Category Archives: General

The ‘power’ of the Press…

sizewellYou shouldn’t, of course, believe what you read in the papers. This is a good general rule, but recently we had a rather striking example. On Feb 11th, The Times ran an article entitled, “Electric cars mean UK could need 20 new nuclear plants”.

Here’s an extract, talking about a Transport for London report:

The analysis, seen by The Times, says that moving to an electric or hydrogen vehicle fleet “has implications for London’s energy supply system”. At the maximum level of uptake in the city green cars would demand between seven and eight gigawatt-hours per year. Experts said this was equivalent to the output of more than two nuclear power stations similar to that being built at Hinkley Point in Somerset. Extrapolated nationally, it would require the equivalent of 20 new nuclear power stations nationwide.

That’s a pretty memorable number – 20 new nuclear power stations! – and indeed, a family member who had seen it asked me about it, knowing my interest in the topic.

The trouble is, it’s just plain wrong. It was repeated in The Daily Mail, too, and Mail readers, bless them, are even less likely to have the critical faculties to question the headline…

I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and things looked fishy, and it turns out that the original article is full of mathematical errors and lack of understanding. The first, and biggest, is that seven gigawatt-hours-per-year is not the same as seven gigawatts! Two Hinkley Points would indeed produce about 7 GW, but that is 7 gigawatt-hours-per-hour, not -per-year! So they were out by a factor of about 6000 immediately. However, many of the other figures quoted were also incorrect (some of them in the other direction).

If you’re interested in the real numbers, David Pellow’s letter to the Editor gives a much better analysis, but a quick summary is that yes, of course, we will need some more power generation when all of the UK’s 31M cars are electric, but if those cars are mostly charged overnight during off-peak periods, we could handle about 20M of them already just using the current power network.

This whole area is rather a fun topic, actually, and takes us into the realms of smart grids, home solar, grid-scale storage made from recycled batteries, and so forth. Cars are remarkably flexible about when, and how fast, they are charged, making them ideal for absorbing excess power and smoothing out the fluctuations of demand and of renewable generation. One day last year, Germany’s renewable sources of electricity produced so much power that they actually paid people to use it, and the problem of dealing with the peaks and troughs of demand is something that the power grids have had to struggle with for decades. Cars can actually help with this.

But I digress. What I actually wanted to talk about were a few other things that struck me about this story:

  • The Times has since published a brief retraction in the small print. I doubt this will remove the ’20 power stations’ idea from many people’s minds, though. Wasn’t there a proposal once that such corrections should be given the same font sizes and number of column inches as the original article? When I’m an MP, I’ll propose a bill to that effect…

  • The online version of the article has been edited to remove the dramatic claims, though the URL still reveals the original embarrassing headline. I can’t decide whether this is an admirable admission of error, or an attempt to rewrite history and pretend it never happened. What do you think?

  • The Daily Mail’s version of the story is still online, and I don’t believe they’ve published a correction at all. Should they be required to do so, when they were repeating another paper’s story which has since been retracted?

The problem of improved road safety

Now here’s a downside to self-driving cars that I had completely failed to consider: An article on Slate’s website points out that the current desperate shortage of organ donors is only going to get worse:

It’s morbid, but the truth is that due to limitations on who can contribute transplants, among the most reliable sources for healthy organs and tissues are the more than 35,000 people killed each year on American roads (a number that, after years of falling mortality rates, has recently been trending upward). Currently, 1 in 5 organ donations comes from the victim of a vehicular accident. That’s why departments of motor vehicles ask drivers whether they want to be donors.
It’s not difficult to do the math on how driverless cars could change the equation. An estimated 94 percent of motor-vehicle accidents involve some kind of a driver error. As the number of vehicles with human operators falls, so too will the preventable fatalities. In June, Christopher A. Hart, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said, “Driverless cars could save many if not most of the 32,000 lives that are lost every year on our streets and highways.” Even if self-driving cars only realize a fraction of their projected safety benefits, a decline in the number of available organs could begin as soon as the first wave of autonomous and semiautonomous vehicles hits the road—threatening to compound our nation’s already serious shortages.
Fewer people will die, overall, of course. But it’s tough if you happen to be in the wrong group…

But soft, what light through yonder bottle breaks?

In Cambridge marketplace, there’s one of those installations that I presumed was supposed to be art, and as I walked by I pondered all the other things that taxpayers’ money could usefully be spent on… It was labelled, so I thought, ‘Litter of light’.

Yeah, yeah, green eco modern art, blah blah…

But then I realised that ‘Liter of light’ wasn’t actually a typo — I’m so unused to the American spelling of ‘litre’ that I misread it initially. And looking at the sign got me interested enough that I went to the organisation’s website, only to find that it isn’t, well, ideal, for someone who’s trying to find out what this is all about. But with a bit of perseverance and some searching elsewhere, I pieced it together.

The story, in fact, goes back to 2002, when a Brazilian chap named Alfredo Moser realised that, if you live in a shack with no windows, you can still bring sunlight into your home using water-filled recycled plastic bottles as diffusing skylights.

Liter of Light is a foundation that, as well as installing and encouraging the installation of vast numbers of these around the world, is now bringing them up to date by adding solar panels, batteries and LEDs, meaning that your bottle can provide light at night as well as during the day.

All in all, a very nice use of simple technologies to meet a real and widespread need! I love this kind of thing.

Understanding the Presidency

At a dinner at a friend’s house tonight, we finally worked it out.

Donald Trump is Zaphod Beeblebrox.

For those well-versed in late-20th-century literature, a lot of things then suddenly make sense.

Here’s a link to something you probably don’t know

I’ve always liked this particular link. I can pretty much guarantee that there will be at least something on the other end of it that you don’t know.

How do I know that?

Well, that link takes you to a random page on Wikipedia. Since the English version of Wikipedia has over 5 million pages, the chance of you hitting one on a subject about which you have any reasonably complete knowledge is really quite small. (At least, it would be for me!)

So, go ahead, click it and learn something new!

(If, by any chance, you hit a page where you find the subject matter somewhat uninteresting, then you can instead marvel at the fact that somebody found it interesting enough to create a page about it!)

Mail, man!

Those of you who are kind enough to read my random musings on a regular basis often do so via the RSS feed or Twitter, and many others got their updates via Facebook until I started my period of abstinence.

But this is just a reminder that you can also get Status-Q in your inbox, and what could be more exciting than that?!

I used to do this via a rather cobbled-together system based on IFTTT, but there's now a button on the right hand side of the Status-Q pages (which links to here), where you can sign up to a much more sophisticated system based on MailChimp.

Thanks to those of you who have already tried it out! Hope it's useful, or at least occasionally helps you start your day with a wry smile…

Tennis balls, my liege

I often wonder whether the manufacturers of tennis balls see their primary market as:

  • tennis players, or
  • dog owners?

Mmm.

Can’t resist?

Here’s a lovely clock created by G. Wade Johnson, which should appeal to any electronics geeks out there.

(I’ve put a copy here for posterity.)

The best medicine, canned

the-power-of-laughterIf you go back and watch (or listen to) comedies from an earlier age, one thing that often stands out is the volume of the audience laughter track. The fashion for including laughter, whether from a live audience or from a canned track, has changed over time, but has generally declined in recent years and, to modern ears, too much laughter can make the show sound fake, or at least dated.

I’ve sometimes thought this would be a good use for multi-channel sound: if there were a separate laugh track, you could include it or not, or turn it up or down, according to your own taste, when watching those old Blackadder or Seinfeld episodes.

Who knows, fashions may change in future and go the other way, and then we’ll want to turn it up again.

But it turns out that the history of laugh tracks is quite interesting. People do laugh more when they aren’t laughing ‘alone’, so including laughter in comedies was seen as beneficial from the start. But because early studios usually had limited numbers of cameras, and recordings involved multiple takes of the action from different angles, you couldn’t rely on an audience to laugh consistently, or indeed at all, after they’d seen the same gag several times. So appropriate laughter had to be added back in to the final product anyway, and after a while the idea caught on of using recorded laughter without actually needing an audience there at all.

The Wikipedia page on the topic is surprisingly long and interesting. Here’s an extract:

From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, Charley Douglass had a monopoly on the expensive and painstaking laugh business. By 1960, nearly every prime time show in the U.S. was sweetened by Douglass. When it came time to “lay in the laughs”, the producer would direct Douglass where and when to insert the type of laugh requested. Inevitably, arguments arose between Douglass and the producer, but in the end, the producer generally won. After taking his directive, Douglass would then go to work at creating the audience, out of sight from the producer or anyone else present at the studio.

Critic Dick Hobson commented in a July 1966 TV Guide article that the Douglass family were “the only laugh game in town.” Very few in the industry ever witnessed Douglass using his invention, as he was notoriously secretive about his work, and was one of the most talked-about men in the television industry.

Douglass formed Northridge Electronics in August 1960, named after the Los Angeles suburb in the San Fernando Valley where the Douglass family resided and operated their business in a padlocked garage. When their services were needed, they would wheel the device into the editing room, plug it in, and go to work. Production studios became accustomed to seeing Douglass shuttling from studio to studio to mix in his manufactured laughs during post-production.

The sophisticated one-of-a-kind device — affectionately known in the industry as the “laff box” — was tightly secured with padlocks, stood more than two feet tall, and operated like an organ. Only immediate members of the family knew what the inside actually looked like (at one time, the “laff box” was called “the most sought after but well-concealed box in the world”). Since more than one member of the Douglass family was involved in the editing process, it was natural for one member to react to a joke differently from another. Charley himself was the most conservative of all, so producers would put in bids for son Bob, who was more liberal in his choice of laughter.

Douglass used a keyboard to select the style, gender and age of the laugh as well as a foot pedal to time the length of the reaction. Inside the machine was a wide array of recorded chuckles, yocks and belly laughs; exactly 320 laughs on 32 tape loops, 10 to a loop. Each loop contained 10 individual audience laughs spliced end-to-end, whirling around simultaneously waiting to be cued up. Since the tapes were looped, laughs were played in the same order repeatedly. Sound engineers would watch sitcoms and knew exactly which recurrent guffaws were next, even if they were viewing an episode for the first time. Frequently, Douglass would combine different laughs, either long or short in length. Attentive viewers could spot when he decided to mix chuckles together to give the effect of a more diverse audience. Rather than being simple recordings of a laughing audience, Douglass’s laughs were carefully generated and mixed, giving some laughs detailed identities such as “the guy who gets the joke early” and “housewife giggles” and “the one who didn’t get the joke but is laughing anyway” all perfectly blended and layered to create the illusion of a real audience responding to the show in question.

Happy Indivisible Year

2017 is a prime number.

Just thought you’d like to know.

The world’s biggest reality-distortion field

facebook-hq-sign

Everywhere, I see people complaining about what a terrible year 2016 has been. Actually, now I think about it, that’s not really true. On Facebook, I see people complaining about what a terrible year 2016 has been. Yes, it’s certainly had its downsides: the Brexit vote was a disappointment and may prove rather inconvenient if it ever actually happens, and the Trump election makes you realise that there’s no need for Spitting Image any more, because it just couldn’t live up to reality. But, in real life, these things don’t absorb much time when chatting to friends in the pub, or to customers in the meeting room, or to fellow dog-walkers in the wood, or to neighbours in the street.

Now, I’ve often joked that the word ‘fury’, at least outside the realms of Greek mythology, is only found in the headlines of the tabloid press and local newspapers. You know the kind of thing: “FURY AT COUNCIL GRASS-CUTTING SCAM!” This artificial heightening of emotions, or the publicising of one or two unbalanced individuals’ feelings as if they were a general reaction of the populace at large, is one of the oldest sales tricks in the book.

But Facebook, it sometimes seems to me, encourages this tendency from all of us: it’s a place for users to vent their opinions — I’m not immune — and the more extreme expressions tend to get extra attention from others and so be rewarded by the FB algorithms, with the result that on some days I go to the site and it feels as if I’m walking along in the middle of a protest march.

Protest marches are all very well in their way, because they allow those with strong feelings on a particular topic, or insufficient faith in democracy, to let off steam from time to time and feel they’ve accomplished something, without inconveniencing others too much. But these outbursts are clearly segregated from the rest of life, which is important if a civilised society is to continue. Someone who brought their protests or their political campaigning into the workplace would be a bore, and rightly ostracised. But Facebook is a broadcasting medium to which people turn when they get upset about anything, without having to wait for someone to organise a protest, and before even knowing that they have a sympathetic ear. There’s no easy way to tell it, for example, “I like Fred – he’s a witty and intelligent guy – but I don’t want to go on any of his protest marches.” If the line between outbursts and normal conversation is not clearly defined, you can get a rather distorted view of somebody, and of how much you might have in common with them. And the problem with Facebook, unlike, say, Twitter or an RSS reader, is that even if I subscribe to Fred’s feed, I may only see a subset of the things he writes. Facebook decides what appears in my stream, not Fred. So how accurately can I even judge my friends’ opinions? Facebook may well decide that it’s not in your best interest to see this post either, now I think about it.

Facebook can be a place for useful discussion, but the general newsfeed may not inspire very balanced or considered debate. It’s worth remembering, for example, that whichever way you may have voted on Brexit, or in the presidential elections, almost exactly half of the populace voted the opposite way to you. Is that balance accurately reflected in your Facebook feed? Did you really get a fair chance even to consider the other point of view? Jenna Wortham’s article is a nice discussion of this:

I’ve spent nearly 10 years coaching Facebook — and Instagram and Twitter — on what kinds of news and photos I don’t want to see, and they all behaved accordingly. Each time I liked an article, or clicked on a link, or hid another, the algorithms that curate my streams took notice and showed me only what they thought I wanted to see. That meant I didn’t realize that most of my family members, who live in rural Virginia, were voicing their support for Trump online, and I didn’t see any of the pro-Trump memes that were in heavy circulation before the election. I never saw a Trump hat or a sign or a shirt in my feeds, and the only Election Day selfies I saw were of people declaring their support for Hillary Clinton.

If you believe that half the population are just idiots, and only the smart people are your friends, then you’ve already fallen into this trap.

We’ve always had biased news sources, of course — pick your favourite newspaper — but in the past you were at least subconsciously aware that you had chosen your bias, and since the editor’s ideas didn’t correspond quite precisely to yours, you would see dissenting opinions from time to time. But Facebook is everybody’s tabloid. It tells you what you want to hear, and me what I want to hear, and we reward it by clicking little buttons when it does so. It, in turn, rewards us, like pigeons in a laboratory experiment, by giving us more of that kind of food when we tap the button. Dopamine is a powerful drug, and Facebook is a highly-tuned delivery mechanism for it. I’ve started to realise that I’m spending too much time absorbed by it, and have rather too Pavlovian a reaction to its notification bells.

Now, let me be clear that Facebook has lots of good stuff on it as well – I have been much more active on it this year then in the past, largely because of two special-interest groups of which I’m a member. It is a very good discussion forum for those kind of things if they’re well-curated (something that the general newsfeed isn’t). I have also had some of my opinions challenged in a useful way, when I’ve gone out of my way to engage with those who thought differently, and I hope that some others have too. I’ve discovered good stuff, funny stuff, educational stuff.

But in general, have the gains outweighed the negativity? I think not. I could have read the good stuff in other forums without so much of my reading being accompanied by complaints about Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, or whichever politician, corporation, or policy is the bête noir du jour, and without the margins being full of “X did Y and you’ll never believe what happened next!”, “The most amazing video you’ll see all year!”, and “10 things you really can’t live without!”. It’s like walking through a circus or amusement arcade while people tell you what a terrible time you’re having! Remember, good news doesn’t sell papers, and it doesn’t in general sell web advertisements either.

True, 2016 hasn’t been the greatest year on record, but, unless you live in Aleppo, it certainly hasn’t been the worst. For the rest of us, let’s keep things in proportion, shall we? Yes, I liked Alan Rickman and Leonard Cohen, too, but lots of good people died in 2014 and 2015 as well, and no doubt we’ll lose a few in 2017. Their work lives on. Don’t like the way some vote went this year? Don’t worry, governments and politicians come and go, international treaties change and adapt, and remember that every election result in the past that you did like made lots of other people grumble.

On balance, I was lucky enough to have had a rather pleasant, interesting and productive 2016, and I expect that many of my Facebook friends did so too, if they were to look back and count their blessings in an objective way. And I can’t help feeling that it might have been even more so if I hadn’t had a Facebook account.

So 2017 is going to be Facebook-free. That’s my New Year’s resolution. I won’t actually delete my account, but I’ll change the password to something I don’t know, delete all the apps, disable all notifications and bin all incoming emails. I can’t actually deactivate it completely for a year without too many other adverse consequences if I decide I want to return in the future — see how deep the rabbit hole goes? — but I’m going to get as close as I can. In the interest of fairness, I won’t post anything on Facebook either: if you’d like to keep track of what I’m doing, subscribe to my RSS feed, follow me on Twitter or on LinkedIn, subscribe to my videos on YouTube, check out my website or get emails when I post on my blog.

When I was an undergraduate, I decided to be a teetotaller every other term. I believed that if I ever found that process too difficult, it was an indication that I had a problem, and it was in my own interests to get an early warning! This is probably a good discipline for any product on which one might become dependent. So here’s my recommendation for the New Year: ask yourself how easily you could give up Facebook, or any other addiction of your choice. If the answer is “not easily”, then it’s probably a good idea to consider doing so!

Wishing you all a great 2017, wherever you get your dopamine from!

The Millennial Question

I assure you, this is well-worth 15 minutes of your time. Simon Sinek talking on Inside Quest about what makes the ‘Millennials’ tick and why, and the challenges they can face as they enter the workplace.

There are a few over-generalisations here, but in general it’s good stuff, intelligently and amusingly presented, and most of it certainly doesn’t only apply to those in their twenties!

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser