Category Archives: General

User interface design can save lives

Prof. Harold Thimbleby on how good design can dramatically improve safety.

Thanks to Simon for the link.

Western English

If you leave Cambridge and go south-west for about an hour and a half, you get to Heathrow airport. From there you can head westwards to a strange place where they speak a kind of English – quite a reasonable kind of English – but it’s a bit different, particularly in its spelling, from what most Englishmen would find familiar.

I’m referring, of course, to Oxford.

Now, I’m generally a big fan of the Oxford English Dictionary, but I was shocked – shocked, I tell you – to discover recently that they spell ‘organize’ with a ‘z’. And organization. And realize and realization. And so forth. I immediately assumed I was looking at a modern global edition which had sold out to the American market, but no, my elderly Shorter OED on the shelves at home has the same failing. It does offer the -ise variants as an option, but the primary spelling is with a ‘z’.

Now, I know that across the pond, those nice Americans have their own spellings, but surely no well-educated native Englishman in recent centuries would spell ‘organisation’ with a ‘z’. My father simply didn’t believe it until I showed him. Yet this is something on which the OED has apparently taken a line, to the extent that there’s a wikipedia page about Oxford Spelling for surprised people like me. The page admits:

Oxford spelling is not necessarily followed by the staff of the University of Oxford. In 2011, 2012 and 2013, the university website recommended the use of “ise” for its public-relations material.

The argument put forward in favour of Oxford spelling is that -ize corresponds more closely to the Greek -izo, which is the root of most -ize verbs. (Unlike, say the French/Latin origins or words like ‘surprise’.)

This may make academic sense, and indeed, many academic publishers have adopted it including, I’m embarrassed to say, Cambridge University Press. It seems to be favoured particularly for those publications with a more international audience. Even The Times used it for a while before reverting to the natural way of things.

So, lest anyone outside these shores be confused… yes, the OED is normally the gold standard for British English, and those Oxford chaps generally know what they’re talking about. I even agree with them about the comma. But this, surely, is a step too far in the direction of prescription over description.

The clever men at Oxford
Know all that there is to be knowed.
But they none of them know one half as much
As intelligent Mr. Toad!

Heat from the clouds

A few years back I wrote about how I thought home computing power and heating systems should be combined, to make good use of excess heat from CPUs in the winter, or to provide efficient cooling for them from building-scale aircon systems in the summer.

nerdalizeMy friend Ray sent me a link to this article about Nerdalize – a Dutch company who provide something that looks like a radiator, to heat your home, and is actually a server on which they sell computing capacity to others.

I’m not sure whether they can make this work at scale, but it’s an intriguing idea, especially in a country like the Netherlands where fibre-to-the-home is more readily available than here. It saves you building expensive data centres, but also makes for great reliability, I imagine, at least in the aggregate, since your overall network is not dependent on small numbers of power supplies, network connections or geographic locations.

Being responsive

I’m in the process of turning my previous, rather elderly, theme for this website into one that looks somewhat similar, but is now what is known in the jargon as ‘responsive’.

This means the layout will try to adjust in all sorts of terribly cunning ways to the size of your screen or window. In particular, it should make it a bit easier to peruse Status-Q on a mobile device. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.

Please bear with me if there are still some rough edges, though…

A quiet sea voyage

Pretty amazing footage of the French frigate Latouche-Treville tackling some high seas.

It’s easy to watch it, be impressed, and forget what the film crew must also have been going through! The footage was apparently shot for the film “Oceans”, released in 2009.

Following a Parisian trail

Yesterday my parents gave me something they had found in a local shop: a copy of Fodor’s guide to France, dating from 1958. It has some nice turns of phrase, ranging from this comment in the section on dining out:

Wine-labeling was established by law at the end of the 19th century and is one of the few laws that Frenchmen take very much to heart.

to this piece from the chapter on shopping:


Then I came across a throwaway line in a paragraph about post offices:

There is a special fast letter service within Paris by pneumatic tube, delivery guaranteed within three hours of mailing. Ask for a ‘pneu’ form, costing 100 francs, or use one sheet of ordinary airmail stationery and an airmail envelope.

This intrigued me. As a child I had seen pneumatic tube systems in banks and building societies, and even in the occasional large shop; they allowed excess cash to be moved safely from the tills to the back office, in the days before credit cards and the invention of the ‘cashback’ concept enabled your customers to take the excess cash away for you.

But I hadn’t realised that pneumatic systems operated on such a scale in quite a few cities. The Paris network was the largest, incorporating, at its peak, over 400km of tubes. It featured in Truffaut’s 1969 film Baisers Volés (Stolen Kisses):

It operated for more than a century until it finally closed down in 1984, as reported here by the New York Times. To give some historical context, that was also the year in which Apple introduced the Macintosh.

Prague’s pneumatic post system wasn’t as large as the one in Paris, but continued operating (just) into the 21st century. And didn’t it have some beautiful control panels?


Molly Wright Steenson’s 5-minute Ignite talk is a good way to find out more.

Even though pneumatic tubes are now little used for the delivery of messages, they still exist in many locations for garbage collection – most famously on Roosevelt Island – and some companies, like Envac in Sweden are promoting them as the rubbish-collection model of the future. Our system in the UK does seem a bit primitive in comparison…

But, gosh! How did I arrive here from the haute-couture catwalks of Paris in the 50s?

I guess I just got sucked into it.

Beware of archiving on SSDs

Solid-state disks are wonderful things: quick, power-efficient, and mechanically robust.

But it’s worth noting that you shouldn’t use them for archiving data on a shelf, unless you keep them provided with power.

This KoreLogic blog post discusses the problem in terms of preserving legal evidence, and notes:

For client application SSDs, the powered-off retention period standard is one year while enterprise application SSDs have a powered-off retention period of three months. These retention periods can vary greatly depending on the temperature of the storage area that houses SSDs.

Now, I haven’t had a very good track record from my spinning drives in general, and I assume that any data on them is probably ephemeral unless they are in a RAID array. All of my computers use SSDs internally now.

But for offline archiving purposes, old-fashioned hard drives are definitely better.

Thanks to Charles Arthur for the link.

The interesting result of the election

Figures are not finalised yet, of course, but these numbers strike me as revealing:

UKIP – 3.5M votes : 1 seat
Lib Dems – 1.5M votes : 10 seats
SNP – 1.2M votes : 57 seats

I’m not a political animal and have little interest in the overall results. And I’m no fan of UKIP.

But I am interested in algorithms, and it does seem clear that ours is rather broken.

The previous holocaust

Tomorrow is the centenary of the start of the second biggest genocide in history.

Here’s what I wrote about it ten years ago:

Who remembers the Armenians?

My wife’s family, on one side, are Armenian. Her grandparents managed to escape the ruthless Turkish ethnic cleansing of 1915 by getting a boat to America, but most of the rest of their families were wiped out.

This is one of history’s biggest and yet least-known atrocities, so it’s refereshing to read Ben Macintyre’s article What’s the Turkish for Genocide?, which suggests that Turkey really ought at least to acknowledge its past before being allowed into the EU.

The question “Who remembers … the Armenians?”, by the way, was used by Hitler to reassure his generals that another holocaust they were embarking on would not be a long-term problem. It would be sad if any future dictators were still able to use the same reasoning.

Send some warmth to Norway!

The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund have been making some brilliant videos to challenge the stereotypes that can creep into otherwise well-intentioned aid programmes.

Excellent stuff. The ‘Who Wants To Be A Volunteer’ one on their website is really nicely done, too!

Raises all sorts of interesting questions.

Many thanks to Simon for the link.

The watchword

Like many other people, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Apple Watch. It hasn’t really arrived yet, you understand, but you can at least now see it, play with it, and plonk down large amounts of money for it, in anticipation of delivery in a month or two’s time. I spent quite a lot of time experimenting with it at the Apple store yesterday.

I must admit to being something of a watch techno-enthusiast. Back in about 1976, my brother and I were the first kids in my school to have a digital watch, and they, too, were made by a computer company, Commodore.


The company went on to create computers like the Commodore PET and the 64, but, unlike Apple, it made a watch before it did computers. Still, amusingly, it probably looked more like an Apple watch than any timepiece I’ve owned since, because the display used too much power to keep it constantly illuminated; the LEDs only lit up when you pressed the button. I still remember the excitement of staying awake outrageously beyond my bedtime, just so I could see the display change from 23:59 to 0:00. We bought our first digital watches on a discount offer. I think they were £13 each.

Roll forward about a third of a century, and I was an early backer of the Pebble project on Kickstarter.


I’ve worn it every day since it arrived, and I even created my own watchface for it. It’s been fun, but it’s taken the developers a couple of years to get to the point where notifications are reasonably reliable and the API is easy to use. Many people who bought Pebbles sold them soon afterwards on eBay.

However, the team deserve a lot of credit, I think, for kickstarting (somewhat literally) the whole smartwatch revolution: few people thought watches were really in demand any more until they proved, rather dramatically, to the contrary, by being the biggest Kickstarter project ever. The upcoming Pebble Time looks nice, too, and it’s worth pointing out that you’ll be able to buy it for about the same price as some of the standard straps for the Apple watches. I think it could be a good option if you want to explore this whole smartwatch thing, especially if you don’t own a recent iPhone (on which the Apple Watch depends).

The Pebble, despite its quirks, has taught me some interesting things.

One is that the wrist is a very convenient place for a user interface. Avoiding the need to take my phone out of my pocket is a great benefit; I can dismiss incoming calls in a couple of seconds, for example, if they occur in the middle of a meeting – much less disruptive. About a year ago, I did it without thinking in the middle of giving a talk, and almost got a round of applause from the audience!

Another is that I use my Pebble many times a day, but very few of those are actually about telling the time. Watches were important for that purpose in the past, when you had to keep checking them to know whether you were getting close to your next appointment. But I’ve long since relied on my devices to notify me in advance of any upcoming events, and I spend much of my time sitting in front of a screen with a clock in the top right corner, or driving a car with a clock on the dashboard. Actually looking at a watch to discover the time is probably something I do about once every other day. So, yes, I’m about to buy my most expensive timepiece ever, when I’ve discovered that I don’t really need a watch for telling the time any more.

Actually, to my surprise, my number one use of the Pebble has been to stop and start audio. I’ve described in a previous post how I listen to large numbers of audiobooks and podcasts, and I seldom do this through headphones. Being able to pause a book from the other side of the kitchen just before I start the noisy coffee grinder is exceedingly handy. Being able to do so with a couple of button presses when I’m out walking the dog in mid-winter and wearing gloves is even more so. While driving, I’ll often stop and start music this way, because reaching my wrist is more convenient than reaching the controls on my dashboard, and so on. This bit of my Pebble’s operation has always been very reliable, perhaps because it’s operating simply as if it were the pause button on a traditional Bluetooth headset. As with every device, in my experience, it’s when you start doing complex Bluetooth LE stuff dependent on background apps that reliability becomes an issue.

Now, I don’t expect audio control to be quite so easy with the Apple Watch, since there is no single, eyes-free sequence of physical button presses that will do it. Using the screen won’t be so easy with gloves on, either. On the other hand, you can just lift up your watch and say ‘Hey, Siri – pause!’ But the key point is not that audio control is the reason to buy a smart watch – it’s that you won’t know what you’ll use it for until you get one. I know now that having controls and a screen on my wrist is a valuable thing, and that’s why I’m buying an Apple Watch, and would do so even if it didn’t offer telling the time as one of its functions!

So, yesterday morning, as soon as the pre-ordering opened, I went online and started planning my order. Delivery times were still quoted as the end of April. Then I paused, cancelled it, went upstairs to get my debit card, came back down and started again, by which time the first batch were sold out and delivery had slipped to May. Sigh. Ah, well, my birthday is in May. I ordered two different watches, actually, on the basis that, once I’d actually seen them in the store, I’d cancel the one I didn’t want. A couple of hours later, almost every model was listed as shipping in June, so I’ll still have some early-adopter street cred. (A friend suggested recently that ‘early adopter’ was something of a perjorative term now, and I should call myself a ‘trailblazer’ instead.)

I quickly jumped over to my local Apple Store’s site and booked a try-on appointment, then headed into town. There was actually much less chaos in the store then I’d expected, perhaps because it was a Friday morning and most of the honest hard-working people of Cambridge had real jobs to go to. So I got to spend nearly an hour trying on different straps and watches, and playing with the software.


If you want general details, there are more reviews online than you could possibly read, but here are some of my early impressions:

  • First, the watch is beautifully made. This is no surprise from Apple, and you’d expect it for the price, but I was still struck by it. It feels slimmer on the wrist than the somewhat bulky impression given by the photos. The display is amazing – clear, high-contrast, easily readable: it makes the Pebble look very limited in that respect, though I haven’t tried it in bright sunlight. Reading even a normal text message on the old Pebble is a bit trying, but scrolling through longish emails on the Apple was just fine. And I’m now at the stage where I normally need to put on reading glasses for things at that kind of distance, so the fact I found it worked well without them even when displaying things like maps is a real testament to its clarity. And hey, displaying maps on your watch, with a little dot showing where you are! How James Bond is that?

  • The ‘digital crown’ works surprisingly well for scrolling. I was skeptical after seeing the videos, but it is very nice, at least for right-handers.

  • It really is difficult to decide which watch and strap combination you want simply by looking at pictures on line. Apple describe this as ‘our most personal device ever’, and that was reflected in the different selections being made by the cheery group of other enthusiasts who were gathered, like me, around the table. I was surprised to discover, for example, how much I liked the brown leather loop, which went well with my skin colour. (It was also interesting to see the majority of those other trailblazers, like me, removing a Pebble from their wrist before trying on the Apple.)


  • The straps are also works of art. Or, at least, works of exceedingly good design combined with excellent manufacture. Some of the prices are outrageous, though: take a look at the link bracelet above, for example. It looks a lot like the straps I’ve had on a couple of previous watches, and it costs £379. Yes, you read that correctly, and no, that doesn’t include the watch. I thought it was a typo when I first saw it on the Apple site. Only when you try it on, do you realise why that price is not quite as outrageous as it first appears. It’s unbelievably slim – much thinner than the photos suggest. The machining is superb. Each link in the bracelet has a clever little catch so you can remove or add them without the need for tools. And the clasp mechanism works beautifully. It apparently takes nine weeks to make. It’s still outrageous, though. I didn’t get one of those.

  • If I were starting now, I think I would buy the black aluminium ‘Sport’ one – it looks better than the silver equivalent, but only if you wear it with a black strap. This limits the options, but combining it with a black leather loop strap would be a fine combination. I didn’t go for that, in the end, because it wasn’t one of my early orders and if I switched I would have to wait another month, but for geeky guys who are less impatient than me, it might be a good choice. The silver aluminium, I thought, looked best with the blue leather loop. A third-party site,, will let you explore the combinations to your heart’s content, and the Click project on Kickstarter should let you use more affordable, non-Apple straps.


  • The icons on the home screen are a bit tricky to hit unless you have more delicate fingers than mine. Not as bad as I was expecting, but I still don’t think it would work very well while I was cycling. You can zoom in using the crown, but I imagine most common apps will be accessed more through swipe-upward gestures than though this screen.

  • The user interface is not really intuitive, I found. But that’s not too surprising, because we’ve no experience of a device with so much functionality in such a small space and with so few physical controls. It’s hard to know where intuition would actually come from. The temptation is to think of it like an iPhone with a home button or a browser with a back button, and it’s not quite either of these. I think it needed a new model of interaction, though, and it will be easy to learn once you’ve played with it for a while.

  • A pleasant surprise, for me, was just how well Siri worked, using the watch as a microphone. This was in a busy and noisy Apple store, yet it was almost flawless. (Note, too, that I didn’t get the opportunity to pair the watch with my phone: the watch has wifi, and Siri is one of the features that works even without the phone being present.) I’m particularly keen on this because I’ve often wanted to use Siri while driving, yet it’s almost impossible through my car’s bluetooth kit. I’m hoping the watch will be a much better way to do this.

All in all, I came away very impressed, and pleased at having got my order in early. The price will be a real issue for many people, and even for enthusiasts like me who might be willing to spend more on a watch that will last for some time – my old Citizen served me very nicely for 13 years before I got the Pebble – this one comes with a big question mark over it: how long will it be before I want to upgrade it?

In the end, though, I paid the money, because I think this will probably last me longer than a phone, should have a good resale value if I want to sell it, and I’m hoping at least that things like straps will be interchangeable with future versions. (If comparing it with the cost of a phone, of course, you need to work out the true cost of the phone once all the months of contract are included, which typically adds a few hundred quid to the label price – there’s no such subsidy for a watch. And your phone doesn’t measure your heartbeat!) But mostly, I bought it because I’ve discovered how much I value having a user interface to my technology on my wrist, and this is, without a doubt, the best available.

If, however, you just want to tell the time, then I recommend Citizen…

Update: John Naughton pointed me at this splendid Alex cartoon.

A little bit over-qualified for the job?

We’re always amused by impressive-sounding descriptions which include sufficient qualifications to be almost meaningless. Rose just sent me this one:

“Lavenham is perhaps one of England’s finest preserved medieval weaving villages”

Almost every word, after the first two, is a restriction. Let’s read them backwards:

  • We’re looking at villages here, not cities, towns or hamlets.

  • They need to be primarily associated with weaving.

  • Medieval weaving, that is. Or perhaps medieval villages. In any case, other periods need not apply.

  • Their character has been preserved.

  • Rather well preserved, in fact.

  • Only English ones, mind you. None of your Belgian weavers, for the moment.

  • There may be more than one village meeting all of the above.

  • Lavenham may be one of them.

  • Perhaps.

Well, I think we can agree on that.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser