Category Archives: General

Covid: Destiny and Density?

It always seemed probable to me that Covid infection rates would be closely related to population density. When you walk down the street, how many people do you pass? Are you in a house surrounded by fields or in a tall vertical apartment block where you share an entrance and staircase with many other households? How big are the schools? And so on.

At a country level, though, this is difficult to test. I plotted the very latest total number of Covid-related deaths per million population against the population density per sq. km. for some countries similar to my own (UK), and it didn’t show a clear correlation.

Sources: Statista and Wikipedia.

(As usual, whatever they’re doing in the Netherlands is good. Why do the Netherlands keep doing that with everything? Please stop. It’s very annoying to the rest of us.)

Depending on your political persuasions, or whether you’re a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty kind of person, you could interpret this in various ways!

My own view (at present), for what it’s worth, is that our government and senior civil servants didn’t put enough emphasis on lockdowns in the early months, and that cost us a lot. But they did put much more energy and resources than most other countries into securing vaccines on a huge scale, very early, and we’re now reaping the benefits. So depending on the time period you examine over the last year, the picture relative to other countries can look very different. (The sadly-missed Hans Rosling would have had some nice animations, no doubt!)

At present, if you take the long view of total Covid deaths per capita, we’re a bit higher than the average for similar countries, but our rate of new deaths is lower than almost anyone’s, so we will probably look better over time. So it could have been much better, and it also could have been much worse.

Anyway, back to population density. The problem is that density is far from evenly distributed. If I plot England on the map, as distinct from the UK as a whole, it appears in a very different place: the top-right:

England is up there with the most-afflicted other countries from my list — Italy and Belgium — but it does have a notably higher population density than any of them.

Anyway, the results of my quick graphs are that I was probably wrong: it’s not clear that population density is a useful metric, at least when done at this scale.

What we really need, if we want to compare the situation in different countries, I think, is statistics about both Covid cases and population density across Europe on a 20km grid. Then we could compare them more usefully, and one day, perhaps, we’ll know whether I’m wrong in the details too, or only on the larger scale!

Street View Statistics

Google Street View is, I think, one of the most amazing achievements in recent times, and it’s one of the things that keeps me using Google Maps even though many of the alternatives are rather good. If I’m heading to a new destination, I’ll often look in advance at, say, the entrance gate, or the correct exit from the last roundabout, so those final manoeuvres when the traffic is slowing down behind you are less stressful: you’re in familiar surroundings. Street View is, in that sense, a déjà-vu-generator.

And of course, it’s great for bringing back memories of places * qu’on a vraiment déjà vu*. We can all think of dozens of examples; for me, this morning, the sea front by the Ullapool ferry terminal is somewhere I remember as a launching point into the unknown; it’s where I stayed at a lovely inn before catching the ferry to the Outer Hebrides. Happy memories.

But there are interesting questions to be asked about Street View as well. For someone who enjoys window-shopping on Rightmove for a possible next home, it’s a very valuable tool, and I’ve often wondered how much the market appeal of your property is affected by whether the Google car drove by on a sunny or a cloudy day!

And this morning, I saw debates on Twitter about research that used images of your house on Street View to estimate how likely you were to have a car accident, something which could be used against you by insurance companies (or, of course, in your favour, but that doesn’t make such good headlines).

The paper’s here, and I was most surprised by just how poor the insurance company’s existing model was; information about your age, gender, postcode etc apparently doesn’t give them as much insight as you might expect, and knowing whether you live in a well-maintained detached house in a nice neighbourhood gives them just a little bit more. Some see this as very sinister, but you need to remember that this wasn’t some automated image-analysis system; the researchers had to spend a lot of time looking at StreetView pictures of houses and annotating them by hand with their assessment of the condition, type of house, etc. Some of this could be performed by machines in future, but there are lots of other factors to consider as well: is the issue that you are more likely to crash into somebody in certain neighbourhoods, or that they are more likely to crash into you? What’s the speed limit on the surrounding streets? How close is the pub? And so on…

So I sat down thinking I would write about this, but one thing I failed to notice was the date of the research. I assumed that because people were talking about it on Twitter today, it must be new — a fatal mistake. What’s more, just a little bit of further research showed me that my friend John Naughton had written a good piece about it in the Observer two years ago.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that I like technologies that can give me a sense of déja vu. My own abilities in that area are clearly lacking!

A family memory of the Duke of Edinburgh

My late aunt Margaret (always known to us as ‘Auntie Peg’, and of whom I was exceedingly fond) welcomes the Queen and Prince Philip on a visit to Bombay.

I never met my uncle James (behind in white), but he was Deputy High Commissioner from 1960-63, and the royals stayed with them for a few days as part of their extensive tour of India and Pakistan in 1961.

Covid Conveniences

During the lockdown last year, when things began to open up a bit and we could go for outings to Norfolk beaches and other somewhat distant spots, there was always, lurking in the background, a rather practical matter to be considered: what happens if you need to go to the loo when you get there? With cafes, pubs, shopping centres and many other public locations closed, this could be an issue if you were visiting a remote location. A day trip and picnic was a delightful Covid-safe affair, but one didn’t want it to be overshadowed by such… shall we say… immediate concerns.

Well, back then, we had no problems, because we owned a small campervan, which included the necessary facilities. Now, however, we’re in the same situation but without such a vehicle, and need to consider such things more carefully.

Supermarkets are often a good spot to visit when on a long journey: plentiful, open for long hours, and trivial to find and insert into your route with just a couple of taps on Google Maps. On long drives through France in pre-lockdown times, there were many big stores at which I made small purchases! (It is worth noting, though, that this strategy will let you down, at least in the UK, if you have chosen Christmas Day or Easter Sunday for your outing, as we recently discovered!)

I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was obsessed with this subject, but I was a Cub Scout once, so I like to Be Prepared, and we blokes can often underestimate the challenges faced by the ladies. There are also many people, of course, for whom medical or other conditions make this a more serious issue. A useful, but not widely-known, resource in the UK is The Great British Public Toilet Map. Or perhaps it is widely-known, but not widely discussed in polite company!

As an aside, one of the jobs of art, occasionally, is to ask challenging questions of polite company, and it’s hard not to be intrigued by Monica Bonvicini’s installations in London and Basel some years ago, entitled “Don’t Miss A Sec”, which must be the ultimate use of one-way mirrors.

But I digress. This is an issue that has followed us through the ages; is there any hope of relief in the future? Well, looking back at past Status-Q posts from a couple of years ago, I remembered that an acquaintance and I had spotted a real business opportunity. I wonder if anyone will get around to commercialising it before the next pandemic…

Lockdown listening

“I don’t really listen to many podcasts now…”, I heard someone say recently, “…because I no longer have a commute”. This made me realise how different my listening habits would be if I didn’t have a spaniel to walk. (I’ve tried the commuting thing on occasion, by the way, and gave it up as a bad lot. Spaniels are better.)

I tend to listen to a mix of podcasts, but they are mostly tech-related. There are shows like Self-Hosted and 2.5 Admins if I want to know which hard disks to put in my NAS, when to use FreeBSD instead of Linux, or how to back up my ZFS filesystems. I enjoy Clockwise for a light-hearted quick-fire discussion of tech topics and gadgets, and, almost at the opposite extreme, the State of the Net podcast is a gentle, contemplative and insightful chat about broader issues. There are some which cater to my more particular interests, like the Home Assistant podcast (about my favourite home-automation system) and the Fully Charged podcast (about EVs and renewable energy). And then, for something completely different, the Talking Politics History of Ideas educates me on the work of MacKinninnon and Marx, of Wittgenstein and Wollstonecraft.

But brief podcast episodes are interspersed with much longer audiobooks, and it’s no exaggeration to say that our Audible subscription is one of the best services we have, in terms of the number of hours of enjoyment per buck. My wife Rose could never be persuaded to carry a smartphone anywhere, until she discovered it could read all of her favourite books to her, and now it goes everywhere. She’s never used any other iPhone app, and almost never used it as a phone. She has taken some photos over the years – but probably less than a dozen! No, for her it is first and foremost an audiobook player, which can be used as a phone in an emergency.

We aren’t, by the way, walking around with headphones on all the time. The iPhone speaker is fine for most of our normal use, if placed in an appropriate pocket. And we enjoy many of the same authors, so snatches of Conan Doyle, of Nevil Shute, or of Tolkien can often be heard from any corner of the house. In unabridged form, of course.

We both share the same favourite modern author — Patrick O’Brian — and the audiobooks, beautifully read by Ric Jerrom, are quite superb. If you’ve never tried audiobooks as an accompaniment to your walking, cooking or ironing, start with Master and Commander, and you can be assured of many, many happy hours.

Especially if you also have a spaniel.

Keeping things in proportion

Yesterday, in response to another thread about the AstraZeneca vaccine concerns, I tweeted,

“I hear there’s also a risk of having a car accident while driving to or from your AZ vaccination! Why is this not being revealed to the public?”

Which got some cheery replies, like,

“You could be run over walking from your car too, these car parks are dangerous places!”

And Clive Brown responded with a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation which showed that, yes, indeed, if you drove 6 miles for your vaccine, an accident was more likely than a blood clot.

Getting mine tomorrow, if I survive the journey…

Great news for the UK’s electric-vehicle driving community (which will soon be all of us)

The above photo, taken in 2015, was the first time I had charged an electric car at a public charging point: one of the stations installed by Ecotricity as part of the ‘Electric Highway’.

At the time, pumps were scarce, battery ranges were about 70 miles, and charging was free. This meant that you had a real sense of achievement when you reached one, like getting to the end of the rainbow and finding a pot of free gold, I used to think, though perhaps a better analogy is of a parched man finding an oasis in the middle of a desert. Anyway, we were pioneers, spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men, women were real women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri … well you know the rest.

All of this gave many of us a fondness for Ecotricity, because they truly enabled the adoption of electric driving here, several years before it would otherwise have been viable. Admittedly, they gained a monopoly on the motorway service station locations as a result, and I believe the installation was heavily subsidised; I’m not sure the figures have ever been made public. In 2016, they started charging for charging. I did some crude analysis and defended the pricing, which some people thought too high. Still I doubt they’ve ever made any significant money on it, and it was probably a loss-leader, partly to connect people with their other offerings.

Over the years, though, fondness for Ecotricity has waned, because the network was poorly-maintained and unreliable, the ‘rapid’ chargers were, by modern standards (a whole five years later!), slow and cranky, and nobody now heads for an Ecotricity charger if there is any other viable option. A recent Zap-Map survey of the UK’s 16 charging networks — yes, there are actually 16 — placed Ecotricity at position… ahem… 16.

If you compare them with some of the newer installations I’ve visited, like this one from Polar:

or this from Instavolt:

then they just can’t compete. And that’s before we even start looking at Tesla superchargers.

Yet Ecotricity still maintained the monopoly on the motorway service stations, so the places where you needed the fastest and best chargers had the slowest and the worst.

Until now.

Yesterday, there was an announcement that this monopoly was going to end.

And today, joint announcements from Ecotricity and Gridserve say that they’re going to collaborate on renewing the Electric Highway. (Did Dale Vince jump, one can’t help wondering, or was he pushed?) Anyway, this is excellent news.

Gridserve, for those who don’t know, created the UK’s first fully-electric forecourt, which I visited soon after it opened. Like everybody else, I was suitably impressed, so it’s great to see them grow.

The Fully Charged Show has an interview with the CEOs of the two companies.

The key item to take away here is that most of the UK’s motorways will soon be well-equipped with 350kW chargers capable of adding vast amounts of range to the big batteries of today’s newer cars, in the time it takes to visit the loo and get a coffee.

The Gridserve forecourt was actually the last place I charged my old BMW before replacing it, so in a sense, this merger of its first and last charge-suppliers seems somehow appropriate, and my ownership of that car is a bit reminiscent of the early days of the web: it spanned the era from when EV-driving was new and exciting to when it started becoming mainstream, in a very small number of years.

Which is all excellent news, but it means I’ll have to find something else to do now, to maintain that feeling of being a pioneer…

More thoughts on entering decade three

Actually, I realise that in yesterday’s post, I was out by a day: the first blog post I still retain was from the 28th Feb 2001, so it’s today that Status-Q is 20 years old. But since quite a few people get Status-Q by email overnight, they won’t have read it until this morning anyway!

In the beginning, I was using Dave Winer’s ‘Radio Userland’ software (which pretty much defined the early days of blogging, RSS feeds etc). One thing that wasn’t common then was for blog posts to have titles. After all, they were just log entries; what else did they need but the date and time? However, they did need to be given a heading when I moved them to WordPress, so if you look back now at some of my posts from 2001, they’re all called ‘[Untitled]’.

Inspired by Jon Crowcroft’s comment yesterday, I went back on the Internet Archive and reminded myself of how Status-Q looked in 2001. See, no titles!

I also, while browsing, came across one post from September 2001:

There are some benefits to having an unusual name. If I type ‘quentin’ into Google, I’m on the first page! I come a little below Quentin Tarantino and Quentin Crisp, though. I know my place.

It’s been a long time since I was so visible. It turns out that quite a lot of other people have discovered this World Wide Web thing in the intervening decades, and quite a few of them are named Quentin, including, for example, Quentin Blake and Quentin Willson. So I long ago gave up the occasional vanity search, and my personal non-blog site quentinsf.com has descended way below the threshold of ‘next page’ clicks that even I am willing to undertake!

I’ll tell you what, though…

I just opened a new private window in my browser, one that I hoped wouldn’t personalise my results, and typed ‘quentin’. Though quentinsf.com was, as expected, nowhere to be seen, Status-Q, in contrast, was in the middle of page 2! That’ll do just fine for now.

So there you go, you youngsters: if you want Googlejuice, all you have to do is write miscellaneous rubbish in the same place every couple of days. And do it for about twenty years…

Entering decade three

Status-Q is 20 years old today. (I had a bit of an experimental blog before that, but it didn’t survive.) I see that I’ve averaged about one post every two days during that period, which is probably a reasonable imposition on the world.

10 years ago, I was writing about the realisation that I might need to start wearing glasses for some things. Ah. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young…

Still, it was pretty blissful to be alive today, with glorious sunshine for the first time in what seems like years. My day has revolved around pipes and plumbing: I washed the car (which was needed); repaired a leaking pipe with a new compression joint (which was pleasing); and then found I needed to unblock an outside drain (which wasn’t). But I think the plumbing owes me something in return, so I shall now retire for a thoroughly decadent bath, and read about the Roman goddess Cloacina.

A Day in the Life of Your Data

This is a nicely-written document from Apple which is intended to give people an idea of the amount of data that can be gathered about them as they go about their normal lives.

It is also, of course, intended to persuade you that it’s a good idea for your phone to run software from Apple, rather than from a company that makes its money from selling data about you. But it’s pretty balanced overall, and might be useful if you have non-technical friends who haven’t considered this stuff.

As a photographer, I have quite a few photo-related apps, and I often give them access to my entire photo library, because I may want to use them to edit any of my images. And even though the article doesn’t highlight this directly, it did make me realise that, by doing so, I’m also giving them access to a great deal of my location history, because all of my photos are geotagged. Something to consider.

All’s well that ends well

Rose and I don’t really watch any television. Not live television, anyway, and this is evident, I suppose, from the fact that we’ve been in our current house for a little over three years now and haven’t yet got around to connecting up the aerial! But it goes back much longer than that: I did watch a few minutes of the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, I remember, but I turned it off when the dancing nurses got too silly. That whole thing must all have been completely mystifying for most foreigners, I imagine, but even here I think we missed a golden opportunity: it could have been such a wonderful comedic event if only they had got Terry Wogan to do the narration! I would probably have watched the lot! Anyway, I can’t remember when I last watched any live TV before that, so I guess it must have been more than a decade ago.

That doesn’t, however, mean that we don’t watch anything. Almost every evening we settle down in front of the screen for a film, a TV drama, or something similar before we go to bed. And often these are things that have stood the test of time… which means they aren’t always available through streaming services.

So we get a great deal of value from our Cinema Paradiso subscription. Yes, DVDs through the post! This is how Netflix started, and in the UK we had LoveFilm, which was eventually bought by Amazon and then finally closed down. Cinema Paradiso continues, however, and has a much larger catalogue, I think, than anything streamable. In the last few weeks I’ve watched the latest Star Wars movie, early Fritz Lang films, Ealing comedies, and a recent ‘Nordic noir’ crime series. You don’t have the same spur-of-the moment decision opportunities as with, say, the current Netflix, but we do always have two or three disks of content that we know we want to watch — because we gave it some thought in advance — ready and waiting. After viewing, the disk goes in the pre-paid envelope, and Tilly and I stroll off in the direction of the postbox for her late-night comfort break.

We do, however, also have a reasonable DVD library of our own, and alongside the Woody Allens and Merchant Ivorys we have some box sets of things like Sherlock Holmes — Jeremy Brett, of course — and Star Trek, especially the original series and ‘Voyager’.

We find these can be very good ways to finish the evening, because you can be sure that, whatever other issues you’ve had to deal with during the day, and whatever challenges the crews may encountered on the nearest M-class planet, by the time you go to bed, Captain Janeway will have the ship back on course for home, James T. Kirk will have sorted out the enemies with a nice clean and sporting right hook, and all will be well again. You don’t have to wait for the next episode to relieve the angst or stop hanging from the cliff.

It was a more down-to-earth recommendation that led me to start writing this post, however! We bought ourselves a Christmas present of the complete Miss Marple, and, even though we’ve seen them all before at some point, we often can’t remember whoactuallydunnit. It has proved to be a very good purchase, and we can comfortably recommend that before bed — whatever you may have had to endure in the day’s news, Zoom calls, or tweets — heading to St Mary Mead with Joan Hickson is a very pleasant way to finish the day.

Office Meeting 2.0

Every Wednesday afternoon during term, we have a departmental meeting for the senior staff, which used to take place in an efficient but not-very-inspiring and rather windowless room in the Lab. There are typically 50-100 attendees, and so, when it moved into the virtual world, we don’t in general use video; most people only turn on their cameras when they’re talking.

Well, this week, a rather wonderful thought occurred to me.

Since this meeting is essentially an audio-only experience, I realised I didn’t need to postpone my dog-walk until after it had finished. Why not do them at the same time? Especially since I was more likely to be in the role of audience than presenter for the duration of this one. Much more efficient.

So I fired up Microsoft Teams on my phone, put it in my jacket breast pocket where I knew the speaker would be clearly audible (since that’s how I normally listen to podcasts and audiobooks), and headed out.

Now, it’s rare for me to say anything good about Teams — actually, it’s rare for anyone to say anything good about Teams, as far as I can see — but on this occasion it performed beautifully, the audio quality was excellent and the video, when people did turn on their cameras, was excellent too, albeit slightly blurred by the raindrops.

At the end of the meeting, as people were saying goodbye, I turned on my camera to reveal that I was in fact wrapped up and squelching through the mud in pursuit of my spaniel, something nobody had been aware of up to that point. And for me, it had been a thoroughly enjoyable meeting. Just imagine what it would be like in sunshine!

Anyway, strongly recommended, if you have the option. Combine your meetings with your daily exercise. Go and watch the rabbits. I promise you it’ll be a more pleasant experience than sitting in your average office meeting room.

And remember, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser