You no longer give us those nice bright colours…

December 31st, 2010

End of an era…

Last year, the National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry was given the last roll of Kodachrome produced by Kodak. Yesterday, the last lab still developing the format took its last orders. He delivered it to them by hand.

He made good use of the roll, though.

In some ways it seems inappropriate to mourn the death of a media format – it’s happening all the time now. But this one is unusual, firstly in having lasted for 75 years, and secondly, in having so much of people’s lives bound up in it.

One day, we, or perhaps our grandchildren, may feel the same about paper.

Would you like a PIN with your chips?

December 31st, 2010

The security group at the University here found a flaw in the Chip and PIN system, and told the banking industry about it.

A year later, the industry body responsible for such cards, whose slogan is ‘Representing, Informing, Advancing,’ sent a notice to the University, asking that they take down the thesis of a student in the group who had published further information about it, and not to do that again, please.

Unfortunately for them, universities are not companies. Ross Anderson wrote a masterful response.

Details here.

Why would I say uncle?

December 30th, 2010

My American readers will know the expression ‘to say uncle’ or ‘to cry uncle’, meaning to submit, admit defeat, ask for mercy.

It’s not a phrase we use over here, and I’ve often wondered about its origins.

Michael Quinion’s excellent site, which I’ve recommended before, has a plausible answer.

Priming you for the new year

December 27th, 2010

Useless fact of the day….

2011 is a prime number.

Only 13 prime-numbered years in the last century. Must be a good omen.

Actually, I’m rather tempted to write a spoof astrological-type book.

The Power of Primes, I’ll call it. How ancient Greek mathematical concepts can forge your destiny!

I’ll dig up lots of powerful correlations showing that prime numbers are indeed a good omen, and that non-primes are much more dodgy. There were no prime-numbered years during the two world wars, for example. The Sept 11th attacks happened in 2001, which was not a prime year, even though the surrounding 1997, 1999 and 2003 all were. Pretty sinister, eh? Yes, I think the first person to expose this hitherto-unknown law of nature could make a packet.

I shall set to work. I think 2011 will be a good year.

So will 2017, by the way…

Ode to a Central Heating System

December 26th, 2010

As we shiver through what, for the UK at least, is a very chilly winter, it struck me just how much more unpleasant such weather would be without the wonders of modern heating systems. Lest we forget this blessing, I offer a small carol in honour of one of science’s great achievements, which I would encourage you to sing as you go on your way, and share throughout your community…


Pilot light, glowing light
All is warm, while you’re bright
Round yon pipes, radiators and tanks
For our comfort we give you our thanks
And sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Pilot light, went out in the night!
Frozen toes at dawn’s first light.
The boiler’s a new one, so how do we fix?
Knew the old one and all of its tricks.
Now the pipes will be frozen
At Christmas, I’m starting to fear…

Pilot light, dark as night
Who can help, in our plight?
Give me a bonfire, I know what to do;
Pressurised system? I haven’t a clue!
Plumbers are sure to be pricey
Especially at this time of year.

Pilot light, once more alight!
Found the instructions and they set us right.
At the back of the filing drawer
All that was needed for furnace to roar
So, sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace!

I must go down to the sea again

December 24th, 2010

Tilly explored the limestone shoreline at Birling Gap one evening recently. I used to play here as a child.

Bubble, bubble, toil and… jolly good fun!

December 24th, 2010

As if it weren’t cold enough already at the moment, some friends and family gathered last week at my brother’s place to make ice cream. Not being advocates of the Slow Food movement, though, we did it with liquid nitrogen…

Creating and then coping with technology

December 24th, 2010

Michael wrote an interesting account on the Digital Flapjack blog about the creation of his Fingerknots game for the iPad. Recommended.

However good the design of technology, though, some people will still have problems with it – as illustrated by this splendid clip I found on Michael’s other blog.

(I’m feeling very inferior, having only one blog to my name at present).

Kolourful Kayaks

December 22nd, 2010

kayaks on the Cam

Normally, I would expect to do some post-processing of the photo to create an effect like this… but it’s much more pleasing when nature provides the monochrome for you! These intrepid kayakers were paddling peacefully past at this point, but earlier there was a dramatic and eerie sound as they cracked their way through the ice. My own kayak is inflatable, so not much good for icebreaking!

More pictures of the Newnham/Grantchester area in the snow can be found here.

Canine calculations

December 17th, 2010

My friend Jon Crowcroft told me recently that “On the Internet, everyone now knows you have a dog”. I took the point, and will try to moderate my doggy posts: Tilly has been with us for a year now, so I should be over that annoying new-parent enthusiasm.

It did strike me the other day, though, as we strolled across icy fields, that I walk her about two miles every morning and Rose does the same in the afternoon. Tilly, when she’s off the lead, runs at least a further three miles that we don’t.

This means that over 12 months Rose and I have each walked further than the length of the British Isles.

Tilly, on the other hand, has run a distance roughly equivalent to the width of the United States, which I feel is not a bad achievement before you reach 15 months old!

OK. Proud father signing off now…

Topic of the weeki

December 17th, 2010

Everybody’s talking about Wikileaks, so in general, I haven’t. People like John are doing a much better job than I ever could.

There was some discussion on a couple of the Twit.tv podcasts about the heightened emotions directed at Wikileaks itself, though, and I thought they came to some sane conclusions, which were roughly as follows:

  • The person who committed a crime was the original source, who is now being dealt with by the law
  • Wikileaks did no more than any newspaper would have done if it got its hands on the material, and is no more or less culpable than the New York Times and the Guardian and others who have been republishing it.
  • Wikileaks just did it more efficiently and for different, and some would argue, more honourable, motivations than a newspaper’s. [This is the real novelty. People know how to interpret newspapers' actions.]
  • Those hackers attempting to target organisations that failed to support Wikileaks are guilty of suppressing the kind of freedoms of speech and action for which Wikileaks stands.
  • The big danger is that any measures brought in to ‘deal with’ Wikileaks could be used against the New York Times and the Guardian in the future.

That seemed to me a pretty good executive summary, but what a lot of fun debate is going on about these, and all the ramifications, especially as initial outrages give way to more careful considerations.

They’re all missing the real question, of course: who will play Assange when the movies start to come out?

Wouldn’t you rather be drizzling?

December 13th, 2010

The instructions for this pizza tell me that it’s very important that I drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil on it before putting it in the oven. I’m not aware of having consciously drizzled anything before, but shall do my best.

As I pondered this challenge, it occurred to me that Drizzle sounds like the name of a dot-com company. I don’t know what it would do – weather forecasting, probably – but it just sounds so right. “Hang on, I’ll just upload it to Drizzle…”, or perhaps “My free Drizzle account is about to expire – shall I pay for the full Downpour edition?”

(Well, it turns out, of course, that there is both a Drizzle.com and a Drizzle.org, and you can investigate them for yourself if so inclined.)

It’s only a decade ago that we were pondering the name ‘Google’ with some amusement – it’s a deliberate misspelling of “googol“, in case you wondered, and even that was a bit esoteric.

We Brits sometimes joke about American English that “there is no noun that cannot be verbed”, but it turned out to be very handy that the founders picked quite such an adaptable word and it has passed so easily into daily use. It’s funny, though, to think that they could have picked almost any other random name and we would all now be saying, “Yes, I know about that, I Wiggled you before I came over”.

OK, gotta go… pizza’s ready…