Speedy boarding?

Elon Musk’s latest rocket concept – the ‘BFR’ – would take you anywhere in the world in under an hour, and most destinations in about 30 mins.

Oh, that’s plus, presumably, three hours for check-in, security and passport control. And another for baggage collection and immigration when you get there…

However, if he can fix that – i.e. sort out the airports too – then going to Mars should be easy in comparison…

The Dyson Car?

So Dyson are planning to make an electric car. Here are my predictions:

  • It will be very expensive, but will look as if it’s made out of cheap plastic.
  • It will incorporate a few very cunning engineering innovations, and many dozens of equally cunning patents.
  • It will probably use some terribly clever steering mechanism.
  • The air ventilation system will be out of this world!

I may post some more serious comments tomorrow!

Swing Low

The song of most small birds just sounds like a stream of tweets and whistles to us, but if you slow them down, you can get a wonderful feel for what’s going on.

Here’s a nice compilation of lots of them. I like the little wren at the beginning, the (rather quiet) skylark at about 17:57 has a nice rhythm when slowed down, and the song thrush that follows him is quite fun. If other birds can pick out these details, you can imagine there might be quite a lot of communication going on.

The real star, however, is the Veery Thrush, whom you can hear in this slowed-down clip. He’s the subject of the rather fun New Scientist article, which was what first caught my attention.

Now, I wonder if you sped up a clip of cows mooing, you could get a similar effect?

Head case

Prof. Guglielmo Tamburrini posed an interesting question in a talk this afternoon. Imagine a self-driving car faced with the option of having to hit one of two motorcyclists. One is wearing a helmet, and the other isn’t. Should it aim for the helmet-wearing guy, to reduce the risk of loss of life?

Philosophers must be having a field day with this stuff. They’re being invited to comment on the latest in sexy new technologies in a way that doesn’t happen very often. (Douglas Adams fans may remember Majikthise & Vroomfondel.) Much of the ethical discussion relating to autonomous vehicles, though, boils down to variations on the Trolley Problem, and the key thing about this — the thing that makes it an interesting ethical conundrum in the first place — is that there is no right answer. If deployment of the railways had required the Trolley Problem to be solved first, we would still be using horse-drawn carts.

The question is not, ‘What should a car do in this situation?’, but ‘How do we get to a point where society is comfortable that we’ve had enough discussion about this?’ Or, more precisely, ‘How do we get to a point where a large enough fraction of society is comfortable, that a party proposing to allow such vehicles on our roads would be elected to government?’

Many technologies, historically, have first been used, and then later have had restrictions placed upon them to reduce the risks which are discovered, with experience, to be the key ones: motorcyclists needing helmets, cars needing seat-belts, pilots needing licences, smokers needing to go outside.

What I presume will happen here is that societies who are less risk-averse will go ahead with greater degrees of autonomous driving, and the more conservative nations will watch with interest until they can amass enough vicarious experience to follow in their footsteps.

I imagine, however, that in 50 years’ time, we’ll still be debating the motorcycle question raised above. By then, though, it will be even more hypothetical, since we’ll have long-since banned motorcycles.

Italian transport

I’m at a conference in Modena, the city of balsamic vinegar and Enzo Ferrari.

Love in Paradise

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my sadness that the Lovefilm by Post service was being discontinued, since nothing offered by the streaming companies could really compare with it.

Well, I’m delighted to say that my friend Phil Ashby pointed me at Cinema Paradiso, which offers an almost identical service, and may even have a slightly larger catalog. I signed up and copied over the entries from my LoveFILM wishlist, and I’ve already received one disk which wasn’t available on Lovefilm.

I still hope that someone will offer such a comprehensive catalogue using more modern technologies one day, but in the meantime, I’m a happy viewer again!

Tristram Shandy on blogging?

Little boots it to the subtle speculatist to stand single in his opinions,-— unless he gives them proper vent:— It was the identical thing which my father did;— for in the year sixteen, which was two years before I was born, he was at the pains of writing an express DISSERTATION simply upon the word Tristram,—-shewing the world, with great candour and modesty, the grounds of his great abhorrence to the name.

Pied Piper

Every time I read something by Nevil Shute, I realise that this is something I should do much, much more frequently. He is truly brilliant, yet I have, so far, read only a few of his books.

The latest one is Pied Piper, which I’ve just completed in the unabridged audiobook version read by the (also superb) David Rintoul. (I’ve enthused about audiobooks here before – if you haven’t tried them, they look, individually, rather expensive, but an Audible subscription makes them about the same price as a book.)

Anyway, Pied Piper comes highly recommended, in whichever form you consume it.

An unusual four-wheeled electric vehicle

What better way to carry a bicycle than in another bicycle?

A few months ago, I enthused about the electric cargo bike that I had tried out at a local shop. Being without a car for a little while, I started looking at them with more interest, and I discovered that the awfully nice people at Outspoken could actually rent me one for a few days. But they’re on the far side of Cambridge, so I cycled out there on my Brompton and came back with it in the front. It all worked beautifully, but I couldn’t help thinking about The Royal Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things

Someone who wasn’t quite so sure about the whole idea was my spaniel Tilly, but once she settled down, it was a great way to transport her to one of her favourite walking spots, about 3 or 4 miles away, against a strong headwind, and bring her back afterwards.

(The rattling noise is the little bench seat for children, which I’d folded back for this trip.)

LovedFilm

We are amongst the many people mourning the impending departure of Lovefilm by Post – the DVD rental service which was absorbed by Amazon a few years ago, and which they recently announced would close at the end of October. A few years back, I looked at the list of our past rentals, and it was over 750 titles. They now truncate the history to the last 200, so I can’t see our current total, but I guess we must have watched in the region of 1000 movies. I’m not even going to calculate how many weeks of enjoyment that represents! We joined soon after the service started, which was also around the time we pretty much stopped watching live TV.

Lovefilm was clearly living on borrowed time: like Netflix’s original postal service in the US, on which it was modelled, we knew it would eventually succomb to the higher profit margins available from streaming. But Netflix and Amazon Prime – both of which we also use – don’t offer a fraction of the titles that we want to watch. If I look back at just a few of our recent rentals – not even particularly obscure foreign language ones, but things like Cadfael, or Humphrey Bogart’s Sahara – LoveFILM is, I think, the only way to get them without actually buying them.

Ian Dunt’s piece in the Guardian puts it nicely:

I’ve no interest in trawling through the movies on Netflix and Amazon Prime. It’s like the DVD bargain bin at a suburban petrol station. There are about five quality films on there, all of which you’ve seen, and then an endless black hole of celluloid mediocrity.

We also often enjoyed watching the directors’ commentaries and other extra features on the disks, which are seldom available from the online services.

So, strangely, this change will probably push us back towards the purchase and ownership of more physical media. Amazon may have realised this and decided it was to their advantage! But we’d better collect copies of our old favourites (and rip them) before DVDs, too, fall by the wayside.

It is interesting that, despite interesting offerings from people like Curzon, nobody has managed to offer a general streaming service that compares in the breadth and quality of the postal catalog. I’m guessing this is a legal and licensing problem, and that Lovefilm by Post was able to survive based on the tail-end of some historical agreements put in place for VHS rental shops.

But if anyone does work out a way, legal or technical, to offer a service catering to those interested in more than just the blockbusters, they will make a lot of money. From me, at least.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser