Author Archives: qsf

MeetingBuster and the Christmas Call Diary

There was a period of a few years when I played quite extensively with VOIP, which for the uninitiated, stands for Voice-Over-Internet-Protocols, sometimes called ‘IP Telephony’. This isn’t about Zoom and Skype and FaceTime, but about traditional phone calls: the things your parents used to make (and maybe still do), often using devices attached to the wall with wires!

It all seems very obvious now, but there was a point between about 20 and 10 years ago when the typical office phone changed from being an audio device plugged into a landline-style connection with analogue voltages talking to a phone exchange, to being something digital that plugged into the ethernet and had an IP address. Telephone calls, hitherto controlled by large national monopolies with expensive proprietary equipment and hideously complex signalling protocols, started to become something ordinary users could manage with their own software, even Open Source software.

Companies that had previously paid vast sums of money to buy or lease a PBX (the ‘Private Branch Exchange’ that gave you internal phone numbers and routed calls to and from external numbers), could now just install software on a cheap PC and route calls to phone handsets over the local network. If you also routed calls over the wider internet, limitations of most broadband connections meant that the quality and reliability left something to be desired, but, as one perceptive observer commented at the time, “The great thing about mobile networks is that they have lowered people’s expectations of telephony to the point where VOIP is a viable solution.”

Phone Phun

And what you could do in an office, you could also do at home, just for fun. I loved this stuff, because in my youth telephony had embodied the quintessence of big faceless corporations: you paid them, they told you what you could and couldn’t do with the socket in your wall, you lived with the one phone number they decided to give you, and could only plug in the equipment that they approved. Any variations on this theme rapidly became very expensive.

With VOIP, however, you could now get multiple phone numbers in your own house and configure how they were handled yourself. I had one number that was registered in Seattle (because I was doing lots of work there), but it rang a phone in my home office in Cambridge — the same one that also had one Cambridge number and one London one — with the calls routed halfway around the world over the internet, basically for free. All of a sudden, you could do things that the Post Office, BT, AT&T, or whoever, would never have let you do in the past. It was fun!

Part of my interest came from the clear parallels between how phone calls were handled in this new world, and the way HTTP requests were handled on the web. I first got involved in telephony with the AT&T Broadband Phone project back in 1999, when my friends and I had to write our own telephony stack based on the new SIP protocol, and build our own custom hardware to connect our SIP network to real-world phone lines.

But, as with the early days of the web, Open Source servers soon emerged so you didn’t have to write your own! The Asterisk and, a little later, FreeSwitch packages were very much analogous to Apache and Nginx in the web world. Calls came in, and you decided what to do with them using a set of configuration rules similar to those that might determine what page or image to return for a particular URL. Voice prompts and keypad button presses were a bit like forms and submit buttons on web pages… and so on.

Anyway, there were a couple of quick hacks that I put together at the time which turned out to be rather useful, so if you’re still with me after the history lesson above, I’ll describe them.

The Christmas Call Diary

We were a young startup company, with about half-a-dozen employees, operating primarily out of a garden shed in Cambridge. But we had sold products to real customers who expected a decent level of support. As Christmas approached, we realised that the office was going to be empty for about a fortnight, and started to wonder what would happen if anybody had technical support issues and needed urgent help.

So I set up a shared Google calendar, and asked everyone to volunteer to be available for particular periods of time over the holiday, just in case any customers called; a possibility that was, we hoped, pretty unlikely, but it would improve our reputation no end if somebody did answer. All we had to do was put entries in the calendar that contained our mobile or home number during times when we didn’t mind being disturbed. People valiantly signed up.

We were running a VOIP exchange on an old Dell PC, and I wrote a script to handle incoming calls, which worked like this:

  • When a call comes in, ring all the phones in the office for a short while.
  • If nobody picks up, then look at the special Google Calendar to see if there’s a current entry, and if its contents look like a phone number. If so, then divert the call to that number.
  • If it isn’t answered after a short while, send the caller to our voicemail system, and email the resulting message to all of us.

In the end, I don’t think anybody did call, but the script worked as intended, and allowed us to have a more worry-free Christmas break, which was perhaps its most important achievement!

MeetingBuster

Back in 2006, I registered the domain MeetingBuster.com, and thanks to the wonderful Internet Archive, I can see once again what the front page looked like, which neatly explains its purpose (click if you need a larger image):

A later update allowed you to call MeetingBuster and press a number key within 10 seconds, and your callback would then happen that many tens of minutes later, so pressing ‘3’ just before going into a meeting would give you an option to escape from it after half an hour. (Remember this was all well before the iPhone was released, so all such interactions had to be based on DTMF tones.)

Anyway, Meetingbuster was just for fun, and there are probably better ways to escape from today’s virtual meetings. But if/when we go back to face-to-face meetings again, and you need an excuse to say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I really ought to answer that; do you mind?”, then let me know and perhaps I can revive it!

Awardify revisited

Ten years ago, as a joke, I created a website called ‘Awardify’. The front page explained its purpose:

Awardify is the internet’s premier award-granting service!

  • Have you ever looked at marketing materials for a product or service and seen them described as ‘award-winning’?
  • Have you ever wondered which award they won, and how recently, and whether it has any value at all?
  • Of course not! You probably thought, “Wow! I wish my company/product/service was award-winning too!”

Well, now you need look no further. Awardify’s simple and convenient service can grant you the award of your choice, so that you too can use that catchy and effective phrase on your own marketing materials, and be the envy of your competitors!

Sure enough, you could fill in your details and it would generate a nice printable award for you. You could pick from a selection of pre-defined titles — “The International Kitchen Excellence Award” was one example, I think — or you could choose your own, and you could then decide who should award it to you from a list of impressive-sounding organisations, all of which were trading names of Awardify.com (which didn’t actually exist as legal entity).

After a few years, I decided this spoof had run its course and it wasn’t worth paying for the awardify.com domain any longer, or keeping the underlying software updated with security patches, so I let it go. You can see a snapshot of the Awardify front page on the Internet Archive, but otherwise it was consigned to the big wastebin of internet history, the domain was bought by somebody else, and there the story would have ended… until…

Well, blow me down, if somebody hasn’t revived the idea!

Yes, I discovered today that you can now go to Awardify Now and get yourself an award, and what’s more, they’re actually charging money for them! Which means they might hang around a bit longer than my site did. But they can’t be serious, surely?

So the question now arises, who is the most foolish? The person taken in by fake awards? The person who pays a website to generate fake awards? Or the person who has an idea for a fake-award-generating-business and completely fails to capitalise on it?

Eye in the Sky

I had owned my little drone for a while before I discovered one of its cleverer tricks: taking 360 panoramic views. You just put it in the right mode and press the button, and it turns round on the spot taking 26 photos at various pitch angles, then stitches them together. In some ways I find these interactive views more compelling than videos.

This was one of my first: Houghton Mill, on the River Great Ouse. (If you just see a blank space below, I’m afraid you may need to try another browser, and if you get these posts by email, you’ll probably have to view it on the web.)

Or here’s a view of the University’s Computer Lab, where I used to work back in the days when we had physical offices. The big building site opposite is the Physics Department’s new Cavendish Lab (the third of that name), which is also known as the Ray Dolby Centre, since that little button you used to press on your cassette deck is paying for a lot of this:

People who are interested in the West Cambridge Site may want to look at other shots from the same evening. And people who remember when cassette decks started having Dolby C as well as Dolby B may be inspired by the title of this post to hum tunes from the Alan Parsons Project.

There may be more of these to come.

Location, location, revisited

Previously on Status-Q…

Regular readers may remember that a couple of months ago, I lost my glasses and found them again. If you missed that particularly gripping episode, turn back to Location, location, location (or, ‘How technology saved me a few hundred quid yesterday’) and then you’ll understand the background here.

After posting it, my friend Phil Endecott got in touch with me. “Am I to understand”, he said, “that you would find it useful if you had a map app that could show both the locations of your photos and your current location at the same time? If so, I may have just what you need….”

And he did indeed. Phil, you see, is the author of UK Map, an iOS app that I’ve had for as long as I can remember, and one I should talk about more, because I use it all the time, especially when looking for new dog-walking routes. Yes, I may use Google Maps to find out how long it’ll take me to drive there, and Streetview to check that there’s likely to be a parking spot when I get there, but once I’ve laced up my walking boots, then I generally switch to UK Map. It combines free or paid-for Ordnance Survey maps with footpaths from Open Street Map, and, certainly round here, it’s a much better guide than almost anything else as to where you can actually go for a walk.

New features get added periodically and, like much of the cool stuff, are often buried deep in some menu below some unassuming icon in the corner, making them very easy to miss, so you really do want to go to the home page and read it carefully to see what the app can do, and then to the help button in the app to see how to do it. I don’t check these often enough, but when Phil’s message prompted me, I had another explore and found that, yes, it can show your photos on your maps. This is the site of my aforementioned adventure:

and if I had been there at the time of writing this, the little blue dot would indeed have shown me exactly what I needed to know. (The violet-coloured triangle there, by the way, is showing the rough direction in which the phone was pointing when it took the picture, and therefore shows what you may be able to see in it. Neat, eh?)

Anyway, I’ve mentioned UK Map before, but I’ve used it for so many years that I take it for granted. I do think that if you put in a little time learning what it can do, you’ll find it repays its very modest purchase price. Actually, it’ll repay that even if, like me, you really only scratch the surface.

P.S. If you happen to be anywhere other than the UK, this will be of limited use, but if you’re in North America, Phil is also the author of the highly-rated Topo Maps

The sound of bubbles

Late last summer we were in Cornwall and spent a delightful day on the Helford river in a boat we rented for the purpose. It had a motor, which was very convenient, but having driven an electric car for the last 6 years, I was very conscious again of just how much noise a combustion engine makes, especially when it’s in the form of an outboard sitting right behind you. Since that day, I’ve been desirous of an electric-powered boat.

Well, today we were able to try out a couple of recent purchases. Our new vessel, Tiddler, is an inflatable that comes somewhere between a RIB tender and an inflatable kayak — and we paired it with an ePropulsion electric outboard, which is a marvellous thing that can be put in the back of the car without any risk of petrol spills. In fact we can just about get the boat, the pump, the engine, the battery and the oars in the boot of our saloon car without needing to fold the seats down.

It took some research to find a combination that would do that, but I was keen to try because it turns out that Teslas are ridiculously dependent on their very low drag coefficient for their range, and doing reckless things like putting something on a roof-rack or towing it behind has quite an impact, so keeping things inside is a good idea if you can.

Anyway, we had a rather idyllic but high-tech day, zooming from our house to the little harbour just over an hour away, along a highway that took us almost all the way, so the car did the vast majority of the driving. Then pottering around the estuary mostly in sunshine and mostly in silence, mooring near a famous waterside pub that we knew to serve excellent fish and chips, and then heading back home the same way. This simultaneously proved two things to my satisfaction: firstly, that most forms of transport can be improved with the addition of a good battery, and secondly, that despite all this technology there’s still nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.

When not to Excel

Back in about 1993, I was doing the bookkeeping for a big project being undertaken by my local church. Donations were flooding in, and we needed to keep track of everything, send out receipts, forms and letters of thanks, and note whether each donation was eligible for the UK tax relief known as ‘Gift Aid’.

I was keeping track of this using on a PC running the now long-gone Microsoft Works, which, for those less familiar with last-millennium computing, was a software suite incorporating basic and much cheaper versions of the things you found in Microsoft Office: a word-processor, database, and spreadsheet. If your needs were simple, it worked rather well.

Anyway, at one point I was printing out a list of recent donations on my dot-matrix printer, and I noticed what appeared to be some data corruption. In the midst of the sea of donors’ names, there were a couple of dates being printed out. Was this a software bug, or was my database file corrupt? I started investigating, while wondering just how much data I’d entered since my last backup and whether I could recreate it…

In the end, the answer was simple, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I tried recreating the entry for one of donors and the same thing happened again, at which point I dug a bit deeper and discovered a ‘feature’ of the app. The lady’s first name was ‘June’, and, though it displayed just fine on the data-entry screen, behind the scenes, it had been turned into 1/6/93! I skimmed quickly through the congregation to find the other problematic record, and found it was for a donation from a lady named ‘May’!

When I came back to doing some scientific computing in academia a few years ago, I was surprised and slightly worried to see several of my colleagues processing their data with Excel. It’s a wonderful program and very appealing, because of the ease of viewing, checking and plotting graphs of your results, but it comes with lots of problems of its own and shouldn’t be used as a substitute for a proper database (if you’re a church accountant), or for something like Jupyter Notebooks, if you’re a scientific researcher, unless you’re exceedingly careful. Last year, more than a quarter of a century after my issues with May and June, 27 human genes were actually renamed because of the number of errors caused in scientific papers by the use of Excel by researchers. The genes’ previous names were things like ‘SEPT1’.

All of this came to mind when reading Tim Harford’s enjoyable piece in yesterday’s FT, The Tyranny of Spreadsheets. Harford follows the origins of spreadsheets, double-entry bookkeeping and other ways of keeping track of things, up to the famous case last year where 16,000 people weren’t promptly told they had positive Covid test results, because somebody had used Excel’s old XLS file format, which can only store about 64,000 rows of information, instead of the newer XLSX. That’s not really a problem; the problem is that Excel doesn’t give you adequate warning when it’s discarding data, or changing it in an attempt to be helpful. And the results can be serious.

To quote the article:

Two economists, Thiemo Fetzer and Thomas Graeber … decided that no catastrophe should be allowed to occur without trying to learn some lessons. They combed through the evidence from Public Health England’s mishap. And by comparing the experiences of different regions, they concluded that the error had led to 125,000 additional infections.

Fetzer and Graeber have calculated a conservative estimate of the number of people who died, unknown victims of the spreadsheet error. They think the death toll is at least 1,500 people.

Think about that, as you click ‘Save As…’ and pick your data format.

(Thanks to my sister-in-law Lindsey for the link to the Harford article, which also traces some of the origins of spreadsheets from the 14th century; that’s before even I was using them!)

Meme-busting

In the early days of social media, I was at a family gathering where I fear I lost some street cred with my nephew. He was talking about ‘memes’ and he said something along the lines of “Quentin will know what those are”. Yes, I confirmed, just catching the end of the conversation. ‘Meme’ is a phrase coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 in The Selfish Gene. He was exploring whether cultural ideas might reproduce and spread themselves in a similar manner to the genes for certain successful biological traits. At the time, though, my nephew was probably thinking more about pictures of kittens or celebrities overlaid with bold-faced subtitles! Still, the idea of a ‘meme’ has certainly had a fair degree of meme-like success, though it has mutated over time, and many people might be ignorant of its origin!

On the subject of origins, one of the most attractive types of meme is the one that says “Well-known person X said clever thing Y”. This was very successful long before the internet, but has truly flourished since. We all love a good quotation, particularly if we can put it on a poster with a picture of Winston Churchill or Albert Einstein. I was thinking of this recently on a call when I mentioned the famous one, “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research”. This is widely attributed to Albert Einstein, but probably wasn’t actually his. I have a list of some of my favourite quotes on my website, and many of them now have qualifiers alongside the attributions.

Terence Eden has just written a nice blog post on a quotation from Desmond Tutu:

A very pleasing idea, but Eden suggests that Tutu may never even have used it; in any case he almost certainly didn’t originate it. That honour is likely to go to Reginald S Lourie, a man of some eminence, but whose face, though genial enough, is much less well known than the good archbishop’s. Would this quote be as popular if it had had to spread this way?

The idea that a meme needs to attach itself to a successful organism does relate back to Dawkins’ ideas, though the effect is perhaps more closely aligned to parasitology or epidemiology than pure natural selection. (Dawkins himself was, I seem to recall, hesitant to push the meme/gene analogy too far.)

We need to be reminded of this regularly, to help us appreciate both that something isn’t necessarily true just because somebody famous said it, and that ordinary people can occasionally say extraordinary things.

As a great man* once said, “I dream of a world where the success of a great idea does not depend on the fame or fortune of its creator.” If this is your dream too, please spread the word by retweeting the image below.

* Me, in my shower, this morning.

Anchors aweigh

It came to my attention, when renting a small boat last year, that I didn’t really know much about anchors: how best to use them, how long the rode (the cable) should be, and so forth. The little dinghy I sailed in my youth had a mud-weight, but a proper anchor? No, I’d never really had to use one of those myself, certainly not in any situation where it might matter. This gap in my knowledge was brought to mind again today as we listened to the audiobook of We Didn’t Mean to Go To Sea. Connoisseurs of quality children’s literature will understand the relevance.

Now, the wonders of modern life allow you to find out all sorts of things in all sorts of situations, and so it was that, relaxing in the bath after a hard day’s domestic labour, my thoughts naturally turned to things aquatic. I had my trusty iPad to hand, and so was able to watch a range of YouTube videos from people in exotic parts of the world explaining the different kinds of anchor, how long the rode should be for a given depth of water, why it’s important that the bit that attaches to the anchor should be a chain even if the rest of it is rope, and so on. Time passed, and I became simultaneously cleaner, more relaxed, and better-educated.

Finally, feeling that the bathwater was getting a bit cool, and it was time to move to a different berth, and I was now equipped to handle most anchoring situations I was likely to encounter before bed, I sat up, reached for the plug-chain, and gave it a tug. It seemed to stick for a moment and then came free, and I wound it in, only to discover a situation for which none of my training had prepared me…

The plug had remained in the murky depths. There was nothing on the end of the dangling chain.

It only takes one bit of data…

A few days ago, I created a new Facebook account. Not for myself, of course; I’m not stupid! (I deleted my own account many years ago and haven’t looked back.) No, it was because my company was writing some software that connected to Instagram, and doing that requires you to have a Facebook account in order to get ‘Developer’ access and for testing.

So, I set up a new email address and registered with a somewhat fake name, logged in and started browsing a generic here-are-some-feeds-you-might-be-interested-in type of experience. No personal details… all nice and anonymous.

The following day, I couldn’t log in. “Your account has been blocked.” Had I been rumbled? Ah, no, they just wanted to check I was really a real human by sending a text to my phone. I put in my phone number, got the text, filled in the code, and I was back in again. Jolly good. I logged out and went back to work.

A few days later…

The following Tuesday I logged in again, and there was a picture of my cousin, listed as someone I might want to connect with. Nice picture, I thought. And then, “Wait a minute! How do they know about her?”

I scrolled down, and sure enough, there were my friends, family, past work colleagues… dozens of ’em, all just waiting to welcome my ‘anonymous’ account into the fold. And then I remembered…

I still have a WhatsApp account. I seldom use that, either, but it’s there. And so, I presume, the act of entering my phone number for a security confirmation on my test account gave Facebook access to my entire graph of social contacts. Or, and perhaps in addition, lots of people with Facebook apps on their phone will have my phone number in their contacts. Facebook know exactly who I am, and all about me. Sigh. Should have used a ‘burner’ phone! Meanwhile, my friends have probably all received invitations to befriend a strangely-named new account and thought that the Facebook algorithms had gone a bit squiffy. Oh no. They’re working perfectly.

There is, however, something that still intrigues me. A noticeable aspect of the front page was the range of dog-related material. If this came from WhatsApp, how did they know I liked dogs? I guess it might be an Instagram link, but I really don’t have many dog pictures there either. Mmm.

No, I suspect this must be because I used my spaniel Tilly as the profile pic on the company account, just for fun. (Her modelling fees are very reasonable, and can be paid entirely in Bonios.) Anyway, if that is how they made the connection, then I can’t help wondering what other analysis they might be doing of people’s profile photos…?

Of course, I thought, I may be imagining it; they may just have decided that dogs were a cute and safe bet for the populace as a whole.

But I notice that there weren’t any pictures of cats on my page.

The Alpine Butterfly Knot

As someone who has done a fair amount of sailing in my youth, I like to think I’m more familiar with knots than the average bear. But there was one that I’d heard of in the past but knew little about: the Alpine Butterfly Knot (or Loop). It looks like this:

and it turns out to be jolly useful, but if you just look at it, it’s very tricky to work out how to tie it quickly.

There are lots of different techniques and lots of different YouTube videos about them, but today I found the method I liked the best:

Important YouTube Changes

In October, I wrote about my enjoyment of and use of YouTube, but I predicted that, at some point, people might want to shift some of their content elsewhere.

Well, that hasn’t happened yet, but there’s a small step today which might make people think more about it: the new Terms of Service, which take effect on 1st June. These include the following:

Right to Monetize

You grant to YouTube the right to monetize your Content on the Service (and such monetization may include displaying ads on or within Content or charging users a fee for access). This Agreement does not entitle you to any payments. Starting June 1, 2021, any payments you may be entitled to receive from YouTube under any other agreement between you and YouTube (including for example payments under the YouTube Partner Program, Channel memberships or Super Chat) will be treated as royalties.

Now, for most viewers, this won’t make much difference. We’re used to seeing ads on YouTube videos; in fact, quite a few of mine have them, and I earn enough from the ads to keep me in coffee beans. (I only use skippable ads at the start of the video, since I think those are the least annoying. You get more money if you allow others.).

When you view a YouTube video with ads, the revenue is typically split between YouTube and the creator. This revenue-sharing partnership is available to creators who have enough followers and sufficient viewing hours. In some circumstances, if you’ve included other material (such as commercial background music for which you don’t have a licence), rather than blocking you completely, YouTube will allow it to be posted, but you can’t monetise it: ad revenues are shared with the music copyright owner instead. The 360-degree video I recorded of my campervan trip to the Dordogne is an example: it does have ads, and the proceeds go to the creators of the background music I occasionally include. That seems reasonably fair to me. Doing this does have risks, though, if you’re thinking of trying it: firstly, you need to check whether it’ll be allowed for the tracks you’re thinking of including, and secondly, if the music publisher changes their policy in the future, your video may be removed.

Anyway, this new change will allow YouTube to put ads on the videos where I haven’t enabled them, perhaps to include more of them, or different types, and not necessarily share the proceeds of these extra ones with me. What’s more, if I had a very popular video, I think they could decide to put it behind a paywall.

As well as being detrimental to the viewing experience, this could be important, say, for universities who don’t want advertisements on their lectures, or software developers who don’t want competitor’s ads popping up over their tutorials. There will be ways around this, no doubt, involving payments to YouTube.

But this is just a reminder to make sure you keep copies of all the videos you upload in preparation for the day when you might want to move them somewhere else because your friends and family can’t watch them without a YouTube subscription.

YouTube is an amazing service, and a phenomenally expensive one to run, and most of us get it for free. So the fact that they are always looking for extra sources of revenue should come as no surprise. Especially to readers of Status-Q!

The uncomfortable truth about tithes

Many religions, especially those with Mosaic/Abrahamic connections, embrace the concept of ‘tithing’: giving one tenth of your income to the church. Originally, of course, this referred primarily to agricultural produce; in more recent years it tends to focus on Standing Orders and Gift Aid. Jesus himself apparently said little or nothing about it, which has allowed different groups of his followers to put differing degrees of emphasis, or compulsion, on on the concept since. But it is, of course, generally regarded by church leaders as desirable, and in my youth, sermons pointing out the biblical distinction between ‘tithes and offerings’ were not uncommon — the former being expected and, in effect, already belonging to God; the additional voluntary contributions constituting virtue (as long as both were done in secret).

Over coffee, after one of these sermons, I sympathised with the preacher. How obvious it was, I said, that very few people took these biblical directives to heart. He made some remark about how he was fortunate to have a generous congregation, and I fear I may have emitted something like a snort as I looked around at the gathered multitudes. I was very fond of them too, and many of them were very generous people, but I pointed out the mathematics…

In the Anglican church, for example, if people took tithing seriously, then every nine parishioners could support one vicar, who would then have the same average standard of living as his flock. (That got his attention!) You would need ten in your congregation if the vicar tithed too (which I guess would allow ten vicars to support one bishop, and so on).

OK, and you have to maintain the church buildings, do some good works, etc. So perhaps you need a congregation of about 15 people per priest for the church and clergy to lead a comfortable life. (That’s assuming your church doesn’t have any other income from land, bequests, indulgences or whatever…)

In the 35 or so years since that conversation, church attendance has declined so rapidly that many parishes will be doing this kind of maths for themselves. The average C of E congregation is something like 30-40 at present. But back then, though, I fear I may have left him contemplating his congregation of around 150 a bit less favourably than when he started his mug of coffee.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser