Monthly Archives: December, 2022

Telephonic nostalgia


Mobile phones, before and after the iPhone.  An image by Josh Heifferich from 2012.


An email today from my American friend Henry Happel included several photos from their visits to us over the years.  Lots of happy memories!

One thing that jumped out at me in a couple of the pictures, though, was that my smartphones were clearly visible.  Not, as might be the case nowadays, because everyone was perpetually gazing at the things, but because I carried them on my belt, or some other convenient external location:

Qsf blackberry 7100t

That’s a low-slung Blackberry 7100t, which was an exceedingly fine device.  It had a pleasing phone-like shape because, unlike many other Blackberries of the time which were full-qwerty-keyboard landscape-orientation devices intended only for email and messaging, this was a phone too and had a keyboard half-way between a traditional phone and a qwerty one:

Blackberry 7100t

As I recall, it worked exceedingly well and was very nicely made.  External technology changes outdated it pretty quickly, but I still think of it as one of the better gadgets I’ve owned.

Note too, of course, that phones didn’t include a camera back then, so I also have one of those on display on my belt.  It’s probably a Canon Digital IXUS.

And it wasn’t just geeks like me who valued the usefulness of the phone-holster over any compromises in sartorial elegance.  A review of the 7100t at the time talks about how an earlier Blackberry device ‘seems to be finding its way onto the belts of business users around the world.’  Mind you, perhaps most business users concealed it somewhat beneath their jacket…

Anyway, those were the days when phones actually changed significantly from year to year, and shortly afterwards, I could be seen sporting a Nokia E61.

Qsf nokia e61

(Amongst other things, this was, I think, the first phone I had which was capable of connecting to WiFi.)

Nokia e61

It, too,was generally attached my belt, despite the fact that it was significantly smaller than my current iPhone (except in thickness, where the iPhone wins by a few millimetres).  Were our pockets actually smaller back then?

I guess we hadn’t yet discovered that the main reason for having pockets in the first place is to carry your phone!  We used to need pockets for things like car keys and wallets, but I’m about to head off to the supermarket and my phone will perform both of those functions for me, so my pockets are otherwise pretty much unencumbered.

Still, if you find yourself directing a period drama set between about 2000 and 2007, you might want to add some realism by picking up from eBay a few of these relics of a bygone age… even if they’re only part of the costumes.

Ceci n’est pas un acteur

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s very important to keep up to date with AI and ‘deep fake’ technologies, even if you’re not interested in the technology itself.  This is because we regularly need to recalibrate something that, for all its fallacy, is deeply embedded in human psyche: the idea that the camera never lies.  

Being aware of just how easy it is to fake an Amazon review, or an email from your bank, is, I hope, a standard part of every child’s education now, but the capabilities of all computer-generated content are a constantly-moving target and we all need to keep abreast of the state of the art to avoid being caught unawares.

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s a 1-minute message from Morgan Freeman that has been getting a lot of attention in the last couple of weeks:

Also available here.

This is an actor impersonating Freeman’s voice, and a computer-generated video of Freeman himself.  I was then surprised to discover that it was actually created 18 months ago.  The technology will, of course, have improved considerably since then.  One user commented on the video, “How can this tech NOT be deployed in the 2024 election?”

It occurs to me that, soon, you’ll only be able to trust the words of famous people if you actually see them in person (because it’ll be a long time before robotics is as good as computer-generated imagery!)  Perhaps this will herald a return of the popularity of theatre…

(It is, however, also very enlightening to read the sections of Dr Steven Novella’s book talking about the thoroughly unreliable nature of eye-witness testimony, and of memory itself.  It’s not just the camera that’s fallible!)

And when it comes to video, you’ll soon have to trust only people who are not famous, because there will be insufficient training data available online for anyone to do a good fake of them.

Let slip the dogs of war

Here’s something I didn’t know until this evening.  Havoc can be used as a verb. I havoc, he havocs, we have been havocking, we all havocked.  It means to devastate, to lay waste to, as in ‘they havocked the city’.

To ‘cry havoc’, as Mark Antony suggests may be appropriate in Julius Caesar,  comes from the old French crier havot, which means, basically, to order an army to lay waste and plunder.

So now you know.  I hope that one of the reasons you read this blog is to learn new words for use in day-to-day conversation.  What will you havoc today?

And there’s a gold star for anybody who can suggest why I might have been thinking about havoc at this particular time…

Televisual errata and nostalgia

Following my post including reminiscences about my early TV memories yesterday, a couple of readers pointed out that I must have been mistaken about TVs with two buttons, one for BBC1 and one for BBC2, which were unable to display ITV.  They point out that ITV actually started well before BBC2 (though it was London-based initially and I don’t think it got to us for a while), whereas BBC2, which didn’t start until 1964, was much more widely distributed.

They may be right, though I wasn’t born until 1967 and lived in Africa for the first three years of my life, so didn’t see a television until a few years into the 70s anyway.  My memories of what they could do was based more, probably, around the capabilities of the second-hand ones that we and our neighbours could afford, rather than what was the norm for the technology at the time.

But the real reason I think I’m mistaken is that it was actually BBC2 that was difficult to receive on early sets, because it was broadcast using the new, higher-resolution 625-line standard, and TVs that were designed for the older 405-line system often weren’t compatible.


Another thing I do clearly remember, though, many years later, is seeing my first TV remote control, which belonged to my uncle, who worked in television.  The device had just one button, which would change channels.  By clicking it, you could cycle through all three of them.  The great thing, though, was how crude the remote was: it was basically a big piezo-electric spark generator.  One you pressed it hard enough to make an almighty click, it would generate enough of an EMP pulse for the TV to pick up the instruction and change channel.  I never saw another of these; I guess the system must have been quite rare, which was probably good, because otherwise one click would probably have changed the channels of all your neighbours’ TVs as well!

We were clearly well behind the times, though, if remotes like this one were really available in the States in 1961.


Griff Rhys Jones, in one of his books, talks about being given Coca Cola as a child when visiting the rather grand neighbours down the road, an Australian doctor and his wife:

“Real Coca-Cola was something we never saw anywhere else.  Not simply because it was an expensive luxury, but because, like American comic books and ITV, it was something inherently corrupting, although not apparently to Australians.”

This made me laugh out loud.  We also grew up with the curse of fake Coke, which was even worse than the real stuff, and with the same general understanding about comics and ITV. (I realise now, of course, that my mother was entirely correct on these points!)

For my foreign readers, ITV was our first commercial TV channel, and, though it started broadcasting in 1955, that was only in London.  It took a while to reach us, partly because we lived 30+ miles away from the capital, and partly because many early television sets only had one or two channel buttons on them, to let you switch between BBC1 and BBC2.   ITV had a stigma because it was commercial – supported by advertising – and we knew that the very best firms, like John Lewis, didn’t need pay for advertising because their products were good enough without it.

It wasn’t just us, though: this feeling was widespread.  A couple of years ago I heard somebody on the radio talking about his working-class childhood in a small terraced house in an industrial town.  He described how, if they were watching ITV when somebody rang the doorbell, they would switch to BBC2 before answering the door to avoid potential embarrassment.

Cartoons and comics were similar.  We weren’t allowed comic books, in general, being encouraged to read proper things instead, so the dubious and unsociable activities of characters like Dennis the Menace were things we only glimpsed in other kids’ comics at school.  And, for us as for Griff, cartoons and comics were particularly suspect if they had come from the other side of the Atlantic (unless they had first been vetted by the BBC).

All of this was very right and proper and I have absolutely no regrets about it.  But it does mean that, having married an American wife, I’m now discovering some Christmas children’s classics that had not previously come my way.  Even though we (thankfully) have no children ourselves, if you can’t re-live your childhood, or your spouse’s childhood, at Christmas, when can you?

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) is one I can frankly live without. The attempt to capture a Christmas spirit while ruthlessly expunging any mention of its religious origins leaves me cold.  A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) is rather better, though I do think Schulz is better in print than on film.

But, to my surprise, I find I rather enjoy Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), the stop-motion animation that has been a standard part of Christmas for millions of households for more than half a century, but which I hadn’t seen until fairly recently.  But I discover that its origins were highly commercial.

Concerning reindeer

Hermey the elf and rudolph

The original story of Rudolph actually dates back to the second world war, when a Chicago department store wanted a short Christmas book to give away to children.  Robert L May, an employee in the advertising department, came up with the story – here’s the original manuscript – and they printed more than two million copies.  

A decade later, perhaps not realising what they had created, his employers kindly gave him the rights to the story.  May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, was a songwriter, and May talked him into writing a song based around it… with the result was that May and his family, previously in serious financial difficulties, were able to live very comfortably for the rest of his life and beyond.

The enormously-expensive animation was funded by General Electric, who also produced four advertisments for their houshold appliances featuring characters from Rudolph.   An interesting bit of trivia is that, a couple of years before, GE had also invented the first (red) LEDs, one of which they were able to use to make Rudolph’s nose glow.

For me, part of the fun comes from the little twists.  Hermey, pictured above with Rudolph, is one of Santa’s elves – Wow, what a job, children! – and yet he’s downhearted because his real ambition is to be a dentist.    And the elves come up with a nice song for Santa, but he’s decidedly unimpressed.  “That ridiculous elf-song is driving me crazy!”

In this day and age, I guess kids might not be very impressed with the animation.  But it’s worth considering, while watching it, the vast amount of labour required to create each frame of an hour-long stop-motion animation, using the technology of sixty years ago.

We watched it again a few days ago, though, and one thing jumped out at me as not sounding quite right.  The young reindeer are referred to as fawns… and Rudolph will grow up to be a fine buck.  I went and did some reading and found out that my concerns were valid, and learned a few other things about reindeer too.

  • As I thought, reindeer are normaly referred to as bulls and cows.  Their offspring are called calves.
  • Reindeer, deer of the genus Rangifer, are the only deer that have successfully been domesticated on any scale.  Handy if you want them to tow a sleigh across the night sky, for example.
  • There are many subspecies of Rangifer and they occur in many parts of the world.  In North America, though, they are generally known as caribou, with the name reindeer mostly being reserved for domesticated animals.
  • Reindeer drop their antlers each year and grow new ones. For males, this happens in late autumn, while the females will typically hang on to theirs until after Christmas.

Now, since Christmas cards generally show reindeer with a fine set of antlers at Christmas-time, you could probably use the above to win a bet at the pub.  

“Will you buy me a pint if I convince you that Santa’s sleigh is actually towed by cows?”


For more background on ‘Rudolph’, see this article from the Smithsonian Magazine, and this piece from NPR

In case you were wondering…

I’ve been trying to get ChatGPT to do some recursion, using prompts like “Write a letter explaining how to use ChatGPT to write letters about how to use ChatGPT to write letters”, but the results, though coherent, are not very satisfying.

So instead I tried confusing it with, “Give an example of the kind of question you would be unable to answer, and then answer it.” It did well on the first bit… but ignored the second.

OK, I thought, I’d better stick to something simple, like the question that all hyperintelligent machines should be able to answer.

The ultimate question and its answer are not specified in the information available to me. However, the concept of an "ultimate question" and the search for an "ultimate answer" has appeared in various forms in literature and pop culture. For example, in Douglas Adams' "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," the supercomputer Deep Thought is asked to find the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything, and ultimately determines that the answer is 42. This is meant to be humorous and should not be taken literally.

Truth, Social or otherwise

Today I did something I never thought I would do. I went and had a look at ‘Truth Social’, Donald Trump’s own social media platform. This was for a reason that I’ll explain in a minute, but it’s interesting to note that the front page looks quite attractive.

“Truth Social is America’s ‘Big Tent’ social media platform that encourages an open, free, and honest global conversation without discriminating on the basis of political ideology”, it says. Mmm. It sounds quite a nice place to be. There’s a big button encouraging you to create an account. “Let’s get started!”, it suggests, offering, “Social Media Without Discrimination”.

Well, I had no intention of creating an account, or even allowing it to create any cookies on my machine, but I was interested to see that, if you came across the site without knowing the background, there wasn’t much on the front page that might put a normal person off.

However, I knew the software they were using and so was able to guess the URLs I could use to see the content without signing up. And it was revealing.

You see, somebody on Twitter had posted, side by side, a Christmas tweet from Joe Biden and a Christmas ‘Truth’, as they call it, from Donald Trump. The contrast was so vivid that I thought the Trump one had to be a spoof, and I wanted to see if I could track them down to check.

But no, it was genuine, so I thought I’d share with you the Christmas messages from these two men:

Sources here and here.

Of course, it would be easy to be selective and deliberately pick unfavourable posts from one side. So, to be fair, I also include the next post from each of them so you can make a more informed decision:

Sources here and here.

I do not wish to engage in any political debate here, especially not at this time of year, so having presented these Yuletide messages, I will leave you entirely free to come to your own conclusions, at this season of peace and good will to all men.

But I will offer the following benediction to all my readers:

May your festive period, and the coming year for all of us, be filled with one of these philosophies rather more than the other!

A phrase to ponder

Merry Christmas, everyone! (Or Merry Boxing Day, for those of you who receive my posts by email the following day!)

I was browsing the forum of the Dinghy Cruising Association yesterday, and came across a nice line from a Steve Husband, who said he had been told by his dad that

Mother is the necessity of invention.

That probably means something different to everybody, so make of it what you will!

Christmas Stocking

Like many of you, no doubt, we’ve been stocking up on the necessary goods to tide us over the Christmas period.  

However, Rose tested positive for Covid yesterday, so our most important stocks now look like this:

A collection of lateral flow tests

Rose isn’t suffering much, and we were planning a fairly quiet Christmas anyway, so it’s not a bad time for it to happen!

I’m still showing negative, so am being sent out promptly to do any shopping before that dreaded second pink line appears on my tests too. And that means that I am in full control of the purchasing of the brandy cream which you might have spotted in the top right of my picture. Ho ho ho!

Now, I’ve always liked to consider myself something of a connoisseur of mince pies, and, in the absence of proper home-made ones, I have to say that those carrying Heston Blumenthal’s brand in Waitrose have been consistently good over the years. This year is no exception.  I wouldn’t know Herr Blumenthal (or any other celebrity chef) if I bumped into him in the street, but his pies, this year coming in a larger-than-usual format with a ‘lemon twist’ are decidedly tasty.  And they have an important characteristic for those who, like me, are the sole consumer in the household: they stand up rather well to being microwaved.  Herr B might be shocked at the suggestion, but you really can’t heat up an oven just to warm an individual mince pie.  Not two or three times per day. No, 15-20 secs on 600W is the only viable solution, unless, I guess, you have an always-on Aga.  Mmm.  I always thought there must be a raison-d’être for those, even in the modern age…  Perhaps for next Christmas…

Anyway, mince pies can, of course, be improved even further with a topping of brandy cream, and here too, Waitrose has come up trumps this year with their Courvoisier-infused extra-thick variety.  I’ve always considered brandy cream superior to brandy butter and I’m discovering that even their smallest pot is still sufficient to extend to a variety of other uses after the mince pies have been exhausted.  Porridge, for example, will certainly benefit from a dollop of it, alongside the brown sugar and blueberries.

But the thing that made me seriously consider starting a petition to Waitrose, asking them to stock it all year round and not just at Christmas, was a couple of evenings ago when I first tried it with hot chocolate. Oh my word! (as they would say down under).

Make yourself a proper hot chocolate (which means using hot milk – none of this water-based nonsense).  Use an electric blender or whisk to dissolve the chocolate beans, flakes or whatever — these are rather good — and then finish it off with a decent-sized floating island of extra thick brandy cream, before putting your feet up in front of Crooks Anonymous or Where Eagles Dare, and you can be sure of a jolly good evening.

Even if you do have Covid.

Your history can come back to haunt you…

For those who haven’t been following all the fun activity on Twitter recently, the platform has been going through, shall we say, some challenges!  

For example, Elon Musk, the advocate of complete freedom of speech, has been blocking the accounts of people who even referred to a system that tracked the location of his private jet, despite the fact that it’s based on publicly-available data. He’s particularly got a grudge against journalists, which is ironic since they’re generally the ones who are the most fond of Twitter.

But the latest move is even more amusing.  Musk is clearly concerned about the very significant exodus of Twitter users to platforms such as Mastodon (which is causing mainstream outlets like the Wall Street Journal to publish How to use Mastodon articles).

In the last few days, people started to notice that any attempts to post a tweet containing a link to a Mastodon account have been blocked. So you can’t directly say on Twitter, ‘In future you can find me on Mastodon here….’, at least not with a link as well.   I had to employ some technical tricks to bypass their checks in one of my test Tweets!  Others have done similar things – Ben Gracewood suggests that you can just make a QR code of your Mastodon link and post that…

Well, Twitter has now published a new official policy on the ‘Promotion of alternative social platforms’ from which the following are excerpts:

We know that many of our users may be active on other social media platforms; however, going forward, Twitter will no longer allow free promotion of specific social media platforms on Twitter.

At both the Tweet level and the account level, we will remove any free promotion of prohibited 3rd-party social media platforms, such as linking out (i.e. using URLs) to any of the below platforms on Twitter, or providing your handle without a URL:

Prohibited platforms:

  • Facebook, Instagram, Mastodon, Truth Social, Tribel, Post and Nostr
  • 3rd-party social media link aggregators such as,


People have pointed out that Twitter is quite happy to promote itself, and Twitter content, on its Facebook page, which does rather smack of hypocrisy.  And of course, you can happily link to Twitter content from Mastodon and almost any other system on the net.

So I was delighted to discover that back in June, one of Elon’s tweets contained the following:

The acid test for any two competing socioeconomic systems is which side needs to build a wall to keep people from escaping? That’s the bad one!


It’s great fun watching this — a good pre-Christmas drama worthy of a future movie, no doubt.  In the past, I’ve been willing to smile at most of Musk’s eccentricities and cut him a lot of slack, partly because he has still, in my opinion, managed to do more than any man living to combat climate change.  But there is a certain feeling of Greek tragedy to the last few weeks.

Still, it’s could be easy to read too much into this. Mastodon is growing fast – I think the last figure I saw was over 8M users, but Twitter’s millions are considerably more numerous.  While it’s no longer a hip place to be, it’s not going away any time soon (unless it goes suddenly bankrupt!)    My account there is now approaching 15 years old, and I still have it, though I can certainly imagine that I might not have one by this time next year.

And I wouldn’t have any withdrawal symptoms if it went away.  At the start of the Covid lockdown, I was concerned that I might end up spending too much time on social media, so I used Apple’s ScreenTime facility to limit my combined viewing of Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn on all my devices to a total of 15 mins per day. (I don’t do TikTok, and I deleted my Facebook account years ago after my 2017 New Year’s Resolution was to be Facebook-free and I found life got better as a result, so they were the services that mattered.)  I still have that limit in place, though at present it doesn’t include my new Mastodon apps!

I wonder what 2023 will hold for the world of social media.  Blogs, email and RSS feeds, of course, will continue to operate quite happily, and they at least will certainly still be here as next Christmas approaches.

Update, a couple of hours later:

Wow – interesting things now happening on Elon’s Twitter feed….

Screenshot 2022 12 18 at 23 47 53

The poll has 11 hours to run. Now, it may be largely symbolic, because if he stopped running it, but continued owning it… I wonder, if he stepped down, whether the share price would rise enough for him to be able to sell it within too great a loss?

Anyway, I’m left with the difficult voting choice: if Musk stays, we might end up with a world without Twitter, which I think would probably be a better place.
On the other hand, we’d probably still have a Twitter, but it would be his kind of Twitter, which would be worse…

In general, I think a reversion to the old Twitter would be the best, so I voted for his departure in that hope. There’s something to be said for the devil you know.

The devil being Twitter, in this case. I guess that needs clarification…


The best nativity scene?

Spotted this on Twitter. It’s five years old, but I think it’s great!

And I liked the comment below it by Kevin Leroux:

Marty! You’ve got to get Joseph and Mary to kiss at the Bethlehem Ball tonight or it’s all ruined!

A new perspective?

Like everyone else, I’ve been having a bit of a play with ChatGPT. There have been some nice examples recently of people asking it questions and getting answers that are grammatically correct, well-presented, completely plausible, and completely wrong.

That didn’t happen to me. There was one question I felt I ought to ask it, and it gave a mostly correct response, though its description of the Trojan Room wasn’t quite right. Overall, though, not bad. But it was the last sentence that took me by surprise:

Screenshot of response to What was the first webcam? The first webcam was created at the University of Cambridge in 1991. It was installed in the Trojan Room, a computer laboratory in the university's department of engineering, and
was used to monitor the condition of a coffee pot. This way, researchers working in the lab
could check remotely whether there was coffee available without having to physically go
to the room to check. The webcam's feed was made available online, making it one of the
earliest examples of a web-based surveillance system.

Well, yes, I suppose it was a surveillance system, though no human has used that phrase to me before when describing it!

Perhaps it’s only natural, though, that a machine should think of things chiefly from the point of view of the coffee pot?

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser