Author Archives: qsf

Caian coffee

There’s a nice post about the coffee pot webcam on the Gonville & Caius College website this morning. Thanks, Lucy!

Retro Space Invaders

I think this is wonderful. Today I got to play with Gareth Bailey’s Space Invaders game – a quick hack, he claims, which he put together yesterday.

This uses an oscilloscope as an X-Y plotter to draw the graphics, harking back to the earliest days of computer displays. But historically, displays like this would usually have been driven by a mainframe, where as Gareth’s is driven by a Raspberry Pi.

And where do you get a couple of nice analog outputs from a Raspberry Pi? Why, from the left and right channels of the audio, of course….

Apologies for the quality of the video, but I thought this was worth capturing despite the challenging environment!

All you need is Lovie?

Last night we went into London because the kind people at the Lovie Awards, the European branch of the (rather better-known) Webby Awards, had been good enough to give me an award, mostly for the work that friends and I had done in creating the first webcam.

I was a bit embarrassed about this, partly because I didn’t think I deserved it, and partly because of the name, but I got over the latter, at least, when I discovered that it’s in honour of Ada Lovelace.

Anyway, the tradition is that you have to give a little speech containing the word ‘Love’. The other tradition, which nobody told me, is that the speech should be about 30 seconds, which is why I look a bit more flustered than usual here! I was trying, not very successfully, to edit my speech on the fly. But I got away with it because mine was the last award of the evening.

It was a great and responsive audience, which, sadly, you can’t hear on this video.


Sean Riley creates the Computerphile YouTube channel, which has clocked up nearly a million subscribers, and produces some great stuff, especially for the geeks among us.

I had fun talking to him about the early days of the Trojan Room Coffee Pot.

What 3 words?

This is a brilliant idea. Take the world and divide it into 3m squares. Then, given a modest vocabulary, you can label each square using just three words.

For example, I work half-time at ‘’, which you can find by typing it into the What3Words map at, or you can turn it into a handy URL:

Isn’t that much easier than saying ‘The south west corner of the William Gates building at 15 J J Thomson Avenue, Cambridge, CB3 9JW, UK’? Or ‘52.210577 N 0.092133 E’?

It’s even more valuable, though, in countries where addressing schemes are less well established or non-existent.

Now, it has a couple of limitations that I can see. First, you do need to be fairly precise about those words if, say, you’re reading them over the phone. If, instead of ‘’, you went to ‘’, you’d find yourself in a little residential street in Montana, which would be delightful, but you wouldn’t find me there on a typical work day. ‘faced.ears.port’ is in Louisville, Kentucky. However, the fact that they’re so spread out probably makes such errors less likely to go undetected – this is deliberate.

The second limitation is that this is a commercial operation and not an open standard, which is a pity in some ways, but understandable. It’s free for individuals to use – there’s a free iOS and Android app, for example – and the pricing page contains this assertion:

If we, what3words ltd, are ever unable to maintain the what3words technology or make arrangements for it to be maintained by a third-party (with that third-party being willing to make this same commitment), then we will release our source code into the public domain. We will do this in such a way and with suitable licences and documentation to ensure that any and all users of what3words, whether they are individuals, businesses, charitable organisations, aid agencies, governments or anyone else can continue to rely on the what3words system.

I think it’s a brilliantly simple idea. The concept has been used in other situations (passwords, PIN numbers etc), but works really well here.

Guaranteed way to cheer up your day

Spend 10 minutes with the brilliant Victor Borge.

Autumn comes to Grantchester

Speedy boarding?

Elon Musk’s latest rocket concept – the ‘BFR’ – would take you anywhere in the world in under an hour, and most destinations in about 30 mins.

Oh, that’s plus, presumably, three hours for check-in, security and passport control. And another for baggage collection and immigration when you get there…

However, if he can fix that – i.e. sort out the airports too – then going to Mars should be easy in comparison…

The Dyson Car?

So Dyson are planning to make an electric car. Here are my predictions:

  • It will be very expensive, but will look as if it’s made out of cheap plastic.
  • It will incorporate a few very cunning engineering innovations, and many dozens of equally cunning patents.
  • It will probably use some terribly clever steering mechanism.
  • The air ventilation system will be out of this world!

I may post some more serious comments tomorrow!

Swing Low

The song of most small birds just sounds like a stream of tweets and whistles to us, but if you slow them down, you can get a wonderful feel for what’s going on.

Here’s a nice compilation of lots of them. I like the little wren at the beginning, the (rather quiet) skylark at about 17:57 has a nice rhythm when slowed down, and the song thrush that follows him is quite fun. If other birds can pick out these details, you can imagine there might be quite a lot of communication going on.

The real star, however, is the Veery Thrush, whom you can hear in this slowed-down clip. He’s the subject of the rather fun New Scientist article, which was what first caught my attention.

Now, I wonder if you sped up a clip of cows mooing, you could get a similar effect?

Head case

Prof. Guglielmo Tamburrini posed an interesting question in a talk this afternoon. Imagine a self-driving car faced with the option of having to hit one of two motorcyclists. One is wearing a helmet, and the other isn’t. Should it aim for the helmet-wearing guy, to reduce the risk of loss of life?

Philosophers must be having a field day with this stuff. They’re being invited to comment on the latest in sexy new technologies in a way that doesn’t happen very often. (Douglas Adams fans may remember Majikthise & Vroomfondel.) Much of the ethical discussion relating to autonomous vehicles, though, boils down to variations on the Trolley Problem, and the key thing about this — the thing that makes it an interesting ethical conundrum in the first place — is that there is no right answer. If deployment of the railways had required the Trolley Problem to be solved first, we would still be using horse-drawn carts.

The question is not, ‘What should a car do in this situation?’, but ‘How do we get to a point where society is comfortable that we’ve had enough discussion about this?’ Or, more precisely, ‘How do we get to a point where a large enough fraction of society is comfortable, that a party proposing to allow such vehicles on our roads would be elected to government?’

Many technologies, historically, have first been used, and then later have had restrictions placed upon them to reduce the risks which are discovered, with experience, to be the key ones: motorcyclists needing helmets, cars needing seat-belts, pilots needing licences, smokers needing to go outside.

What I presume will happen here is that societies who are less risk-averse will go ahead with greater degrees of autonomous driving, and the more conservative nations will watch with interest until they can amass enough vicarious experience to follow in their footsteps.

I imagine, however, that in 50 years’ time, we’ll still be debating the motorcycle question raised above. By then, though, it will be even more hypothetical, since we’ll have long-since banned motorcycles.

Italian transport

I’m at a conference in Modena, the city of balsamic vinegar and Enzo Ferrari.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser