Monthly Archives: August, 2009

Second new unit of the day

Here’s another unit you’ll want to get used to over the next few years: the lumen. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s (roughly) a measure of brightness. A traditional pearl 60W bulb gives out about 700 lumens.

And this is important, because you’re not going to be able to buy a traditional pearl 60W bulb in Europe for much longer – that’s the theory anyway, though a loophole may help out – and it turns out that manufacturers of low-energy replacements have been misleading us somewhat as to how bright they are, claiming that bulbs are ’60W equivalent’, for example, when in fact they’re quite a bit dimmer.

So, look at the lumens, not the watts, because the watts, they are a-changin’.

And I’d better start stockpiling incandescent bulbs until someone produces a low-energy one that works with the dimmer switches that are throughout my house. Thankfully, they’re not far away…

New units of the day

Well, I’m only about 9 years behind the times, but that’s because of my classical education.

As any well-educated computer scientist will tell you, most things in computing are measured in powers of two; a natural result of the fact that all of today’s computers are binary-based. And thus it is that a kilobyte is not 1000 bytes but 1024 bytes, because 1024 is 2 to the power 10. A megabyte is 1024 kilobytes and a gigabyte is 1024 of those.

That, at least, is how most of us were brought up, but there was always a certain degree of confusion caused by the fact that marketing types wanted to use 1000 where computer scientists used 1024, because it made their hard drives, flash drives etc look bigger. This is why, when you were sold a 100GB hard drive, and you took it home and plugged it in, it would look rather smaller; computers would report the size using a gigabyte that was about 7% bigger than the marketers’, so they would tell you that you had fewer of them.

Now, in 2000, the IEC established a new set of prefixes which are unambiguous, and have names which sound funny to those of us who have got used to thinking that ‘gigabyte’ is a normal sort of word. They are kibi, mebi, gibi etc – the ‘bi’ indicating ‘binary’. So a gibibyte (GiB) is 2^30 bytes, while a gigabyte (GB) is officially 10^9 bytes (a billion bytes), which is somewhat smaller.

Most of us have just ignored this change, but some systems now – like Apple’s ‘Snow Leopard’ operating system – apparently reports sizes in ‘official’ GB, so your 500GB hard disk will actually look like 500GB when it’s plugged in.

It isn’t really any bigger though. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

Getting to the bottom of news reports

Traditional hospital gowns are being phased out in NHS wards across Britain after patients complained that the garments left their bottoms exposed, says this article.

A pleased patient is quoted as saying:

I for one will be glad to see the back of them.

Note, though, that this is another (like this) somewhat over-enthusiastic Telegraph headline: it says the gowns are being ‘axed’ and ‘phased out in wards across Britain’. Well, yes, Southampton is getting rid of them, and the manufacturer of the alternative gowns says that another couple of hospitals have bought some as well. I’m not sure that this really represents a dramatic trend sweeping across the nation…

Exercise makes you fat

So said the headlines in the Telegraph a few days ago. (Interestingly, in the online version the big banner headline becomes the web page title, and so is much less visible at the top of your browser window.)

Fortunately, the article is much more moderate than the headline. Journalists often make many mistakes, but they often don’t write the headlines, and editors are much more concerned with sales figures than with accuracy. Creeping tabloidism has been infecting almost all of our broadsheets for many years, but how many readers will register that the article doesn’t really back up the headline imprinted in their memory?

Ben Goldacre has found himself a nice niche dissing – I believe that is the mot du jour – such reports after examining the evidence. Here’s his response to this one.

Eight and a half minutes to orbit

It’s 25 years since we started seeing footage of the space shuttle taking off – during which time the whole World Wide Web thing has happened – but it still makes for impressive viewing.

This is a pretty high quality video clip (on my broadband connection at least). Plug some good speakers or headphones in, turn up the volume, and watch as those rockets kick in. It’s hard not to be impressed at what man hath wrought.


The tragedy is, of course, that it took a cold war to get us to the moon, and nothing has quite lived up to that – it’s the rash but inspirational decisions that can perhaps only be made in wartime that often lead to mankind’s greatest achievements.

Will it take another war to get us beyond orbit once again?

How did I miss this?

The Monty Python channel on YouTube. Wonderful stuff, from Bicycle Repairman to the Ministry of Silly Walks. And I’ve always loved Every Sperm is Sacred.

Anyway, it’s all official and above-board and released by the Pythons themselves.

Total Eclipse of the chart

Bonnie Tyler as you’ve never seen her before.

Total Eclipse of the Heart

From Jeannie Harrell.

Thanks to Ian Yorston for the link.

The suit is back?

A splendid piece by Paul Graham on how PR works.

Misunderstanding Dawkins

Many people think of Richard Dawkins as a strident, aggressive figure. I think this comes mostly from passages in The God Delusion where he’s deliberately mischievous, in a way that is decidedly uncomfortable to those of a religious persuasion.

I read The God Delusion and then moved on to several of his other books, like The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene – all brilliant books, by the way, which transformed my understanding of many aspects of science – but the thing that got me started was really YouTube. Hearing and seeing him speak made me realise he was a very smart, very thoughtful guy, who wasn’t just out to poke fun at religion. He doesn’t always give that impression in his writing, especially to those who have only read small excerpts.

Here’s a little four-minute example of the man who has been christened “Darwin’s Rottweiler”:

Telling it like it is…

I loved the Homeopathic A&E sketch from Mitchell & Webb. Dara O’Briain makes some similar points rather nicely here:

Detroit is in trouble…

I pulled up behind this enormous truck, which towered over the (not insubstantial) car I had borrowed from my in-laws. There was one person in it, the driver, on his way to work, I should think.


There are two stickers on the back. The left one says, “Out of a job yet? Keep buying foreign!” and the other, “Please don’t fly MY flag on your foreign car!”

Somehow I think that’s not the real problem…

iPhone/iTouch recommendations

A few of my favourite recent iPhone/iPod Touch applications – all very different – all recommended:

  • offmapsOffMaps is a map browser. It lets you do similar things to the built-in Google maps, but based on OpenStreetMap data (which is sometimes better, sometimes worse, but generally more up to date). However, the reason you might want to use OffMaps is that the Off stands for ‘offline’. If you’re like me, one of the main times you want maps of an area is when you are in another country where roaming data charges are extravagant. With OffMaps you can download the maps for an area in advance and use them when you have data roaming turned off – very handy.
  • glyderGlyder. I’m not much of a gamer, but I really enjoyed this, and played it through to the end. It’s a lovely demo of the graphics capabilities of the platform, and a very nice use of the accelerometers as flight controls. Passed quite a lot of time very happily with this.
  • rightmoveRightMove is one of the biggest online estate agents in the UK, listing properties from very many sources. Their iPhone app is brilliant if you’re in an area and think, ‘I wonder how much it would cost me to move here?’. It can use your current location, and with one click list the properties for sale or rent near to you. You can enter an address as well, but that’s not so cute! Very easy to use and very nicely done.
  • hereiamHereIAm is a simple utility for iPhone users trying to find other iPhone-owning friends. It gets your current location, shows you an estimate of how confidently it knows it, and pops up an email-composing window which includes a link to google maps pinpointing your position. Desktop users clicking the link will get a browser window, iPhone users will get the Maps app. It works fine on my tests and it’s free… it would be nice to be able to preview the location before sending, though – something that should be possible in OS 3.0. But I guess you can just switch to the Maps app for that – it’ll be the same location.
  • collinsdictNow, given that most iPhone apps cost a pound or two, it may seem ridiculous to pay £14.99 for one! It must be pretty revolutionary, right? No, it’s a dictionary. A Collins French-English dictionary, in my case, though they have a variety of other languages available as well. So, yes, this does cost about the same as a nice hardback edition of the same dictionary, but it’s really very good, much quicker to search, and much easier to carry in your pocket. If you look up ‘frog’, it will also give the translations for ‘to have a frog in one’s throat’ and ‘frogman’. It includes verb declensions, it auto-completes searches… well, anyway, I took a deep breath before buying it when going on holiday, and have absolutely no regrets.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser