Monthly Archives: February, 2013

A quick retrospective

It’s 12 years today since my first blog post — the first post, at least, on a publicly-readable system that we’d recognise as blog now. I had registered this ‘’ domain a couple of days before, and started tapping out miscellaneous thoughts with no particular theme, and no expectation of an audience.

I was using Dave Winer’s innovative but decidedly quirky ‘Radio Userland’ software, a package which is long since deceased but was very influential in the early days of blogging and RSS feeds. Over the years I’ve moved the content through a couple of different systems but I think — I hope — that all the URLs valid in 2001 still work today! Most of my early posts do not have a title. The convention of giving titles to what we thought of as diary entries wasn’t yet well-established.

Things that caught my attention in the first couple of months included:

  • An appreciation that Windows 2000 was really rather a good operating system. Certainly the best Microsoft had produced so far. (It was also — though I didn’t know it at the time — the last version I was to use on a regular basis.) Microsoft were pushing an idea called the ‘Tablet PC’, which was marketing-speak for what had previously been called WebPads, and something called .NET, which was marketing-speak for nobody-knew-what!
  • The importance of this new thing called XML, which was giving the world a standard way to store and transmit structured data. I was at a conference where Steve Ballmer described the major revolutions in computing as The PC, The Gui, The Web, and XML. Well, the brackets have become a bit more curly since then, but it was indeed a major change.
  • Astonishment that, with the upcoming launch of Mac OS X, the world’s largest Unix vendor was about to become, of all people, Apple! I’d been playing with the early beta versions. It’s been my operating system of choice ever since.
  • The bizarre level of press coverage when we announced the impending shutdown of the Trojan Room Coffee pot.
  • A survey saying that less than half of US college students were taking hi-fi systems to college, because they were now listening to music from their PCs instead! It was still nearly a year before an amazing thing called the iPod was to appear, and surprise us all.

Here’s a snapshot of Status-Q captured by the Internet Archive in early May 2001

Change the world with your DVD drive?

Researchers at UCLA produced graphene supercapacitors — an amazingly efficient electricity-storage medium — using a standard DVD burner.

“The process is straightforward, cost-effective and can be done at home,” El-Kady said. “One only needs a DVD burner and graphite oxide dispersion in water, which is commercially available at a moderate cost.”

More info here.

The Subscription Dilemma


Ten years ago, I wrote a piece for the IEE Review entitled “If You Love Your Data, Set it Free”, where I warned that Microsoft and other similar companies were experimenting with a subscription-based model of software.

This is a perfectly reasonable way of running the IT economy, but it has an important implication. If your data is stored in a proprietary format tied to one software package, as much of it probably is today, you may not have access to it if you don’t keep paying. Do you want to finish working on that book you started a few years ago? Sorry, that will cost you. In such a world, it’s worth asking yourself who actually owns your creative work…

Well, it’s taken a while, but Microsoft and Adobe are now actively pushing the subscription-based ‘Office 365’ and ‘Creative Cloud’ respectively. If you go to their web sites, it’s getting harder and harder to find a traditional buy-and-install product.

Software prices have been dropping dramatically recently, and it must be hard to persuade people who are used to paying under a fiver for the latest iPad app that it’s worth dropping hundreds on the latest Office or Creative Suite, however good those may be. This is particularly true if they already have an older copy. I’ve never felt a desire to upgrade my Office 2008 or Photoshop CS3, but I don’t use them very often. However, my wife, who uses Word all day, every day, also has no reason to upgrade, and in fact would probably view it as a retrograde step. So they had little choice. When you can’t innovate enough in your product, you have to innovate in your marketing.

Now, the subscriptions are not extravagant (at least compared to these companies’ traditional prices). If I used the software on a regular basis I wouldn’t mind paying. The problem is that you’re not just paying for upgrades, you’re paying for continued use. If you stop paying, you don’t, as in the past, continue happily using your current version. You get dramatically reduced functionality, in the case of Microsoft, or none at all, in the case of Adobe. So this is not a decision to pay for ongoing updates, it’s a commitment to continue paying indefinitely unless you want to go through the process of exporting all of your documents to some other format. The issue is particularly acute since these are apps into which you are likely to pour a large amount of your creative output, something you’re unlikely to want to discard. If you want to keep upgrading your software to the latest version, the pricing isn’t bad. But what you’re losing is any option about whether or not to keep upgrading.

So, on the one hand, this spurs me on to even greater enthusiasm for open file formats. And on the other, it makes me wonder about upgrading my copy of Office. Why? Well, it looks as if I won’t have the option very much longer of buying Office 2011, which, though already two years old, may be the last version for which I only have to pay once…

Inventing on Principle

This is an interesting and unusual talk, given about a year ago at a Canadian software engineering conference. I’d seen it before, but a friend reminded me of it recently (thanks, Aideen!) so I’ve just watched it again.

Bret Victor starts by talking about new ways to design software, and finishes with some suggestions on how to live your life. This is dangerous, because you may only find him credible on one of these points, and one could perhaps argue that the one-hour talk would be better delivered as two half-hour talks. And the first couple of minutes, delivered in his slow, careful style in a badly-lit brown room, don’t jump out and grab you. However, I think he pulls it off, and it certainly has the merit of being very different from your typical software-engineering talk.


A most sinister thread…

One of the things we try to do here at Status-Q Labs is to reduce the amount of frustration experienced by our fellow men and women in their daily lives.

Take, for example, the case of reverse threads. This is not, as you may suppose, an advanced mode of needlework, but rather the practice of using screw threads which turn clockwise to undo or loosen, and anti-clockwise to tighten, something that observant readers will detect as being contrary to the natural order of things. There are good reasons for using these — also known as left-hand threads — in situations where the normal use of the the device would tend to cause it to unscrew of its own accord.

However, there are few things more frustrating than not knowing that the thing you're trying to unscrew is, in fact, tightening up, especially if it's old or rusted or damaged and you expect it to be somewhat tricky anyway. Here are a few situations where I've encountered reverse threads in normal life: remembering these may improve the level of your future happiness and avoid some skinned knuckles and unwarranted expletives.

  • Left-hand bicycle pedals. These are screwed into the crank with a reverse thread. Which is a little strange, if you think about it, because their rotation on their spindle is clockwise, but there are other effects at work. More information here.
  • Gas cylinder valves. This is for safety, rather than mechanical reasons. Combustible gases, such as the propane or butane you might connect to your caravan or gas barbecue, use left-handed threads, so you can't accidentally connect them to things expecting an inert gas. This is a good idea, but I can't help wondering how often frustration has caused people to start hitting spanners attached to explosive cylinders with heavy objects…
  • Drill chucks. I had to replace the chuck on my hammer drill recently because the jaws had seized up. It screws onto the main spindle of the drill with a standard thread, but is held in place there by a bolt which goes the opposite way. (I guess you only need this on a reversible drill!) Incidentally, even when you know which way the threads go, chucks tend to be fairly firmly fixed, and I might not have managed it if my friendly local hardware store hadn't shown me the allen key trick.

So there you go. Lodge those in your little grey cells and one day, I promise you, you'll thank me!

Anyone know any other situations where the unsuspecting might encounter left-handed threads in normal life?

Update: Lyndsay Williams pointed me at this Wikipedia page, which lists under 'Handedness' a few other places where left-handed threads are used. My favourite is that lightbulbs on the NYC Subway used to have reverse threads, so you couldn't steal them and use them anywhere else!



Short, sharp and to the point

Beginners in photography can (understandably) get confused by the fact that big numbers mean small apertures, or that shooting 'wide open' implies a small depth-of-focus. I liked this mnemonic from Chris Orwig on a recent This Week in Photo podcast:

Imagine you're shooting a line of people. If you want one person in focus, use f/1. If you want all 16 in focus, use f/16.

Nice and simple.


Healthy eating

Just checking some labels this morning.

  • Waitrose 'LOVElife' high-fibre farmhouse multiseed loaf. Calories per slice, before butter or any other toppings: 130.
  • Waitrose Generously Coated Dark Chocolate Ginger Biscuits. Calories per (substantial) biscuit: 122.

I rest my case.


Using multiple IP addresses at once

Ever needed to configure a network-based device using a web interface, but found that its default IP address doesn’t match the setup of your network? e.g. Your new device uses 192.168.1.* and you use 192.168.0.* ? Here’s an easy way to fix it: set up your machine to talk to both subnets at once. Here’s a little screencast to show how it’s done on the Mac.

When to use a telephoto lens

When to use a telephoto lens

An amusing use for multi-channel sound?

If you watch old Blackadder, Fawlty Towers or Seinfeld episodes today, one thing that’s likely to stand out is the canned laughter. The fashion a couple of decades ago was to make this much more apparent than they do now. I say ‘canned’ laughter, but sometimes it was actually a live studio audience, but the volume levels are higher than today, and so it can be quite intrusive, or at least make things seem rather dated.

So, in these days of multi-channel sound, or alternative audio streams on DVDs, wouldn’t it be a good idea to allow viewers to choose their own levels for the laugh track? You could opt for the original 1980s experience, or a more subtle mix tuned to today’s tastes.

Now, what I don’t know, because I haven’t watched much recent comedy, is whether the nature of the recorded hilarity has changed, or just the volume — i.e. whether you’d need a complete new track, or just a volume control. But you could also choose where the laughter appeared in the surround space – are you watching the show from a distance, or are you surrounded by a laughing audience? And are you sitting in the front or back row?

All of these things should be easily tuneable now…

Though this does bring to mind the words of the marvellous Flanders and Swann, in the introduction to ‘A Song of Reproduction’:

People make an awful lot of fuss, anyway, about the quality of the sound they listen to. Have you noticed; they spend all that time trying to get the exact effect of an orchestra actually playing in their sitting room. Personally, I can’t think of anything I should hate more than an orchestra actually playing in my sitting room. They seem to like it…

That was 1959, by the way…

Cast your net a little wider

A phenomenon that has transformed my life in recent years is the ready availability of audiobooks and podcasts. When I’m shaving, driving, or walking the dog, I’m usually also reading a book, learning something new, keeping up with technology news, or sometimes just being entertained. My iPhone/iPods are used for speech much more than for music, and my bluetooth headset and car hands-free kit are seldom used for actual phone calls! Travelling time, in particular, I no longer think of as ‘wasted time’.

On the audiobook front, the only way to do this is to subscribe to (or your country’s variant). Audiobooks can be fairly pricey if you buy them individually — longer ones, in particular, can run to £20–40 — but an £8 monthly subscription will get you a book each month. I ‘read’ many more books now while walking across fields than I used to get through by turning a page or two in the last few minutes before I fell asleep. I use the Audible iPhone app for downloading and listening to them.

For podcasts, my first recommendation is not to try and listen to them using iTunes or Apple’s Podcast apps. Far better is to get a third-party app designed for the purpose, (unless you have an old-style iPod which can only be managed in iTunes). My current favourite is Downcast, which will do things like keep your current listening progress in sync across multiple devices, and let you skip backwards and forwards (e.g. to jump advertisments) using easy swipe gestures. Instacast is also a worthy contender.

Anyway, the main reason for this post was to recommend two podcasts that I’ve found consistently interesting and of high quality.

Mac Power Users

The first is Mac Power Users. Now, you might assume from the title that this weekly programme is all about obscure command-line incantations and developer toolkits, but on the contrary, it’s for normal humans, by normal humans; David and Katie are practising lawyers who just have an interest in getting the most out of their technology, and talking to other guests about how they do the same. And while most of it is definitely for Mac users, some episodes, like this excellent discussions with Fraser Speirs about technology in education, are of more general interest. Sometimes they’ll dive deep into a favourite utility, like Hazel, or a topic, like ‘Geek Fitness’. And at other times, such as when interviewing Alex Lindsay, they end up talking more about efficient ways to get through airport security than about the Apple gear they’re carrying! Unlike many of the podcasts I subscribe to, this one is not primarily about technology news, and I like David and Katie’s relaxed but professional approach.


The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, known as ‘SGU’ to its numerous fans, is a discussion of recent and historical science news hosted by some very smart people — Steven Novella, for example, is a neurologist at Yale — who try to separate fact from fiction. They do a lot of background research on stuff that has recently made media headlines, and present the results in an interesting and entertaining way. Recommended if you want to keep your head when all around you are losing theirs.

Both of these should be easy to find using your podcatcher of choice – just search for the names.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser