Monthly Archives: January, 2007

And which version of Vista was Sir considering?

Thanks to John for pointing me at this:

Scary phone call

I called my dentist this morning. I could barely hear the receptionist over the sound of hammer-drilling.

Was most relieved when she said they had builders in the surgery that morning.

What 50lbs of clay can teach you about design

I liked this parable, quoted on LifeClever.

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot, albeit a perfect one, to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work and learning from their mistakes, the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Do you expect me to talk, Goldfinger?

I was getting some laser engraving done by the nice people over at Trilogy Lasercraft, a nearby company. They showed me some of their machines in operation, and they’re great fun to watch. This was for another customer:

They cut and engrave lots of different materials, but paper and card form quite a big part of their business. The light that you see is not the laser, which is infrared and invisible. It’s the flaring of the paper particles that are burned off.

The Digital Delusion

The general population really doesn’t understand digital technology. And it’s costing them money.

HDMI connectorThis was brought home to me last weekend while helping a friend choose a new TV. In the local shop, I noticed a variety of HDMI cables for sale. Now HDMI, for those of you not familiar with it, is quite a nice standard. It provides digital video and digital audio down a single compact and convenient connection. Much neater than the bulky DVI, VGA, SCART etc which preceded it.

However, notice that it’s a digital standard. This means that, subject to major failures, what goes in at one end ought to come out at the other. Why, then, does the store sell a variety of cables of different qualities and prices? In the days of analog connections, there was something to be said for low-impedance connections and for careful screening. Who knows, those articles in the hi-fi press extolling the virtues of gold plugs and low-oxygen copper cables might even have had something to them.

But in the digital world, if you put ones and zeros in one end of a cable and don’t get something recognisable as ones and zeros at the other, you don’t get a slightly worse picture or sound. You get complete breakdown, and major image or sound corruption. A cable which does that should not be sold at a cheaper price; it shouldn’t be sold at all. Better-quality cabling will allow things to work over greater distances, but for the average user with a DVD player under his TV, it will make no difference at all.

For example, my (quite expensive) CD player is connected to my (quite expensive) amplifier through a digital COAX connection. I use a single phono-phono cable I bought for about $1 in a Radio Shack sale. And the sound is perfect.

So I asked the nice man in the shop about the fact that they sold a modest-length HDMI cable for over £100 just beside the one for £15 (which, incidentally, probably costs less than a dollar to make).

“Oh yes”, he said, “it does have an effect. We had a customer do a side-by-side test just recently and he could see a difference. He bought the more expensive cable.”

“But how?”, I asked. “It’s ones and zeros! You don’t get better quality ones or nicer-shaped zeros by paying more! How could there be a difference?”

“Well, the customer said there was one. I don’t really understand the science behind how it all works…”

The customer is always right, you see. Even when science is against him.

And now back to my copy of Richard Dawkins…

Followup: Gizmodo did some tests and agreed with my assertion. It makes no difference whether you have cheap leads or expensive ones for short distances. It can be worth paying the extra if your cable is more than 50ft long.

Apostrophetically speaking

Why should I sell the Canadian farmers’ wheat?

So asked Pierre Trudeau, a Canadian Prime Minister in the sixties.

“Why on earth am I reading that quotation here?”, asked the readers of Status-Q.

Well, simply because it struck me when I saw it in the Economist this morning as a lovely illustration of why kids need to be taught how to use the apostrophe, something which appears not to be fashionable in schools today.

The Economist, of course, got it right. But if Trudeau had asked “Why should I sell the Canadian farmers wheat?” it would have had almost exactly the opposite meaning – a ‘coals to Newcastle’ scenario.

And if the apostrophe had been one place to the left, he would either have been questioning a specific favouritism to one farmer, or making some more general statement about a stereotypical agrarian Canadian. We think the latter more likely because we happen to know he was PM of that country, but had M.Trudeau been a grumpy flour merchant in Provence who disliked one of his new immigrant neighbours, things might have been different.

Anyway, nothing earth-shattering here. I simply offer it to parents who need more examples of why homework is important!

The answer, my friend?

wind farm construction

A great set of photos covering off-shore wind farms, their construction, and occasional destruction.

Thanks to Laura for the link.

Something to sit and think about…

This public convenience is under police surveillance

Spotted today in St Ives.

Pixels though the air

DisplayLink seem to have made quite a splash at CES with their demo of a monitor connected via wireless USB. Lots of people have picked up the story:

to name just a few…

How do jays walk?

There was a rather wonderful story this week about a British academic being wrestled to the ground by an Atlanta cop for crossing the road in the wrong place.

The bespectacled professor says he didn’t realise the “rather intrusive young man” shouting that he shouldn’t cross there was a policeman. “I thanked him for his advice and went on.”

At this point, some words were exchanged and things got somewhat more physical, with Professor Fernandez-Armesto being handcuffed and taken away, the cops even going so far as to confiscate his box of peppermints, and the good professor spending eight hours in a cell. It’s truly an incident of which P.G.Wodehouse would be proud.

The jaywalking rules, I think, are rather sensible in the context of the grid-like road layout of most American cities, and I flout them only rarely, usually when I’m walking in situations where any sane native would expect to drive, and the road system has been designed accordingly.

But what’s delicious about this story is its revelations about the nature of policing, and the public’s expectations of it in different countries. Having been stopped twice by police in rural parts of the U.S. (for the more serious offence of speeding, I regret to say), I have found them to be polite and professional, and tolerant of batty Englishmen who didn’t know the speed limit on the open road. I have witnessed incidents which suggest that their urban colleagues are rather more hard-line. But at least they were present, visible, and taking action, which is something we could probably do with rather more of here in the UK, where crime rates are generally higher.

Professor Fernandez-Armesto seems, in retrospect, rather to have relished his experience. In a Sunday Times article he says:

… I remain lucky to be in America, in a gloriously liberal university with wonderful students and colleagues. So it grieves me to see the anti-Americanism with which I grew up renewed around the world. In a small way my own story, much to my regret, is reinforcing resentment of America. After being the surprising quarry of the cops, I became the almost equally surprising quarry of the worlds media.

Almost all the reports concentrated on the excesses of police zeal, and dwelt on the crudities and savageries of life in US cities, without mentioning any redeeming features. I would like the world to understand America better, just as I work hard in my classes and my writing to help Americans better understand the world. But the licensed brutality and barbarism of so many security agencies over here from the Atlanta police upwards keeps making the task harder.

Will all the outrage my case generated make any difference? I want to think so, but fear the force of official defensiveness, intransigence and incapacity for self-criticism. The mayor of Atlanta has announced an official inquiry into the way I was treated; but inquiries mean delay and delay is the deadliest form of denial. The best way to reassure visitors would be to issue orders to the police, reminding them that visitors may not always know state laws.

See What every Brit should know about jaywalking for more information.

Pixie dust

I have an elderly Nikon Coolpix 995, which I love. I, or at least my company, also owned two of its predecessors, and while newer cameras may have more megapixels, and be easier to wear on one’s belt, the optics on these were great, and the twisty design proved useful over and over again.

Coolpix 995

Anyway, I was distressed to see, last time I used it, that it had developed a few ‘hot’ pixels. These are failures in the CCD sensor, which show up as bright pixels in the same place in every image, especially when a long exposure is used.

To have a few failures is normal, and some cameras have the ability to remap such dud pixels so they don’t appear in the final image. Normally, this would involve sending the camera to Nikon for servicing, but I came across a Windows utility called CCD Defects Reader, written by a Russian chap named Paul. It works with several of the cameras in the Coolpix range, and sure enough, after rebooting my Linux box into Windows to run this, my dead pixels had vanished, and a photo taken with the lens cap on was beautifully black, instead of looking like a map of the night sky!

Here’s an account from somebody doing the same thing with a Coolpix 5700.

Just testing…

A quick test of Joe Tan’s Flickr Photo Album plugin for WordPress.


It makes it very easy to drop photos from your Flickr albums into blog posts. This is jolly convenient, but I have to decide where I want to keep my online photos in general. If I keep them here on my own server, then they’re always under my control. I expect this blog to keep going for many more years, but what happens to the archives if, say, I let my Flickr Pro account expire…

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser