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Colin Johnson’s blog


Archive for October, 2011

Joke (2)

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Saw this ventriloquism act the other day. A tall, thin man with all-over-the-place blond hair, with a depressed looking puppet dressed all in black with piercings and a studded belt, and the puppet kept trying to bite people in the audience. It was Rod Hull and Emo.

Self-reinforcing Criticism

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

There is an interesting rhetorical move that I notice increasingly, which we might refer to as self-reinforcing criticism. An example of this is given in one of Edward De Bono’s books: a caricature of a Freudian analyst argues that some negative trait that someone has is due to their repressing some aspect of their personality. The person being criticized has very little in the way of response. Either they agree, or they disagree. If they disagree then that can itself be used as evidence of even deeper repression!

A common use of this is in planning processes in organisations. A complex proposal will be presented, which is roundly criticized for a number of reasons. However, rather than taking on the criticisms, the person presenting the argument counters with the argument that the critics are just “afraid of change”.

We need a term to “call out” this kind of specious argument. I have experimented by called out the emotional aspects of it: “why are you in a position to know how I am feeling?”. But this isn’t ideal. We need a term of art to describe this, and then to create a pejorative sense to that term. Perhaps a term for this already exists in rhetoric somewhere?

Relatedly, there is a phenomenon where a complex proposal will be presented and, if it is attacked, the proposer will say “well, what do you suggest instead?”. This is difficult to respond to, as the proposer is in the position where they have had days, weeks or months to prepare their proposal, whereas the off-footed opponent has a matter of seconds or minutes. I wonder if we should be working harder to make multi-alternative proposals to be both normal (so that proposals with only one alternative are seen as weak) and acceptable (so that presenting proposals with multiple alternatives are not seen as being weak and indecisive).

Muddling through Morality

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

Thinking about the basis for moral action as a result of Stuart Sutherland’s interesting lecture earlier this evening on “Hume and Civil Society”. Hume skeptically examines various putative bases for moral action, and finds many of them wanting—religion, social norms, rational thought.

I was wondering whether, in practice, there is a single “base theory” like this, though. Perhaps there are a number of different bases, and the consequences of these all largely coincide. Groups might seem to be acting in a coherent moral fashion, but each individual’s morality might have a different basis; or, more likely, combination of bases. Some might be driven by emotional repugnance, some by rationally thinking through the consequences of their action, some by social norms, some by fear of (spiritual or temporal) authority, most by some mixture of them all. In the end they all do more-or-less the same thing. This has a flavour of the “swiss cheese” theory of risk: most of the time at least one of our moral bases kick in to prevent us acting immorally, and it is only when all of the bases are absent, or else miscued in a particular context, that morality fails.

Forms of Embarrassment (1)

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

A project to enumerate unusual forms of embarrassment (part 1).

One particular form of embarrassment that catches me by surprise is when people think that I have said something much more shocking/out of character than I actually had.

For example, a couple of years ago I was talking about hash tables and dictionary lookup in a lecture and used an example of animals and their names. One example pairing was (Panda, “Eats, shoots and leaves”). I was familiar with a version of the joke about a panda who eats a meal, shoots the waiter and then walks out of the restaurant; I was not familiar at the time with a variant in which the “shoots” refers to ejaculation. As I began to tell the joke, a few members of the audience (should I really be thinking of students as “audience”!) began to titter or look shocked that their lecturer was going to tell an off-colour joke. I found out after the lecture by talking to students what had caused this.

Of course, it is a shocking indictment of our society’s values that a joke about someone being murdered in cold blood is inoffensive, whereas the slightest sexual reference is shocking.

How I failed to get into Cambridge University

Monday, October 24th, 2011

I applied and failed to get into Cambridge University when I was a teenager. I don’t care that I didn’t get in—I had three wonderful years at York instead. Nonetheless, I’m interested to think in retrospect about why this happened, whether my (very standard comprehensive) school could have done anything to prepare me better, and whether this situation still obtains twenty years later in schools similar to mine.

The positives. My school was very encouraging. They spent time with me honing my personal statement and writing what I assume was a decent reference.

The negatives. I think that the details matter. This is where the public schools have the advantage. Dammit, I could coach someone pretty well for Oxbridge admissions, despite having never been near the place except as a tourist.

One problem is that half-understood advice is sometimes as useless as no advice at all. I remember being told that I should read a little bit more around the subject, learn some things that were off-curriculum. If I was advising someone these days, I’d say the same thing—basically, that the prospective candidate should read some of the more challenging popular science books in their subject. However, I didn’t really know what this meant, so I went to the local library, which had a couple of maths books that weren’t school textbooks or similar. I read a book entitled something like “maths for business”—the first part was all about linear programming, which I learned in some detail and found very interesting. At my interview I got the inevitable question about what I had been reading, in particular if I had read anything about maths, and said that I had read a book about “maths for business”. The interviewer said something slightly bemused like “you mean, how to calculate a mortgage, and that sort of thing?”. I replied with something like “no, not really”, but I couldn’t really articulate what the book was about, so that line of questioning faded out.

The detailed choice of words matters. If I had said “I’ve been reading a book that talks about this thing called linear programming” then I might have started an interesting conversation. This is exactly what can be coached carefully.

I also think that it is important to choose the right, illustrative examples; this is part of understanding the reasons for asking the question as well as just understanding the question. In a previous attempt to join the Establishment, when I applied for a scholarship to the local private school aged 11, I remember being asked at the interview about what I watched on TV. I waffled on about enjoying the A-team and Family Fortunes and so on. Of course, I was just as enthusiastic about watching Mastermind and Tomorrow’s World or whatever else would have been the appropriate—but I didn’t understand that this was important. I gave a very direct, off the top of my head answer, sampling essentially randomly from the set of possible answers, and it wasn’t the right one. Again, this could trivially be coached out, even without my having any understanding of why the “right answer” was right.

Is this still the case today? Perhaps. One great thing is that there are loads of websites where prospective students can meet online and discuss these issues, so obvious faux pas get trapped early on. But, I still worry—if I were interviewing a student, and they gave some waffle about a business maths book, would I look upon them as favourably as the student who had read Ian Stewart or Marcus de Sautoy and could engage with the ideas therein? Does the student who says that they’ve “enjoyed programming in HTML” deserve the opprobrium that they would get, even though this might have been precisely the term their teacher might have used? I’d hope to be able to tease out the genuine ignorance from the shibboleths, but I worry that I don’t always succeed.

On Coming from Nowhere

Monday, October 24th, 2011

I come from nowhere. This is a rather overdramatic statement, but it kinda has depth. Let’s unpack this a bit.

I didn’t grow up in a place that had cultural significance. I grew up in the “respectable working class” suburbs of a large but fairly nondescript city in the non-region that is the East Midlands. Occasionally you meet people who have some passion for the city (Nottingham), but it is rare, and it doesn’t have the cultural oomph of, say, growing up in Liverpool, Glasgow, the East End of London or (for that matter) Surrey (which elevates dullness to a culture). I find it strange when people have a really meaningful link to a place where they grew up—even a place that they haven’t lived in for years. I used to work with someone who, despite living elsewhere for the last 30 years, strongly identified with the Scottish borders where he grew up as his home, and regarded this as important. I can’t say that I do, or perhaps could attribute this to where I grew up.

I grew up without a religion, but with a vague dash of woo. This specifically isn’t to say that I grew up in a hardline atheist environment. I grew up in a family/culture that sat in the vaguely something-out-there, vaguely-agnostic, vaguely culturally-christian kind of nonreligion.

I grew up as an only child in a family that was distant, on both sides, from their extended family. This leaves me with a peculiar, and probably vastly overidealised, notion of a large extended family. For example, I am loosely envious of people who have large, extended (both in terms of family size and length of meeting) family Christmasses—in my family, Christmas has been a few hours on the 25th December with my parents, and by the evening it is back to normal. I understand, though, that people who have this more-or-less uniformly hate it and regard it as a tedious obligation.

I grew up in a “class gap”. I can’t do the “I grew up eating gravel” that some of my proper working class contemporaries can do; equally, I was sufficiently distant (e.g. in terms of cultural capital) from the genuine middle classes. My parents clearly believed themselves to be working class, though we were frequently seen as “posh” by by schoolmates, largely as a result of living in a detached house on the edge of the council estate rather than in one of the council houses.

The importance of gender has always been a mystery to me. I don’t regard gender as being all that important, outside of areas where it is immediately relevant. I’ve always interacted with lots of people both male and female without really noticing. I find the idea of social groups based on gender to be weird—occasionally, I’ll get invited to go along to an event that is male-only and I always refuse these, I can’t understand what people would get from such a group. Similarly with regard to race and ethnicity.

This isn’t to say that I would want to have a strong background, but I sometimes think that it would be good to have something to push against—when I read a book review about (to give a recent example) the difficulties of growing as a lesbian in Jewish North London, I feel that my situation doesn’t give me something to move outward from. I might want to reject my background, but at least I’d like some background to reject.

When I explain this to friends, I often get a reaction that is trying to convince me that I do come from somewhere, e.g. by explaining that I have a community in the form of my academic discipline. This isn’t really about where I come from, though, but about where I have ended up.

That said, I don’t care too much about this. I am vaguely jealous of people who appear to come from somewhere, it adds depth in some indefinable way. Nonetheless, I feel that it conveys an interesting perspective on the world. For example, I find territorial political/religious disputes (Northern Ireland, the Falkland Islands, the middle-east) rather incomprehensible. Why not just come to a pragmatic solution and agree some kind of division? Of course I am not really that naive: I understand rationally, but nonetheless try as I might I cannot emotionally grok the feelings of someone who really believes in this sort of cause. Why, in the end, is it really that important? What must it feel like to really come from somewhere and care about it?

My perspective on such disputes leaves me with an oddly contradictory feeling. On one hand, I feel remarkably naive, like some 5-year old saying “why can’t they just all sort it out”. On the other hand, I feel remarkably mature, like a teacher who is looking down on a class of children having a fight and apportioning equal blame to all with jaded indifference. When I was a kid, I was morally outraged at some of the teachers’ decisions—their lack of interest in trying to explore the reasons why we were e.g. fighting seemed outrageous—but, in retrospect I can see how it looks when you take a perspective that views playground politics as trivial.

Similarly on various kinds of prejudice in society, I feel that I am getting a lack of prejudice “for free”, which feels odd somehow. I like this situation, but I feel that people who have had to work hard to not be racist or sexist somehow have a greater depth of engagement with the issues, whereas I’ve just swanned in without any of these prejudices in the first place.

I wonder what it feels like to really come from somewhere in this sense?

Inspiration (4)

Monday, October 24th, 2011

Idea for an art piece. Take things that are designed to be at a very slow pace and speed them up: relaxation mp3′s running so fast that you can only just hear them, those little new agey indoor fountains with a pressure hose attached, a wind chime spinning at ten to the dozen. In the next room, the opposite; things that are designed to be fast, very slow: high-RPM dance music slowed to an ambient pace, a treadmill running at a snail’s pace, a food mixer moving at 1 RPM, etc.

Pun (1)

Sunday, October 23rd, 2011

Rather amazed and disappointed to discover that, according to Google, there is no band called “Zoe and the Tropes”.

Poppleton Lives!

Sunday, October 23rd, 2011

Worthy of the University of Poppleton itself:

Masterclass explores the power of the global brand A series of masterclass guest lectures at the York Management School opened with a presentation on 'Building an Iconic Global Brand' by Cheryl Allen, Head of Biscuit Business at Nestlé UK Limited.

Fonts (1)

Saturday, October 8th, 2011

This font has a very specific meaning:

"Cuite House"

It means “overpriced tat available inside” (not specifically an attack on this shop – but, I’ve noticed it in lots of places).

Designing Importance without Overseriousness

Saturday, October 8th, 2011

For the last few days the Amazon UK home page has had the following graphic:

Amazon letter beginning "Dear Customers,"

The idea here is clearly to convey that there is something important going on here, something that you, the customer, should take a minute or two of your day to attend to.

But, to me, it doesn’t work. It comes across as an exception to the normal reading of the page—which was the intention—but, not in a good way. It is overserious. The “Dear Customer” is rather jarring, and makes you expect something like “In recent days you will have read stories concerning amazon.co.uk in the press; we would like to refute these allegations in the strongest terms…” or something else rather negative.

The general lesson here is, I suppose, that you have to be very careful when leaping out of the regular visual language of web pages. It is very easy to get the reader to attend to something presented in a different visual language—but then, you need to ensure that they are getting the right implication from it.

Variations on Folk Sayings (10)

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

How many nuns could a nunchuck chuck if a nunchuck could chuck nuns?

Simulacra and Simulation (1)

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

The EA Sports Grand Slam Tennis game for the Wii offers you the chance to play either as a famous tennis player or using an avatar that you create to represent yourself (or, I suppose, someone else). I usually play as “myself” but the other evening decided to play as John McEnroe. I selected a random opponent, and despite the odds, with most avatars in the game being famous players, it selected an avatar that someone else had created.

This was a weird experience – I was playing as not-myself, whilst my opponent was an avatar of someone I know but being controlled by the computer. This gets very confusing. It could have been moreso—the randomly chosen avatar could have been myself.