“Real Artists Ship”

Colin Johnson’s blog

Archive for the ‘Things that happened’ Category

The Map that Precedes the Territory

Sunday, September 23rd, 2018

I’ve sometimes joked that I only have hobbies because they are necessary for me to indulge my meta-hobbies of project management, product design, and logistics. Sometimes, I worry that I get more pleasure from the planning that goes around an activity than doing the activity itself. The planning the travel and activities for a trip, the well-organised and well-chosen set of accessories or tools for doing some craft, preferring to be the person who organises the meetings and makes up the groups rather than being a participant in the activity.

I wonder where this comes from? I think part of it is from growing up in a household where there wasn’t much money to spend on leisure stuff. As a result, I spent a lot of my childhood planning what I would do when I had things, making tables and catalogues of things, and endlessly going over the same small number of resources. I remember planning in great detail things like model railway layouts, devising complex electrical circuits, and filling notebook-after-notebook with code in anticipation of the day when I might finally have access to a computer to run it on—a computer which would be chosen not on a whim, but from detailed comparison tables I had drawn up from catalogues and ads so as to get the very best one for the limited money we had.

The intellectual resources I had access to were interesting. We had some books, bought from W.H. Smith, brought home from the school where my father taught, bought from a catalogue of discount improving educational books which was available at School (which introduced me to the excellent Usborne books which I still think are a model for exposition of complex concepts), or bought from the eccentric selection available at remainder shops (I particularly remember three random volumes of encyclopaedia that I had bought from one such shop). The local library was a good resource too, but I rapidly exhausted the books on topics of relevance to me, and just started reading my way through everything; one week I remember bringing home a haul of books on Anglicanism, resulting in my mother’s immortal line “You’re not going to become a bloody vicar, are you?”. Catalogues and the like were an endless source of information too, I remember endless poring over detailed technical catalogues such as the Maplin one, and spec sheets from computer shops, compiling my own lists and tables of electrical components, details of how different computers worked, etc. I remember really working through what limited resource I had; endlessly reading through the couple of advanced university-level science books that a colleague of my mother’s had given to her via a relative who had done some scientific studies at university.

There’s something to be said for trying damn hard to understand something that is just too difficult. I remember working for hours at a complex mathematical book from the local library about electrical motors, just because it was there and on an interesting topic, and learning linear and dynamic programming, university level maths topics, again because there happened to be a good book on it in the local library. These days, with access to a vast university library, books at cheap prices on Amazon, and talks on almost every imaginable topic available on YouTube, I think I waste a lot of time trying to find some resource that is just at my level, rather than really pushing myself to make my own meaning out of something that is on the very fringe of my level of possible understanding. Similarly, I remember the same for courses at University—I got a crazily high mark (88% or something) in a paper on number theory, where I had struggled to understand and the textbooks were pretty ropey, whereas the well-presented topics with nice neatly presented textbooks were the golden road to a 2:1 level of achievement.

Talking of lectures and YouTube etc., another thing that is near impossible to have a feel for was the ephemerality of media. There were decent TV and radio programmes on topics I was interested in, science and technology and the like, but it seems incomprehensibly primitive that these were shown once, at a specific time, and then probably not repeated for months. How bizarre that I couldn’t just revisit it. But, again, in made it special; I had to be there at a specific time. I think this is why lecture courses remain an important part of university education. About 20 years ago I worked with someone called Donald Bligh, who wrote an influential book called What’s the Use of Lectures?, which anticipated lots of the later developments in the flipped classroom etc. He couldn’t understand why, with the technology available to deliver focused, reviewable, breakable-downable, indexable online material, we still obsessed about the live lecture. I have a lot of sympathy for that point of view, but I think lecture courses deliver pace and, at their best, model “thinking out loud”—particularly, for technical and mathematical subjects. When everything is available at hand, we just get stuck in focus paralysis; I do that with things I want to learn, there are too many things and it is too easy when something gets hard to not persevere, and to turn to something else instead; or, I spend endless amounts of time in search of the perfect resource, one that is just at my level. This is what I wasn’t able to do, 30 years ago, in my little room with limited resources, and so I got on with the task at hand.

How can we regain this focus in a world of endless intellectual resource abundance? Some approaches are just to pace stuff out—even MOOCs, where the resources are at hand and could be released, box-set-like, all at once, nonetheless spoon them out bit-by-bit in an attempt to create a cohort and a sense of pace. Another approach is pure self-discipline; I force myself to sit down with a specific task for the day, and use techniques such as the Pomodoro technique to pace out my time appropriately. Others use technologies to limit the amount of time spent online, such as web-blockers that limit the amount of time spent either on the web in general, or specifically on distractors such as social media. But, I still think that we don’t have a really good solution to this.

Memory (3)

Thursday, September 20th, 2018

When I was around 12 years old, we went for one of our regular family trips into the Derbyshire countryside. After lunch, I went off for a bike ride. I thought that I had communicated this to my parents, but they thought I had meant that I was going to ride my bike through the woods for 5-10 minutes, whereas I meant that I was going for an hour or two of riding.

When I got back, my family were worried sick about where I had got to. Later, I found out that my grandmother had at some point during my absence uttered the immortal line: “If he’s gone and cycled off a cliff, I’ll bloody well kill him!”.

Memory (1)

Tuesday, July 24th, 2018

An extremely vivid memory from childhood—probably about seven or eight years old. Waking up and coming downstairs with an absolute, unshakable conviction that what I wanted to do with all of my spare time for the next few months was to build near-full sized fairground rides in our back garden. I don’t know where this came from; prior to that point I had no especial interest in fairground rides, beyond the annual visit to the Goose Fair. I wanted to go into the garage immediately and start measuring pieces of wood, making designs, etc. It took my parents a couple of hours to dissuade me that doing this was utterly impractical, against my deep, passionate protestations. Truly, I cannot think of anything before or since that I wanted to do with such utter conviction.

Overheard (2)

Monday, April 2nd, 2018

“Oi!” (Whole bus goes silent) (parent shouting at child) “You’ve got a tissue in your pocket—don’t wipe your bogies on other people.” (collective “ugh” from the remainder of the bus).

“That employability shit”

Wednesday, 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.)

Family Stories (3)

Monday, September 26th, 2016

When I was around 10-11 years old, my parents made a shed at the back of the garden, by putting a door and roof on a small space at the back of the garage. This was used to store gardening supplies—compost, plant pots and the like—and bottles of the dubious home-made wine and beer that was popular at the time.

One summer day I decided, on a whim, that this needed a label putting on it. So, using a chisel and hammer from the garage, I gouged the words “TOOL SHED” into the paint and wood, fairly deeply. Then, realising that the shed wasn’t used to store tools, I panicked; but a simple solution came to mind. As a result I carved the word “NOT” above the word “TOOL SHED”, with an asterisk added to retain the symmetry of four letters on each line. As a result, the shed had (and retained for several years) the label:


and was thus referred to in my family for many years subsequently.

I believe that I am the only person alive who remembers this.

“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.

Family Stories (2)

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

There was a little shop in the town where I grew up which sold local souvenirs etc., and often had pictures of the locality in the window. One day I was looking in the window of this shop with my mother, and there was a painting of the street where we lived.

Mum: “It’s Mr. Zoff.”
Me: “Who’s Mr. Zoff?”
Mum: “No—they’ve missed us off. Our house isn’t in the picture.”

From that day, any unknown artist was referred to in our family as “the famous Polish artist, Mr . Zoff”.

I am the only person alive who remembers this.

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.

Miles Away (1)

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

My mother used to work for the purchasing department at Boots, a major pharmaceutical retailer. One day, she had the following phone conversation with a rather posh sales rep:

Rep: “Good morning, I’m Miles from Nicholas Products Ltd.”
Mum: “Well, I’m miles from there too, but how can I help you?”

Incomprehension (3)

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

From my late grandmother, in the corner shop:

“I’d like an uncut sliced loaf, please.”

Incomprehension (2)

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

A conversation from many years ago between my late mother and the dentist’s receptionist:

Mum: “I’m here for the 2pm appointment.”

Receptionist: “And your husband? He is here for his appointment at 2:30.”

Mum: “No, I’m afraid I’ve lost him.”

Receptionist (with a look of deep sympathy): “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.”

Mum: “No, I haven’t lost him; I mean he’s wandered off to the shops round the corner and I can’t find him.”

“That’s your job really, mate.”

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

Oddly, the bus driver asked me this evening what route the bus was meant to be taking. I didn’t think until after I got off the bus that I could have exploited this to my advantage by diverting the bus down the road on which I live and convincing him that the stop outside my front door was one of the stops on his route.

Overheard (1)

Friday, January 24th, 2014

Walking down an ordinary suburban street this afternoon, someone in casual clothes chatting on their mobile phone is standing at the corner. As I pass by I hear exactly seven words: “…we’re going to need a ballistics expert…”. That’s almost a short story in its own right.

On Being the Right Size (1)

Monday, December 31st, 2012

It is a source of ongoing frustration, torn cuffs and dropped soup-bowls that I am exactly the right height, right down to the nearest inch, so that when I am walking between rooms my rolled-up shirt cuffs are at exactly the same height as doorhandles.

Scam (1)

Friday, December 21st, 2012

Interesting scam attempt on the tube t’other day. Someone came up close to me as I was entering the gates, briefly flashed open a wallet revealing the sort of “police officer” badge that you can buy from Toys’R’Us, and said “Can I follow you through? I’m a police officer so I get free travel anyway.”

Wanker! (1)

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

Outside my flat in a (studenty, but quiet) area of Edinburgh a few weeks ago. At 11pm on the dot someone starts playing bagpipes at full volume (is there any volume control on those things?), and gives a wonderful rendition of some tune.

Immediately after, several people from the surrounding flats start applauding, a couple of people cheer, and after about two seconds someone clearly articulates the word “wanker”.

What makes this perfect is that he waited until the performance was finished before shouting out—it would have been so easy to have shouted it in the middle, and so less effective.

Do it like Derren

Friday, May 18th, 2012

I have in the past been impressed with the ability of people like Derren Brown to present a losing ticket to a bookmaker and get a payout. A little while ago, I had an experience that gave be some insight into how this works. I was rushing to get a train at Charing Cross, and when I got there I discovered that the station was closed and that the train was starting from London Bridge instead. A sign said that tickets would be valid on the underground between the two stations, so I rushed to the tube station. When I got there, I tried by train ticket in the barrier and it didn’t work, and so I showed it, with some urgency, to the guard at the barrier, who looked strangely at the ticket. I said “don’t you know that the station is closed; I need to get through” and the guard opened the barrier for me.

When I looked at the ticket a few second later it was an old ticket from Nottingham to Edinburgh.

Somehow, my guileless confidence in the ticket had worked. I think the skill of someone like Derren Brown is to be able to fake this even when knowing that the ticket is irrelevant.

Situations in which I thought that a euphemism was being used but it turned out not to be the case (1)

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

Followed signs to the “cloakroom”. Ended up in a room full of coat hooks.

Irrational Exuberance (1)

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

When I was a student, I moved into a house in my second year with two other students. We had all brought a glass bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup with us. I had been learning to juggle that summer, so the obvious thing to do was to juggle the three bottles of ketchup. Equally obviously, I dropped two of them on the hard kitchen floor within a few seconds, splatting ketchup everywhere. What my housemates thought of this, within a few hours of moving in, I have no idea.