Author Archives: qsf

Revelling in Ravel

There have been lots of wonderful examples during lockdown of the musicians from bands and orchestras recording individual parts at home which are then edited together into a combined performance. John linked to this rather pleasing Ode to Joy, for example.

But my favourite so far is from a few days ago: the NY Philharmonic’s version of Ravel’s Boléro. Play it on the biggest screen and best speakers you can manage!

Enjoy!

Clapping to a different beat?

There have been a couple of evenings recently when UK residents have been encouraged to go outside and clap and cheer for all our wonderful health workers who are doing such a great job. This is, in many ways, a good idea, and I would have joined in, had I known about them in advance! (We’re a little bit isolated out here and so didn’t hear about them until the following morning.) It’s all rather cringe-worthy, but a significant proportion of my family work for the NHS, and a large number of friends, and they’re working very hard in difficult circumstances. Some of them have come down with coronavirus themselves. So, yes, I probably would have overcome my natural reserve and clapped, at least if anybody other than passing rabbits would have heard me!

I was interested, though, today, to come across this thread on Twitter where a large number of people, mostly who work for the NHS or in healthcare, were expressing their discomfort with the idea, for a variety of reasons.

They had various motives, but the key one seems to be that politicians who have voted against increasing NHS funding have no right to praise those who are now having to be heroes as a result, and certainly not to lead the public in praising them in this low-cost way.

Others say that anyone who voted for those politicians should also not be outside clapping.

My view is that anyone who is not willing to pay a substantially increased personal tax burden should also have pause for thought. I’m guessing that, to have the service we’d all like, we should be thinking of paying about £1000 per year more per family member. (And yes, people who choose to have children would, and of course should, pay more.) However, the country as a whole has been given the opportunity to make rather more modest contributions than that on more than one occasion, explicitly earmarked for such things as health and education, and has turned it down.

I base that £1000 figure, by the way, on the fact that Rose and I have to pay rather more than that for a basic level of private health insurance, on top of what we currently pay for the NHS. We are fortunate to be able to do that, but it’s not because we’re particularly wealthy. We’re clearly a very long way from being poor, but we work for a university and are still, most years, basic-rate taxpayers, not high-rate. So this is a significant chunk of our income, and it’s a luxury but also a kind of voluntary taxation: yes, we get much better service, but in exchange we don’t have some other luxuries, and it doesn’t free us from paying for the NHS: we do that too. But we’ve placed much less burden on it, over the years, than we would have done otherwise.

If, by paying that amount to the NHS, I could be confident of all of us getting the improved level of service, I’d be happy to do so! Instead, at present, we pay so that thing are a lot nicer for us, and a little bit nicer for others.

The problem is that under-resourcing, though clearly a significant challenge, is certainly not the whole story.

On all three of the last three times I’ve had to go to NHS hospitals because friends or family have been there, I have been struck by the many wonderful, cheery, helpful workers… but also by the quite extraordinary levels of administrative incompetence. I encounter employees who would never be able to keep a job if this were a commercial enterprise. I experience procedures which, if they were followed so poorly in a business, would quickly result in that business no longer existing. (Though to be fair, that’s often true of many public bodies.)

And this, I’m sad to say, has been my almost constant experience. On both of the last two occasions I’ve had friends or family staying overnight in hospitals, they have occupied a bed for a whole day longer than necessary. Why? Not because they were still sick, but because the doctor literally forgot to come and discharge them before going home at the end of his shift. Two different hospitals. Two different doctors. Two different patients. Same problem. Actually three doctors, because one friend was forgotten twice in a row, though I think one of them might have been the nurse’s fault. They are not just short of hospital beds for lack of funds!

And this malaise is not just in the area of patient care. I remember when, as a struggling startup company, we were trying to sell a product to our local NHS hospital. They liked it, they wanted to buy it almost immediately, the cost was trivial, but it still took them more than a year to go through their procurement procedures and write us a modest cheque. Even then — and this was explicitly explained to me — they only managed to get it to us because somebody persuaded the person responsible for the relevant account to stay for a meeting which finished after 5pm. He was annoyed, and made it clear, because he normally went home soon after tea-time, at around 4.30pm. For those of us working long hours and weekends to produce the product, we just had to laugh. I know from talking to other technology providers that our experience was certainly not unique. But that was then – what about now? Well, now, remember this story when you hear that they can’t get the supplies they need.

These are just anecdotes, of course – I have no knowledge of the bigger picture on any statistically-valid level. I speak only of what I’ve experienced. But I have certainly not exhausted my stories: those are just a couple of the more worrying examples.

So yes, I love the NHS. I’m enormously grateful for what they’re doing now. And yes, I wish it were better resourced.

But anyone who thinks that somebody else will pay for a better service for them is living in cloud-cuckoo land; we all need to be willing to stump up significant amounts of cash. How many of those people out there clapping think that the problems now being experienced are all somebody else’s fault?

Anyone who thinks that money is the only problem, or that the politicians are the only problem, is similarly deluded. In this country it is very unpopular to talk about any degree of commercialisation of the NHS, and clearly that’s not a silver bullet: one only has to look at the costs of drugs in the USA for an example of how commercialisation can get out of hand.

But so far, nobody seems to have come up with a good way of instilling the disciplines and efficiency and levels of accountability that govern the commercial world into the public sector. And until they do that, it seems to me, we will continue to have some situations where we just have to rely on some people being heroes.

The Woodpiles of Hanoi

One thing we inherited when we moved to this house was a wood-burning stove. We also inherited a couple of wood stores, which we keep stocked up with a mix of occasional deliveries of big logs, and with wood that falls off nearby trees, collected on dog walks and lugged home to be sawn up.

I don’t have a chainsaw, by the way. I’ve sometimes been tempted, but, as my friend Richard pointed out, “Accidents involving chainsaws are seldom minor.” Instead, I have what I call a ‘chainsaw for scaredy-cats’: an alligator saw. This is a splendid device, which does quite a lot of the work of a chainsaw but avoids a lot of the potential pitfalls. Definitely recommended if you’re in a similar situation.

The gripping jaws also mean you can use it for chopping much smaller sticks than would be practical with a real chainsaw, as well as the big stuff.

Anyway, my otherwise-fine woodpiles have a problem. You want the wood to dry for as long as possible before burning it.

The nature of these stores, though, if you top them up continuously like we do, is that the only accessible wood is on the top layers, which is probably the most recently-added, and hence probably the greenest or dampest (or whatever). I was contemplating this challenge the other day, and I realised that if I had a third wood store, I could stack things perfectly. How? Towers of Hanoi!

The Towers of Hanoi is that puzzle where you have a set of discs, typically threaded on one of three poles. The aim is to move them one at a time onto another pole, but you’re not allowed to put a larger disc on top of a smaller one.

It’s not actually very difficult, and once you’ve worked out the basic mechanism you can extend it to arbitrary numbers of discs while still only needing three piles. Here’s a nice animation by André Karwath:

The puzzle is a fun source of entertainment (for a short while, at least), but I’ve never thought it had any actual use (other than as an exercise in recursive programming in computing courses).

But, I suddenly realised, suppose the larger discs represented younger wood, and the smaller ones older, then it’s clear that if I had three wood stores, I’d never need to leave younger wood on top of older wood. It could always be rearranged. Cunning, eh?

The problem, of course, it that it does still take rather a lot of shuffling wood around, which seems like hard work, even for a hardened lumberjack like myself.

So I’m now thinking that perhaps I really just need a wood store designed more like a waterwheel, with the wood stacked in the middle. I’d fill it up as normal, but when I wanted wood for the fire, I’d just rotate the whole thing until the dry logs were at the top, remove some, and then turn it back… Brilliant, eh?

I would go and demonstrate how to make it for you, but just at the moment it’s too cozy here in front of the fire.

Why I really am awfully lucky…

A gate in Coton

Two and a half years ago, after a couple of decades living happily in the centre of Cambridge, we moved out to the countryside.

Here, that only meant a move of about two and a half miles, but it made a big difference; we basically did a simple exchange: swapping proximity-to-things for space. We got a much bigger detached house in exchange for a small terrace; fields and woods right outside the door; and some real luxuries like a spacious driveway and a garage: things we’d never owned in any size or shape before! The house was almost exactly the same value as the one we sold, so the only major cost involved in the move was a very hefty whack of Stamp Duty.

The current coronavirus lockdown, though, has made me realise just how fortunate a decision that move was. Having more space, both inside and outside the house, makes such a difference in this current climate.

I can’t imagine living in London at the moment. It’s not something I’ve ever particularly wanted to do, but it must be even worse now, though at least a lot quieter and less polluted than usual!

The people who must really be suffering, I imagine, are those working from home, with kids, in a small London flat. I really take my hat off to anyone in that situation who is managing to keep their sanity intact! I’m grateful once again that we decided not to have kids… though I suppose, by now, they would have grown up, moved out and would probably have little viruses of their own.

And finally, since, for many years, I’ve been working half-time from home, we’re well set up for that, so no real changes have been needed on that front. In fact, having my wonderful wife-and-chef working from home too has made most days a gastronomic delight.

All in all, then, we’re amazingly lucky in our version of the Covid-restricted life.

It’s tempting to put some of it down to good judgement. Our past decisions not to live in a big city, not to have kids, not to have high-pressure office-based jobs, to focus on dog-walking more than income-generation, and (recently) to live in the countryside, have all contributed to a good quality of life in general, and a particularly easy transition to the one we’ll be living for the next few months. If only I could claim to have foreseen the inevitability of a global pandemic, I could actually claim some credit for them!

But I do recommend at least some of them, for anyone considering big life-changing decisions in preparation for when the next virus comes along. Because it is a sobering thought, even here in Arcadia, that this almost certainly won’t be the last.

Boredom, Toothbrushes and Terminals

When I was a child, we were not allowed to be bored. Boredom, my mother insisted, was a sign of laziness and lack of imagination, and nobody fortunate enough to have all their faculties intact should complain of it.

Some of this came, I think, from lessons my grandfather had instilled in her. Some of it may have been because we had just come back from several years in northern Kenya, where kids in extreme poverty who had no toys would just make their own out of sticks and bits of wire, and play happily with them for hours. Who were we, with boxes full of toys, shelves full of books, and minds full of stories, to complain of boredom? (And that was when the Web and YouTube were still decades away. There’s surely no excuse now!)

Anyway, it was a great lesson, and one that’s always stuck with me. I don’t remember ever being bored in my life, though the nearest I’ve come has not been when I’ve nothing to do, but when I’ve had to do some tedious repetitive task for hours on end…

Of toothbrushes and terminals

In my teens, I had a holiday job for a couple of weeks at the local factory where they made Wisdom toothbrushes. The company was changing the prices of the whole stock, and my job was to sit in front of the mainframe terminal and adjust the wholesale price of the blue toothbrush in a particular range from 23.4p to 23.9p, then do the same for the red toothbrush, the pink toothbrush, the yellow, the white… and so on for every colour they made — there were many — after which I would move on to the next range.

The problem was that this involved navigating very slowly through a deep hierarchical menu which was totally unsuited for this purpose. Today, if these were rows in a spreadsheet, it would be done in about 20 minutes. But we didn’t have spreadsheets back then, my lad. Instead, I had to dig about six layers into the keyboard-driven menu system for the particular stock item, make the change, and then exit from each layer to get back to the top before moving onto the next one.

There was no way to bypass these steps, to speed up the process. No way out of the menu. The display, which I think was probably something like the VT220 pictured above, updated very slowly over its slow connection to an overloaded mainframe. This explained why they had to employ me for many days to perform this simple task. It also taught me a lot about user interface design.

However…

It turned out that the terminal wasn’t completely dumb. On one of our tea-breaks — and yes, we really did have a tea-lady who would come through the office with a trolley of clinking cups at the allotted time — I discovered, in the back of a desk drawer, a manual for the terminal.

I found out that it could be programmed through a simple menu to send a set of keystrokes when it was switched on and connected to the mainframe, in order to identify itself, login, or whatever. This facility wasn’t used in our system, but — and this was the moment of enlightenment for me — you could also cause the sequence to be sent at any time by pressing Ctrl-Break! So I could use it as a kind of macro-recording system (not that I would have known of that concept back then).

Once I started on a new range of, say, the Mickey Mouse toothbrushes, I would work out the sequence of keystrokes needed to update one price: enter, right cursor, down, down, down, right, up, 23.9, enter, escape, enter, escape, escape, or whatever, followed by the down arrow to get to the next toothbrush. I’d program that into the terminal’s setup menu and then just hit Ctrl-Break a dozen times and sit back and watch the menu update as fast as the mainframe could manage (which wasn’t very fast).

Later that day, my boss — a great guy — came by and saw me reclining in my chair, reading something. “Having a quiet afternoon, are we, Quentin?”, he asked.

“No, I’m busy”, I explained, and gestured to the screen, where the all-too-familiar menus seemed to be operating themselves at great speed while I sat back and sipped my tea.

I’ll never forget the expression on his face.

However, I guess all such Sorcerer’s Apprentice tales must have a cautionary aspect to them. In my case, the work was finished much sooner, so I was out of a job.

Perhaps there’s a lesson there. In that case, though, I can’t say I was too sorry!

We’re still standing

The Callanish (or Calanais) Standing Stones, on the Isle of Lewis. New Year’s Day 2020.

Keeping active during a lockdown

As a result of the virus, and its effect on my consultancy clients, my ‘work’ has fallen to about half its normal level. I hope this doesn’t carry on for too long, because my income has also fallen by about two-thirds. But, just at present, I’m rather enjoying it, and, as people usually say when they retire, “I’m busier than ever”.

The fact that it’s been sunny here at the same time is just icing on the cake. I’ve even been doing some serious lawn maintenance, which perhaps indicates that I’m closer to retirement than I had previously thought. (I used to joke that I knew I was getting old when I voluntarily went to a garden centre as a weekend activity. But in recent times it’s been even worse: I’ve noticed that I’m not even the youngest person in the garden centre! Sigh.)

Anyway, since I have no kids to home-school, the lockdown’s giving me an excuse at least to start catching up with the huge backlog of tasks that I’ve been putting off for months. There are the important ones, which I’m sure we all attend to first: tweaking the configuration scripts in our home automation systems, for example. Making sure our lightbulbs have up-to-date firmware. Redeploying our web services using the container orchestration framework du jour. That kind of thing.

But eventually we get to the more mundane but essential tasks of daily modern life. You’re probably considering some of these too:

  • Is my home and off-site backup system working reliably?
  • Are all my family members using a good password manager? (And can they get access to mine if anything should happen to me?)
  • Do I still have any remaining email accounts with so-called ‘free’ providers, who read it in order to sell me things?
  • Have I merged all the photo and video projects from my laptop onto my main desktop machine?
  • Is my blog properly backed up, and where?
  • Are there any rooms in the house which don’t have proper ethernet cabling yet?
  • What do I still need to scan in my filing cabinet before I can be truly paperless?

Fortunately, I have plenty of other projects to distract me before I can get down to these, which means that we may need to be in lockdown for some months before I actually do old-fashioned things like descaling the coffee machine or looking through the piles of dead trees in my in-tray.

And this is good, because it’s important for people to be able to stay active in their old age.

Especially when the garden centre is closed.

A Network for the Un-networked?

Suppose you’re an older person who has been told you should really stay at home. You have no symptoms, but you decide to go into voluntary total self-isolation.

It’s not easy and you get pretty lonesome, but presumably, after 14 or perhaps 21 days, you have proven yourself to be safe. You could then walk, drive or cycle over to visit any friend who had been through the same purification ceremony, without risking either of you.

There could be a society for those who choose to do this proactively, for those who have sworn an oath to forego all human contact for a short period now in order to have a restricted amount of it thereafter. First of all, though, it needs a name.

I suggest “The Lone Rangers”.

Pannellum in Pittenweem

I’ve had fun in the last year or so playing with spherical cameras (often known as 360-degree cameras) and I’ve posted a few on here. But they’ve always had a problem: you really need a plugin to view them, which is untidy. This one of the Sacré-Coeur, for example, relies on a plugin from the Ricoh site.

So I’ve been delighted to discover Matthew Petroff’s Panellum, a panorama viewer created using just HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript, and WebGL, which means it runs in most modern browsers natively.

Here’s an example from Pittenweem, a favourite spot I discovered on my campervan trip over Christmas, just north of Edinburgh.

You can drag the image around to look in different directions, and you can zoom in and out by scrolling, or using Shift & Ctrl keys.

On my early experiments, it seems to work very well, even on my fairly elderly laptop. It even has a full-screen button…

So you may be seeing a few more of these here in the near future!

Some more Coronastatistics

In a response to my post yesterday, my friend Jonathan pointed me at this excellent article by Tomas Pueyo. It’s long, and I’m not, of course able to check many of his numbers, and there are some places where he has to make estimates and assumptions, and rely on official Chinese figures more than some would think appropriate. But you should read it none the less; the basic model is very useful. I mention some highlights below.

My question yesterday was about when the virus-based health risk of travelling to an event in the UK would actually become more serious than the risks involved in the road travel to get there. Italy has passed that point (and their road-death statistics are much worse than ours!) My own guess while writing was that it would probably be about two or three weeks here, and it hadn’t escaped me that confirmed cases are a week or two behind the dates when those people actually contracted the virus, so probably the real answer was that coronavirus would be more dangerous than driving in the UK in about a week’s time (using my very crude metric). Others have pointed out that the stats suggest that we’re not that far behind Italy, so coronavirus may already be more dangerous than driving.

What I hadn’t fully appreciated, and this is the thrust of the article, was just how effective a lock-down can be. A key graphic is this one:

(Click for a full-size version)

The orange bars show diagnosed cases. The grey bars show when infection must actually have happened; something you can only deduce with hindsight, because it takes a couple of weeks. At the time Wuhan went into lock-down, they had 444 reported cases. There were probably about 12,000 actual cases at the time waiting to appear. And if we believe the official figures, the growth stopped pretty instantly once they imposed a lock-down; the kind of lock-down that perhaps only an authoritarian regime can effectively implement.

At the time, of course, this wouldn’t have been clear; the number of reported cases would have gone on rising for another 10 days or so.

Pueyo then goes on to demonstrate the effect of delaying this kind of lock-down by one day — the very significant impact it can have on the number of cases that actually appear.

This in turn affects the ability of healthcare systems to cope, which then affects the mortality rate, and so once you pass a certain threshold, the impact of each day’s delay is amplified more than you might expect. He posts this graphic by Alexander Radtke – I’ve seen similar ones online recently:

You’ll note that this graph is purely an illustration of a concept without any real data, but it’s a useful one. What’s good about Pueyo’s analysis in general, though, is that he’s trying hard to use real numbers wherever he can. He may be right, he may be wrong, and in particular his analysis may be more or less relevant to the particular situation in the UK, but it’s worth taking seriously.

So, today’s update:

  • Coronavirus in the UK will very soon — probably in a few days — be more dangerous than driving. Maybe even more dangerous than Italian driving. But still not a cause for panic.

However,

  • We’ll know in a couple of weeks just how dangerous it is today.
  • By then it will be a lot more dangerous.
  • Waiting to find that out is the best possible way to ensure that it will be even worse!
  • We’re at the point where each day is very significant.

Therefore:

  • Actions like panic-buying of loo rolls are not a rational response to something that is currently much less dangerous than the drive to the supermarket.
  • Actions like locking down the entire country to restrict movement as much as possible may actually be a perfectly rational response to the same thing.

Fascinating stuff.

Now, here’s my next question:

You may remember the analysis a few years ago that showed that more people died after the 9/11 attacks than during them. This was because so many people were scared of flying in the following days and weeks that they drove long distances instead. Driving is so much more dangerous than air travel that the resulting death toll was higher than that on the day itself.

Now, one result of coronavirus lock-down, I hope and expect, will be that a lot more people will discover the practicality and benefits of working from home. (I’ve been doing it half-time for many years, using long Skype calls to keep in touch with my colleagues, some of whom are only a few miles away.)

If this continues on any scale after the virus threat has receded, how long will it be before the number of lives saved by the reduction in mileage and air pollution outweighs the lives lost in the epidemic?

Update: please read the comments below as well!

Some Coronastatistics

At the time of writing, the number of deaths in UK as a result of Covid-19 since records began is six. Interestingly, that’s about the same as the number of people who died on UK roads…. yesterday. (The number who sustained serious injuries yesterday is about 11 times as high.)

Now, I don’t want to minimise the virus threat, and I do understand that one of those numbers is likely to increase exponentially while the other isn’t, etc. So I’m also taking appropriate precautions like everyone else. But it also explains why I’m happy to go out to a restaurant for dinner tonight… even a Chinese restaurant! If we manage to survive the journey there and back, any sources of contagion we might encounter in a busy restaurant should be child’s play in comparison.

Ironically, Italy, which is suffering a much more serious viral issue than we are, also has one of the highest rates of road fatalities in Europe. Their death rate from the virus has now reached 631, which is about twice as many as road deaths — even at Italian rates — in the same period. We are still a very long way from that here, for the time being, at least. There’s something to be said for living on an island.

For UK readers, though, I think this is an interesting metric to watch, though, to keep a rational sense of the scale of the problem: How long will it be before letting your kids go to a sporting event at school is actually more dangerous than driving them there and back?

**Update: see the next day’s post. **

More of Moore?

I note that the number of public electric car charging points in the UK has roughly followed Moore’s Law recently: doubling about every two years.

Zap-map stats

I don’t think that can hold true for quite as along as the original law, but it’s encouraging none the less!

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser