Monthly Archives: January, 2013

River of Dreams

Quayside, Cambridge

Quayside, Cambridge



Red, the Blood of Angry Men

Remember Les Miserables? The show that brought you such moving and beautiful lyrics as:

I am agog!
I am aghast!
Is Marius in love at last?
I’ve never heard him `ooh’ and `aah’.
You talk of battles to be won
And here he comes like Don Ju-an
It’s better than an o-per-a!
I saw it a couple of decades ago, at the gift of a kind friend, and had a pleasant enough evening, though I’ve felt no particular desire to repeat the experience. Well, now there’s a film, and, while I may get around to seeing it some time in the next couple of decades, I bet the process won’t be half as enjoyable as reading <a href=”” target=”_blank”>Matt Walsh’s review.

An increasingly lonely pursuit

An increasingly lonely pursuit

Brevity is the soul of wit

There once was a man from the sticks
Who liked to compose limericks.
But he failed at the sport,
For he wrote ’em too short.

From Wikipedia.

Top Cat


This beauty was surrounded by admiring photographers on Sunday morning, and seemed to enjoy the attention.

Parental discretion advised

Eric Schmidt made a nice observation in a lecture tonight:

If you give your child an unusual name, they'll have a higher page ranking…

And as a responsible parent, you should certainly buy them their domain name as a christening present, I guess.

If you don't want to be too blatant, you could go half-way. Give them an available Twitter handle as a middle name, say, which would be OK at least until their wedding day.

“Wilt thou, Catherine sexygirl482 Jones, take this man to be your lawful wedded husband?”


Being Accessible

A friend of a friend has recently had what must be one of the most life-changing experiences anyone can go through. While in hospital for an operation, she had an apparently very rare but not unknown reaction to the anaesthetic, and found herself, suddenly and unexpectedly, completely blind.

She’s a very smart and resourceful woman, though, and is making serious efforts to discover what technology can do to help in her situation. And it’s an interesting challenge. I have some friends who have major visual impairments but can still use computers if, for example, the fonts are large and high-contrast, and they sit very close to the screen. And others have been blind from birth and have developed a whole range of skills to cope with it.

But for someone who has had to make the transition suddenly and unexpectedly in later life, and doesn’t have, for example, the ability to read braille, what can we geeks do to help? Well, there are the obvious things like screen-reading and voice-dictation software, which are useful if the underlying operating system and apps make it easy to navigate the rest of the system. On the Mac, at least — I can’t speak for Windows — there is quite pervasive VoiceOver integration at a fairly low level, so you can do most things, but learning it is tedious, and the challenge is then to navigate things efficiently using a wide range of key combinations on a keyboard which she’s still getting used to not being able to see.

But one thing we should be able to do these days is take advantage of the power of mobile devices more. A surprise to me is that the iPhone, with its slab-like non-tactile surface, turns out to be remarkably good, mostly due, again, to Apple having thought about this stuff pretty early on. But I hope we’ll start to see more apps that do, say, OCR-to-speech with minimal button presses, to allow people to read road signs and restaurant menus.

One of the best apps I’ve come across in my brief investigations is one that I think I’ll also use myself. It’s called Fleksy, and it’s a soft keyboard that uses predictive text technology to allow you to type just the approximate shape of the word as it would appear on a QWERTY layout and then swipe to the right – it will guess the word for you, and speak it. This is vital for blind people, of course, but also makes it much harder for any of us to get those accidental word-substitutions that can cause so much misunderstanding. (A favourite was when an attractive female friend of mine, on a work trip and feeling in need of a drink, once texted her male colleague “Time for a quickie in the bar before we go?”. Except that a small slip caused her to send “Time for a quickie in the car before we go?”, which had a rather different interpretation…) Anyway, if Fleksy makes a mistake, you can just swipe up or down to pick another choice, or left to delete the whole word and do it again. I found I could type whole sentences immediately without looking at the keyboard. You can then send them to the clipboard, to email, etc.

This is not a new idea, of course – my friend Cliff developed the Swype system many years ago, for example – but I think it’s a very nice implementation. I often wear a bluetooth headset when walking the dog, because I listen to so many podcasts and audiobooks. Now I can use it to help me send messages and respond to emails while tramping through the mud.

Just as the original T9 predictive text system (of which Cliff was also a co-creator) grew out of work done to help disabled people, so apps like Fleksy can also benefit the rest of us.

And in the meantime, any other recommendations for my recently-blind friend would be greatly appreciated!



Columbia Road market

Raisers’ Edge


These guys in Brick Lane, East London, today made me realise how sheltered a life I’d led when it comes to footwear. Interestingly, the hairstyle adopted by the guy on the right is an almost perfect inverse of the one I’ve chosen for myself.

Architecture 101

I have several good friends who are architects, and I have a great respect for the profession as a whole.


There do seem to be some basic rules which not all architects, bless them, appear to have picked up on, but everybody else understands (so you’d think it ought to be drummed into them at architecture school).

I therefore offer a few pointers for any architects who missed the first class at college. (I expect there are plenty of blogs where architects complain about their software, and rightly so!) So here we go:

1. Concrete and cement buildings always look horrible after ten years.

You can understand them wanting to experiment with this nice new material when it first came out, but that was a very long time ago. They should have realised the error of their ways before our city centres were filled with all these nasty stained buildings. Yes, there are some structures you can only build this way – like motorway bridges – but if you have to make buildings out of it, for God’s sake cover them up with something aesthetically pleasing afterwards.

2. Flat roofs are a bad idea.

Things fall on roofs (like leaves and raindrops). If the roofs are flat, they don’t fall off again. It’s not that hard.

Yes, I know we like Frank Lloyd Wright, but haven’t you noticed the number of houses where flat roofs are replaced with pitched ones? As well as being more practical, they usually look a lot better. Put it this way: how many people do you know who go the other way? “You know, I’ve always liked this house, but that sloping roof is a pain. I’m thinking of taking it off and replacing it with nice flat one.”

3. Innovate around heating and ventilation at your peril.

Here in Cambridge, Norman Foster’s striking Law Faculty building was plagued with internal gales as the single centralised temperature control tried to equalise things around a vast building. (The dramatic open plan design also caused major noise problems. Both issues were dramatically reduced when the architects reluctantly introduced more glass partitioning, something that had been gently suggested by the faculty staff before it was built.)

A mile or so away, the new Computer Lab building rejected traditional heating and air conditioning in favour of a system which took into account the high density of power-hungry cathode-ray-tube monitors and tower PCs. It was completed in 2001, just as people were starting to move to laptops and LCD screens…

So those are my starting suggestions; get those under your belt and, I think we can agree, you’re well on your way to having happier clients.

Any other suggestions for Architecture 101?

Quote of the day…

I just love Tom Stoppard. Tidying up old files in old folders I came across this from Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead:

R: I don’t believe in it anyway.
G: What?
R: England.
G: Just a conspiracy of cartographers, then?

Here’s another. They’re discussing Hamlet.

The Player: The old man thinks he’s in love with his daughter.
Rosencrantz: Good God. We’re out of our depths here.
The Player: No, no, no! He hasn’t got a daughter! The old man thinks he’s in love with his daughter.
Rosencrantz: The old man is?
The Player: Hamlet… in love… with the old man’s daughter… the old man… thinks.
Rosencrantz: Ah.

More good stuff here.

King and Queen

King and Queen

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser