Category Archives: General

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.

Getting Things Done Together

Like many people of approximately my generation, I have long been an advocate of David Allen’s famous ‘Getting Things Done‘ methodology. In case you’ve been living in a cave for a couple of decades and haven’t come across ‘GTD’, it was an appealing and genuinely useful system for handling, originally, the ever-growing flood of paperwork that people were experiencing towards the end of the last millennium. Allen was fortunate (or canny) in that most of his book, originally published in 2001, translated very nicely into the emerging predominantly-digital world. He did for filing cabinets and in-trays what Marie Kondo now does for wardrobes and sock drawers.

Over the following couple of decades, many software products sprang up to help you adapt the GTD task-management techniques to your new digital world; the most complete and sophisticated probably being OmniFocus. If you juggle lots of big and complex projects and are really into this stuff, OmniFocus is immensely capable, and I started using it as soon as it was first available as a beta release about 13 years ago. I typically have two or three part-time jobs at any one time, and many projects within each one, and something like OmniFocus can definitely help keep your world manageable especially if, like me, your brain is not one that is naturally drawn to rigorous and careful planning and organisation! In recent months, though, I’ve switched to the rather wonderful ‘Things‘, which is for me the perfect half-way point between a simple to-do list and the all-encompassing and baroque structures I had previously created within OmniFocus.

Anyway, all of this meant that I was very interested when John linked to this New Yorker piece by Cal Newport, talking about the history of GTD and some of its limitations in the current climate. It’s a good read; here are a couple of short extracts:

In this context, the shortcomings of personal-productivity systems like G.T.D. become clear. They don’t directly address the fundamental problem: the insidiously haphazard way that work unfolds at the organizational level. They only help individuals cope with its effects. A highly optimized implementation of G.T.D. might have helped Mann organize the hundreds of tasks that arrived haphazardly in his in-box daily, but it could do nothing to reduce the quantity of these requests.

It seems likely that any successful effort to reform professional life must start by making it easier to figure out who is working on what, and how it’s going. Because so much of our effort in the office now unfolds in rapid exchanges of digital messages, it’s convenient to allow our in-boxes to become an informal repository for everything we need to get done. This strategy, however, obscures many of the worst aspects of overload culture. When I don’t know how much is currently on your plate, it’s easy for me to add one more thing. When I cannot see what my team is up to, I can allow accidental inequities to arise, in which the willing end up overloaded and the unwilling remain happily unbothered.

In a distributed working-from-home world, he argues, techniques like Kanban boards — or the electronic versions encapsulated in products like Trello — can be more appropriate ways to manage tasks when your workforce is distributed. You need to make your to-do list more public, so others in your organisation, and particularly those responsible for managing you, can see what you’re working on and whether you have too much (or too little) on your plate. Software developers have been doing this for years, of course, but it’s interesting to think about how many other kinds of work might benefit from some of our techniques in the Covid age.

My favourite example of a public to-do list, though, probably just predated the publication of GTD, and was not digital, even though I was working in a cutting-edge high-technology lab at the time.

The sysadmins — about four of them, I think — all worked in a shared office, and people like me would wander in and ask them to do things which, of course, always needed to be done immediately if they possibly could. So at one point, they adopted a brilliant scheme.

On the wall outside their office, they put up a big board showing the queue of things that people had asked them to do. If you came in with a request, they’d say ‘Sure! We can do that!’, and hand you a little card. You’d write your name and your request on the card and go and pin it on the board at the bottom of the queue. When one of them finished dealing with the current issue, they’d go and take the next card off the board. If you felt that your card was more important than some of the other ones there, you could try to make the case that the queue should be re-ordered. But if the queue was really long, you sometimes discovered that actually you didn’t need this as much as you thought you did, or perhaps you could sort it out yourself.

It was, of course, just a ticketing system, but run very much on a first-come, first-served basis and, since the tickets were all public, it was one which gave everybody, not just management, a very clear idea of what was going on. I’ve always thought it was brilliant, and something which should be replicated more often in the digital world.

No, sorry, you can’t Zoom in that far

Having been a big fan of Zoom and extolled its virtues in the past, I thought it only fair to share a current criticism. (I’m talking about the videoconferencing app, of course. I’m an even bigger fan of the other Zoom and have relied on their products for years… definitely recommended!)

Anyway, back to video calls. I was playing recently with virtual cameras in OBS so I could do fun things like adding lower-thirds titles to my video stream…

or blending multiple video streams into one….

and my friend Nicholas commented that it was very clever, but any text was not actually that readable. At which point we delved into the Preferences > Statistics menu on the Zoom app and discovered that the video resolution was only 640×360; definitely lower than it used to be.

Now, this is perfectly fine for having a conversation with somebody, so for the vast majority of Zoom use, it’s not an issue. And if you turn on screen-sharing, your screen image is sent at a much higher resolution, so that’s fine too.

But it is an issue for some of my colleagues who like using pointing cameras at whiteboards or documents while giving remote lectures, or even if you’re just trying to hold something up to your camera for the person at the other end to read.

If you search online, you can find various references to ‘Enabling HD’, or to different resolutions being possible for Business or Education accounts, but as far as I can gather, these are all currently disabled or have no effect. I think Zoom may be restricting things to manage the load on their servers, which makes me wonder how much actually goes through their servers? At least for a 2-person call, like the one Nicholas and I were in, it really ought to be peer-to-peer. (Like Skype used to be in the early days before Microsoft bought and ruined it.) Still, to be fair, even the otherwise-abominable Teams does do a much better job at the moment when it comes to resolution.

Well, this may resolve itself in Zoom, but bizarrely, in the meantime, if you care about resolution of your camera more than you care about framerate or latency, the solution is probably to show it on your local display in high resolution, and then share your screen.

No, wait, I have a cunning plan…

I’ve always been an advocate of getting rid of the ridiculous Daylight Savings Time. If some people prefer more light in the morning instead of the evening, or vice versa, why don’t they just change their personal habits and get up at a different time?

If the majority of people in a company, or school, or even a whole town, felt the same way, they could simply have different winter opening hours, instead of imposing on the entire country a periodic change in how we actually calculate something as fundamental as the time! Anyone who has tried writing calendar software will know what I mean.

This has always seemed so obvious to me that I assume whoever would actually be responsible for implementing a return to normal timekeeping has had it on their to-do list for years, but it’s never quite been as important as the 15 things above it, so it just hasn’t happened. Sigh.

However, having enjoyed a marginally more relaxed Sunday morning this weekend, I have a cunning plan, of the “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” variety. I admit that it, too, has some minor inconveniences when it comes to time management, but, unlike the current system, it is brilliantly simple, predictable, and offers inestimable rewards. Are you ready?…

Let’s put the clocks back every single night! Then we could have a lie-in every single morning!

Pondering the length of the Tube

I do enjoy YouTube. I’m conscious that more and more of my time is spent consuming content from there, and creating content which is uploaded there.

Some of the material I’ve created appears on my channel, for general consumption, and those videos are usually linked from here, but quite a lot of it is not publicly listed, and is family, university, business stuff you can only find if you have the right links. At the time of writing, I have about 160 videos uploaded. Some have had just a couple of views. Some have had a couple of hundred thousand.

Hovering in the back of my mind, though, is the long-term danger of being so dependent on a platform I don’t control. I’m not too worried that YouTube will go away any time soon, though Google do have a tendency to cancel products on a pretty regular basis. This blog used to contain quite a few links to content on Google Video, for example. Remember that?

No, YouTube is too big just to vanish now. But it’s very possible that, at some point, there will be a significant change in the way it works: in the licensing, the amount of advertising, or, more worryingly, in how long they are willing to keep archiving material. We’ve seen other sites, like Flickr, decide that they can’t keep holding on to all your stuff forever. Or they may decide to start charging, and perhaps charging too much, to hang on to it for you.

So I have to assume that, at some point, everything I’ve done on YouTube will need to be shifted somewhere else. I used to ensure that anything I uploaded there was also on Vimeo, but I haven’t been quite that diligent recently. Nor could I easily lay my hands on the original masters of all the videos I’ve created.

No, a big item for my to-do list – perhaps a New Year’s resolution for 2021 – is to catalog all my videos and make sure that, for every YouTube video ID, I can create a URL to an equivalent hosted somewhere else. (Remember the golden ‘3-2-1’ rule of backups: You should have at least 3 copies of everything, using at least 2 different methods, and at least 1 should be off-site. Off-site may mean “off somebody else’s site” if they have the primary copy!)

Anyway, I don’t think this will happen soon, but I’m pretty sure it will happen eventually. What will you do with YourTube then?

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser