Category Archives: General

Zipping along to the plumber

I’ve often bemoaned the fact that so many garments, bags, etc are spoiled by the failure of their zipper; an event which turns something previously warm and cozy into a source of frustration. But unstitching the zip and installing a new one is often tricky and therefore time-consuming or expensive; generally not worthwhile on an old garment or bag.

Not all zipper failures are terminal, however; many can obviously be repaired with a bit of jiggling, but many more can probably also be fixed with some cunning techniques. A retweet by my friend Lyndsay got me thinking along these lines, and I went and searched YouTube for ‘zipper repair’, and you can find a wealth of tips and suggestions: almost anything except significant loss of teeth can be fixed without the zipper needing to be replaced.

Here are some basic tips to get started:

But for a larger selection of example fixes, you might want to browse this playlist from UCAN, a US-based zipper company. Lots of good stuff there.

OK, so what’s that bit in the title about plumbers?

Well, it’s not, I admit, a very obvious connection, except that if you’re in the mood for fixing things yourself, I’ve become a fan of another source of YouTube wisdom. There’s a retired plumber named Al who has a great set of videos about how to fix various plumbing issues: what to do if your kitchen mixer tap is leaking into the cupboard below, suggestions for fixing leaking gutters, how to use compression couplings to join copper pipes…

Al has uploaded hundreds of videos on all sorts of topics, not just plumbing, but I do like his plumbing ones: they’re completely unpretentious, unbiased chunks of accumulated wisdom and it’s just the sort of thing YouTube does well.

Reflections on Inflections

“I expect our sales”, says the marketing manager confidently, “to have an inflection point in Q1 next year”.

This is a pet peeve of mine. I’ve often heard sales and marketing types, and even economists and scientists who should know better, use ‘inflection point’ simply to mean ‘a sudden change in the direction I’d prefer’. Perhaps they think an inflection point is the sharp bend in a hockey-stick-type curve, or the lowest point on a line that is about to turn upwards.

In fact, an inflection (or occasionally ‘inflexion’) point on a graph is technically where the second derivative is zero and changes sign: i.e. where the gradient changes from decreasing (or increasing) to increasing (or decreasing). Another way to think of it is that, viewed from the side, the line changes from concave to convex, or vice versa.

So, typically, an inflection point looks like this:

But, when touting your sales figures, remember that this is also an inflection point:

And so is this:

Doing a quick search, I came across an article from Thoughtworks all about inflection points and how they are important to your business. Sadly, they get it completely wrong.

As a technology leader, a portion of your analysis should revolve around determining inflection points, the critical phases of transitions along a technology’s journey from an abstract idea to maturity.
Inflection points are the points at which a product becomes a trend (something that will be used by a critical mass and therefore likely to drive value) instead of a fad (something that will fizzle out).

And here’s their illustration:

But you, gentle reader, know better. That’s not an inflection point! This is an inflection point:

And if your strategy was to catch technologies there, I think you’d write a rather different article.

Where the streets have many names

Here’s a pretty map of Chicago, produced by Erin Davis:

(Click for a larger image)

The colours come from the street suffixes: Green for ‘roads’, yellow for ‘streets’, etc. It’s an interesting commentary on naming trends and the historical development of the city.

Erin’s done many more, too, which you can find on her site here, and more recently including more global cities, here.

There clearly haven’t been many new ‘streets’ in London for some time…

Perchance to tweet?

The spellchecker on my iPhone 6 doesn’t know the word ‘perchance’! I desired to use it in a perfectly ordinary sentence today, and found I had to spell it out, confirming my intent with the leftmost of the available buttons.

Maybe ’tis only acceptable when followed by “to dream”? Or embedded in a flow of iambic pentameter?
In either case, you will agree this is a serious flaw, which is, no doubt, addressed in the latest version of the operating system.

Sadly, my iPhone is deemed too archaic to be able to run that version! Or perhaps it’s the owner…

Remember the pre-Twitter world?

In the beginning, Twitter only allowed messages to be 140 characters long. This was because SMS text messages were a common way of posting, and sometimes receiving, tweets, and they were limited to 160 characters; allow 20 characters for a username, and 140 is all you have left: about 20 words.

Two years ago, Twitter expanded the maximum length from 140 to 280 characters, though they said soon afterwards that this hadn’t actually made much difference to the average tweet length. It did, however, reduce the number of abbreviations – remember b4 this, when everything was gr8? Thank heavens we don’t have so much of that now, though I suspect an improvement in phone keyboards also played a significant role in the change.

Last night, I was contemplating the new trend for people to write long spiels using Twitter ‘threads’; typically one sentence per tweet. Sometimes you see them with ‘1/17’, ‘2/17’ etc after each post. It works, but it really seems as if Twitter is being stretched beyond its design!

I suppose the alternative would be to use Facebook, but who wants to do that?

So I was feeling a bit nostalgic for blogs and RSS feeds. Just imagine how good social media would be if:

  • (a) you could decide whether or not people could post comments on your posts,
  • (b) you could make the posts as long or as short as you liked, in whatever style you liked
  • (c) your readership would decide on whether the quality of your content justified the effort of reading it
  • (d) you could decide whom to follow, and only see their posts
  • (e) you got to see all of their posts, if you wanted, without an algorithm deciding which ones you should read
  • (f) advertising was completely optional

Doesn’t that sound good? Well, that’s what we had in 2005. 🙂

Don’t get me wrong, I do use Twitter, and I’ve had an account for over 11 years now, but I’ve had a blog, and read other blogs, for much longer, and if I ever had to make a choice between losing Twitter or losing my RSS feeds, I’d soon be waving bye-bye to the little blue bird.

But then I realised this was crazy thinking. Imagine if you had to show you could write a whole sentence before you could be elected President? Or even a paragraph just to announce a major change in policy? I guess nothing would ever be accomplished…

What you need to know about 5G coverage

I once went to a talk by Ben Goldacre, in which he said he was going to get a T-shirt printed. This was because he seemed to be giving the same response to lots of questions recently, and it would be easier if people could just read the answer as they walked up to him. The text would say, “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.”

It was a throwaway comment, but I often think of it, most recently as the British mobile phone networks start rolling out 5G and (because they spent so much on licensing the spectrum) are being very energetic about telling us how wonderful it is.

Yes, 5G can be faster. Potentially much faster. That’s the main marketing push, of course: you can play games more interactively and watch higher-quality videos more quickly. Marketing people like simple numbers. Which is fine, but it’s just an incremental change to 4G, and many people, including me, find it hard to get very excited about that.

I’m far from being an expert on mobile networks, but I have some friends who are, and I’m slowly learning that there are lots of other aspects to consider. Here are a few lesser-known facts about 5G:

  • First, it makes it easier to add large numbers of devices to the network, for Internet-of-things-type applications. If you’re a farmer deploying thousands of soil-humidity sensors across your fields, for example, or a council putting environment-monitoring sensors on every lamppost, 4G wouldn’t be a very viable way to do it. 5G might be, though whether it will really be an affordable one remains to be seen. It probably won’t compete with technologies like LoRaWAN and SigFox for these low-bandwidth applications, where you often want battery-powered devices with a battery life measured in years. But no doubt it will find a niche in due course.
  • One of the more interesting characteristics, for me, is the potential for much lower-latency connections. When your phone asks, say, a DNS server for the address of ‘statusq.org’, the amount of data actually being transmitted is small, and won’t be affected much by a big increase in bandwidth. What’s important is the round -trip time, and 5G offers the potential for this to be much smaller. (If you just want to send a postcard and get a reply, it doesn’t matter how big the postal service’s van’s are, but it does matter how fast they drive them to the destination and back.) This will affect how natural your video calls feel, because you won’t be talking over each other so much. It may one day affect how quickly your autonomous vehicle knows that a car ahead of you has slammed on its brakes. But in the meantime it will also speed up much more trivial things, like how quickly your email program can check whether you have new email.
  • There are several different bits of radio spectrum – three main ones – that can be used by 5G. This is actually really important, and ordinary users need to be educated about it. Why? Well, as a rough approximation, it’s a basic law that higher-frequency radio signals can transfer more information, but over shorter distances. In the UK, we currently use the middle chunk of 5G spectrum, which is a sensible compromise, but gives you neither the highest speeds, nor the biggest coverage. In some parts of the USA, they are able to use the highest frequencies already, which means you can find YouTube videos of people getting phenomenal data rates, but if you go out and spend a thousand quid on a 5G phone here, you’ll never match them. Not for the next few years, anyway. More importantly, in my opinion, there is a lower-frequency range (below 1Ghz) which will allow transmission over greater distances — which is good for coverage — but at lower speeds. Here’s the important thing: When this becomes available in the UK, it will allow the phone companies truthfully to claim substantial geographic 5G coverage. But it’s also important to note that connections in this spectrum will be slower than 4G. So if you are mostly (like me) in an area that hovers between 3G and 4G, and you hear that – hurrah! – 5G coverage is finally available in your area, you may be very excited and go and spend lots of money on a 5G phone, only to find that things get slower. You have been warned.

So, yes, 5G is generally a good thing, or will be in a couple of years. And it has key advantages other than just streaming Netflix in higher resolution.

But perhaps the best news, if your family and friends start asking you about it, is that Ben did actually go ahead and create those T-shirts.

Gardening philosophy

A man’s reach should exceed his grasp
Or what’s a hedgetrimmer extension handle for?

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!

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser