Tout va bien ici. Pour moi, at least

Tilly (my spaniel) and I are in a very nice restaurant not far from Perigueux. We’re the only ones here, having walked over from the campervan, which is parked in an almost-empty campsite. Over the last couple of days, we’ve visited many very pretty villages, where almost everything has been closed. Not a petit-déjeuner or a café-au-lait to be had anywhere.

Now, I presumed this was just because of the time of year and because temperatures have been below zero for several days, only creeping above it today in order to allow for a steady rain.

But the proprietor doesn’t blame the climate, he blames the ‘gilets jaunes’. Normally, he says, there are visitors, including English and Germans, throughout the year. But they’ve seen the news, and they’re staying away. “Bordeaux aujourd’hui…”, he says, “c’est une catastrophe”.

I’ve seen a few protestors. At Dieppe on Weds, they were stopping all the lorries at several roundabouts, but I was always waved through with a cheery smile. Near Limoges today, they seemed just to be acting as traffic policemen, directing the traffic to make their presence felt. The only things I’ve seen burning were needed to warm frozen fingers.

Away from the big cities, I’ve seen nothing except the most mild expressions of discontent, like this decoration of a hydrant in a small farming village:

Roughly translated, it says, “Father Christmas’s sleigh runs on diesel.. a too-expensive fuel. No presents this year.”

So, no, this probably wouldn’t have been the week to visit any big cities. But in the countryside, visitors are currently a scarce resource and so are particularly welcome. If there’s anybody still around to do the welcoming, that is..

A quarter-century of coffee pots…

The Dutch RTL News programme did a short piece last week on the fact that the webcam was now about 25 years old.

They interviewed me for just a few minutes, after, ironically, having to spend about 45 mins getting their Skype working.

If, like me, you don’t speak any Dutch, you can hear me at about 0:16 and 1:24, and, in between the two, see some pictures of a much younger me!

Linced-In

We went to Lincolnshire last weekend. When I told some friends of our plans beforehand, they said, “Lincolnshire? Really? For a whole weekend?”, or words to that effect. And I must confess to being somewhat apprehensive myself, though we had visited Lincoln itself before and knew that to be a lovely city.

But there’s lots of good stuff in Lincolnshire.

Lincoln Cathedral

They have some very impressive churches, for one thing. In addition to Lincoln Cathedral (above), we visited Boston, from where some people once set sail to found a colony in Massachusetts.

Boston’s name comes from “Botolph’s Town”, and the church of St Botolph is almost a cathedral itself.

It’s been informally known as the ‘Boston Stump‘ for the last, oh, seven hundred years or so, a name which hardly conveys the fact that it’s really awfully tall. We can assert this, having climbed it, via a very narrow staircase. They let us in at the bottom and shut the door behind us; the only way was up…

Emerging at the top, you can walk around the rather narrow walkway with a lowish handrail, before descending via a second similar staircase.

A fun and very memorable experience, but definitely not recommended for those suffering from corpulence, claustrophobia, or vertigo!

Lincoln itself is built on quite a steep hill, but much of the county is very flat, so Lincolnshire’s drainage ditches are almost as impressive as its churches.

There are lots of marvellous windmills, used both for pumping and for corn-grinding.

And here’s another cool thing you don’t find in every county: a bubble-car museum!

We visited a lovely beach at Huttoft, as the sun was setting.

Tilly did feel, however, that they had rather too many seagulls, so did her best to rectify that problem.

We stayed at “Long Acres“, a delightful and well-run campsite which suffers only from not being very close to most of the major attractions. As a result it’s very peaceful, especially at this time of the year. And if you enjoy looking at bubble-cars as much as we do, they at least are not far away!

I haven’t talked about the quaint teashop we visited in the pretty village of Tealby, or The Usher Gallery in Lincoln, or the Sibsey Trader Windill… But all in all, we had a very enjoyable weekend in our trusty campervan.

A well-rounded view

Over lunch yesterday, my friend Richard was expanding my limited knowledge of spherical cameras: cameras which can take an all-round image – or even video – of the world; an immersive view which you can then explore in a VR headset, or by holding up your phone and moving it around, or (suboptimally) in a regular browser window by dragging around with your mouse, StreetView-style.

Richard’s done a nice blog post about this, from which I’m shamelessly cribbing! Thanks, Richard!

The normal way to get high-resolution all-round footage is to use a special rig like this one:

These are actually not that expensive… assuming that you already have ten GoPro cameras lying around ready to go in them. If not… it’s a different story.

But there are now more compact and affordable options if you don’t mind sacrificing some resolution – things like the Ricoh Theta V. For more information about how it works, Richard pointed me at this great video:

Now, we all know that you can get interesting feedback effects when, say, standing in a lift or changing room with mirrors on opposite walls, or by pointing live cameras at their own output.

What happens when you explore the same ideas in a spherical world? Cool things:

Oh, and if you’re like me, the next question is, “Can you do this kind of thing with live footage?” And the answer is yes. Here’s… ahem… a recording… to prove it…

A final thought.

In the old days, some comedy shows would emphasise that they were “recorded in front of a live audience”, so that you knew that the laugh track wasn’t canned. Soon, we’ll be able to recreate the effect of a live audience so realistically that it won’t be sufficient to persuade you that the recording was actually done in front of real people. Even if you have multiple spherical recordings.

So here’s a challenge to ponder over the weekend: How could you prove that a YouTube video of an event was originally a real event, shown to real people?

Today, I met our milkman!

I say ‘today’, because it was actually past midnight last night. Before going upstairs to bed, I popped out with the empty bottles, and there he was! Why is this surprising?

Well, he normally delivers at about 2am; last night he was early. I’ve occasionally heard him, but I’ve never met him before. Yet we benefit every single day from his regular and reliable deliveries, and have done so for more than a decade, both here and at our previous house (which was only a couple of miles away). So this is someone whose name I’ve known for years, who visits our home several times a week, has done so for a very long time, kept doing so even when we moved, and yet I’ve only just met him. It’s almost like a ‘friend’ on a social network.

Anyway, he turned out to be a delightful chap, and it was great to have the opportunity to shake his hand and say…

Thanks, Phil!

Silicon ripples

Isn’t sand wonderful stuff?

We went to Holkham Beach — a favourite spot — at the weekend.

All of these textures were within a few minutes’ walk of each other.

Oh, and Tilly likes it too.

It’s a miracle!

There was a miraculous event at my brother Simon’s house in Winchester this week, as the new plaster in their sitting room started to dry…

I told him not to paint over it, and he could then retire in comfort, as long as he didn’t mind having a lot of visitors.

Actually, the miraculous event was that — being, he freely admits, somewhat unfamiliar with Photoshop or anything similar — he created this image in Powerpoint.

Anyway, I thought it was great.

The Fragile Free Cloud

Here’s a timely reminder, if one were needed, that you should never assume anything you store online is going to be there for very long, unless it’s on a system (a) that you are paying for and ideally (b) that you run or manage.

Flickr has announced that it’s going to start removing photos from its free accounts: everyone can still have 1,000 images, but that’s much less storage than they offered for free in the past. If you have more than that, they’ll start deleting the older ones first. I starting uploading things to Flickr about 13 or 14 years ago, so 90% of my 10,000 Flickr images will vanish over the next few months.

Most of the Snapchat/Instagram generation are probably not interested in anything that happened more than 1000 images ago! But people who have used Flickr for archiving the first pictures of their children or grandchildren may be in for a surprise. The name ‘Flickr’ might have a certain irony to it…

Now, this is a perfectly reasonable thing for the company to do, and there are several ways you can deal with it: you can start paying for your account, you can download your images if you don’t have local copies, or you can migrate them over to Smugmug (who now own Flickr). But only the first of those options will keep your photos nicely arranged in their albums, and, more importantly, will preserve your image URLs, so I imagine there will be a very large number of pages around the world with Flickr-shaped holes in them where an image used to be. Whichever option you choose, do it before the end of the year.

Now, I’ve been a fan of Flickr for a long time, and paid for an account for about a decade — it’s a good service and reasonably priced — but I switched to Smugmug a few years back because it was a better fit for my occasional bits of professional work. I don’t mind paying for one photo storage service, but I’d rather not pay for two, especially from the same company! So my photo archive has been copied to SmugMug, and I’ll probably need to write a bit of code to go through my blog and fix Flickr URLs. The album arrangements, though, will vanish if I take this approach.

Anyway, the moral of the story is this: You need to look after your own data. Don’t assume that anyone else will do it for you, on a long-term basis, and especially if you’re not paying for the service! In particular, don’t assume that any URL is going to continue to work in the future unless it’s on a domain that you control and manage.

And lastly…

Remember that this will almost certainly also happen at some point to the pages you have on Facebook, the images you have on Instagram and the videos you have on YouTube. Don’t assume that a service will continue indefinitely because the company is large or because it has a model based on advertising revenue. I had stuff on Google Video too…

Update: Thanks to John for pointing me at Thomas Hawk’s post explaining that Flickr’s action is a good thing; yes, I agree overall!

Mod cons of the future

At a recent workshop, I was sitting next to a senior manager from a large multinational company, whose name I shall withhold to save her possible embarrassment. We were discussing the future of self-driving vehicles, and what services might be provided by autonomous units that came to you, rather than you having to go to them.

Well, we were deep into a highly ‘facilitated’ meeting, where our brainstorming was rather… structured…, and it may have been as an act of rebellion that, at some point, one of us came up with the idea of the self-driving toilet, something you could summon when desperate.

And then we got a bit giggly, and started planning the advertising campaign. We came up with phrases like, “Wees on Wheels!” and “When you need the loo, we come to you!”, before order was re-established.

You may scoff. But you just wait. It’ll happen, I tell you, and when it does, remember that you heard about it first on Status-Q…

And then three come along at once…

If you go to a bus stop where the bus arrives, on average, every 10 minutes, how long will you wait?

5 minutes, on average, right?

Wrong.

This is an example of The Inspection Paradox, a phenomenon of which I was dimly aware, but I came across some nice examples in my reading this morning – and it’s an important thing to understand.

You see, 5 minutes would be the right answer if the bus came at exactly evenly-spaced 10 minute intervals. But this doesn’t happen, at least, not outside Switzerland. So the gaps may be bigger or smaller.

If you arrive at a random time, you are more likely to hit one of the bigger gaps. The average waiting time that you, as a passenger, will experience, will therefore be higher. (Python programmers interested in a detailed analysis of this example could take a look at this blog post. If the arrival time follows a reasonably long-tailed Poisson distribution — admittedly unlikely in this particular example — then your average wait could actually be as high as 10 minutes.)

Allen Downey’s blog has a range of other nice examples in here. You can read the whole thing if you want the details, but here are a few excerpts of the key points:

A common example is the apparent paradox of class sizes. Suppose you ask college students how big their classes are and average the responses. The result might be 56. But if you ask the school for the average class size, they might say 31. It sounds like someone is lying, but they could both be right.

Basically, if you sample students at random, you are often more likely to hit students in larger classes, and that will skew your statistics if you are trying to determine the actual average class size.

That’s not necessarily a mistake. If you want to quantify student experience, the average across students might be a more meaningful statistic than the average across classes. But you have to be clear about what you are measuring and how you report it.

Here’s another travel-related example:

The same effect applies to passenger planes. Airlines complain that they are losing money because so many flights are nearly empty. At the same time passengers complain that flying is miserable because planes are too full. They could both be right. When a flight is nearly empty, only a few passengers enjoy the extra space. But when a flight is full, many passengers feel the crunch.

The Inspection Paradox is relevant to social networks, too – real or virtual.

In 1991, Scott Feld presented the “friendship paradox”: the observation that most people have fewer friends than their friends have.

If you think that everyone you know has a wider social circle than you do, it’s because you are simply more likely to be in the social circles of people with bigger social circles.

That may or may not make you feel better, but at least you now have a name for it!

Photo: Frank Hank

Update, a few days later:

As I sit in a long phone queue waiting to talk to BT, my broadband provider, I ponder just how often, on such calls, I hear the phrase, “We are experiencing a large number of calls at the moment, and we apologise for the delay…” I have often thought, that, since they always seem to be experiencing an unusually large number of calls, perhaps they need to employ some more people.

But then I realise, of course, that I am one of those large numbers. It is natural that people will experience this more often than not, because more people will be calling during the periods when more people are calling…

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser