Monthly Archives: December, 2013

Strike a pose

Rose & Tilly

Rose and Tilly this afternoon

Brevity is the soul of wit

Not sure of the origin of this – a cousin sent it to me…

If there was a shred of doubt the world is totally insane, this will remove it. Only Divine intervention can restore us to sanity.

Pythagoras’ Theorem: …………………….24 words.
Lord’s Prayer: …………………………………… 66 words.
Archimedes’ Principle: ……………………………67 words.
Ten Commandments: ………………………………….179 words.
Gettysburg Address: …………………………………………286 words.
US Declaration of Independence : …………………………1,300 words.
US Constitution with all 27 Amendments: ………………….7,818 words.
EU Regulations on the sale of cabbages: ………………………26,911 words

Lies, Damned Lies…?

From the “don’t believe everything you read on the net” department…

Don Macallister tweeted this morning about this report which suggests that Google Chromebooks are out-selling Mac laptops by a factor of about five. Here’s the original NPD article.


Now, the first thing to note is that they’re talking about unit sales here, not value – and an average MacBook costs about 4 times the price of a Chromebook. So this is about number of users rather than market value.

But Don queried this, as I did, on the basis that I’ve never actually seen a Chromebook in use, whereas almost everybody I know has an Apple laptop. So where are they all going? Don’t get me wrong, I like the Chromebook idea – it’s great for certain environments, and I wish some of my NHS clients were using those instead of Windows PCs with IE6. But for normal users, there is the old joke: “What do you call a Chromebook without a network connection? A brick.”

Then Jochen Weiland found this article which paints a rather different picture. So what’s going on here?

Well, the thing that’s a bit uncertain is exactly where the NPD statistics come from. This article says that “NPD Group…tracked U.S. PC sales to commercial buyers such as businesses, schools, government and other organizations”, which, if right, would partially explain it. NPD’s pages talk about “US Commercial channels”, and “VARs”. Some readers have suggested that this probably doesn’t include Apple’s retail or online stores, which, if true, would skew the statistics to an outrageous degree. I’m trying to find the answer to that.

If the report were about iPhones, then it’s true that the majority of those are sold through other channels than Apple’s own (though Apple’s limited number of retail stores still apparently account for 11% of all US cellphone sales – and that’s just the bricks-and-mortar stores. Or glass-and-mortar, perhaps.). But for MacBooks the situation is very much reversed, and I imagine iPads come somewhere in between. To leave out the main Apple channels is to paint a very distorted picture. And it seems likely that they have done this, because Apple tends not to reveal its sales figures to anyone. At least, not until they want to.

So it may be that the article is bunk. Or it may perhaps be an indication of trends in the institutional world, if not the consumer world.

But, to be fair, it may be that a surge in Chromebook sales – which you’ll note only started this year, supposedly following the failure of Windows 8 – will take a while to make an impact on the actual numbers of devices out there. And actually, I do know someone who uses one: Jeff Jarvis, who seems very keen on his, but then, his is a Chromebook Pixel, the top end of the range, and it costs about the same as the MacBook Pro…

The Church(es) of England?

I have something of a soft spot for the Church of England, having grown up in it, though it’s been rather a long time since I was a regular attender. But I think this article is probably correct when it starts with:

The archbishop of Canterbury must acknowledge that disestablishment has already happened, and look to a future that deals with reality.

I particularly liked one of the illustrations of this point:

The Diana funeral was about half Anglican, and half teddy bears.

Actually, I’ve always thought that the church would probably benefit from disestablishment. This article makes the case for decentralisation, as well.

Now, I know little of church finances, but I suspect that very few current congregations could actually support their clerical staff if it weren’t for the church’s central endowments and investments. No doubt some distribution mechanism could be sorted out, even if the parishes were to be more independent.

But I do remember, sitting in a dull sermon somewhere as a child, realising that if congregations really took the biblical principle of tithing to heart, then it would only take nine people to support a vicar at the same standard of living as they had. Or ten, of course, if the vicar wanted to tithe as well!

Something for the faithful to ponder…

Reflections of trees


I took this while I was, well, waiting for Rose…

Click for a larger version.

Universally Challenged?

Christmas-University-Challenge-Series-3-Gonville-&-Caius-1600“Television”, said Noel Coward, “is not something one watches. It’s something one appears on.” But it’s quite strange to have done both, having watched myself on University Challenge just now. (See my earlier post.) I’ve been on TV and radio a few times, but they’ve generally been broadcast live, or in other regions, so I’ve seldom had the chance to see myself at the same time as others do. A most bizarre experience.

Anyway, those who are curious (and in the UK) can see the show here for the next few days. I won’t spoil the suspense, except to say that we didn’t disgrace ourselves. My contribution was rather larger, I hope, than the cameras suggest, but still small. I was, however, blessed with excellent team-mates, and it was all great fun.

A couple of things that might interest regular viewers, that hadn’t previously occurred to me, especially about the starter questions…

The first is that the programme flatters the home viewer. When watching starter questions in the past, I’ve been smugly pleased if I can yell out the answer before the person on screen. But the contestant has had to think of the answer many seconds earlier, press their buzzer, wait for their name to be announced, and then respond. In fact, when you’re on the set, it takes a bit of time to realise that it’s your turn, because you get no feedback on the desk to indicate that you have buzzed first until Roger announces your name. This all takes some time, especially on the (very rare) occasions when he has to say “Gonville & Caius: Stafford-Fraser”! At that point, you have to form some coherent words and speak them out confidently.

The second is that the programme is edited, though very lightly. They try to do it ‘as live’, not least for the benefit of the audience. But there are occasions when contestants responded either a bit faster or a bit slower during the filming than was apparent in the broadcast. Then there are sometimes one or two retakes for technical reasons at the end, so you can be in the unenviable position of having to repeat, earnestly, an answer which you know by then to be false… In general, though, the broadcast is a pretty accurate representation of what it felt like at the time.

Lastly, of course, there are often more people who know the answer than get credit for it, because you usually can’t tell on screen who else is buzzing. I know there were several times where more than one of the Cambridge team, and no doubt several Oxonians too, were pressing their buzzers almost simultaneously, but only one light comes on. Fortunately, Lars Tharp and Mark Damazer were particularly speedy, and they, of course, came from The Right Place.

Anyway, lots of fun, and anyone who’d like to watch any further rounds can find the broadcast times here.

Update: It turns out that at least two of the episodes are available on YouTube, so anyone really keen can see our entry in the first round and the final.

The long tail of streaming?

I recently tweeted that I had signed up for a (UK) NetFlix trial, but had found little that I wanted to watch, and had been put off by the necessity of installing Silverlight, so was going to return to my trusty ‘Lovefilm by Post’ subscription. This got a lot of responses from friends.

Some expressed surprise that a geek like me should embrace such a backwards technology. Some proposed AppleTV/iTunes or Blinkbox as better alternatives. Others persuaded me to persevere, and recommended the new House of Cards series and Breaking Bad as worthwhile (so I shall certainly give those a go).

Anyway, I went ahead, installed Silverlight on my Mac Mini media server, and we watched Encounter at Farpoint from NetFlix last night, and it generally streamed OK, though the quality was somewhere around VHS-level, I think; certainly not like DVD and a long way from the BluRays we now often get through the post. I’m guessing this is just a poor match of Microsoft software and Apple hardware, because we have 120Mbps broadband, and other streamed content plays very nicely.

So we could probably find an online service that worked – why do we stick to that primitive idea of physical media dropping through the letter box?

Well, streaming services, or at least online purchases, are clearly the future, but still cater largely to the mass-market, and we obviously land somewhere in the ‘long tail’. By way of a simple illustration, here are a dozen films we’ve watched and really enjoyed over the last couple of months. Some of them are slightly obscure, but others have big names and Academy Awards.

I thought I’d do a quick check and see where I could get them, either as a digital purchase or rental. I threw in House of Cards season 1 as well, though I haven’t yet seen it, but now intend to!

Film Lovefilm by post iTunes Blinkbox Lovefilm Instant NetFlix UK
Mud Y Y Y
Lincoln Y buy not rent buy not rent
The Impossible Y Y Y
It Happened One Night Y buy not rent
Hyde Park on Hudson Y buy not rent buy not rent
Untouchable Y buy not rent
The Kings of Summer Y buy not rent Y
Now you see me Y Y Y
A Late Quartet Y Y Y
The House of Eliott Y
Shackleton Y buy not rent Y
Moonrise Kingdom Y buy not rent buy not rent
House of Cards (2013) Y Y Y

Now, this isn’t quite fair, because I knew all of these were available from the postal service – that’s where we saw them. And I’m sure it’s possible to find a good list of things on the other services which are not available through the post.

But I guess my point is that, had we restricted ourselves to other services, most of these dozen excellent films would never have made it to our screen, especially if we didn’t want to cough up the money to purchase them outright.

I didn’t make any special effort to select these, by the way: they are not nearly as obscure as some films we watch: they just happen to be (roughly) the dozen most recent films of the… golly!… ahem!… 821 movies we have watched from LoveFilm over the years since we started subscribing. (We don’t have cable, and don’t really watch any broadcast TV.) We couldn’t, in fact, have rented the majority of those from iTunes, but if we had been able to, it would have cost us about £2900 (assuming we didn’t want HD).

Of course, the elephant in the room here is that with postal delivery you have to know, in advance, a list of things you want to watch, and not be too worried about when you see them. I’m blessed with a wife who enjoys finding good stuff and queuing it up, so we always have 30-40 items in the list. And we have a reasonable amount of control of what arrives when based on how we prioritise those.

Some other notes to explain why this works well for us…

  • We live about 20 yards from the postbox, so after we’ve watched something, I stick the disc in the pre-paid envelope and mail it off before we go to bed.

  • We enjoy watching the extra features and commentaries on DVDs – something you often don’t get with other forms of delivery.

  • If we can’t watch a DVD immediately, we can click a button and have a DRM-free copy of it in about 30 mins, complete with special features and commentaries. But that probably wouldn’t be legal, so of course we wouldn’t know how to do that.

  • We can often choose between BluRay and DVD (depending whether we want a modest gain in resolution in exchange for a big delay in startup time).

  • We don’t have to finish watching things within a given timeframe.

  • We currently have the subscription which give you up to two disks at home at any one time, so with that, and the disks we own, and the stuff that EyeTV has recorded for us, we are never short of choice.

  • On average, we probably watch two or three movies a week, meaning that each one costs us about 89p.

In fact, I think we may start moving to some combination of the pre-planned postal and the on-demand streamed systems, and Blinkbox looks like an attractive service, if the quality’s good – on some of the above, purchasing from Blinkbox costs about the same as renting from iTunes.

But we’ve also seen a lot of very good stuff for 89p that we couldn’t have seen anywhere else. And quite often, it’s in 1080p resolution. On other services, the resolution would be lower and 1080p would be the price…

Do you renounce all other princes?

It does sound from this Guardian article rather as if Ruth Walker’s main aim in becoming a U.S. citizen was to write an article about the embarrassing naturalization ceremony and to mock the country that has just accepted her.

(As an aside, I’m always surprised when people complain about US immigration and security controls at airports. The staff have invariably been polite to me, and often friendly and good-humoured, in what must be a ghastly job. Brits who complain about the process have clearly never experienced what happens to foreigners arriving at Heathrow. But I digress…)

Anyway, it may be that Ms Walker found the ceremony laughable because she knows that the country as a whole was worthy of better. I hope so. I hope, too, that we don’t impose anything so toe-curlingly trite on people becoming subjects of Her Majesty. Mmm. Perhaps we do.

I rather suspect, however, that we go to the other cynical extreme, and just make new arrivals take a pointless test and charge them lots of money. Is that right? Anyone been through it? That would be a much more British approach…

Take charge of your batteries!

I get through a lot of batteries.

This is mostly because of my strange habit of wearing a GPS logging device, which means I always use at least three AAAs every day. But even without this idiosyncracy, the increasing number of flashguns, remote controls, bluetooth trackpads, keyboards and mice, bicycle lights, microphones, voice recorders and other gadgets around the house means that I would have been bankrupt long ago if I hadn’t switched over entirely to rechargeables a few years back.

It strikes me that I can’t be the only one in this position. So here are a few ‘workflow’ tips from a seasoned charger, to help you take control of your battery-powered life!

1. Be willing to invest in power!

There’s nothing worse than having to find a fresh battery for your remote control in the back of a drawer, just at the moment at which everyone in the family is waiting to watch a movie. Make sure you have plenty of batteries for your needs, and lots left over. Brace yourself, spend a reasonable amount of money, and your life will become easier. It is Christmas, after all.

2. Set aside space for it.

I have four little storage trays labelled ‘AA flat’, ‘AA charged’, ‘AAA flat’ and ‘AAA charged’, and there are typically about 6-12 batteries in each tray, besides those actually installed in my devices. There are always charged batteries available whenever I need them, and when the ‘flat’ trays start to get too full, I stick a batch of them in the charger before I go to bed.


There is also a small shelf in our store room which is dedicated to charging. That’s where my iPhone dock, and all the chargers for my various different battery types, live. There’s a multi-way mains adapter so I never have to search for a charger or search for a socket. Makes life much easier.

3. Get yourself good batteries.

And by that, I mean Sanyo Eneloops. These have served me so well that I never buy anything else now. They aren’t the highest-capacity ones available, but they are low self-discharge. This means that you can charge them up, put them in your ‘charged’ tray, and be pretty confident that they will have retained plenty of oomph when you come to take them out again. Traditional NiMH batteries will discharge pretty quickly over a small number of weeks, meaning that there’s likely to be a gap between realising that you need them, and being able to use them again! (It drives a lot of the sales of turbo 20-minute battery chargers, which do work, but will shorten the life of your batteries. And you may still have to wait 20 mins before watching the movie!)

4. Treat yourself to a decent charger.

I have an exceedingly good one by Maha.


Whoa, I hear you say… you spent how much on a battery charger? Well, trust me, it’s possible to spend a great deal more than this, but I went for Maha after seeing recommendations from professional wedding photographers who go through large numbers of batteries every week, and I’ve been very pleased with it. It has fast and slow charging modes, can take any number of batteries from one to eight, but, most importantly, these are 8 independent charging circuits, which means that they will do the right thing even if you mix up partly- and fully-discharged, AAs and AAAs all at the same time. There are smaller Maha ones, but you don’t need to load and unload your charger nearly so often if you can do eight at a time!

But if that seems like overkill for you, then I recommend the Energizer CHCC-UK, if you can still find it.


This has four independent circuits, supports 9v batteries too, and doesn’t try to woo you with super-high-speed charging. Fill it up before you go to bed and empty it in the morning. (I’ve found Energizer batteries to be good, too, though not as good as Eneloops).

Beware, though, of more flashy modern imitations like this Energizer CHP42UK:


This may have a pretty display, but it only has two charging circuits, so you must insert either two or four batteries at once, and ideally you should always pair up similarly-discharged ones of the same type and age. Too much hassle. It can be hard to find out in advance just what a charger can do; see if you can find the manual online before buying.

5. Old batteries die.

When they do, you should send them to the great recycling centre in the sky. Fortunately, the days of leaking acid destroying the inside of your bicycle lights are mostly behind us, but a dead battery will sap the strength of your good ones if placed in the same device. No point in having taken good care of your troops, if they then have to go into battle dragging an injured colleague with them. (Am I overdoing the analogies?)

When I suspect a battery of being near the end of its life, I make a mark near one end of it with a fine-tipped permanent pen, and then stick it back in the charger. If, at a later date, I again find it rather flatter than I think it should be, it gets another mark. Three strikes and it’s out.

Recently, I’ve taken to labelling new batteries with their date of first use, and a code to help me to keep them together as a batch if wanted. This helps give a clue as to whether a permaturely dead battery is likely just to be discharged, or is in fact very elderly.


And so we come to the last point – how do you know when they’re dying?

6. Get a good battery tester.

You want something that can test various different battery types, and test them under load. Simple devices will just measure a battery’s voltage, which is useful, but almost anything more sophisticated will give you a better indication of how it’s likely to perform in the real world.

You need something that will let you quickly check any batteries before you dash out with your flashgun to that important press event. But you should also periodically review the ones in your ‘charged’ tray to make sure they are behaving as they should and won’t take you by surprise in future. Ideally, you want to check your batteries periodically, a few hours after they’ve been charged, to make sure they’re charging properly, and holding their charge. I’m not that disciplined. I tend just to do random spot checks from time to time, but this is much better than nothing.

To do this, I use the ZTS battery testers, which can check a variety of different battery types using a test cycle of just a few seconds, and then give you a simple readout.


I have a big one for my charging shelf, and a smaller one for the office and when on the road. Once again, you may want to brace yourself before looking at the price, but they’re well-made and I’ve never regretted my purchases. You can get them from Amazon, or, slightly more cheaply in the UK, from here.


So there you are: these tips will make you the light of the charge brigade, or something like that. If the above seems terribly complicated, then that’s just because I’ve gone into some detail, but I can summarise it more succinctly:

  • Buy lots of good batteries – more than you need – and a good charger
  • Use a good tester to weed out dead batteries from your stock

And if it seem expensive, that’s because I’m a believer in buying good quality stuff infrequently, rather than rubbish on a regular basis!

Take control of those little packs of power, and they will be your friends, rather than letting you down in times of need. This system has worked well for me now for some time; some of the suggestions must be useful to others!

P.S. In fact, this could be the first draft of the upcoming bestseller, Getting Things Charged. GTD enthusiasts will recognise many of the elements: gathering all your batteries into a limited number of in-trays, processing, sorting, clear labelling, periodic review… it’s bound to be a hit!

A peek at Pico

Many of you will know that I’m currently spending one day a week in the University Computer Lab helping my pal Frank Stajano with a project called ‘Pico’. We’ve been making a little introduction movie, which has been a great opportunity for me to get some more practice shooting video with my Canon 6D, and learning the new version of Final Cut Pro.

We plan to refine it a bit in the New Year, but here it is for anyone who’s curious about what we’re doing:

Making a fool of oneself on a grand scale

If you’re unfortunate enough not to have anything better to do at 19.45 on Boxing Day, you can watch me make a fool of myself in front of about 4 million people on BBC2.

Christmas University Challenge Gonville & Caius with Jeremy Paxman

I should point out that we were asked to take part in this by the producers; we didn’t volunteer ourselves as being particularly skilled at This Sort of Thing! There was also no selection process, such as often takes place in undergraduate teams, to weed out people like me at an early stage. I went along with it, I must confess, mostly because I was reasonably familiar with the old Television Centre in London but had never been inside the new Media City studios in Salford, and I thought this would be a fun way to see them…

Having said that, I was blessed with really excellent team mates, it was great fun, and overall, we didn’t disgrace ourselves.

More information on the Christmas series can be found here, and the University Challenge iPlayer page is here.

Cheating with Pebble

I’m pleased to say that I hadn’t thought of this particular use for my Pebble smartwatch!

ConTest watchface

Thanks to Alastair for the link

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser