Author Archives: qsf

Over the seas to Rye

Sunset over Rye Harbour Nature Reserve on Saturday evening

Holo – is it me you’re looking for?

20170306-151038537-900I got to have a good play with a Microsoft Hololens today. This is an augmented reality headset: you get to see your real-world surroundings, but with computer-generated overlays.

If you remember the holographic chess game in Star Wars, you’ve got the right idea, but the projections can be big and all around you, as well as small and on the table.


It’s a very clever combination of a bright, retina-projecting display, the Kinect 3D-sensing technology which builds up a map of the room, good accelerometers and supporting hardware so there’s no noticeable lag, all built into a computer that is comfortable to wear and requires no attached cables.

This isn’t primarily for games: imagine an architect walking around a building and being able to ‘see’ the pipes and wires behind the walls. A surgeon being able to walk around the 3D MRI scan of their patient and view it from different angles, possibly actually projected onto the patient’s body in the operating theatre. A remote technician being able to guide you through disassembling, fixing and reassembling some device, because they can see what you see, and point out things right in front of you… the possibilities are almost endless.

This is version 1.0, of course, and it has some limitations — it won’t work very well outside, for example, because of the brightness of the ambient light and the difficulty of capturing a good model of the surrounding world. It’s available in restricted quantities, for about three thousand pounds apiece. The projected images only cover a limited field of your view: they are good and clear when you’re looking at them, but you don’t see them in your peripheral vision. And there are some things for which a VR headset is clearly superior, especially if you want to replace your existing environment completely.

Despite all of this, it is great fun, and exceedingly well engineered, and the inclusion of the Kinect technology gives it a real edge over things like Google Glass, and gets rid of the problem of walking into walls and tripping over furniture that is an inconvenience of full VR headsets. Overall, it’s really quite impressive, and I predict that we’ll see quite a lot more of this in future.

The Flash of Weathercocks

Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful. — Rita Dove

A good friend of ours, Glen Cavaliero, is a poet. An exceedingly good one, in fact, and highly-regarded among the cognoscenti. Over the decades, in addition to his academic books, he has published numerous slim poetry volumes but, now approaching his ninetieth birthday, he wanted to gather them into a more substantial collection; not quite a ‘complete works’, but something of that ilk.

Glen, however, owns no technology more advanced than a typewriter, and so one of our side-projects over the last couple of years has been to help him with the process of self-publishing this 500-page masterpiece, which finally saw the light of day towards the end of 2016.

20161112-151352536-editIf you or any of your friends are seriously interested in good poetry, I recommend The Flash of Weathercocks. Some of the poems are dark and gritty, some light and cheery, some funny, some melancholy, some deeply thoughtful, some highly accessible, others filled with subtle literary allusions. Very few of them are easy reading. But all of them are expertly crafted by a master of the language.

You can find it in:

Now, I’ve learned a few things in this process. One is that poetry is much harder to typeset than prose: even trying to ensure that page-breaks come in sensible places in the middle of verses was quite a challenge for the publisher, but to add to this, for many of Glen’s pieces, the careful indentation of each line is important…

The other revelation for me was a clearer understanding of the effect Amazon has on the publishing world, especially the self-publishing world. I’m a huge fan of Amazon in general, but the margin they take on books is pretty severe! In our case, the publisher charges 15%, so when people buy from the publisher’s site, the author gets 85% of the cover price to offset against his or her up-front printing costs. That is all very reasonable.

Amazon, however, charges a further 60%, so the author gets 25%. Or, to put it another way, once you’ve established the printing costs, you need to set your cover price to four times that amount if you are just to break even on Amazon sales. Since poetry, by its very nature, tends to involve small print runs with a high per-unit cost, this would make the cover price prohibitive for Glen’s book. And so, in fact, we had to pick a cover price where he will lose money on every sale through Amazon, and make money if people buy from the publisher or directly from him.

I created a spreadsheet where we could estimate, for various values of X, that X times as many people are likely to buy from Amazon as from elsewhere, and settled on a price where he should just about break even overall. Our job now is to publicise the non-Amazon links as much as possible!

Above all, it’s clear to me that, even if you have tributes from the likes of Sir John Betjeman on your back cover, poetry is definitely something you create for love, rather than for money!

But I do think this is a significant work of literature, and since there’s no way I’m ever going to produce one of those myself, I’m delighted to have been at least instrumental in helping it come into existence!

Big Datum

This was in the Olden Days, when the Romans were top nation on account of their classical education…

— 1066 and All That

My curious mix of state and private education left me, to paraphrase Ben Jonson, with almost zero Latin and less Greek. Perhaps because of this, although I can be something of a language pedant, I would normally refer to, say, ‘the next item on the agenda’, and would only talk about ‘the next agendum’ in a spirit of playful fun. ‘Agendas’, however, would make me wince. I do know, deep down, that ‘agenda’ is a plural.

Similarly, even though I work with rather a large amount of data, I have almost never used the word ‘datum’ except in one of its specialist meanings. Indeed, for most science, if you have little enough data to think of each item individually, then you probably don’t have enough to draw useful conclusions!

And so, like most people, I think of data rather as a fluid substance, to be measured by the bucket-load — megabytes of data, like pints of milk or glasses of wine — rather than as a plural. Few people would say ‘there are a dozen data in this table’ unless they were classicists, who would never actually have to deal with it. So you’ll note that in the previous paragraph I said “if you have little enough data”. If I had instead opted for “if you have few enough data”, you would probably have assumed that I was making a point, one that wasn’t actually to do with the data at all.

Nonetheless, etymology has always intrigued me, and I love the fact that Norman Gray can write a long, sensible and interesting discussion of this very topic, which I can read over breakfast before going off to analyse a datum or two…

Fifteen and counting. Mmm. Talking of counting…

Status-Q is fifteen years old today. There have been times when I’ve done several posts in one day and others when long periods of silence have gone by. This last week, for example, my life has involved rather more ‘flu than inspiration. Sorry!

Status-Q has never been a high-traffic site, mostly because it’s random personal scribblings, rather than having a strong theme. I started it as a kind of diary and aide-memoire rather than anything else: other models of blog-writing weren’t plentiful at the time! The regular readership, as near as one can measure these things, is in the hundreds rather than thousands, and I find even that somewhat astonishing. But the wonder of search engines also means that some of my posts — especially ones dealing with technical problems — are found and commented on a decade or so after I posted them.

So I’m very grateful to those who keep reading and who send me encouraging messages, despite my inconsistency. Those of you who choose to receive it in your email inbox are particularly worthy of my respect and love!

Today, I’ll just leave you with this little mathematical proof that I found somewhere online, which should cause you some concern if, say, you plan to perform any financial transactions today, or travel in any form of transport that required engineering to build it. You’ll see that each step follows logically from the previous one, and the result is somewhat surprising.

If, on the other hand, you still feel safe riding your bicycle after reading this, please don’t post anything in the comments explaining why: that would spoil the fun! (I can provide a little enlightenment for those who email, if wanted…)

When 2 become 1

Dem drones, dem drones, dem high drones…

20170221-08374901-900Many of my friends have expressed surprise that I don’t have a drone yet. I’m rather surprised myself, actually – I’m very tempted by the DJI Mavic Pro. So far, however, I’ve resisted. Getting a licence to fly them anywhere close to humanity, or to use them for commercial work, takes a little while and costs rather more than the device itself. I may yet succumb to temptation, though…

I met another man who doesn’t have one today. A very nice chap taking photos of a nearby house that’s about to go on the market. We chatted for a while.

I presumed that estate agents used drones as matter of course now for their aerial shots, but he said the hassle of dealing with the CAA was still too much trouble and the insurance for commercial use ran to about £2K/year. So he has a tall pole with an SLR on it and a remotely-controlled pan-tilt-zoom head. A very nice toy, and I told him so.

“It’s ridiculous”, he said with a smile. “I’d be done in five minutes if I had a drone…”

The ‘power’ of the Press…

sizewellYou shouldn’t, of course, believe what you read in the papers. This is a good general rule, but recently we had a rather striking example. On Feb 11th, The Times ran an article entitled, “Electric cars mean UK could need 20 new nuclear plants”.

Here’s an extract, talking about a Transport for London report:

The analysis, seen by The Times, says that moving to an electric or hydrogen vehicle fleet “has implications for London’s energy supply system”. At the maximum level of uptake in the city green cars would demand between seven and eight gigawatt-hours per year. Experts said this was equivalent to the output of more than two nuclear power stations similar to that being built at Hinkley Point in Somerset. Extrapolated nationally, it would require the equivalent of 20 new nuclear power stations nationwide.

That’s a pretty memorable number – 20 new nuclear power stations! – and indeed, a family member who had seen it asked me about it, knowing my interest in the topic.

The trouble is, it’s just plain wrong. It was repeated in The Daily Mail, too, and Mail readers, bless them, are even less likely to have the critical faculties to question the headline…

I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and things looked fishy, and it turns out that the original article is full of mathematical errors and lack of understanding. The first, and biggest, is that seven gigawatt-hours-per-year is not the same as seven gigawatts! Two Hinkley Points would indeed produce about 7 GW, but that is 7 gigawatt-hours-per-hour, not -per-year! So they were out by a factor of about 6000 immediately. However, many of the other figures quoted were also incorrect (some of them in the other direction).

If you’re interested in the real numbers, David Pellow’s letter to the Editor gives a much better analysis, but a quick summary is that yes, of course, we will need some more power generation when all of the UK’s 31M cars are electric, but if those cars are mostly charged overnight during off-peak periods, we could handle about 20M of them already just using the current power network.

This whole area is rather a fun topic, actually, and takes us into the realms of smart grids, home solar, grid-scale storage made from recycled batteries, and so forth. Cars are remarkably flexible about when, and how fast, they are charged, making them ideal for absorbing excess power and smoothing out the fluctuations of demand and of renewable generation. One day last year, Germany’s renewable sources of electricity produced so much power that they actually paid people to use it, and the problem of dealing with the peaks and troughs of demand is something that the power grids have had to struggle with for decades. Cars can actually help with this.

But I digress. What I actually wanted to talk about were a few other things that struck me about this story:

  • The Times has since published a brief retraction in the small print. I doubt this will remove the ’20 power stations’ idea from many people’s minds, though. Wasn’t there a proposal once that such corrections should be given the same font sizes and number of column inches as the original article? When I’m an MP, I’ll propose a bill to that effect…

  • The online version of the article has been edited to remove the dramatic claims, though the URL still reveals the original embarrassing headline. I can’t decide whether this is an admirable admission of error, or an attempt to rewrite history and pretend it never happened. What do you think?

  • The Daily Mail’s version of the story is still online, and I don’t believe they’ve published a correction at all. Should they be required to do so, when they were repeating another paper’s story which has since been retracted?

The problem of improved road safety

Now here’s a downside to self-driving cars that I had completely failed to consider: An article on Slate’s website points out that the current desperate shortage of organ donors is only going to get worse:

It’s morbid, but the truth is that due to limitations on who can contribute transplants, among the most reliable sources for healthy organs and tissues are the more than 35,000 people killed each year on American roads (a number that, after years of falling mortality rates, has recently been trending upward). Currently, 1 in 5 organ donations comes from the victim of a vehicular accident. That’s why departments of motor vehicles ask drivers whether they want to be donors.
It’s not difficult to do the math on how driverless cars could change the equation. An estimated 94 percent of motor-vehicle accidents involve some kind of a driver error. As the number of vehicles with human operators falls, so too will the preventable fatalities. In June, Christopher A. Hart, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said, “Driverless cars could save many if not most of the 32,000 lives that are lost every year on our streets and highways.” Even if self-driving cars only realize a fraction of their projected safety benefits, a decline in the number of available organs could begin as soon as the first wave of autonomous and semiautonomous vehicles hits the road—threatening to compound our nation’s already serious shortages.
Fewer people will die, overall, of course. But it’s tough if you happen to be in the wrong group…

But soft, what light through yonder bottle breaks?

In Cambridge marketplace, there’s one of those installations that I presumed was supposed to be art, and as I walked by I pondered all the other things that taxpayers’ money could usefully be spent on… It was labelled, so I thought, ‘Litter of light’.

Yeah, yeah, green eco modern art, blah blah…

But then I realised that ‘Liter of light’ wasn’t actually a typo — I’m so unused to the American spelling of ‘litre’ that I misread it initially. And looking at the sign got me interested enough that I went to the organisation’s website, only to find that it isn’t, well, ideal, for someone who’s trying to find out what this is all about. But with a bit of perseverance and some searching elsewhere, I pieced it together.

The story, in fact, goes back to 2002, when a Brazilian chap named Alfredo Moser realised that, if you live in a shack with no windows, you can still bring sunlight into your home using water-filled recycled plastic bottles as diffusing skylights.

Liter of Light is a foundation that, as well as installing and encouraging the installation of vast numbers of these around the world, is now bringing them up to date by adding solar panels, batteries and LEDs, meaning that your bottle can provide light at night as well as during the day.

All in all, a very nice use of simple technologies to meet a real and widespread need! I love this kind of thing.

Electrons by the gallon

Rumours emerged last year that Shell were thinking of installing electric-vehicle charging stations in their forecourts, and they have now confirmed that the first ones will be rolled out in the next few months.

This is great news, though I’ve complained before that having an electric vehicle means you tend to spend more time in motorway service stations, and, frankly, if there’s one place worse than a motorway service station, it’s a petrol station forecourt. I’ll be much more enthusiastic when, say, the National Trust expands its laudable if rather meagre network of charging points, so I can charge my car while strolling through Capability Brown landscapes.

Still, a more ready availability of charging points anywhere is excellent news, and in-city petrol stations will certainly help those who want to own an EV but don’t have their own off-street parking — currently a significant barrier to electric adoption in cities.

I can’t help wondering, though, how petrol stations that still tell you it’s dangerous to use your phone in the vicinity of petrol fumes will cope with the 50-kilowatt 400-volt circuitry of rapid chargers… 🙂

Understanding the Presidency

At a dinner at a friend’s house tonight, we finally worked it out.

Donald Trump is Zaphod Beeblebrox.

For those well-versed in late-20th-century literature, a lot of things then suddenly make sense.

Storm Rider, Grantchester

Storm Rider, Grantchester

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser