Covid: Destiny and Density?

It always seemed probable to me that Covid infection rates would be closely related to population density. When you walk down the street, how many people do you pass? Are you in a house surrounded by fields or in a tall vertical apartment block where you share an entrance and staircase with many other households? How big are the schools? And so on.

At a country level, though, this is difficult to test. I plotted the very latest total number of Covid-related deaths per million population against the population density per sq. km. for some countries similar to my own (UK), and it didn’t show a clear correlation.

Sources: Statista and Wikipedia.

(As usual, whatever they’re doing in the Netherlands is good. Why do the Netherlands keep doing that with everything? Please stop. It’s very annoying to the rest of us.)

Depending on your political persuasions, or whether you’re a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty kind of person, you could interpret this in various ways!

My own view (at present), for what it’s worth, is that our government and senior civil servants didn’t put enough emphasis on lockdowns in the early months, and that cost us a lot. But they did put much more energy and resources than most other countries into securing vaccines on a huge scale, very early, and we’re now reaping the benefits. So depending on the time period you examine over the last year, the picture relative to other countries can look very different. (The sadly-missed Hans Rosling would have had some nice animations, no doubt!)

At present, if you take the long view of total Covid deaths per capita, we’re a bit higher than the average for similar countries, but our rate of new deaths is lower than almost anyone’s, so we will probably look better over time. So it could have been much better, and it also could have been much worse.

Anyway, back to population density. The problem is that density is far from evenly distributed. If I plot England on the map, as distinct from the UK as a whole, it appears in a very different place: the top-right:

England is up there with the most-afflicted other countries from my list — Italy and Belgium — but it does have a notably higher population density than any of them.

Anyway, the results of my quick graphs are that I was probably wrong: it’s not clear that population density is a useful metric, at least when done at this scale.

What we really need, if we want to compare the situation in different countries, I think, is statistics about both Covid cases and population density across Europe on a 20km grid. Then we could compare them more usefully, and one day, perhaps, we’ll know whether I’m wrong in the details too, or only on the larger scale!

Windowizer continued

I’ve had lots of fun comments about The Windowizer. People asked things like:

  • I like the Mac version – do you make one for Windows?
  • Where’s the Mute button?
  • Does it cut you off after 40 mins if you haven’t paid?
    and so on.

Amidst these customer support questions, I’ve been working on a conference-call version to help you communicate with groups of other people, but if there are more than about three or four participants, it becomes a lot less portable, because they also need some scaffolding to appear in the correct layout. Work needed there.

My friend Shaw also sent me this cartoon:

A think the spirit of Heath Robinson is still alive…


On the North Norfolk coast, you get these fabulous beaches.

Wonderful places to walk, though you may have to cover some distance at low tide if you actually want to see the sea! You can see how we had to fight our way through the crowds yesterday to find a space to launch the drone!

Between this beach and the car park, however, are salt marshes, which are also fascinating, and I’ve photographed them before, and more than once, from ground level. But the patterns and the scale start to become apparent when you can get a bit higher up.

That’s the path we took to walk out to the beach — the car park is where the brown meets the green — and it’s the path we should have taken to walk back.

(I’ve uploaded full-resolution photos too, so if you click on the pictures, you should be able to see rather more details, if your browser lets you zoom in. Can you see the bridge?)

We tried to find an alternative route back, an approach which had worked in the past here. But the marshes are always changing; you can think you’re almost at your destination, only to come suddenly upon a deep muddy trench that will give you no choice but to backtrack and lose the gains you’d made in the last 20 minutes.

It’s like a maze, but with more leaping. Don’t try it if the sun is going down!

There are some lovely spots where the marsh meets the beach.

But it’s the wiggly lines that I like the most.

You can perhaps see the same bridge in this picture: about three-quarters of the way up, in the middle. There used to be a couple more bridges over some of the tributaries, but I haven’t seen them on recent visits.

So I do wonder how the owners of those little boats get to them! At the moment, at least, what they’re sitting on is not nice dry sand, even if you can find your way there.

It’s a lovely and unusual spot.

Now, the real question is… who saw the title above and thought of Puddleglum?

How to change the default RSS feed reader on your Mac

This is one of those ‘in case you’re Googling for it’ posts.

On the Mac, it’s pretty easy to change the default browser, the default email program, and the app that gets fired up when you double-click on a particular file type in the Finder.

But when you’re in Safari and you click on a link to an RSS Feed, what happens then?

In my case, it starts up ‘Reeder’; a fine app, but not one I currently use, having switched to News Explorer a few years back. At some point in the past, I must have registered Reeder as my default news feed app, though I can’t remember whether the app did it directly; or whether I used the facilities in earlier versions of MacOS or a third-party app to make the association.

So how could I tell Safari (and the Mac more generally) that I now wanted RSS and Atom feeds to be handled by a different app? It’s not exposed in the settings of Safari, and not available in System Preferences.

Well, there used to be a utility called RCDefaultApp, and if you search for solutions to this problem, you’ll find many references to it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work in recent MacOS versions due to changes in the support for Objective-C — the language in which it was written.

All of which is background information to the fact that Gregorio Litenstein has created a handy new Preference pane that allows you to change these mappings. It’s written in the Swift language, and so is called SwiftDefaultApps.

If you have Homebrew installed, you can get it easily with

brew install --cask swiftdefaultappsprefpane

Otherwise, you can install it following instructions on the site.

It then appears at the bottom of System Preferences, and in my case:

  • I went into the Internet tab and changed the RSS setting to point to NewsExplorer, and then
  • I went into the URI Schemes tab, added an entry for ‘feed’, and set that to point to NewsExplorer.

Sure enough, when I now click on an RSS link, Safari asks if I want to open it in News Explorer, and all is well!

(Note that this is a system-wide setting, but other browsers may not use it; Firefox has its own way of setting up such apps, for example.)

Anyway, if you’re trying this, you probably want an RSS link to test it on, and you’ll find that there’s a convenient one at the top right of this page… 🙂

The search for warmth

Here’s a nice story on the BBC. I had never really thought about the value of drones for search and rescue, but on the River Foyle they have one equipped with a thermal camera, which can really help find people in the river, especially at night.

Street View Statistics

Google Street View is, I think, one of the most amazing achievements in recent times, and it’s one of the things that keeps me using Google Maps even though many of the alternatives are rather good. If I’m heading to a new destination, I’ll often look in advance at, say, the entrance gate, or the correct exit from the last roundabout, so those final manoeuvres when the traffic is slowing down behind you are less stressful: you’re in familiar surroundings. Street View is, in that sense, a déjà-vu-generator.

And of course, it’s great for bringing back memories of places * qu’on a vraiment déjà vu*. We can all think of dozens of examples; for me, this morning, the sea front by the Ullapool ferry terminal is somewhere I remember as a launching point into the unknown; it’s where I stayed at a lovely inn before catching the ferry to the Outer Hebrides. Happy memories.

But there are interesting questions to be asked about Street View as well. For someone who enjoys window-shopping on Rightmove for a possible next home, it’s a very valuable tool, and I’ve often wondered how much the market appeal of your property is affected by whether the Google car drove by on a sunny or a cloudy day!

And this morning, I saw debates on Twitter about research that used images of your house on Street View to estimate how likely you were to have a car accident, something which could be used against you by insurance companies (or, of course, in your favour, but that doesn’t make such good headlines).

The paper’s here, and I was most surprised by just how poor the insurance company’s existing model was; information about your age, gender, postcode etc apparently doesn’t give them as much insight as you might expect, and knowing whether you live in a well-maintained detached house in a nice neighbourhood gives them just a little bit more. Some see this as very sinister, but you need to remember that this wasn’t some automated image-analysis system; the researchers had to spend a lot of time looking at StreetView pictures of houses and annotating them by hand with their assessment of the condition, type of house, etc. Some of this could be performed by machines in future, but there are lots of other factors to consider as well: is the issue that you are more likely to crash into somebody in certain neighbourhoods, or that they are more likely to crash into you? What’s the speed limit on the surrounding streets? How close is the pub? And so on…

So I sat down thinking I would write about this, but one thing I failed to notice was the date of the research. I assumed that because people were talking about it on Twitter today, it must be new — a fatal mistake. What’s more, just a little bit of further research showed me that my friend John Naughton had written a good piece about it in the Observer two years ago.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that I like technologies that can give me a sense of déja vu. My own abilities in that area are clearly lacking!

A family memory of the Duke of Edinburgh

My late aunt Margaret (always known to us as ‘Auntie Peg’, and of whom I was exceedingly fond) welcomes the Queen and Prince Philip on a visit to Bombay.

I never met my uncle James (behind in white), but he was Deputy High Commissioner from 1960-63, and the royals stayed with them for a few days as part of their extensive tour of India and Pakistan in 1961.

Covid Conveniences

During the lockdown last year, when things began to open up a bit and we could go for outings to Norfolk beaches and other somewhat distant spots, there was always, lurking in the background, a rather practical matter to be considered: what happens if you need to go to the loo when you get there? With cafes, pubs, shopping centres and many other public locations closed, this could be an issue if you were visiting a remote location. A day trip and picnic was a delightful Covid-safe affair, but one didn’t want it to be overshadowed by such… shall we say… immediate concerns.

Well, back then, we had no problems, because we owned a small campervan, which included the necessary facilities. Now, however, we’re in the same situation but without such a vehicle, and need to consider such things more carefully.

Supermarkets are often a good spot to visit when on a long journey: plentiful, open for long hours, and trivial to find and insert into your route with just a couple of taps on Google Maps. On long drives through France in pre-lockdown times, there were many big stores at which I made small purchases! (It is worth noting, though, that this strategy will let you down, at least in the UK, if you have chosen Christmas Day or Easter Sunday for your outing, as we recently discovered!)

I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was obsessed with this subject, but I was a Cub Scout once, so I like to Be Prepared, and we blokes can often underestimate the challenges faced by the ladies. There are also many people, of course, for whom medical or other conditions make this a more serious issue. A useful, but not widely-known, resource in the UK is The Great British Public Toilet Map. Or perhaps it is widely-known, but not widely discussed in polite company!

As an aside, one of the jobs of art, occasionally, is to ask challenging questions of polite company, and it’s hard not to be intrigued by Monica Bonvicini’s installations in London and Basel some years ago, entitled “Don’t Miss A Sec”, which must be the ultimate use of one-way mirrors.

But I digress. This is an issue that has followed us through the ages; is there any hope of relief in the future? Well, looking back at past Status-Q posts from a couple of years ago, I remembered that an acquaintance and I had spotted a real business opportunity. I wonder if anyone will get around to commercialising it before the next pandemic…

Lockdown listening

“I don’t really listen to many podcasts now…”, I heard someone say recently, “…because I no longer have a commute”. This made me realise how different my listening habits would be if I didn’t have a spaniel to walk. (I’ve tried the commuting thing on occasion, by the way, and gave it up as a bad lot. Spaniels are better.)

I tend to listen to a mix of podcasts, but they are mostly tech-related. There are shows like Self-Hosted and 2.5 Admins if I want to know which hard disks to put in my NAS, when to use FreeBSD instead of Linux, or how to back up my ZFS filesystems. I enjoy Clockwise for a light-hearted quick-fire discussion of tech topics and gadgets, and, almost at the opposite extreme, the State of the Net podcast is a gentle, contemplative and insightful chat about broader issues. There are some which cater to my more particular interests, like the Home Assistant podcast (about my favourite home-automation system) and the Fully Charged podcast (about EVs and renewable energy). And then, for something completely different, the Talking Politics History of Ideas educates me on the work of MacKinninnon and Marx, of Wittgenstein and Wollstonecraft.

But brief podcast episodes are interspersed with much longer audiobooks, and it’s no exaggeration to say that our Audible subscription is one of the best services we have, in terms of the number of hours of enjoyment per buck. My wife Rose could never be persuaded to carry a smartphone anywhere, until she discovered it could read all of her favourite books to her, and now it goes everywhere. She’s never used any other iPhone app, and almost never used it as a phone. She has taken some photos over the years – but probably less than a dozen! No, for her it is first and foremost an audiobook player, which can be used as a phone in an emergency.

We aren’t, by the way, walking around with headphones on all the time. The iPhone speaker is fine for most of our normal use, if placed in an appropriate pocket. And we enjoy many of the same authors, so snatches of Conan Doyle, of Nevil Shute, or of Tolkien can often be heard from any corner of the house. In unabridged form, of course.

We both share the same favourite modern author — Patrick O’Brian — and the audiobooks, beautifully read by Ric Jerrom, are quite superb. If you’ve never tried audiobooks as an accompaniment to your walking, cooking or ironing, start with Master and Commander, and you can be assured of many, many happy hours.

Especially if you also have a spaniel.

Am I getting old and cynical?

Somehow, these days, I can’t get as excited about the way people push things through my letterbox as I used to, nor as willing to write reviews about the way the package slipped to the floor.

Well, it slipped through the door very nicely, but I think they forgot a third button on the form:

As an aside, I’m also slightly bemused that they still provide a ‘track your package’ link at this point?

11:03 Deposited through letterbox
11:03 Landed on doormat
11:07 En route to kitchen table
11:08 Delayed by conversation with wife
11:00-17:00 Expected arrival time in kitchen

Mind you, lots of people are more excited about things these days. I got some really great news yesterday that EE had updated one of my handset configuration files.

Time to crack open the bubbly.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser