Category Archives: General

Le mot juste

I like the instructions on a French device I’ve just bought:

  1. How to put the battery?

1) Turn the lid of battery’s room counterclockwisely and remove it.

If counterclockwisely isn’t a word, I think it should be.

May flights of angels…

While I don’t really have very strong feelings about whether or not we should have a monarchy now, I do believe that if you’re going to have one, then ours has been about as good as you could get! It’s not at all clear to me that countries that have got rid of theirs have, as a rule, received something much better in exchange.

So with that in mind, and being aware of history in the making, I settled down to watch some of Her Majesty’s funeral today, and got hooked… and gosh, it was rather well done, wasn’t it? It’s very pleasing to think that, after recent embarrassments like Brexit and Boris, there are some things of which we as a nation can still be proud. The combined ranks of the BBC, the Crown, the Church of England and Their Majesties’ Armed Forces can pull off some impressive stuff when they set their minds to it.

My mind, of course, also kept drifting to the technical achievements. The wonderful camera angles, with no other cameras in view. The enormously long but very slow zooms vertically down from the ceiling of the Abbey. The shallow depth of focus on the jewels atop the crown. The very great depth of focus over Winston Churchill’s shoulder as his statue looked down on the passers-by below. The synchronisation of marching video and drum-beat audio, when the cameras must often have been far enough away to delay the audio by a noticeable amount. (I realised after a while they probably had radio mics near the drummers so as to transmit the audio at the speed of light instead.) It’s hard enough for most of us just getting the audio levels right when recording a single bagpiper. To pull off this kind of production at any time is quite a feat, but to do it live, spread across an entire capital, and pretty much flawlessly… well, count me impressed. If the Duke of Norfolk didn’t already have a duchy, he would have deserved one for organising this! But this was mostly the achievement of thousands of anonymous and very skilled people.

Then I wondered, too, how many bytes of data iPlayer had to cope with today, and took my hat off again to whomever was responsible for keeping those millions(?) of livestreams going for hours on end. It really wouldn’t have been the time for unexpected network load to crash your routers, or for sudden reboots caused by unexpected software updates. I bet the technical team are breathing a sigh of relief tonight!

This was the first occasion I had actually sat down and watched any live TV in a very long time. The last time, I think, might have been when the armoured cars started rolling into Iraq in search of those weapons of mass destruction… So that would have been… 2003… nearly 20 years ago. Gosh again! I do watch lots of things on a television screen, but they’re almost all movies, or recordings or streamings of shows that other people discovered a decade ago and we’re only just getting around to binge-viewing now! We’ve been in this house for five years and I haven’t got around to connecting the TV to the aerial yet, so we watched today’s events on iPlayer — which was probably higher resolution anyway — and it looked fabulous rendered by AppleTV on our nice 4K TV.

And that’s remarkable in itself. The last event of its kind — the funeral of George VI — was the first royal procession to be broadcast on television. Grainy, black-and-white, low-resolution cathode-ray-tube- & valve-powered television… and so few people owned a receiver then that almost everybody would have had to follow in audio-only form on the radio, and then read about it a day or two later in the papers. How things have changed, in one reign.

I wish King Charles a long and happy life, but when his time does eventually come, I expect we’ll be viewing it in some sort of fully-immersive holographic projection. Though, as my friend Tim pointed out when I suggested it on Twitter, fully-immersive holographic projection will probably turn out to be just a fad. Remember 3D TV?

But in either case, I hope it’s still produced by the BBC.

Morisson’s Law of Holiday Busyness

A couple of years ago, my friend Richard Morrison posted this graph, which I now think about whenever I go on vacation:

One way to increase the height of the second bump is to write lots of blog posts when you get back, but it’s a welcome distraction from the process of getting my unread emails back down to double-digits. 🙂

Deep Thought strikes again

I’m glad to see that Douglas Adams’s influence continues. I asked OpenAI, “How many roads must a man walk down?”

I think Douglas would have approved.

Use satellites, not lorries

Spotted just outside Hay-on-Wye this evening, I think this sign is meant to say, “If you’re driving an HGV, don’t rely on your satnav.” But in that case, the red line should really go through the satellite, n’est-ce pas?

No, after due consideration, I realise it must mean, “The no-trucks policy here is enforced by our orbiting death-rays”.

Many-headed Wordle

Rose and I are still playing low-tech Wordle from time to time. She came rather close to defeating me yesterday: her word was ‘Hydra’. Very slippery. Took me quite a while to kill that one.

How to deal with criticism

Esther Bintliff has a splendid (longish) piece in the FT entitled, “Feedback required: the science of criticism that actually works“. She begins:

Years ago, after I received some negative feedback at work, my husband Laurence told me something that stuck with me: when we receive criticism, we go through three stages. The first, he said, with apologies for the language, is, “Fuck you.” The second is “I suck.” And the third is “Let’s make it better.” I recognised immediately that this is true, and that I was stuck at stage two.

These three stages seem to be somewhat universal, and many people, she points out, never even make it as far as stage two, and get hung up at the angry response. But you can only benefit from feedback if you get through both of those stages to the third.

Depending on your personality, you may be more likely to stay at stage one, confident in your excellence and cursing the idiocy of your critics. The problem, Laurence continued, is being unable to move on to stage three, the only productive stage.

Now, this is simple, memorable, and worthy of regular contemplation, and the article would have been useful if it stopped there. But no, there’s plenty more good stuff to come.

How, for example, should you ask for feedback if you actually want people to give it to you?

How might your feedback be presented in a way that helps others to get to stage three?

How is this connected to The West Wing?

And how often is any sort of feedback actually worthwhile? What about those regular performance reviews that so many businesses undertake? She talks about when Avraham Kluger met Angelo DeNisi, both researchers in this area..

When Kluger told him he was studying the destructive effects of feedback on performance, DeNisi was intrigued. “My career is based on performance appraisal and finding ways to make it more accurate. You’re telling me the assumptions are incorrect?” he asked. “Yes, I’m afraid I am,” replied Kluger.

The two reviewed hundreds of feedback experiments going back to 1905. What they found was explosive. In 38 per cent of cases, feedback not only did not improve performance, it actively made it worse. Even positive feedback could backfire. “This was heresy,” DeNisi recalls.

I think this is another example of very enjoyable and informative journalism from the FT, but it is behind their paywall, so I shouldn’t reproduce too much of it here.

Too financial for our times?

The problem with the FT is that it is really quite expensive as online publications go. £1 or so per day does add up over the year, and makes it more expensive, for example, than Netflix, Spotify and Disney+ combined. Bizarrely, you can have them deliver a paper version through your door each day for somewhat less than even their basic digital access package.

If, however, you are rather wealthy, or, like me, you’re fortunate enough to be associated with an organisation that pays for FT access, then I would suggest it’s a perk well-worth exploring. (The iPad app is also good, and lives on my home screen.)

If not, I guess you can keep an eye on the headlines and pop to the newsagent if you see something that piques your interest. Remember newsagents? I guess they’re not just for cans of San Pellegrino — they’re a useful alternative to bits of the internet that are too expensive.

In the meantime, I have a small number of gift links I can use to give non-subscribers access to the article, so get in touch if you’d really like to read the rest of it.

There! That should get me some nice feedback.

Home Automation for Heat Waves

As we face record high temperatures in the UK today and tomorrow, it seems likely that climate change may bring us more of these in the future, so my first job over breakfast today was to write a little script for my Home Assistant-based home control system that sets all the blinds on the east- and south-facing windows to be 70% closed. We’ve never used them before to keep sunlight out in the middle of the day, but they work rather well.


A bit later, as temperatures in my upstairs study were still getting rather high, I started to think about the radiators. Why? Well, we have smart thermostatic valves on all of them, which report back the temperature in each room. Normally, of course, this is so that each room can be heated to the right level for the time of day. (I have a separate schedule for each room, which is modified automatically based on things like whether there are guests in the guest room, or whether Rose’s phone is detected in her office in town rather than her study at home, or whether we’re watching TV in the evening.)

But I hadn’t really thought of making use of this data in the summer, until today, when I realised I could easily sort all my rooms in order of increasing temperature. A quick new view added to my control panel showed that yes, indeed, my study was currently the warmest room in the house, and the sitting room was the coolest:

So it would be much more sensible to go and work from the comfort of the sofa, rather than from my desk.

As a result, this comes to you from the sitting room, and I have successfully improved my comfort level. As you can tell, though, I don’t think it actually resulted in me doing more work…

Re-branding question for the day…

I’ve been wondering… When did a ‘rug’ or ‘blanket’ or ‘bedspread’ become a ‘throw’?

From the John Lewis website: this is a throw:

And this is a bedspread:

Was it when British heating and insulation reached the point when you no longer needed blankets to wrap around humans, and so they just had a decorative role?

I suspect this coincided with a trend towards plainer, less-patterned furniture, and so you needed something to add a splash of contrasting colour.

And why ‘throw’, anyway? When do you throw ’em and when do you spread ’em? Is it a marketing ploy by manufacturers to encourage you to use on sofas those product that you might previously have reserved for picnics or chilly bedrooms, but in either case would probably just have involved spreading?

Anyway, I suspect ‘throw’ to be something of an aspirational statement: the idea that you casually cast these things around, but the combination of your good aim and your good taste means that they’ll make your home look like something out of Country Life.

My next line of fashionable home decor accessories will include the ‘Quilted Scrumple’ and the ‘100% Highland Wool Chuck’, for those whose tastes tend to the even more casual. Only this with a really good eye and throwing arm, though, will be able to get the best out of my ‘Chenille Hurl-across-the-room’.

In touch with the tech…

My friend Pilgrim Beart publishes a monthly email newsletter covering topics from IoT, electric vehicles, clean and smart energy.

I like the format: generally just a list of one-sentence bullet points with links to relevant articles elsewhere. Very easy to skim and find items of interest. You can see back issues here to give you an idea, and sign up here to have it in your inbox each month.

Amongst the many things I learned over breakfast today:

  • In the UK, electric vehicles are now estimated to have one-third of the carbon footprint of their combustion-powered equivalents over their lifetime. (This is partly because of the ever-greener UK power network, one of the few recent national achievements we can be proud of at present!)

  • There’s a new Raspberry Pi designed for embedding in things: the Pico W. It addresses the issue I’ve always had with devices like the Arduino and the earlier Pico: no built-in network connectivity. For me, devices are usually only interesting if they’re networked, and much of my home automation depends on devices containing the wifi-enabled ESP8266 and ESP32 devices – smart plugs & relays, energy monitors etc. At $6, the Pi team are clearly aiming at this market with the new device. They’ll need to enable its Bluetooth capabilities soon, though, if they want people to build devices supporting the new Matter protocols, which I think has a good chance of being a very important cross-vendor standard in the near future.

  • Bloomberg predicts that VW’s EV sales will overtake Tesla’s in 18 months’ time. This can only be a good thing. Much as I love my Tesla, I’ve also been a big fan of VW for decades, and am delighted to see them reborn, Gandalf-like, in whiter raiment than they had before. They (and all car manufacturers) do need major work on their software, though: when I tried the ID-3 a couple of years ago, I found significant bugs even in my 15-min test-drive. Perhaps it has improved since then. If they don’t get a good handle on this, a lot of manufacturers are going to have to buy their software from Apple. I have to say that a VW with Apple software is something I would find very tempting…

Happy feet

This makes me smile.

I hope it makes you smile too!

Brunch with Brent

Amongst the tech podcasts I enjoy while driving, dog-walking, etc are the ones from Jupiter Broadcasting.

The Self-Hosted show, in particular, discusses topic and news of interest to those who like to run some of their own IT infrastructure rather than outsourcing it all to third parties. It covers areas like backups, VPNs, media servers, and home automation (one of my current hobbies)!

Linux Unplugged keeps me in touch with Linux news. Even though I’ve been a heavy user of Linux since the days when it was first released as two floppy disk images, and I run and manage a large number of Linux servers, both personally and professionally, I haven’t really used it as my desktop operating system since Apple’s release of MacOS X gave me a Unix-based alternative, so this helps keep me in touch with developments there as well as on the back-end.

Anyway, I recommend these if you’re interested in such geeky topics; I think they’re nicely produced.

And then there’s Jupiter Extras, a feed with a range of interviews and other stuff that doesn’t really fit into any of the other streams. One of the Jupiter hosts, Brent Gervais, has a set of periodic interviews labelled ‘Brunch with Brent’, and I was delighted to be invited to join him for one of these a little while ago (published yesterday), in which he let me ramble on about everything from scuba diving to the patent system, from QWERTY keyboards to self-driving cars.

The full discussion can be found on Episode 86, and there’s a shorter extract in the middle of the latest Linux Unplugged episode too.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser