Le mot juste

I like the instructions on a French device I’ve just bought:

  1. How to put the battery?

1) Turn the lid of battery’s room counterclockwisely and remove it.

If counterclockwisely isn’t a word, I think it should be.

May flights of angels…

While I don’t really have very strong feelings about whether or not we should have a monarchy now, I do believe that if you’re going to have one, then ours has been about as good as you could get! It’s not at all clear to me that countries that have got rid of theirs have, as a rule, received something much better in exchange.

So with that in mind, and being aware of history in the making, I settled down to watch some of Her Majesty’s funeral today, and got hooked… and gosh, it was rather well done, wasn’t it? It’s very pleasing to think that, after recent embarrassments like Brexit and Boris, there are some things of which we as a nation can still be proud. The combined ranks of the BBC, the Crown, the Church of England and Their Majesties’ Armed Forces can pull off some impressive stuff when they set their minds to it.

My mind, of course, also kept drifting to the technical achievements. The wonderful camera angles, with no other cameras in view. The enormously long but very slow zooms vertically down from the ceiling of the Abbey. The shallow depth of focus on the jewels atop the crown. The very great depth of focus over Winston Churchill’s shoulder as his statue looked down on the passers-by below. The synchronisation of marching video and drum-beat audio, when the cameras must often have been far enough away to delay the audio by a noticeable amount. (I realised after a while they probably had radio mics near the drummers so as to transmit the audio at the speed of light instead.) It’s hard enough for most of us just getting the audio levels right when recording a single bagpiper. To pull off this kind of production at any time is quite a feat, but to do it live, spread across an entire capital, and pretty much flawlessly… well, count me impressed. If the Duke of Norfolk didn’t already have a duchy, he would have deserved one for organising this! But this was mostly the achievement of thousands of anonymous and very skilled people.

Then I wondered, too, how many bytes of data iPlayer had to cope with today, and took my hat off again to whomever was responsible for keeping those millions(?) of livestreams going for hours on end. It really wouldn’t have been the time for unexpected network load to crash your routers, or for sudden reboots caused by unexpected software updates. I bet the technical team are breathing a sigh of relief tonight!

This was the first occasion I had actually sat down and watched any live TV in a very long time. The last time, I think, might have been when the armoured cars started rolling into Iraq in search of those weapons of mass destruction… So that would have been… 2003… nearly 20 years ago. Gosh again! I do watch lots of things on a television screen, but they’re almost all movies, or recordings or streamings of shows that other people discovered a decade ago and we’re only just getting around to binge-viewing now! We’ve been in this house for five years and I haven’t got around to connecting the TV to the aerial yet, so we watched today’s events on iPlayer — which was probably higher resolution anyway — and it looked fabulous rendered by AppleTV on our nice 4K TV.

And that’s remarkable in itself. The last event of its kind — the funeral of George VI — was the first royal procession to be broadcast on television. Grainy, black-and-white, low-resolution cathode-ray-tube- & valve-powered television… and so few people owned a receiver then that almost everybody would have had to follow in audio-only form on the radio, and then read about it a day or two later in the papers. How things have changed, in one reign.

I wish King Charles a long and happy life, but when his time does eventually come, I expect we’ll be viewing it in some sort of fully-immersive holographic projection. Though, as my friend Tim pointed out when I suggested it on Twitter, fully-immersive holographic projection will probably turn out to be just a fad. Remember 3D TV?

But in either case, I hope it’s still produced by the BBC.

Morisson’s Law of Holiday Busyness

A couple of years ago, my friend Richard Morrison posted this graph, which I now think about whenever I go on vacation:

One way to increase the height of the second bump is to write lots of blog posts when you get back, but it’s a welcome distraction from the process of getting my unread emails back down to double-digits. 🙂

Catching up

We’re just back from a few splendid days staying in a cottage on the Pembrokeshire coast in Wales, followed by a weekend of sailing on the River Crouch in East Anglia, with stops in the Wye Valley and the Cotswolds in between. Fitting these into the same week-and-a-half involves rather large changes in longitude combined with almost zero change in latitude!

Wales is a country whose great beauty is occasionally visible through the downpours. I always love visiting, but when it rains, it really rains… and this is from someone whose childhood holidays were often spent in the Lake District: somewhere that is seldom described as arid! But we alternated the suncream and the umbrellas, and only occasionally got drenched.

We saw lovely harbours, both man-made and natural:

Fishguard

We visited seals and lighthouses; castles, cliffs, and cottages; superchargers and woollen mills, and we had some very good food. We saw ancient woods:

We saw the cathedral in St Davids, hidden so deeply in a valley that you can be in the same small town and hardly know it’s there. but it’s a wonderful and unusual place.

And then we rushed back across the country to go sailing in our little dinghy with friends from the Tideway Owners’ Association.

Now, exhausted but happy, we’ve come back to normal working life to recover…

Deep Thought strikes again

I’m glad to see that Douglas Adams’s influence continues. I asked OpenAI, “How many roads must a man walk down?”

I think Douglas would have approved.

TikTok: Trojan Stallion

This is a great post by Scott Galloway warning about the influence of TikTok. Some have accused it of fear-mongering, but do read the whole thing and see what you think. Here are a few key points:

  • TikTok has over a billion users. This includes ‘nearly every U.S. teenager and half their parents’. The average monthly hours spent on it per user are way higher than for the other social networks. And the amount of data gathered about every interaction is vast.

  • All of its data are readily available to the Chinese government. TikTok is not actually allowed to operate in China, though, so this is purely data gathered about people in the rest of the world.

  • “Facebook is the most powerful espionage vehicle ever created and now China commands the most powerful propaganda tool”. The Russians have become very good at manipulating Facebook and Twitter, but the process is still much harder for Putin than it is for Xi Jinping.

So, Galloway warns, small changes in the configuration of the TikTok algorithms — just a thumb resting on the scale — can have a massive influence:

Dial up wholesome-looking American teens with TikTok accounts railing against the evils of capitalism. Dial down the Chinese immigrant celebrating the freedoms afforded in America. Push Trump supporter TikToks about guns and gay marriage into the feeds of liberals. Find misguided woke-cancel-culture TikToks and put them in heavy rotation for every moderate Republican. Feed the Trumpists more conspiracy theories. Anyone with a glass-half-empty message gets more play; content presenting a more optimistic view of our nation gets exiled. Hand on scale.

The network is massive, the ripple effects hidden in the noise. Putting a thumb the size of TikTok on the scale can move nations. What will have more influence on our next generation’s view of America, democracy, and capitalism? The bully pulpit of the president, the executive editor of the New York Times, or the TikTok algorithm?

Sobering stuff…

Thanks to the footnotes in John Naughton’s Observer column for the link.

Zoom calls of the past

Rose is moving from her current college office to a new one. In the bottom of a drawer, she found a Zoom modem.

For younger readers, this is a 56K modem, which means that on a really good day, you could transfer data to and from the network at 56 kilobits per second: that’s about 6 kilobytes/sec, once overheads are taken into account. This was pretty much the peak of telephone-based internet access, until ADSL came along.

Also in the same drawer was a floppy disk, which holds around 1.4MB. (I used to boot my first Linux system off one of these.)

So, to transfer the contents of this disk to the network using the modem, if you had a good reliable phone line, would take you about 4 minutes.

Now, the two originals of the photos above, which I snapped with my iPhone, between them take 7MB, or about 5 of those floppy disks, so to send the two still images would have taken around 20 minutes. (Not that we had digital still cameras at all back then, of course.)

This is why, when James T Kirk makes a call from his quarters to the bridge of the Enterprise, it’s almost always an audio call, and on the rare occasions when video is involved, they make sure they show you – it was such a wildly futuristic idea, even within the same starship!

Nobody, even on Star Trek, was daft enough to suggest he might make such a call from his communicator.

Use satellites, not lorries

Spotted just outside Hay-on-Wye this evening, I think this sign is meant to say, “If you’re driving an HGV, don’t rely on your satnav.” But in that case, the red line should really go through the satellite, n’est-ce pas?

No, after due consideration, I realise it must mean, “The no-trucks policy here is enforced by our orbiting death-rays”.

Hiawatha’s milkman

Now I seize the empty bottles
Take them to the moonlit doorstep
Bid them journey safely onward
Ponder where the gods will take them…
Leave them there beneath the starlight
Leave them there beneath the doorbell
Turn the latch upon the door lock
Climb the stairs to sleep and wonder.

Then the midnight milkman cometh
Creeping o’er the crunchy gravel
Coming to the moonlit doorstep
Coming with the reinforcements.
Bottles new or long-recycled
Bottles young or aged with wisdom
Some have seen a thousand breakfasts
Seen a thousand frost-free fridges
Sat there on the kitchen table
Sat there by the coffee-maker…
Sat there on our autumn doorstep.

Then the milkman, bending over
Clasps the empties to his bosom
Takes them to their waiting transport
Takes them to their future breakfasts
Where, renewed, refreshed, replenished
Sitting by the coffee-maker
Do they talk of where they came from?
Do they tell of other kitchens?

Household feuds, excited children,
Life around the morning table?
Frothing latte, steaming porridge,
Milk with cookies, tea for comfort?
Do they speak of years of service?
Doorsteps grand and thresholds cozy
Meals they’ve seen, and parties hosted
Kettles boiled while crumpets toasted?
Ere their daily task is over
Ere the rinse, and then the doorstep.

Now the milkman, bending over
Clasps the empties to his bosom
Takes them to their waiting transport
Takes them to their future breakfasts…

QSF

Unexpected item in the bagging area

This is an old sketch, but a decade or so on, it’s still rather relevant at some of the supermarkets I visit:

(direct link)

Love it.

I’m still bemused, long after we stopped using disposable carrier bags, at how many of these machines still can’t cope with the weight of a bag you’ve brought yourself. Even those that supposedly have a ‘Use own bag’ facility always end up calling a staff member for support…

Waitrose, of course, was ahead of the game on this one. They introduced their self-scan-as-you-shop system about 16 years ago, and we’ve been using it ever since. And if you do prefer to scan at the end using their self-checkout tills, there’s none of this ridiculous weighing business.

As a friend put it some years ago…

“Waitrose? That’s the place where, as you walk out, they mention that it would be awfully nice if you gave them some money?”

It’s rather pleasing that, after all this time, that system still seems to work for them.

Too busy living’ it…

I remember in the early days of blogging, I was trying to persuade a good friend of mine that he would be capable of writing a really interesting blog, and his response was something along the lines of ‘Too busying living it to blog it!’ I wasn’t quite sure what to think of that. Was it an enviable, or pitiable, state?

My posts on Status-Q (now approaching its 21st birthday) have always been somewhat bursty and sporadic, and I notice that it’s nearly a month since my last one. I sometimes feel inferior to friends who produce impressive output every single week or even day (though I suppose many of them are not so much writing new content themselves as linking to valuable pieces elsewhere, which is something I generally tend to do a bit less because they do it much better than me!)

So blogging for me is something that generally happens when I have enough interesting stuff going on to write about, but not so much that there’s no time to write! My long-suffering readers just put up with the unpredictability. And this last month has been surprisingly busy, both with work and play, but a lot of the latter… so here are a few quick phone snaps and bits of news, to catch up…

Big boats…

Since the last post, Rose and I went on an RYA sailing course – the first for her and the second for me – and spent a few days living aboard a very fine 35ft boat. Here’s Rose at the helm, heading out to sea:

and we also enjoyed some night sailing on the River Stour:

And little boats…

At the other extreme we’ve been exploring the North Norfolk coast and its challenging tidal currents in our little inflatable boat with its electric outboard, getting up very early to set out with enough water from Morston Quay…

:

Popping out to see the seals on Blakeney Point:

before heading back inland towards Blakeney…

with the help of local signposts:

…and passing some of the pleasing local craft on the way.

Blakeney high street, which we had wandered down to a favourite restaurant the previous night…

was now our destination port…

and such is the height of the spring tide down at the quay that we could just sail into the carpark and tie up to a bollard there.

The quay soon became crowded with people enjoying jumping in to the warm, voluminous and fast-flowing river, which normally meanders much more sedately through substantial banks of mud and sand.

We walked back along the coast path to Morston, picked up the car, and brought it back to Blakeney, had a coffee and sausage roll for breakfast at the nearby cafe. After that, the rapidly-drying car park was once again full of cars, and we could roll up the boat and take it away.

Tesla travel

Of course, if you’re staying in a campsite, but your car is full of spaniels, boats and outboards, then transporting a tent can be a challenge. I do have a roof rack I can put on the Tesla, but I wasn’t too keen on attaching a heavy tent to my glass roof, nor on the likely effects of the resulting aerodynamics on my range.

Then I remembered that I had once bought a custom-made bag to go on our bike-rack when I was using it with our old campervan. It turned out to be a great way to transport the tent.

When we got to the campsite we removed it and had a normal (albeit boat-filled) car for the rest of the weekend. As always when attaching things to my towbar, though, I did need to adopt a slightly unusual position when using a supercharger on the way home!

An old design with new opportunities?

Next to us in the campsite was a rather interesting folding caravan. We made friends with the owner and discovered that it was a Carousel Slimline, a jolly clever design originating in the 70s and produced, in Norfolk, until just a few years ago. They look like this:

The slimline version of the Gobur Carousel.

Now, if you’re thinking that it looks a bit, well, boxy, remember… that’s what you really want when you’re living inside it. Houses are boxy too. Flat vertical walls and high ceilings are desirable, but you normally have to compromise them because of things like aerodynamics when you’re towing behind a car at high speeds. Not with this.

We were rather impressed, and since the company was just a few miles from the campsite, we went and had a look. They even let me try towing one on the Tesla… which worked very well.

For those interested, I got about 3 miles per kWh on my 18-mile test, as compared to about 4 miles/kWh normally. If that was representative for longer journeys, I would still get over 200 miles before recharging, which is just fine!

Turning this trailer into a liveable space takes about 3 minutes, which is rather clever: consider, for example, the fact that the van contains a wardrobe, and kitchen units, and that the folding point is lower then the kitchen worktops… Here’s how it works.

Sadly, new ones are no longer being built, but some enterprising former employees have got together and have an impressive collection of models available which they buy, recondition, service, resell and so forth. We were both impressed and tempted, but have resisted that temptation… so far.

Here’s the thing, though: there’s a real opportunity for designs like this in the world of electric cars. These are both light and streamlined, and even the slimline one gives you a lot more living space then some other alternatives like the Eriba Puck, the GoPod or some of the sexy teardrop-shaped options on the market. There’s an opportunity for an investor here, I think, to keep a classic alive and to market it as the EV-friendly caravan option for the future.

And lastly…

Combining the themes of boats and electric propulsion, I’m in danger of boring some of my friends by telling them how wonderful I think electric outboard motors are. (I’ve put lots more on one of my YouTube playlists if you’re interested, though.)

But yesterday, my friend Douglas and I sailed our little dinghy down the River Blackwater from the very friendly and welcoming sailing club at Stone St Lawrence and round to Brightlingsea on the River Colne. On the way, we passed the old Radio Caroline ship, which will bring back memories to UK readers of a certain age…

We made it to Brightlingsea, with a little exploration of West Mersea on the way. It’s rather fun sailing 12 miles along the edge of the North Sea in a little 12-foot boat. (That’s nautical miles, of course, so 13-and-a-bit to you landlubbers.)

The harbourmaster kindly let us tie up on the jetty while we went and got a hot chocolate at a local cafe.

Then we headed back, which we knew would have been rather a slow sail because it was into the wind, so we were planning to use the outboard, and this was made really easy by a new accessory I had just got for it. Details are here for those interested.

In the end the wind almost completely vanished, leaving us cruising silently up a glassy estuary towards the sunset as the evening came on. A very pleasant end to the day.

In summary…

It’s hard to believe that this has still, in general, been a normal working month involving lots of other things like trips to the vet, a family funeral, speccing out a solar-and-battery system for the house, lots of software development and some important deadlines for important clients. Fortunately, we’re going away at the end of next week to recover.

Many-headed Wordle

Rose and I are still playing low-tech Wordle from time to time. She came rather close to defeating me yesterday: her word was ‘Hydra’. Very slippery. Took me quite a while to kill that one.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser