How the Archers sounds, for people who don’t listen to the Archers.

March 25th, 2015

BBC Radio 4, poking a bit of fun at itself. Very nicely done.

How The Archers sounds to people who do not listen to The Archers

(This will probably be completely meaningless to anyone who hasn’t spent significant amounts of time in the UK in the last 60 years. Of course, The Archers does include some important news stories occasionally…)

Many thanks to Tom Standage for the link.


March 21st, 2015

I find these pictures, by Pawel Nolbert, intriguing – a blend of very analogue-like textures doing very digital-like things. Click the images for more examples of his work.


Pedantry of the day

March 21st, 2015

Claire Underwood, the wife of the president in the splendid new House of Cards, expresses distress that a prisoner she was trying to help had hung himself in his cell.

Except, of course, he didn’t. He hanged himself.

Meat is hung. Pictures are hung. People, however, are hanged, at least when it’s in the sense of ‘put to death by hanging’.

There. It’s good to get that off my chest. Thank you for listening.

The writing’s on the wall for writing

March 20th, 2015

Two things I can’t remember:

  • Just how many weeks and months I spent, as a child, learning handwriting.

  • When (beyond inscribing a simple signature and a date) I last needed that skill.


Gun stats

March 5th, 2015

Gun-related homicides in the U.S. run at approximately 10,000 per year.

It’s a big country, but that was higher than I expected. For comparison, it’s about 40 times the per-capita rate in the UK.

What surprised me more was that annual gun-related suicides are nearly twice that. Which seems like a really big number.

Interestingly, per-capita suicides in the US are only about 10% higher than here. But half of them involve guns.

Apologies for the grim reading, but I thought the numbers were interesting.

In the land of the red dragon

March 2nd, 2015


Just back from a weekend in Snowdonia with my brother, niece and nephew, which was wonderful, despite the Welsh weather trying to throw its worst at us. It really is a very pretty place.


We had gone there planning to climb Snowdon, but we didn’t quite make it to the summit. Though almost no snow was visible from our starting point, as we approached the cloud base we met people with crampons turning back because they didn’t have ice axes, and since we had nothing very pointy or spiky at all, we decided to save the peak for another day. But this was better than we had expected, since the forecast had predicted heavy rain most of the weekend. It was a wonderful walk.


On Sunday we took a more lowland route, through the old Dinorwig slate quarry.


Despite some really dramatically inclement weather at various times over the weekend – rain, sleet, hail, and wind so strong it was almost impossible to walk into it – we somehow managed to be inside for almost all of the bad bits and outside during the intermissions!


I don’t know Wales nearly as well as I would like, and I left with a strong desire to go back again soon. Perhaps in the summer.

Not as secure as it SIMs

February 21st, 2015

simIf you knew, or cared, anything about the way your mobile phone communicates with the mobile network, you may have believed that your calls were secure and private, at least as far as the core of your provider’s network. They should be, too, if you’re on a 3G or 4G network: the SIM in your phone includes encryption keys known only to it and the mobile provider, and these are used to encode the voice and text traffic so that anyone snooping on the radio signal, or on the backhaul network between the base station and the provider’s headquarters, would not be able to make head or tail of the stream of bytes flowing by. To do so on any scale would need vast amounts of computing power.

However, if this article in The Intercept, The Great SIM Heist, is correct, the NSA and GCHQ have a much better approach. To quote the article:

Adi Shamir famously asserted: “Cryptography is typically bypassed, not penetrated.” In other words, it is much easier (and sneakier) to open a locked door when you have the key than it is to break down the door using brute force.

So that’s what they allegedly did, according to the latest revelations from Ed Snowden: they hacked into the networks of the SIM card manufacturers, most notably Gemalto, the largest in this field and a supplier to 450 mobile providers around the world, and just stole copies of the keys before they were shipped to the mobile providers. They focused on the activities of employees who used email encryption and those exploring more secure methods of file transfer, since they were more likely to have valuable information to hide.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about these thoroughly illegal activities is that the companies and individuals targeted were not in any way assumed to be engaged in illicit activities. They were innocents going about their daily business, but they just had information that was of potential use to the authorities.

Snowden’s information is from 2009/10, so it is to be presumed that this has been going on for some time. Meanwhile, this is what it did to poor old Gemalto’s stock price when the news came out a couple of days ago:


Recovering the Dove Type

February 9th, 2015


Here’s a very pleasing article by Rachael Steven about Robert Green’s quest to recreate a lost classic.

Design spec

February 5th, 2015

A fundamental design requirement of bath taps, it seems to me (though I’ve never seen it formally specified anywhere) is that they should be controllable with the toes.

Bishop’s Rock

February 3rd, 2015

At a dinner last week, I was sitting opposite a bishop – a most genial fellow, who was telling us about the accommodation that one could expect at Sandringham, and the rather lower level of comfort available at most ecclesiastical gatherings.

He talked particularly about the challenges they had finding good lodgings for all the single bishops. In fact, the phrase, "all the single bishops" came up so often that I was transported into a momentary daydream, where a room full of bishops danced to a Beyoncé beat. "All the single bishops, all the single bishops". The purple robes glowed bright as they twisted and spun, and as the beat reached its peak, they all reached out their right hands to the archbishop at the centre of the circle. "If you like it then you should have put a ring on it…"

Lids down!

February 2nd, 2015

Soon after wifi became popular and widespread, I realised that I got a great deal more out of conferences and talks when I wasn’t using it! Quite apart from the respect due to the speaker, who has probably put a lot of effort into the speech they must now deliver to your laptop lid, there’s not much point in going into talks if you’re not going even to try to listen! If this doesn’t seem like a convincing argument, you probably don’t pay for such trips out of your own pocket!

I believe there should be a general policy that social areas outside conference rooms might have connectivity, but it should be unavailable in the meeting room itself. Or switched off for the duration of the talks. We like to believe that we can multitask effectively, but all the research shows that we really can’t.

My tip for the week, by the way — note how I’m distracting you in mid-flow — is to quit your email program completely when you’re not using it. I try to check my email morning, noon, and night, but that’s it, and I shut down my mail app in between, unless I really have nothing else I should be doing. If I finish an afternoon thinking, “I got quite a lot done today”, it’s almost always because I haven’t been distracted by my inbox. Email is not instant messaging: if someone needs a reply from you in less than 24 hours, they’re using the wrong medium.

Anyway, Clay Shirky has also been insisting on ‘no devices’ in his seminars at NYU, and he explains why in this excellent article. Extract:

This is all just the research on multi-tasking as a stable mental phenomenon. Laptops, tablets and phones — the devices on which the struggle between focus and distraction is played out daily — are making the problem progressively worse. Any designer of software as a service has an incentive to be as ingratiating as they can be, in order to compete with other such services. “Look what a good job I’m doing! Look how much value I’m delivering!”

This problem is especially acute with social media, because on top of the general incentive for any service to be verbose about its value, social information is immediately and emotionally engaging. Both the form and the content of a Facebook update are almost irresistibly distracting, especially compared with the hard slog of coursework. (“Your former lover tagged a photo you are in” vs. “The Crimean War was the first conflict significantly affected by use of the telegraph.” Spot the difference?)

Worse, the designers of operating systems have every incentive to be arms dealers to the social media firms. Beeps and pings and pop-ups and icons, contemporary interfaces provide an extraordinary array of attention-getting devices, emphasis on “getting.” Humans are incapable of ignoring surprising new information in our visual field, an effect that is strongest when the visual cue is slightly above and beside the area we’re focusing on. (Does that sound like the upper-right corner of a screen near you?)

Of course, in due course, our cranial implants will have their own 6G connections, and then all hope is lost. But we won’t need to go to lectures or conferences then, so perhaps it won’t matter. In the meantime…

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…