How the 20th century was almost dominated by electric vehicles, rather than petrol

It’s amazing to think that had circumstances been different, the western world might have developed its road transport around electric engines rather than fossil fuels.

That’s one of the key points made by “A Most Deliberate Swindle“, by Mick Hamer – the tale of the London Electrobus company, which pioneered the use of electric buses in London in the early 1900s. I was sent a preview copy — it’s being released later this week.

It’s an interesting story, and is really both a book about Edwardian-era fraud, and transport. I confess the latter is of more interest to me, so I have to admit I skimmed a little bit over the background story of the some personalities involved: a mix of gentlemen who spotted what was essentially a worthwhile venture, a viable electric battery bus, and used it to fleece shareholders out of their money.

As it turns out, a major contributor to the buses being reliable enough for service was the batteries, and part of the story relates to how the Electrobus company’s management fooled the American inventors into handing over the technology.

And yes, for a time, the electric bus service was successful and popular with passengers, thanks in part to a smoother quieter ride, which also made them popular with local residents.

The idea unravelled thanks to the scammers being more interested in making money by cheating people than selling electric vehicles and running electric buses.

The real sting in the tale is towards the end of the book, when author Hamer points out that 20th century motor vehicles ended up being mostly petrol powered because the technology happened to be ready for prime time, cheap enough and reliable enough, at just the right juncture. It gained momentum, and like VHS winning over the technically superior Beta, became dominant.

So but for chance, it could have been electric vehicles instead that dominated during the 20th century, certainly for buses, but also for other service vehicles and even private cars.

London as a city in many ways holds enormous influence, particularly around the Commonwealth, but also farther afield. If electric vehicles had taken off in Britain in the 1900s, then right across the world, issues such as city air quality and lead poisoning from cars might be much less of a problem than they were and are — particularly now, when more electricity generation is being moved to clean sources of power.

Today, Tesla and others are pushing electric cars, and while they won’t solve traffic congestion, they are certainly advancing the technology. In the last year or two, numerous countries have announced the phase-out of petrol and diesel cars.

And yes, there’s a push for electric buses too — they’re being promoted by local companies and campaigns — here in Melbourne, PT Not Traffic have a campaign for electric buses on inner-city routes.

There’s plenty of detail in the book, and one thing that struck me was the names of the companies (both real and fraudulent), which back in those days certainly told you what the company did (or at least claimed to do). These days they’re a lot more abstract than some of those in the book: “The London Electrobus Company”, “The Electric Tramways Construction and Maintenance Company”, or the “Gould Storage Battery Company Limited”.

It’s a good read, and worth a look. It’s due out this Thursday 28th September.

A case to keep my shiny new phone safe

My new Google Nexus 5 phone is going very nicely, thanks very much.

But I was pondering getting a case for it. The last thing I’d want is for it to be dropped and damaged.

Fortuitously, the good people at MobileZap asked me if there was a product on their site I’d like to review for them. Why yes! Thank you!

MobileZap stock lots of accessories for phones and other devices such as iPads, with everything sorted by manufacturer and model. Unlike some other sites I’ve looked at, they have quite a wide range, even for older models of phone such as ye olde HTC Desire S that I’ve just upgraded from, which is rather good if you’re wishing to hand it down to someone (it still works fine) but need a new case for it.

In the category of Nexus 5 cases, they list 83 different products.

I also like that MobileZap aren’t afraid to publish customer reviews on their site — even unfavourable ones.

I thought the Spigen SGP Ultra Hybrid for Google Nexus 5 – Black sounded good. Not that the name exactly rolls off the tongue, but it looked like the case I needed.

Nexus 5 phone without caseNexus 5 phone in case

One of the things I like about the Nexus 5 is that it looks good. This case attempts, with some success, not to mess with the look of the phone. It leaves the front alone, providing bumper protection around the edge, so unless it hits a sharp edge on the screen, you’re protected.

In fact it also comes with a screen protector, though I’m a little reluctant to fit it, given the phone itself comes with Gorilla Glass, which should make it pretty tough. (In fact the old HTC Desire S, which also has Gorilla Glass, managed to last two years without a noticeable scratch.) That said, I know these days good screen protectors are pretty good at not unduly affecting the touch of the touch screen, so I’ll give it a try at some stage.

The outside edge of the cover (eg the bumper) is rubbery plasticy stuff, which (like the phone itself, at least the black version) is easy to grip, so the chances of it slipping out of your hand are minimal.

The back of the cover is transparent plastic. This does detract a little from the rather nice natural look of the back of the phone, but it wouldn’t normally be facing that way, so I can live with that.

As you’d expect, there are gaps in the case to allow for the camera to work, as well as the power/USB. The Volume Up/Down and Power buttons are covered by rubbery stuff which changes the feel of them just a little bit, as well as making them more accessible because the case buttons are bigger than the phone buttons – no bad thing.

If there is one niggle, it’s this – the bigger Power button is now directly opposite the bigger Volume Down button, and if you’re used to holding the opposite side of the phone to press the Power, you may find yourself initially pressing the Volume Down instead. I found once I got get used to it, this didn’t cause me issues.

Other than that, this looks like a good, durable case, and I feel less nervous now that my beautiful new phone will succumb to some horrible damage on probably inevitable day that it gets dropped.Thumbs up!

Many thanks to MobileZap for sending me this cover.

Magazines moving to digital

Magazines aren’t quite dead, but they’re in trouble.

While places like MagNation in Elizabeth Street are often busy, that might hide the fact that it replaced at least two older specialised magazine retailers (Technical Book Shop and McGills) that were in the CBD previously.

MagazinesAt Southland, the newsagency that had been there for decades has recently shut. From what I can gather, there’s now no dedicated newsagent in the centre.

Circulation figures show some publications continue to drop. For instance, comparing 2008 figures to 2012, my old favourite Australian Personal Computer fell from 37,156 to 21,612. In that time, Women’s Weekly fell from 530,143 to 465,477 — still a huge number, but undeniably dropping. Gardening Australia fell from 99,058 to 71,955.

There is a partial revival however, through better distribution channels (some specialised mags are available via air into newsagents and retailers like MagNation), and interestingly: digital.

Zinio is an digital magazine delivery company which seems to have a pretty good range (apparently around 5000 titles in all), including technology, lifestyle, sports, and whatever category things like National Geographic fall into.

Their magazines are readable on iPad, Android, Mac OSX and Windows, plus via any web browser with Flash.

What’s the pricing like? For some it’s much cheaper than buying paper — for instance the UK magazine Retro Gamer, which I’m quite fond of, via Zinio is A$51.10 for 13 issues (compared to 80 pounds/about A$130 subscribing to paper from the publisher), or you can buy just the latest for A$5.43 (compared to $14.95 for a paper copy in the shops, arriving several months after publication). For others it’s similar to the retail price.

Given many people will read a magazine once, then either chuck it out or keep it in the bookshelf for 5 years and then chuck it out, that’s pretty good value.

The other thing they have is called a Z-Pass, where for $5 a month you can read any 3 magazines, and swap between titles each month. That particular deal is US-only at the moment, but is apparently spreading to other countries soon.

I guess it shows that the important thing is the content, not whether it’s on paper or digital.

Zinio got in touch with me recently offering ten free subscriptions to readers, with the option of keeping one for myself.

So, I’m going to keep one for myself! Which means I’ve got nine to give away.

To win, leave a comment with your real email address (which is not visible to anybody but me) on the following topic: what’s your most favourite magazine of all time, and why? Is it still around? Do you still read it?

I’ll pick winners from what I think are the most interesting answers received in the next 7 days. Just try to keep it clean, okay?

[In case it’s not obvious: I’m getting a Zinio subscription out of this, so this constitutes a paid blog post.]

Update 26/7/2013 — You can keep the comments coming, but the competition is now closed.

Lasoo’s iPhone application

My blog’s sponsor Lasoo, which provides online catalogues and price comparisons, now has an iPhone application.

The media and marketing blog Mumbrella writes: Until you think about its significance, itโ€™s easy enough to dismiss it as just another app. But what it does is bring much closer for consumers the economic concept of the โ€œperfect marketโ€ โ€“ where thereโ€™s total pricing and availability transparency.

Interesting.

Meanwhile for people like me who are iPhoneless, there is the mobile version of Lasoo.

At some stage I’ll be replacing my camera (which is starting to play up, but is not quite dead yet); Lasoo is excellent for comparing prices on this type of thing. It’s also handy for a look at many of the latest catalogues (particularly for people like me who deliberately get No Junk Mail).

This blog is sponsored by…

If you’re wondering, yes, the Lasoo.com.au banner advert is due to a sponsorship deal.

I was quite pleased to see they produced a graphic that fits in well with the blog — in a similar vein to my post last week on contextual advertising.

Lasoo is a web site that compiles and indexes retail catalogues — particularly handy for someone like me who has opted not to get them in my mailbox. Personally, I’ve used it in the past to find a good price on an iron, and when hunting for a specific birthday present.

I’m not going to go overboard in singing its praises just so you click through the banner, but it does seem to work well, and if you’re in Australia and ever, well, spend money, it’s worth a look.