Category Archives: General

Happy feet

This makes me smile.

I hope it makes you smile too!

Brunch with Brent

Amongst the tech podcasts I enjoy while driving, dog-walking, etc are the ones from Jupiter Broadcasting.

The Self-Hosted show, in particular, discusses topic and news of interest to those who like to run some of their own IT infrastructure rather than outsourcing it all to third parties. It covers areas like backups, VPNs, media servers, and home automation (one of my current hobbies)!

Linux Unplugged keeps me in touch with Linux news. Even though I’ve been a heavy user of Linux since the days when it was first released as two floppy disk images, and I run and manage a large number of Linux servers, both personally and professionally, I haven’t really used it as my desktop operating system since Apple’s release of MacOS X gave me a Unix-based alternative, so this helps keep me in touch with developments there as well as on the back-end.

Anyway, I recommend these if you’re interested in such geeky topics; I think they’re nicely produced.

And then there’s Jupiter Extras, a feed with a range of interviews and other stuff that doesn’t really fit into any of the other streams. One of the Jupiter hosts, Brent Gervais, has a set of periodic interviews labelled ‘Brunch with Brent’, and I was delighted to be invited to join him for one of these a little while ago (published yesterday), in which he let me ramble on about everything from scuba diving to the patent system, from QWERTY keyboards to self-driving cars.

The full discussion can be found on Episode 86, and there’s a shorter extract in the middle of the latest Linux Unplugged episode too.

Low-tech Wordle

Rose and I have taken to doing collaborative Wordle after dinner. As we finish off our glasses of wine, we pass the iPad to and fro, taking turns to fill out the next line.

The only trouble is that this enjoyable activity is rather short-lived; once you’ve done today’s puzzle, there isn’t another one, and you don’t end up with very many lines each!

So yesterday we got out some paper and took it in turns to pick a word for the other person to solve, which I can recommend as a fun variation.

Of course, I later remembered that my friend Richard was experimenting with this some months ago.

Note: in the original version of this post, I had accidentally spelled it as ‘Worldle’, which explains some of the comments below!

Un-Gmailing

Looking back

Ah, nostalgia! I’ve been looking back at the first messages I sent right back in 2004 using the latest hot new web phenomenon: a beta version of the recently-announced GMail. (I had a friend who had a friend in Google, so got an invitation fairly early.)

They are mostly examples of literary brilliance such as:

Subject: Quick Test of Gmail

Let’s see how it works.

But later that day I had settled down a bit. Here’s an extract from a message I sent to John:

It’s a very nice webmail system, with an unusual amount of storage available per person (1G).
My concerns with the current beta are:

(a) I have 0.7G of email already on other systems, so it wouldn’t be a complete solution for long, and

(b) it really is, at present, just a webmail system. It’s the nicest one I’ve used, but it has no IMAP or other access, and hence no way to export your email. Meaning that messages in Gmail can never be moved to another system. (Though there are some scripts out there which connect, parse the web pages etc)

I imagine they’ll have to add this in some form before too long, but I’m also sure they don’t want to make it too easy. In particular, they probably want to keep the browser as the main interface so they can control advertising around the email.

Back then, a free email account was pretty rare, and a free e-mail account that gave you a whole gigabyte of storage was amazing!

In the intervening 18 years, I’ve never used my Gmail address as my main account, but it has been handy as a backup. I forwarded copies of incoming messages there from my main account, for example, until I realised it was probably foolish: I was giving Google access to all of my life history without even making use of the free email service in return! But I am a big fan of some of the other Google services, and a heavy user of YouTube, Google Maps, and to a lesser extent Google Docs, so having a Google account has always been important. I even earn a little bit of pocket money from some of my YouTube videos.

I did like the early versions of Google Docs which actually let you edit the CSS used in rendering your document, so you could make it look just as you wanted! Sadly, that feature went away in 2010. And I’m conscious that Google products and features do have a tendency to vanish rather unexpectedly.

I expect the ones I’ve mentioned above are pretty safe, but this page is a nice reminder that the free product you depend on today may not be here tomorrow. 2022 is the tenth anniversary of the demise of Google Video, for example, and this blog used to have quite a few links to content there. That was probably pretty safe, wasn’t it? It had been around for seven years, after all! My golden rule about making sure you can get your data out of any system in a useful form, before putting too much of it in, is particularly applicable to Google products.

There’s no such thing as a free inbox

Anyway, the good news is that my Gmail messages are still around, and Google now give you 15x as much storage for free as they used to, but that’s not enough for the amount of old email I’ve been storing there. I’ve been paying a modest amount for Google One storage for the last couple of years, and that’s no bad thing: for a service to be sustainable, its true costs do need to be met somehow. Buy my subscription has just come up for renewal, and since I already pay for cloud storage in a couple of other places that don’t also use my data for other purposes, I’ve decided to thin down the amount of stuff I’ve been keeping on Gmail. My account isn’t going away, but it’ll just be a temporary space; all the important stuff will be sent elsewhere.

The good news is that Gmail did introduce support for IMAP a few years after my early messages, so moving my 17GB of Gmail messages over to join the 24GB in my main account is much more straightforward than it would otherwise have been! (There will be a lot of duplicates, and if you’re doing anything similar and are happy on the command line, you might find my IMAPdedup script useful to get rid of them.)

Lastly, even though I recognise and appreciate the innovation and usefulness of some of them, I’m very glad that I didn’t invest any serious time in any Gmail-specific features!
You may have seen my article a few months ago about why I, and a significant number of my colleagues, will no longer keep important data in our Cambridge University email accounts, for similar reasons.

Anyway, I’m trying to develop Quentin’s Golden Rules of Data Storage. Here’s an early draft of the first two:

  • The more important your data, the more open its storage format should be.

  • The amount of data you put into any proprietary system should be proportional to the ease of extracting it in a usable non-proprietary form.

P.S. You can use these nuggets of wisdom for free at the moment, but I don’t have a sustainable business model for them yet, so I may need to charge you gradually-increasing amounts for them in the future.

A Good Breeze

We had fun on Rutland Water on Friday.

Fixing the NHS problem

My parents live about 13 minutes’ drive from the nearest hospital. There’s also a more substantial one 20 mins away. Over the last few years, they have on several occasions needed to call an ambulance after falls and other serious issues, and the waiting time is always measured in hours; on a couple of occasions, more than eight hours.

This shocks me, but it shocks my American wife even more. When they had to call an ambulance for her mother in Michigan — a fairly regular occurrence in her later life — they would worry that something was wrong if it hadn’t arrived in twenty minutes, because normally it was there in about ten. For all the outrageous costs and several other failings of the American health system, there are some things it does do rather well.

The simplistic public response to the NHS problem is to blame under-funding. “It’s because of Tory cuts!” Here’s a graph that was popular on Twitter last year, for example, and looks pretty damning:

But let’s be clear about what this graph shows: this is expenditure growth, above the rate of inflation. In other words, since its foundation, every government has given the NHS significantly more money in real terms every year. Some have increased it faster than others, but there have never been any ‘cuts’, from Tories or anybody else. So, while more money is desirable, that’s not the primary problem.

(As an aside, we all love the story of Captain Tom Moore who so caught the public imagination by his sponsored walks around his garden between his 99th and 100th birthday that he raised a whopping £33M for the NHS, earning him a knighthood, an honorary doctorate and an RAF flypast on his 100th birthday. It was a great feel-good story during the pandemic, and I don’t want to take anything away from his achievement by pointing out that he, and all his millions of sponsors, funded the NHS for a total of about an hour and a half. The world would be a much better place with more Captain Toms in it, but a whole battalion of Toms are unlikely to make a significant difference to the NHS.)

Now, I’ve written before about some NHS experiences that have convinced me that serious administrative incompetence is the source of many of its issues. And, to the extent that proper funding is also needed, I pointed out, it simply requires us all to vote in a government that is going to charge us about £1000 more per family member per year, and earmark that exclusively for the NHS. The UK public has only very occasionally been given the option to do something like that, even on a more modest scale, and they have never voted for it.

So I was intrigued by John Burn Murdoch’s analysis in yesterday’s FT. (The page itself is probably behind a subscriber paywall.) He provides the usual worrying statistics about A&E and ambulance waiting times, but points out:

While the pandemic has undoubtedly created a shock in the UK’s publicly funded health system, the NHS’s underlying issues are chronic. Waiting lists for elective treatment have been lengthening for 10 years, and the target of keeping 95 per cent of A&E waits under 4 hours missed for just as long.

It would be easy to blame underfunding, but in 2019 the UK spent just over 10 per cent of GDP on healthcare, placing it among other wealthy western European countries. The trend over the past two decades has also aligned with comparable nations, according to the OECD.

The key problems, he suggests, are also not simply with staff shortages:

While the number of fully qualified permanent GPs in England has fallen by 8 per cent since 2009, that of hospital doctors has grown by a third, outpacing the growth of the elderly population that accounts for an outsized portion of hospital demand. Nurse numbers continue to grow despite more departures this year.

In other words,

… ever growing resources are being used to treat ever more sick people, but ever fewer are being used to prevent them from getting sick in the first place.

The UK ranks among the highest for admissions to hospital for some conditions which would, in other countries, be largely treated within primary healthcare. (I am reminded of my wife’s surprise that GP practices in the UK don’t generally have X-Ray machines: you have to go to hospital for a check on a minor fracture!)

Anyway, the first part of his proposed solution is that we need to rethink the balance between primary care and hospital care; this is more of an issue than overall funding levels.

And the second is that it’s easy to blame staff shortages, but studies have shown that A&E delays, for example, are primarily about physical capacity — especially bed capacity — in the rest of the hospital, and are not significantly affected by staffing levels.

In summary, he says,

Much like any chronic illness, the NHS’s afflictions will not be cured with a sticking plaster. The road to recovery is paved with long-term investment to upgrade the physical capacity of the system, and to gradually shift the balance from treatment in hospitals to primary and preventive medicine.

A nicely-written article, and one of the many reasons I would pay for an FT subscription if the university wasn’t kind enough to do so for me.

Just the job

A recent spam email in my inbox says:

I can set up a 15 minutes intro call with our Head of Customer Success if this email interests you.

Do people really have job titles as idiotic as “Head of Customer Success”? How would you live with yourself? Wouldn’t you cringe when anybody asked you your role? And what are you head of? A team of other little Customer Success people all the way down to Customer Success Trainees, perhaps? Would you hang your head in shame if one of your customers didn’t succeed at something?

Perhaps you could get away with never mentioning it, now that people don’t hand out business cards any more… until your company insisted on email signatures. Anyway, if you have that job title, I pity you… unless you asked for it.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I rather like fun job titles. I remember a friend who had ‘Software Artisan’ on his business card, for example, and it raised a smile, while still actually saying something. The problem with the one in my email was the nagging worry that they were actually serious about it.

At one of my previous startups, I described myself as the CIO – the Chief Interim Officer. I wrote the software until I hired somebody better; did a bit of hardware until we got a proper hardware guy, sold things until we hired a sales team, and ran the company until I found a better CEO… at which point I’d hired myself out of a job and it was time to go and start a new company. That’s the peril, or joy, of being a jack-of-all-trades and master of none.

And I remember long discussions at one lab over whether we should be described as ‘Research Scientists’ or ‘Research Engineers’. Those of us working mostly with the U.S. tended to prefer the former, because the ‘Research Scientist’ term was well-used there, and an engineer was the guy who came and fixed your washing machine. Those working more with other parts of Europe, where the term Engineer is often given the respect it deserves, preferred the latter, which was arguably a better description of what we actually did.

Have you ever had any really good, bad, controversial, or cringeworthy job titles? Let us know in the comments!

Our eventual solution at the lab, by the way, was simply to leave the job titles off our business cards completely, and let others work it out for themselves. Perhaps, if they made a good job of it, we could have applied for a transfer to the Customer Success department.

It’s high time the government did something about this…

My friend Jon Crowcroft pointed out that a UK government website says their watchdog is going to take a closer look at algorithms, how websites and apps use them, and how they impact daily life.

The underlying motivation is no doubt a fine one, but it’s unfortunate reporting: the investigation of ‘algorithms’ reminds me a bit of those people who are suspicious of ‘chemicals’.

‘Algorithm’, my OED tells me, comes from the Middle English ‘algorism’, which in turn is named after the 8th/9th-century Arabic mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi — what a cool name! — who, amongst other achievements, invented algebra.

So it’s high time the government got around to investigating these algorithm things.

Friends don’t let their friends use TikTok

There are many reasons I’m glad we decided not to have kids. One is that I don’t have to worry about the amount of time they’re spending on TikTok.

Thanks to John & Pete Naughton for the link to Scott Galloway’s excellent article on the subject, which is well-worth reading. If you still have the attention span of anything more than a flea, that is.

Here’s a question. As people’s attention span has moved from books, to TV, to Netflix, to YouTube, to TikTok… are there any benefits? (Except to marketing organisations.) This is a serious question: I wonder if people are able to context-switch more quickly, for example, which might have the occasional advantage.

The Recycler’s Confession

While we’re on the subject of prayer — not, I admit, a regular topic in this blog — there’s another traditional one that often comes to mind. This time, it’s when I’m putting things in the recycling bin. I’m sure you must have had a similar experience.

Anybody old who, like me, grew up in the Anglican Church, will remember this oft-repeated phrase from the Book of Common Prayer:

We have offended against thy holy laws.
We have left undone those things
which we ought to have done;
and we have done those things
which we ought not to have done;
and there is no health in us.

As I carefully separate the rubbish into the blue ‘recycling’ bin and the black ‘non-recyclable’ bin, there are always some items about which I am unsure, and I mumble to myself:

We have left unrecycled those things
which we ought to have recycled;
and we have recycled those things
which we ought not to have recycled.

Does anyone know, as a general rule, which is the greater sin? Or are there too many variables involved to generalise?

The IT Consultant’s Prayer

Anybody getting involved in any organisation’s pre-existing IT infrastructure could probably benefit from pausing, reflecting, and sending a prayer heavenward. I recommend this well-known one, written nearly a century ago by Reinhold Niebuhr. It is usually called the ‘Serenity Prayer’, but I’d be willing to bet he really had IT consultants in mind at the time.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Actually, that’s probably the key to any successful consultancy business…

Google Tip of the Day

Here’s a quick two-and-a-half minute video which might save you some time one day, if not now!

Measuring distances and areas in Google satellite view

(A direct link is here, in case you can’t see the embedded video.)

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser