Category Archives: General

A Decisive Moment?

I generally try to avoid anything too political here, but I loved this photo of Helen Morgan, the new Liberal Democrat MP who won the North Shropshire by-election a couple of days ago, and so took a seat that has been Conservative for 200 years.

Regardless of your political opinions, as well as the pleasing facial expressions, I think the suspense encapsulated in this is just brilliant. Many photos make you laugh because you can see the inevitable, but often you’re glimpsing just a split second into the future. Here, you feel they could hold this pose for quite some time yet, but with all the certainty of Greek tragedy, you know what’s eventually coming!

Photo credit: PA, originally spotted in this FT article.

Non-instant Messaging

I sent a colleague a question by email, and yesterday, he replied. The fact that there was an intervening period of three and a half years doesn’t seem to have phased him at all; it was not, in fact, worthy of mention in his response.

It reminded me of a Physics teacher I had at school. An excellent teacher, but known for being very slow in returning marked homework assignments — if, indeed, they came back at all.

One day, as he was handing out some marked scripts, he said, “Ah, this one’s for Cardozo”, and handed it to my classmate, who was about to protest that the script wasn’t, in fact, his… when he recognised it as his father’s handwriting.

University of Cambridge abandons open standards for proprietary ones, and starts to pay the price

A few years ago, the ‘University Information Services’ (UIS) team at Cambridge made the decision that the University would no longer run its own email service — something it had done since email began — and instead was going to outsource it to a commercial entity.

This in itself, I think, was probably a mistake, because email is enormously important, not just as a communication method, but as an archive. Many people make this mistake. “We use Slack for our internal chat, we use Facebook and Twitter and WhatsApp and Zoom for our external communications. We hear some old people still use email, but why is that any different?”

Email, though, for most people, is not just an instant-messaging system. It’s a store, a journal, a database, a record, of decisions made, invoices received, relationships formed, ideas generated, news exchanged, and so on. I have most of my email for the last thirty years or so, and find it incredibly valuable. Last year, I wrote a post about why I think it’s one of our most successful and important data archive formats, and its success for so long, when compared with almost anything else, has depended substantially on open standards and Open Source software.

Running an email server is easy. Doing it well, however, is not, and requires expertise and dedicated staff. In the past, I have run my own personal server, and we also did this in one of my startup companies. (In both cases these were based on the excellent, widely-used and highly-regarded Exim software which was, ironically, developed here at Cambridge in that same UIS department!) But these days there are lots of good hosting services, and it doesn’t normally make sense for most organisations to run their own.

The University of Cambridge is not, however, a small organisation, and surely it should really be willing to employ the skilled staff and provide the resources to run its own email system, in the same way that it runs its own libraries. (Maybe they’ll be next?)

However, out-sourcing is the name of the game these days, and it’s not that that is causing me, and several of my colleagues, concerns.

Exchanging open for closed

No, it’s the fact that that the University decided to opt for Microsoft Exchange Online. A couple of days ago, most staff who had not yet transitioned were moved from our own servers to Microsoft’s, and the forced migration will be complete by the end of next week, and the old servers switched off at the end of the year. For most people, in the short term, this will just be a minor inconvenience. So why does this worry me? Because I take a longer view.

Since email was invented, all of the email of many tens of thousands of University staff and students has been stored in formats defined by open standards, on machines that we control, generally by open email software running on open operating systems which were storing it on open filesystems… and so on. We had full control, and we always knew we could manipulate, improve, archive, extract and back up any part of this system which stores such a valuable archive of data for the entire community.

This week, however, saw the transition of that entire archive to a system running proprietary software, stored in proprietary formats on proprietary operating systems and filing systems, on servers that we no longer control. And the most important question, of course, when putting any important data into any new system is “How easily can I get it out again, in a usable format for the future, if I change my mind?”

Now, normally, one of the many wonderful things about an IMAP-based email archive is that this is trivial: you can decide to move it from one hosting service to another, or just shift it to your own machine, simply by dragging and dropping it using the email program of your choice. I have done this many times over the decades, as I’ve moved between jobs, email providers, academic institutions, and also as my email-reading devices have switched between different operating systems and different email apps.

Exchange, however, has always had problems supporting IMAP access to email reliably. Experts disagree on how serious those problems currently are, but the fact that the debate continues is worrying. It’s a lower priority for Microsoft, because they’d rather you used their own protocols and their own software.

The slippery slope

The UIS’s own pages telling Mac users how to connect to the new email service, for example, start with this dire warning:

Warnings about why Outlook is the only safe desktop client to use with Exchange

Note that this is referring to Apple Mail, one of the most-used email clients in the world, and there’s a similar warning for those accessing their email and calendars from iOS devices.

What hope is there for those of us who prefer less-common email clients, such as my long-term favourite, Mailmate? Or who use less-mainstream operating systems? Or who have older hardware that won’t run the latest software?

This rings alarm bells for those of us who remember Microsoft’s (thankfully failed) attempts in the past to control another open system — the Web — by getting people to run Microsoft software both on the desktop and the server. When you control both ends of a system, you can freely modify the protocols used to communicate between them until it becomes very hard for users to adopt any other system. Microsoft used predatory and sometimes illegal business practices in the past to try and kill off Netscape and other desktop competition in pursuit of this goal, but the overall strategy failed, partly because their own server-side software was so inferior to the Open Source offerings that the techies responsible for most web servers refused to depend upon it.

I hope we are not seeing a repeat here — and to be frank, I doubt it — but I do wonder whether this shift to Exchange will prove to be a one-way-only transition. Suppose Microsoft were to say, in a few years’ time, that only a very small proportion of Exchange users now depended on IMAP, and they would be switching it off shortly. What options would the University have?

And what choice would users then have about the software they ran on their desktop to access this valuable archive?

Could we rely on getting thousands of email archives out and into a usable form elsewhere? What about any enhanced metadata? Attachments? Calendars? Contacts? There are open standards for all these things, but what incentives would Microsoft have to ease that transition, if it were even viable?

No, I fear that this contract, once made, has been made for ever.

And some of the implications are starting to be felt elsewhere. It recently came to light, for example, that the contract with Microsoft covered the staff and students of the University, but we have traditionally continued to provide email cam.ac.uk addresses to retired academics, emeritus professors, others helping with the activities of the University. “Ah”, said Microsoft — after the deal was signed, as I understand it, but perhaps before our chaps had cottoned on to all the implications — “You do realise that they’re not included in this deal?”.

This has made a lot of people very upset, because they had been given to understand that the email address that they’d always had, often the only one they’d ever had, that had been published at the top of their academic papers for decades, and had been used, for example, to set up all of their other online accounts, would remain a valid way of contacting them indefinitely. Not any more. This, of course, is standard practice in the business world: you leave a company and your email address is gone. The company closes, or is bought, and your email address is gone. But ancient universities haven’t always been run on those purely corporate lines or with those same expectations of transience.

Where does this leave us?

Essentially, therefore, there has been only one choice for those of us who wish to keep our email in standard formats that we know will be accessible in the long term. Reliable archiving is not a service we can now expect our eight-century-old University to provide, so we take all incoming email to our University addresses, and forward it to our own accounts held elsewhere.

Many of my colleagues in the Computer Science department are now doing this. We have to hope that this will continue to be allowed, both by the University and, of course, by Microsoft. We can’t ignore the Microsoft servers completely, because they will probably soon also be the only way to send email that will be recognised by the outside world as coming from a valid cam.ac.uk address. And being able to receive email under such an alias can be important for accessing academic journals, university service etc.

But some friends have decided that a better option is to start using their own personal email addresses on academic projects, papers, websites etc. to ensure that they have control in the future. (If you’re doing this, make sure you use your own DNS domain or a long-term reliable forwarding service, so you aren’t indefinitely tied to your current ISP or your ancient Hotmail account for your future professional communications!)

me.com

And perhaps some of this is inevitable. I used to rely on my employer to provide me with a telephone and a telephone number, for example, but the one sitting on my University desk for the last several years has almost never been used.

For many of us, it’s important that we control our own ‘brand’. Our own phone number, our own website, our own LinkedIn pages are more important to us than how we appear on any particular employer’s website, and as a result we need to pay for those out of our own pockets. Email should perhaps be the same, and wise academics should probably ensure that they control their own destiny and don’t use their current university email address on their publications.

But it all gradually erodes the sense of belonging to an ancient institution with which you might have a lifelong relationship. And that isn’t good for the institution either, especially when it comes to fund-raising. Ask any development office.

What’s the plan now?

Ah, take a deep breath of those lovely aerosols!

I’ve always disliked open-plan offices, and viewed them as a conspiracy between property owners (who can pack more employees into a given space and have to do less reconfiguration for each new tenant) and over-micro-managing senior staff, who want to keep an eye on all the people working for them and ensure nobody is slacking. I’ve disliked them even when I’ve been one of those managers.

Under certain circumstances, yes, they can generate an exciting buzz of activity. We’ve all seen movies where the journalists or the detectives are dashing in and out and calling to each other about how they’ve just been summoned to Downing St, or to another murder, or whatever. But for anything requiring sustained contemplation or concentration they are, in my experience, dreadful.

This is especially true if the overall number of people is too small. We once made the mistake of taking on an open-plan space when one of my companies had about 12-15 employees, and it meant that everybody had to listen to everybody else’s phone calls, and the only way software developers could get work done was to wear headphones most of the day: more isolating, in many ways, than if they’d had their own office spaces.

But, since I’ve been fortunate enough to escape such working environments recently, it hasn’t occurred to me until now to wonder what contribution this open-plan trend has made to the spread of Covid!

At the University department where I’ve spent part of my time for the last few years, we typically have offices with two or three people in them, and so by carefully managing the number of people in a space at any one time, those who want to return to work have been able to do so much more easily and we could, if wanted, get a reasonable density of building-occupation without too much risk, and without everyone having to spend the whole day wearing masks.

But when I think back to a temporary role I had in London a couple of years ago, in a big shared space with about 120 other people, I wouldn’t want to go anywhere near that office now, even after my third jab.

Are any of my readers still doing the open-plan thing? How does it work in a Covid world?

Christmas and the vertical take-off

Sunshine with dark clouds over Horning

Yesterday, as we headed for a day trip to the Norfolk Broads, we stopped at the Elveden Estate for breakfast in their cafe. We’ve been there several times in the past; it’s a nice spot, roughly half-way, and has useful things within walking distance, like woodland trails for dog exercise, and Tesla superchargers.

On this occasion, however, we found considerably more people than we would expect for that time on a Sunday morning. Marshalls were guiding cautious drivers along icy roads and into large snow-covered temporary car parks. We started to be concerned about the competition for the sausages.

But it turned out that we had stumbled on their pre-Christmas weekend activities; the normal courtyard car park was given over to cheery live music, Christmas trees for sale, Santa in a grotto somewhere and staff in elf costumes. Normally I would steer clear of such things, but this was, I have to admit, quite nicely done and it must have been great fun for children to walk there through a light sprinkling of snow. Your Christmas tree and other purchases could, in exchange for a small donation to a charity, be transported back to the car park by one of the big friendly Newfoundland dogs padding to and fro harnessed to small carts.

In the middle of all this was a small enclosure containing a couple of reindeer and their appropriately-dressed keeper. A little child, next to me, looked at the fencing that surrounded them, which didn’t have a gate. She looked a bit nervous, but summoned up her courage to ask a question of the keeper. “How do you get out?”

The keeper looked around her, smiled, and lent forward with a wink and a conspiratorial whisper.

“We can’t”, she said. “We have to fly out.”

When it’s good to be close to an explosion

Car airbags are things you hope you’ll never need to know much about; you want them to be there and working, and hopefully in the same state when you sell the car as they were when you bought it!

But if you did want to find out a bit more about what’s behind that little flap on your steering wheel, this is a nicely-done explanation:

Maintaining the social balance

I remember a discussion with a good friend of mine, a co-founder of some of my past companies. He was a bit of a perfectionist, and often pointed out to other employees when they didn’t live up to his exacting standards.

“That’s fine”, I said, “but people will remember the times when you criticise them ten times as clearly as when you praise them. So if you want to maintain even a basic equilibrium, make sure you go out of your way to find good things to say to people ten times as often as bad things.”

I was thinking about this as I switched off my Twitter app this evening. Actually, I didn’t close it down: my phone did. At the start of the pandemic, I was worried I might spend too much time on social media, so I used Apple’s rather good Screen Time system to set a limit for social networking apps. In my case, that means Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram, and my combined use of all of those networks, on all of my devices, shouldn’t exceed 15 mins per day.

This limit has worked very well. I often don’t hit it, and when I do, I almost always let the system do its thing and switch off the aforementioned apps for the rest of the day. The result is that I’ve got out of the habit of checking Twitter on a regular basis; I look at it perhaps every second day, when I happen to think about it.

And I think this is a good thing. Twitter and Facebook are the world’s biggest tabloids, and a big part of their business model involves convincing you that the world is more broken, angry, shocking and angst-ridden than it actually is in real life. And, as with my employee-relations example above, negative comments about anything are often more memorable: we all know how a media critic can come up with a short, clever, cutting remark about a dramatic work over his cup of coffee, and so devastate months of work of dozens of creative people. If you spend too much time with social networks, you can come away with a very negative view of life, and I think it’s important to keep a careful eye on that balance.

So what is the right balance? Well, for me, 15 mins of social networks for every 23 hours and 45 mins of ‘no social networks’ seems about right, to keep things in perspective. Recommended.

Ceci n’est pas un shark…

In a short but pleasing post called “What misinformation actually looks like“, Ryan Broderick talks about how the picture of this poor, mis-identified monkfish went viral, and why this illustrates that:

The current landscape of the internet is essentially a series of levers and automations because the largest companies responsible for how we use the web are operating at a scale that can no longer be properly moderated by human beings.

Do read it.

At least, as a result of the story, a lot more people probably now know what a monkfish looks like. And now I know, I’m glad that when they appear on my plate, they are usually in the form of morsels coated in breadcrumbs and lightly fried…

(Many thanks to Charles Arthur for the link.)

Economics and emotions

A couple of months ago, when those who still power their cars on dinosaur juice were experiencing shortages, I expressed surprise that the prices hadn’t shot up as a result.

As Tim Harford points out in this very nice essay, though, one of the things that stops the market from behaving like a ‘perfect market’ is the emotional response of customers. The damage to loyalty resulting from such a change in pricing in times of difficulty is greater than the loss in potential profit… provided, that is, that the anomaly is short-lived. After all, I suppose, the smooth and swift response of the market to the imbalance of supply and demand can be significantly impeded by emotional words like ‘profiteering’!

Tim’s post is enjoyable and very readable, and talks about how we deal with such imbalances if they turn out to be more than just temporary. Recommended.

Thanks to John for the link.

Face recognition: a less-bad option?

Here is a very nicely-constructed essay by Jane Bambauer, a Professor of Law at the University of Arizona.

“This essay”, she says, “does the unthinkable — it defends the police use of facial recognition technology to identify suspects in crime footage or to locate individuals with outstanding warrants.”

It’s a well-thought-out and very readable piece, and some of her key arguments are along the following lines:

  • We currently have very harsh punishments for relatively minor crimes (especially in the USA). This high level of incarceration is not the best way to deal with the problems, especially since the success rates for rehabilitation are so low.

  • We do this at present, though, because the crime detection rates are so low that it’s important that the penalties are very high if they’re to act as a disincentive.

  • A much better and more progressive route is to detect much more crime and punish it less severely. This has been shown to be a much better disincentive, too. But technology is key to achieving any significant improvement in detection rates.

  • Facial recognition technology is an important tool here and, though it has been shown to have problems with bias etc, it may actually be less biased than other forms of surveillance.

You may or may not agree with the above, but if you’re interested, it’s well worth reading the 9-page article before jumping to conclusions. (Many thanks to Charles Arthur for the link.)

So here’s a related question: would our roads be safer if everyone was fined a small amount every time they broke the speed limit, rather than receiving a severe penalty on the rare occasions when they were caught? I think the answer is clearly ‘yes’. Would you be willing to put up with having your speed monitored all the time in order for this to happen — as long as everybody else had to do the same, of course?

Two important questions

A couple of questions for you to ponder this morning. Totally unrelated, except for the fact that I’ve been thinking about them both overnight.

Q1: somewhat serious

Early yesterday evening, Rose and I went into a large, cheery, busy and welcoming riverside pub/restaurant. A great spot, and we’ll go back. I was conscious, though, that there must have been around 150 people there, and large numbers coming and going throughout our visit (they did takeaways too), yet in the whole evening I saw nobody — literally nobody — wearing a mask except the two of us.

This is, increasingly, my experience in other situations too, anywhere outside supermarkets and town-centre shops. At what point do we stop looking like sensible good citizens and start looking like tin-foil-hat wearers?

Q2: more frivolous

If a fairy appeared and offered to grant you a wish which, for the relief of humankind’s frustration, would eliminate just one of the following from the human experience, which would you choose?

  1. Sticky labels that don’t peel off cleanly, leaving adhesive behind.
  2. Packaging that requires a knife or scissors to open.
  3. Zips that get caught on things or jam at inconvenient times.
  4. Pens that run out halfway through the sentence.

Remember, you can only choose one. Answers in the comments, please, or on a postcard addressed to Santa Claus.

I thought about asking ‘If a venture capitalist is considering investing in research which could rid the world of one of the following, which would make him or her the most money?’ But, sadly, the route to direct return on investment is not too obvious for some of the above. So it would need to be a fairy. Or a great philanthropist.

If you want to ensure that people build statues in your honour and put blue plaques on your former residences, you know what to do…

My memory of Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking was a Fellow of my college, and a familiar sight when I was a student: my first-year accommodation was in a block just next to his flat, and as I walked or cycled into town I would often see him in his wheelchair heading in the same direction.

I never knew him, though, or ever really had any interaction with him, but he did address a few words to me on one occasion. A very few words, actually — “Thank you” — after a friend and I had carried him, in his chair, up the stairs to the dining hall. I guess the lift must not have been working!

I do, however, have a lasting memory of a talk about ‘baby universes’ that he gave in that same hall soon afterwards, around the time that ‘A Brief History’ was published. We were all conscious, even then, that this was a rare opportunity, and the place was absolutely packed. Whoever was responsible for fire regulations must have been kidnapped and locked in a cupboard somewhere, I think, because the rules must all have been broken by quite large margins.

Anyway, I don’t remember very much about the talk, I’m afraid. He had prepared it in advance and it was played back in his well-known synthesised voice. Half-way through, there was a short pause, and then, “Please wait while I load the second half of my speech.” Disks whirred — probably floppy ones at that time — and then he continued.

At the end, he asked if there were any questions. Somebody asked one, and there was a pause while he composed the response. A long pause. A pause which continued and continued for perhaps two minutes or more as he went through the slow process of selecting words. And then the answer came; just a very short sentence.

I don’t remember much about the questions, or the answers, either. But one image is imprinted very clearly in my memory. A hall packed with hundreds of boisterous and energetic young students, crammed into every corner, having been crammed there for some time, with a bar open and waiting on the floor below… and yet, in the long intervals between a question being asked, and the short answer a considerable period later, you could absolutely have heard a pin drop.

-–

My nephew Matt is a very talented artist who works for a company that does animations, infographics and other creative graphical things, and I do like his one on “Stephen Hawking’s Big Ideas”, published by the Guardian as part of their ‘Made simple’ series.

It’s certainly more entertaining than most other explanations of Hawking Radiation I’ve encountered!

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser