Monthly Archives: April, 2012

Tenuously LinkedIn?

Someone I have never met, communicated with, or even heard of has just sent me a LinkedIn invitation:

XYX has indicated you are a Friend:

Since you are a person I trust, I wanted to invite you to join my network on LinkedIn.

I guess he must just have a very positive view of mankind…

It reminds me of Zaphod Beeblebrox:

“Who are you?”

“A friend!” Shouted back the man. He ran toward Zaphod.

“Oh yeah?” said Zaphod. “Anyone’s friend in particular, or just generally well-disposed to people?”

Douglas Adams was a true visionary…

Broken promises

I am not in any sense a political animal, so I approach the subject with due humility, but as a mostly-detached observer with no party loyalties I’ve enjoyed watching the tactics in the run-up to some sort of local election which appears to be happening in the next few days.

The Labour candidate’s leaflet is emphasising the number of ‘broken election promises’ from the Lib. Dems. If memory serves, they formed a coalition with a very different party and had few, if any, election pledges in common with them. And they had about one-third of the number of votes of the Tories. So, on a rather simplistic but purely statistical basis, we should expect them to have to break their election promises about three-quarters of the time, shouldn’t we, to be democratically fair?

As Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other ones which have been tried!

Some recent iOS favourites

A few of my favourite iOS apps at present:

iThoughts HD

I’ve always had mixed feelings about mind-maps. They’re a great way to capture thoughts and to brainstorm, but a terrible way to communicate with others. The chief responsibility of somebody writing a paper or giving a talk, it seems to me, is to turn such a personal 2D ‘splat’ of ideas into a logically-ordered serial presentation that can be followed by others with different mental processes, and not just to serve up the splat in its unprocessed form.

Still, I do use them for my own notes, and a paper and pen has always been my medium of choice. I’ve tried several highly-regarded pieces of desktop software, but keyboards and mice just don’t seem right for doing this. iThoughts on the iPad is the first environment that feels pretty natural, especially if you use it with a stylus.


I listen to lots of podcasts, every day, while shaving, driving, walking the dog. I always used the facilities built into the iPhone music player and iTunes, which aren’t bad, so I had never really thought about using a separate app for it. And then I tried Instacast and was an Instaconvert.

Scanner Pro

If you have a recent iPhone with a good camera, then Scanner Pro is a really useful thing to have in your pocket. In essence it’s a photo app designed for capturing documents, or parts of documents, and it makes it easy (a) to crop and de-warp the images so as to get something closer to a proper scan and (b) to capture more than one ‘page’ as a single document and then (c) to email that as a PDF to someone (or upload it to various services). While you’d never confuse the results with the output of a proper scanner, there are times when you might be browsing in a library or perusing a magazine and you don’t happen to have a flat-bed scanner in your pocket…

The dictionaries

OK, here’s where you might need to start spending some real money… but I’ve definitely found it worthwhile when travelling to have the Collins language dictionaries in my pocket. I’ve now bought the expensive versions of the German-English, French-English and Italian-English ones and, even though they’re amongst the most costly apps on my phone, have never regretted it. They cost about the same as a hardback equivalent, but are a lot easier to carry around and I find, surprisingly, that I can look things up more quickly in them than on paper.

Another wonderful treat is to have the Shorter OED on my phone, something which in dead-tree form is hard even to lift off my bookshelf! (The current edition comes in two large hardbacks of around 2000 pages each.) It’s fabulous for all those times when someone at the restaurant tables asks, “What is the origin of the word ‘poppycock’?”. Sadly, the iOS app has been discontinued, so if you haven’t already got it, you’re out of luck, but there are a lot of lesser-but-much-cheaper options available, including Chambers.

Yes, you can often find good stuff on web, but not as quickly, especially if the restaurant table is in a basement. And if it’s in a foreign basement, then looking stuff up online may be rather expensive too.

Vous êtes hereux de me voir, ou vous avez une bibliothèque dans votre poche?…

Update 2012–08–14
Since this post, I’ve switched from using Instacast to Downcast. Its interface is a little crowded, on the iPhone at least, but it has a couple of nice features over Instacast.

The first is the ability to skip forward and backwards by a certain number of seconds: useful to skip ads, or to rewind a bit if you were distracted and lost the thread. Instacast has this, but it’s always been very unreliable. With Downcast it’s still a bit hit-and-miss – the buttons often seem to do nothing, or perhaps they’re just too small and so easy to miss – but my success rate is higher.

The second is the ability to sync various things between devices – which podcasts I’m subscribed to, which episodes I’ve already heard, and to some degree, how far through them I am. So I can listen at home on the iPad’s superior speaker and then carry on using my iPhone when I’m on the move.

Very nice.

The look o’ Lucca



and refined…


The nature of power

Today’s quote is from Merlin Mann:

Don’t let the guy with the broom decide how many elephants should be in the parade.

(Because he has a very limited idea of what an elephant means)

Later in the podcast he had another good quote:

You can judge a person’s power, anywhere in the world, but particularly in an organisation, not based on what they say no to, but what they have the power to say yes to.

The key to saving keystrokes

For many years I’ve been a fan of TextExpander on the Mac, a utility which converts a short sequence of keystrokes into a much longer one. For example, most of my email messages end with

All the best,

which appears when I type ‘atb’ and hit space. There are many much more complex things you can do with TextExpander, which is good, because it’s a little pricey for a small utility, but in the end I realised that 35 bucks wasn’t too much for something I use dozens of times every single day.

But typing efficiency is even more important when you have a sub-optimal keyboard, like the iPhone or iPad’s. One of my favourite tips is that you can get an apostrophe or quote mark by pressing the comma or full-stop key briefly and sliding upwards; there’s no need to switch into punctuation mode. (I wrote about this before once, but I think it must have been on Twitter or Facebook, which means I can’t find it now. Note to self: always keep useful stuff on blog.)

Anyway, one of the recent iOS updates added a very handy but somewhat hidden keystroke-expansion feature, and I’ve realised that I’m using that all the time too.

Under Settings > General > Keyboard you can create shortcuts, which will let you do something similar to my ‘All the best’ trick, and can be very handy if you have a silly long name like mine: ‘qqsf’ expands into ‘Quentin Stafford-Fraser’, complete with capitals and punctuation.

But the thing I’ve found most useful is to have abbreviations for my main email addresses, since an increasing number of sites use them as login usernames. I find I’m always having to type, say, ‘’ on my little iPhone keyboard, and it was a real pain until I replaced it with ‘qmc’ and a space.

One small note: if you use it this particular way, there are some sites that get confused if you leave the space on the end. So I actually tend to type ‘qmc<space><backspace>’, but that’s still a great deal easier than the whole address.

What is the status of Q?

Anyone who’s starting to tire of my holiday snaps will be pleased to know that I’m back in the UK, and, while I may yet post the odd picture over the next few days, they should decline to a respectable level before long! On Monday, I need to get back to work.

Various friends have been asking just what ‘back to work’ entails for me at present, since my situation has been decidedly vague for a while. So here’s a quick personal update for those interested…

After leaving Camvine in the autumn, I had a bit of a break, and then started a new company, Telemarq Ltd. (Hans Rosling once told me that he had worked out my model: whenever I run out of money, I start a new company! That’s not the intention, but it does sometimes look like that…)

Telemarq was initially formed as a vehicle for the exploration of a new invention. I think I have a good and viable idea, but I don’t have the resources to get it very far on my own (and I haven’t yet filed the patent, which is why I’m not broadcasting the details!)

Anyway, as I was debating whether to go out looking for investors for another startup, I was approached by several different companies who wanted some consultancy work, and I thought they would all would be rather interesting/enjoyable clients. Besides which, my bank account had dwindled to a level where it needed some topping-up!

So, for the moment, Telemarq is a consultancy business through which Rose and I do our work (which means it already has a rather broad remit, since our fields are very different). I’m delighted that Richard Morrison is going to be working part-time under the Telemarq banner too, since he’s one of the nicest and smartest chaps I’ve run into in a long time.

A big part of Telemarq will be software development, but there’s some teaching, some publishing, some intellectual property stuff in the mix already, and we’re only just starting.

May need some more people soon, or some more days in the week…!

To the extent I’ve formulated a coherent plan, it’s this:

To do really good work, on interesting projects, for, and with, people we like.

Not exactly a conventional business mission statement, but I’ve seen a lot worse. It’ll do as a placeholder!

It isn’t easy being a Sabine woman, you know!

Giambologna’s splendid sculpture of The Rape of the Sabine Women, carved from a single block of marble.

(The Wikipedia article points out that ‘rape’ here chiefly means abduction, rather than its more modern emphasis, and suggests that it might actually have been quite a good deal for the women concerned…)

Far from the madding (post-breakfast) crowd…

We used to think Venice was crowded until we spent a week in Florence. The great thing about Venice, especially at this time of year, is that you can step off the main thoroughfares and get lost in peaceful (and often pretty) backwaters. In Florence, the areas that aren’t crowded are often empty for a good reason.

The best way to see the popular spots in Florence, we discovered this morning, is to do it before about 8 a.m.

Build your house upon the rock

In the last week I’ve walked and cycled many miles around Florence, on the ubiquitous slate-grey stone with which its streets are paved. They cut nice textures into it to make sure it doesn’t become too slippery in adverse weather conditions.

But I have walked on this stone before, in many cities around the world, and in a finely-polished form, because it is used as the flooring material in Apple’s retail stores.

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs describes how this came about:

In 1985, as he was being ousted from his first tour at Apple, he had visited Italy and been impressed by the gray stone of Florence’s sidewalks. In 2002, when he came to the conclusion that the light wood floors in the stores were beginning to look somewhat pedestrian — a concern that it’s hard to imagine bedeviling someone like Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer — Jobs wanted to use that stone instead. Some of his colleagues pushed to replicate the color and texture using concrete, which would have been ten times cheaper, but Jobs insisted that it had to be authentic.

The gray-blue Pietra Serena sandstone, which has a fine-grained texture, comes from a family-owned quarry, Il Casone, in Firenzuola outside of Florence. “We select only 3% of what comes out of the mountain, because it has to have the right shading and veining and purity,” said Johnson. “Steve felt very strongly that we had to get the color right and it had to be a material with high integrity.” So designers in Florence picked out just the right quarried stone, oversaw cutting it into the proper tiles, and made sure each tile was marked with a sticker to ensure that it was laid out next to its companion tiles. “Knowing that it’s the same stone that Florence uses for its sidewalks assures you that it can stand the test of time,” said Johnson.

Small carbon footprint

The Italians certainly know how to transport people efficiently in and out of cities.

I must have a mischievous turn of mind, though, because I keep thinking about dominoes…

Il Cane

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser