Monthly Archives: January, 2021

A Day in the Life of Your Data

This is a nicely-written document from Apple which is intended to give people an idea of the amount of data that can be gathered about them as they go about their normal lives.

It is also, of course, intended to persuade you that it’s a good idea for your phone to run software from Apple, rather than from a company that makes its money from selling data about you. But it’s pretty balanced overall, and might be useful if you have non-technical friends who haven’t considered this stuff.

As a photographer, I have quite a few photo-related apps, and I often give them access to my entire photo library, because I may want to use them to edit any of my images. And even though the article doesn’t highlight this directly, it did make me realise that, by doing so, I’m also giving them access to a great deal of my location history, because all of my photos are geotagged. Something to consider.

All’s well that ends well

Rose and I don’t really watch any television. Not live television, anyway, and this is evident, I suppose, from the fact that we’ve been in our current house for a little over three years now and haven’t yet got around to connecting up the aerial! But it goes back much longer than that: I did watch a few minutes of the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, I remember, but I turned it off when the dancing nurses got too silly. That whole thing must all have been completely mystifying for most foreigners, I imagine, but even here I think we missed a golden opportunity: it could have been such a wonderful comedic event if only they had got Terry Wogan to do the narration! I would probably have watched the lot! Anyway, I can’t remember when I last watched any live TV before that, so I guess it must have been more than a decade ago.

That doesn’t, however, mean that we don’t watch anything. Almost every evening we settle down in front of the screen for a film, a TV drama, or something similar before we go to bed. And often these are things that have stood the test of time… which means they aren’t always available through streaming services.

So we get a great deal of value from our Cinema Paradiso subscription. Yes, DVDs through the post! This is how Netflix started, and in the UK we had LoveFilm, which was eventually bought by Amazon and then finally closed down. Cinema Paradiso continues, however, and has a much larger catalogue, I think, than anything streamable. In the last few weeks I’ve watched the latest Star Wars movie, early Fritz Lang films, Ealing comedies, and a recent ‘Nordic noir’ crime series. You don’t have the same spur-of-the moment decision opportunities as with, say, the current Netflix, but we do always have two or three disks of content that we know we want to watch — because we gave it some thought in advance — ready and waiting. After viewing, the disk goes in the pre-paid envelope, and Tilly and I stroll off in the direction of the postbox for her late-night comfort break.

We do, however, also have a reasonable DVD library of our own, and alongside the Woody Allens and Merchant Ivorys we have some box sets of things like Sherlock Holmes — Jeremy Brett, of course — and Star Trek, especially the original series and ‘Voyager’.

We find these can be very good ways to finish the evening, because you can be sure that, whatever other issues you’ve had to deal with during the day, and whatever challenges the crews may encountered on the nearest M-class planet, by the time you go to bed, Captain Janeway will have the ship back on course for home, James T. Kirk will have sorted out the enemies with a nice clean and sporting right hook, and all will be well again. You don’t have to wait for the next episode to relieve the angst or stop hanging from the cliff.

It was a more down-to-earth recommendation that led me to start writing this post, however! We bought ourselves a Christmas present of the complete Miss Marple, and, even though we’ve seen them all before at some point, we often can’t remember whoactuallydunnit. It has proved to be a very good purchase, and we can comfortably recommend that before bed — whatever you may have had to endure in the day’s news, Zoom calls, or tweets — heading to St Mary Mead with Joan Hickson is a very pleasant way to finish the day.

Looking down from on high

Yesterday evening, I got a toy that many of my friends and family were surprised that a gadget enthusiast like me hadn’t been seduced by many years ago!

And today, I took it for a walk. I’m very pleased to discover that Tilly doesn’t seem at all fazed by the drone, only by the fact that I’m not paying enough attention to her.

It’s a tribute to how good the technology is, that a complete amateur like me can produce a pretty video on the first day. Having the sunshine and a light dusting of snow helped a lot too, though!

Not Just Bikes

A friend of mine, who hails from Ontario originally, has lived in many cities around the world. I haven’t seen him for some years, so I didn’t know that he had moved to Amsterdam, but I also didn’t know that he’s started a YouTube channel about why, having lived in London, Toronto, Taipei, San Francisco and numerous other places, they liked Amsterdam the best, and asking the question what makes a city great?

It’s called Not Just Bikes, and I think he does a really nice job, which explains why he has also amassed a significant following.

Here’s a short example:

And another:

Recommended.

Take Control of your Video Calls!

Do you wish you could incorporate videos, music, or views from multiple simultaneous cameras in your video calls & webinars?

In this video I take a look at one way in which Mac users can blend multiple media sources, sound and video, and send them out through calls on Zoom, Teams, Webex and similar apps.

Squelching in the Rain

After Rose and our fluffy-pawed spaniel Tilly came back from their walk across the muddy fields this morning, Tilly composed the following and asked me to share it, because it might help other canine readers to know they are not alone.

A Muddy Spaniel’s Lament

Rose’s supposing my toeses need hosing
Shows Rose is supposing erroneously.
‘Cause nobody’s toes can need quite as much hosing
As Rose is supposing my toeses to need!

Good Morning!

Everything is muddy at the moment. Some of us just know how to glide above it.

Office Meeting 2.0.1

In my post yesterday, I forgot to mention the final twist to my open-air Teams meeting, which made it even more surreal.

Just after pressing the ‘Leave meeting’ button on the app, I walked through our village churchyard and fell into conversation with a gravedigger. No, really. He was filling in a hole, and, leaning on his spade, told me that the heavy clay around here was nothing compared that that around Lavenham. It was a strangely Shakespearian encounter; I half-expected him to bend down, pick up a skull and ask if I recognised it.

After a brief but cheery discussion, I bade him good day and departed, thinking that I should probably have tossed him half a crown for good luck, or something.

Definitely not my typical office meeting, I thought to myself, and Tilly and I walked home debating the whims of Lady Fortune in iambic pentameter.

Office Meeting 2.0

Every Wednesday afternoon during term, we have a departmental meeting for the senior staff, which used to take place in an efficient but not-very-inspiring and rather windowless room in the Lab. There are typically 50-100 attendees, and so, when it moved into the virtual world, we don’t in general use video; most people only turn on their cameras when they’re talking.

Well, this week, a rather wonderful thought occurred to me.

Since this meeting is essentially an audio-only experience, I realised I didn’t need to postpone my dog-walk until after it had finished. Why not do them at the same time? Especially since I was more likely to be in the role of audience than presenter for the duration of this one. Much more efficient.

So I fired up Microsoft Teams on my phone, put it in my jacket breast pocket where I knew the speaker would be clearly audible (since that’s how I normally listen to podcasts and audiobooks), and headed out.

Now, it’s rare for me to say anything good about Teams — actually, it’s rare for anyone to say anything good about Teams, as far as I can see — but on this occasion it performed beautifully, the audio quality was excellent and the video, when people did turn on their cameras, was excellent too, albeit slightly blurred by the raindrops.

At the end of the meeting, as people were saying goodbye, I turned on my camera to reveal that I was in fact wrapped up and squelching through the mud in pursuit of my spaniel, something nobody had been aware of up to that point. And for me, it had been a thoroughly enjoyable meeting. Just imagine what it would be like in sunshine!

Anyway, strongly recommended, if you have the option. Combine your meetings with your daily exercise. Go and watch the rabbits. I promise you it’ll be a more pleasant experience than sitting in your average office meeting room.

And remember, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.

Tom, Dick and Harry now all have Teslas

Looking back through my posts about electric vehicles, I came across my brief entry from five years ago, when I got my first electric car. How different things were back then! Those who have seen my more recent posts or YouTube videos will know that I’ve just exchanged my BMW i3 for a Tesla.

It’s perhaps worth mentioning, in case you associate the word Tesla with extraordinary wealth, that this was a Model 3, and, though they are very far from being cheap, they are also about half the price of a Model S or Model X, so if you have figures in mind from old episodes of Top Gear, they might need to be revised downwards a bit! In my case, this — my first-ever brand new car — was bought almost entirely with the combined proceeds of selling a second-hand i3 and a second-hand campervan. Well, third-hand, by the time I sold them!

But I always like trying to live in the future, and the Tesla is several years ahead of most of its competition on almost any metric, especially when you think of it not so much as buying a car but buying into a transport ecosystem; combining an OK car with the best software and the best charging network available. So I took the ridiculous step of buying a brand new car — something that sane people don’t usually do — and of buying a car without a hatchback — something no sane person should do, and certainly no sane person with a dog.

Even after five years of electric driving, though, I thought I was still doing something slightly unusual and pioneering. But it turns out I was mistaken. In December 2020, the Tesla Model 3 was the top-selling car in the UK. No, you didn’t read that wrong: not the top-selling EV, but the top-selling car overall, ahead of the VW Golf and the Ford Fiesta. Here’s the list from the SMMT:

Now, there are all sorts of factors to take into account here, when interpreting this.

Car sales as a whole were significantly down last year, EV sales, by contrast, tripled their 2019 numbers. It’s worth noting that the Tesla doesn’t appear at all in the top 10 for the year as a whole, though it was also head of the charts in April, so this isn’t just a one-off occurrence. And Tesla had a big push at the end of the month because they wanted to hit the magic figure of half-a-million cars produced globally in 2020, helped on by their new production facilities in Shanghai.

It’s also encouraging to see the the VW ID.3 — another fine vehicle — came in at number 4, so soon after its general release. This no doubt also reduced the Golf numbers significantly.

So the figures need some interpretation, but any street cred I might once have had as an EV pioneer who had to write his own software to interface to his car (e.g. here and here) is clearly long gone. Everybody’s getting ’em.

Now, I can just say that it’s one of the nicest computers I’ve ever driven.

The WhatsApp Exodus

Apparently, lots of people are leaving WhatsApp, or at least looking for alternatives. (So say articles like this and this, at least.) I’ve only rarely used it, since most of my close friends and family are on iMessage and both my work-related groups use Zulip. It’s only the occasional extended-family discussion that ends up on WhatsApp.

But if you’ve missed the story, this is because they changed their Terms of Service recently, and lots of people are shocked to discover that it now says they will share your details — location, phone number, etc — with the rest of the Facebook group.

I actually read, or at least skimmed, the Terms when they came out, and didn’t blink an eye, because I’ve always assumed that’s what they did anyway! I deleted my Facebook account many years ago, but I was aware that they still knew a lot about me because I do still use WhatsApp and Instagram (though only about once a month). Still, that will give them things like my name, phone number and location (from my photos if not from the apps).

In the early days, by the way, WhatsApp traded, as BlackBerry had done before, on the fact that it was secure messaging — encrypted end-to-end at least for one-on-one conversations. My understanding from those who follow these things more closely is that the security services tolerate this because the accounts are so closely tied to phone numbers, which means that, though they can only see metadata, they can get lots of it and related information because of older laws allowing phone-tracing etc. But there may be some people out there who thought that the use of WhatsApp was giving them a decent level of security, in which case this would perhaps be more of a shock.

Anyway, I too now have a Signal account, alongside Telegram, Skype, Messages… and all the others on all my devices. Actually, that was one of the reasons I disliked WhatsApp: the pain of using it on my iPad, desktop and laptop. And who wants to type things on a phone keypad when they have an alternative? You could run clients on those other devices, but (presumably because of the regulatory issues above) they had to be tied to the account running on your phone, and that connection seemed a bit fragile and had to be oft-renewed.

Signal, which I installed last night, works on a similar principle; it’ll be interesting to see whether it does it better! But it looks OK on my iPad; time to go and try it on my Macs… In the meantime, you can find me on Signal, if you know my phone number (like the FBI, GCHQ and Mark Zuckerberg do). If not, they can tell you where to find me.

Fireworks of the Future

I missed this at the time, but there was a lovely presentation put together for the Hogmanay New Year’s Celebrations in Edinburgh, using a swarm of drones carrying lights.

A short summary video is here:

but it is really worth watching the full presentation, which you can find here, with music and narration.

You don’t want to think too much about the fact that the effect was really only visible from one location, or that they weren’t allowed actually to film the Edinburgh scenes over the city so they had to do it in a remote bit of the Highlands and overlay it on images of the Edinburgh skyline… It’s still a lovely combination of software, hardware and poetry.

P.S. It turns out that there have been quite a few of these type of displays in recent months, if you search YouTube for ‘drone light show’. But most of them aren’t narrated by David Tennant ๐Ÿ™‚

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser