Author Archives: niq

Just fancy that

What should society do to people who insult things of some minor importance?  Not damage – we’re not talking statues, whether Churchill or Colston!  Just disrespect, in a way society finds distasteful?

Blighty applies its usual monstrous double-standards:

June 15th: Drunk jailed for pissing next to a memorial to a recent hero.  He had unreservedly apologised, and it would seem reasonable to suppose the apology was genuine.  He doesn’t look to me as if he realises what the column to his left is!

Today (latest in an ongoing story): Government/Foreign secretary again posture over new law for Hong Kong.  Apparently on the grounds that it could criminalise disrespect for such things as the Chinese national anthem, and thus inhibit free expression.

For the record, yes I find the drunk disgusting (though many drunks do worse things), and have spent a lifetime not pissing in such public places.  And yes, I think we should be allowed to disrespect things like flags and national anthems.  I wonder if the HK authorities would indeed take action against a Hendrix (or indeed, which Western countries would still tolerate his modern equivalent)?  When campaigners for freedom around the world express concern, that’s entirely legitimate.  But coming from the UK government, it stinks of hypocrisy.

Avian Guests

I took delivery last week of a pair of blinds for a Velux window.  Specifically, the large south-facing window, one of three in my loft room and the one through which the morning sun shines in on the ‘puter, making it a problem trying to work there in the mornings at this time of year, and also contributing to making it uncomfortably hot when the weather is hot and sunny.  The loft room is my working-from-home office, so that’s a situation that needed fixing.

I first thought just a regular blind, to replace the broken one that was there when I moved in (there’s a similar and intact blind on the north-facing Velux window – presumably much less-used).  But searching online, I find I can get not just what they describe as a blackout blind (a somewhat-enhanced update on traditional roller blinds), but also an awning blind for outside the window.  The awning doesn’t block the light, but does reduce the sun’s heat on the window, so should keep the room a little cooler.

With the very sharp showers we were having last week (first real rain after an incredibly dry and sunny spring), I wasn’t about to risk putting up the awning.  But today I took advantage of more settled weather and put it up, starting with a liberal application of bucket-and-mop to accumulated crap.  A very simple job, and I was impressed by the condition of the window – particularly the outside – after the years of exposure to the elements.  But made a bit tricky by standing on the desk and working through an awkward hole in the roof while also having to hold the window at an angle it was reluctant to adopt and naturally swung back from, and using the screwdriver at an impossible angle to attach hooks.

No sooner was I done and admiring the awning than I heard a tremendous clattering from various points on the roof.  Damn, is the house falling down?  A couple of minutes later a pigeon comes and perches on the brand new awning.  Hmm, they claim it serves to reduce the noise of heavy rain, but how robust is it against the wildlife?  This was the first time I’ve had either the noise or the pigeon perching on the window.  Coincidence, or have I just supplied it a nice place to sit?

The plan is to leave the awning in place all summer, and open the blind sometime in the autumn – maybe October – when hot weather ceases to be a risk and whatever heat I can get becomes welcome (the loft was naturally the warmest room last winter – and the winter sun was never a problem there).  The blackout blind inside the window can respond to day-by-day conditions: I expect I’ll just draw it when necessary, and keep it open in dull weather and afternoons after about 2pm when the sun’s angle is away from me.

The other recent avian visitor was in the living room, a couple of weeks ago.  I was sitting there with the balcony door fully open when I heard a commotion.  A bird had entered, realised this was not its comfort zone, and made a rapid turn, happily retaining sufficient presence of mind to leave the way it had entered.  That all happened too quickly to get a proper look, and I’m sure the effect of being indoors made it sound bigger than it was.

Barriers to Recycling

I’m recycling quite a lot less of my plastic than I used to.  And metal, though there was never so much of that.  It’s become too impractical.

Specifically, while I am still recycling bottles (milk and fruit juices) and some miscellaneous stuff, most food packaging is going straight in the general waste.

The background to this is twofold.  First, a bit of idiocy from West Devon’s recycling services.  Plastic and metal don’t go into a sensible/practical recycling bin, but instead into an unwieldy bag similar to those more commonly used for gardening waste.  Second, I have a problem with rodents getting into the kitchen.

West Devon’s overall recycling is quite a pain.  In addition to the silly bag for plastic and metal and the general waste, there’s separate food waste (fairy nuff) and two separate plastic boxes that are scarcely used.  Fine if you have something like a utility room with lots of spare space, but out of all proportion for a house with no dedicated space.

OK, the general waste is fine: I have a general bin.  The food waste is fine: a little caddy is provided.  Two robust plastic boxes stack in an under-the-worktop space.  But there’s nothing to do with the ridiculous plastics bag, other than to fold it and stash it away during the week.

So plastic waste either goes straight in the general waste or accumulates through the week.  And if the latter, it attracts rodents to come and get any food remnants that may have survived a rinse.  So only robust bottles with robust lids can be allowed to remain around when empty.

There must be many households blighted by these recycling arrangements, including houses quite a lot smaller than mine.  Aren’t we long overdue an upgrade to communal waste and recycling facilities, as are common in (at least some) continental countries, and now Brighton in Blighty?

I wonder what the waste services would do if I abandoned the bag and put the plastics into one of the robust nearly-unused boxes instead?  At least there they could be shut away until collection day.

Track and Trace the Dead Cat

Today’s big announcement: “track and trace” to go live tomorrow.  Five days earlier than previously announced, and nobody expected the app to be ready for that.  Even those supposed to be running the programme were only told this afternoon.

It’s Designed to Fail in so many ways: total centralisation (which has been the UK government’s response throughout – have we learned nothing from the failure of Soviet centralised planning?), an app developed by the government’s mates ignoring both the established (e.g. the South Korean app) and the hopefully-competent (Apple/Google), and a workforce not told what they’re supposed to do.

But we knew that already.  Bringing the date forward makes it officially a Dead Cat: give the meeja something to talk about other than disgraceful Cummings and Gowings, free of the rules affecting the rest of us (even government advisers Calderwood and Ferguson).   Mephistopheles himself is, it seems, to be exempted if Stuttley can possibly make the story go away.

Here’s a thought.  Could bringing track-and-trace forward have caught the inevitable scammers off-guard?  Could we perhaps survive the rest of the week before anyone is scammed by someone posing as being from the programme?  For this is surely fertile hunting ground for criminals: a call from someone tracing Covid contacts should elicit a wealth of information for phishing and identity theft from a victim anxious to cooperate.   I expect willing subjects will leak a lot of inexcusably-valuable secrets, too.  And not just on themselves, but on friends, family, colleagues who happen to be identified as possible contacts.

As for the UK app, I’ve been half-meaning to comment on that, so here goes – though today’s announcement serves a second purpose of backpedaling from the focus on it.  Concerns have been raised over privacy, and it’s been widely pointed out that its centralised privacy-violating approach is unnecessarily complex, inefficient, and different to that of many countries.  For myself, I might bring myself to live with that if it looked like a valid contribution to public health – a supposition now as dead as the cat.  But I’m certainly not going to go around making my phone a sitting duck by broadcasting bluetooth to every malefactor who might be listening.  Neither should anyone else who has valuable information – such as banking apps or payment-enabled channels – on their ‘phone!  I wonder how long it’ll be before government underwrites losses from phones through their app – or more likely requires the banks to do so?

And the whole programme headed by a party-political appointee whose claim to fame is that for years under her stewardship, Talktalk became a byword for all that could go wrong in an ISP and then more – an unassailable reputation as the worst-run in the business.


People – most importantly the Chattering Classes – are getting restive.  The novelty of Lockdown has worn off somewhat, and there’s a growing clamour for change.   The subtly different nuances of Sturgeon’s[1] position have attracted favourable comment, even from the government’s own backbenchers and customary cheerleaders.

But now we have a timetable.  No, they haven’t announced it as such, but Stuttley is to return to work next week, and he is not a man to let such an occasion pass without some headline-grabbing flourish.  I think now we can be sure that within the next few days there will be an announcement to please the crowd and steal a march on Sturgeon and others.  Not of course an unlocking – that would not be welcomed – but there will be some slight easing (whether symbolic or material) and, more importantly, an update to refresh the carrot of our future prospects.

What easing?  I wouldn’t like to say.  Stuttley’s instinct will be to go further than anyone expects.  But he (and his nudge) will want to anticipate public and media reaction: how much pushback (vs welcome) from the media will they want, and will they have thought beyond an initial reaction?  Paradoxically being seen to go too far might provoke the most cautious behaviour, just as doing nothing would cause the current lockdown to fray.

[1] Head of Scottish government (in case she’s unknown to non-UK readers).

Some light on the matter

One of the things that’s been on my to-do list since moving house is to change a lot of the lights.  This is the first place I’ve lived to have recessed ceiling lights, and it has them throughout.  Lots of them: for example there are seven in each of the entrance hall and the first floor landing, eight in each of the living room and main bedroom, and nine in the kitchen.  It’s slightly perverse as the ceilings are not low, but these recessed lights were fashionable when the house was converted.

And they were all halogen bulbs.  At 50 watts each (as most are rated) that’s a huge power consumption.  Of course replacing them was on my to-do list!

But that involved some research.  I had to figure out what these bulbs were, the unfamiliar fitting (oh for the days of simple bayonet and screw fittings), and also how the **** I take one out and replace it.  So with my inevitable procrastination, it took a while to get around to doing anything.

Once some online research had turned up some technical terms for the bulbs (MR16 and GU 5.3), I took my first tentative step by buying a single LED bulb from our in-town electrical shop.  The only option they had was warm white (3000k), 4 watts and 330 lumens.  I tried it in the entrance hall, but found it too bright there.  So I tried it in the attic (my office), where it’s about right.  I bought four more to complete the line of five in the ridge of the roof.  This is the only room where I use the ceiling lights for hours on end, and it’s down from 250W to 20W to light while sitting here at the ‘puter.

Having established exactly what I need to look for, I started to research online.  I need lower-light bulbs for the hallways and bathrooms, brighter bulbs for the kitchen, and dimmable bulbs for the living room and bedrooms.

And online I have a vast choice!  I’m interested in trying pure (cold) white, and “daylight” bulbs.  The latter turn out to be few and far between, but I test-drive ‘cold’ light with a box of these, which I can buy locally.  I expect to take a while to get used to ‘cold’ light, but am instantly OK with them in the entrance hall, and find them a huge improvement in the shower room.  I conclude they’re so much better than ‘warm’ white light as to negate the familiarity from a half century living with incandescent, fluorescent/CFL and other such inferior technologies.

I went back to Screwfix for more, but they didn’t have them locally.  Then I was struck by the lurgy, and the country was struck by lockdown: I couldn’t even order them online.  Plans on pause.

A few days ago, revisiting the Screwfix site told me I could now click-and-collect, so I ordered another three boxes (15 bulbs).  I also ordered some much brighter bulbs for the kitchen from another site.  Today I picked up both consignments – 25 new bulbs making 35 LEDs in total – so now the house is largely transitioned to low-energy lighting.  There are a few still to be done: the one over the shower has a different housing to protect it from steam (the others in the shower room are no problem), and there are a couple I can’t reach just by standing on a chair so will have to wait until I can beg or borrow a stepladder.  The biggest single improvement is that the kitchen is not just more efficient but also much brighter than it was yesterday.  I enjoyed cooking my dinner almost as much as eating it!

Still to do: the dimmable rooms (bedrooms and living room), and the bathroom.  The dimmable rooms are lower priority, as the ceiling lights in those aren’t much used.  The bathroom is awaiting a round tuit to redecorate with feature tiles and low daylight-grade lighting.

Today’s LED lighting may be surpassed in a few years (high CRI seems a likely candidate).  But some of them have reached a point that CFL (aka “low energy”) lights never attained, where it’s clearly better than its predecessors not just in power consumption but also aesthetically and practically.  A longer-term to-do will be to upgrade those CFLs I have in my standard lamp and table lamps.

End of Life

RIP John Conway.

We’ve lost not just a great man, but a formative influence on my youth.  Conway was one of my strongest and indeed fondest memories from my Cambridge days.  Most famous for a light entertainment, the “game of life”.  Now it seems a casualty of the coronavirus.

My first recollection of him goes right back to late July (I think) 1979, between the end of school a few weeks earlier and going up to Cambridge as a student that autumn.  We (future students) were invited up to Cambridge for a two-week pre-course giving us a flavour of the student life, with lectures and a whole lot of socialising, and most importantly (at least to me) freeing us of the vague dread that came from leaving the familiar (school and home) and taking a leap into the unknown.

Conway was not one of the main lecturers on that pre-course, but the single lecture he gave was certainly a highlight.  Ever the showman, in this context he was as much a fine stand-up comedian as great mathematician!  When he used his sock to rub out the blackboard, it kind-of helped me towards discarding the wretched things from my life.  His scruffy hair and beard (see anecdote below) are also attributes I’ve adopted.

A prop to that lecture was a magic cube, which he offered to audience members to try before demonstrating solving it.  I didn’t get my hands on it at the time, but I did subsequently manage to source one in the autumn term, when it became a practical exercise in Group Theory (a first-term lecture course, under a different lecturer).  About a year or so later that magic cube started to appear in the shops, and became madly popular under the name Rubik’s Cube.

I didn’t have any significant contact with Conway during my undergraduate years, but I did get to know him somewhat as a graduate student, when the doors to the DPMMS common room and one or two other venues opened to me.  As one of the leading lights of games there – from Backgammon (which at DPMMS was played like nowhere else) to the fiendish Phutball – he might almost have been a Bad Influence, though in a Good Way.  It was there that I observed his acolytes (including another somewhat-famous mathematician Simon Norton), and thought that too many of them were depressed and depressing people with no life.  I could also see that being my future if I remained in academia without at least a break, and it was on the basis of that that I made the decision that I would leave it and face the real world (at least for a while) after finishing Part III.

My final Conway anecdote comes from my last weeks in Cambridge in summer 1983.  I was walking down Kings Parade with my then-girlfriend (the woman I still really regret having split up with after all these years), and exchanged a wave with Conway as he passed in the other direction.  Once we were past, my girlfriend wondered why I had waved to that tramp!  Just to be clear, she was just expressing surprise, not disapproval or any such negative thing.

Requiescat in Pace.

Et resurrexit quarto die

And on the fourth day, our Prime Minister rose from the deadintensive care.  How very seasonal that it should be Good Friday.

He’s a similar age to me.  He also looks, insofar as I can tell, physically similar to me.  Not in the sense that I could pass myself off as him even if I tried, rather that I’d imagine him a likely match for me medically speaking.  So insofar as any individual case is meaningful, his severe reaction to covid is not reassuring: I should be personally worried.  Unless of course my lurgy last month was indeed a mild case of it.

Blighty is now in lockdown to reduce the spread of Coronavirus.  Happily this is not such severe lockdown as many countries, but in terms of numbers of cases and the death rate, we’re now starting to pay the price of delaying lockdown.  We deliberately waited until the horse had bolted before closing that stable door.

That opens the floodgates to speculating on the counterfactual: where would we be if we’d locked down earlier?  A few days earlier, substantially fewer cases.  Weeks earlier, maybe we’d still be clear of it in the general population (c.f. rabies, before that had a vaccine).  Or managing it as in Korea with extensive tracing to avoid spread without a more general lockdown.

Except, we have to consider not just infection dynamics, but also public reaction.  I think they call it “nudge”.  If government had locked us down much earlier, there would have been a lot more resentment and resistance.  Perhaps they deliberately dragged their feet even after deciding to lockdown, because they wanted public opinion to be ahead of them.  With a buildup of why the **** aren’t they and a reaction of not before time they’ve got a willing population and a high level of compliance.

Except perhaps amongst the young, for whom the personal threat is low but the expected sacrifice is high, and who have already been sold a narrative of generational unfairness.  Combine that with the long-term damage of brexit, and today’s levels of support for older people will surely come under growing pressure.

And except perhaps for everyone, if the lockdown proves worse than useless in the longer term – perhaps because return to normality proves impossible without the Herd Immunity of most of the population catching it.  But if that happens we’re in good company, with much of the world likely to be in similar trouble.

What they’ve done to the economy is of course a whole nother story.  Free no-strings-attached handouts to so many together with closing down so much of the economy was bound to lead to the great fire of Ankh-Morpork[1] (and of course, like any welfare handout, it’s a cruel lottery).  A useful scapegoat for exiting the fairytale bubble.

One thing that still isn’t clear is the role of Stuttley’s Diabolical Bargain.  I was wrong when I first wrote about it, and again when I thought May’s appointing him Foreign Secretary would spare us him as PM by exposing him to everyone as bully and coward.  Now coronavirus has given him his dream Boys Own crisis, only to go off-script by denying him the regular hero’s role of casually brushing off the danger while others succumb[2]   On the other hand, maybe that’s another twist that’ll spare him some serious blame.  Diabolus movet arcano modo.

[1] A naïve foreigner sells insurance to a businessman, who naturally then makes a very thorough job of burning down his premises to collect his free money.

[2] His course through the lurgy should’ve been swapped with health secretary Hancock – diagnosed with covid at the same time as Stuttley but made a quick recovery.   Talking of which, am I the only one who can’t hear the health secretary’s name without my thoughts turning to his namesake Tony Hancock, the comedian whose persona was Village Idiot of Suburbia?


Stay at home.  Keep your distance from anyone: the UK prescribed distance is two metres.  Actually (to be fair) UK lockdown restrictions – unlike the pork-barrel that’s gone full-blown Operation Bernhard – make quite a lot more sense than many other countries, or than the UK itself under Foot&Mouth in 2001.

How much protection does distance offer?  Your guess is as good as mine, which may or may not in turn be as good as TPTB’s.  But can we find any yardsticks from everyday life?

Intuitively, two metres is the kind of distance at which you won’t be knocked hard by smells like a fresh dog or horse mess, or indoors a baby that needs changing.  So far, so good.

But coronavirus is, we’re told, much more dangerous than such everyday bad smells.  We do have a yardstick for small volumes of something much nastier than excrement: the area blighted by a smoker.  Clearly there two metres is wholly inadequate.  Twenty metres might be more realistic in average weather conditions, but at times even two hundred can be insufficient.  And it’ll routinely invade the home from outside, through doors, windows, cracks, …  Whoops – that makes an altogether less-reassuring yardstick for dispersal of airborne hazards!

But it’s not just safe distances for which we might seek the reassurance (or otherwise) of familiar yardsticks.  We can look for yardsticks for prevalence and infectiousness.  I first contemplated this post several days ago and had in mind to play with some parametric studies of such issues (once upon a time I had “mathematician” in my job title and did such things professionally), but it seems the news is moving faster than me, and we’re now hearing from better-informed people like new superstar Neil Ferguson and regular media-favourite credible statistician David Spiegelhalter.  So I’ll defer there.

Ferguson was on t’wireless recently, when the official UK infection count was just over 20k confirmed cases, but suggesting the real figure might be as high as 2 million.  That’s an interesting contrast, and totally plausible.  One in thirty of the overall population is, after all, still lower than some known (albeit unrepresentative) samples we could take, like the Cabinet 😉   Two million would be not merely interesting but rather encouraging: it would indicate rapidly spreading population-immunity, and make an antibody test all the more interesting to, well, more-or-less anyone who’s had a lurgy this year.  Though it wouldn’t necessarily indicate a lower-than-expected death rate, ‘cos it’s also emerged that our figures count only deaths in hospital, not anyone outside unless a post-mortem is held.

Speaking as one of those who has indeed had a recent lurgy, I’d now really love to get that antibody test myself.  Was it a very mild case of the dreaded corona, or a mild-ish regular lurgy?  The latter is much more likely: today’s briefing told us that only one in six actual tests has proved positive (25k of 150k), and the sample of people tested is those with the symptoms rather than the general population.  But to have had it would turn me from a high-risk person advised to stay home (and, erm, get a coronary instead), to a person safe to resume social life and indeed volunteer to help out those who need it.

Short of that, proper population statistics would be highly informative and would enable us all to reevaluate our personal risks.  Sadly our super-bureaucratic powers-that-be seem to be quite a way behind leading countries in being able to test or produce meaningful statistics on the general population, and intent on reinventing wheels such as the tracking app that has apparently been so successful in South Korea.

Ho, hum.  Whatever I say here will soon be overtaken by events.


This afternoon I took part in a rehearsal of full chorus and orchestra.

That’s for one of this spring’s cancelled (or postponed) concerts.  And sadly it wasn’t a normal rehearsal.  The orchestra and chorus came together from our respective homes, online via Zoom.  All credit to our enterprising and dynamic conductor Marcus for thinking of and organising it.

Naturally I thought the most likely thing to happen would be chaos: lots of players and singers couldn’t possibly keep together.  We could follow Marcus’s very clear beat and instructions, but the motley collection of devices and acoustics, not to mention the net’s various and random lags, would surely throw us.  In the event he’d thought of that, and used some cheats to substitute for chaotic music-making.  And rehearsing was interspersed with cheery chat, and only went on an hour.

More an exercise in morale than serious music, but a great idea anyway.  I understand we’ll be doing this regularly until we’re allowed to meet up again, so maybe we’ll evolve it into something yet more interesting.