… Raspberry Pi?

A diminutive single-board computer, the Raspberry Pi evokes memories of the 1980s, when home computers were largely meant for learning to program, rather than for the consumption of ready-made content.

This is just about as ‘bare bones’ as computing can be, demanding a bring-your-own approach to input, output, and storage… but it’s astonishingly cheap.

Pi reminds me a lot of the Sinclair Spectrum. It’s infinitely superior in terms of its computing power (unsurprisingly, given the intervening decades) and build quality, but in some ways it’s very similar to the humble ‘Speccy’ that so may of us were scratching our heads over in 1982. For one thing, it’s incomplete: straight out of the box it does nothing – and although you’re getting a bargain, it’s a stripped-down system and will likely see you buying accessories in the weeks that follow. Early Raspberry Pis came with just one or two USB ports, so once your mouse and keyboard are in place, you’re stuck. I found myself having to disconnect the keyboard in order to drag files off a USB drive with the mouse… so obviously you find yourself buying a USB hub pretty quickly, and then you find that the Pi can’t support the power demands of all the ancillaries, so make that a powered hub… and then you’ll want a wifi dongle, and… and…

Pretty soon, the alleged $35 computer is weighing in at well over $100: a price point at which it’s a bit less attractive. Just like my old Spectrum that needed an interface to connect with a disk drive, and another to connect with a joystick, or a decent printer… start down this path and your piggy bank is in for a battering.

If you already have a mass of computer accessories around the house, you can get a Raspberry Pi up and running for not much money. No power supply is included with the Pi, but its creators claim that most folks already have one kicking around in a drawer, in the form of a phone charger. (If your old mobile had a micro USB connector, that is: people with iPhones will need to visit eBay.)

If I was less keen on experimenting for the sake of it, I might have noted that I have three or four ‘retired’ computers around the house of a specification at least equal to the early ‘Pi’ models. In other words, I didn’t need a low-cost computer. The last thing I need is another computer, really… but I visit developing countries for the purposes of delivering education, so I’m interested in practical, affordable hardware.

old-style 15" MacBook Pro

The greenest computer choice is probably one that you already own. After a long useful life, a failed USB port and an ailing trackpad meant that this laptop was beyond economic repair, but even in retirement it was far more capable than the first Pi that I bought.

People who donate computer hardware they’ve finished with are doing a good thing, no doubt, but have you ever stopped to think about what a difficult proposition it must be to manage a classroom full of donated computers? IT support staff are likely to have a mixture of different hardware, and are forced to choose between having the computers plod along as they attempt to run an up-to-date operating system, or leaving them vulnerable to viruses… while also coping with hardware that’s already had a hard life and is likely to have acquired a few foibles of its own. Add in the fact that few developing countries have a capability to recycle e-waste and these schemes look a bit less attractive. The “$35 computer” may be a better bet.

My experience with the original Raspberry Pi (model B) was largely positive, although I never did anything productive with it. Dr Joe and I were impressed to get OpenProject up and running on the diminutive Pi, because that was a piece of software that we were regularly using on one of our Masters programmes in Zambia and Malawi. Imagine how useful it would be if instead of giving each new student a flash drive with assorted reading materials, we were able to give them a “$35 computer”, with all the programs they’re going to use over the next 18 months preinstalled, plus documents, bookmarks and so on… even if it inevitably becomes a $100 computer by the time you’ve added the peripherals that are needed to make it function, that’s not half bad.

The 700 MHz single-core CPU of the original Pi didn’t really have enough oomph to run OpenProject. Web browsing and word processing were similarly sluggish: just not as snappy as we’ve all become used to. Once you’ve had an Intel Core i5 or better, it’s hard to go back to waiting for things to happen.

Raspberry Pi model 1 and 2, and cases.

In the early days of the Raspberry Pi, cases were overpriced, clunky things that were typically made by 3D printing. I made my own out of plywood instead… but by the time the Model 2 came along, decent polycarbonate cases were available.

I abandoned all thoughts of using the original Pi as a ‘proper computer’, and most users appear to have done the same. The Pi found its niche in hardware projects: the low cost of the unit makes it ideal for hardware hacking, since it doesn’t really matter if you manage to destroy one, and its ridiculously low power requirements made it ideal for oddball applications that see it providing the brains of amateur-built robots, or being sent up in weather balloons, etc. Some enthusiasts have racked dozens of Raspberry Pis together to make a kind of ersatz supercomputer… but as with the robots and balloons, one of the reasons it works so well is because it doesn’t really involve interfacing with a human being. Superb low-power performance is meaningless if you have to hook the Pi up to a monitor, and low cost is similarly elusive if we have to source a keyboard, mouse, etc. for every unit.

So: a great little gadget to tinker with and learn about computer hardware itself, but not a ‘full computer’ in terms of what most people actually need to do with a computer, day-to-day. Your cast-off smartphone is a more ‘complete’ computing device in some ways, since it has things like a battery, a screen, a camera and a means of data entry – all of which need to be procured if they are to be used with a Pi.

Things changed somewhat when the Raspberry Pi Foundation brought out the Raspberry Pi 2, with a quad core processor that operated at a more respectable 900 MHz – making it about six times as capable as the original. They also provided four USB ports, which reduced desktop clutter nicely. With the Mark 2, though, I found myself caught in a bizarre chicken-and-egg situation where I wanted to get it working with our wireless network, but after purchasing a wifi dongle I found that I needed to download additional software. (And if there’s one thing you can’t do until you’re on the network, it’s download software…)

Raspberry Pi 2, showing its four USB ports

Four lovely USB ports: the original Model A had just one…

Such a wrinkle would be trivial if I had a tame guru that I could persuade to solve my IT problems for me, but our IT staff have enough trouble keeping Microsoft Windows lurching along, without getting distracted by questions about non-standard hardware and software. For your Pi’s operating system you’re probably going to be using the Unix-like operating system Debian, which has the advantage of being free, but which has a few rough edges as you might expect. There will be nerd-enthusiasts out there who find it incomprehensible that I should have trouble setting up the wifi, but I’ve bought almost nothing but Macs since 1991, and despite continuing to write software I seldom feel the need to ‘pop the hood’ and tinker with my computer’s operating system.

The newer models of Raspberry Pi come in packaging with much more retail appeal: the Pi has gone mainstream

The newer models of Raspberry Pi come in packaging with much more retail appeal: the Pi has gone mainstream

I never managed to get my first Raspberry Pi to make a sound under Debian. I didn’t particularly care, and I knew it wasn’t a hardware fault because if I ran a different operating system that turned it into a cheap media player then the sound worked nicely. No doubt a Pi nerd would laugh and tell me that all I needed to do was to open a hidden file called “hash dot underscore 23296” and change the 307th line to read “Expecto Petronem!” (with or without quotation marks not made clear) and all would be well.

That’s fine. Except… really? Apple (who are backsliding a bit nowadays but who were once the guiding light in producing computers for “the rest of us”) have spoiled me in the last quarter century. In the good old days Apple refused to accept that the problem was stupid users, and instead identified such problems as stupid software.

Inevitably, you get what you pay for. A computer with a price tag that goes firmly into four digits earns you the right to expect that things like sound or wifi will just work, with no arcane setup necessary.

I remember being amused when one Raspberry Pi enthusiast web page, supposedly giving clear instructions for wifi setup finished with “If this still hasn’t sorted out your wifi access, ask an adult.”

I’m 45. I have a PhD that involved a lot of computer programming. I’m no technophobe, but I’m damned if I can tell you how to get a Raspberry Pi working properly. I mean, really properly.

There are people who can do this kind of thing, of course: and good luck to them… Kudos to them, even, but there aren’t all that many of them, and (based on what I’ve seen of the output of the community) they aren’t generally very good at communicating, nor at designing user interfaces.

Getting Raspberry Pis working in a well-funded school in England where there’s a suitably skilled and enthusiastic teacher who’s prepared to put in the time to set up a school club in, say, robotics is one thing: getting them working (and keeping them working) in a school in Kenya that doesn’t have a water supply, never mind mains power… that’s the real test. And not just getting them working in a single school, but everywhere. That would be awesome.

But is that possible? Am I just being unrealistic? Maybe, but wouldn’t it be nice? I mean, how is it that there are organisations that can design computer chips that are more complex than the road network of the entire planet… but nobody has managed to deliver a computer that can actually be enjoyed by people everywhere on Earth?

The experiment begins again: I note that the Pi is now in its third incarnation, which sees the CPU improved to a 1.2 GHz, 64-bit processor… and wifi and bluetooth are now built in as standard, which ought to put an end to wifi woes of the kind I had with its predecessor. So I guess it’s time to spend another $35. (Actually £34.30 at Amazon: Raspberry Pis never quite seem to quite arrive at the quoted price point.)

I can use all the old bits and pieces that I collected for my earlier Pis: the low-power keyboard and mouse, the phone charger power supply, the old flat screen monitor, the microSD card that serves in place of a hard disk… it really won’t cost me any more than £34.30. But is that a bargain? My old Apple laptop – the retired one – cost around £1400, but I used it for ten or more hours a day, almost every day for five years.

What’s the carbon footprint for a computer? DEFRA’s Conversion Factors say office machinery including computers, in 2009 (when my old Mac was bought), worked out at 0.53 kg CO2e per pound spent. By that crude measure (no doubt disputed by Apple, who claim their products are greener than most) there’s 742 kg of greenhouse gases… but for a machine that had such a long life, the carbon embodied in its manufacture works out at a mere 40 g per hour of use, and any additional use of the ailing machine is free. If we ignore all the oddments like keyboard, mouse, screen and power supply on the grounds that users have spare ones knocking about, a new £34 Raspberry Pi weighs in at… call it 15 kg CO2e… and if I evaluate it for a grand total of perhaps 24 hours before I consign it to a drawer like its predecessors, it’s actually far less ‘green’ (625 g per hour of use) than the much more expensive Apple laptop.

But of course, I’m probably doing it wrong. Stupid user.