Category Archives: General

The Digital What?

A good friend called me today, just to check I was OK, because I hadn’t posted on my blog for some time! He’s right — it’s been more than a month — but my radio silence is not because of any personal tragedy or illness, it’s just that I’ve had various other things going on and life hasn’t settled back into a rhythm yet!

The main change has been that I have a new job. The particular project I was working on at the University Computer Lab had come to a close, and I thought it might be good for me to have a change after six years as a Research Associate on various projects. I’m fortunate that Telemarq is not short of work, and so there wasn’t any immediate need for me to find another post, and I could just have done that full-time: there are definitely challenges when you have two half-time jobs and have to switch mental context every other day. But I do also find it valuable to put myself into new situations to make sure I keep learning from new challenges.

So for the last couple of weeks, I’ve been in a new post as the part-time, interim, Head of Engineering at the Digital Catapult.

The ‘part-time’ and ‘interim’ bits are because I decided I didn’t want to do a long-term London commute, and certainly not a full-time one. (I’ve been spoiled by living within walking or cycling distance of my work for most of the past thirty years.) But I offered to help out while they found somebody who wanted a permanent role, and, after a long search, they did finally find somebody good, so I had the slightly bizarre experience, on my first official day of work, of being told that they had just appointed my successor! He’ll be starting soon and we’ll overlap for a bit.

So what is this strangely-named Digital Catapult?

Well, a full explanation would be too long a story and you can read more about it here, but, briefly, it’s one way for the UK’s public funding bodies to allocate resources with the aim of boosting the UK economy, alongside such things as innovation grants for industry, and academic funding. There are several ‘Catapults’ with different foci – Transport, Future Cities, High-value Manufacturing etc. – and the Digital Catapult’s aim is to provide training, facilities, advice, consultancy, and so forth, to UK institutions to help them adopt the latest digital technologies. It employs around 120 people in the process, experts drawn from many different backgrounds and areas of expertise. I like working in unusual jobs and for unusual organisations, and I think this fits the bill!

The commuting is also an interesting exploration of how others live. I’m fortunate in not always having to take the peak-period trains, but it still astonishes me that so many people around here pay nearly £50 a day — about £10K a year — to travel to and from a crowded and polluted city, spending a couple of hours per day in a stuffy compartment, and regularly don’t even get a seat; today I sat on the floor in both directions. Perhaps you get inured to it after a while. In the meantime, the seat deprivation has happened often enough already that I’ve just ordered one of these to carry with me.

Don’t get me wrong, there are compensations: the people are mostly smart and interesting, the view from the office is great, and there are plenty of good cafes and lunch spots within an easy walk to ensure that this will have a detrimental effect on my waistline. And I’m learning a lot, which was, of course, the intention. So who knows, I may be there for a bit longer than originally intended if they find a suitable use for me.

In the meantime, that explains why, for the next few months at least, I can be found in the vicinity of the British Library on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. And why I haven’t been keeping up with the blog posts, though if I manage to find trains with seats, and even tables, I may manage one or two more…

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 Musée 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 fiancé 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-déjeuner or a café-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…

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser