Category Archives: General

The Flash of Weathercocks

Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful. — Rita Dove

A good friend of ours, Glen Cavaliero, is a poet. An exceedingly good one, in fact, and highly-regarded among the cognoscenti. Over the decades, in addition to his academic books, he has published numerous slim poetry volumes but, now approaching his ninetieth birthday, he wanted to gather them into a more substantial collection; not quite a ‘complete works’, but something of that ilk.

Glen, however, owns no technology more advanced than a typewriter, and so one of our side-projects over the last couple of years has been to help him with the process of self-publishing this 500-page masterpiece, which finally saw the light of day towards the end of 2016.

20161112-151352536-editIf you or any of your friends are seriously interested in good poetry, I recommend The Flash of Weathercocks. Some of the poems are dark and gritty, some light and cheery, some funny, some melancholy, some deeply thoughtful, some highly accessible, others filled with subtle literary allusions. Very few of them are easy reading. But all of them are expertly crafted by a master of the language.

You can find it in:

Now, I’ve learned a few things in this process. One is that poetry is much harder to typeset than prose: even trying to ensure that page-breaks come in sensible places in the middle of verses was quite a challenge for the publisher, but to add to this, for many of Glen’s pieces, the careful indentation of each line is important…

The other revelation for me was a clearer understanding of the effect Amazon has on the publishing world, especially the self-publishing world. I’m a huge fan of Amazon in general, but the margin they take on books is pretty severe! In our case, the publisher charges 15%, so when people buy from the publisher’s site, the author gets 85% of the cover price to offset against his or her up-front printing costs. That is all very reasonable.

Amazon, however, charges a further 60%, so the author gets 25%. Or, to put it another way, once you’ve established the printing costs, you need to set your cover price to four times that amount if you are just to break even on Amazon sales. Since poetry, by its very nature, tends to involve small print runs with a high per-unit cost, this would make the cover price prohibitive for Glen’s book. And so, in fact, we had to pick a cover price where he will lose money on every sale through Amazon, and make money if people buy from the publisher or directly from him.

I created a spreadsheet where we could estimate, for various values of X, that X times as many people are likely to buy from Amazon as from elsewhere, and settled on a price where he should just about break even overall. Our job now is to publicise the non-Amazon links as much as possible!

Above all, it’s clear to me that, even if you have tributes from the likes of Sir John Betjeman on your back cover, poetry is definitely something you create for love, rather than for money!

But I do think this is a significant work of literature, and since there’s no way I’m ever going to produce one of those myself, I’m delighted to have been at least instrumental in helping it come into existence!

Big Datum

This was in the Olden Days, when the Romans were top nation on account of their classical education…

— 1066 and All That

My curious mix of state and private education left me, to paraphrase Ben Jonson, with almost zero Latin and less Greek. Perhaps because of this, although I can be something of a language pedant, I would normally refer to, say, ‘the next item on the agenda’, and would only talk about ‘the next agendum’ in a spirit of playful fun. ‘Agendas’, however, would make me wince. I do know, deep down, that ‘agenda’ is a plural.

Similarly, even though I work with rather a large amount of data, I have almost never used the word ‘datum’ except in one of its specialist meanings. Indeed, for most science, if you have little enough data to think of each item individually, then you probably don’t have enough to draw useful conclusions!

And so, like most people, I think of data rather as a fluid substance, to be measured by the bucket-load — megabytes of data, like pints of milk or glasses of wine — rather than as a plural. Few people would say ‘there are a dozen data in this table’ unless they were classicists, who would never actually have to deal with it. So you’ll note that in the previous paragraph I said “if you have little enough data”. If I had instead opted for “if you have few enough data”, you would probably have assumed that I was making a point, one that wasn’t actually to do with the data at all.

Nonetheless, etymology has always intrigued me, and I love the fact that Norman Gray can write a long, sensible and interesting discussion of this very topic, which I can read over breakfast before going off to analyse a datum or two…

Fifteen and counting. Mmm. Talking of counting…

Status-Q is fifteen years old today. There have been times when I’ve done several posts in one day and others when long periods of silence have gone by. This last week, for example, my life has involved rather more ‘flu than inspiration. Sorry!

Status-Q has never been a high-traffic site, mostly because it’s random personal scribblings, rather than having a strong theme. I started it as a kind of diary and aide-memoire rather than anything else: other models of blog-writing weren’t plentiful at the time! The regular readership, as near as one can measure these things, is in the hundreds rather than thousands, and I find even that somewhat astonishing. But the wonder of search engines also means that some of my posts — especially ones dealing with technical problems — are found and commented on a decade or so after I posted them.

So I’m very grateful to those who keep reading and who send me encouraging messages, despite my inconsistency. Those of you who choose to receive it in your email inbox are particularly worthy of my respect and love!

Today, I’ll just leave you with this little mathematical proof that I found somewhere online, which should cause you some concern if, say, you plan to perform any financial transactions today, or travel in any form of transport that required engineering to build it. You’ll see that each step follows logically from the previous one, and the result is somewhat surprising.

If, on the other hand, you still feel safe riding your bicycle after reading this, please don’t post anything in the comments explaining why: that would spoil the fun! (I can provide a little enlightenment for those who email quentin@pobox.com, if wanted…)

When 2 become 1

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.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser