Meme-busting

In the early days of social media, I was at a family gathering where I fear I lost some street cred with my nephew. He was talking about ‘memes’ and he said something along the lines of “Quentin will know what those are”. Yes, I confirmed, just catching the end of the conversation. ‘Meme’ is a phrase coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 in The Selfish Gene. He was exploring whether cultural ideas might reproduce and spread themselves in a similar manner to the genes for certain successful biological traits. At the time, though, my nephew was probably thinking more about pictures of kittens or celebrities overlaid with bold-faced subtitles! Still, the idea of a ‘meme’ has certainly had a fair degree of meme-like success, though it has mutated over time, and many people might be ignorant of its origin!

On the subject of origins, one of the most attractive types of meme is the one that says “Well-known person X said clever thing Y”. This was very successful long before the internet, but has truly flourished since. We all love a good quotation, particularly if we can put it on a poster with a picture of Winston Churchill or Albert Einstein. I was thinking of this recently on a call when I mentioned the famous one, “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research”. This is widely attributed to Albert Einstein, but probably wasn’t actually his. I have a list of some of my favourite quotes on my website, and many of them now have qualifiers alongside the attributions.

Terence Eden has just written a nice blog post on a quotation from Desmond Tutu:

A very pleasing idea, but Eden suggests that Tutu may never even have used it; in any case he almost certainly didn’t originate it. That honour is likely to go to Reginald S Lourie, a man of some eminence, but whose face, though genial enough, is much less well known than the good archbishop’s. Would this quote be as popular if it had had to spread this way?

The idea that a meme needs to attach itself to a successful organism does relate back to Dawkins’ ideas, though the effect is perhaps more closely aligned to parasitology or epidemiology than pure natural selection. (Dawkins himself was, I seem to recall, hesitant to push the meme/gene analogy too far.)

We need to be reminded of this regularly, to help us appreciate both that something isn’t necessarily true just because somebody famous said it, and that ordinary people can occasionally say extraordinary things.

As a great man* once said, “I dream of a world where the success of a great idea does not depend on the fame or fortune of its creator.” If this is your dream too, please spread the word by retweeting the image below.

* Me, in my shower, this morning.

Anchors aweigh

It came to my attention, when renting a small boat last year, that I didn’t really know much about anchors: how best to use them, how long the rode (the cable) should be, and so forth. The little dinghy I sailed in my youth had a mud-weight, but a proper anchor? No, I’d never really had to use one of those myself, certainly not in any situation where it might matter. This gap in my knowledge was brought to mind again today as we listened to the audiobook of We Didn’t Mean to Go To Sea. Connoisseurs of quality children’s literature will understand the relevance.

Now, the wonders of modern life allow you to find out all sorts of things in all sorts of situations, and so it was that, relaxing in the bath after a hard day’s domestic labour, my thoughts naturally turned to things aquatic. I had my trusty iPad to hand, and so was able to watch a range of YouTube videos from people in exotic parts of the world explaining the different kinds of anchor, how long the rode should be for a given depth of water, why it’s important that the bit that attaches to the anchor should be a chain even if the rest of it is rope, and so on. Time passed, and I became simultaneously cleaner, more relaxed, and better-educated.

Finally, feeling that the bathwater was getting a bit cool, and it was time to move to a different berth, and I was now equipped to handle most anchoring situations I was likely to encounter before bed, I sat up, reached for the plug-chain, and gave it a tug. It seemed to stick for a moment and then came free, and I wound it in, only to discover a situation for which none of my training had prepared me…

The plug had remained in the murky depths. There was nothing on the end of the dangling chain.

It only takes one bit of data…

A few days ago, I created a new Facebook account. Not for myself, of course; I’m not stupid! (I deleted my own account many years ago and haven’t looked back.) No, it was because my company was writing some software that connected to Instagram, and doing that requires you to have a Facebook account in order to get ‘Developer’ access and for testing.

So, I set up a new email address and registered with a somewhat fake name, logged in and started browsing a generic here-are-some-feeds-you-might-be-interested-in type of experience. No personal details… all nice and anonymous.

The following day, I couldn’t log in. “Your account has been blocked.” Had I been rumbled? Ah, no, they just wanted to check I was really a real human by sending a text to my phone. I put in my phone number, got the text, filled in the code, and I was back in again. Jolly good. I logged out and went back to work.

A few days later…

The following Tuesday I logged in again, and there was a picture of my cousin, listed as someone I might want to connect with. Nice picture, I thought. And then, “Wait a minute! How do they know about her?”

I scrolled down, and sure enough, there were my friends, family, past work colleagues… dozens of ’em, all just waiting to welcome my ‘anonymous’ account into the fold. And then I remembered…

I still have a WhatsApp account. I seldom use that, either, but it’s there. And so, I presume, the act of entering my phone number for a security confirmation on my test account gave Facebook access to my entire graph of social contacts. Or, and perhaps in addition, lots of people with Facebook apps on their phone will have my phone number in their contacts. Facebook know exactly who I am, and all about me. Sigh. Should have used a ‘burner’ phone! Meanwhile, my friends have probably all received invitations to befriend a strangely-named new account and thought that the Facebook algorithms had gone a bit squiffy. Oh no. They’re working perfectly.

There is, however, something that still intrigues me. A noticeable aspect of the front page was the range of dog-related material. If this came from WhatsApp, how did they know I liked dogs? I guess it might be an Instagram link, but I really don’t have many dog pictures there either. Mmm.

No, I suspect this must be because I used my spaniel Tilly as the profile pic on the company account, just for fun. (Her modelling fees are very reasonable, and can be paid entirely in Bonios.) Anyway, if that is how they made the connection, then I can’t help wondering what other analysis they might be doing of people’s profile photos…?

Of course, I thought, I may be imagining it; they may just have decided that dogs were a cute and safe bet for the populace as a whole.

But I notice that there weren’t any pictures of cats on my page.

The Alpine Butterfly Knot

As someone who has done a fair amount of sailing in my youth, I like to think I’m more familiar with knots than the average bear. But there was one that I’d heard of in the past but knew little about: the Alpine Butterfly Knot (or Loop). It looks like this:

and it turns out to be jolly useful, but if you just look at it, it’s very tricky to work out how to tie it quickly.

There are lots of different techniques and lots of different YouTube videos about them, but today I found the method I liked the best:

Important YouTube Changes

In October, I wrote about my enjoyment of and use of YouTube, but I predicted that, at some point, people might want to shift some of their content elsewhere.

Well, that hasn’t happened yet, but there’s a small step today which might make people think more about it: the new Terms of Service, which take effect on 1st June. These include the following:

Right to Monetize

You grant to YouTube the right to monetize your Content on the Service (and such monetization may include displaying ads on or within Content or charging users a fee for access). This Agreement does not entitle you to any payments. Starting June 1, 2021, any payments you may be entitled to receive from YouTube under any other agreement between you and YouTube (including for example payments under the YouTube Partner Program, Channel memberships or Super Chat) will be treated as royalties.

Now, for most viewers, this won’t make much difference. We’re used to seeing ads on YouTube videos; in fact, quite a few of mine have them, and I earn enough from the ads to keep me in coffee beans. (I only use skippable ads at the start of the video, since I think those are the least annoying. You get more money if you allow others.).

When you view a YouTube video with ads, the revenue is typically split between YouTube and the creator. This revenue-sharing partnership is available to creators who have enough followers and sufficient viewing hours. In some circumstances, if you’ve included other material (such as commercial background music for which you don’t have a licence), rather than blocking you completely, YouTube will allow it to be posted, but you can’t monetise it: ad revenues are shared with the music copyright owner instead. The 360-degree video I recorded of my campervan trip to the Dordogne is an example: it does have ads, and the proceeds go to the creators of the background music I occasionally include. That seems reasonably fair to me. Doing this does have risks, though, if you’re thinking of trying it: firstly, you need to check whether it’ll be allowed for the tracks you’re thinking of including, and secondly, if the music publisher changes their policy in the future, your video may be removed.

Anyway, this new change will allow YouTube to put ads on the videos where I haven’t enabled them, perhaps to include more of them, or different types, and not necessarily share the proceeds of these extra ones with me. What’s more, if I had a very popular video, I think they could decide to put it behind a paywall.

As well as being detrimental to the viewing experience, this could be important, say, for universities who don’t want advertisements on their lectures, or software developers who don’t want competitor’s ads popping up over their tutorials. There will be ways around this, no doubt, involving payments to YouTube.

But this is just a reminder to make sure you keep copies of all the videos you upload in preparation for the day when you might want to move them somewhere else because your friends and family can’t watch them without a YouTube subscription.

YouTube is an amazing service, and a phenomenally expensive one to run, and most of us get it for free. So the fact that they are always looking for extra sources of revenue should come as no surprise. Especially to readers of Status-Q!

The uncomfortable truth about tithes

Many religions, especially those with Mosaic/Abrahamic connections, embrace the concept of ‘tithing’: giving one tenth of your income to the church. Originally, of course, this referred primarily to agricultural produce; in more recent years it tends to focus on Standing Orders and Gift Aid. Jesus himself apparently said little or nothing about it, which has allowed different groups of his followers to put differing degrees of emphasis, or compulsion, on on the concept since. But it is, of course, generally regarded by church leaders as desirable, and in my youth, sermons pointing out the biblical distinction between ‘tithes and offerings’ were not uncommon — the former being expected and, in effect, already belonging to God; the additional voluntary contributions constituting virtue (as long as both were done in secret).

Over coffee, after one of these sermons, I sympathised with the preacher. How obvious it was, I said, that very few people took these biblical directives to heart. He made some remark about how he was fortunate to have a generous congregation, and I fear I may have emitted something like a snort as I looked around at the gathered multitudes. I was very fond of them too, and many of them were very generous people, but I pointed out the mathematics…

In the Anglican church, for example, if people took tithing seriously, then every nine parishioners could support one vicar, who would then have the same average standard of living as his flock. (That got his attention!) You would need ten in your congregation if the vicar tithed too (which I guess would allow ten vicars to support one bishop, and so on).

OK, and you have to maintain the church buildings, do some good works, etc. So perhaps you need a congregation of about 15 people per priest for the church and clergy to lead a comfortable life. (That’s assuming your church doesn’t have any other income from land, bequests, indulgences or whatever…)

In the 35 or so years since that conversation, church attendance has declined so rapidly that many parishes will be doing this kind of maths for themselves. The average C of E congregation is something like 30-40 at present. But back then, though, I fear I may have left him contemplating his congregation of around 150 a bit less favourably than when he started his mug of coffee.

Location, location, location (or, ‘How technology saved me a few hundred quid yesterday’)

Yesterday, I lost my glasses. This is perfectly normal, and happens on a regular basis. One of my roles in life is to provide the opticians of South Cambridgeshire with a healthy and predictable revenue stream. What was much less typical about yesterday, though, was that I found them again!

Despite some of my recent posts, this was nothing to do with Apple AirTags, because I don’t currently have those attached to my spectacles. (I thought I looked rather dashing with them dangling about the ears, and many of the chaps at the Drones agreed, but I noticed that Jeeves had become particularly frosty recently, and found himself unable to extract me from a dashed sticky situation involving Madeline Bassett… but I digress. No AirTags currently adorn your correspondent’s brow.)

Anyway, yesterday afternoon, I was out walking Tilly, in a gentle rain, and I decided to take a photo of the view across the field in the mist. “This shot would be easier to compose”, I thought, “if I were wearing my glasses”, and I reached into the pocket of my coat… to discover that they weren’t there.

“Bother!”, said I, contemplating the last couple of miles that we had walked, the branches I had ducked under and the ditches I had leaped, any of which might be clues to their likely location. But then I remembered I’d received a phone call just a few hundred meters back, and had been able to read the name of the caller with ease, so I must have been wearing them then. I started to retrace my steps, gazing without much hope at the long wet grass, and thinking how easy this would have been if it weren’t for Jeeves.

After a couple of further passes over the relevant stretch, in the fading light, with a bemused (but useless) scent-hound trotting behind, I was about to give up hope, when I suddenly remembered: Hang on a minute! I had taken one other photo! It was after the call, but before I had noticed the glasses were missing. Surely I must have been wearing them then, and removed them afterwards because of the raindrops gathering on them. I bet I dropped the glasses at the location of the photo!

The problem was that it hadn’t really been a great photo; not many distinguishing features in the view. I was along one side of a big field, on a wide path, and I had paid little attention to my surroundings. Looking back at it now, I realise that I could probably have got those two rows of distant trees in the same relative alignment and located my former position quite accurately, but I was trying to view it on a small and decidedly damp screen… without my glasses. I was having enough fun just trying to tap on the right photo.

However, of course, all my photos are geotagged. I spent a while trying to work out how to see its location in the Photos app: not easy, even when you can read the text and make out the icons. (Hint: you need to swipe up from the bottom.) But eventually I found it. Not entirely helpful for precise location.

By tapping random blurry things, I managed to get into satellite view, and that was much better:

However, you have to remember that, at the time, it looked more like this:

And there are quite a lot of bends in the path with big trees beside them.

The Photos app doesn’t show your current location, only the location of the photo. I switched into Google maps, where I could see the moving blue dot, but the trees and crops looked completely different; the photo had been taken at a different time of year, several years before. Not much help.

But Apple Maps, of course, used the same satellite imagery as Apple Photos, and I was able to switch to and fro between the apps as I walked, until the blurry image with a blue dot seemed perfectly aligned with the blurry image with a yellow square.

I looked down, and there, nestled in a tuft of long grass, were my glasses. I had passed them three times that afternoon since dropping them, as had Tilly, who can track a pheasant at a considerable distance, but takes little notice of her master’s most valuable possessions right under her nose.

“At last!”, said she. “Come on! It’s dinner time.” And we scampered off towards the car.

Unwanted Corkpull

This is a lovely essay by Kelly Pendergast, brought to my attention by Andrew Curry on his Just Two Things newsletter.

It’s beautifully written and an enjoyable read, which is quite an achievement when it’s talking about consumerism, supply chains and waste management. Don’t let that put you off. Lots of good stuff there.

She talks about the admirable Oxo corkscrew she was given by a friend.

I suppose I should be happy to own such a perfectly functional piece, no muss, no fuss, no danger of injury, but what can I say? It’s ugly and I don’t like it.

You may not be surprised to hear that it was a gift. Life would be simpler if it had never entered the house, but between the gift-ness and its unfortunate excellence at performing its single task, I haven’t been able to get rid of it. Marcel Mauss, in his inquiry into the anthropology of the gift, asks “What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?” The gift corkscrew is freighted with a psychic weight that can’t be directly repaid, but can’t be forgotten.

She includes a memorable quote from Robin Nagle, anthropologist of material cultures and anthropologist-in-residence at the New York Department of Sanitation. (Now, that’s a job title to conjure with!)

“Every single thing you see is future trash.”

She talks about the other kinds of emotional weight we attach to objects, (or, sometimes, don’t, when we should do), and a feeling of guilt about being part of the flow of manufactured items on the way from raw materials to the grave…

Anyway, as Andrew Curry said, it’s hard to do it justice in excerpts; just read and enjoy.

On that topic, having referred to my late friend Martin King a couple of days ago, I will do so again today.

I remember that we were buying furniture for one of our companies’ offices, and he was spending some time seeking out used, good-quality, basic tables and chairs, which also seemed rather expensive to me. I probably said something about it being easier and cheaper to get them from Ikea.

“Yes”, said Martin (who, despite his considerable wealth, generally shunned anything that looked like luxury), “but we buy quality things because we don’t want to be responsible for creating rubbish in the world.”

That was a phrase that stuck with me.

The heat of the action

In the evening, we watch gripping Nordic Noir episodes, and our spaniel sleeps soundly through the gunshots, stretched out on her big bed in front of the fireplace.

During the day, though, this kind of action will have her sitting alert and quivering with excitement at the patio door for hours!

Understanding the rules of the business game

I was once out for a walk with a friend who had also been a major investor in one of my startups. I bought her a cup of coffee and she said, “Oh, let me pay for that!” and I responded with, “Don’t worry, I owe you about a million quid anyway”. She laughed, but I know she remembered it.

And so did I, because afterwards I realised I was wrong. I had fallen into a common trap: an assumption that those who receive money should necessarily always be grateful and subservient to those who provide it. In one sense, those who are on the receiving end are naturally inclined to feel that way, because without it, our business, our grand plan, our pet idea, wouldn’t survive. In the short term, we need them more than they need us. But (except in very rare circumstances) it’s a deal, not a donation. Investors in startup companies are not just doing it out of the goodness of their hearts; you are giving them something in return; they are, in a very real sense, paying for your services, in the hope that everybody will make a profit out of it (and probably them much more than you). What I should have added, to my investor friend, is something along the lines of, “I owe you about a million quid, but I guess you owe me and several of my friends many years of our lives, so perhaps we’re quits.”

This is true of employment, too. For those of us fortunate enough to be in the Western tech world in a period of high employment, we’re making the same deal: you’re giving me money, I’m giving you a certain fraction of my life. This is not a master-slave relationship, it’s a barter relationship, and if either side doesn’t like the deal, they can go elsewhere or (increasingly) set up in business on their own. I appreciate that this is an historical, geographical, and industrial anomaly, or at least novelty, so please don’t send me emails about the Tolpuddle Martyrs! (Been there, seen the tree.) But it’s the world many of us are fortunate enough to live in now. The them-versus-us tribalism of management and workers in the industrial revolution, or in the 1970s and 80s, is no more helpful in the 21st-century tech business, or the 21st-century gig economy, than it is in 21st-century Facebook-exaggerated politics.

Thinking about this reminds me of a conversation in a Seattle cafe with my late friend Martin King, when he was asserting that there was no reason companies should not have the same ethics as, and be as nice as, individual people. (He was referring to their dealings with other companies, more than employee relations.) I applauded his intentions (and tried to follow them myself to a significant degree).

However, I pointed out, there was a fundamental difference between business and personal relations: business is inherently competitive. It’s more like a sport than a social function, and you need to understand the rules from the word go. Imagine if you entered what you thought was a garden party, and it turned out you were in rugby match, or a boxing ring. Human interactions work if everybody inside, say, the boxing ring, knows the rules and plays according to them, but they are different from the rules of normal social engagement.

The relationship between a company and its employees, of course, is not, one hopes, competitive in the same way, but it is still a business deal, a game played according to certain rules. This is why the recent attempt by the founders of Basecamp to clarify the rules of their game was, I think, both admirable and controversial: their rules seem very sensible to me, but some people thought they were playing a different game (or wanted to) and so departed for another playing field. Sometimes, yes, the rules need changing. Sometimes they need clarifying. Sometimes they should have been clarified earlier. But sometimes you’re just on the wrong playing field!

So make sure you understand the rules of the game you’re playing. If you’re accepting money from an investor, remember that they’re doing it because they expect to get at least as much from you in return. If you’re earning easy money as a driver because you installed an Uber app (rather than having to apply for a traditional job with an employment contract), be aware of the nature of the relationship and don’t complain because you later decided you wanted something different. And if you should happen to wander into a boxing ring thinking it was tea at the vicar’s, don’t be surprised if what you get in your mouth isn’t a cucumber sandwich. This is a fault in your research and your expectations, and not necessarily in those of the person delivering the surprise!

Once you know which playing field you’re on, of course, you should then be a good sport to the best of your abilities! And so should companies.

AirTags for Airheads?

Well, somewhat to my surprise, I found an Apple AirTag to be remarkably useful today! (I bought them because, well, I just like gadgets and these are beautifully-engineered gadgets, but I wasn’t sure how much I’d actually use them.)

This wasn’t anything dramatic: no long-lost pets being recovered from the other side of the county or anything like that. No, we were going out, and I wanted to find my keys. It turned out that, last night, I had used them to unlock the side door before putting some things in the recycling bin, and, perhaps because I had my hands full and my mind elsewhere, had left the keys on the shelf beside the door: not somewhere they would ever normally live. Then a plastic bag had been put in front of them, and they were hidden from view.

So it was no big deal; we would have found them again in a day or two, but the ability to track them down to roughly the right room and make them beep meant that we were out of the door a minute later, with no worries lurking in the back of my mind. It won’t take many such absent-minded moments on my part — and these are distressingly and increasingly frequent! — to make the tags well worth the money.

Getting 3-Dimensional

Some quick thoughts after my first couple of days of owning a 3D printer.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser