Zooming in on the Micro Men

A couple of days ago, in my post about Sir Clive Sinclair, I mentioned the entertaining BBC drama “Micro Men“, which covered the exhilarating race between Sinclair, Acorn and others to corner the home computing market in the early 80s. Any Cambridge friends who are interested in computing and haven’t seen it should certainly take a look!

Those who know any of the people (or machines) concerned, or who enjoy watching the ‘Special features’ section of DVDs, may want to take it a bit further. I’ve discovered that, 10 years after the film came out, the Centre for Computing History got together Steve Furber, Hermann Hauser and Chris Curry for a viewing of the film, to get their take on how it recorded the events.

And also a revealing discussion which followed the film:

If, like me, you wondered why, for example, the Acorn Electron was not the commercial success it should have been, given its technical merits, this informal chat will tell you.

An epitaph for Sir Clive

Are there any stores that you like to go into, but rather hope that you won’t be spotted there by anybody you know, because it would be a bit embarrassing? One of these, for me, is Edinburgh Woollen Mills, which seems to have, as its target market, old-age pensioners with little sense of taste or fashion. On the other hand, when I have crept in there over the last few decades wearing my false moustache and dark glasses, I’ve always found their plain woollen sweaters (and a few of their other less-tartaned items) to be excellent value, well-fitting and very hard wearing (which is good, because I then don’t need to visit too often and risk being spotted).

Well, I had a similar desire to conceal my location yesterday, when I was invited onto Radio 5 Live at very short notice to talk about the passing of Sir Clive Sinclair, his influence on the UK’s computer industry, and the importance of having a culture of invention. That was what the text said, anyway, but in fact they ran out of time and so, I think, slotted me in to the last few mins of the show, just to be polite, and join in whatever discussion was ongoing. With the result that we said nothing about Sinclair, almost nothing about computing, and in fact discussed time travel and whether butterflies could fart. (Don’t ask.) It wasn’t the high point of my broadcasting career. The good news is that I suspect there are even fewer of my acquaintances who listen to Radio 5 Live than who shop at Edinburgh Woollen Mills.

I never met Clive Sinclair, though he had a big influence on my life, having produced, in 1981, the first computer that our family could actually own. The BBC’s enjoyable 2009 dramatisation ‘Micro Men’ portrayed him as a bit of a comedic monster, as I remember, and I’m not sure how fair a representation that is. The programme is now available on YouTube, and I must watch it again, because it does depict several people I do know, and generally does them quite well, so perhaps it was accurate. Recommended viewing for all British geeks of a certain age, anyway.

But it is sad, in a way, that Sir Clive is often remembered for the C5 — his low-slung electric tricycle — which was a dismal market failure in 1985, and the butt of much humour, including from me (though as a techy teenager I would secretly have loved one!)

What did impress me, though, as I was making notes for the interview, was the relentless rate at which Sinclair released products:

  • 1977 – The Wrist Calculator and the MK14 kit computer
  • 1980 – The ZX80 – the first affordable home computer in the UK
  • 1981 – The ZX81 – a much better version
  • 1982 – The ZX Spectrum – the UK’s best-selling microcomputer
  • 1983 – The C5 electric trike, and a pocket television! (Which of course, back then, still had to use a CRT.) Also the Microdrive storage system, using tape-based cartridges which could store a whopping 100KB!
  • 1984 – The Sinclair QL
  • 1987 – The Cambridge Z88 – a portable computer with a full-sized keyboard, which ran for ages on four AA batteries. I have one on the desk beside me here.

That’s quite a list for a small company over one decade!

The failure of the C5 basically killed Sinclair Research, and the Sinclair brand was sold to Amstrad in 1986, which is why the Z88 was released under the Cambridge Computer name.

This failure was notable, though, because it followed the great successes of the previous years, which had made Sinclair a household name, and, by deploying affordable, programmable machines into vast numbers of British homes, played a big part in kick-starting the UK’s technology industry. It certainly kick-started my own hobby and eventual career in computing, which is also a good thing for the nation, because otherwise I might have tried to go into broadcasting.

So I would like, if I may, to propose an epitaph for Sir Clive Sinclair:

It is better to have invented and failed, than to never have invented at all.

Climate change

We’re on holiday this week, renting a cottage in a ridiculously pretty village in the Cotswolds (Bisley, near Stroud). After spending almost all of the last year and a half in East Anglia, it’s lovely to get back to a place with some proper hills!

For the first half of the week, we had temperatures more reminiscent of southern Italy, and sought out shady spots in which to enjoy a cool glass of rosé.

This mediterranean feeling was enhanced by the fact that many of the local shops close at 2pm. (They just don’t reopen after the siesta!).

We relished the woodland stretches of our walks…

Hawkley wood

…as well as the breezes that can best be found on top of high Roman forts.

On an excursion to the Severn Estuary, we lunched at a seafood cafe while watching boats bobbing on the sparkling water of the marina, and then enjoyed a very refreshing G&T sorbet at the end of the beautifully-restored Clevedon Pier.

And then yesterday the weather changed, and we had some downpours of which East Anglia is not normally capable, and gently-falling mists at other times. We still managed to greatly enjoy a visit to Sudeley Castle. Recommended in any weather, and if you go, don’t miss the Pheasantry.

We’re definitely back in England now, though… and that’s also rather nice.

This is also the first longish trip in years where I haven’t had my laptop with me. My new iPad with its attached keyboard is exceedingly capable and I can basically do everything I want with it… but some things involve a bit more friction. (Though I imagine most of that is just a matter of habit.) So I haven’t been processing many of the images from my decent camera, for example; most of the pictures here are just snaps taken with my phone.

Well, except this one. My selfie stick isn’t quite this long. This requires a camera with propellors.

Clevedon Pier

Behind the Tesla ‘Full Self Driving’ system

If I were giving advice to somebody considering buying a Tesla at the moment, it would be (a) buy it and (b) don’t believe the ‘full self-driving’ hype… yet.

You’ll be getting a car that is great fun to drive, has amazing range, a splendid safety record, a brilliant charging network, etc… and, in the standard included ‘autopilot’, has a really good cruise control and lane-keeping facility. One thing I’ve noticed when comparing it to the smart cruise control on my previous car, for example, is that it’s much better at handling the situation where somebody overtakes and then pulls into the lane just in front of you. Systems that are primarily concerned with keeping your distance from the car in front have difficult decisions to make at that point: how much and how suddenly should they back off to maintain the preferred gap. The Tesla, in contrast, is constantly tracking all the vehicles around you, and has therefore been following that car and its speed relative to yours for some time, so can react much more smoothly.

The dubiously-named ‘Full Self-Driving’ package is an expensive optional extra which you can buy at the time of purchase or add on later with a couple of clicks in the app. At the moment, it doesn’t give you very much more: the extra functionality (especially outside the US) hasn’t been worth the money. If you purchase it now, you’re primarily buying into the promise of what it will offer in the future, and the hope that this will provide you with significant benefits in the time between now and when you sell the car!

But at sometime in the not-too-distant future, the new version –currently known as the ‘FSD Beta’ — will be released more widely to the general public. ‘Full Self Driving’ will then still be a misnomer, but will be quite a bit closer to the truth. YouTube is awash with videos of the FSD Beta doing some amazing things: people with a 45-minute California commute essentially being driven door-to-door, for example, while just resting their hands lightly on the steering wheel… and also with a few examples of it doing some pretty scary things. It seems clear, though, that it’s improving very fast, and will be genuinely valuable on highways, especially American highways, before too long, but also that it’s likely to be useless on the typical British country road or high street for a very long time!

What Tesla has, to a much greater degree than other companies, is the ability to gather data from its existing vehicles out on the road in order to improve the training of its neural nets. The more cars there are running the software, the better it should become. But the back-at-base process of training the machine learning models on vast amounts of video data (to produce the parameters which are then sent out to all the cars) is computationally very expensive, and the speed of an organisation’s innovation, and how fast it can distribute the results to the world, depends significantly on how fast it can do this.

Last week, Tesla held their ‘AI Day’, where Elon Musk got up on stage and, in his usual way, mumbled a few disjointed sentences. Did nobody ever tell the man that it’s worth actually preparing before you get up on a stage, especially the world stage?

However, between these slightly embarrassing moments are some amazing talks by the Tesla team, going into enormous detail about how they architect their neural nets, the challenges of the driving task, the incredible chips they are building and rolling out to build what may be the fastest ML-training installation in the world, and the systems they’re building around all this new stuff.

For most people, this will be too much technical detail and will make little sense. For those with a smattering of knowledge about machine learning, you can sit back and enjoy the ride. There are lots of pictures and video clips amidst the details! And for those with a deeper interest in AI/ML systems, I would say this is well-worth watching.

There are two key things that struck me during the talks.

First, as my friend Pilgrim pointed out, it’s amazing how open they’re being. Perhaps, he suggested, they can safely assume that the competition is so far behind that they’re not a threat!

Secondly, it suddenly occurred to me — half way through the discussions of petaflop-speed calculations — that I was watching a video from a motor manufacturer! An automobile company! If you’re considering buying a Tesla, this is a part of what you’re buying into, and it’s astonishingly different from anything you’d ever see from any other car-maker. Full self-driving is a very difficult problem. But this kind of thing goes a long way to convincing me that if anybody is going to get there, it will be Tesla.

You may or may not ever pay for the full FSD package, but it’s safe to assume much of the output of these endeavours will be incorporated into other parts of the system. So, at the very least, you should eventually get one hell of a cruise control!

The livestream is here, and the interesting stuff actually starts about 46 minutes in.

Audio sometimes preferred!

I had an interesting start to the day. Regular readers of this blog will probably have heard quite enough about webcams and coffee pots, but that’s apparently not true for everybody in the world…

Thirty years ago today, Sir Tim turned on his first public webserver, which means that this is one of the days that people have chosen to label as the 30th anniversary of the Web. As it happens, we’re also not too far from the 30th anniversary of the day when we turned on the Trojan Room coffee pot camera, which would be connected to the web a couple of years later and so become the first webcam.

Anyway, I sometimes get wheeled out as a suitable relic to display from this era, and I had an email yesterday from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire asking if I was willing to be on the Louise Hulland show first thing this morning. I said yes, and they were going to contact me with further details… but I heard nothing more, so presumed it wasn’t going ahead. Until, that is, I emerged from my shower this morning, draped in my dressing gown but dripping slightly, to hear my phone ringing… and answered it only to be dropped into a live interview. However much I like networked video, there are times when audio really is the best medium! Anyway, it’s here, for the record.

Perhaps better is an interview that was actually recorded quite some time ago by Jim Boulton for the Centre for Computing History, but which they first published today as part of the local Web@30 event. In it, I am (a) slightly more compos mentis, since it was recorded later in the day and I had consumed more coffee, and (b) rather better attired.

MeetingBuster and the Christmas Call Diary

There was a period of a few years when I played quite extensively with VOIP, which for the uninitiated, stands for Voice-Over-Internet-Protocols, sometimes called ‘IP Telephony’. This isn’t about Zoom and Skype and FaceTime, but about traditional phone calls: the things your parents used to make (and maybe still do), often using devices attached to the wall with wires!

It all seems very obvious now, but there was a point between about 20 and 10 years ago when the typical office phone changed from being an audio device plugged into a landline-style connection with analogue voltages talking to a phone exchange, to being something digital that plugged into the ethernet and had an IP address. Telephone calls, hitherto controlled by large national monopolies with expensive proprietary equipment and hideously complex signalling protocols, started to become something ordinary users could manage with their own software, even Open Source software.

Companies that had previously paid vast sums of money to buy or lease a PBX (the ‘Private Branch Exchange’ that gave you internal phone numbers and routed calls to and from external numbers), could now just install software on a cheap PC and route calls to phone handsets over the local network. If you also routed calls over the wider internet, limitations of most broadband connections meant that the quality and reliability left something to be desired, but, as one perceptive observer commented at the time, “The great thing about mobile networks is that they have lowered people’s expectations of telephony to the point where VOIP is a viable solution.”

Phone Phun

And what you could do in an office, you could also do at home, just for fun. I loved this stuff, because in my youth telephony had embodied the quintessence of big faceless corporations: you paid them, they told you what you could and couldn’t do with the socket in your wall, you lived with the one phone number they decided to give you, and could only plug in the equipment that they approved. Any variations on this theme rapidly became very expensive.

With VOIP, however, you could now get multiple phone numbers in your own house and configure how they were handled yourself. I had one number that was registered in Seattle (because I was doing lots of work there), but it rang a phone in my home office in Cambridge — the same one that also had one Cambridge number and one London one — with the calls routed halfway around the world over the internet, basically for free. All of a sudden, you could do things that the Post Office, BT, AT&T, or whoever, would never have let you do in the past. It was fun!

Part of my interest came from the clear parallels between how phone calls were handled in this new world, and the way HTTP requests were handled on the web. I first got involved in telephony with the AT&T Broadband Phone project back in 1999, when my friends and I had to write our own telephony stack based on the new SIP protocol, and build our own custom hardware to connect our SIP network to real-world phone lines.

But, as with the early days of the web, Open Source servers soon emerged so you didn’t have to write your own! The Asterisk and, a little later, FreeSwitch packages were very much analogous to Apache and Nginx in the web world. Calls came in, and you decided what to do with them using a set of configuration rules similar to those that might determine what page or image to return for a particular URL. Voice prompts and keypad button presses were a bit like forms and submit buttons on web pages… and so on.

Anyway, there were a couple of quick hacks that I put together at the time which turned out to be rather useful, so if you’re still with me after the history lesson above, I’ll describe them.

The Christmas Call Diary

We were a young startup company, with about half-a-dozen employees, operating primarily out of a garden shed in Cambridge. But we had sold products to real customers who expected a decent level of support. As Christmas approached, we realised that the office was going to be empty for about a fortnight, and started to wonder what would happen if anybody had technical support issues and needed urgent help.

So I set up a shared Google calendar, and asked everyone to volunteer to be available for particular periods of time over the holiday, just in case any customers called; a possibility that was, we hoped, pretty unlikely, but it would improve our reputation no end if somebody did answer. All we had to do was put entries in the calendar that contained our mobile or home number during times when we didn’t mind being disturbed. People valiantly signed up.

We were running a VOIP exchange on an old Dell PC, and I wrote a script to handle incoming calls, which worked like this:

  • When a call comes in, ring all the phones in the office for a short while.
  • If nobody picks up, then look at the special Google Calendar to see if there’s a current entry, and if its contents look like a phone number. If so, then divert the call to that number.
  • If it isn’t answered after a short while, send the caller to our voicemail system, and email the resulting message to all of us.

In the end, I don’t think anybody did call, but the script worked as intended, and allowed us to have a more worry-free Christmas break, which was perhaps its most important achievement!


Back in 2006, I registered the domain MeetingBuster.com, and thanks to the wonderful Internet Archive, I can see once again what the front page looked like, which neatly explains its purpose (click if you need a larger image):

A later update allowed you to call MeetingBuster and press a number key within 10 seconds, and your callback would then happen that many tens of minutes later, so pressing ‘3’ just before going into a meeting would give you an option to escape from it after half an hour. (Remember this was all well before the iPhone was released, so all such interactions had to be based on DTMF tones.)

Anyway, Meetingbuster was just for fun, and there are probably better ways to escape from today’s virtual meetings. But if/when we go back to face-to-face meetings again, and you need an excuse to say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I really ought to answer that; do you mind?”, then let me know and perhaps I can revive it!

Awardify revisited

Ten years ago, as a joke, I created a website called ‘Awardify’. The front page explained its purpose:

Awardify is the internet’s premier award-granting service!

  • Have you ever looked at marketing materials for a product or service and seen them described as ‘award-winning’?
  • Have you ever wondered which award they won, and how recently, and whether it has any value at all?
  • Of course not! You probably thought, “Wow! I wish my company/product/service was award-winning too!”

Well, now you need look no further. Awardify’s simple and convenient service can grant you the award of your choice, so that you too can use that catchy and effective phrase on your own marketing materials, and be the envy of your competitors!

Sure enough, you could fill in your details and it would generate a nice printable award for you. You could pick from a selection of pre-defined titles — “The International Kitchen Excellence Award” was one example, I think — or you could choose your own, and you could then decide who should award it to you from a list of impressive-sounding organisations, all of which were trading names of Awardify.com (which didn’t actually exist as legal entity).

After a few years, I decided this spoof had run its course and it wasn’t worth paying for the awardify.com domain any longer, or keeping the underlying software updated with security patches, so I let it go. You can see a snapshot of the Awardify front page on the Internet Archive, but otherwise it was consigned to the big wastebin of internet history, the domain was bought by somebody else, and there the story would have ended… until…

Well, blow me down, if somebody hasn’t revived the idea!

Yes, I discovered today that you can now go to Awardify Now and get yourself an award, and what’s more, they’re actually charging money for them! Which means they might hang around a bit longer than my site did. But they can’t be serious, surely?

So the question now arises, who is the most foolish? The person taken in by fake awards? The person who pays a website to generate fake awards? Or the person who has an idea for a fake-award-generating-business and completely fails to capitalise on it?

Eye in the Sky

I had owned my little drone for a while before I discovered one of its cleverer tricks: taking 360 panoramic views. You just put it in the right mode and press the button, and it turns round on the spot taking 26 photos at various pitch angles, then stitches them together. In some ways I find these interactive views more compelling than videos.

This was one of my first: Houghton Mill, on the River Great Ouse. (If you just see a blank space below, I’m afraid you may need to try another browser, and if you get these posts by email, you’ll probably have to view it on the web.)

Or here’s a view of the University’s Computer Lab, where I used to work back in the days when we had physical offices. The big building site opposite is the Physics Department’s new Cavendish Lab (the third of that name), which is also known as the Ray Dolby Centre, since that little button you used to press on your cassette deck is paying for a lot of this:

People who are interested in the West Cambridge Site may want to look at other shots from the same evening. And people who remember when cassette decks started having Dolby C as well as Dolby B may be inspired by the title of this post to hum tunes from the Alan Parsons Project.

There may be more of these to come.

Location, location, revisited

Previously on Status-Q…

Regular readers may remember that a couple of months ago, I lost my glasses and found them again. If you missed that particularly gripping episode, turn back to Location, location, location (or, ‘How technology saved me a few hundred quid yesterday’) and then you’ll understand the background here.

After posting it, my friend Phil Endecott got in touch with me. “Am I to understand”, he said, “that you would find it useful if you had a map app that could show both the locations of your photos and your current location at the same time? If so, I may have just what you need….”

And he did indeed. Phil, you see, is the author of UK Map, an iOS app that I’ve had for as long as I can remember, and one I should talk about more, because I use it all the time, especially when looking for new dog-walking routes. Yes, I may use Google Maps to find out how long it’ll take me to drive there, and Streetview to check that there’s likely to be a parking spot when I get there, but once I’ve laced up my walking boots, then I generally switch to UK Map. It combines free or paid-for Ordnance Survey maps with footpaths from Open Street Map, and, certainly round here, it’s a much better guide than almost anything else as to where you can actually go for a walk.

New features get added periodically and, like much of the cool stuff, are often buried deep in some menu below some unassuming icon in the corner, making them very easy to miss, so you really do want to go to the home page and read it carefully to see what the app can do, and then to the help button in the app to see how to do it. I don’t check these often enough, but when Phil’s message prompted me, I had another explore and found that, yes, it can show your photos on your maps. This is the site of my aforementioned adventure:

and if I had been there at the time of writing this, the little blue dot would indeed have shown me exactly what I needed to know. (The violet-coloured triangle there, by the way, is showing the rough direction in which the phone was pointing when it took the picture, and therefore shows what you may be able to see in it. Neat, eh?)

Anyway, I’ve mentioned UK Map before, but I’ve used it for so many years that I take it for granted. I do think that if you put in a little time learning what it can do, you’ll find it repays its very modest purchase price. Actually, it’ll repay that even if, like me, you really only scratch the surface.

P.S. If you happen to be anywhere other than the UK, this will be of limited use, but if you’re in North America, Phil is also the author of the highly-rated Topo Maps

The sound of bubbles

Late last summer we were in Cornwall and spent a delightful day on the Helford river in a boat we rented for the purpose. It had a motor, which was very convenient, but having driven an electric car for the last 6 years, I was very conscious again of just how much noise a combustion engine makes, especially when it’s in the form of an outboard sitting right behind you. Since that day, I’ve been desirous of an electric-powered boat.

Well, today we were able to try out a couple of recent purchases. Our new vessel, Tiddler, is an inflatable that comes somewhere between a RIB tender and an inflatable kayak — and we paired it with an ePropulsion electric outboard, which is a marvellous thing that can be put in the back of the car without any risk of petrol spills. In fact we can just about get the boat, the pump, the engine, the battery and the oars in the boot of our saloon car without needing to fold the seats down.

It took some research to find a combination that would do that, but I was keen to try because it turns out that Teslas are ridiculously dependent on their very low drag coefficient for their range, and doing reckless things like putting something on a roof-rack or towing it behind has quite an impact, so keeping things inside is a good idea if you can.

Anyway, we had a rather idyllic but high-tech day, zooming from our house to the little harbour just over an hour away, along a highway that took us almost all the way, so the car did the vast majority of the driving. Then pottering around the estuary mostly in sunshine and mostly in silence, mooring near a famous waterside pub that we knew to serve excellent fish and chips, and then heading back home the same way. This simultaneously proved two things to my satisfaction: firstly, that most forms of transport can be improved with the addition of a good battery, and secondly, that despite all this technology there’s still nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.

When not to Excel

Back in about 1993, I was doing the bookkeeping for a big project being undertaken by my local church. Donations were flooding in, and we needed to keep track of everything, send out receipts, forms and letters of thanks, and note whether each donation was eligible for the UK tax relief known as ‘Gift Aid’.

I was keeping track of this using on a PC running the now long-gone Microsoft Works, which, for those less familiar with last-millennium computing, was a software suite incorporating basic and much cheaper versions of the things you found in Microsoft Office: a word-processor, database, and spreadsheet. If your needs were simple, it worked rather well.

Anyway, at one point I was printing out a list of recent donations on my dot-matrix printer, and I noticed what appeared to be some data corruption. In the midst of the sea of donors’ names, there were a couple of dates being printed out. Was this a software bug, or was my database file corrupt? I started investigating, while wondering just how much data I’d entered since my last backup and whether I could recreate it…

In the end, the answer was simple, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I tried recreating the entry for one of donors and the same thing happened again, at which point I dug a bit deeper and discovered a ‘feature’ of the app. The lady’s first name was ‘June’, and, though it displayed just fine on the data-entry screen, behind the scenes, it had been turned into 1/6/93! I skimmed quickly through the congregation to find the other problematic record, and found it was for a donation from a lady named ‘May’!

When I came back to doing some scientific computing in academia a few years ago, I was surprised and slightly worried to see several of my colleagues processing their data with Excel. It’s a wonderful program and very appealing, because of the ease of viewing, checking and plotting graphs of your results, but it comes with lots of problems of its own and shouldn’t be used as a substitute for a proper database (if you’re a church accountant), or for something like Jupyter Notebooks, if you’re a scientific researcher, unless you’re exceedingly careful. Last year, more than a quarter of a century after my issues with May and June, 27 human genes were actually renamed because of the number of errors caused in scientific papers by the use of Excel by researchers. The genes’ previous names were things like ‘SEPT1’.

All of this came to mind when reading Tim Harford’s enjoyable piece in yesterday’s FT, The Tyranny of Spreadsheets. Harford follows the origins of spreadsheets, double-entry bookkeeping and other ways of keeping track of things, up to the famous case last year where 16,000 people weren’t promptly told they had positive Covid test results, because somebody had used Excel’s old XLS file format, which can only store about 64,000 rows of information, instead of the newer XLSX. That’s not really a problem; the problem is that Excel doesn’t give you adequate warning when it’s discarding data, or changing it in an attempt to be helpful. And the results can be serious.

To quote the article:

Two economists, Thiemo Fetzer and Thomas Graeber … decided that no catastrophe should be allowed to occur without trying to learn some lessons. They combed through the evidence from Public Health England’s mishap. And by comparing the experiences of different regions, they concluded that the error had led to 125,000 additional infections.

Fetzer and Graeber have calculated a conservative estimate of the number of people who died, unknown victims of the spreadsheet error. They think the death toll is at least 1,500 people.

Think about that, as you click ‘Save As…’ and pick your data format.

(Thanks to my sister-in-law Lindsey for the link to the Harford article, which also traces some of the origins of spreadsheets from the 14th century; that’s before even I was using them!)


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.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser