Metric of the Moment

Being on the technology-side of the telco industry, it’s interesting to see how all the complexity of technological advances is packaged up and sold to the end user. An approach that I’ve seen used often is reducing everything to a single number – a metric that promises to explain the extent of technological prowess hidden “under the hood” of a device.

I can understand why this is appealing, as it tackles two problems with the steady march of technology. Firstly, all the underlying complexity should not need to be understood by a customer in order for them to make a buying decision – there should be a simple way to compare different devices across a range. And secondly, the retail staff should not need to spend hours learning about the workings of new technology every time a new device is brought into the range.

However, an issue with reducing everything to a single number is that it tends to encourage the industry to work to produce a better score (in order to help gain more sales), even when increasing the number doesn’t necessarily relate to any perceptible improvement in the utility of the device. Improvements do tend to track with better scores for a time, but eventually they pass a threshold where better scores don’t result in any great improvement. Reality catches up with such a score after a few months, when the industry as a whole abandons it to focus on another metric. The whole effect is that the industry is obsessed with the metric of the moment, and these metrics change from time to time, long after they have stopped being useful.

Here are some examples of the metrics-of-the-moment that I’ve seen appear in the mobile phone industry:

  • Talk-time / standby-time. Battery types like NiCd and NiMH were initially the norm, and there was great competition to demonstrate the best talk-time or standby-time, which eventually led to the uptake of Li-Ion batteries. It became common to need to charge your phone only once per week, which seemed to be enough for most people.
  • Weight. Increasing talk-time or standby-time could be accomplished by putting larger batteries into devices, but at a cost of weight. A new trend emerged to produce very light handsets (and to even provide weight measurements that didn’t include the battery). The Ericsson T28s came out in 1999 weighing less than 85g, but with a ridiculously small screen and keyboard (an external keyboard was available for purchase separately). Ericsson later came out with the T66 with a better design and which weighed less than 60g, but then the market moved on.
  • Thinness. The Motorola RAZR, announced at the end of 2004, kicked off a trend for thin clamshell phones. It was less than 14mm thick (cf. 1mm thinner than the T28s). Other manufacturers came out with models, shaving off fractions of millimeters, but it all became a bit silly. Does it really matter if one phone is 0.3mm thicker than another?
  • Camera megapixels. While initially mobile phone cameras had rather feeble resolutions, they have since ramped up impressively. For example, the new Nokia N8 has a 12 megapixel camera on board. Though, it is hard to believe that the quality of the lens would justify capturing all of those pixels.
  • Number of apps. Apple started quoting the number of apps in the app store of its iPhone soon after it launched in 2008, and it became common to compare mobile phone platforms by the number of apps they had. According to 148Apps, there are currently over 285,000 apps available to Apple devices. One might think that we’ve got enough apps available now, and it might be time to look at a different measure.

In considering what the industry might look to for its next metric, I came up with the following three candidates:

  • Processor speed. This has been a favourite in the PC world for some time, and as mobiles are becoming little PCs, it could be a natural one to focus on. Given that in both the mobile and PC worlds, clock speed is becoming less relevant as more cores appear on CPUs and graphics processing is handled elsewhere, perhaps we will see a measure like DMIPS being communicated to end customers.
  • Resolution. The iPhone 4 Retina 3.5″ display, with 960×640 pixels and a pixel density of 326 pixels / inch, was a main selling point of the device. Recently Orustech announced a 4.8″ display with 1920×1080 pixels, giving a density of 458 pixels / inch, so perhaps this will be another race.
  • Screen size. The main problem with resolution as a metric is that we may have already passed the point where the human eye can detect any improvement in pixel densities, so screens would have to get larger to provide benefit from improved resolutions. On the other hand, human hands and pockets aren’t getting any larger, so hardware innovations will be required to enable a significant increase in screen size, eg. bendable screens.

But, really, who knows? It may be something that relates to a widespread benefit, or it may be a niche, marketing-related property.

The fact that these metrics also drive the industry to innovate and achieve better scores can be a force for good. Moore’s Law, which was an observation about transistor counts present in commodity chips, is essentially a trend relating to such a metric, and has in turn resulted in revolutionary advances in computing power over the last four decades. We haven’t hit the threshold for it yet – fundamental limits in physical properties of chips – so it is still valid while the industry works to maintain it.

However, it is really the market and the end customers that select the next metric. I hope they choose a good one.

Dijon Stuffing Recipe

By luck, and a little bit of planning, the night of our October recipe club dinner fell on Canadian Thanksgiving. So, the theme was a given.

While part of the fun of a Thanksgiving theme is over-the-top food (marshmallows in main course and all that), the dish I cooked that I’m going to keep in the repertoire is this fantastic stuffing that I found at Below is my slightly modified version of it.


100g butter
1/4 cup Dijon (French) mustard
1 large onion
2 sticks celery (enough to make ~1 cup when chopped)
110g sliced water chestnuts (e.g. from a can)
1/2 cup crumbed walnuts
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
salt and pepper
3 cups dried bread crumbs (~300g)
200mL of chicken stock


Finely chop the onion and celery.

Melt the butter and mustard together in a large saucepan, and when combined, add the onion and celery.

Cook until onion is softened, then stir in water chestnuts, walnuts, thyme, and pepper & salt to taste.

Mix in the breadcrumbs until thoroughly combined.

You can pause at this point if you wish, and place the mix in an airtight container in the fridge overnight. This enables you to make this part in advance. The last stage can be combined with removing a turkey from the oven to rest.

Heat oven to 180 degrees Celsius.

Add chicken stock to the mixture and stir through. It will begin clumping together.

Spread on a baking tray and cook in oven for 20 – 30 mins, until crust begins to dry. Then, remove from oven and serve.

Makes approx 1.5L or enough for 10 adults.

Getting back into flute

I think the last time I sung in a concert (where people paid actual money to hear it) was back in 2005, when we lived on the opposite side of the planet. I had begun to really miss having a musical outlet, and somehow I had managed not to end up in a choir, so what to do …

Start playing the flute again?

I learned the flute when I was at school, from year 6 through to year 12. During those 7 years, apparently I got to a half-decent level, since I received a music bursary to cover the payment of my music tuition (although, in hindsight, it might’ve been a scam to try to get more students into the choir and orchestra). But, in any case, putting in hours of practice every week for that many years must lodge some of it in the brain. Maybe even if it is about twenty years later.

So, in June, a friend mentioned that her orchestra might be interested in having another flautist around while one of theirs was on an overseas tour, and would I be interested in trying out for that. Would I? Yes!

It was to my astonishment and continual surprise that I was allowed to rehearse with the great bunch of people that is the Napier Community Orchestra all the way up to the concert that we performed today. Thank you to my fellow flutes (Belinda, Naomi) and oboe (Anne) for allowing me to come along, as rusty as I was.

It’s not like I hadn’t been doing anything musical for the last twenty years, and performing with choirs in the intervening time turned out to have really helped my sight-reading. Also, never underestimate the advantage a “mature age student” has over young students in self-directed learning.

Still, it was with a lot of excitement and perhaps even more terror, I sat down on stage this afternoon and played in a concert where, for the first time ever, I was the accompaniment to a choir. It was great, and I hope I get the opportunity to continue with it. Having a musical outlet is very satisfying.

If others out there in Internet-land are interested in opening that dusty flute case that they’ve had stashed under the bed and getting some music on, then I hope the information below will be of some use and encourage you to try getting into the flute again.

Playing the old instrument

If you’re like me, you’ll probably discover that your flute doesn’t quite hit all the notes as well as it used to, at least not without a lot of pressure on the keys. Unfortunately, while the metal parts of the flute are likely to survive well, the cork and pads can degrade. In particular, the pads can go hard over the years and then no longer seal the holes when you press on the keys. To fix this, I had to get my flute serviced, at a cost of a couple of hundred dollars.

You can get flute services at places like Wombat Woodwind & Brass or The Music Place. You can also speak to a flute teacher or the like for their recommendations.

Another thing I found was that, compared to when I was learning flute at high school, electronic tuners are now widely available at reasonable prices. I found it incredibly useful to practice my long notes with one in front of me to help me learn which notes I needed to adjust to keep in pitch. It was a real eye-opener.

You should be able to find something like the Temby Smart Tuner or Korg CA-1 in most music shops for $20-$30.

Another thing that I didn’t expect when I picked up the flute again is that my ability to assume the traditional flute playing posture (flute held out straight to the right) was not what it used to be. This made it harder to keep in pitch at the beginning.

You may also want to check out Jennifer Cluff who has some helpful info on returning to the flute.

Playing with a group

One of the things that Jennifer recommends in her link is finding a reason to play regularly, such as with a partner, with a teacher, or in a group. Since my opportunity to resume playing was based on playing with a group, that clearly helped me.

I had forgotten many aspects of playing in an orchestra. It was strange and interesting to rediscover them.

Firstly, there was the counting. In a choir, I had the music for other parts (or at least the accompaniment) to look at when I wasn’t singing. However, orchestral parts are full of rests. So, I had to learn to count again.

It reminded me of dancing, where you need to really learn the basic steps for your feet, so that they could unconsciously go at it while you focus on all the leading-following stuff. For the orchestra, I needed to be always tracking the beat and my count through the rests. It was something I’ve been working hard at, and can still improve.

Secondly, there was tuning. Again, I worked hard at this and can still improve. Learning how the different notes on my instrument needed to be adjusted up or down as I played them was extremely helpful. I also found marking that info on my score to remind me was also good for when the playing got intense.

I’ve come across some fascinating information on the physics of flutes by the University of NSW that helped me understand the finer aspects of flute tuning. I’m not sure if it was helpful, but I like to have the background knowledge.

Lastly, it was amazing when all the different parts came in together, but it was also very distracting and made it difficult to hear if the instrument was behaving (over/underblowing, etc.). I think the brass section knows exactly how distracting and loud they are, but what can they do – they’re brass. This, in particular, made playing in a rehearsal (or performance) very different to playing at home for practice. I really had forgotten this. Practicing against a recording of the piece helped me deal with this somewhat. I think repeated exposure at rehearsals will help more.

However, playing your flute with a group is only possible if you can find a group. It sounds like there aren’t so many in the northern / western suburbs of Melbourne, so here are the ones that I have heard about. Of course, they require different levels of proficiency to join, but may be a useful place to start. In no particular order:

If you give it a go, all the best!

Time’s a ticking

The life expectancy of an Australian male is 78.7 years, and for a female is 83.5 years.

It is said that death is the great leveller, but really it is our time alive that puts us on a level playing field. Two people might have vastly different wealth, power, intelligence, or other desirable qualities. However, if those two people are of similar age and health, they will have roughly similar time left available to them in their lives. A hour from one from them is about as precious as an hour from the other.

While exchange rates fluctuate, money one day may be worth half as much the next day, or twice as much. But a person’s time has steady value, and is consumed by them at a constant rate of one hour every hour, while everyone gets the same 24 hours in any particular day.

But it can’t be invested. You can’t deposit a week into a bank, and pull out two weeks later on. The balance of years, that for everyone at birth is roughly the same, can only decrease.

Despite its lack of tangibility, time is probably the most valuable thing that any person can give to another.

Time is very special. But it seems to me, that these days, there is less time to share around. This observation has been given some weight by recent research from Robin Dunbar and Sam Roberts.

Dunbar and Roberts found that while people typically start with five very close friends, after developing an intimate relationship, their friendship group reduces to three very close friends plus the one romantic interest. If the new love was outside the original friendship group, then there are two people who are no longer very close friends. The time consumed by the lover doesn’t leave enough to maintain all the previous relationships at the same level.

I know of people that I’d consider exceptions to this, but in general, it seems to ring true. People have a little less time for close friends when they start serious dating.

Similarly, my personal experience has been that having a young child consumes not insignificant amounts of time, and I certainly don’t spend as much time with friends as I used to. With a second child on the way, I can see more of my 24 hours being spent with the kids than before.

It’s hardly a unique observation. A quick web search picks up similar thoughts elsewhere.

Still, I hope that my old friends don’t feel too badly that I am not chatting to them or seeing them as often as I used to. My only recourse is to fall back to social networking tools like Facebook or Twitter, and blogs too, of course. Through these I can share an, admittedly small, amount of time across a large number of friends.

I also hope they know that the time we share together online is time that I value highly. It may not be as high-bandwidth as time shared in person, but I value every bit.

It would be great to get more time. But from where?

Life expectancy trends show that we’ve gained about an extra 22 years over the last century. This is due to things like decline in infant mortality, better control of disease and treatment of illness, and healthier lifestyles. It will probably continue to increase little by little, but it’s not going get a sudden bump of 20% or more.

A significant amount of our time alive is spent unconscious. Apparently we spend a third of our life asleep, so if some of that could be reclaimed as awake time, as much as 33% more hours would be available to us. Drugs such as Modafinil and Orexin appear to offer such a promise, but it’s unclear what long-term side effects would result from significant reduction in sleep time, and besides it would also devalue the worth of an hour. If they became popular, anyone not taking the drug would have comparatively fewer hours to offer and find time management even more of a struggle.

An alternative, drug-free way that may offer significantly more time in your life is a practice called caloric restriction. The idea is to consume 10% or more fewer calories in a day than average, and this will make you life longer. Or perhaps it will just feel longer. Certainly, it is a risky practice, but apparently has been shown to work with fruit flies, mice, rats, fish and monkeys. Definitive human results have yet to come in, because, of course, we live too long.

If we do manage to find more time, it will be interesting to see whether Dunbar and Roberts’ findings change. Perhaps people will have more friends. Or perhaps they will have more lovers.

In any case, it’s time for me to spend some of my remaining time in some much-needed sleep.