Monthly Archives: September, 2022

The dangers of a headline figure

If you believe my Twitter stream, there are a lot of people out there who think that the UK government has capped the energy bills so they can’t pay more than £2,500 this year. This is not at all true. But it’s been reinforced by the Prime Minister’s interviews on various radio stations this morning when she said things like “making sure that nobody is paying fuel bills of more than £2,500”. Either she doesn’t understand it, or she’s not very good at explaining things clearly.

The problem is that the media are so keen to feed people a single, simple number, that for weeks we’ve been hearing about what’s happening to the energy costs for the average household and referring to that as a capped number, when in fact, of course, it’s the price per kWh that’s been capped. (More info here.) If, say, you use twice as much as the average household, your bill could be £5000. Some not-very-smart people even think they can use as much as they like, because, hey, it’s been capped now, and they’re going to get a nasty surprise! And similarly, of course, if you use half as much, you can worry a bit less about that headline figure.

This desire to reduce things to one number causes problems in many situations. Remember when the only way most people had to assess the PC they wanted to buy was based on its CPU’s GHz? (Or MHz for those with longer memories?)

Now, the headline figure for every electric car is the number of miles it can do on a charge, when lots of other factors will affect how easy it is to use in reality, like how fast it charges, or its drag coefficient (which affects how its energy use varies with speed). For many people, long journeys are relatively rare, and the important question when embarking on one will actually be something like, “How fast will this be able to recharge at the type of chargers available about 150-200 miles from my house?” And even that question is much less important if the chargers happen to have a nice cafe or restaurant next to them!

The kind of gamification that reduces things to a simple score is always appealing. But whenever you see things being compared with just one number, remember Ben Goldacre’s warning: “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.”

This bowled me over!

Have you ever wondered how the machines at the end of a bowling alley work? Well, probably not very much, because you’ll have other things on your mind like defeating your friends and family.
But it turns out that they’re terribly cunning.

(Direct link)

I’m not sure who impresses me more: the inventors of the machines, or Jared Owen, who created this animation explaining them.

Row, row, row your boat…

At the Southampton Boat Show yesterday, I spotted lots of fun things that, while I might not purchase, I would certainly like to try!

One of them was an inflatable boat with a proper sliding seat for rowing. But the oars had a funny mechanism in the middle that I couldn’t quite fathom.

Was this so they could fold up? To give them a higher gearing? To put the handles at a more efficient angle…?

Than I realised. It means you can face forward.

(Direct link).

Le mot juste

I like the instructions on a French device I’ve just bought:

  1. How to put the battery?

1) Turn the lid of battery’s room counterclockwisely and remove it.

If counterclockwisely isn’t a word, I think it should be.

May flights of angels…

While I don’t really have very strong feelings about whether or not we should have a monarchy now, I do believe that if you’re going to have one, then ours has been about as good as you could get! It’s not at all clear to me that countries that have got rid of theirs have, as a rule, received something much better in exchange.

So with that in mind, and being aware of history in the making, I settled down to watch some of Her Majesty’s funeral today, and got hooked… and gosh, it was rather well done, wasn’t it? It’s very pleasing to think that, after recent embarrassments like Brexit and Boris, there are some things of which we as a nation can still be proud. The combined ranks of the BBC, the Crown, the Church of England and Their Majesties’ Armed Forces can pull off some impressive stuff when they set their minds to it.

My mind, of course, also kept drifting to the technical achievements. The wonderful camera angles, with no other cameras in view. The enormously long but very slow zooms vertically down from the ceiling of the Abbey. The shallow depth of focus on the jewels atop the crown. The very great depth of focus over Winston Churchill’s shoulder as his statue looked down on the passers-by below. The synchronisation of marching video and drum-beat audio, when the cameras must often have been far enough away to delay the audio by a noticeable amount. (I realised after a while they probably had radio mics near the drummers so as to transmit the audio at the speed of light instead.) It’s hard enough for most of us just getting the audio levels right when recording a single bagpiper. To pull off this kind of production at any time is quite a feat, but to do it live, spread across an entire capital, and pretty much flawlessly… well, count me impressed. If the Duke of Norfolk didn’t already have a duchy, he would have deserved one for organising this! But this was mostly the achievement of thousands of anonymous and very skilled people.

Then I wondered, too, how many bytes of data iPlayer had to cope with today, and took my hat off again to whomever was responsible for keeping those millions(?) of livestreams going for hours on end. It really wouldn’t have been the time for unexpected network load to crash your routers, or for sudden reboots caused by unexpected software updates. I bet the technical team are breathing a sigh of relief tonight!

This was the first occasion I had actually sat down and watched any live TV in a very long time. The last time, I think, might have been when the armoured cars started rolling into Iraq in search of those weapons of mass destruction… So that would have been… 2003… nearly 20 years ago. Gosh again! I do watch lots of things on a television screen, but they’re almost all movies, or recordings or streamings of shows that other people discovered a decade ago and we’re only just getting around to binge-viewing now! We’ve been in this house for five years and I haven’t got around to connecting the TV to the aerial yet, so we watched today’s events on iPlayer — which was probably higher resolution anyway — and it looked fabulous rendered by AppleTV on our nice 4K TV.

And that’s remarkable in itself. The last event of its kind — the funeral of George VI — was the first royal procession to be broadcast on television. Grainy, black-and-white, low-resolution cathode-ray-tube- & valve-powered television… and so few people owned a receiver then that almost everybody would have had to follow in audio-only form on the radio, and then read about it a day or two later in the papers. How things have changed, in one reign.

I wish King Charles a long and happy life, but when his time does eventually come, I expect we’ll be viewing it in some sort of fully-immersive holographic projection. Though, as my friend Tim pointed out when I suggested it on Twitter, fully-immersive holographic projection will probably turn out to be just a fad. Remember 3D TV?

But in either case, I hope it’s still produced by the BBC.

Morisson’s Law of Holiday Busyness

A couple of years ago, my friend Richard Morrison posted this graph, which I now think about whenever I go on vacation:

One way to increase the height of the second bump is to write lots of blog posts when you get back, but it’s a welcome distraction from the process of getting my unread emails back down to double-digits. 🙂

Catching up

We’re just back from a few splendid days staying in a cottage on the Pembrokeshire coast in Wales, followed by a weekend of sailing on the River Crouch in East Anglia, with stops in the Wye Valley and the Cotswolds in between. Fitting these into the same week-and-a-half involves rather large changes in longitude combined with almost zero change in latitude!

Wales is a country whose great beauty is occasionally visible through the downpours. I always love visiting, but when it rains, it really rains… and this is from someone whose childhood holidays were often spent in the Lake District: somewhere that is seldom described as arid! But we alternated the suncream and the umbrellas, and only occasionally got drenched.

We saw lovely harbours, both man-made and natural:


We visited seals and lighthouses; castles, cliffs, and cottages; superchargers and woollen mills, and we had some very good food. We saw ancient woods:

We saw the cathedral in St Davids, hidden so deeply in a valley that you can be in the same small town and hardly know it’s there. but it’s a wonderful and unusual place.

And then we rushed back across the country to go sailing in our little dinghy with friends from the Tideway Owners’ Association.

Now, exhausted but happy, we’ve come back to normal working life to recover…

Deep Thought strikes again

I’m glad to see that Douglas Adams’s influence continues. I asked OpenAI, “How many roads must a man walk down?”

I think Douglas would have approved.

TikTok: Trojan Stallion

This is a great post by Scott Galloway warning about the influence of TikTok. Some have accused it of fear-mongering, but do read the whole thing and see what you think. Here are a few key points:

  • TikTok has over a billion users. This includes ‘nearly every U.S. teenager and half their parents’. The average monthly hours spent on it per user are way higher than for the other social networks. And the amount of data gathered about every interaction is vast.

  • All of its data are readily available to the Chinese government. TikTok is not actually allowed to operate in China, though, so this is purely data gathered about people in the rest of the world.

  • “Facebook is the most powerful espionage vehicle ever created and now China commands the most powerful propaganda tool”. The Russians have become very good at manipulating Facebook and Twitter, but the process is still much harder for Putin than it is for Xi Jinping.

So, Galloway warns, small changes in the configuration of the TikTok algorithms — just a thumb resting on the scale — can have a massive influence:

Dial up wholesome-looking American teens with TikTok accounts railing against the evils of capitalism. Dial down the Chinese immigrant celebrating the freedoms afforded in America. Push Trump supporter TikToks about guns and gay marriage into the feeds of liberals. Find misguided woke-cancel-culture TikToks and put them in heavy rotation for every moderate Republican. Feed the Trumpists more conspiracy theories. Anyone with a glass-half-empty message gets more play; content presenting a more optimistic view of our nation gets exiled. Hand on scale.

The network is massive, the ripple effects hidden in the noise. Putting a thumb the size of TikTok on the scale can move nations. What will have more influence on our next generation’s view of America, democracy, and capitalism? The bully pulpit of the president, the executive editor of the New York Times, or the TikTok algorithm?

Sobering stuff…

Thanks to the footnotes in John Naughton’s Observer column for the link.

Zoom calls of the past

Rose is moving from her current college office to a new one. In the bottom of a drawer, she found a Zoom modem.

For younger readers, this is a 56K modem, which means that on a really good day, you could transfer data to and from the network at 56 kilobits per second: that’s about 6 kilobytes/sec, once overheads are taken into account. This was pretty much the peak of telephone-based internet access, until ADSL came along.

Also in the same drawer was a floppy disk, which holds around 1.4MB. (I used to boot my first Linux system off one of these.)

So, to transfer the contents of this disk to the network using the modem, if you had a good reliable phone line, would take you about 4 minutes.

Now, the two originals of the photos above, which I snapped with my iPhone, between them take 7MB, or about 5 of those floppy disks, so to send the two still images would have taken around 20 minutes. (Not that we had digital still cameras at all back then, of course.)

This is why, when James T Kirk makes a call from his quarters to the bridge of the Enterprise, it’s almost always an audio call, and on the rare occasions when video is involved, they make sure they show you – it was such a wildly futuristic idea, even within the same starship!

Nobody, even on Star Trek, was daft enough to suggest he might make such a call from his communicator.

Use satellites, not lorries

Spotted just outside Hay-on-Wye this evening, I think this sign is meant to say, “If you’re driving an HGV, don’t rely on your satnav.” But in that case, the red line should really go through the satellite, n’est-ce pas?

No, after due consideration, I realise it must mean, “The no-trucks policy here is enforced by our orbiting death-rays”.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser