If only gay sex caused global warming…

October 26th, 2014

I’ve often quoted the statistic that, on 11 Sept 2001, about 3,000 people died in terrorist attacks, and, on the same day, about ten times that many died of starvation. Our brains find it hard to respond appropriately to such data.

There’s a very nice LA Times article by Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychology professor, talking about the same issue with respect to climate change. It was published… ahem… 8 years ago, but was just brought to my attention by Ian Yorston.

Extract:

That’s why we worry more about anthrax (with an annual death toll of roughly zero) than influenza (with an annual death toll of a quarter-million to a half-million people). Influenza is a natural accident, anthrax is an intentional action, and the smallest action captures our attention in a way that the largest accident doesn’t. If two airplanes had been hit by lightning and crashed into a New York skyscraper, few of us would be able to name the date on which it happened.

Global warming isn’t trying to kill us, and that’s a shame. If climate change had been visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire, the war on warming would be this nation’s top priority.

An enjoyable read.

Why Privacy Matters

October 11th, 2014

By nature, I’m somebody who probably errs on the side of openness rather than paranoia when it comes to privacy. I’m also very aware of how fortunate I am, though, to live in a country and under a government and legal system where I can afford to take this view.

Glenn Greenwald’s excellent TED talk gives some other reasons for caring about privacy.

Direct link

There is, though, I think, a balance to be struck here; it’s also worth mentioning that complete privacy and anonymity doesn’t always bring out the best in human nature. There’s a reason why people wear hoodies, and there’s a reason why newsgroups that allow anonymous posting are often filled with trolls (at best), and vicious bullies (at worst). It is important that many of our activities are subject to some peer review, at least, if not legal or governmental review. Also, investigative journalists, of course, tend to assume that they and their commercial backers are somehow entitled to monitor people’s private activities, where other commercial interests or democratically-elected governments are not. Overall, though, I think he’s on the right track.

He also hints at something I hadn’t previously considered: that my religious upbringing might make me more accepting of constant invisible surveillance than I might otherwise be! Now, getting some real statistics on that would be an interesting sociological study…

Crystal showers from Matki

October 10th, 2014

Update: I’ve had a phone call from one of the directors of Matki – see the end of the post.

In the small hours of yesterday morning, one of the curved panels of our expensive and otherwise perfectly-adequate Matki shower enclosure exploded.

20141009-06430607-600

Most of the glass ended up on the floor; in fact, I first knew something was amiss when I couldn’t open the bathroom door because of the glass fragments jammed underneath it. My first thought was ‘Who broke a windscreen in my bathroom?’

20141009-06433909-600

But I use the word ‘exploded’ advisedly, because it clearly didn’t just collapse. Some of the glass was flung further afield.

20141009-07033215-600

There were even some pieces in the toilet pan, which has no direct line-of-sight from the original panel, so I guess they must have been thrown against the opposite wall with sufficient force to have bounced off and back across the (admittedly small) room into the loo.

All of which makes me wonder what this would have been like had anyone been in the room, or in the shower, at the time.

The shower was installed just under a year ago by a careful and seasoned professional, according to the included instructions, and has had nothing but normal use since then. So I called Matki, assuming that it would be replaced immediately under guarantee with profound apologies and that they’d send someone round to sort it out promptly. After all, they might have had a rather nasty law suit on their hands if someone had been blinded by flying glass.

However, I forgot two things – firstly that we’re in Britain, where such gestures are not common, but secondly, I suppose, that any such action might be taken as an admission of culpability. Is the law enough of an ass that a gesture to make an otherwise disappointed customer into a happy customer is likely to backfire? Anyway, this customer stayed disappointed, though they did give me a modest discount on the replacement panel.

I get to spend a couple of hours in my pyjamas clearing up glass. I get to pay my plumber to fit the new unit. I get to pay Matki 140 quid for the new panel. I get a shower I can’t use for two weeks. Ah, well. Matki, in exchange, get this blog post. :-)

Update, Mon 13th Oct

I thought it only fair to inform Matki of this post, and give them the chance to respond. This morning I received a call from one of the directors, Des Rocks, who struck me as a very fine and very rational fellow. He was most apologetic, and we had a good discussion about both glass manufacture and social media!

I mentioned to him that the customer service person I had spoken to seemed polite, efficient and businesslike, but that his hands had clearly been tied by the company’s policy. I was informed that they were changing some of their policies now to allow a little more flexibility. They’re also sending someone to fit a replacement panel, and will not be charging me for it.

All of which means that I’m now once again a happy Matki customer, and remain impressed with the company and its products. It’s sad that I had to resort to a blog post to get to this point, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that these events are very rare, and that getting them fixed is less likely to be a problem for customers in the future. All’s well that ends well.

Over-quantified self?

October 9th, 2014

According to the Tesco website, the Samsung Galaxy S4:

detects your face and motions

I think the latter may be taking personal computing a bit too far.

I told Rose, and she asked, "Can it detect them from the expression on your face?"

100% proof in the supermarket

September 29th, 2014

I remember, a few years ago, seeing some Aberdeen Angus beefburgers in my local supermarket labelled as “Not less than 100% beef!”. I turned them over to look at the list of ingredients. Yes, there was a list. You’d think they might not need a list for something that was really 100% beef.

This week, I spotted a bottle of shampoo.

2014-09-29 09.32.26

Just what do people think they mean by ‘up to 100%’? Are they trying to reassure us that it isn’t more than 100% effective?

Readers will know that posts on Status-Q are up to 100% accurate and insightful, and, my friends, I think we should be bothered by such things. At first I was concerned that advertising executives have so little grasp of numbers. But not all advertisers are stupid, which led me to the far more worrying conclusion that this kind of thing must work on the populace as a whole. Scary.

Now, the more observant of you will have spotted the little asterisk on the bottle, indicating a footnote. So I turned this item over, too, and found it.

* visible flakes from a distance of 2 feet, with regular use

I guess this is their abbreviated way of saying, “we consider an absence of visible flakes at a distance of 2 feet to be 100% effective treatment, and we offer something between this, and no effect at all”. Presumably, also, the treatment appears more effective the further away you get?

Ah well, at least I don’t generally suffer from dandruff, which is perhaps why I’ve been rated, by up to 100% of those asked, as ‘amongst the handsomest men in the world’*.

*when viewed in a crowd of handsome men, from distances greater than 2km.

Doing the TWiT

September 21st, 2014

Almost exactly 15 years ago, a Californian TV channel sent me a webcam. To be precise, they sent me a 3COM camera which came with a PCI frame-capture card. Connecting this up was a bit of a palaver, because I ran Linux on my home machine at the time, and I had to create a new partition and install Windows 95 so that I could run the supplied software. But it was worth it, because this was ZDTV, who were doing an interesting experiment on their Call for Help programme: interviewing people in remote locations using these new-fangled webcams alongside a traditional telephone call.

By the time my segment came, it was well past midnight, and I got a laugh by holding up a clock to prove that I was somewhere in a very different timezone, and by saying that, though they thought they were very advanced in California, they were still in Tuesday, while some of us had already moved on to Wednesday some time ago.

There were other guests on the show, and we made minor history by being the first time ZDTV (and perhaps anyone) had done a three-way call using webcams as part of a live broadcast. The presenter was a very nice chap named Leo Laporte.

Since I seldom saw any American TV, I wasn’t aware at the time of Laporte’s gradually increasing prominence as the host of shows such as The Screen Savers on the same channel (which had by then changed its name to TechTV). But he soon gained more international exposure with the launch in 2005 of the This Week In Tech podcast — affectionately known as TWiT — which grew into the TWiT.tv network, consisting of around 30 different shows. I have been listening to several of them almost since day one.

As the network grew, they built their own studio in Petaluma, California. And it just so happened that I was driving through there on Friday, so I stopped off to have a look.

20140920-001721104

I stuck my head inside the door and said hello, and the wonderful Debi Delchini immediately welcomed this stranger from across the seas and gave me a guided tour, despite the fact that I had arrived right at the end of her Friday afternoon.

20140919-23500592

The TWiT studio, though not large, is cunningly divided into half a dozen different sets, to allow different moods for different shows.

20140920-001101102

The mixing desk in the middle can rotate to face whichever one is in use.

There are cameras everywhere. Unlike traditional studios where large cameras roll about on substantial bases, we are now in a world were adding extra small broadcast-quality cameras is cheap compared to arranging the building around a few bigger ones.

Leo wasn’t there, sadly, but I did get to sit in his chair!

20140919-23555097

There was, however, a show being recorded: Fr Robert Ballecer’s This Week in Enterprise Tech.

20140919-23520093

I noticed that he was interviewing two people over Skype.

That’s good, I thought: it looks as if the format has caught on after all.

Transatlantic Tariffs

September 18th, 2014

Two things keep reminding me that I’m in America and not Britain:

  • Firstly, no signature or PIN is needed on card transactions less than $50.
  • Secondly, completely filling my petrol tank from empty yesterday didn’t even get close to that amount.

If you thought selling insurance was dull, you’re not doing it right

August 31st, 2014

I’m exceedingly proud to count Rose Goslinga amongst my friends.

Improve the visibility through your windscreen…

August 28th, 2014

Road tax discOn 1st October, the tax disc that British cars need to display in their windows is being abolished, nearly a century after it was introduced. Not the tax, you understand, just the disc.

The various government web sites talking about this say that it’s no longer needed ‘because of the electronic register’. They don’t tend to mention the CCTV cameras which now check your number plate much more reliably than the traffic wardens who used to check your tax discs.

This all makes good sense – it should help dramatically reduce the number of uninsured drivers on the road, for example – but it will no doubt also feed the fears of the conspiracy theorists…

I’ve seen the future, and I think I might be hooked

August 25th, 2014

Philips-hue-bulbThere are more costly ways to light your home than by installing Philips Hue lightbulbs — you could, for example, send your butler on trips around the world to gather various species of fireflies, bring them back and cultivate them in custom-made crystal chandeliers — but I suspect not very many.

For those who haven’t come across them, these are mains LED bulbs that you install in place of traditional ones, but with the added benefit that you can change both their brightness and their colour remotely, from an app on your phone or tablet. Now, I am a serious gadget enthusiast, and I liked the sound of these when they first appeared, but I quickly dismissed them, for several reasons.

First, did I mention that they are expensive? By expensive, I mean £45-50 per bulb. Yes. Per bulb. They come as standard-shape bulbs with screw-fittings, or as those little GU10 spotlights which are so trendy nowadays. Got six of them in your dining room? That would mean… well, you can do the maths. If you don’t already have low-energy bulbs, you can make an argument that they’ll pay for themselves in a few years, but most of us have already had to switch, and my previous attempts at buying expensive LEDs have not been encouraging: the majority of them have failed within about 18 months.

Secondly, they seemed, well, a bit childish. I loved playing with multi-coloured light bulbs in my bedroom when I was 12 years old. But now, well, I don’t really want the house to look like a night club or bordello. It’s sad, but, as an old married couple, we seldom have the kind of parties for which red and purple glows in the corners of rooms are needed.

And then, of course, they come with screw fittings, which is terribly European, but in Britain we tend to have those somewhat-annoying bayonet sockets, unless, that is, we bought most of our lights at Ikea.

And finally, do I really want to pull out a phone, unlock it, find and start an app, just to turn the lights up or down? What will my wife, Rose, do, since she almost never carries her phone, and has only started up about three phone apps in her life?

No, in the end, I thought, it’s easier just to stick to our nice dimmer switches, and buy up stocks of incandescent bulbs from Amazon to use with them, for as long as the EU will let us.

And yet, I had some nagging doubts.

You see, I kept hearing good things about the Hue system from people who had it. “I bought a starter kit to play with and I now have 14 bulbs!”, said one person. “One of the few Internet-of-things products that just works out of the box”, said another. It was a bit like when I finally bought Sonos speakers, or a ScanSnap scanner – both were expensive decisions that I’ve never since regretted. People who have these things, on the whole, really like them.

But – and this was the key issue – I was very aware that this, or something like it, has to be the future.

Assuming we are not going to restrict ourselves to the simple on/off switch for all our future lighting — even if we don’t want colour-changing bulbs, but just dimmable bulbs — then we have a problem with our current model. LEDs cannot be effectively dimmed simply by turning up and down the voltage, as we used to do with hot filaments. Yes, you can buy ‘dimmable’ bulbs which try to work with existing dimmer switches, but it’s a bodge, a stopgap at best – they never do a very good job.

No, the right way to do this is clearly to separate the power circuitry from the control. In an ideal world, we’d probably run four wires to each lightbulb instead of two or three, but retrofitting that to any existing building would be a nightmare. So we have to keep the power lines, ignore or remove the old light switch, and use another method to control the brightness, such as a wireless signal. Now, once you can control the brightness of an individual LED, it’s very easy to put red, green and blue ones in a single package and control them individually, which means you get colour control almost for free. At the simplest level, companies like Auraglow make bulbs which come with a remote control: you can change the colour from anywhere in the room by pressing a little button on the channel-changer. It’s a fun toy. But any lighting system that’s going to stand the test of time needs more than that.

I know what I want from my ideal lighting system. It needs to be managed through the network. I want the lighting to respond to timers, to motion sensors, to external events, to IFTTT rules. In an ideal world, it would have a nice open programming interface, so lots of people could write software to control it, and my house wouldn’t depend on one iPhone app. Ideally it would use one of the established wireless standards, rather than yet another proprietary protocol, so there’s some chance it could interact with other devices using the same standard. I’d like the communications to be two-way, so different components could find out what the state of the lighting is now, and not assume that they already know; that they are the only things interacting with it. And it would be helpful if there were libraries for some of my favourite programming languages so that writing my own software, if it proved necessary, would be easy.

And the more I thought about this, the more I realised that Philips had already built my ideal lighting system.

It was very expensive, but I can’t imagine Edison exactly gave away his bulbs at the start of the last lighting revolution, either. I was willing to pay for quality. And I was definitely willing to pay to experience the future.

philips-starterSo I ordered the three-bulb starter kit, which includes a gateway that connects the system to the network. I explained to my long-suffering wife that this was part of experiencing the future, and she smiled at me in a bemused way that made it clear that (a) she was used to this kind of thing by now and (b) she fortunately had no idea of the financial outlay involved.

Converting them to fit in our bayonet sockets turned out to be an easy process, and I started to play. Within a very short period, I had ordered three more bulbs.

The first thing I found out is that changing colour is very valuable, but not because I wanted patches of purple kitchen. For me, it’s about subtle changes of colour temperature: morning light to high noon to evening glow to tungsten coziness. More about that later.

The only more saturated colour I use is a dim red (I call it ‘low glow’), which we turn on when heading to the TV room to watch a movie – it feels like the low light in cinema corridors. The lights on the landing also switch automatically into this mode at about the time we’re heading for bed, so that any late-night pottering about is done in a rosy dimness that makes me think I’m in a submarine, about to surface and not wanting to destroy my night vision. Run silent, run deep. A little while after midnight, they fade out over a 15-min period, so I don’t have to get up to turn them off.

It was even reasonably wife-friendly, since you can reset the bulbs in the time-honoured way: by turning them off and then on again. They lose their settings and come back with a pleasant warm white. Others have complained about this: if you have them in the bedroom, and there’s a power cut during the night, you’ll certainly know when the power comes back on! But for me it was a feature. All good so far. But it gets better.

You see, there was still the problem of having to reach for a gadget whenever you wanted to interact with them. I knew that this would prove to be too much of a nuisance, and we’d end up just flicking the light switch off when we left a room, which would destroy a big part of the experiment: I wanted to see whether we could usefully automate our lights so that you wouldn’t need to turn them on and off: most of the time they would just be at the right level. And you can’t do that if they’ve been switched off at the power source.

20140823-18271203Fortunately, there was a solution on the horizon for this, too: the Philips Hue Tap, a four-button switch which can be programmed to select different scenes, and which has a couple of really nice features: firstly, it can be unclipped from its mounting plate, so you can put it on the coffee table or kitchen workshop if wanted, and secondly, it needs no batteries! The button presses need to be fairly firm, but that’s because it harvests enough energy from them to transmit the signal. These were still tantalisingly unavailable on Amazon UK, but someone in a newsgroup mentioned that they had found one at their local Apple store. I popped into town and, sure enough, there they were. Not actually on the shelves, which were looking a little bare — “Someone just came in and bought enough kit to do their entire house!” — but they still had some in stock at the back. I went home with two, and they work beautifully.

The next excitement is that there’s a new bulb coming soon: the Philips ‘Lux’ – which allows you to control the brightness but not the colour, and costs about half as much as the Hue. We have a few ceiling light-fittings which take two bulbs, and equipping each of them with Hues would be decidedly pricey. So I have some Luxes on pre-order, which Amazon should deliver in a week or two. That was always really my intention: the Hues were a frivoulous experiment, I thought.

In the intervening time, though, I’ve found I really like the colour-changing abilities. I’ve always tried to get low-energy bulbs to be as ‘warm’ as possible, so they feel comparable to incandescent bulbs. Some people like a very white light, but in general I don’t want to feel as if I’m in an operating theatre. Now, though, I’m discovering that different colour temperatures are good at different times of day. The problem with a warm tungsten glow is that it is clearly an artificial warm tungsten glow. Our upstairs landings have no windows, so we often need lights switched on during the day, and having a very different colour of light from the outside world somehow emphasises the fact that there are no windows. Now, for most of the day, we just turn on some daylight, almost as if we’ve installed an extra window.

I, of course, think that it’s fun to be able to turn the entire house into a submarine by pressing a single, non-battery-powered button. But I knew that this whole experiment might be a longer-term success the day after I installed the bulbs, when Rose (who normally tolerates, rather than embracing, my high-tech projects) volunteered a comment over dinner. “I have to admit”, she said, “it was really quite nice having that daylight in the hall outside my study today.”

Yes, the system has its flaws — the cost, the limited range of bulbs, some quirks in the standard app — but I think it also has many qualities which point to what the future of lighting will be. And the fact that it has this degree of spousal acceptance — so far, at least — suggests it may also point to what the future of our lighting will be as well!

Sign of the times

August 17th, 2014

My programmable remote control has shortcuts for various activities:

  • Watch Roku
  • Watch Mac Mini
  • Watch a disk
  • Watch live TV

For the last year or so, ‘Watch live TV’ has been relegated to the second page… and I don’t think I’ve used it…

2014-08-17-16.10.53

The REAL Cliff Richard story

August 16th, 2014

I have no idea whether Sir Cliff Richard really had some indiscretions a quarter of a century ago with someone marginally under the legal age limit, and frankly I don’t care.

What I do care about is the way our legal system now favours trial by “twelve good tabloids and true”. Geoffrey Robertson’s excellent article in the Independent describes how the law works for celebrities now. Worth reading.