“Real Artists Ship”

Colin Johnson’s blog

Archive for February, 2012

Would you rather be a Jerk or an Asshole?

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

I came across a pair of cod-definitions a while ago (I can’t find the reference), along the following lines:

  • A jerk is someone who, because their attention is elsewhere or they don’t know the consequences of their actions, messes up things for other people
  • An asshole is someone who knows that their actions will mess things up for other people but goes ahead anyway

Would you rather be seen as a jerk or an asshole? Probably neither! But, if you screw up in public—say by tripping someone or bumping into someone in public—you would rather that this be seen as an accident rather than a result of you (say) thinking that you need to get somewhere quickly as so you are going to push your way through the crowd regardless of whether you trip or bump other people.

How do we try to achieve this? We usually do this by following up an apology with an explanation, whether a real one or a made-up one: “sorry, just got new glasses yesterday and I’m still adjusting”. By giving this explanation, we are trying to change the perception of the person we offended by moving from the (seeming default) asshole category to a position that we might called “justified jerk”, where we messed up because we weren’t sensitive enough to realise that our situation (say, the new glasses) required more care, but at least we have some reason for it. We are essentially sending out an appeal for empathy.

Usually, though, this doesn’t work. The explanation gets taken as an “excuse” and just harrumphed off. I wonder why? Perhaps this is a variant on the Dunning-Kruger phenomenon, where people who are bad at some task overestimate their ability at the task. I imagine that when we ask for empathy in the situation, the other person thinks “if I’d just got new glasses, I’d have been more careful and slowed down my pace of walking etc.”. As a result, we get bumped back into asshole territory: because we have tried to give an explanation, we have shown some awareness of the situation, and therefore given evidence that we had some understanding that we could have used to anticipate the problem, so the problem is because of our arrogant disregard rather than because of casual error.

Perhaps just an apology is better? But then, we don’t move they person away from their default position that we are doing this for assholey reasons. Perhaps there is no way out of this bind.

Non-religious Funerals—not just for Bloody Heathens

Monday, February 20th, 2012

I’ve been thinking back to by mother’s funeral on the occasional of the one-year anniversary, and particularly thinking about non-religious funerals. In fitting with my mother’s atheism (or “being a bloody heathen” as she put it), I of course organised an entirely non-religious funeral, which acted as a joyous celebration of her life and included lots of her favourite music and readings, as well as giving family and friends a chance to talk about her life.

I was talking to someone about religious funerals last week, and they were saying that at the last religious funeral they attended, the service consisted of one-and-a-half minutes of talk about the deceased, and 28-and-a-half minutes of talking about Jesus.

Occasionally, usually on the kind of “and finally…” type slot that Trevor McDonald used to do at the end of the news, we here about someone who had a themed funeral relating to an interest that they were passionate about—Elvis, or windsurfing, or whatever. Lots of people find this kind of funeral rather undignified and naff.

Yet, when we have a religious funeral, even for someone for whom religion was only a small part of their life, the religious aspect dominates completely. Perhaps we should find this just as naff. Why do we allow this one aspect of a life to dominate so strongly at the celebration of a complex and rich life? By all means, have the religious-themed funeral, much as we allow the Elvis funeral, for the deeply committed. But for the average punter, who has a religion as just one part of a complex life, why not represent this by one small token in the ceremony, and celebrate the remaining aspects of a life well lived in the remainder?

How to be a Crashing Boor (1)

Monday, February 20th, 2012

It is interesting that, despite the general impression that “anything goes” in art and culture of recent decades, there is still a very strict sense of etiquette and propriety in different cultural forms. Whilst material can be offensive, boundary-pushing and provocative, things that push against the formats in which we are acculturated to present work are instantly seen as boorish and outgroupy, and very much not pushing-the-boundaries of the cultural form. Some examples that I’ve come across in the last few years:

  1. Someone wrote a piece of contemporary-classical music that consisted of multiple sections that were to be played in between the other pieces on the program. The composer got a lot of flak for forcing themselves across the concert as a whole, rather than accepting the traditional notion of a single slot in the concert. It was seen as crass and arrogant. I can imagine that a similar uproar would be met by some visual artist who insisted that a work occupy lots of different small spaces in the gallery.
  2. Even in the most in-yer-face offensive styles of comedy the comperes are unfailingly polite and respectful towards the comedians. I’m surprised that no-one has broken this yet; it seems that even when you put the most cynical comedian in the compere role they start talking about the “love in the room” and all that hippyshit.
  3. Anything that goes against acknowledging the work that went into a performance or the hierarchy therein: a composer/playwright taking a bow before the performers have had their chance, a piece of work that fossicked around with the labelling of art in a gallery, or similar.

Out of the Valley of Death

Monday, February 13th, 2012

The “Valley of Death” is the rather overwrought term used in technology transfer for the difficulty of getting technology developed in a university research environment into commercial use. This is a big concern for governments—for example, the UK government Science and Technology Committee recently held a consultation on this very issue.

Thinking about how the university world operates compared to other areas, I wonder if one problem is the ready availability of people at the university end to do medium scale pieces of work. The university research workforce breaks down into largely two categories of people: the lecturing/professorial staff, who have lots of expertise but also lots of calls on their time, and the PhD students and postdocs, who have specific expertise and whose time is largely taken up by the project that they are working on. It is easy enough for a commercial organisation to get a little piece of consultancy, e.g. running a few ideas past a professor for a day or two; similarly, a firm that is happy to make a larger commitment, e.g. to sponsor a postdoc, PhD student or KTP associate for two or three years fits into the system readily.

The difficulty is the middle ground. What about a project that requires specific expertise in a particular area, but which also requires a substantial commitment of time, say three to six months. In many other industries—say, product design—a designer would be available from the pool of designers employed permanently by a consultancy to work on projects. One initially attractive proposition, therefore, would be for a university to retain a number of such “consultants” to work on projects as needed. However, this fails; the expertise required in a research-driven project is rather specific, and it would be impossible for such a consultant to have the breadth of knowledge required to work immediately on projects.

I wonder if a very low-ceremony secondment scheme for postdocs and PhD students would work here. I am sure it is possible for, e.g., a research council project to be extended by three months to allow a postdoc to work for three months as such a consultant; but, I would be put off investigating this, as I would be concerned that the amount of admin overhead in extending the project etc. would be large. What we need is a simple way to do this; a one-page web form where a PI can request a small number of months extension to a project so that a postdoc or student currently employed in a cognate area could take some time off their project and be paid by the firm to do a medium-term project of a few months. This would provide both the flexibility and the expertise, and would mean that universities could respond more rapidly to such requests. If sufficiently well remunerated by firms, I can see this being appealing to the secondees, with the opportunity to work on something relevant and probably earn a little more money for a while than they normally would do.

“You switch if you want to…”

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

The government and the press occasionally get in conniptions about why people aren’t switching energy providers (or similar service providers) more readily. The government has gone to all the trouble of creating a rich marketplace of competitive providers, with the intention that people will exploit this liquid market by readily moving from provider to provider and therefore putting pressure on the providers to provide efficient, cheap services.

But the people have spoken with their feet—the bastards—by standing still and refusing to change fluidly. Why? Part of the problem is that the stalls set out by all of the providers are obscure and uncomparable. The last time I talked to an energy supplier we had a conversation along the lines of “your last three months gas and electricity usage amounted to about 35 pounds a month; therefore we’ll set your direct debit at 73 pounds a month”. When I asked for an explanation of what “therefore” meant in that sentence, there was, of course, no explanation. It was take-it-or-leave-it; and, the same would no doubt be true for all other providers. Comparison sites help somewhat here.

Another part of the problem is that people have bought into the efficient market hypothesis and therefore don’t see the point in switching. This is meta-capitalism: the effect of awareness of market mechanisms on the market itself (a slapdash version of the “Lucas critique”). People commonly say “it might be cheaper now, but I’m sure it will all even out in the next few weeks”, which is reinforced by headlines like “final energy provider falls into line and puts up prices”. This is where service markets vary from the markets concerned with the purchase of individual items; in a one off transaction, a customer can immediately benefit from the cheapness of a widget there-and-then; with a service, conditions might change rapidly.

There seems to be a further effect here. All providers feel the need to present themselves to the customer in largely the same way: a complex, incomprehensible presentation together with an assertion that they are therefore obviously the best and that if you tie-in now for the next 24 months you will get an even better deal. It seems that there is some conservation law of complexity emerging here whereby the complexity of presentation to the customer remains the same across providers, regardless of the number of providers in the system.

It is odd why there isn’t a provider that tries to distinguish itself by radical simplicity—the “Gordon Ramsay” strategy of “throw away the complex twelve-page menu and write half-a-dozen dishes on the blackboard”. I don’t think that there is anything conspiratorial going on here, it is just that such an approach is too big a risk to try, and the costs for new entrants with a radically new strategy is too high. It is interesting that in another industry—gym subscriptions—which previously had a similar complexity of presentation to the energy firms, has recently been shaken up by the emergence of upfront, fixed price, no tie-in providers. But, it is easier to build a few gyms (or just one) and experiment with a new model.

I wonder if there is an opportunity for a supplier to run a “diffusion line” under a different name, with a radically different level of complexity of presentation? This would bring a new “provider” into the market backed by the requisite infrastructure but without the risk of the original provider exposing its whole customer base to the experimental strategy.

Advertising Opportunities (2)

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Almost all hotels seem to supply generic no-name toiletries, sometimes branded with some ad hoc private label, sometimes branded with the name of the hotel. This seems to miss a tremendous marketing opportunity for manufacturers of shampoo, shower gel etc. I’m surprised that such manufacturers aren’t falling over themselves to give free samples of their products to hotels, as this is one of the rare occasions where people use products that aren’t “the usual”. I wonder why this doesn’t happen.


Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

One of my neighbours has bought a hula-hoop online, by the look of things:

A wrapped up hula-hoop


Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

I wouldn’t disagree with this delightfully blunt ad (from the wonderful Piemaker on South Bridge in Edinburgh)

PIES: One of mankind's greatest food inventions

“Why not switch off your TV and go and do something more environmentally-friendly instead?”

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

Your monitor uses the same energy as 4 energy-saving light bulbs