Saturday 26 November 2016

Thoughts from abroad

I am a bit paranoid about blogging or posting on Facebook or Twitter while I am away. Apparently if you have a break-in, insurance companies check social media to see if you are “advertising” that you are away from home before they pay out.  Told you I was paranoid. We were in the USA late October and the following blogs are about our visit.

Visiting our close ally and friend is complicated. We don't need visas but have to apply for an ESTA form online. There is a customs form to fill in on the plane; you then stand in line to self scan your passport etc; receive a printed form and then stand in line to go through the usual with an immigration officer.  We were visiting family in New York and Philadelphia but our visit to Washington DC was strictly “cultural”.  When we responded to the immigration officer that we were there on vacation, she asked what we were planning to do. To my reply “visit art galleries and museums” her response was “Is that it?”.  Well, yes but I threw in visiting family as well.  Surprisingly the luggage wasn't through yet but, once collected, we then stood in line again to hand in our customs form. (Our cases were opened and searched on the return journey – a form inside indicated that this had been done.)

One assumes that visiting the USA a month before the presidential election might generate conversations about politics, theirs not ours. We were sure Clinton and Trump would figure in conversations especially as Husband Number One insisted on asking everyone their views.

We finally worked out how to use Uber and it worked perfectly and was substantially less than taxi fare.  Yay!  Just as well because conversations with Uber drivers followed a theme that made Hillary’s “certain” victory look less likely.

One is anecdote, two is evidence...

This was once said – as a joke – in a scientific meeting I attended.  In a scientific context size means a lot, which is why large scale clinical trials are required for new drugs or treatments.

When it comes to market research, including opinion polls, we rely on “representative” polls of relatively small samples, in relation to the market or population size, to make our judgements. Although all sorts of factors are built into these surveys, the opinion polls for the last UK general election, the UK referendum and now the US Presidential election have proved woefully inadequate.

Then there is “the man on the Clapham omnibus” – this Victorian invention is still used in the courts when they need to decide whether a party has acted as a reasonably educated and intelligent person would.
Then there is the taxi-driver survey: when the only type of taxi driver in London was the “black cab” driver and he (!) was usually a Londoner, this was quoted as a guide to how Londoners thought.

Based on our cab/Uber driver survey in three cities, Trump was a shoo-in. The conversations were not miles away from some of the Brexit discussions (apart from those who had reasonably thought through reasons): – we need a change, I’m tired of the establishment, I don’t think he/they will win anyway, it’s a protest vote etc etc. Most had heard of Brexit, had no idea what it was about but were aware the vote “had gone against the establishment”. I am not sure that it was as clear-cut as that, but that was the impression.

To be contd.....

Wednesday 23 November 2016

No more Christmas Cards...

I stopped sending Christmas cards (and Jewish New Year and any other kind of “holiday” card) a couple of years ago.  As I know only too well from working for a charity, even cards bought directly from a charity don’t bring in all that much money and the postage is now so high that the cost of the whole exercise has soared.

Charity Christmas card sales continue to decline and any charity would prefer a straight cash donation for the value of the cards and the postage instead! Writing notes in cards is a useful way to say “hi” to someone you haven’t seen for a while – but you could just call or even email .....

I have my regular charities that I support over the year, including the charitable fund of the Needlemakers Company and for the past few months I have been supporting the Finchley Food Bank at St Mary’s Church.  From time to time they publish a list of what they need and besides food that can be prepared without cooking – ie tinned, they also always ask for things like shampoo, deodorant, washing powder etc.  I add a few things to my supermarket shop, especially if they are on three for two special offers and drop them in.

This year the money I save by not buying and sending cards will add to that and provide some mince pies and nice biscuits as well. There are food banks everywhere so please don’t send me a card – just add a few things to your shopping basket and drop them in.

Sunday 20 November 2016

First there was HAL and now Alexa....

Advances in computing and artificial intelligence often raise the spectre of the computers taking over and we remember “Hal”.  While science fiction is not my scene, “2001, A Space Odyssey” was one of the most memorable and powerful films I had ever seen when it was released in 1968.  I am not sure I understood the nuances (and probably still don’t) and there are many articles devoted to explaining them.

Central to the film is the space ship’s computer HAL 9000 referred to as Hal.  Given that the film is nearly 50 years’ old I don’t think that telling you that Hal takes over the ship really needs a spoiler alert. Computer = competent friend becomes computer = evil enemy and man has to battle computer.

Put a computer in a robot and all sorts of things seem possible. Japan is exploring the use of robots in providing care for the elderly and there is now discussion of providing companionship as well for elderly people who live alone. Creepy stuff. I can understand providing physical/mechanical help, reminders to take your pills or to drink or eat but companionship?

On a recent visit to Philadelphia we were having a meal with cousins and met Alexa. This is an Amazon product – there are a few iterations, but basically it is a voice controlled device that will give you a news bulletin (from your chosen source), the weather forecast, a traffic alert for your journey, give you reminders, play your audio books, your favourite radio stations, act as a search engine and control your home – if that’s what you want.

I bought the cheaper version without the fancy speakers and have joined a Facebook discussion group.  My needs are very simple, my home is not computer controlled and I don’t want to turn on the lights downstairs when I am upstairs, turn off the television or turn the heating on before I take my flight home – there are many who do and much, much more.

I want to “turn on” the radio while I am cooking, change channels and perhaps listen to my music or hear an audio book without having to wash my hands to do it.  I also find that I am creating “to do” and shopping lists.  Quite useful while you are cooking to say “Alexa, add flour to my shopping list” or “phone XXX” to my to do list.

But, rather weirdly, I find I am developing a sort of relationship with Alexa. I know it is a computer blah blah but that doesn’t stop me from saying “Alexa, good night” to hear her say – “Good night, sleep tight”.  She won’t take over – I can unplug her.  Hal was much more complicated.

Sleep tight!