Category Archives: General

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.

Tom, Dick and Harry now all have Teslas

Looking back through my posts about electric vehicles, I came across my brief entry from five years ago, when I got my first electric car. How different things were back then! Those who have seen my more recent posts or YouTube videos will know that I’ve just exchanged my BMW i3 for a Tesla.

It’s perhaps worth mentioning, in case you associate the word Tesla with extraordinary wealth, that this was a Model 3, and, though they are very far from being cheap, they are also about half the price of a Model S or Model X, so if you have figures in mind from old episodes of Top Gear, they might need to be revised downwards a bit! In my case, this — my first-ever brand new car — was bought almost entirely with the combined proceeds of selling a second-hand i3 and a second-hand campervan. Well, third-hand, by the time I sold them!

But I always like trying to live in the future, and the Tesla is several years ahead of most of its competition on almost any metric, especially when you think of it not so much as buying a car but buying into a transport ecosystem; combining an OK car with the best software and the best charging network available. So I took the ridiculous step of buying a brand new car — something that sane people don’t usually do — and of buying a car without a hatchback — something no sane person should do, and certainly no sane person with a dog.

Even after five years of electric driving, though, I thought I was still doing something slightly unusual and pioneering. But it turns out I was mistaken. In December 2020, the Tesla Model 3 was the top-selling car in the UK. No, you didn’t read that wrong: not the top-selling EV, but the top-selling car overall, ahead of the VW Golf and the Ford Fiesta. Here’s the list from the SMMT:

Now, there are all sorts of factors to take into account here, when interpreting this.

Car sales as a whole were significantly down last year, EV sales, by contrast, tripled their 2019 numbers. It’s worth noting that the Tesla doesn’t appear at all in the top 10 for the year as a whole, though it was also head of the charts in April, so this isn’t just a one-off occurrence. And Tesla had a big push at the end of the month because they wanted to hit the magic figure of half-a-million cars produced globally in 2020, helped on by their new production facilities in Shanghai.

It’s also encouraging to see the the VW ID.3 — another fine vehicle — came in at number 4, so soon after its general release. This no doubt also reduced the Golf numbers significantly.

So the figures need some interpretation, but any street cred I might once have had as an EV pioneer who had to write his own software to interface to his car (e.g. here and here) is clearly long gone. Everybody’s getting ’em.

Now, I can just say that it’s one of the nicest computers I’ve ever driven.

The WhatsApp Exodus

Apparently, lots of people are leaving WhatsApp, or at least looking for alternatives. (So say articles like this and this, at least.) I’ve only rarely used it, since most of my close friends and family are on iMessage and both my work-related groups use Zulip. It’s only the occasional extended-family discussion that ends up on WhatsApp.

But if you’ve missed the story, this is because they changed their Terms of Service recently, and lots of people are shocked to discover that it now says they will share your details — location, phone number, etc — with the rest of the Facebook group.

I actually read, or at least skimmed, the Terms when they came out, and didn’t blink an eye, because I’ve always assumed that’s what they did anyway! I deleted my Facebook account many years ago, but I was aware that they still knew a lot about me because I do still use WhatsApp and Instagram (though only about once a month). Still, that will give them things like my name, phone number and location (from my photos if not from the apps).

In the early days, by the way, WhatsApp traded, as BlackBerry had done before, on the fact that it was secure messaging — encrypted end-to-end at least for one-on-one conversations. My understanding from those who follow these things more closely is that the security services tolerate this because the accounts are so closely tied to phone numbers, which means that, though they can only see metadata, they can get lots of it and related information because of older laws allowing phone-tracing etc. But there may be some people out there who thought that the use of WhatsApp was giving them a decent level of security, in which case this would perhaps be more of a shock.

Anyway, I too now have a Signal account, alongside Telegram, Skype, Messages… and all the others on all my devices. Actually, that was one of the reasons I disliked WhatsApp: the pain of using it on my iPad, desktop and laptop. And who wants to type things on a phone keypad when they have an alternative? You could run clients on those other devices, but (presumably because of the regulatory issues above) they had to be tied to the account running on your phone, and that connection seemed a bit fragile and had to be oft-renewed.

Signal, which I installed last night, works on a similar principle; it’ll be interesting to see whether it does it better! But it looks OK on my iPad; time to go and try it on my Macs… In the meantime, you can find me on Signal, if you know my phone number (like the FBI, GCHQ and Mark Zuckerberg do). If not, they can tell you where to find me.

Voltaire on Trump

“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”

Voltaire, 1765

A Wee Campervan Caper – Travels with Tilly

Christmas breakfast on the edge of the Cairngorms, 2019

Hello Everybody, and Happy New Year! I’ve been doing something very foolish in 2020, and now I’ve stopped.

Let me explain…

This time last year, over the Christmas and New Year period, Rose was visiting her family in the States, so after dropping her at Heathrow, I turned our little campervan around, and headed north, accompanied by my cocker spaniel. The only thing I knew at the time was that we were spending the first night in the Lakes, and that we were probably heading for Scotland. The rest would be decided en route, mostly based on the weather forecast. I’m not sure if the Dark Sky app is often used as a route planner…

Anyway, I recorded quite a large chunk of our journey with my GoPro, and came back with a ridiculous amount of video footage, some of which had technical issues to overcome, and I discovered I had a mammoth editing task on my hands. I feared it could be well into the spring before I was able to share any of it. And then we had a spring unlike any other. So then I hoped that lockdown would give me more time to work on projects like this, but actually 2020 has been really quite a busy year for me, and it was only once we got back towards Christmas again that I was actually able to devote any time to it.

“At least”, I said to myself, “I have to finish it before the end of the year.” And I did! I clicked ‘upload’ on the final episodes just before midnight last night. 🙂

Now, let’s be clear here: You’ll note I say ‘episodes’ above. There are, in fact, nine of them, and that’s after I’d edited out enough material for at least four more! This is perhaps the most extreme let-me-bore-you-with-my-holiday-snaps variant one can come up with, and I don’t expect the average Status-Q reader to be interested in watching one, let alone nine of these little narratives.

An AirBnB for New Year’s Eve, December 2019
The van is visible in the bottom right. Click for a larger version.

Amazingly, though, there are people who will enjoy my holiday snaps! Some are watching already.

Those longing for the open road amidst Covid restrictions, or those planning their next motorhome trip in more normal times, do like to get ideas for their next adventure, or relive the memories of journeys past, and road trip videos are very popular on YouTube. I’ve watched a lot of them, and some were partly responsible for me buying the van in the first place.

That’s before you get into the experiences, hints and tips of the full-time motorhomers: try searching YouTube for ‘van life’ if you want to enter another world.

But, even though producing this has, in some ways, been a burden that I wanted to get off my shoulders for a whole year, it’s also been a joy. Rewatching my holiday several times over means that some of the best bits are burned into my memory; there are sites, sounds and places that I would otherwise have forgotten in a month, and that I’ll now remember for ever.

And, in the unlikely event that you want to experience any of it too, there’s a YouTube playlist, and the journey begins here:

Redundant Yuletide Instructions?

Waitrose are, once again, selling mice pies under the ‘Heston’ brand. Apparently, this is something to do with a celebrity chef and has nothing to do with Ben Hur.

Anyway, they’re rather good, as you can see from the emptiness of the packet.

However, I couldn’t help feeling that since they were mince pies, and in particular ‘Night Before Christmas Mince Pies’, the label ‘Best before 14th January’ might be somewhat superfluous?

The light of the charge brigade?

The British county of Essex is often the butt of jokes here, since it has a few notably unappealing areas, but this is unfair. In general it’s a lovely county with some particularly pretty spots. Just at the moment, though, it has a different kind of jewel in its crown, at least from my point of view, because it’s also home to what looks like one of the coolest car-charging areas on the planet. If you want to see what the future of car travel might be, the place to go is probably the Gridserve Electric Forecourt near Braintree, which opens formally next week.

It has no fewer than 36 rapid chargers, and most of them are very rapid; there are a dozen that can supply 350kW (which almost nothing can actually consume, yet, but they’re future-proofing). 350kW, to give you an idea, would gain you about 25-30 miles of range for every minute you’re plugged in. There’s a bank of the Tesla v3 superchargers, too, which can do up to 250kW.

Now, you might well ask, how can you supply this quantity of electricity, even with that many solar panels? Well, the answer is that, as well as a good grid connection, they have an enormous battery pack next door and a solar farm just down the road. While you’re charging, there are cafes, loos and shops available.

I haven’t visited yet, but it just so happens I’ll be in that area next week, so I may well take a look.

Oh, and they’re hoping to build 100 of these.

In the meantime, there’s a Fully Charged video about it, which will probably be available to the general public about the time you read this:

The commercialisation of grade inflation

Google is running a particularly fatuous advertisement at the moment, clearly designed to appeal to the heart rather than the head. It appears at the start of almost every YouTube video I watch, so I see it several times per day.

“Local businesses have been there for us this year”, says the actor. “It’s time we return the love. Just leave a Google review! Because Google reviews help local businesses stay strong!”

Isn’t that nice? We may be a big cloud-based multinational but we care about the businesses on your local high street.

Now, almost everything about this is wrong. There’s the basic factual inaccuracy: local businesses often haven’t been there for us, poor things — it’s the online businesses that have kept people supplied while they’re shielding. Au contraire, we’ve often ‘been there’ for the local businesses: I’ve often been going out of my way to try and buy from local shops when it would be cheaper, easier and, of course, much safer to buy online. But that phrase is just an appeal to the emotions, so let’s not take it too literally!

No, what bugs me in the ad is the assumption, of course, that they’re good local businesses and you’re leaving them a 5-star review. Which, let’s face it, almost everybody does these days, and I’m no exception, because who wants to be the bad guy who docks them stars for what might seem like trivial complaints? And so we end up in the ridiculous situation of comparing shops, hotels, cafes etc based on whether they have a 4.6-star average or a 4.8-star one.

In a perfect world, the average business or product would have an average of three stars out of five. And we’d have a nice gaussian distribution around that: things slightly better than average would edge up towards four stars while those that were a bit unimpressive would be down in the twos. Only those that were so exceptional that they couldn’t really be improved in any way would get close to five.

It is, of course, part of life, and the same thing has always happened with A-level results, University degrees and so forth. (I have some nice stories from University colleagues about this, but they had better wait for another time.)

So I’d like to see Google run a new set of ads after this one. “Weed out dodgy businesses by leaving a low Google review! Because low reviews help customers like you stay safe.”

Somehow, I can’t see that happening.

There is another way to make reviews actually useful again, of course: Google, Amazon etc could simply revalue the currency: modify all the reviews so that the mean value was three and the standard deviation was appropriate to have a sensible number of twos and fours. You’d need to do it in a fairly sophisticated way, but it’s not rocket science. And you’d need to make sure everybody knew you were doing it, so that there was no misunderstanding.

I suggest a big advertising campaign: “Google Reviews: now the most useful on the planet!” They could put it at the beginning of all the YouTube videos. And it would get five stars from me.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser