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Colin Johnson’s blog


Archive for September, 2010

I’m Not a Number (2)

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

More NaN nonsense, this time from Sainsbury’s. I assume that this is an automatic calculation, and that the “quantity” variable has been left empty or else set to a zero default value.

NaNp per bulb

Hic Sunt Dracones (3)

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

“Turnover is vanity; profits are sanity.” Good business advice from Duncan Bannatyne on a recent episode of Dragon’s Den.

I’m Not a Number (1)

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

This was rather entertaining:

From just £NaN per day

From just £NaN per day

Like, so Twentieth Century

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

When I visit my parents in Nottingham, I often pass by this delightful shop on my way to the station from their house (image courtesy of Google Street View, obviously):

The Monitor Shop: Purveyors of 386's and VGA monitors

I like the unrepentant refusal to change the signage, as well as the name. The idea of a shop specialising in something as prosaic as monitors is charming, as are the signs advertising VGA and SVGA monitors in sizes up to 21″, and the proud claim that they sell 386, 486 and Pentium computers.

A decade or so ago this just looked sad: a shop advertising technology that was several years out of date. Now, though, it has transcended that, and its wilful display of advertising for products that were dated when my students were babes-in-arms seems daring and self-confident. They appear to do a decent trade, anyway; perhaps I will go in one day.

It Could Be You

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

Lotteries are often described as “a tax on people who are innumerate”. The idea is that any rationalist would not play a lottery, because the return on investment is shoddy—negative, indeeed, stunningly so. Back to the post office savings account then.

But hang on there! Is this really why people play lotteries? Often the driving force is the remote chance of a truly life-transforming event, which is not adequately measured by the ROI.

The interesting observation is that this argument also works for events with negative consequences. Indeed, we are accustomed to this kind of reasoning about negative events. For example, people will readily argue that, whilst they know that the chances of a plane crash are minuscule, nonetheless they aren’t going anywhere a damn plane—because the consequences of being in a plane crash, however remote, are horrifying. Again, a life-transforming event, but one with bad rather than good consequences. The behaviour seems to be controlled by the same mechanism—I wonder if a carefully controlled experiment would show that the underlying structure of thought is basically the same?

Hic Sunt Dracones (2)

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Interesting comment on this week’s Dragons’ Den from Peter Jones (a similar comment has been made a few times before on the programme). Whilst discussing a small business that someone was proposing to scale up, he said something along the lines of “this works all very well whilst you are doing it, but it won’t scale as you get more customers”. This seems to be the very opposite of the notion of economies of scale that we are always hearing about: surely if you have more customers then you can scale up the business and benefit from economies of scale.

I think the answer in this case is fairly self-explanatory. The person in question ran a business that required a large number of small physical operations, and was in effect hiding from herself some of the “real” costs of doing the business, e.g. by putting in many hours for no pay, running the business from her house and therefore subsidising the space cost, which would not be scalable. But nonetheless it provides a good example of why we should ask the question raised recently by John Seddon—”why do we believe in economies of scale?”.

Location, Location, Location

Monday, September 13th, 2010

There is an ad for a hyper-expensive watch brand that runs something like “You never actually own a Patek Phillipe watch—you merely look after it for the next generation”.

Increasingly, even though we buy our houses at a greater rate than previous generations, we increasingly have less sense of ownership. It used to be argued that one advantage of owning your own house was that you could “do what you like with it”. However, all of the weirdo TV house programmes that my mother watches incessantly convey the impression that, despite living in a house for years, you are really just looking after it until the “real owner”—the next buyer—comes along. They, of course, will take the same attitude towards the following owner, …

This has strange consequences. My flat has an odd cod-wrought iron fire surround with images of happy workers toiling in the field embossed into it. It is as horrible as it sounds (now, had it been done in a soviet futurist style, that might be different…). My mother agrees with me that it is horrible—but when I proposed getting it replaced with something more tasteful and understated, her response was “I don’t know if you should do that, perhaps the people you want to sell it to next might like it.”.

Accident of Birth

Monday, September 13th, 2010

I have no emotional passion for partisanship. Football matches (national or local), patriotism, a swelling of belonging to a religion irregardless of belief—none of these do it for me. I think I understand why: it is because they are all basically, to me, arbitrary accidents of birth.

I think I have the following mental model: some essence of the sense of me-ness, looking out from this body, was placed there in an arbitrary way. I could “just have easily” been born in a place where I would have been a Sikh, a Mongolian, or an East Fife supporter as the place that I did end up. As a result I just cannot feel any emotional depth to these cards that I have been dealt. Their very arbitrariness precludes me having any passion for them—they seem as arbitrary to me as if I have been dealt a card saying “you will support football team number 148″ at some rite-of-passage.

Of course I realise that this notion of my soul being bowled at the Earth by some wild-armed deity is nonsensical. Nonetheless, this is how I’ve always felt deep down, and it is hard to shift the actual feeling.

This extends to religion in an interesting way. It seems weird to me that we don’t go through a period of religious seeking, and settle on the religion that we most think is likely to be correct. After all, we only get one chance to be right (in most faiths), and what is the chance that I have been born into the right place. If one of the world’s religions is correct (I appreciate that this is a trite view), then my chances of having been born into the right one are at best one-in-five. Why would I not, as a rationalist, try to find the right one? Yet when I tried to explain this to my parents as a teenager, the reaction was one of horror, like I was about to go out there and end up in a cult. (This notion is riffed on in a Mitchell and Webb sketch, where someone gets to the gates of heaven only to find out the the Amish were right after all, and that only Amish people will get into heaven; surely this shouldn’t be funny if we have an intuition that there is One True Faith, yet religious people seem to assert that this is the case).

Some of this crystallised when I came across the ideas in John Rawls’s Theory of Justice. In that book he argues that moral actions should be guided by a principle that we do not know which of the actors in a particular situation we will be represented by. For example, the reason that we should regard theft as morally unacceptable is that if we regard the situation “as a whole” we are as likely to be at the receiving end than the active end, and so overall we would not want that situation to obtain even if the thief benefits from the act. This seemed to me unremarkable and utterly intuitive: why is this considered to be a deep innovation in our understanding of moral action? It is only by talking to other people over the years that I realise that this is a very unusual position to hold intuitively. Like M. Jourdain in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, who was shocked to find that he had been speaking prose all this life, I realised that I had been an intutive Rawlsian throughout my moral development.

Decline of Physical Mashup

Monday, September 13th, 2010

There is this screen in St. Pancras station:
Sky News Screen at St. Pancras
(indeed, there are lots of these around at stations). When I first saw these screens, they offered a rolling news service, alternating periods of news display with periods of advertising. I’d often watch them for a while, a quick chance to catch up on news and weather whilst waiting for a train.

I rather liked the way that this mashed up online information with the physical world. It certainly felt futuristic—like Bladerunner, but in a good way! This idea of mashing up the physical with the online is rather appealing, and whilst I wouldn’t want to see the urban environment dominated by such things, it was good to see some examples of this just as a day-to-day thing rather than an experiment or artwork.

Unfortunately, this seems to have stopped doing anything interesting now. It just displays dull 20th-century stylee ads for the Sky channels. It has become another thing on the “to ignore” list, redolent of a dull TV ad break from the era when we didn’t timeshift TV rather than something futuristic. I want my future back.

Update 2010-09-22. Live news and weather is now back at St. Pancras Station. The future is back on track.

Four Buttocks for the Price of Three

Monday, September 13th, 2010

I thought this recent spam was hilarious. Sorry.
All Women's Bottoms, 50% Off

Variations on Folk Sayings (7)

Monday, September 13th, 2010

Drunkenness: The guest of Bud intentions.

Fraud Prevention

Monday, September 13th, 2010

It has been common to pillory banks concerning fraud prevention. A particularly common criticism is that they leave an answerphone message asserting that they are from Bank X and that you need to call them back urgently on a number given on the phone. Clearly, such a message could come from anyone, but they have for a very long time failed to see that there is a problem with this.

Finally, at least one bank seems to have done something sensible about this. I received a call this morning from an automated system claiming to be from Barclaycard. I decided to look up the number that I should call using the Barclaycard website. Interestingly, there was the following webform on the fraud prevention page on the site:

barclaycard fraud prevention

It is good to see that banks are at last taking these security concerns seriously.

Apple Store Encounters

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

Walking up the steps in the Apple Store t’other day. Person in front of me was dressed, to a first approximation, identically—Doc Martens, pinstripe trousers, long-sleeved black T-shirt, with a stubbly beard and slightly grown out hair, carrying a messenger bag.

Wild coincidence—or am I just a bloody hipster cliché ;-)

Apologies, Politicians and Frog-boiling

Friday, September 10th, 2010

One of the things that disappointed me about Vince Cable’s dismal speech about science funding on Wednesday was the lack of any sense of contrition or apology. This seems to have become a common feature of political talk in the last few decades, a sunny pseudo-optimism even in the face of bad news, reminiscent of the caricature of the bad manager: “to enhance your career development we have decided to make you redundant”.

It is easy to see why this kind of speechcraft has developed. Admitting to some kind of problem or apologising for what you are about to do clearly lays the speechmaker open to a direct criticism—by speaking like this you are instantly setting out a potential negative side of the proposed course of action, or else seeming uncertain or indecisive. Nonetheless, I wonder if the longer-term cumulative effect is worse. By couching everything in the same terms, regardless of whether it is good or bad news, the audience gradually loses interest and engagement over months or years. I notice that when I am reading a newspaper and I come across an article that has a politician’s byline, I (with a few exceptions) skip the article even if the headline is of interest.

This seems to be an example of the idea of “frog boiling” discussed in Charles Handy’s book The Age of Unreason(ISBN 978-0099548317). He notes that, according to folk wisdom, a live frog placed in a pan of water that is increased gradually in temperature will let itself be boiled alive—at no point will the change in temperature be significant enough on a short enough timescale for the frog to notice. Similarly, in this example it seems as though the cost of avoiding short-term criticisms is a long-term decline in credibility.

This has been around for a while. I opposed the Iraq War, and, whilst I cannot think of an argument that would have convinced me that it was a good idea, I would have been somewhat pacified had the argument been presented as “we have spent long and hard thinking about this and the alternatives, and, whilst the option of war is not something that we opt for lightly, having considered carefully the options we have decided that regrettably it is something that we must do, for the following reasons”. I still wouldn’t have agreed with the decision, but I would have felt somewhat listened to, and it would have probably influenced my voting behaviour. As it was, I felt utterly ignored, and as a result decided that, regardless of anything, I would hold off voting for Labour for the next couple of elections.

This also seems to be one of many examples where a single principle (in this case, “avoid offering a criticism or negative in your speech”) has become completely dominant, to the point where almost no-one ignores it or bothers to assess the negative consequences of the principle.

Department of the Bleeding Obvious

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

A difficult challenge for people involved in science popularisation is to decide how to choose examples for use in articles, talks et cetera. One approach is to take examples of day-to-day phenomena and to discuss how a scientific approach might shed light on this—the “physics of biscuit dunking” approach. The opposite alternative is to focus on complex phenomena that are incomprehensible to the average reader/listener—science as “mindbogglingly complex”.

Both of these approaches readily attract criticism. The first approach is open to criticism that science is all about “proving the bleeding obvious”—what gets missed out in reports of this kind is that these kinds of examples are meant as just that—easily comprehensible examples that are meant to illustrate the methods of science, not to be representative of the actual results of scientific research. Nonetheless, the second approach is also unsatisfactory, as it attracts a different kind of criticism: that scientists are just interested in obscure things that they can’t explain and that are of any interest to ordinary people, and that the scientific enterprise is just an exercise in self-indulgent cliquiness.

Ironically, in light of the ongoing discussions about how industry should be involved more in science funding, it is precisely the “department of the bleeding obvious” type studies that often end up having been sponsored by industry. I am thinking of the kinds of studies where some gullible scientist has taken a few hundred quid from Poppleton Pork Products to come up with an equation for the shape of the perfect sausage.

So, what are we, as scientists and science popularisers, to do? How can we come up with examples that are easy enough to communicate quickly and pithily, without resorting to trivia? Or should we be trying to convince people that science is interesting but not reducible to simple examples, and that effort and time is required to understand it?