Category Archives: General

Convoy into the future

The first autonomous vehicles really to hit our roads in any numbers will probably not be Teslas, nor Google- or Apple-branded family cars, but big trucks. This makes perfect sense, when you think about it:

  • Truck drivers have to clock up huge mileages, often over many days, and have to take breaks repeatedly to make sure they stay alert.
  • Most of the driving is done on highways, where autonomous driving is the easiest, and at fairly constant speeds.
  • The cost of adding the necessary sensors and systems is a smaller proportion of the cost of the vehicle.
  • The impact on aesthetics, wind resistance etc of bolting camera and lidar sensors onto a truck is much smaller than on, say, a Jaguar.

And so it was that a convoy of self-driving trucks arrived in Rotterdam last month from all over Europe, and from six different manufacturers.

Trucks are also built in a more modular way than many other vehicles, so it’s easier to retrofit self-driving capabilities to existing vehicles. This is the current modus operandi of a new company called Otto, started by ex-Google employees, and with a pleasingly compact URL: http://ot.to . More information here.

I’m going to write again soon about other ways in which I think autonomous trucks may herald the likely transition into other autonomous vehicles. Watch this space.

Meanwhile, the truck drivers will soon be able to sit back and watch some old movies to remind them of the past…

Squeezies

I’m working out the details of my next invention, and I think it’s going to be a big one, with serious benefits for humanity. I thought I’d mention it here in case anyone wants to pitch in some venture funding for its development.

As it becomes commonplace, future generations will know the technology by a friendly, easily-pronounceable name that weaves itself into everyday language — maybe ”Squeezies” — and it’s only by looking it up on Wikipedia that you’ll discover the origins of the name in the original acronym SQSCZs – Sir Quentin’s Self-Closing Zips.

The idea is simple: Squeezies are just like normal zip fasteners except that a few minutes after you unzip them, they slowly and gently zip themselves back up again. This will be done using some terribly cunning micro-motors and very small batteries or, more probably, some clever nanomaterials; I’m still working on the details.

Squeezies will be fitted to travel clothing to thwart the pickpockets in the Paris metro and Naples railway stations. They will be fitted to gentlemen’s trousers to reduce embarrassing sartorial lapses. And they will be fitted to rucksack compartments to avoid, say, losing the keys to your Grasmere B&B yesterday halfway up the highest mountain in England and not realising until many hours later (just to pick a hypothetical example).

Don’t let Brexit distract you from the Beeb

I recently overheard a couple of BBC friends describing it, if I remember correctly, as ‘an organisation characterised by fear’. Many of us yearn for what the BBC was able to do in the past, and is no longer able to do now because of government and other interference.

Chris Patten, in a speech recorded in the Huffington Post describes his concern that other big issues this summer may distract us from the opportunity to fix some of the challenges when the Charter is next renewed.

Extract:

Of course, enriching our lives goes far beyond journalism. The BBC is at the cultural heart of this Nation. In fact, it is the cultural heart, and I welcome the measures taken by Tony Hall to forge closer partnerships with the nation’s other great cultural institutions. And cultural enrichment is not just about the Arts. It’s about Science, and Philosophy, and History too. It’s about Ideas and Enquiry: it’s about thinking the unthinkable. Here I fear the BBC has lost some of its ambition and needs to find it again. We need more programmes that are, frankly, slightly above our heads. Not inaccessible, but programmes that make us stretch to reach them. The BBC should remember the great auto-didactic tradition in British culture, not least in working class communities. BBC2 once offered that degree of challenge, but the tough stuff has largely gone to BBC4 and there, because of budget cuts, it’s sometimes made with glue and string. The long-term security that licence fee funding is supposed to bestow on the BBC should give it the confidence to challenge us all. But every time politicians grab an easy headline at the BBC’s expense; every time they question its scope, chip away at its funding and occasionally swipe great chunks of it; every time they seem to doubt its very future – they erode the BBC’s confidence to make bold decisions about content.

Worth reading in full if you care about what the BBC means today. Like the NHS, I fear it may not survive very much longer in anything like the form it had in its glory days. But I could be convinced otherwise — would be delighted to be so, in a world where everything else is funded by click-bait — and compared to the NHS, the BBC is very much easier to fix.

Reducing the fear would be a very good first step.

Enhanced capabilities

Yesterday, we bought some new kitchen knives, 25 years after last doing so. These new ones are terrifyingly sharp, and will no doubt result in the loss of a few digits over the coming weeks, but they did enable me to cut a blueberry into eighths before putting it on my cereal this morning.

I haven’t felt a desire to do this in the past, but it’s pleasing to know that I now can, should the need arise.

You know you’re getting old…

…when you’re no longer the youngest person at the garden centre. :-(

Improve your standard of living in 2016

I feel that our quality of life in general would be improved if we were to embrace more thoroughly:

(a) the Spaniards’ idea of the siesta.

(b) the Hobbits’ idea of Second Breakfast.

Working on it.

The sirens’ call

Bill Bailey is just brilliant. Here’s another favourite.

Transport and housing, Italian style

20160412-08511737-900

What I like about this image is that, though it could come from various parts of the world, it very clearly is not in a British suburb.

The joy of gender

Quite often, when I have a meeting scheduled with a Chinese person, I don’t know their gender in advance, because I can’t guess it from their name.

This just adds to the fun, but I had assumed this was simply because I was an ignorant westerner. It appears, though, that it is in general more of a challenge in Chinese than it is in some other languages, and fortunately there are technical solutions to help you out if you need to know, based on the statistical usage of certain Chinese characters in male and female names.

A nice way to play with this, for any language, is to construct a URL of the form:

http://api.namsor.com/onomastics/api/json/gender/<firstname>/<lastname>/

and you’ll get back a JSON string telling you, for example, that Jean Renoir is probably male, while Jean Smith is probably female. There’s a -1..+1 scale showing the confidence.

If you know the country, you can add the ISO code on the end, so it will tell you, for example, that Jean Smith is rather likely to be male if he/she comes from France:

http://api.namsor.com/onomastics/api/json/gender/Jean/Smith/fr

Quite fun.

Act your age

Is growing up really necessary? If so, I hope one of my friends will tell me before it is too late.

Yesterday, I caught myself putting on my reading glasses to tie up the string on my yoyo…

David MacKay

Very sad to learn that we have lost Prof Sir David MacKay today.

David was a good friend, but I only realised quite recently that we were almost exactly the same age, a fact which I found exceedingly humbling.

If I should be granted twice as many days, and achieve half as much, I would be very happy. And very surprised.

The world is poorer for his passing. But much richer for his having lived.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser