Monthly Archives: June, 2015

Western English

If you leave Cambridge and go south-west for about an hour and a half, you get to Heathrow airport. From there you can head westwards to a strange place where they speak a kind of English – quite a reasonable kind of English – but it’s a bit different, particularly in its spelling, from what most Englishmen would find familiar.

I’m referring, of course, to Oxford.

Now, I’m generally a big fan of the Oxford English Dictionary, but I was shocked – shocked, I tell you – to discover recently that they spell ‘organize’ with a ‘z’. And organization. And realize and realization. And so forth. I immediately assumed I was looking at a modern global edition which had sold out to the American market, but no, my elderly Shorter OED on the shelves at home has the same failing. It does offer the -ise variants as an option, but the primary spelling is with a ‘z’.

Now, I know that across the pond, those nice Americans have their own spellings, but surely no well-educated native Englishman in recent centuries would spell ‘organisation’ with a ‘z’. My father simply didn’t believe it until I showed him. Yet this is something on which the OED has apparently taken a line, to the extent that there’s a wikipedia page about Oxford Spelling for surprised people like me. The page admits:

Oxford spelling is not necessarily followed by the staff of the University of Oxford. In 2011, 2012 and 2013, the university website recommended the use of “ise” for its public-relations material.

The argument put forward in favour of Oxford spelling is that -ize corresponds more closely to the Greek -izo, which is the root of most -ize verbs. (Unlike, say the French/Latin origins of words like ‘surprise’.)

This may make academic sense, and indeed, many academic publishers have adopted it including, I’m embarrassed to say, Cambridge University Press. It seems to be favoured particularly for those publications with a more international audience. Even The Times used it for a while before reverting to the natural way of things.

So, lest anyone outside these shores be confused… yes, the OED is normally the gold standard for British English, and those Oxford chaps generally know what they’re talking about. I even agree with them about the comma. But this, surely, is a step too far in the direction of prescription over description.

The clever men at Oxford
Know all that there is to be knowed.
But they none of them know one half as much
As intelligent Mr. Toad!

Quick links

I tend to post quick links to Twitter (from where they’re cross-posted to Facebook), but I know from long experience that if you want to keep a record of anything and have some chance of finding it again in future, you need to keep it yourself.

So here are a few interesting things from the past week:

  • TheConversation is a news-analysis and opinion site where the authors are academics. Their tagline: ‘Academic rigour, journalistic flair’. If you want serendipitous news discovery with intelligent writing, but old media just isn’t doing it for you, this may be worth a try.

  • Old URLs don’t die, they just get reincarnated. Beware of letting your old DNS domains lapse, especially if they live on in a tangible form.

  • This map of the Granta Backbone Network will interest any Cambridge people wondering how the university networks connect together.

The Wolfson@50 talks continue to be interesting and informative. Andy Herbert brought his mobile computer, an Elliot 903, to his talk on Wednesday.


While he set it up, John recorded the event on his more powerful one.


To every day turn, turn, turn

From our ‘Things we could patent but probably won’t’ department…

Here’s something I’d like, which should not be too hard to create: a satellite navigation system that understood, when it gave you a direction, the consequences of your failing to do so.

If it’s telling me to take a motorway exit which, if I miss it, will involve driving 10 miles further on before I can even turn round, I’d like it to notify me of that in no uncertain terms. It can flash red and yell at me if necessary, especially if I don’t seem to be slowing down and changing lane. It can do so even if I normally have the audio turned off. And it can do so if the route it previously suggested is no longer appropriate, because there’s been an accident resulting in a three-mile tailback.

If, on the other hand, it wants me to turn left but there are several other left turns ahead, any of which will do, and none of which will add more than a minute or two to my journey, then it can inform me in a much more relaxed way.

What do you think? Am I on to something here?


Heat from the clouds

A few years back I wrote about how I thought home computing power and heating systems should be combined, to make good use of excess heat from CPUs in the winter, or to provide efficient cooling for them from building-scale aircon systems in the summer.

nerdalizeMy friend Ray sent me a link to this article about Nerdalize – a Dutch company who provide something that looks like a radiator, to heat your home, and is actually a server on which they sell computing capacity to others.

I’m not sure whether they can make this work at scale, but it’s an intriguing idea, especially in a country like the Netherlands where fibre-to-the-home is more readily available than here. It saves you building expensive data centres, but also makes for great reliability, I imagine, at least in the aggregate, since your overall network is not dependent on small numbers of power supplies, network connections or geographic locations.

If you’re switching to San Francisco…

“The well-dressed man”, said Somerset Maugham, “is he whose clothes you never notice.”

In the upcoming releases of Mac OS X, iOS and watchOS, Apple is changing the standard system font — used in widgets, menus, etc — to a new typeface created especially for the purpose, named San Francisco.


I think it’s very simple and elegant, and will work well, but, in most situations, typefaces are successful if you don’t notice them. Occasionally, however, it’s intriguing to see what goes on behind the scenes when a type designer sets out to create something that we should appreciate but not actually notice.

This talk from Apple’s WWDC shows that there’s a lot more involved in the creation of something like San Francisco than you might suspect.

Being responsive

I’m in the process of turning my previous, rather elderly, theme for this website into one that looks somewhat similar, but is now what is known in the jargon as ‘responsive’.

This means the layout will try to adjust in all sorts of terribly cunning ways to the size of your screen or window. In particular, it should make it a bit easier to peruse Status-Q on a mobile device. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.

Please bear with me if there are still some rough edges, though…

The power of history

While walking my dog in the fens yesterday, I saw a windmill, some miles away on the horizon.


That wasn’t unusual around here.

But its sails were turning, and that was.

I set out on a search, and found it in the little village of Wicken, where Dave, Mary Ellen and Alan kindly showed me around.


It was a thoroughly inspiring visit – a beautiful sunny day with lots of wind, and as I climbed higher and higher, the whole building thrummed, almost purred, with an energy that rose and fell with the gusts.




I also captured some quick footage on my iPhone.

(Also on Vimeo here).

Definitely recommended if you’re in the area when it’s open – usually the first weekend of the month.

Reach for the sky


Tilly crossing the dyke, just north-west of Reach, this afternoon.

Screwed in a quiet place

2015-06-05_08-53-25-03This morning I composed a longish message to my nephew, James, by dictating to my watch – a procedure that worked beautifully. There then followed a brief discussion on the quality of speech recognition. I turned to my Mac – because, of course, iMessage conversations are synchronised across all devices – and I continued dictating. “It’s good in a quiet location with a good network connection!”

Sadly, this time, I did not enunciate the first couple of words quite so clearly, and the Mac cheerfully recorded, “Screwed in a quiet location with a good network connection!”.

Which might have conjured up all sorts of interesting images at the other end.

Still, I guess that’s just what they call ‘social networking’.

Now, had I instead sent the message, “It’s god in a quiet location with a good network connection!”, it would still have been amusing, but understandable, in these days of careless typists and small keyboards. It’s something we’ve adapted to, like illegible writing in the past. But, as I have a rapidly dwindling number of electronic devices in the house that do not at least claim to understand speech, I wonder when our ability to understand speakos will become as well-developed as our ability to interpret typos…

In Google we trust…

Marco Arment writes about why he’s reducing his use of Google products:

…the reason I choose to minimize Google’s access to me is that my balance of utility versus ethical comfort is different. Both companies do have flaws, but they’re different flaws, and I tolerate them differently:

  • Apple is always arrogant, controlling, and inflexible, and sometimes stingy.
  • Google is always creepy, entitled, and overreaching, and sometimes oblivious.

How you feel about these companies depends on how much utility you get out of their respective products and how much you care about their flaws.

Simply put, Apple’s benefits are usually worth their flaws to me, and Google’s usually aren’t.

I’m a fan of both companies, though if I had to choose between them for some reason, I too would pick Apple, both for the quality of the product and the cleanliness of the business plan. (My favourite Google product, though, which nobody else can yet match, is Street View.)

Back when Gmail was the hot new thing, and because it was free(!), I started using it as a backup for my email. I never actually use the web interface, but my other accounts forward incoming messages there, where they get filed immediately into the archive. This guards against losing too much in the event of the complete annihilation of whatever other email provider I’m actually using at the time. (Like Marco, I’m a very happy user of Fastmail.) I set up this system 11 years ago, and really haven’t had to think about it since: it’s probably the most painless backup solution available!

It does mean that Google have over 100,000 of my recent messages with which to analyse everything about me, though, and I wonder whether that trade-off is worthwhile now that my entire email archive – of which they only have half – would fit happily on a small USB stick….

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser