A time to Jump!… and a time to refrain from jumping

January 25th, 2015

Here’s something to amuse and educate you over the washing-up: a fine episode of the Freakonomics Radio podcast, which manages to link Ecclesiastes, mediaeval trials, Van Halen, and the identification of terrorists.

What do King Solomon and David Lee Roth have in common?

Quite a lot of unanswered questions about the data here – I’d like to know more – but it’s definitely fun food for thought!

Thanks to Elaine, one of Rose’s former students, for the link.

UPDATE: A little historical knowledge is a dangerous thing. Rose points out that most such crimes in the English mediaeval court, at least, were capital ones, so there was little incentive to admit your guilt rather than take the ordeal, if given the choice! Other European courts, though, may have been different…

Guess I was just the last to know

January 24th, 2015

I learned today about an interesting local girl…

The Nobel-winning German physicist, Max Born, had a daughter named Irene. His wife was part-Jewish, so they left Germany before the war to escape the Nazis.

Irene married a Welshman who worked (as an MI5 officer) on the Enigma project at Bletchley Park. An interesting blend of family backgrounds.

They in turn had a daughter, who was born here in Cambridge. Her name?

Olivia Newton-John

Laudable Audible

December 30th, 2014

There are few services, I think, that give me quite so much enjoyment per shilling as Audible. For anyone not familiar with it, Audible is the biggest retailer of audiobooks. These are normally rather expensive things retailing for around £20-30 each, but if you like them enough you can take out a subscription which gets you a book each month for £7.99.

Since I spend about an hour a day walking the dog, or driving to and from dog-walking spots, I manage to ‘read’ a lot of books this way simply by tucking my phone into my shirt pocket – I don’t even bother with earphones. And then there’s shaving, and ironing, and train journeys and flights and… well, you get the idea. I read quite a bit more this way than I do when lying in bed, and remember it better, because I’m not half-asleep at the time! Also, since Rose and I have fairly similar tastes in reading, we both get to benefit from the subscription. Unabridged audiobooks are typically 10-20 hours long, but I have also listened to Scott Brick’s recording of Atlas Shrugged which runs to 63 hours and still only counts as a single credit. Now, that’s pretty good value for £7.99, I think!

How often have you thought, “I’d like to read that, if only I had the time”? Well, perhaps this is a good way to enhance your commuting time in the coming year?

Anyway, here are a few of my favourite books from 2014, in case you need some ideas:

  • The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir, read by R.C. Bray. Somebody described this as “Robinson Crusoe on Mars”, which tells you the basic plot, but it’s very nicely done, and has an interesting history: the author serialised it on his web site, then self-published it on the Kindle, and in about a year it’ll be a Ridley Scott film starring Matt Damon. I thoroughly enjoyed and was gripped by this – it’s a great plot – but it does come with one warning: don’t give it to anyone who’s likely to object to strong language!
  • writing_on_the_wallWriting on the Wall by the ever-wonderful Tom Standage of The Economist, read by Simon Vance. Subtitled, “Social Media: The First 2,000 Years”, it examines many of the communication methods we consider novel today and finds their predecessors in the world of ancient Rome, the pamphlets of Martin Luther, the early days of radio. Very readable and educational stuff.
  • deceptive_mind Your Deceptive Mind by Steven Novella is rather different. Novella is a clinical neurologist at Yale, and this is a set of 24 lectures on critical thinking published by The Great Courses. How can we know what is true? What are the different ways our brain deceives us? What are the strengths and limitations of the scientific method? Critical Thinking wasn’t a subject we had at school in my day; it should be compulsory now.
  • master_and_commanderMaster and Commander by Patrick O’Brian. O’Brian is, I think, the finest historical writer in recent decades, and, more importantly, this view is shared by Rose, who knows a great deal more than me about both writing and about the eighteenth century. We’ve read most of them in paper form. His books are loved around the world, so it’s not surprising that there are many different recordings, both abridged and unabridged, and, while I was tempted by those from Robert Hardy, or Tim Piggott-Smith, in the end I settled on these, which are beautifully read by Ric Jerrom. This was partly because he has recorded the entire, unabridged series, and to give you an idea of how much I’ve enjoyed them, I’m currently just starting book five, Desolation Island

Anyway, I hope these are recommendations are useful to somebody. It’s worth noting, by the way, that these are on the UK store: if you’re in another part of the world you may have a different selection available (and need to use different links).

Happy listening for 2015!

Something to keep YOUR problems in perspective

December 11th, 2014

My friend Billy’s wife, Kate Gross, has been writing some pretty amazing stuff recently.

Here’s something to think about as you prepare for Christmas.

Monsieur le Chef

December 5th, 2014

Today, in an astonishing feat of daring exploration, I doubled my culinary repertoire.

I cooked some pasta!

(Up to this point in my life, I had only ever tried baked potatoes.)

It turns out not to be too hard, as long as someone else has made the sauce.

I also used a colander for the first time. That was easy too.

Finding the cupboard in which Rose keeps such things, on the other hand…

Oh darn!

November 23rd, 2014

I’ve just spent a happy hour or so sitting by the fire, darning the elbow of an old sweater. Yes, darning. I can positively hear some of your eyebrows rising into a skeptical arch. It’s not really the normal pastime of an aspiring high-tech entrepreneur, is it?

But I’ve always found it strangely satisfying. It’s exceedingly easy to learn, but it’s a kind of miniaturised DIY structural engineering. Then there’s the challenge of weaving together the limited range of wools I normally have available in such a way that they approximate the original colour and texture of the surrounding weave: a process which has something of a Photoshop feel to it. And finally, there’s the moral satisfaction of not allowing a much-loved and perfectly functional garment to be lost simply because of a small hole. It’s also, I find, completely absorbing, which is sometimes a welcome distraction.

I’m certainly far from an expert, and I’m not sure my left elbow would bear any very close inspection, but since I don’t anticipate meeting any close-elbow-inspectors in the next few months, I think I should get away with it. There are now probably dozens of YouTube videos which will teach you to darn – why not give it a try? You know you want to…

Scan the world, every day

November 23rd, 2014

Planet Labs has a plan, a plan which is exceedingly powerful, partly because it is so brilliantly simple. And it seems to be working.

If it doesn’t look like your normal food, that’s because it’s bait.

November 2nd, 2014

One of the tragedies of the accelerated ‘internet time’ is the speed at which advertisers can discover our weaknesses. It took several centuries for tabloid newspapers to evolve their attention-grabbing headlines with minimal content and maximum emotion. FURY AT VICAR’S CELEB SEX ROMPS. (‘Fury’ is a word which seems only to be used now on the front pages of tabloids and local papers.)

Of course, gentle reader, you and I would never buy a paper with that headline. Despite the temptation, we know in the end it will be unsatisfying. It’s journalistic pornography, appealing to our baser instincts. Resisting the lure is part of our education, our self-control. We laugh as we pass by, at the poor, less-intelligent souls who succomb to this ultimately unrewarding titillation.

But, in just a couple of decades, the web has allowed this process to be refined to an extreme degree. Techniques such as A/B testing enable publishers to play with content, delivering version A to one group of 10,000 viewers and version B to another 10,000 to see which delivers the most traffic/sales/ad-clicks. This can be repeated, like an iterative fractional distillation, allowing the drug to be purified as never before.

The web’s equivalent of the tabloid headline is the link text – the thing that stops you walking past and persuades you to look inside. The process can be applied there too, and we see the results everywhere: links which convey even less information and appeal purely on the gut level. “Three old grannies got up on stage and you’ll never believe what they did next!” “10 things no mother should ever do!” “This one weird tip will transform your sex life!” “The most shocking video you’ll ever see!” They are designed, of course, not to convey information, because if you had any at that point, you could decide whether or not to click. Instead, they just tell you that you really must click, because otherwise you’ll be missing out, and we’ll tell you why once you’ve done so. Because, of course, we get paid by our advertisers if you visit our site, but not if you just read the link.

Now, the tragedy is that, unlike with tabloid newspapers, the content sometimes is worth seeing. The video is amusing, or cute, or whatever, and often was carefully created to be so, because they want you to share a link on Facebook, where, of course, it will be automatically augmented with their carefully-baited title.

A group called Quick Sprout recently published a guide on How to write the perfect headline. I’m not linking to their site directly because the pop-up ads are much too annoying, but you can find it via the site above. Their tips summarise the industry’s discoveries:

  • “A writer should spend half of the entire time it takes to write a piece of persuasive content on the headline…. 8 out of 10 people will read the headline, 2 out of 10 will read the rest.”
  • “The perfect length for a headline is six words.”
  • “Use negative wording: negatives tap into our insecurities.”
  • “Try using this formula: Number or trigger word + adjective + keyword + promise.”

They have some nice examples of this last rule:

  • Before formula: “How to bathe an elephant”
  • After formula: “18 Unbelievable Ways You Can Bathe An Elephant Indoors”

But I’ve noticed a strange thing recently. I’m starting to feel ashamed when I click on links like this, as if I couldn’t resist buying the tabloid; I couldn’t help eating the junk food. I’m actively resisting sites that are linked to in this way, and I have a lower opinion of sites that display the links. Am I alone?

Take the Independent, for example, a once-reasonably-respected UK paper. The bottom of every page now looks like this:

independent_ads

This is a tame set of examples which just happened to be on the first page I looked at, but really! “20 Hot Celebs You Didn’t Know Are Jewish”? We care whether they’re Jewish? They can’t be Jewish because they’re ‘hot’? Come on, Indie…! What are we meant to think of your standards?

So I hope we’ll start to see a backlash against this blatant manipulation. Let’s start educating people that, if someone pops out at you in the street and says, “Come down this alley with me, you’ll never believe what’s at the end of it!’, they may not just be doing it for your benefit.

As the old adage goes, if you can’t tell what they’re selling, it’s because you’re the product. So ask yourself this, the next time you see an irrestible link: Do you feel compelled to click, or are you making the decision?

Because there’s one sure-fire way to know if you’re the product. It’s when you’re the thing being delivered.

A history lesson

November 1st, 2014

Tim Berners-Lee and Vint Cerf

This has been circulating on Twitter, courtesy of Jeremy Geelan – taken at W3C20.
(For those not in the know, Tim Berners-Lee is on the left, Vint Cerf on the right, and the joke is on those who don’t know the difference between the web and the ‘net.) Lovely.

If only gay sex caused global warming…

October 26th, 2014

I’ve often quoted the statistic that, on 11 Sept 2001, about 3,000 people died in terrorist attacks, and, on the same day, about ten times that many died of starvation. Our brains find it hard to respond appropriately to such data.

There’s a very nice LA Times article by Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychology professor, talking about the same issue with respect to climate change. It was published… ahem… 8 years ago, but was just brought to my attention by Ian Yorston.

Extract:

That’s why we worry more about anthrax (with an annual death toll of roughly zero) than influenza (with an annual death toll of a quarter-million to a half-million people). Influenza is a natural accident, anthrax is an intentional action, and the smallest action captures our attention in a way that the largest accident doesn’t. If two airplanes had been hit by lightning and crashed into a New York skyscraper, few of us would be able to name the date on which it happened.

Global warming isn’t trying to kill us, and that’s a shame. If climate change had been visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire, the war on warming would be this nation’s top priority.

An enjoyable read.

Why Privacy Matters

October 11th, 2014

By nature, I’m somebody who probably errs on the side of openness rather than paranoia when it comes to privacy. I’m also very aware of how fortunate I am, though, to live in a country and under a government and legal system where I can afford to take this view.

Glenn Greenwald’s excellent TED talk gives some other reasons for caring about privacy.

Direct link

There is, though, I think, a balance to be struck here; it’s also worth mentioning that complete privacy and anonymity doesn’t always bring out the best in human nature. There’s a reason why people wear hoodies, and there’s a reason why newsgroups that allow anonymous posting are often filled with trolls (at best), and vicious bullies (at worst). It is important that many of our activities are subject to some peer review, at least, if not legal or governmental review. Also, investigative journalists, of course, tend to assume that they and their commercial backers are somehow entitled to monitor people’s private activities, where other commercial interests or democratically-elected governments are not. Overall, though, I think he’s on the right track.

He also hints at something I hadn’t previously considered: that my religious upbringing might make me more accepting of constant invisible surveillance than I might otherwise be! Now, getting some real statistics on that would be an interesting sociological study…

Crystal showers from Matki

October 10th, 2014

Update: I’ve had a phone call from one of the directors of Matki – see the end of the post.

In the small hours of yesterday morning, one of the curved panels of our expensive and otherwise perfectly-adequate Matki shower enclosure exploded.

20141009-06430607-600

Most of the glass ended up on the floor; in fact, I first knew something was amiss when I couldn’t open the bathroom door because of the glass fragments jammed underneath it. My first thought was ‘Who broke a windscreen in my bathroom?’

20141009-06433909-600

But I use the word ‘exploded’ advisedly, because it clearly didn’t just collapse. Some of the glass was flung further afield.

20141009-07033215-600

There were even some pieces in the toilet pan, which has no direct line-of-sight from the original panel, so I guess they must have been thrown against the opposite wall with sufficient force to have bounced off and back across the (admittedly small) room into the loo.

All of which makes me wonder what this would have been like had anyone been in the room, or in the shower, at the time.

The shower was installed just under a year ago by a careful and seasoned professional, according to the included instructions, and has had nothing but normal use since then. So I called Matki, assuming that it would be replaced immediately under guarantee with profound apologies and that they’d send someone round to sort it out promptly. After all, they might have had a rather nasty law suit on their hands if someone had been blinded by flying glass.

However, I forgot two things – firstly that we’re in Britain, where such gestures are not common, but secondly, I suppose, that any such action might be taken as an admission of culpability. Is the law enough of an ass that a gesture to make an otherwise disappointed customer into a happy customer is likely to backfire? Anyway, this customer stayed disappointed, though they did give me a modest discount on the replacement panel.

I get to spend a couple of hours in my pyjamas clearing up glass. I get to pay my plumber to fit the new unit. I get to pay Matki 140 quid for the new panel. I get a shower I can’t use for two weeks. Ah, well. Matki, in exchange, get this blog post. :-)

Update, Mon 13th Oct

I thought it only fair to inform Matki of this post, and give them the chance to respond. This morning I received a call from one of the directors, Des Rocks, who struck me as a very fine and very rational fellow. He was most apologetic, and we had a good discussion about both glass manufacture and social media!

I mentioned to him that the customer service person I had spoken to seemed polite, efficient and businesslike, but that his hands had clearly been tied by the company’s policy. I was informed that they were changing some of their policies now to allow a little more flexibility. They’re also sending someone to fit a replacement panel, and will not be charging me for it.

All of which means that I’m now once again a happy Matki customer, and remain impressed with the company and its products. It’s sad that I had to resort to a blog post to get to this point, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that these events are very rare, and that getting them fixed is less likely to be a problem for customers in the future. All’s well that ends well.