Author Archives: qsf

Remote Hero?

I know some of my readers will have seen this on John’s blog, but for others…

A wonderful thing has happened. There is a new and marvellous recording of one of my all-time favourite tracks, Mark Knopfler’s Going Home, the theme music from the also-wonderful movie Local Hero.

As if that weren’t enough, it includes contributions by, well, basically everybody famous who ever picked up a guitar… from Sting to Joe Satriani, from Sheryl Crow to Eric Clapton, from Peter Frampton to Joan Armatrading… the list goes on… with Ringo Starr on the drums. I wish there were a video or some sort of annotation so you could see who was playing when.

And then it gets even better… this is a production in aid of cancer charities. You can listen to it, buy it, download it, and the proceeds go to a good cause.

Tilly and I are currently touring the Netherlands in our campervan, and this makes for fabulous road-trip music. I wonder how big a donation I’d need to make in order to be allowed to use it in my upcoming YouTube videos…

Our parking spot last night on the north Netherlands coast. This is very close to ‘Riddle of the Sands’ country: a rather different coastline from the beaches near Arisaig used for “Local Hero” (but we did visit those on a previous campervan trip).

No Photoshop needed!

I was, unfortunately, beheaded today, while visiting Teylers Museum in Haarlem.  This was a trifle inconvenient, but I still managed to smile about it. 

This is straight out of the iPhone camera, with no image manipulation. I look a slightly funny colour not because of embarrassment at my recent decapitation, because I got rather too much sun on Wednesday.  

It’s quite an effective illusion, and if you look closely you may be able to work out how it’s done — answers in the comments, please…

What occurred to me, though, was that we in the sophisticated modern age would probably immediately look at this and think ‘Photoshop!’… and be quite wrong. Whereas those in the past who had never heard of Photoshop might get closer to the mark…

Some suggested reading: AI and dopamine

Andrew Curry’s thoughtful newletter ‘Just Two Things’ arrives in my inbox three times a week (which, I confess, is slightly too often for me always to give it the attention it deserves).   The two things he talks about today included some gems, though.

First, he looks at Ted Gioia’s article, The State of the Culture, 2024 , which comes with the subtitle ‘Or a glimpse into post-entertainment society (it’s not pretty)’.

Gioia talks about the old dichotomy between Art and Entertainment:

Many creative people think these are the only options—both for them and their audience. Either they give the audience what it wants (the entertainer’s job) or else they put demands on the public (that’s where art begins).

but he then describes how a dopamine-driven world is changing that into something more complex and rather more worrying. This is only the beginning:

 

 

It’s a good and interesting piece, and well worth reading, but if you find it depressing you should also read Curry’s comments, which suggest things may not be as bad as they seem.

 

In the second of his Two Things, Curry talks about an article by Paul Taylor in the London Review of Books.  (So, yes, you’re reading my comments on Andrew Curry’s comments on Paul Taylor’s comments on other people’s books.  This is starting to resemble that fish picture above!)

The Taylor article is also very good, and I won’t repeat too much of it here.  I will, however, quote a section that Curry also quotes:

We should be genuinely awestruck by what ChatGPT and its competitors are capable of without succumbing to the illusion that this performance means their capacities are similar to ours. Confronted with computers that can produce fluent essays, instead of being astonished at how powerful they are, it’s possible that we should be surprised that the generation of language that is meaningful to us turns out to be something that can be accomplished without real comprehension.

I like this, because it echoes Quentin’s First Theorem of Artificial Intelligence, which I proposed here about a year ago.

What really worries people about recent developments in AI is not that the machines may become smarter than us.

It’s that we may discover we’re not really much smarter than the machines.

Again, the LRB article is well worth your time, if you can get through it before being distracted by things which offer you more dopamine.

Living history

I was delighted to meet my great-nephew Jonathan — my brother’s daughter’s son — for the first time at the weekend.

I remember, in my childhood, meeting my Great-Aunt Grace.  (She deserved that degree of capitalisation.)  Though always kind, I remember her as a rather formidable woman from a different world.  She lived in central London (which she knew like the back of her hand), was born in the 19th century, and had lived through the reign of several monarchs of whom, at the time, I was only very dimly aware.  She died just before the advent of the personal computer.

And I guess that, in a few years, that’s how Jonathan may think of me.

“Great-uncle Q”, he will say, “was a relic of a bygone era.   He used to write code himself, rather than getting a machine to do it!  He even, can you believe, used a QWERTY keyboard! Have you ever seen one of those things?  Wait – I have a photo of him somewhere, but it’s only two-dimensional…”

What the internet was invented for

About a decade ago, my friend Richard wrote a short blog post entitled “This is what the internet was invented for“.  In it, he linked to “Ian’s Shoelace Site“, his point being that if you suddenly realise you’ve always laced your shoes in a particular way without really wondering whether it was the best way, then there’s probably someone out there with sufficient interest in shoelacing that they’ll have compiled everything you need to know about how to lace your shoes… and this turns out in fact to be the case.  Ian Fieggen lives in Melbourne, Australia, and his site is wonderful.

Well, in a minor way, this changed my life, because I went and perused the Shoelace Site at the time, and so for the last ten years, most of my shoes have been laced using the Double Helix Lacing method.  

Now, it’s pretty rare that I buy a new pair of shoes, and after my latest purchase, I forgot about this undeniable improvement, and left them laced in the way they came from the shop, can you believe?   For several months!  Well, while polishing them at the weekend, I realised the error of my ways, and immediately pulled the laces out and re-did them, and now my tensioning and untensioning is smoother, easier and more satisfying.

There are so many ways in which the internet is getting worse, and making life worse, all around us, that it’s nice to be reminded, from time to time, of all the ways in which it can also make things better.

Well, I finally folded…

I’ve wanted an e-bike for ages, ever since I first tried one many, many years ago, but most of my normal cycling destinations are close enough that I didn’t really feel I had an excuse to buy one.

But then we started to think that folding bikes would also be useful when campervanning, and so the idea started to grow of getting folding e-bikes… and we are now the proud owners of two Eovolt “Afternoon”s.

Interestingly, we just rode these and found we liked them slightly more than the others we tried, but when we got them home and started looking for reviews, accessories, etc found they seemed to have comparatively little presence online (at least, in the English-speaking world). I certainly hadn’t come across them on YouTube, for example, when researching possible brands. So here’s my modest attempt at rectifying that!

Peak Campervanning

At the end of November, I popped up to the Derbyshire Peak District for a weekend, and posted some photos here. At the time, I mentioned that I had taken some video footage too, and I finally got around to editing it into something watchable, at least by those who enjoy amateur travelogues. 🙂

(Direct YouTube link)

A few interesting Open Source-based projects

Spotted these recently and thought they looked good:

  • AirGradient – “We design professional, accurate and long-lasting air quality monitors that are open-source and open-hardware so that you have full control on how you want to use the monitor.”

  • Meshtastic – long-range, low-power, low-bandwidth, off-grid, decentralised mesh networks, based on LoRa radios.

  • Plausible – an alternative to Google Analytics – “Plausible is intuitive, lightweight and open source web analytics. No cookies and fully compliant with GDPR, CCPA and PECR. Made and hosted in the EU, powered by European-owned cloud infrastructure”

Beyond the pale?

Today, online, I saw one unsavoury character described as “so bad that even Meta blocked him”.

In the past, one might have said something similar of Twitter, but it doesn’t really work now… and not because Twitter has started being responsible about blocking people!

Electric car fire risks

The idea that electric cars are a serious fire risk is one that has established itself in people’s minds, chiefly because such headlines increase advertising revenue for newspaper editors.   If you can’t get a scare story with ‘Elon Musk’ in the title, at least try to include some reference to ‘Tesla’! When a big fire occurred in the car park at Luton airport recently, there were immediate reports suggesting it might have been started by an EV. This was pure speculation, and later, of course, when it turned out to have been a diesel, this wasn’t worthy of any headlines.

Yes, it is the case that EV batteries can catch fire due to thermal runaway, but this is also so rare that there has been very little data on the actual details.  So the Australia-based organisation EV FireSafe has been working to put together some proper statistics, by gathering as much information about EV fires around the world as they can, and their website is a great reference. They also train firefighters on how to deal with such incidents.

First a few basics:

  • All cars can catch fire, for a variety of reasons.  EVs are much less likely to do so than other vehicles, though to some degree this is because they are generally newer.
  • The difference between EVs and ICE vehicles is that, if the main traction battery is involved in the fire — which is certainly not always the case — the fire will be of a different sort, and generally much harder to extinguish, especially by fire crews who don’t yet have much experience of them.
  • It’s very rare that the battery or charging system is the independent cause of a vehicle fire.
  • EV batteries tend to burn very hot and for a long time.  They don’t tend to explode.
  • You can’t put out such fires with foam, and what you really want to do is just to cool everything down with lots and lots and lots of water. Some fire crews have been nervous about dangers of electrocution from pouring water onto high-voltage batteries, but the risks of this turn out to be exceedingly small and there have been no known incidents with any such problems.
  • A few past reports have been dramatically skewed by including e-bikes and e-scooters in a general report on ‘EVs’.  Bikes and scooters have a much higher risk: they are not subject to the same kinds of regulation, there are third-party and counterfeit batteries on the market, batteries are often used after they are dropped or damaged, and so on.  
  • Here we are only concerned with cars and other large EVs, and in fires involving the traction battery, which is the thing that distinguishes them from vehicles which carry, say, a tank of highly-flammable liquid instead.

So how common are these fires involving the battery itself?

Well, after gathering as much data as they can about such fires since 2010, they have identified about 400 incidents, from something like 40 million EVs on the road.   They acknowledge that the data is far from complete — they gather what they can from academic surveys, reports by firefighting organisations, and so on — but it’s also better than most other analyses. And it’s worth remembering that a lot of fires involving the battery are not caused by the battery – they’re caused by things like arson, or the car being in a building which caught fire and burned down around it, and so on.

In other words, the risk is tiny.  If you have an e-scooter charging in your garage, you should be more worried about that than the EV sitting on your drive.

If you’d like to know more about the subject, I recommend the Fully Charged podcast episode 244, which has an interview with Emma Sutcliffe of EV Firesafe – available from all good podcast apps, or on the Fully Charged website.

A greener buzz?

When I was young, electric toothbrushes were something we laughed at.  Imagine being too lazy even to wiggle a toothbrush up and down without powered assistance! But as an adult, I discovered that most dentists now thought they were rather good, and recommended them.  

Electric toothbrushes did a better job of cleaning in general, they said, and the smaller head would get into places that manual toothbrushes wouldn’t reach.  Perhaps, I thought, gadget enthusiasts like me shouldn’t feel embarrassed about actually trying one.  I wouldn’t have to admit it to anyone..

“There’s a huge range”, I remember my dentist telling me. “Don’t go for the ones with silly prices and dozens of bells and whistles.  40 quid or so is probably about right.”

So, for a while, that’s the kind of thing I used.  They’re probably about 50 or 60 quid now.  They have a rechargeable battery, sit on a base that charges it inductively, and have a simple timer to help you spend the right amount of time brushing.  You know the kind of thing.

But one thing about them always bugged me: the batteries were rubbish.

Long before the motor or the casing gave up the ghost, the built-in, non-replaceable battery would die, or stop holding enough charge even for one brush, and the whole thing would have to go in the bin.  Then I’d buy a new one, which came with its own charging base, so the previous base, and cable, and plug – they all went in the bin too.

This was not very good for my wallet, and a great deal worse for the environment.

So I expect you will laugh, gentle reader, when I tell you that what changed my purchasing habits was brushing my dog’s teeth.  Yes, our spaniel gets her teeth brushed every night, and she enjoys her chicken-flavoured toothpaste, but won’t tolerate brushing for very long, so we got her an electric brush, too, to make maximum use of the time available!

We weren’t going to buy her any big 60-quid devices, though, so we looked online for ones designed for children, and Tilly now has a children’s Oral-B toothbrush.  It’s pink and blue and I think it has fairies or princesses or unicorns on it, but she doesn’t seem to mind.  

And as we used this, a few things struck me:

  • The motor mechanism looked as if it was just the same as my own expensive one.
  • It took the same brush heads.
  • It used replaceable AA batteries.  I had plenty of rechargeable Eneloop AAs.  (Take a look at my post from about 10 years ago to see why I like those. I’m still using much the same system now, and most of the batteries I had back then are still in use.)
  • This also meant I didn’t need to have charging bases and cables in the bathroom.
  • It didn’t have a timer.  But I could count elephants.
  • It cost about one quarter of the price.

And so I now have, and can recommend, a very basic Oral-B battery-powered toothbrush. Currently £14.99 on Amazon.  It has lasted longer than my previous expensive ones, and the two AA batteries hold their charge way longer than the built-in ones ever did.  Occasionally, I take them out to charge and swap in some fully-charged ones from my drawer — that’s why I love Eneloops and similar rechargables: they stay fully-charged in the drawer — and freshly-charged batteries seem to last for weeks.

Since I got this, some years back, nothing has gone in the bin except the occasional elderly brush head, and when it does eventually die, it’ll be far less wasteful than something that takes its batteries and charging base to the grave with it.

Oh, and best of all? Mine doesn’t have any princesses or unicorns on it.  Tilly is still bitter about that.

Purposeful

A busy sanderling on Holkham beach

This little sanderling was a very busy chap on Saturday, at Holkham Beach. He darted about, running up and down the waterline, and showing no interest in stopping to pose for a photo…

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser