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Colin Johnson’s blog


Archive for the ‘Communication’ Category

What do people think coding is like?

Monday, April 22nd, 2019

I wonder what activity non-coders think coding is like? I remember having a conversation with a civil servant a few years ago, where he struggled to understand why we were talking about coding being “creative” etc. I think that his point of view is not uncommon—seeing coding as something that requires both intellectual vigilance and slog, but is fairly “flat” as an activity.

Perhaps people think of it as like indexing a book? Lots of focus and concentration is needed, and you need some level of knowledge, and it is definitely intellectual, “close work”. But, in the end, it doesn’t have its ups and downs, and isn’t typically that creative; it’s just a job that you get on with.

Perhaps they think it is like what they think mathematics is like? Lots of pattern-matching, finding which trick fits which problem, working through lots of line-by-line stuff that kinda rolls out, albeit slowly and carefully, once you know what to do. This isn’t entirely absent from the coding process, but it doesn’t have the ups and downs that doing maths or doing coding has.

If people have a social science background, perhaps they think of “coding” in the sense of “coding an interview”—going through, step by step, assigning labels to text (and often simultaneously coming up with or modifying that labelling scheme). Again, this has the focus that we associate with coding, but again it is rather “flat”.

Perhaps it would be interesting to do a survey on this?

Differentiation in the Lecture Room

Thursday, February 14th, 2019

Students come to university with a wide range of ability and prior knowledge, and take to different subjects with different levels of engagement and competence. This spread isn’t as wide as in other areas of education—after all, students have chosen to attend, been selected in a particular grade boundary, and are doing a subject of their choice—but, there is still a decent amount of variation there.

How do we deal with this variation? In school education, they talk a lot about differentiation—arranging teaching and learning activities so that students of different levels of ability, knowledge, progress, etc. can work on a particular topic. I think that we need to do more of this at university; so much university teaching is either aimed at the typical 2:1 student, or is off-the-scale advanced. How can we make adjustments so that our teaching recognises the diversity of student’s knowledge and experience?

In particular, how can we do this in lectures? If we have a canonical, non-interactive lecture, can we do this? I think we can: here are some ideas:

Asides. I find it useful to give little parenthetical asides as part of the lecture. Little definitions, bits of background knowledge. I do this particularly for the cultural background knowledge in the Computational Creativity module, often introduced with the phrase “as you may know”. For example: “Picasso—who, as you may know, was a painter in the early-mid 20th century who invented cubism which plays with multiple perspectives in the same painting—was…”. This is phrased so that it more-or-less washes over those who don’t need it, but is there as a piece of anchoring information for those that do. Similarly for mathematical definitions: “Let’s represent this as a matrix—which, you will remember from you maths course, is a grid of numbers—…”. Again, the reinforcement/reminder is there, without patronising or distracting the students who have this knowledge by having a “for beginners” slide.

Additional connections. Let’s consider the opposite—those students who are very advanced, and have a good knowledge of the area are broadly. I differentiate for these by making little side-comments that connect to the wider course or other background knowledge. Sometimes introduced with a phrase such as “if you have studied…” or “for those of you that know about…”. For example: “for those of you who have done an option in information retrieval, this might remind you of tf-idf.”. Again, this introduces the connection without putting on a slide and make it seem big and important for those students who are struggling to manage the basics, but gives some additional information and a spark of a connection for the students who are finding the material humdrum. (I am reminded of an anecdote from John Maynard Smith, who talked about a research seminar where the speaker had said “this will remind you of a phase transition in statistical physics”: “I can’t imagine a time in my life when anything will remind me of a phase transition”).

Code examples. A computing-specific one, this. I’ve found that a lot of students click into something once they have seen a code example. These aren’t needed for the high-flying coding ninjas, who can go from a more abstract description to working out how the code is put together. But, for many students, the code example is the point where all the abstract waffle from the previous few minutes clicks into place. The stronger students can compare the code that they have been writing in their heads to mine. I sometimes do the coding live, but I’ve sometimes chickened out and used a screencap video (this also helps me to talk over the coding activity). A particularly clear example of this was where I showed a double-summation in sigma notation to a group, to largely blank looks, followed by the same process on the next slide as a nested loop, where most students seemed to be following clearly.

Any other thoughts for differentiation tricks and tips specifically in the context of giving lectures?

Microtrends (1)

Thursday, February 7th, 2019

Noticeable recent microtrend—people walking around, holding a phone about 40cm from their face, having a video chat on FaceTime/Skype. Been possible for years, but I’ve noticed a real uptick in this over the last few weeks.

On Responsibility

Sunday, December 30th, 2018

When people collaborate on a codebase to build complex software systems, one of the purported advantages is that fixes spread. It is good to fix or improve something at a high level of abstraction, because then that fix not only helps your own code, but also redounds to improvements in code across the codebase.

However, people often don’t do this. Rather than fixing a problem with some class high up in the class hierarchy, or adding some behaviour to a well-used utility function, they instead write their own, local, often over-specialised version of it.

Why does this happen? One theory is about fear of breaking things. The fix you make might be right for you, but who knows what other changes it will have? The code’s intended functionality might be very well documented, but perhaps people are using abstruse features of a particular implementation to achieve something in their own code. In theory this shouldn’t happen, but in practice the risk:reward ratio is skewed towards not doing the fix.

Another reason—first pointed out to me by Hila Peleg—is that once you have fixed it, your name is in the version control system as the most recent modifier of the code. This often means that the code becomes your de facto responsibility, and questions about it then come to you. Particularly with a large code base and a piece of code that is well used, you end up taking on a large job that you hadn’t asked for, just for the sake of fixing a minor problem in your code. Better to write your own version and duck that responsibility.

Historical Facts Don’t Exist

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018

To historians, “history” basically means the (complex, disputed) knowledge that contemporary people have about what happened in the past. To the general public, “history” is the stuff that happened—about which contemporary people might have limited evidence, disputes of interpretation, etc. This can lead to confusion in communicating ideas about the methodology and ontology of history. For example, when I first came across people saying things along the lines of “historical facts change over time”, I thought that they were embracing a much more radical vision of history than they were. They were making the (important) point that what we call “facts” are based on incomplete evidence and biased by political/social/religious views and our biases coming from the contemporary world. I thought that they were making the much more radical claim that the subjective experience of people in the past changed due to our contemporary interpretations—a kind of reverse causality.

Exciting News (1)

Thursday, 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).

Kruft (1)

Sunday, November 20th, 2016

I often refer to the process of taking the content that I want to communicate and putting it into the 200-by-300 pixel box reserved for content in the middle of our University’s webpages as “putting the clutter in”. I get the impression that my colleagues on the Marketing and Communication team don’t quite see it this way.

“How are you?”

Monday, September 12th, 2016

It sometimes surprises me quite how formulaic the smalltalk at the beginnings of conversations is. I know that it isn’t acceptable to respond to the question “How are you?” with a list of your latest ailments and insecurities, but it is still sometimes surprising how much that part of a conversation is a cognitive readymade, without any ready deviation. I remember a couple of incidents in the days after my father died.

  1. Meeting a colleague a few days after my father had died. Wanting, gradually, to let people know what had happened, I responded to his “How are you?” with a “Actually, not so good.”, expecting to get a query back about what had happened. Instead, I just got the response “Great, I’m fine.”, as if I had said (as I would 99.9999% of the time) “I’m fine, how are you?”. Literally, my response hadn’t been processed at all. If you want some evidence for hearing being a process of anticipation then you’ve got it there. There’s no other response in the “repertoire” to “How are you?” other than minor variants on “Fine, how are you?”, so the brain doesn’t even really bother processing what has been said. Any response is just treated as the standard one.
  2. Speaking to my uncle a day or two after my father had died (I had already told my uncle). This time, he asked first: “How are you?”. My response, understandably: “Not too good.”. My uncle’s response—no criticism intended, this is just a point about how deeply embedded language structures are—”Oh, why is that then?”. I was, very unusually, struck dumb for a few seconds. For a moment I thought “Perhaps I didn’t tell him that Dad had died?”; for surely, someone wouldn’t say something so crass to someone who had just lost a parent—surely it would be obvious why I “wasn’t too good”. Eventually, I managed to stutter out “Well, you know, Dad died yesterday.” It is bizarre how fixed our linguistic patterns are that, even after one of the worst things that can happen to you, saying that you are anything other than “fine” causes our whole language generation system to collapse.

There’s no F in Strategy (and usually doesn’t need to be)

Thursday, February 11th, 2016

A while ago I read a little article whilst doing a management course that was very influential on me (I’ll find the reference and add it here soon). It argued that the process of building a team—in the strict sense a group of people who could really work closely and robustly together on a complex problem—was difficult, time-consuming and emotionally fraught, and that actually, for most business processes, there isn’t really any need to build a team as such. Instead, just a decently managed group of people with a well-defined goal was all that was needed for most activities. Indeed, this goes further; because of the stress and strain needed to build a well-functioning team in the strong sense of the word, it is really unproductive to do this, and risks fomenting a “team-building fatigue” in people.

I’m wondering if the same is true for the idea of strategy. Strategy is a really important idea in organisations, and the idea of strategic change is really important when a real transformation needs to be made. But, I worry that the constant demands to produce “strategies” of all sorts, at all levels of organisations, runs the danger of causing “strategy fatigue” too. We have to produce School strategies, Faculty strategies, University strategies, all divided un-neatly into research, undergraduate, and postgraduate, and then personal research Strategies, and Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all strategies. Really, we ought to be keeping the word and concepts around “strategy” for when it really matters; describing some pissant objective to increase the proportion of one category of students from 14.1% to 15% isn’t a strategy, it’s almost a rounding error. We really need to retain the term—and the activity—for when it really matters.

TIFU (1)

Saturday, February 6th, 2016

There is a wonderful subreddit called Dear Reddit, Today I Fucked Up… in which people post (usually fairly lighthearted) accounts of how they erred during the current day, beginning with the abbreviation “TIFU”. Here is my post there from today.

TIFU by starting to ask someone the question ‘So, where are you from?’, realising as I opened my mouth that it often sounds a little bit racist (with its implication of ‘So, where are you from *really*?’), deciding to draw attention to the fact that I know that it’s a stupid and clichéd question by putting it in air quotes, then didn’t really start moving my fingers until the last word of the question, which made it look like I was saying ‘So, where are you “from”?’ which made the question even worse.

Informality (1)

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

I am a fairly informal person, but occasionally even I get a surprise, like this recent email from HMRC:

HMRC: Hi DR COLIN GRAEME JOHNSON

In just a generation we have gone from addressing each other as “Sir” and “Madam” to the point where one of the stuffiest parts of government says “Hi!” to me. To people of my father’s generation, who struggled with their doctor referring to them by their first name, this shift would have been almost incomprehensible.

Seeming more Specialised than you Actually Are

Monday, June 29th, 2015

Sometimes it is important to present yourself as more specialised than you actually are. This can be true for individuals and for businesses. Take, for example, the following apparently successful businesses:

Woaah there! What’s happening here? Surely any decent web design company can provide a website for a doctor’s surgery? The specific company might provide a tiny little bit more knowledge, but surely the knowledge required to write a decent website is around 99 percent of the knowledge required to write a doctor’s surgery website. Surely, handling payments from parents for school activities is just the same as, well, umm, handling payments, and there are plenty of companies that do that perfectly well.

This, of course, misses the point. The potential customers don’t know that. To them, they are likely to trust the over-specialised presentation rather than the generic one. Indeed, the generic one might sound a little bit shady, evasive or amateurish: “What kind of web sites do you make?”, “Well, all kinds really.”, “Yes, but what are you really good at.”, “Well, it doesn’t really matter, websites are all basically the same once you get into the code.”. Contrast that with “we make websites for doctors.” Simples, innit.

So that’s my business startup advice. Find an area that uses your skills, find some specialised application of those skills, then market the hell out of your skills in that specific area. You will know that your skills are transferrable—but, your potential customers won’t, and they will trust you more as a result.

I’ve noticed the same with trying to build academic collaborations. Saying “we do optimisation and data science and visualisation and all that stuff” doesn’t really cut it. I’ve had much more success starting with a specific observation—we can provide a way of grouping your data into similar clusters, for example—than trying to describe the full range of what contemporary data science techniques can do.

Similarly with courses. Universities have done well out of providing “MBA in Marketing for XX” or whatever, when the vast majority of the course might be generic marketing skills. Again, the point here is more one of trust than one of content.

You Didn’t Need to Do That

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

This epitomises the idea “if you don’t have anything to say, you don’t have to say anything”. I think some people genuinely think that if there is a box on a web page for comments then they have been singled out from all the people on the web to make that comment, and so feel obliged to reply. Or, they were just being facetious 😉

"Can the new owners re-invent BHS?" "Don't know depends on who you ask someone connected with business mabe."

Language (1)

Monday, October 27th, 2014

When we are learning creative writing at school, we learn that it is important to use a wide variety of terms to refer to the same thing. To refer to something over and over again using the same word is seen as “boring” and something to be avoided.

It is easy to think that this is a good rule for writing in general. However, in areas where precision is required—technical and scientific writing, policy documents, regulations—it is the wrong thing to be doing. Instead, we need to be very precise about what we are saying, and using different terminology for the sake of making the writing more “interesting” is likely to damn the future reader of the document to hours of careful analysis of whether you meant two different-but-overlapping words to refer to the same thing or not.

Incomprehension (1)

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

A while ago I had a conversation with a colleague, that went something like this:

Me: “I’ve come across a new book that would be really useful to you for the module you’re teaching next term.”

Colleague: “I don’t really think I need that.”

Me: “No, it’s really good, you will find it really useful.”

Colleague (rather angry): “I appreciate your suggestions, but I REALLY DON’T NEED A BOOK ON THE SUBJECT.”

It eventually transpired that my colleague was interpreting “you will find this book useful” as “Because you don’t know the subject of the course very well, you will need a book to help you learn the subject before you teach it to the students.”. By contrast, I was meaning “you will find it useful as a book to recommend to your students“.

This subtle elision between “you” being taken literally and being used in a slightly elided way to mean “something you are responsible for” is easily misunderstood. Another example that comes up frequently is when I am discussing with students some work that they have to do on a project. I will say something like “you need to make an index of the terms in the set of documents”, using the common elision in software development of “you need to” to mean “you need to write code to”, not “you need to do this by hand”. Most of the time the students get this, but on a significant minority of occasions there is a look of incomprehension on the student’s faces as they think I have asked them to do the whole damn tedious thing by themselves.

Sp. (1)

Saturday, September 20th, 2014

Oh for God’s sake Grauniad, learn the difference between a “physician” and a “physicist”:

"he does not sound much like a theoretical physician"

Next time I get theoretically ill I’m certainly going to a theoretical physician.

Making Sense (1)

Monday, August 25th, 2014

Oddly, this sentence from a colleague’s email makes perfect sense:

Just to confirm that this meeting has been cancelled because it has already taken place.

Forms of Embarrassment (4) (“-ier”)

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Worrying about how to pronounce works like “bombardier” and “chocolatier”. Should these be said like “choc-o-lat-i-er” with a naff 6th-form French accent? Or, like “chocolateer”, which has a jolly-hockey-sticks weird 1950s vibe to it. Usually end up either (1) trying to find a compromise pronunciation, which is futile and ends up being incomprehensible, not least because the two pronunciations have different numbers of syllables, and them mumbling it anyway; or (2) obscuring the clarity of my sentence in a fog of “I’m not quite too sure how you say this, but”, “or however you say it” and similar hedges.

A similar argument applies to the word “Pho”.

“Who Bought you That?”

Monday, December 16th, 2013

I’ve noticed a communication difference between people like me, who grew up in small families without much of a tradition of present-giving, to people who grew up in big, richly-connected families where dozens of people exchange presents for Christmas and birthdays.

People in the latter group often ask the question “Who bought you that?” when enquiring about some day-to-day object—a scarf, a watch, a pen that I have. I always thought that this was a weird question—why on earth would you imagine that someone bought it for me? But, of course, to people from such a background, the idea that you would ever need to buy such day-to-day tchotchkes is weird. For their whole lives they’ve never had any need to buy all these little bits and pieces, every since childhood they’ve had an endless supply of little day-to-day objects in the form of presents from cousins and great-aunts. Of course, they are in an economically neutral position, as they have had to keep up their part of the exchange.

Meta-spam

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

I’m increasingly getting emails of this kind, which begin by apologising for not being spam and then spam you. Or, which say things like “We know that you signed up to not get any email from us, but…”

Hi, You probably get enough spam in a day, right? So, strangely, this is my attempt to avoid spamming you. I'm compiling my email newsletter list for my agency -