“Real Artists Ship”

Colin Johnson’s blog

Old Joke, New Joke (1)

August 23rd, 2017

Old joke: A scientist has a good-luck horseshoe hanging over the door to their lab. A visitor to the lab says to them “Surely you don’t believe in superstitious nonsense like that?”; the scientist replies “Of course not; but, I am told it works even if you don’t believe in it.”

New joke: An atheist goes to church and joins in enthusiastically with the hymns and prayers. Their friend says to them “I thought that you didn’t believe in all of that religious stuff?”; the atheist replies “I don’t; but, I am told it doesn’t work even if you believe in it.”


August 14th, 2017

I have a colleague who is a non-native speaker of English, but who speaks basically fluent English. One gotcha is that he refers to “scrap paper” as “crap paper”—which, when you think about it, isn’t too unreasonable. It’s not unreasonable that “crap paper” could be a commonly-user term for paper that doesn’t have any focused use. I’ve been procrastinating for years about whether to mention this infelicity; it is probably too late now.

Bigger lesson—it is hard, when learning a language, to hoover up those that 0.01% of erroneous knowledge.

Long Dark Night of the Soul (1)

August 14th, 2017

There was an interesting question on AskMe a little while ago—what “about us we are oblivious to, but are totally obvious to others?”. There are a number of excellent responses there. My response was that there are lots of people who go through life oblivious to how disorganised they are. There are people who are frightfully disorganised, and don’t realise the amount of picking up/reminding/pre-emptive care/doing stuff that the people are taking around them to ensure that their life/work/whatever doesn’t collapse in on them. They just think that they are doing the norm, and that somehow the world works with the level of organisation that they have.

This has subsequently provoked in me one of my long dark night of the soul moments, where I worry about what I am doing that doesn’t fit in, that irritates people, etc. I consider myself to be fairly relaxed and laid back, and I often deal with things in a way that is organised but not obviously rushed. I think I am calm but on top of the situation&8212;but, to other people, am I the undercommunicative person who is causing hassle for other people by being too relaxed? Or, have I got the balance right? Perhaps this is the sort of thing that would be interesting to discuss at a 360° review or similar.

The Origins of (Dis)order

August 11th, 2017

I think that where I get into dispute with the social scientists and literary theorists about whether the world is “ordered” is basically down to the counterfactuals we are each thinking of. To them, the fact that sometimes some people can’t quite manage to agree that some words mean the same thing means that the world is fundamentally disordered and truth uncertain and subjective. Whereas to me, I’m constantly gobsmacked that the world isn’t just some isotropic soup of particles and energy, and regard it as amazing that we can even write down some equations that describe at least some aspects of the world to a reasonable level of accuracy, and that by some amazing happenstance the most compact description of the world isn’t just a rote list of particles and their position and momentum.

100 Words

July 29th, 2017

Recently, I spent an hour sitting in a room with around 30 of my colleagues, where we spent the time writing a 100 word description of one of our research papers, sharing it with colleagues, and working together to improve the description. Next month, we will have another session like this, another 30 person hours of effort spent. Another university with which I am familiar employed a creative writing tutor to come in for the afternoon and facilitate a similar exercise.

Why were we doing this? Because one of the requirements of the Research Excellence Framework (REF)—the national assessment of university research quality—requires the submission of research papers to an evaluation panel, each accompanied by a 100 word summary. Even though the next REF isn’t likely to happen until 2021 at the earliest, we are committing a reasonable amount of effort and attention to this; not just to writing our 100 word summaries, but to various mock REF exercises, external evaluations, consulting with evaluators from previous rounds, reading exemplars from previously successful universities, etc. If every university is asking its staff to commit a few hours this year to this kind of activity, this mounts up to about 70 person-years of academic staff effort just this year across the country, not counting the REF officers etc. that the universities employ.

As I have noted elsewhere, I can’t imagine that the politicians and civil servants who devised this scheme had any idea that it would be acted on with this amount of diligence. I imagine that they think that come 2021, we will look at what we have been doing over the last few years, spend a hour or so writing the summaries, and that would be that. The idea that we are practicing for this four years in advance wouldn’t even have crossed their mind (despite the fact that, I’m sure, they are equally driven to do vast amounts of similar exercises—mock elections, draft manifestos, etc.).

Why do we do this? Why don’t we just stick to our core business and do good research, then when it comes to the REF just do the summaries etc. and be done with it? Largely, because of the importance of these results; they are fairly granular, last a long time, and the results are financially and reputationally important, therefore a minor screwup could result in bad consequences for a long time. Also, perhaps, because of the sense of needing to be doing something—we have absorbed some idea that managed is better than unmanaged. And also, because everyone else is doing it. If somehow we could all agree to hold back on this and be equally shoddy, we would be in the same position; but, we are in a “red queen” position where we all must run to be in the same place. Such are the structural inefficiencies of a competition-based system,

Variations on Folk Sayings (18)

May 31st, 2017

Stranger things have happened in C.

Worse than Nothing?

May 27th, 2017

Here’s a thought, which came from a conversation with Richard Harvey t’other week. Is it possible for a degree to harm your job prospects? The example that he came up with was a third class degree in some vocational or quasi-vocational subject such as computer science. If you have a third class degree in CS, what does that say to prospective employers? Firstly, that you are not much of a high-flyer in the subject—that is a no-brainer. But, it also labels you as someone who is a specialist—and not a very good one! The holder of a third in history, unless they are applying specifically for a job relating to history, isn’t too much harmed by their degree. Someone sufficiently desperate will take them on to do something generic (this relates to another conversation I had about careers recently—what are universities doing to engage with the third-class employers that will take on our third-class graduates? Perhaps we need to be more proactive in this area, rather than just dismissive, but this requires a degree of tact beyond most people.). But a third-class computing/architecture/pharmacy student is stuck in the bind that they have declared a professional specialism, and so employers will not consider them for a generic role; whilst at the same time evidencing that they are not very good in the specialism that they have identified with. Perhaps we need to do more for these students by emphasising the generic skills that computer science can bring to the workplace—”computing is the new Latin” as a rather tone-deaf saying goes.

3D vs. 2D Worlds

May 16th, 2017

What is the habitable surface of the world? Actually, that is the wrong question. The right question is “What is the habitable volume of the world?”. It is easy to think that the ratio of marine habitat to land habitat is about 2:1—that is what we see when we look at the globe. But, this ignores the fact that, to a first approximation, the oceans are habitable in three dimensions, whereas the surface of the earth is only habitable in two. This makes the habitable volume of the seas vastly larger than our surface-biased eyes first intuit.

Wai Kika Moo Kau

April 26th, 2017

I specialise in slaughtering sacred cows and discouraging the slaughter of real ones.

“That employability shit”

April 26th, 2017

It is depressing, yet informative, that the end result of no-doubt endless meetings and careful planning and strategy documents and analyses of employability results in the NSS and all that woffle ended in the following fragment of conversation from two students on the bus t’other week discussing the assessments that they had to finish by the end of term:

“…and then there’s [whatever it was], but it’s just that employability shit, so it doesn’t matter.”

(Meta-lesson. You learn a lot by getting the bus up to campus.)

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

April 26th, 2017

Here’s something interesting. It is common for people in entrepreneurship and startup culture to fetishise failure—”you can’t be a proper entrepreneur until you’ve risked enough to have had a couple of failed businesses”. There’s some justification for this—new business ventures need to try new things, and it is difficult to predict in advance whether they will work. Nonetheless, it is not an unproblematic stance—I have written elsewhere about how this failure culture makes problematic assumptions about the financial and life-circumstances ability to fail without disastrous consequences.

But, the interesting point is this. No-one ever talks like this about jobs, despite the reality that a lot of people are going to try out a number of careers before finding the ideal one, or simply switch from career to career as the work landscape changes around them during their lifetime. In years of talking to students about their careers, I’ve never come across students adopting this “failure culture” about employeeship. Why is it almost compulsory for a wannabe entrepreneur to say that, try as they might, they’ll probably fail with their first couple of business ventures; yet, it is deep defeatism to say “I’m going into this career, but I’ll probably fail but it’ll be a learning experience which’ll make me better in my next career.”?

The Subtlety of Prepositions (1)

March 13th, 2017

The English language is very subtle. One of the causes of this subtlety, and one of the things that makes it very difficult to go from advanced non-native speaker to native-like fluency is the influence of prepositions. Some of these are very simple—I remember years ago trying to explain the difference between “in the corner” and “on the corner” with the aid of various bits of cutlery and salt/pepper pots—but, others are much more complex. I’ve just been writing a work-related email to a colleague, and I found myself correcting “If you want to meet up to talk about this further, let me know.” to “If you want to meet to talk about this, let me know.”. Somehow, the verb “to meet up” is casual, about social meetings, etc.; whereas the verb “to meet” is about serious, work-related meetings. Not a distinction that had ever struck me until just now!

Variations on Folk Sayings (17)

March 10th, 2017

“Wouldn’t take ‘fuck off’ as an answer.”

Machine Learning with Context (1)

March 3rd, 2017

Two interesting machine learning/AI challenges (emerging from a chat with my former PhD student Lawrence Beadle yesterday):

  1. Devise a system for automatically doing substitutions in online grocery shopping, including the case which recognises that substituting a Manchester City-themed birthday cake is not an adequate substitution for a Manchester United-themed birthday cake, despite them both being birthday cakes, of the same weight, same price, and both having the word “Manchester” in the name.
  2. Devise a forecasting system that will not predict that demand for turkeys will be enormous on December 27th, or flowers on February 15th.

Both of these need some notion of context, and perhaps even explanation.

Professional Practice

February 17th, 2017

Is there such a thing as a set of skills that apply across all of the professions? When I first started to come across (still rather rare) university departments of “professional practice”, I was bemused. Professional practice in what? Is there really enough common to being a nurse, barrister, dentist, accountant, town planner, occupational therapist, etc. etc. to call all of their activities “professional practice”? These seem, at least initially, to consist almost entirely of a lot of profession-specific skills/knowledge/understanding.

But, over time, I’ve started to wonder. Perhaps we are at the stage with professional practice schools that we were at with business schools a few decades ago. There was certainly a cynicism at one point that “business” could be taught generically. What business? Is there really enough in common to running a bassoon factory, a chain of gyms, an online career consultancy, an au pair agency, etc. etc. to call all of their activities “business”? At one point, these would have been seen as needing radically different skill-sets, but over time we have started to realise that some common understanding of finance, accountancy, PR, marketing, project management, strategy, staff appraisal, etc. are useful in all areas of business, alongside a knowledge of the specific business domain.

Perhaps there is something to be gained by bringing together dental nurses, architects, and solicitors for part of their education, and having some common core of education in e.g. dealing with clients. Perhaps the idea of a generic professional practice school isn’t such a ludicrous idea after all.

The Bleakest Shop in Christendom?

February 11th, 2017

A shop called “BARGAIN BOOZE” is pretty bleak, but at least you know what you are getting. To buy this shop, and decide to rebrand by covering up the word “Bargain” using parcel tape, and on another part of the sign tearing off the word “BARGAIN”, so that the shop is now simply called “BOOZE”, is distinctly more depressing. (This was in Sherwood; it has now all been refurbished!).


Contradiction in Law

February 11th, 2017

Why aren’t more legal-regulatory systems in conflict? A typical legal decision involves a number of different legal, contractual, and regulatory systems, each of which consists of thousands of statements of law and precedents, that latter only fuzzily fitting the current situation, with little meta-law to describe how these different systems and statements interact. Why, therefore, is it very rarely, if at all, that court cases and other legal decisions end up with a throwing up of hands and the judgement-makers saying “this says this, this says this, they contradict, therefore we cannot come to a well-defined decision”. Somehow, we avoid this situation—decisions are come to fairly definitively, albeit sometimes controversially. I cannot imagine that people framing laws and regulations have a sufficiently wide knowledge of the entire system to enable them to add decisions without contradiction. Perhaps something else is happening; the “frames” (in the sense of the frame problem in AI) are sufficiently constrained and non-interacting that it is possible to make statements without running the risk of contradiction elsewhere.

If we could understand this, could we learn something useful about how to build complex software systems?

Exciting News (1)

January 26th, 2017

First law of Exciting News: Inevitably, when you get an email from some company entitled “exciting news” it is going to contain an announcement that they have “merged with” (been taken over by) a “major partner” (a larger, rather more anonymous company), and that they are “looking forward to the opportunities that are offered by this exciting new development” (ready to make some more money from you by offering you a slightly diminished service level).

Combinations (1)

January 23rd, 2017

One of the points where mathematics and day-to-day intuitions jar is in estimating numbers of combinations and similar combinatorial problems. I’ve just made a booking on Eurostar, and my confirmation code is a 6-letter code. Surely, my intuitive brain says, this isn’t enough; all of those people going on all of those journeys on those really long trains, day-in, day-out. Yet there are a vast number of possibilities; with one letter of the 26 letter alphabet for each of the 6 letters in the code, there are 26^6=308,915,776 possible combinations. Given that there are 10 million Eurostar passengers each year, this is enough to allocate unique codes for passengers for around thirty years. It then makes you wonder why some codes are so long, like the 90-digit MATLAB registration code that I had to type in by hand a couple of years ago.

Vagueness (1)

January 19th, 2017

Love it that this bookshop in Margate manages to divide books into three categories: “General Interest”, “Extra Stock” and “Whatever” (there are some other shelves with more specific categories).

General Interest

Extra Stock


Thinking about bookshops and their categorisation schemes reminds me of a bookshop from years ago on Queen’s Road in Brighton, just down from the station, which had, in addition to books on the shelves, large piles of books in the middle of the floor as if dumped there by a dumper truck. At the back of the shop, there was a shelf of pornographic books; in place of the usual bookseller euphemism of “Erotica” as a header for the section, this shop had plumped for the rather more direct word “Filth”.

Amazingly I have just found a picture of that very shop, and an article from The Argus about its closure (well, abandonment) in 2002; the wonders of the interweb, eh?