Category Archives: General

Overchoice and How to Avoid it

Do you ever find yourself agonising over two very similar items on Amazon, wondering whether you should by the one that has 0.3 more stars but is 30% more expensive? And what about other more major decisions, in this world where we often have so much choice?

In a nice article entitled Overchoice and How to Avoid it, Gurwinder says:

The best way to manage the myriad decisions of the modern age is by employing “philosophical razors,” so-called because they shave away options, simplifying choices.

Naturally, there’s an overwhelming range of razors to choose from. I’ve tried scores of them, and have found that most aren’t workable, either because they lead to poor decisions or they’re too complicated for everyday decisions.

A few, though, have proven indispensable. Here are the five I use most.

Read on.

Thanks to Charles Arthur for the link. As Charles suggests, you probably need to write these down somewhere prominent to get in the habit of using them!

Forms of address

Here’s a rather pleasing collection of UK address oddities by Paul Plowman.

In the US, it’s common for house numbers to be quite large – my parents-in-law used to live at 18325 Robert St, for example – but that’s because the first two or three digits are the block number, and the numbers aren’t contiguous within the block, so you can build more houses in the gaps if you want to and renumber very little.

But what do you think is the highest house number in the UK? This (and other entertaining facts) can be found in Paul’s blog post.

Thanks to Doug Clow for the link.

Charging your car without draining your house

If you have an electric car, and a home battery as well, you may have the problem that charging your car drains your house battery.

I’ve had a few queries after some of my other videos about how I avoid this, so here you go:

(Direct link)

Hippy fruit

“Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is!”

Most of my readers, I’m sure, will be familiar with this question, but if you happen to live far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy, you may have trouble with the vernacular and so appreciate the helpful notes provided in The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

Sass: know, be aware of, meet, have sex with; hoopy: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.

And if you don’t know why the towel is significant… well, there’s probably no hope for you. Better stick to your own planet.

Everyone else, though, will appreciate the importance of that most remarkable book ever to come out of the great publishing houses of Ursa Minor, so why, I ask myself, did my iOS spellchecker have so much trouble today with the simple phrase ‘sass that hoopy frood’?  It offered me hippy fruit and hoppy food and generally had as much trouble as a Nutrimatic machine trying to make a decent cup of tea.

Surely, all computers should incorporate the works of Douglas Adams in their basic training?  Come on Apple, you’re missing a trick here, especially since Douglas was one of your biggest fans.  What did you use? The Encyclopedia Galactica, for heaven’s sake?

I’m pleased to say, however, that ChatGPT is an improvement, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian Siri in having some idea of what’s going on in the universe.

Result of asking ChatGPT "Hey, you sass any hoopy froods?"

Boom or bust

When I was writing recently about ‘generations’ and ‘Baby-boomers’, I came across an interesting article talking about why the Baby Boom happened. It wasn’t just those soldiers coming back from the Second World War and making up for lost time, because it started in the 1930s. Interesting reading. Part of the motivation for the article, though, is that if we could understand why sudden changes in fertility rates happened, it might help reverse the current decline in birth rates.

This is something I have never understood.

Surely, the best thing we can do for the planet, and for the generations who will follow us, is to encourage declining birth rates wherever possible. Nobody likes to talk about it — it’s certainly not a vote-winner for politicians — but the single best way for a couple to reduce their carbon footprint is to have fewer children. If they can instil that tendency in any children they do have, too, their decision could have an exponential long-term impact through time. Forget installing solar panels or buying an EV! Spend the money on contraceptives if you really care about climate change. A world with less congestion, less competition for resources, less overcrowding, less pollution, less demand for housing, less intensive farming… can only be a better world, it seems to me?

We should institute tax benefits right now for people with fewer children, rather than continuing child-support for those who breed excessively. Those who install solar panels, drive Teslas and, most of all, are voluntarily childless, should of course be publicly honoured and cheered in the streets. (I may have a slight personal agenda here!)

Seriously, though… I know there are issues with an ageing population. Declining birth rates mean more old people hanging around for younger people to support. (Though in a country with a good social security scheme, that larger elderly population should at least have paid for most of their care up front during their working lives.) A declining birth rate also tends to lead to reduced economic growth and a few other challenges.

But it’s always seemed to me that these are short term problems, and somewhat selfish arguments. Yes, our modest numbers of children, grandchildren and perhaps great-grandchildren may not appreciate the demographic change until we’re well out of the way. But for those with a longer-term view, won’t the denizens of the 23rd Century be exceedingly grateful for anything we can do now to encourage population decline? And isn’t that the best way to ensure there will actually still be people around to enjoy the 24th Century?

Generation game

I hear these phrases like ‘Millennials’ and ‘Generation Y’ in the media and realise I have no idea what they mean. Perhaps it’s because I don’t have kids, and so don’t know which pigeonhole the tabloids and marketing agencies want them to occupy!

I know roughly when ‘baby-boomers’ were born, but that was a phrase invented in the seventies to describe a genuine phenomenon visible in historical data. And I presume ‘millennials’ are people born around the turn of the millennium. But when did it become trendy to label other generations? And who decides on the boundaries and the letters? (I suspect the culprits are the same people who tell us that this is “International Year of the Aubergine“ and things like that.)

I have no more idea of which ‘generation’ I fall into than I do about my supposed star sign, and I suspect they are almost equally fictitious constructs. I’m guessing someone invented ‘Generation X’ because, while it was easy to say ‘grew up in the fifties’, it’s just too silly to say ‘born in the noughties’ (or whatever Generation X actually means). We really don’t have very good words for the last couple of decades. It’ll be easier in a little while when we can talk about a ‘twenties kid’. And if (as I assume), Gen X and Y (and I think there’s even a Z now) all came after Millennials, then they can’t really be generations, can they? There’s not enough time for them to have 20-30 years each… At least they’ve run out of alphabet now, so perhaps they’ll need to start using some meaningful names again soon.

Still, I was distressed to see the single-letter-generation-labelling game going on even in reputable newspapers recently, so I’d better go and find out what they’re supposed to mean, and what unicode character they’re going to adopt for my great-nephews/nieces expected in the spring. Perhaps it’ll be an emoji. I like to think they’ll be part of ‘Generation 😁’.

Yes, I’d better go and look it up. Otherwise I risk being relegated to that no-man’s land of the ‘post-boomer-pre-wikipedias’…

Some are more equal than others

“Not all cottons are equal”, says the label on my new John Lewis shirt. “We use Supima cotton because it’s one of the most superior types of cotton in the world for creating strong, comfortable and colourful fabric.”

Oh, for heaven’s sake! One of the most superior types in the world? What do they teach kids in English lessons these days? Before you ask, this does appear to be a label printed by that old English retail partnership itself, not by the Bangladeshi factory from which the shirt originates.

Still, perhaps I’m being too fussy. At least they are only claiming it to be one of the most superior types, and, in any case, if I am going to wear a superior type of cotton, I should probably be grateful that it’s not one of the least superior types.

Abandoning my principles

Two quotations occurred to me this morning.  The first was from Edmund Blackadder, talking to Prince George:

“Well, it is so often the way, sir: too late one thinks of what one should have said.

Sir Thomas More, for instance — burned alive for refusing to recant his Catholicism — must have been kicking himself, as the flames licked higher, that it never occurred to him to say, “I recant my Catholicism.”

Leaving aside for a moment a somewhat rare error on the part of the writers — Thomas More was beheaded, not burned — the topic of when to abandon one’s principles was in my mind, because I was reinstalling WhatsApp on my phone, having deleted it several years ago.

I have written enough here in the past about why I consider Facebook not to be a force for good in the world, and why I think that all of their apps — Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and now presumably Threads — go a step too far in the privacy-infringement arena because, for example, they capture the details not only of the person using the app, but of all their contacts too.  I have a few friends who could be considered celebrities, for example, and, now that I’m running WhatsApp again, their details are on the Meta servers…

Except, of course, that they aren’t… at least, not really because of me.  

I was taking a stand to alert people to what Meta were doing, but it’s clear that most of my friends didn’t really care that much.  Many who actively didn’t like Facebook didn’t realise that WhatsApp and Instagram were the same company.   But lots of them had Gmail accounts, or used Android phones, anyway, so security & privacy weren’t too high up their list of priorities.  And it turns out, of course, that most of them are already on WhatsApp and Facebook and Instagram themselves, so not only were their details already known to the servers, but so were mine, because of them.   My virtuous stance was a bit of an empty gesture. (Besides, I hadn’t been quite as pure in my dedication to the cause as I suggest, because I did still have a rarely-used Instagram account, so all bets were really off anyway.)

And so I am now accessible on WhatsApp again, which will make certain social interactions easier.  I still think Signal to be superior in almost every way, and will continue to use it and other services where possible in preference.  But in the end, it came down to my second quotation of the day: the famous observation made by Scott McNealy, the CEO of Sun Microsystems, nearly quarter of a century ago, long before Facebook and its siblings even existed:

“You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

Perhaps he was right. 🙂

Warning Signal

I wrote a couple of years ago about why I really like the Signal app for chat-style communications.  

(Quick summary: it’s just like WhatsApp but doesn’t require you to sell your soul and all of your contacts’ private information to the devil!)  

I’ve been using it for a few years now, for business and social discussions, and it’s been great.  It has very nice software both for mobile and desktop devices, and I know that several people have started using it because of my recommendations, too.

So I thought it only fair also to highlight here one of its key ‘limitations’; in fact, probably its only downside, as far as I’m concerned.  But it’s something fairly important that you may never discover… until it takes you by surprise.

Messages in a Signal conversation are transmitted using end-to-end encryption between the devices taking part in the conversation, and stored in encrypted form only on those devices as well.  Unlike some other communication networks, they are not archived on any organisation’s central servers and, on iOS at least, the messages are not included in any backups of the device.

If you buy a new phone, there’s a process you can go through to move your history directly from your old device to the new one, but here’s the rub:

Both devices need to be available and operational for you to do that.

There isn’t any other method. If you have lost your old iPhone, or it has completely died, then, while you can connect to Signal on your new phone and carry on your conversations, you won’t be able to see any past messages.  If you have them on another device such as an iPad or desktop machine, you should still be able to see your history there, but not transfer it.

There are good security reasons for most of this, and it certainly doesn’t stop me using Signal any more than it stops me using phone calls, but the price of the security is that you should consider Signal messages to be somewhat ephemeral.  Don’t think of them as an archive you will necessarily be able to go back and search indefinitely.  For that, it’s still better to use standards-compliant email… or to copy the important stuff into your personal Knowledge Management System.  You do have one of those, right?  

If so, make sure it’s something that you will always be able to get your data out of in future, like Obsidian.


Antisocial behaviour?

There was a time when I perused Facebook and Twitter several times a day.

Then, a few years ago, I decided life would be better without Facebook and deleted my account. Never looked back.

Then, in lockdown, I set up Screentime to limit my use of social media apps to 15 mins a day. Good decision.

Then the whole Twitter/Musk thing happened and I shifted my attention to Mastodon. I found myself looking at Mastodon about once a day and Twitter about once a week.

Now, I find I’m only looking at Mastodon about twice a week and Twitter about twice a month. And I’ve never even had the urge to investigate TikTok.

I think this is all a healthy progression. I feel like a drug user breaking a habit.

Or does it just mean I’m getting old?

Sable Basilisk

At Telemarq today we were discussing some of the rather good Open Source text-to-speech systems now available, and testing them with some difficult-to-pronounce words.  They did struggle a bit with some of them, but who can blame them?

British names can be challenging at the best of times; I knew, for example, that Menzies is not usually pronounced as it appears, but I must confess to being ignorant of the fact that the surname ‘Dalziel’ is actually pronounced ‘Dee-El’ (which sounds like a class of droid from Star Wars, don’t you think?  “That old DL-4 unit will do fine.  We’ll take that one.”)

While looking at the Wikipedia page, though, my colleague Nicholas noticed the Dalziel coat of arms, which is rather striking, and should eliminate any suggestion that the Dalziels are not thoroughly human. Take a look! (The page does explain the origin too.)

If you examine the expression on his face, it can be fun coming up with captions.

“Listen, laddie, if I’m willing to come into battle armed only wi’ this, are ye really ready to fight me?”

I think Robert Burns would approve, though. “Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine; // A Man’s a Man for a’ that:”

Heraldry, of course, has a language of its own.  Your family’s arms might be technically described as “azure a fess or between three mullets argent”, for example, and we are reminded by this Britannica article that ‘a bordure is an ordinary in England, but in Scotland it is never a charge, being reserved for cadency. Some count the roundel as a subordinary, while others consign it to the “others” category as a simple charge.’  

Actually, if you read the article, you’ll understand the above. (I had a splendid teacher at school who believed that a well-educated English gentleman ought to have at least a smattering of knowledge of a range of topics that weren’t in the normal curriculum, and would take the odd lesson out to tell us about them, so I gained some awareness of those who charge a field purpure or a bend sinister with a lion rampant, when I should technically have been learning about Thomas Hardy.  It’s wonderful stuff.)

There are rules to be followed too. The aforementioned article reminds me that “a colour is very rarely placed upon a colour, a metal upon a metal, or a fur upon a fur. “

All of which made me think this would be a fun body of material for training an AI system.  Could you create something which, given a coat of arms, would return the correct heraldic description, and vice versa? And then, phase 2: given somebody’s ancestry and history, could you create a coat of arms for them following the conventions and the rules?  I fancy doing another PhD, so if anybody could kindly come up with a source of funding for this, I propose to create such a system and name it ‘Sable Basilisk’, in honour of the character of that name immortalised by Ian Fleming.

The funder of my research would, of course, have a beautiful coat of arms generated just for them.  If they’re really lucky, it might resemble the Dalziel’s.

The dark underbelly… or perhaps the dark floorpan?

John’s excellent column in the Observer this weekend was a reminder to those of us who enjoy driving EVs that we shouldn’t feel too smug about our environmental impact.  

Electric vehicles have a greater carbon footprint in their manufacturing process than fossil-burners, and it takes a while for the environmental benefits after you drive it off the forecourt to make up for this.  In countries like the UK, where it’s relatively easy to get your electricity from renewable or nuclear sources, that’ll probably take about 6-12 months.  In countries like the US where you’re probably getting a lot more of your ‘fuel’ from coal, it could take several years, and it’ll probably be the second or third owners of an EV who really have a more carbon-neutral vehicle! 

In the intervening period, though, we can feel a little bit more virtuous because — and I do appreciate that any pro-EV points I make in this post might definitely be classified as self-justification! — at least we have moved a lot of pollution away from highly populated areas.  (This is distinct from carbon footprint, which can happen anywhere and has a much greater area of impact.)  When it comes to human health, though, we’re only starting to get to grips with, for example, the damaging effects of the tiny particulates emitted from exhaust pipes — Tim Smedley’s book Clearing the Air is an excellent explanation — and the key thing about them is that they don’t travel very far.  You are more at risk in a cycle lane next to traffic than are the pedestrians a few meters away… especially if they walk on the further side of the pavement.

I’m often annoyed by people who sit stationary with the engine running, while waiting for their kids to come out of school or their spouse to come out of the supermarket… and then I have to remember that the poor things are in such primitive vehicles that they can’t even keep themselves warm in their cars without polluting the local area.


One thing we don’t know much about yet is the longer-term outlook for individual vehicles, because they just haven’t been around long enough.  EVs are generally expected to outlive their internal combustion predecessors because they have far fewer moving parts, less vibration, less thermal stress, and so forth.  Yes, the batteries will have a limited lifespan, but they can be replaced, and they don’t get thrown away: their consituent materials are much too valuable not to recycle.  

What’s also sometimes not appreciated by the Jeremy-Clarkson-watching fraternity is that these aren’t like phone batteries where you have to replace the entire thing. Car batteries are made up of lots of cells packaged into modules, and individual modules or even cells can often be replaced when they start to fail.  Yes, we all know rechargeable batteries do wear out… but they don’t die suddenly; their capacity just decreases over time (or more specifically, as they go through an increasing number of charging cycles, which usually corresponds to mileage).

When Nissan started producing the Leaf, they announced all sorts of plans for how they would recycle and reuse the batteries when they were no longer useful in the cars.  In fact, though, few of these plans have really come into play yet, because cars and batteries are lasting far longer than expected. 

Part of the reason battery life has never really worried me from a practical or financial viewpoint is that battery range has also been increasing.  This page describes a study of Tesla Model S batteries (the Model S having been around longer than most), and includes a nice graph showing the battery degradation against mileage:

Tesla battery degradation vs mileage


Now, I happily drove my previous EV for 5 years, which had a range of about 70 miles.  My current car has a range of around 300 miles.  If it follows this trajectory, then after 20 years of my current 10,000 miles per year, it will still have a range of around 250 miles, which is plenty for almost anybody, and certainly for me!

Let’s talk about cobalt

The issues around the sometimes-worrying mining practices of the rarer elements involved in battery manufacture are well known, and a cause for concern.  Cobalt, in particular, is a key component of current batteries and is mined almost exclusively in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Somewhere in the range of 15-20% of this is done by small-scale mines, often in hazardous working conditions, and some modest proportion of this is done by children.

Certain companies, like Tesla, claim to have eliminated these sources from their supply chain, though how much they can really have achieved this is uncertain.  It’s partly for this reason that there is significant research going into creating cobalt-free batteries, but in the meantime, it is a situation which needs (and is getting) considerable attention.

It is, however, a situation for which we are all culpable, not just EV owners (though we EV owners take more of the blame).  But you’re probably reading this on a device that includes a battery containing cobalt.  And cobalt is used for many other processes too.

Something like 41% of cobalt production is for use in batteries.  And roughly two-thirds of that – about 27% of the total – is for electric vehicles.  (Sources here and here.)  So the proportion of cobalt used by EVs is about the same as the combined use in carbide-tipped drills, paints, and cobalt-based catalysts (the vast bulk of which are used, in fact, for oil-refining!)

So we should treat with skepticism those headlines that suggest that there’s child labour in cobalt mines in the Congo because of EVs.  Yes, some single-digit percentage of cobalt production does involve children, and yes, there’s more of it because of EVs.  We EV owners need to acknowledge that, while also pointing out that EVs represent only a quarter of the cobalt use in the world. Anyone who owns a laptop, iPad or mobile phone, or drives or travels in fossil-fuel-based vehicles… even people who like blue paint — we all need to take responsibility.

And while admitting that our electric vehicles do not come guilt-free, I think we do need to remind that bloke in the pub that powering internal combustion engines has been known to have one or two negative aspects too!  Conscience doth make cowards of us all.  🙂

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser