In the land of the red dragon

March 2nd, 2015

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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.

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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.

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

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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!

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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:

gemalto

Recovering the Dove Type

February 9th, 2015

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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…

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…