Legacies

I remember, from childhood, a parody of Longfellow’s verse, which always amused me:

‘Lives of Great Men’ all remind us
As we through their pages turn
That we too may leave behind us
Letters that we ought to burn.

Some years ago I was trying to come up with a version for the modern age, and I stumbled across it this morning:

As you scoff at simple errors
In some ‘Great Man’’s last spreadsheet,
Lurk within your email backups
Attachments you too should delete!

Mmm. Perhaps that was best consigned to the digital flames as well.

What’s behind a scary number?

A recent BBC article is entitled “Electric cars: Best and worst places to charge your car”.

Extract:

The government has published new league tables showing which regions of the UK have the most charging points for drivers of electric vehicles. The most per 100,000 people are in London, followed by Scotland, while Yorkshire is the worst by that measure.
Outside London, Orkney and Milton Keynes have the most. But Barrow-in-Furness and Scilly each have none.

There’s a nice map showing the current state of play.

A bit later, though, the article starts to introduce some rather worrying numbers:

The government wants the UK to have net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Scottish Power estimates that in order to achieve this, the UK needs to have 25 million charging points for electric vehicles – the equivalent of installing 4,000 a day – and 23 million electric heat pumps to replace domestic gas boilers.

Mmm.

This is a topic of great interest to me, and the underlying data is useful, but the article is somewhat flawed almost from the start. The first thing to notice is that it never distinguishes between public and private charging points. In fact, if you look at the source, the league table is talking about public charging points, where Scottish Power are talking about public and private ones.

Nonetheless, it is indeed a lot of charging points, though the article’s second error is in ascribing the figure of 4000 installations per day to car chargers: in fact the numbers are about 2000 each for chargers and for heat pumps.

Then they hammer home the size of the challenge with this:

And all at a cost of nearly £300bn.

Wow! Another big and scary number. How on earth are we ever going to do this?

But let’s think about it for a moment…

Many numbers are not quite so scary when you consider them rationally and in context.

25 million is approaching the current number of households in the UK, and, yes, if we don’t have petrol vehicles, most people will probably want to charge their cars at home. That’s also why the heat-pump number is on a similar scale.

But remember, we’re talking about a target which is 30 years away.

According to this article, the UK installed 1.7 million new boilers in 2018! This makes sense, if you think about it: how many households are there, and how long does a boiler last? If that rate continued, then between now and 2050, 51 million new boilers would have been installed anyway.

Switching to heat pumps may be slightly more involved, but it sounds a bit more plausible now. And installing charging points only needs to happen at half the rate of central heating boiler replacement!

But that, of course, does not make for such enticing journalism.

Wait, though – what about that enormous £300-billion cost?

Well, there are about 70 million people in the UK, and that cost will be spread over 30 years. So that’s £142 per person per year, or about 39p per person per day.

Would you pay that for a carbon-neutral future? I would!

Let’s get on with it!

Zipping along to the plumber

I’ve often bemoaned the fact that so many garments, bags, etc are spoiled by the failure of their zipper; an event which turns something previously warm and cozy into a source of frustration. But unstitching the zip and installing a new one is often tricky and therefore time-consuming or expensive; generally not worthwhile on an old garment or bag.

Not all zipper failures are terminal, however; many can obviously be repaired with a bit of jiggling, but many more can probably also be fixed with some cunning techniques. A retweet by my friend Lyndsay got me thinking along these lines, and I went and searched YouTube for ‘zipper repair’, and you can find a wealth of tips and suggestions: almost anything except significant loss of teeth can be fixed without the zipper needing to be replaced.

Here are some basic tips to get started:

But for a larger selection of example fixes, you might want to browse this playlist from UCAN, a US-based zipper company. Lots of good stuff there.

OK, so what’s that bit in the title about plumbers?

Well, it’s not, I admit, a very obvious connection, except that if you’re in the mood for fixing things yourself, I’ve become a fan of another source of YouTube wisdom. There’s a retired plumber named Al who has a great set of videos about how to fix various plumbing issues: what to do if your kitchen mixer tap is leaking into the cupboard below, suggestions for fixing leaking gutters, how to use compression couplings to join copper pipes…

Al has uploaded hundreds of videos on all sorts of topics, not just plumbing, but I do like his plumbing ones: they’re completely unpretentious, unbiased chunks of accumulated wisdom and it’s just the sort of thing YouTube does well.

Unidirectional Twitter

I happened to notice that my wife, who has never subscribed to any kind of online social network, was reading somebody’s Twitter feed (just by visiting their page with her browser).

“Ha!”, said I. “I bet you don’t even read your husband’s Twitter feed!”

“I didn’t know you had a Twitter feed!”, she replied.

Well, that’s fair enough, I suppose. I’ve only been tweeting for 11 years, and no doubt she would have found out about it eventually if I kept it up.

It did make me wonder, though, how many others may be using Twitter in read-only mode?

Twitter is somewhat unusual in allowing full public access to the content without requiring you to have an account, and if you do just go to ‘twitter.com/username‘ without being logged in, you get a rather different experience from that of the typical Twitter user.

It’s not necessarily an inferior one, either: you don’t get advertisements, and you play a more conscious role in deciding what you read because you’re either viewing the feed of an individual (and their retweets), you’re viewing a discussion thread, or you’re seeing everything relating to a particular hashtag. There’s none of the chaotic jumble of a personalised, commercialised, firehose.

Interesting…

I don’t think we’re in East Anglia any more, Toto…

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a work-related conference in Bern, Switzerland, and was fortunate enough to have a couple of days’ walking in the mountains at Saas Fee beforehand. (Thank you, Peter!)

I had skiied there before, but never visited at this time of year. It really is a very pretty spot.

Better views than the average working week, I think.

Reflections on Inflections

“I expect our sales”, says the marketing manager confidently, “to have an inflection point in Q1 next year”.

This is a pet peeve of mine. I’ve often heard sales and marketing types, and even economists and scientists who should know better, use ‘inflection point’ simply to mean ‘a sudden change in the direction I’d prefer’. Perhaps they think an inflection point is the sharp bend in a hockey-stick-type curve, or the lowest point on a line that is about to turn upwards.

In fact, an inflection (or occasionally ‘inflexion’) point on a graph is technically where the second derivative is zero and changes sign: i.e. where the gradient changes from decreasing (or increasing) to increasing (or decreasing). Another way to think of it is that, viewed from the side, the line changes from concave to convex, or vice versa.

So, typically, an inflection point looks like this:

But, when touting your sales figures, remember that this is also an inflection point:

And so is this:

Doing a quick search, I came across an article from Thoughtworks all about inflection points and how they are important to your business. Sadly, they get it completely wrong.

As a technology leader, a portion of your analysis should revolve around determining inflection points, the critical phases of transitions along a technology’s journey from an abstract idea to maturity.
Inflection points are the points at which a product becomes a trend (something that will be used by a critical mass and therefore likely to drive value) instead of a fad (something that will fizzle out).

And here’s their illustration:

But you, gentle reader, know better. That’s not an inflection point! This is an inflection point:

And if your strategy was to catch technologies there, I think you’d write a rather different article.

Where the streets have many names

Here’s a pretty map of Chicago, produced by Erin Davis:

(Click for a larger image)

The colours come from the street suffixes: Green for ‘roads’, yellow for ‘streets’, etc. It’s an interesting commentary on naming trends and the historical development of the city.

Erin’s done many more, too, which you can find on her site here, and more recently including more global cities, here.

There clearly haven’t been many new ‘streets’ in London for some time…

Perchance to tweet?

The spellchecker on my iPhone 6 doesn’t know the word ‘perchance’! I desired to use it in a perfectly ordinary sentence today, and found I had to spell it out, confirming my intent with the leftmost of the available buttons.

Maybe ’tis only acceptable when followed by “to dream”? Or embedded in a flow of iambic pentameter?
In either case, you will agree this is a serious flaw, which is, no doubt, addressed in the latest version of the operating system.

Sadly, my iPhone is deemed too archaic to be able to run that version! Or perhaps it’s the owner…

Remember the pre-Twitter world?

In the beginning, Twitter only allowed messages to be 140 characters long. This was because SMS text messages were a common way of posting, and sometimes receiving, tweets, and they were limited to 160 characters; allow 20 characters for a username, and 140 is all you have left: about 20 words.

Two years ago, Twitter expanded the maximum length from 140 to 280 characters, though they said soon afterwards that this hadn’t actually made much difference to the average tweet length. It did, however, reduce the number of abbreviations – remember b4 this, when everything was gr8? Thank heavens we don’t have so much of that now, though I suspect an improvement in phone keyboards also played a significant role in the change.

Last night, I was contemplating the new trend for people to write long spiels using Twitter ‘threads’; typically one sentence per tweet. Sometimes you see them with ‘1/17’, ‘2/17’ etc after each post. It works, but it really seems as if Twitter is being stretched beyond its design!

I suppose the alternative would be to use Facebook, but who wants to do that?

So I was feeling a bit nostalgic for blogs and RSS feeds. Just imagine how good social media would be if:

  • (a) you could decide whether or not people could post comments on your posts,
  • (b) you could make the posts as long or as short as you liked, in whatever style you liked
  • (c) your readership would decide on whether the quality of your content justified the effort of reading it
  • (d) you could decide whom to follow, and only see their posts
  • (e) you got to see all of their posts, if you wanted, without an algorithm deciding which ones you should read
  • (f) advertising was completely optional

Doesn’t that sound good? Well, that’s what we had in 2005. 🙂

Don’t get me wrong, I do use Twitter, and I’ve had an account for over 11 years now, but I’ve had a blog, and read other blogs, for much longer, and if I ever had to make a choice between losing Twitter or losing my RSS feeds, I’d soon be waving bye-bye to the little blue bird.

But then I realised this was crazy thinking. Imagine if you had to show you could write a whole sentence before you could be elected President? Or even a paragraph just to announce a major change in policy? I guess nothing would ever be accomplished…

Malham

Malham, in Yorkshire, is a splendid place, which I’d never visited until we stayed there last night. It’s a pretty and charming little village, with a bubbling stream running through it, and one or two very nice pubs.

But, take a short walk through the green, rolling countryside in one direction, and you come to Malham Cove, a very impressive limestone cliff.

A path with some good stairs takes you to the top of the cliff, where the limestone has eroded into other unexpected features.

An occasional delicate flower nestles in the indentations, protected from the sometimes dramatic weather.

If, on the other hand, you head out of the village in the opposite direction, a path through some fields eventually enters a little wooded valley, which takes you first to Janet’s Foss:

And then, a little higher up, to Gordale Scar.

And between all these dramatic sites…?

Sheep grazing in bucolic peace beside gently winding streams.

Checking the facts

I love this cartoon! It’s a great illustration of why Quentin’s Second Law can prove so challenging.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser