Monthly Archives: September, 2010

Measure for Measure

I still remember my delight in realising – from a throwaway comment by my physics-teacher father – that a Newton, the unit of force, was roughly equivalent to the weight of an apple. I had known its scientific meaning for some time, but all of a sudden I could visualise it in a way I never had before, and an apple… well it just seemed so appropriate!

I’ve been thinking about scientific units and measurements, and illustrations that can help one understand them in terms of daily life. Here are a couple of others that I find pleasing:

* Thanks to plate tectonics, America and Europe are moving apart at about the speed that fingernails grow. (Thanks to Bill Bryson)

* The distance from London to Cambridge is about one degree. (I worked that out before realising it was a nice academic double-entendre!)

* A nanosecond is the time it takes light to travel one foot.

* A microwave oven is about one horsepower. (Not sure if that’s useful, but it’s interesting)

Anyone got any others? Please add them in the comments if so!

Martin King

My dear friend Martin King passed away last week. He was perhaps the most remarkable, intelligent, tall, good-hearted, inventive, generous, and thoroughly frustrating person I have ever known.

Our lives were closely intertwined for many years, despite the fact that we lived thousands of miles apart. He and I filed dozens of patents and started three companies together. Amongst other things not normally associated with business relationships, we also explored antique stores in Amsterdam, flew to Hong Kong for a long weekend, and took long road trips through the deserts of Oregon, discussing pixel-encoding algorithms and the meaning of life between loud bursts of Leonard Cohen.

Martin was always full of surprises. I remember him casually mentioning once that he had sailed single-handed across the Atlantic. I remember his descriptions of tree-level helicopter flights in Vietnam. And even amongst those familiar with the technology which brought him financial success – the T9 predictive-text software for mobile phones – few know it was a direct development of his early work on a low-cost eye-tracking system for those with paraplegia.

Both T9, and the company Tegic which created it, were significant achievements. T9 saved you having to tap the ‘2’ key three times to get the letter ‘C’, for example, because it used a dictionary to establish that a limited number of words – often only one – could be represented by the sequence of keys you had typed. Some disliked or were confused by the system, but for many it was the only way to perform text input at a reasonable speed on the phones of yesteryear.

In these days of iPhone app stores it seems primitive, but there were some serious challenges back then. Memory on mobile devices was expensive stuff, so they had to pack a decent-sized dictionary – 64,000 words – into 64Kbytes. That’s a good problem for a Computer Science project. (And don’t make it too dependent on the structure of English words, because when you need to show it to Samsung you’ll want to throw together a demo in Korean.) But there was a business hurdle to overcome, too: at that time all the software on a phone was written by the manufacturer, and T9 was, I believe, the first third-party software to be licensed and incorporated by all the major vendors. Others can tell the Tegic story better than me, since it happened several years before I knew Martin. But I hope that somebody will, because I suspect in the hands of the right author it would make a cracking good yarn.

Martin could become intensely focussed on a project or topic, to an extent that was sometimes uncomfortable. He became obsessed with things that frustrated him, including, sometimes, people, who usually through no fault of their own would suddenly fall out of favour, and some found themselves encouraged to pursue their careers elsewhere. He was always fair, often very generous, in compensating those affected, but it can’t have been easy to be on the receiving end, wondering where it had all gone wrong…

Yet it was this focus on his frustrations that also made him so incredibly inventive. Things would bug him, and he would ask why they had to be that way. Some of our most enjoyable discussions – and quite a few patents – would come when one of us, usually he, posed a question like “Why do you have to reset your watch manually every time you fly to another country?” And then the notebooks would come out and all plans of getting any sleep on the plane would be cast aside.

When Martin was diagnosed with multiple myeloma five years ago, there were times when we thought he might only be around for a few more months, and times when the prognosis seemed much more hopeful. We’d always discussed life and death pretty openly, so it was easy to talk about the latter now. By way of expressing my gratitude for this, I once told him, rather inelegantly, “Well, Martin, if I had to have a friend who was dying, I’d want it to be you.” He laughed out loud, and quoted this back to me on many an occasion.

Martin, you were an inspiration.

Duplicate mail messages

In my various shufflings, copyings, archivings of email messages between my IMAP folders, I often end up with duplicates.

Sometimes, a copy or move goes badly wrong and I end up with hundreds of duplicates.

Many years ago I wrote a bit of Java code which would find and remove duplicates, but I’ve now converted it to a Python script and released it as Open Source, in case it’s useful to anyone else.

You can find IMAPdedup here.

Feedback and improvements welcome!

An economical use of legs

Spotted at Kensington Metropark, Michigan.

It reminds me of a very old joke.

Q. Why does a stork stand on one leg?

A. Because if it took both of them off the ground it would fall over.

The Missing Mountain

You can find a few places, scattered around the world, which bear the name ‘Bald Mountain’. To use the word ‘mountain’ to describe anything in south-east Michigan, though, is definitely wishful thinking!

Bald Mountain Recreation Area, is, however, very pretty.





A few more pictures here.

The Proud Husband and The Mistaken Wife

The US edition of Rose’s third novel, The Mistaken Wife, is published today.

Rose is in the midst of a flurry of talks, interviews and other events, some of which you can find out about on her site. We had a launch and signing party here in Michigan a few days ago, but today is the official date when it hits the shelves.

Available from and all other good booksellers.

And if you’re a Kindle or an iBooks fan, remember that eBooks are never out of stock!

I may be closer than I appear


Good hydrations

I know I’m back in America, when even my shopping cart has two beverage cup holders.

Not a bad idea, really…

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser