Category Archives: General


pulpitHere’s a (slightly tongue-in-cheek) idea after chatting with a vicar friend the other night…

Writing sermons is a time-consuming business. Not all clerics are particularly good at it, and there’s a long tradition, in certain circles, of reading other people’s classic sermons to your congregation, or re-using your own ones in other places. Has this been brought up to date?

Somebody should create, if they haven’t already, an online repository where you can upload your sermons, in text, audio or video form. They would be searchable by subject, biblical reference, etc and you would be free to download others and deliver them yourself. The only obligation would be that somewhere (e.g. on the service sheet) you would have to acknowledge your source: ‘Based on SermonSite sermon 4569 by Revd Joe Bloggs.’ You could then provide feedback, further notes, and ratings. More importantly, any members of the congregation who have downloaded the SermonSite phone app could also rate it, and Joe Bloggs would get appropriate credit.

Sermons that achieved a high-enough rating might migrate into the ‘SermonSite Pro’ category, where they were only accessible to those paying a larger subscription, and where the authors could be compensated for their use. Vicars who proved particularly gifted at this sort of thing could be commissioned to provide exclusive material for Sermonsite, so supplementing the meagre income provided by most ecclesiastical institutions, and so on…

Of course, I’m a bit out of touch, but I imagine that the average sermon-listening congregation these days doesn’t contain a high proportion of people who know how to download and use smartphone apps. That could be a problem.

Still, I offer the idea for what it’s worth. Maybe it’s something to think about, say, during a dull sermon…

SermonSite: Bringing the most powerful preaching to a pulpit near you.

Shakespeare’s iPhone?

I found an iPhone this morning… a very elderly one, with some inkstains on it. It was locked, but I managed to unlock it with the code 1415. The first thing I did was to ask Siri a question about what the owner might have been doing just before he lost it…

Today is the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt.

Driverless ethics

Thanks to Richard Owers for pointing me at an article from the MIT Technology Review entitled Why Self-Driving Cars Must Be Programmed to Kill. (Doesn’t that make you want a custom licence plate on yours? BOND007 – programmed to kill?)

We talked earlier about the ethical challenges of driverless cars and how many of these are variations on Phillipa Foot’s classic Trolley Problem.

The MIT article takes it further and raises a nice conundrum or two:

How should the car be programmed to act in the event of an unavoidable accident? Should it minimize the loss of life, even if it means sacrificing the occupants, or should it protect the occupants at all costs?

As they point out, who is going to buy a car which is programmed to sacrifice its owner?

Here is the nature of the dilemma. Imagine that in the not-too-distant future, you own a self-driving car. One day, while you are driving along, an unfortunate set of events causes the car to head toward a crowd of 10 people crossing the road. It cannot stop in time but it can avoid killing 10 people by steering into a wall. However, this collision would kill you, the owner and occupant. What should it do?

One way to approach this kind of problem is to act in a way that minimizes the loss of life. By this way of thinking, killing one person is better than killing 10.

But that approach may have other consequences. If fewer people buy self-driving cars because they are programmed to sacrifice their owners, then more people are likely to die because ordinary cars are involved in so many more accidents. The result is a Catch-22 situation.

One way to approach this is that adopted by a group at the Toulouse School of Economics. They used ‘experimental ethics’, which roughly means crowd-sourcing the answers to difficult questions and seeing what the majority think.

In general, people are comfortable with the idea that self-driving vehicles should be programmed to minimize the death toll.

Makes sense, but…

“[Participants] were not as confident that autonomous vehicles would be programmed that way in reality—and for a good reason: they actually wished others to cruise in utilitarian autonomous vehicles, more than they wanted to buy utilitarian autonomous vehicles themselves”

Ah – understandable, I guess! And…

If a manufacturer offers different versions of its moral algorithm, and a buyer knowingly chose one of them, is the buyer to blame for the harmful consequences of the algorithm’s decisions?

Lovely stuff. I wonder how we’ll deal with this.

Of course, some of these kind of decisions are always being made by anyone building or using potentially dangerous machinery. Did your car’s manufacturer install the most expensive and reliable braking system available when they built your car, or did they base their decision partly on cost? Perhaps they did so to spend more money on the airbags, which protect the occupants instead of pedestrians and cyclists?

Similarly, those who design medical systems, drug-dispensing machines, prescription printers, and so on make decisions which could be life-or-death ones, and we somehow cope with that. But the driverless car does throw some of these questions into sharp relief.

Update: thanks too to Laura James who pointed me at the Principles of Robotics.

Macs are expensive, but…

IBM has started allowing their employees to use Macs, as reported in this piece by Daniel Weber.

Previn says that Gartner believes the optimal number of IT to employees should be 1:70. Previn noted that the average is 1:242. And IBM is currently hovering around 1:5,400 for their Mac users.

Ergonomics vs etiquette

How can we make our road network more efficient? Be less polite, says this article by Guy Walker at Heriot-Watt.

Imagine you’re driving along the motorway, with three lanes of emptiness ahead of you. Then you see signs warning of roadworks and lane closures. As the traffic thickens and the point arrives where the closed lanes have to merge, what happens? Does everyone make maximum use of the available road space and allow others to merge at the head of the line with a friendly wave and a spirit of mutual cooperation?

Their models suggest that this and other social pressures have a dramatic influence on how efficiently we use the roads.

We call this phenomenon conformity and there is a lot of it about. Research shows that drivers approach junctions faster and brake later when being followed compared to when they are on their own. Other research describes the pressure we all feel to keep up with others, sometimes even when it is not safe to do so. People the driver knows, such as passengers, tend to inhibit speed. In other situations, with anonymous other drivers, it has the reverse effect, as we can see in the early merging in response to upcoming roadworks. None of us wants to experience the aversive stimuli of being hooted at or blocked from merging, nor being regarded as a ‘typical white van/BMW/Audi/Volvo driver’. These factors all sound rather trivial, but they are clearly a more powerful determinant of behaviour than the rational optimisation we, and engineers, would like to assume. And it gets worse. Through social learning these behaviours feed back into the wider driving culture to themselves become local and national norms of behaviour, continually reinforcing what people will keep conforming to.

The case of merging lanes could easily be solved by a sign saying ‘Please use both lanes as far as possible’. But the more important question for you to ponder today is this:

Isn’t politeness always at the expense of efficiency? And isn’t that, really, part of the point?

Send not to know for whom the bell tolls

Richard pointed me at this wonderful life-expectancy simulation. Very sobering – a bit like visiting an ossuary – and fascinating, too.

It reminds me that I haven’t yet ported my Time’s Wingèd Chariot watchface to my Apple Watch. I’d better get working on it while I still can…

Modern mammon

Universal_Contactless_Card_Symbol.svgYesterday, I used my watch to buy entrance tickets at the Botanic Garden, and coffee at its café. This morning I paid for petrol using Paypal on my phone, and then used my watch to buy lunch at a local cafe and groceries at a local store.

I only had to get my wallet out today at the market, but that was to buy an old-fashioned apple pie, so I didn’t mind using an antique payment method.

I am looking forward to the day when wallets are things you see in costume dramas, though…

A ham sandwich is better than heaven

From this interview with Tom Maudlin

It’ s easy to prove that a ham sandwich is better than heaven, because:

  • Nothing is better than heaven
  • A ham sandwich is better than nothing


Here I am, almost visible on Google Streetview:


Or you can try to get a better view here if you’re curious! For future readers, it’s the April 2015 view…

I should have waved out of the window more vigorously when I saw the car, but then they’d just have blurred out my face anyway. (A wise precaution in any photo that includes me, for aesthetic reasons.)

The Dyson Shower?

Well, I’m back home from Michigan, enjoying the more moderate temperatures of the UK, and some real marmalade, after a two-week absence from both.

I’m also back in the world of hard water, and was pondering this as I squeegeed our shower cubicle this morning, as I do every day, to reduce limescale build-up. I’m sure that that clever inventor Mr Dyson could come up with something to save me having to go through this rigmarole. Perhaps some kind of induced vortex which would pull all the water drops back towards the plughole so that they wouldn’t hit the walls of the cubicle — or perhaps even render those walls unnecessary.

Alternatively, maybe something like the Airblade technology could blast the water droplets off the walls before they had a chance to evaporate? And then also dry me as I stepped out of the door?

Over to you, Sir James…

If you’re not a communist…

There’s an old saying:

If you’re not a communist at the age of 20, you haven’t got a heart.
If you’re still a communist at the age of 30, you haven’t got a brain.

I’ve always liked this quote, and have wondered about its origin since I first heard it. Now, thanks to the web — invented when I was about 25 — I can find out. It turns out to pre-date communism by some time, at least as a rhetorical device.

It was said about republicanism by François Guizot, the French Prime Minister in the mid 19th century, whose childhood had been during the Reign of Terror.

Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.

It was later adopted by Georges Clemenceau, who substituted socialiste for republicain.

But, Fred Shapiro points out, one could argue that even Guizot was pipped to the post by John Adams, who said something similar, though not as elegantly, in 1799:

A boy of 15 who is not a democrat is good for nothing, and he is no better who is a democrat at 20.

Adams missed the heart and head distinction, though, which I think is important: it captures the sometimes misguided fervour of youth and the wisdom that comes from experience (or, others might say, the conservatism that comes from age).

Of course, I still prefer the ‘communist’ version, but that’s because of when I grew up. I wonder what variations will be popular in 50 or 100 years’ time?

Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?

googlecarJohn’s recent column about self-driving cars made me ponder some of the conversations I’ve had about them recently.

I’m a huge fan of the idea, because I think it will transform society in ways we can only begin to imagine, and most of these will be highly beneficial. To those friends kind enough to humour me, I can enthuse for ages about decluttering the narrow residential streets of Cambridge, currently filled with empty, parked, individually-owned cars; or about the joys of rural living when you can read a good book, enjoy breakfast, or even sleep during your commute; about not having to share the roads with heavy goods vehicles, since they’ll mostly be cruising to their destinations in the small hours of the morning…

My favourite dream, though, is that of owning a self-driving motorhome. One evening, not too far off, I’ll use an iPhone app to summon it from its out-of-town parking space, and when it pulls up outside, Rose, Tilly and I will climb aboard with a good movie and a bottle of wine, and I’ll say, “Chamonix, please!”, before settling down for the evening. The following morning, I’ll take the dog for a walk in the Alps. Oh, and if a large vehicle will be a bit too cumbersome for exploring the winding roads of Haute-Savoie once we get there, I’ll just tell my car to follow us.

Now, when it comes to these ‘autonomous vehicles’, there are plenty of naysayers around. There are those who are concerned that cars will have to make ethical decisions in the face of potential accidents, and may not always make the right ones. Conspiracy theorists talk about young or high-net-worth individuals being spared while elderly or impoverished pedestrians are sacrificed. Others fear that a car swerving to miss a dog will hit a human, and so forth. It’s not, however, clear to me that human drivers, often with less information available in that split second, will necessarily do any better, especially if they are drunk, elderly, tired, distracted or short-sighted. Many of the objections are often really variations on Phillipa Foot’s classic Trolley Problem, which has been debated for many decades without any machines being involved.

It does seem clear, however, that road safety overall will be improved greatly by this technology, so unless things are sidetracked by expensive and complicated litigation in individual cases — a real danger — the lower insurance premiums associated with self-driving cars may eventually pay for their wide deployment. In fact, I expect that driving your own car will eventually be something only the rich can afford to do.

So I’m somewhat bemused when I see articles stating, for example, “The autonomous Google car may never actually happen“. Such headlines are, of course, mostly just link-bait, but it seems to me self-evident that autonomous vehicles will eventually not just ‘happen’, but will be the norm, and we’ll look back with astonishment at the time when two fallible humans were allowed to hurtle these deadly missiles in opposing directions within a few feet of each other.

Self-driving cars will come eventually. The question is simply how long it will take us to get there, and how many political and legal potholes they have to dodge en route. I, for one, can’t wait: I’ll be buying an autonomous vehicle just as soon as somebody makes one I can afford. Even if it isn’t a motorhome.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser