Category Archives: General

Shark-wrestling

This morning, Rose, Tilly and I took a very pleasant if somewhat bracing walk along the beach near Weybourne in Norfolk.

Tilly was very brave…

A bit further along, we saw a dead fish, and our thoughts naturally turned to keeping Tilly away from it. 🙂 When we got closer, however, we realised that it actually might be a small shark… and was rather pretty. (As dead fish go.)

Then we noticed… it wasn’t dead… it was still breathing… Just.

It had been a bit mauled by something, but wasn’t in too bad a state… but it was a long way up the beach. So I picked it up, waded into the sea to boot-depth and threw it back into the waves, where I like to think it swam away. It certainly didn’t float away!

It was probably less than two feet long, but it was a wonderful feeling to hold it and feel it breathing, and let’s face it, it’s not every day I wrestle live sharks before coffee time…

My brother, on being sent the picture, identified it as a catshark. They don’t grow to much more than about three feet long, so I feel it’s unlikely to come back and terrorise the beaches of North Norfolk as a result of my actions.

A slightly unusual view of the Sacré-Coeur

Post from RICOH THETA. – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA

We’re just back from a trip to France and Switzerland. You should see a picture from Paris above, and be able to drag the image around and zoom in and out. You might be able to see the Eiffel Tower if you look in the right direction! If things don’t work, try another browser.

More of my spherical images are on the Ricoh Theta site, including some from this recent trip. Here I am inside the MusĂ©e d’Orsay, for example. On that site, you can probably also view them full-screen.

Also, here’s a short bit of video, from the ski slopes of Saas-Fee, Switzerland, last week, where we also found a nice spot for lunch.

Nostalgia timing

The Web Foundation had a fun idea to celebrate the 30th birthday of the web today. Sir Tim B-L kicked off a timeline of tweets this morning, and the idea is that, for the next 30 hours, various key events would be tweeted at the appropriate hour for their year.

They asked me to tweet about the coffee pot at 11am (for 1993). Various other fun bits of nostalgia appearing there too.

As an aside, if you want to Tweet something at a particular time and don’t know if you’ll be out of your meeting by then, the Tweetdeck interface to Twitter is handy because it’ll let you schedule posts in advance.

Brexit Broadcasting Corporation? Really?

It’s long been the last refuge of the politically incompetent to blame the BBC. In all my long years, it’s hard to remember any UK party or persuasion that hasn’t claimed a bias against them, and, of course, both sides of the Brexit debate are doing so now. It’s par for the course.

But there was a particularly nice example spreading on Twitter last night which shows that you can alway pick your conspiracy theory and find a headline to match.

A site calling itself ‘The New European’ ran the headline ‘BBC bans European flags at Eurovision event – offers Union flags instead’. The story was that the Beeb had confiscated EU flags from those attending their “Eurovision – You Decide” event, and had said that people could only wave Union flags. Pretty shocking, eh?

Since I am in the anti-Brexit camp, and many of my friends on Twitter are to the more extreme fringes of that persuasion, I get to see a stream of posts from people saying how outrageous this was, and they would stop paying their licence fees, etc.

Now, if you investigate even a little bit, you discover that this headline is pure click-bait.

What actually happened was the normal security process at large events: people were required to leave backpacks, flags (of any and all varieties), and other large items at the door. If you turned up with a Union flag they took that from you too.

The idea of taking flags to an audience event seems a bit unsociable anyway, but Auntie kindly catered to those with an irresistible urge to wave something and, inside, they made some flags available (presumably sensibly-sized ones). However, they didn’t provide a complete range of flags for everyone wanting to make a protest or political point, perhaps assuming that those attending an event about the British entry competing with the rest of Europe might actually want to wave one of the British flags.

So yes, technically, there were some people who took an EU flag and were not allowed to use it but were offered a Union Jack instead. There were also some people who took big flags and were offered a small flag instead. I presume that anyone who wanted to wave an Israeli flag would have been out of luck too, which smacks of antisemitism to me…

But that’s nothing compared to the prejudice against backpack-owners, who were not offered anything at all! Come on, BBC, we backpack owners don’t pay our licence fee for this kind of discrimination!

The Hors-d’Oeuvre Test

Step aside Myers-Briggs! Here’s my latest psychoanalytical tool, for distinguishing between two fundamentally different types of personality.

When your subject is offered a food item that they don’t recognise, do they say:

  • Ooh – that looks interesting – thanks!

or

  • Mmm… Err… What is it?

Ponder that for a moment. I think we can agree — ignoring for a moment the statistical noise introduced by actual allergies — that this simple test reveals a great deal about how someone approaches life in general.

It’s certainly, I would suggest, something you should check with a potential fiancĂ© before dropping the big question, for example.

And when recruiting key personnel for your next startup, I suspect this simple test may be more effective and revealing than many more formal recruitment methods.

But even if not, you’ve got to admit it’s a lot more pleasurable…

Maccents

Having recently come back from France, I’ve been typing a lot more characters with accents on them than I usually do! For common European accents, this is really easy to do on the Mac, but I confess that, for many years, I didn’t know the trick until a friend showed me.

So in case you’re of the anglophone persuasion and you’ve missed it too, let me enlighten you: all you have to do is hold down the appropriate key on the keyboard, and a little menu pops up; you can select the variant you want by clicking on it, or by typing the associated number.

Tout va bien ici. Pour moi, at least

Tilly (my spaniel) and I are in a very nice restaurant not far from Perigueux. We’re the only ones here, having walked over from the campervan, which is parked in an almost-empty campsite. Over the last couple of days, we’ve visited many very pretty villages, where almost everything has been closed. Not a petit-dĂ©jeuner or a cafĂ©-au-lait to be had anywhere.

Now, I presumed this was just because of the time of year and because temperatures have been below zero for several days, only creeping above it today in order to allow for a steady rain.

But the proprietor doesn’t blame the climate, he blames the ‘gilets jaunes’. Normally, he says, there are visitors, including English and Germans, throughout the year. But they’ve seen the news, and they’re staying away. “Bordeaux aujourd’hui…”, he says, “c’est une catastrophe”.

I’ve seen a few protestors. At Dieppe on Weds, they were stopping all the lorries at several roundabouts, but I was always waved through with a cheery smile. Near Limoges today, they seemed just to be acting as traffic policemen, directing the traffic to make their presence felt. The only things I’ve seen burning were needed to warm frozen fingers.

Away from the big cities, I’ve seen nothing except the most mild expressions of discontent, like this decoration of a hydrant in a small farming village:

Roughly translated, it says, “Father Christmas’s sleigh runs on diesel.. a too-expensive fuel. No presents this year.”

So, no, this probably wouldn’t have been the week to visit any big cities. But in the countryside, visitors are currently a scarce resource and so are particularly welcome. If there’s anybody still around to do the welcoming, that is..

Today, I met our milkman!

I say ‘today’, because it was actually past midnight last night. Before going upstairs to bed, I popped out with the empty bottles, and there he was! Why is this surprising?

Well, he normally delivers at about 2am; last night he was early. I’ve occasionally heard him, but I’ve never met him before. Yet we benefit every single day from his regular and reliable deliveries, and have done so for more than a decade, both here and at our previous house (which was only a couple of miles away). So this is someone whose name I’ve known for years, who visits our home several times a week, has done so for a very long time, kept doing so even when we moved, and yet I’ve only just met him. It’s almost like a ‘friend’ on a social network.

Anyway, he turned out to be a delightful chap, and it was great to have the opportunity to shake his hand and say…

Thanks, Phil!

Silicon ripples

Isn’t sand wonderful stuff?

We went to Holkham Beach — a favourite spot — at the weekend.

All of these textures were within a few minutes’ walk of each other.

Oh, and Tilly likes it too.

Mod cons of the future

At a recent workshop, I was sitting next to a senior manager from a large multinational company, whose name I shall withhold to save her possible embarrassment. We were discussing the future of self-driving vehicles, and what services might be provided by autonomous units that came to you, rather than you having to go to them.

Well, we were deep into a highly ‘facilitated’ meeting, where our brainstorming was rather… structured…, and it may have been as an act of rebellion that, at some point, one of us came up with the idea of the self-driving toilet, something you could summon when desperate.

And then we got a bit giggly, and started planning the advertising campaign. We came up with phrases like, “Wees on Wheels!” and “When you need the loo, we come to you!”, before order was re-established.

You may scoff. But you just wait. It’ll happen, I tell you, and when it does, remember that you heard about it first on Status-Q…

And then three come along at once…

If you go to a bus stop where the bus arrives, on average, every 10 minutes, how long will you wait?

5 minutes, on average, right?

Wrong.

This is an example of The Inspection Paradox, a phenomenon of which I was dimly aware, but I came across some nice examples in my reading this morning – and it’s an important thing to understand.

You see, 5 minutes would be the right answer if the bus came at exactly evenly-spaced 10 minute intervals. But this doesn’t happen, at least, not outside Switzerland. So the gaps may be bigger or smaller.

If you arrive at a random time, you are more likely to hit one of the bigger gaps. The average waiting time that you, as a passenger, will experience, will therefore be higher. (Python programmers interested in a detailed analysis of this example could take a look at this blog post. If the arrival time follows a reasonably long-tailed Poisson distribution — admittedly unlikely in this particular example — then your average wait could actually be as high as 10 minutes.)

Allen Downey’s blog has a range of other nice examples in here. You can read the whole thing if you want the details, but here are a few excerpts of the key points:

A common example is the apparent paradox of class sizes. Suppose you ask college students how big their classes are and average the responses. The result might be 56. But if you ask the school for the average class size, they might say 31. It sounds like someone is lying, but they could both be right.

Basically, if you sample students at random, you are often more likely to hit students in larger classes, and that will skew your statistics if you are trying to determine the actual average class size.

That’s not necessarily a mistake. If you want to quantify student experience, the average across students might be a more meaningful statistic than the average across classes. But you have to be clear about what you are measuring and how you report it.

Here’s another travel-related example:

The same effect applies to passenger planes. Airlines complain that they are losing money because so many flights are nearly empty. At the same time passengers complain that flying is miserable because planes are too full. They could both be right. When a flight is nearly empty, only a few passengers enjoy the extra space. But when a flight is full, many passengers feel the crunch.

The Inspection Paradox is relevant to social networks, too – real or virtual.

In 1991, Scott Feld presented the “friendship paradox”: the observation that most people have fewer friends than their friends have.

If you think that everyone you know has a wider social circle than you do, it’s because you are simply more likely to be in the social circles of people with bigger social circles.

That may or may not make you feel better, but at least you now have a name for it!

Photo: Frank Hank

Update, a few days later:

As I sit in a long phone queue waiting to talk to BT, my broadband provider, I ponder just how often, on such calls, I hear the phrase, “We are experiencing a large number of calls at the moment, and we apologise for the delay…” I have often thought, that, since they always seem to be experiencing an unusually large number of calls, perhaps they need to employ some more people.

But then I realise, of course, that I am one of those large numbers. It is natural that people will experience this more often than not, because more people will be calling during the periods when more people are calling…

Accessories for our VW Bilbo’s Nexa T5 Campervan

This is definitely one of those ‘just in case you’re Googling for it’ posts!

Regular readers will know that in the spring, we bought a campervan: a 3-year old Bilbo’s Nexa based on a long-wheelbase VW T5, and we’ve had great fun with it so far. You can read more about it in an earlier post.

A common temptation amongst new van owners is to purchase far too many accessories immediately and then use only a fraction of them, a temptation that we, surprisingly for us, managed mostly to resist. But there are a few things we’ve been particularly pleased with, and some of them were chosen after extensive research, so I thought a list might be useful to others. They range from the only-useful-for-Bilbos-Nexa to the handy-for-any-campervan variety!

So, in no particular order…

Hailo one-step stool

This makes climbing in and out of the van just that bit easier, especially if you’re on sloping ground and your door is higher than usual because of levelling ramps. It doesn’t provide a huge amount of height, but it also folds up nice and small.

We got ours from Amazon.

Levelling ramps with chocks

Perhaps the bulkiest thing that everyone needs to carry is a set of levelling ramps. We got the Fiamma ones, which work fine, but I imagine others are much the same. What I do recommend, though, is getting the chocks to go with them, or making yourself something similar, even though they’re a bit fiddly.

Why? Well, on most VW vans, when you want to rotate the driver’s seat to face backwards, you need to let off the handbrake. You can put the van in gear (or in ‘park’) before doing so, so you’re not going to roll anywhere very far, but if you’re up on ramps, you’ll probably roll far enough to lose a noticeable chunk of your carefully-adjusted height! Chocks are the solution.

Using them is rather tricky, of course, if you’re on your own, but, in that situation, you may not care so much about rotating the driver’s seat anyway.

Jerba Midge screens

Visiting Scotland over the summer, we decided we would need some midge-free ventilation. Midges are pretty tiny, and some flyscreens won’t keep them out.

We bought a pair of these from Jerba, who are based in Scotland, so we figured they should know what they were doing. And they did. Check with them for the precise details for your windows, though; you do want them to fit well!

For more general ventilation in hot weather, we also got some of these from Brandrup for the front windows. They’re bulky, a bit inconvenient to carry, and slightly tricky to install. But they do have the advantage of providing ventilation while maintaining security – occasionally useful when leaving the dog in the van.

Breathable Awning Groundsheet

Whether or not you actually have an awning, when the ground gets wet, you’ll probably want some sort of a doormat between you and the mud. When we rented a van before buying, it came with some of this permeable rubber mat, which really proved its worth after a few rainy nights, so we asked them what it was and where to get it.

The rain goes through it, rather than forming puddles; you can have a large area and still fold it up small; it’s easy to hose down afterwards; and, apparently, some campsites only let you pitch things if you have a groundsheet that won’t kill the grass in the process. This meets that criterion too.

There are lots of sources for similar stuff, but we were pleased with the sheet we got from eBay. It even matched the van!

Khyam Toilet Tent

Our van does have a loo, but it’s in a cupboard and you have to pull it out to use it. On the rare occasions when we’ve stayed at sites without WC facilities, we prefer to have a slightly less intimate arrangement!

You can buy cheaper loo tents than Khyam’s one, but theirs is very well made and easy to put up, and I have no regrets about spending a bit more. We found that using our portable loo in it was a much more civilised experience than we’d expected.

Telescopic ladder

On our longer summer trip, we were carrying things like kayak paddles, awnings, chairs and loo tents, so we decided to use a roof rack and roof bag. One challenge when compared to car travel, though, is that our roof is two metres off the ground, and while was possible to reach it by, say, standing on the tyres, life became very much easier once we got one of these.

After we returned, we also found this was a lot easier to move around the house than any of our other ladders! A handy piece of kit.

Outwell Wash Base

One thing that’s changed since my childhood camping days is the availability of a huge range of collapsible implements made of silicon rubber. We have a collapsible kettle for using on the gas ring, for example (though at most sites we have electric hook-up and so use this rather sweet little electric kettle).

But my favourite is this combined bucket, washing-up bowl and draining board, which comes in a range of different colours, collapses to be almost flat, and does its job very nicely. Ours is a more subtle cream colour! One unexpected benefit of the silicon feet is that, when collapsed, it doesn’t slip around, to the extent that we just leave it out on the worktop when driving. There’s a helpful video about them here.

Water-tank adapter

Here’s a small, expensive piece of blue plastic. What is it and why would you want one? Or why, at least, would the owner of a Bilbo’s campervan want one?

Well…

One slight eccentricity of Bilbo’s campervans is that they have the fresh-water filling point on the inside. I’ve heard various explanations for this: it reduces the likelihood of accidentally putting diesel in your water tank, it reduces the chance of freezing in low temperatures, and so on, but I suspect it’s chiefly down to a much simpler installation process.

It does mean, though, that filling up with water involves pointing a hose at the inside of your van, and if you’re on your own, managing to keep this in the hole and avoid spillage while you go and turn the tap on or off can sometimes be a challenge.

This little widget, which I think the seller produces in small quantities using a 3D printer, lets you connect up the hose and then holds it in place, and keeps the water pointing in the right direction!

As an aside, my hose has a stop valve on one end of it, which only lets water through once something is connected. Very handy. I bought the hose ready-made, without noticing this, and it caused me some confusion until I worked out what was going on!

Since it’s only on one end, it can also cause some surprises if you connect this end to the tap, thinking that the other end is blocked off…

Aquasorb Towels

In a small van, it can be a challenge getting things dry, especially if, like us, you tend not to spend much time relaxing at the campsite, but instead are always on the move! So wet towels were a bit of a problem, until we discovered these.

They are really intended for dogs, but, having bought one for Tilly, I thought I’d just try it in the shower myself, before she got to use it. We immediately went and bought two more for ourselves.

These are not big fluffy luxurious things in which to wrap yourself. They are more like a kind of super-absorbent imitation chamois leather. You rub yourself down, wring it out, and repeat until you’re dry enough. But they take almost no space in the van, and, best of all, they are meant to be put back in their sealed containers while still moist. So the whole problem of what to do with the wet towels goes away.

Update, a couple of months later: Oh yes, and these are absolutely fabulous for removing condensation from the inside of your windows, too!

OXO Compact Dustpan and Brush

Tiny, cheap, well made, and it does the job nicely. Not much else to say!

Available from many places including Amazon.

Lap trays

Now, I tend to think of lap trays as something for the old folks’ home rather than for the campsite, but we got a couple of these ones from the delightfully-named gift shop ‘Not Another Bunch of Flowers‘, and they’ve been excellent in the van.

We use them whenever we don’t have the table up, when we’re sitting outside, or when for some reason we just want a little bit more solid, flat space on which to put things.

I also like the fact that they don’t have cats, flowers or Constable landscapes on them, which makes me feel a bit less old.

Outdoor chairs

It’s always nice to be able to sit outside, but chairs can be a nuisance to carry around, unless you have a VW California, which has handy storage for them in the tailgate.

We ended up going for Kampa Cocktail chairs, which are a bit lower than we might otherwise have chosen, but have the benefit of being really quite compact when folded.

Bilbo’s Nexa owners, in particular, might like to know that we bought them after considerable research to find something that would fit into the Nexa’s wardrobe, without simultaneously being so small as to have you sitting on the floor!

They are fairly low, though – we really need to find a small low table to go beside them for the G&T.

Outwell Feast Saucepans

Lastly — for now, at least — we needed some pots and pans, and we’ve been very pleased with this little set.

The handles unscrew, and it all stacks together in a very small space, whilst feeling reassuringly solid once assembled.

So there you are – those are some of our favourites after the first six months or so. Hope they’re useful to somebody out there!

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser