Monthly Archives: April, 2011

Her Master’s Voice

Her Master's Voice

Philosophical wisdom for today

When I was young we had a poster with some quotations on it on the wall of the loo at my parents’ house. I had forgotten this one until now:

To do is to be
– Nietzsche

To be is to do
– Kant

Do be do be do
– Sinatra

Location, location, location

Others have written lots of good stuff about the recent discovery that the iPhone keeps a log of your location and that this gets synced to your PC, where it can be found by those who know where to look. Many are shocked by the fact that it is stored in unencrypted form. And it’s not just the iPhone.

Now, personally, I am very pleased to have this information available and am thinking about the best ways to make use of it. I had been considering writing an iPhone app to do exactly this but was concerned about the likely implications to the battery life, so I’m delighted that I don’t need to bother.

Others’ opinions vary widely, however, about how this data might be abused. Some talk about how, because it’s unencrypted, the Feds (or the scary faceless organisation of your choice) could get hold of it if they broke into your home. Well, yes, but they have so many other ways of tracking you – credit cards, speed cameras and of course the triangulation information from your phone company, that breaking into your house seems a bit unnecessary. Others are worried, apparently, that their wives might be able to detect any little deceptions they may wish to keep secret. Such people have the sympathy they deserve.

But the real question for me is why location information causes such concern.

Did you know that Apple also produces another very sinister product? It gathers all your personal secret communications from the cloud and stores it in – gasp! – unencrypted form on your hard disk! It’s called Mail – the email program. And if you fire up Skype, you can look back through those past Skype messages. And iCal will let someone browse your personal appointments!

So, of course, you stop these things by putting passwords on your computer, encrypting your home directory if you’re concerned, or making sure that only people you trust have access to your machine. This is what we’ve always done.

The only shocking thing about this situation is that many people didn’t know that physical location was one of the things that could be traced. For all I know my laptop and phone may keep a history of the MAC addresses of wifi base stations they have connected to, which can also be used to identify location. Does yours? And your email provider probably has a log of the IP addresses from which you’ve connected to pick up your mail, which can also be used to follow your movements. And who knows what someone, including your wife, might be able to deduce if they had a good look at your sat-nav.

I remember a stunned silence at a business breakfast a few months back when I pointed out to the assembled company that Vodafone knew when they broke the speed limit. They’d never thought of that.

Well, now you know.

Fear of flying

Here’s an interesting article published in Psychological Science in 2004.

Basically, the results suggested that in the first few months following 9/11, because many more people in the States drove their cars longer distances, being fearful of flying, the increased number of deaths on the roads were actually greater than the number of people who died in the 9/11 planes.

There are some who disagree with their conclusion, saying that we don’t really know the reasons why people chose to drive instead of flying. Rose suggested that people may have opted for the car because they feared, not the flying, but the long security procedures at the airports!

But an interesting study, none the less, I thought.

Keeping fees in perspective

When I was young, somebody told me, “You should never borrow money for anything smaller than a house.” It was good advice, and ever since, I’ve disliked the idea of spending any money I haven’t yet earned. I drove old bangers, and fixed them myself, until I had the money to buy something better. I’ll only buy a new car now when I have enough money in the bank to pay for it. And I don’t use credit cards.

So I’ve always disliked the idea of graduating students starting their working lives with large amounts of debt, and when student loans first appeared in the UK, just as I was finishing my undergraduate course, I was opposed to them. Twenty years on, Oxford, Cambridge and a large number of other places are likely to be charging the full £9,000 tuition fee next year, and lots of people are up in arms about it, but I find myself feeling rather differently.

I was fortunate to have had a good education, and to have experienced both state comprehensive schools and a fee-paying private school. The teachers, in general, were good, intelligent and dedicated, in both. The students, the facilities, and everybody’s expectations, were rather different.

My parents, being teachers, would have struggled to afford a private education for me, but it was a high priority for them and I was fortunate to win a scholarship which allowed me to have a few more years of it than might otherwise have been possible. And what I really appreciated about life at the private school was that this was a place where learning wasn’t despised by the other kids, where everybody had worked towards at least a basic level of academic achievement to get here, and where everybody knew that daddy was paying a lot for the privilege. Not everybody felt that way, of course, but that was how it struck me. Yes, education should be a right for all, but there is also a large degree to which we value more that for which we have to pay more. Or, to be more precise, that for which we can choose to pay more.

One of the things my father found difficult when he returned from a couple of decades of teaching in Africa was to have students who didn’t really want to learn. He had never encountered that before, in a place where education was a privilege available only to a few…

Now, not having kids, I haven’t followed this recent debate closely, but this is how I try to keep things in perspective:

  • If the top universities like Oxford and Cambridge do levy tuition fees of £9000, they will then be charging, per year, approximately what Stanford, Harvard and M.I.T charge per quarter.
  • Most Oxbridge colleges have been running at a loss for some time – the money they have been getting from the government has long been insufficient to cover the per-student costs. There is already a heavy positive discrimination in favour of those from less-privileged backgrounds, and that will, if anything, increase.
  • The repayment terms of these new fees are such that the average cost of your higher education, once you start earning, will be about the same as the average UK mobile phone bill.

Arguably, education is one of the few purchases more important than a house. So, perhaps, having to borrow for it is not such a great hardship. Even if you do have to give up your mobile phone in exchange.

QR-code size envy

I normally use QR codes to communicate small amounts of information: URLs or phone numbers, typically.

But I discovered today that the spec allows them to be really quite large. This is the biggest I could manage, and I have successfully scanned this from the screen using Optiscan on my iPhone 3GS, but I had to hold the phone very still and make sure the code filled the image.

(You can click it for the same thing at a larger scale)

It defeated the other two apps I have – QR App and QuickMark. But at this scale the resolution of the camera starts to be significant – you don’t get very many pixels per block – so the same apps might work on an iPhone 4.

Can anyone else read it? (Using a camera from the screen, that is..)

Creating HTML signatures for Apple Mail

Apple Mail handles email signatures quite nicely: you can create several of them, for example, and associate particular ones with particular email accounts, so you’re less likely to mismatch signatures and messages.

But, while Mail is very good at displaying HTML content, it doesn’t offer many facilities for editing it. This is as true of signatures as it is of messages. So if you’d like to customise the signature at the bottom of your messages with anything more than a simple change of font size and colour, you’ll have to jump through a few hoops, and be familiar with editing HTML and CSS.

I’m sure that Status-Q readers have sufficient taste to avoid anything too garish, and sufficient sense to know that those annoying legal disclaimers are largely worthless, so let’s imagine you’re just after a small decoration on your messages like this:

Signatures are stored as .webarchive files in your ~/Library/Mail/Signatures folder.
Update: in more recent versions of Mac OS X, they seem to be in ~/Library/Mail/V2/MailData/Signatures.

You can’t edit these directly, but you can view them in Safari, and use Safari to create them.

So here’s how to do it:

  1. Create a new signature in Mail – it can have anything in it – and then quit Mail.
  2. Create some basic HTML in a text editor. I used the following:
  3. Save the HTML file and load it into Safari.
  4. Save it as a Web Archive from Safari.
  5. Find the signature you created earlier in ~/Library/Mail/Signatures, and copy this new webarchive over the top. Signatures have awkward long filenames, so you may want to rename your new file by copying and pasting the sig’s filename, and then drag it into the Signatures folder.
  6. Start up Mail, and you should find your new sig in place. However, Mail normally puts in some extra HTML tags and structure of its own, and I imagine it will be happier with your new signature if you follow the same conventions. So…
  7. Use Mail to make some small edit in the signature text. (e.g. add a space or a full-stop).
  8. Close the Mail Preferences to make sure the signature is saved.

If you want to see what Mail has now done to your signature’s HTML, you can open it in Safari and use View Source, and you can copy this, save it as HTML, edit it to your heart’s content and then convert it again to a webarchive as before.

Remember that email programs vary widely in the HTML they will support or allow in messages, so don’t spend too much time trying to create complex Javascript animations! But you can still do some useful, as well as decorative, things: my normal signature looks like fairly standard contact information, but the postal address is a link to Google maps, the Skype ID is clickable (using a Skype URL), my Twitter and Facebook names will take you to the appropriate pages, and so forth.

Shower the people you love with love

I’ve just arrived in Lausanne, Switzerland. It’s late, so I haven’t seen much of the town, though what I have seen looks quite pleasing.

After a busy day, hassles with airport security, a budget flight and a long trudge through dark streets I found the small hotel where I’m spending a couple of nights. The room is basic and appeared somewhat uninspiring, but has just risen several points in my estimation for a very simple reason: I’ve just tried the shower.

In Britain, I have a pet peeve, nay, a hatred, of the snivelling little dribble of water which often emerges from the plumbing in the corner of what would otherwise be a delightful hotel room or a charming chambre in a B&B. Often this is down to a fundamental misunderstanding of basic science on the part of British plumbers and their customers, who install all-electric showers, because they have been sold the fallacy that a few kilowatts is sufficient to heat the water for a shower on the spur of the moment.

Now listen! It ain’t so, people! That’s why there’s a tiny shower head with microscopic holes. It’s so the tablespoon of water that emerges per second can do so with enough velocity that you can actually detect the four jets hitting your scalp. But it’s totally useless for, say, washing shampoo out of your hair, let alone feeling cleaned and reinvigorated after a long journey.

The Americans, fortunately, never embraced such foolishness, partly, I imagine, because at 110v you can’t get enough power down the wires even to pretend to create a shower, but mostly because as a nation they understand that the shower is a great and important invention that restoreth thy soul in time of need, and one should plan its installation accordingly.

Well, it appears that the Swiss not only have trains which are clean, quiet, run on time and have power sockets by every seat, but they also have budget hotel rooms with simple but powerful showers pouring gallons of lovely water onto the heads of weary travellers before they tumble into bed, thus disposing them to think well of the city before they’ve even seen it in daylight.

When you can run as fast as this…

…who needs to touch the ground?

Life in death

A tree on the Wimpole Hall estate.

I had a good walk around there with the dog today. More info on Wagipedia.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser