Author Archives: qsf

Watt’s the cost?

A few years ago, I came across a really useful rule-of-thumb for calculating electricity cost:

A 1-watt device costs £1/year, if it’s running 24×7.

At the time, this was almost exactly right for most people in the UK, and it made it very easy to estimate the impact of, say, using that old 200W PC as a server for the next three years rather than getting a more modern low-power one.

Sadly, for most of us, energy costs are going up a lot at the moment, and the above is probably rather optimistic now, so you might want to do the calculation for yourself. For example, I currently have a big Synology NAS server here at home storing lots of my data and backups. Once you’ve bought such a device, how do the running costs compare with storing your data in the cloud?

So here’s my exciting new highly-sophisticated web application, which is designed to answer this simple question:

Watt’s The Cost?

AirTags and Airplanes

I’m a big fan of my Apple AirTags. I have a few of them now, and they’ve been jolly useful on several occasions, enabling me to find things quickly that would otherwise have involved more time and stress, or to notice that something has been left behind and so recover it far sooner than would otherwise have been possible.

They’re very cunning devices. Tilly even has one on her collar now!

For those not familiar with the underlying technology, the general challenge with locating devices in the past has been that it typically involves two components: a GPS receiver (to find out where the item is), and a connection to the mobile phone network (to report that location to whomever may be looking for it). Both of these need significant battery power, so trackers have been bulky, required frequent recharging, and the phone connection generally implied a subscription. In the past, therefore, tracking has generally been reserved for valuable things which can carry big batteries, like cars, or like smartphones which happen already to have the necessary functions built-in and get recharged every night.

Since I have been known, just occasionally, to be a little absent-minded, I have made extensive use of Apple’s ‘Find my…’ system over the years to locate iPhones, iPads, even spouses. And before you scoff, I should mention that my knowledge of how to use it also once won me an enthusiastic embrace in the middle of a field from a rather beautiful young woman who was a complete stranger to me. So there! But that’s a story for another day…

Anyway, the AirTags have neither a GPS nor a big battery, and yet still manage to transmit their location back to you remarkably effectively in most circumstances. How do they do it? Well, they can be detected by any passing iPhone, and there are a billion of those moving around the world, so there’s a surprisingly good chance that if a human passes close to your lost bunch of keys, you’ll get to know about its location fairly soon.

The AirTags are also, I believe, the first large-scale deployment of UWB location technology, the details of which are beyond the scope of this post, but it basically means that if you have a recent iPhone, when you get really close to the Tag, you can be guided to it using a compass-needle-type display, in a way that would not be possible with something like Bluetooth alone. You can find out not just that your wallet is in this room, but that it’s behind this sofa cushion.

Still, my use of AirTags has been very practical and prosaic. Others have had more fun, and a YouTuber calling himself AirtagAlex has done some wonderful experiments over the last few months of mailing AirTags to different parts of the world and seeing the routes they took to reach their destination.

I rather liked his latest video, though, which explores one of those questions you might never have thought of asking in the past: what actually happens if you get on a plane and leave something in the pocket of the seat in front of you?

Happy MMXXII

Today, I.I.MMXXII, we visited Mevagissey, never having been there before, and found it a really delightful spot to start the New Year (though many of its normal attractions were, of course, closed today).

Here’s a quick view of what we saw.

(Also available here, and there’s a 360 panorama here.)

A Traditional Tesla Blessing

My friend Gareth, hearing that I was about set off for a long journey across the country in my electric car, wished me well. “Bon Voyage”, he said, “and may all your supercharges be 100kW+”.

This kind thought prompted me to do some serious research into other traditional travellers’ blessings. After weeks of diligent studies in the library of Trinity College Dublin, I came across a previously-unknown fragment, hidden between the pages of an old vellum manuscript. On being translated from the Gaelic and converted into unicode, it reads roughly as follows, and I’d like to offer it to all my readers as my best wishes for you all in 2022:

“May the road rise up to meet you
And may you regenerate efficiently on the way back down.
May the sun not blind your autopilot cameras,
And the rain fall soft on your wiper sensors.
Until we meet again…
Wherever this sat-nav chooses to take us.”

Collecting The Milk

For as long as I can remember, since my earliest childhood, we’ve had milk delivered to the front door. Many visitors seem surprised that we can still do this (and that it still comes in nice recycled glass bottles), so perhaps we’re just lucky — but everywhere we’ve ever lived has had a convenient milkman doing regular deliveries at sensible prices.

Actually buying milk in a shop is an activity I therefore associate with going on holiday or having unexpected quantities of guests! For the rest of the time, we’re just occasionally aware of a quiet clinking on the doorstep in the middle of the night, and getting the milk just involves pottering to the front door in my dressing gown. But it’s often the first real chance I get to view the day, breathe the air, feel the temperature.

And sometimes, like this morning, that’s a wonderful thing.

Happy Winter Solstice, everybody!

The Wet Wood

On a misty walk in one of our favourite local woods this morning, we spotted an unusual white tree stump. On closer inspection, it appeared to have been partly sawn through, and so was covered in its own sawdust.

These were pretty quick snaps with my Fuji, but were also a reminder that, impressive as my iPhone 12 Pro is these days, there are times when it pays to take a proper camera with you.

You can click the images for larger versions.

A Decisive Moment?

I generally try to avoid anything too political here, but I loved this photo of Helen Morgan, the new Liberal Democrat MP who won the North Shropshire by-election a couple of days ago, and so took a seat that has been Conservative for 200 years.

Regardless of your political opinions, as well as the pleasing facial expressions, I think the suspense encapsulated in this is just brilliant. Many photos make you laugh because you can see the inevitable, but often you’re glimpsing just a split second into the future. Here, you feel they could hold this pose for quite some time yet, but with all the certainty of Greek tragedy, you know what’s eventually coming!

Photo credit: PA, originally spotted in this FT article.

Down Denver Way

One of the most important bits of civil engineering in our part of the world is less than an hour’s drive away, but it was only last month that I actually got around to visiting it.

What is this thing and why is it so important? Here’s my little explanation:

And if you want to take a look around from on high yourself…

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.

Well, that’s reassuring!

I discover that what has been happening to my waistline recently is perfectly normal and natural, and lots of other people are being tested for it too.

It’s called ‘lateral flow’.

Non-instant Messaging

I sent a colleague a question by email, and yesterday, he replied. The fact that there was an intervening period of three and a half years doesn’t seem to have phased him at all; it was not, in fact, worthy of mention in his response.

It reminded me of a Physics teacher I had at school. An excellent teacher, but known for being very slow in returning marked homework assignments — if, indeed, they came back at all.

One day, as he was handing out some marked scripts, he said, “Ah, this one’s for Cardozo”, and handed it to my classmate, who was about to protest that the script wasn’t, in fact, his… when he recognised it as his father’s handwriting.

Required Reading? Oh yes.

To live in the modern world, you need to understand social networks. That’s not the same as using them; you can understand them without using or wanting to use them, and you can quite happily use them without actually understanding how they work at all. In fact, I would suggest, most people do, and that ignorance is amongst the bigger problems facing the world today.

Fortunately, we have a good antidote to it, in Charles Arthur’s latest book “Social Warming: The dangerous and polarising effects of social media”. I think it is superb.

Arthur is a highly-respected writer and journalist of long standing, but it’s still quite an achievement to produce a book which is nicely written and enjoyable to read, yet simultaneously extremely serious and important.

The title draws an analogy with global warming: there’s no one single massive event that causes climate change: it’s the result of millions of small actions and interactions taking place all over the planet for an extended period. And the mechanisms which drive social networks, which make them tick, also seem mostly harmless at the level of individual interactions, but they too accumulate to have enormous impact. We remain in ignorance of them at our peril… until perhaps one day we’ll find things have gone too far.

The dramatic cover might lead you to think this is going to be a shocker: a breathtaking exposé of corporate evils, which you can only escape by banning Facebook from your life forever. In fact, however, it is a rational explanation of the algorithms social networks have found to be effective in driving ever-greater engagement of the audience (and hence ever-greater revenues for their shareholders). And it’s a journey through numerous examples of the impact these mechanisms have actually had in key situations in different parts of the world.

The phrase “required reading” is a somewhat clichéd one, and I don’t think I’ve ever used it before, but I think it may be appropriate here. Perhaps, though, I should moderate it a bit. This book should be considered required reading if you post to social networks, read social networks, have any close friends or family who use social networks, read papers or watch media where the journalists get information from social networks, meet people whose approach to global pandemics depends on what they read on social networks, live in a country where voting is heavily influenced by social networks, or have kids growing up in a world dominated by social networks.

The rest of you don’t need to read it.


‘Social Warming’ can be purchased from Amazon and many other sources, with hardback, Kindle and audiobook versions available now, and paperback to follow in the spring.

University of Cambridge abandons open standards for proprietary ones, and starts to pay the price

A few years ago, the ‘University Information Services’ (UIS) team at Cambridge made the decision that the University would no longer run its own email service — something it had done since email began — and instead was going to outsource it to a commercial entity.

This in itself, I think, was probably a mistake, because email is enormously important, not just as a communication method, but as an archive. Many people make this mistake. “We use Slack for our internal chat, we use Facebook and Twitter and WhatsApp and Zoom for our external communications. We hear some old people still use email, but why is that any different?”

Email, though, for most people, is not just an instant-messaging system. It’s a store, a journal, a database, a record, of decisions made, invoices received, relationships formed, ideas generated, news exchanged, and so on. I have most of my email for the last thirty years or so, and find it incredibly valuable. Last year, I wrote a post about why I think it’s one of our most successful and important data archive formats, and its success for so long, when compared with almost anything else, has depended substantially on open standards and Open Source software.

Running an email server is easy. Doing it well, however, is not, and requires expertise and dedicated staff. In the past, I have run my own personal server, and we also did this in one of my startup companies. (In both cases these were based on the excellent, widely-used and highly-regarded Exim software which was, ironically, developed here at Cambridge in that same UIS department!) But these days there are lots of good hosting services, and it doesn’t normally make sense for most organisations to run their own.

The University of Cambridge is not, however, a small organisation, and surely it should really be willing to employ the skilled staff and provide the resources to run its own email system, in the same way that it runs its own libraries. (Maybe they’ll be next?)

However, out-sourcing is the name of the game these days, and it’s not that that is causing me, and several of my colleagues, concerns.

Exchanging open for closed

No, it’s the fact that that the University decided to opt for Microsoft Exchange Online. A couple of days ago, most staff who had not yet transitioned were moved from our own servers to Microsoft’s, and the forced migration will be complete by the end of next week, and the old servers switched off at the end of the year. For most people, in the short term, this will just be a minor inconvenience. So why does this worry me? Because I take a longer view.

Since email was invented, all of the email of many tens of thousands of University staff and students has been stored in formats defined by open standards, on machines that we control, generally by open email software running on open operating systems which were storing it on open filesystems… and so on. We had full control, and we always knew we could manipulate, improve, archive, extract and back up any part of this system which stores such a valuable archive of data for the entire community.

This week, however, saw the transition of that entire archive to a system running proprietary software, stored in proprietary formats on proprietary operating systems and filing systems, on servers that we no longer control. And the most important question, of course, when putting any important data into any new system is “How easily can I get it out again, in a usable format for the future, if I change my mind?”

Now, normally, one of the many wonderful things about an IMAP-based email archive is that this is trivial: you can decide to move it from one hosting service to another, or just shift it to your own machine, simply by dragging and dropping it using the email program of your choice. I have done this many times over the decades, as I’ve moved between jobs, email providers, academic institutions, and also as my email-reading devices have switched between different operating systems and different email apps.

Exchange, however, has always had problems supporting IMAP access to email reliably. Experts disagree on how serious those problems currently are, but the fact that the debate continues is worrying. It’s a lower priority for Microsoft, because they’d rather you used their own protocols and their own software.

The slippery slope

The UIS’s own pages telling Mac users how to connect to the new email service, for example, start with this dire warning:

Warnings about why Outlook is the only safe desktop client to use with Exchange

Note that this is referring to Apple Mail, one of the most-used email clients in the world, and there’s a similar warning for those accessing their email and calendars from iOS devices.

What hope is there for those of us who prefer less-common email clients, such as my long-term favourite, Mailmate? Or who use less-mainstream operating systems? Or who have older hardware that won’t run the latest software?

This rings alarm bells for those of us who remember Microsoft’s (thankfully failed) attempts in the past to control another open system — the Web — by getting people to run Microsoft software both on the desktop and the server. When you control both ends of a system, you can freely modify the protocols used to communicate between them until it becomes very hard for users to adopt any other system. Microsoft used predatory and sometimes illegal business practices in the past to try and kill off Netscape and other desktop competition in pursuit of this goal, but the overall strategy failed, partly because their own server-side software was so inferior to the Open Source offerings that the techies responsible for most web servers refused to depend upon it.

I hope we are not seeing a repeat here — and to be frank, I doubt it — but I do wonder whether this shift to Exchange will prove to be a one-way-only transition. Suppose Microsoft were to say, in a few years’ time, that only a very small proportion of Exchange users now depended on IMAP, and they would be switching it off shortly. What options would the University have?

And what choice would users then have about the software they ran on their desktop to access this valuable archive?

Could we rely on getting thousands of email archives out and into a usable form elsewhere? What about any enhanced metadata? Attachments? Calendars? Contacts? There are open standards for all these things, but what incentives would Microsoft have to ease that transition, if it were even viable?

No, I fear that this contract, once made, has been made for ever.

And some of the implications are starting to be felt elsewhere. It recently came to light, for example, that the contract with Microsoft covered the staff and students of the University, but we have traditionally continued to provide email cam.ac.uk addresses to retired academics, emeritus professors, others helping with the activities of the University. “Ah”, said Microsoft — after the deal was signed, as I understand it, but perhaps before our chaps had cottoned on to all the implications — “You do realise that they’re not included in this deal?”.

This has made a lot of people very upset, because they had been given to understand that the email address that they’d always had, often the only one they’d ever had, that had been published at the top of their academic papers for decades, and had been used, for example, to set up all of their other online accounts, would remain a valid way of contacting them indefinitely. Not any more. This, of course, is standard practice in the business world: you leave a company and your email address is gone. The company closes, or is bought, and your email address is gone. But ancient universities haven’t always been run on those purely corporate lines or with those same expectations of transience.

Where does this leave us?

Essentially, therefore, there has been only one choice for those of us who wish to keep our email in standard formats that we know will be accessible in the long term. Reliable archiving is not a service we can now expect our eight-century-old University to provide, so we take all incoming email to our University addresses, and forward it to our own accounts held elsewhere.

Many of my colleagues in the Computer Science department are now doing this. We have to hope that this will continue to be allowed, both by the University and, of course, by Microsoft. We can’t ignore the Microsoft servers completely, because they will probably soon also be the only way to send email that will be recognised by the outside world as coming from a valid cam.ac.uk address. And being able to receive email under such an alias can be important for accessing academic journals, university service etc.

But some friends have decided that a better option is to start using their own personal email addresses on academic projects, papers, websites etc. to ensure that they have control in the future. (If you’re doing this, make sure you use your own DNS domain or a long-term reliable forwarding service, so you aren’t indefinitely tied to your current ISP or your ancient Hotmail account for your future professional communications!)

me.com

And perhaps some of this is inevitable. I used to rely on my employer to provide me with a telephone and a telephone number, for example, but the one sitting on my University desk for the last several years has almost never been used.

For many of us, it’s important that we control our own ‘brand’. Our own phone number, our own website, our own LinkedIn pages are more important to us than how we appear on any particular employer’s website, and as a result we need to pay for those out of our own pockets. Email should perhaps be the same, and wise academics should probably ensure that they control their own destiny and don’t use their current university email address on their publications.

But it all gradually erodes the sense of belonging to an ancient institution with which you might have a lifelong relationship. And that isn’t good for the institution either, especially when it comes to fund-raising. Ask any development office.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser