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Colin Johnson’s blog


Archive for April, 2010

Not Quite one for comp.risks, but Funny Nonetheless

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

OS X abbreviates long filenames using the first and last few letters of the name.

The suffix for Time Machine backup files is .sparsebundle.

Consequences:
Screenshot from time machine backup: ...arsebundle

Well I thought it was funny.

Digital Natives?

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

There is a lazy argument that because young people today are digital natives (i.e. people who have grown up with computer technology and use that technology in their day-to-day lives) that this group will therefore naturally be attracted to computer science, in the broad sense, as a topic of study. Would engineers have made the same argument about telephones in the 1980′s, that because teenagers spend their time chatting on the phone that they will therefore be interested in communications engineering? I don’t think this sort of argument was made then—is the current argument any more coherent than that would be?

Just Beyond the Horizon (1)

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

I’d like to make a collection of ideas that are just beyond the horizon of current discourse; ideas that aren’t deeply futuristic, but which are solidly outwith the sort of things that people talk about.

First example: the idea of politicians standing for office in a different country from where they are normally based. This comes from an idea that was bandied about a couple of years ago; that if Barack Obama has lost the US election, his next move could be to become the next leader of the UK Labour Party. This would be regarded as incomprehensible by almost everyone, but perhaps in the medium-term future (whatever that might mean; perhaps “a generation or two”) this might seem normal. For example, my parents still have a moral conniption at the idea that a UK company could be led by someone from overseas, and with the idea of footballers not born in the UK playing for UK teams; both things which are normal to my generation. If you are good at your game, you want to move to a country where that game is played at the highest level: if this is true in sport or business, why not in politics, which might be the most important game of all?

Fading Microcultural Phenomena (2)

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Another example of a bit of microculture that is fading completely from view, yet which was thriving when I was a teenager: the idea, amongst “adults”, that popular culture is non-productive and a waste of time. My evidence-base for this is the school concerts that I performed in as a teenager: parades of dance and music that went on for hours. What music was used for these? A small part of “high culture” music—a senior pupil playing a bit of Mozart on the clarinet. But, this was a fairly small component—as was the amount of genuine popular music (in the broad sense) of the time. Mostly, the concerts were dominated by what we might term light music—not just in the narrow sense of the word, but in the sense of things like show tunes, film music, old pop music, sanitized versions of folk songs, et cetera. Gradually, some things would move from “popular culture” into “light culture”; an example of this was ABBA. Real popular-culture music was not admitted; there was an argument one year about whether a (very good) rock band that the pupils had formed should be allowed to play (eventually, they were allowed to play outside the hall during the interval).

A kind of “light culture” existed whose advocates probably looked up to, but didn’t really like traditional “high culture” (certainly not in large doses) yet who saw “popular culture” as being genuinely destructive and dangerous.

I don’t think that we would be having these sorts of distinctions today. The distinction between “light culture” and “popular culture” is fading. The idea that popular culture rots the brain, or takes time or moral energy away from better things, is fading. In a world where a member of the Shadow Cabinet can describe Beyoncé as one of the “cultural highlights” of the last decade, and mean it entirely genuinely, things have changed enormously.

Problems with Online Forms

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Increasingly we use online forms; generally, a good thing, efficient and ensuring information doesn’t get lost in transcription. One problem with this, though, is that it is hard to get an understanding of the entire process as an outsider who nonetheless needs to understand the process.

A couple of examples

  • I was writing up a description for students about how to fill in a form for applying for postgraduate studies. The problem was that the form started with a “cover sheet” asking for basic details such as email address and course applied for. Okay, fine; I’ll just fill this in with some mock details and then move onto the next stage. No dice! The next page asked me to “check my email”. In the end I had to go quite a long way through the application process before I had all of the details. By contrast, a printed form would have meant that I could just scan through the whole form.
  • Filling in details of a module on the Moodle online learning support system. Filled it in, looked fine to me. A few days later, got a couple of emails from students: “where are the notes that you said you had put online”. What had happened is that my view as a teacher was different from what the students see; I had to click on a picture of an eye to make the item visible to students. Not a bad system overall, but not obvious if you are used to writing traditional web pages.

Both of these relate to the idea of role management in online systems. They assume that it is easy to put people into a role relative to the system; yes, this is reasonable at some level, but we often need to “leap outside” this on some occasions. This is a difficult issue to sort out.

Variations on Folk Sayings (5)

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

“Life irritates: art.”