“Real Artists Ship”

Colin Johnson’s blog

Archive for March, 2012

Prof. Dr. Dr.

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

I’m going to insist on my students calling me this from now on:

"Dear Dr. Expert,"


Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

The word “wear” seems to be used for an increasingly wide range of things. We used to say of someone with a beard that they “had” a beard, now it seems increasingly common to talk about “wearing” a beard. This makes me think of those false beards that people use when they are pretending to be Santa Claus.

Now, today, I’ve come across the notion of wearing a handbag, (as part of my copious trawling the web for handbag-related webpages). This seems equally incongruous, bringing to mind it sitting around someone’s neck like a necklace.

Public Notice

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a way of indicating in Java that variables could be accessed from outside the object, so that you could dispense with all of those bloody getters and setters ;-)

Review: Gotterfunken, Rosa Ensemble, Huddersfield Bates Mill, November 2011

Friday, March 16th, 2012

We began with an apology. A man dressed in Lycra stood up from the audience, and established himself as Dutch with a single word: “Hey”. The apology was of local concern—an explanation that, due to Government changes in the Netherlands, we are unlikely to see Dutch arts groups touring for a while. The connotation was broad—an apology for the failure of the European project. And yet…there was a glimpse of optimism. Perhaps, rather than being the responsibility of insitutions, European fellowship could be reconstructed from casual meetings across the continent.

And so we began proper. We began with an animation—a live animation, drawn on a piece of paper and projected on a screen. And then an explanation. Two people spent three months cycling 9000 miles around Europe, meeting people, singing, drinking vodka, and smoking one cigarette a day. This was their story, delivered through video, animation, songs and anecdotes.

It’s said that storytellers should show not tell. They did both. It worked. Sometimes we want to hear the story direct—like the person on the other side of the (unnamed) national border who screamed at them “Go back to where you came from! Whereever it is, it’s better than here!”. Sometimes we want something more impressionistic, a blur of maps, photographs and recorded sound.

We ended with a blurring of roles. Musicians, actors, stagehands stood up to give their opinion: just an attempt to recreate careless teenagehood, or a celebration of European unity? Then a recapitulation of a song to finish.

Review: Duncan Strachan (cello) and Simon Smith (piano), Reid Concert Hall, University of Edinburgh, 16th March 2012

Friday, March 16th, 2012

This concert began with two of the instrumental movements from Birtwistle’s Bogenstrich, a piece that includes both vocal and purely instrumental sections. The first of these, Song without Words, was Birtwistle does late romanticism—or, more, accurately, a revisiting of that late nineteenth century point in musical history where romanticism was sliding into expressionism. This expressive piece alternated a coherent set of melodic and expressive gestures from the cello with more angular piano material. In the second piece, Like a Fugue, we were on more solid modernist ground—blocky piano writing, and the systematic working through of processes reminiscent of earlier pieces such as Harrison’s Clocks.

This was followed by a short, simple but effective recent piece by the pianist, Simon David Smith. This was in the form of a take on the German hymn tune O Welt, ich muss dish lassen, which has been used as source material by other composers such as Brahms. This piece made effective, straightforward use of the material.

Stuart MacRae’s Unity, which formed the third piece in the programme, was an exploration of the idea of treating the two instruments as a single sound source, rather than as a pairing. The majority of the piece consisted of two kinds of material, with spare material alternating with rapid, expressive material; throughout this, an arhythmic sense was maintained through tempo-shifts and long rapid note sequences. Rather oddly, the piece ended on a couple of minutes of formal, strictly timed material, with the piano playing chords in time and the cello filling in simple, repetitive material. This rather jarred with the freeness of the majority of the piece, but it just about hung together.

The final piece was Valentin Silvestrov’s Sonata, a 20 minute piece, which, according to the programme note, also explored the idea of two players working as a single source of sound. The unifying material for the piece was a trilly, tremolandoey murk out of which gestures and melodies emerged. Such a structure can be effective—consider a piece such as Berio’s Rendering. In this content, however, it was ineffective; each gesture started anew, giving the impression of a piece that was constantly starting and then petering back into the murk, rather than having any sense of development. The melodic sections, presented in a more strongly tonal language than the remainder of the work, were also rather isolated: a melody with straightforward, almost clichéd harmonisation, would be presented, then the trill would start again, and back into the mud without any development. Overall, this resulted in a directionless piece. The ending was perhaps the oddest part of the piece, moving towards the inside of the piano and extreme harmonics on the cello, material that hadn’t been hinted at prior to the last couple of minutes. Overall, the sort of piece that minimalism could have been if it had started from expressionist material!

The playing was of a very high standard. It is clear that the two performers have worked hard at presenting a single sound, rather than coming together in an ad hoc fashion. Overall, a good concert, rather let down by the directionlessness of the final piece.

Pink (1)

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

It’s like feminism never bloody happened:

mother's day pink tool set

Info-stream or Interface

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Online organisations usually have the choice between two ways of making their information available. One is what we will call info-stream, where the information is made available in the form of a stream of machine-readable information that people can view and process in different forms. Twitter is a good example of this: whilst it does provide a fallback option of viewing it through the Twitter website, many users use a different way of interfacing with it such as an app on a computer or phone, or an alternative web interface. By contrast, some other organisation choose to provide the information through a specific graphical interface. An example here is Facebook, who clearly expect all users to interface with the content through the Facebook web-site (or Facebook-provided mobile app). People wanting a different view of the content can get alternative interfaces (e.g. Social Fixer or Facebook Purity, but these appear to work by a screenscraping-style approach that is not designed for in the way Facebook designs its information provision.

What is the business argument (in the broadest sense) for making one or the other of these choices? Clearly one argument for the interface approach is concerned with advertising. One problem with providing an info-stream is that this makes it very easy to filter out advertising. Organisations that have adopted an info-stream approach tend to have a very tight integration between their advertising and their content. For example, advertising in Twitter is in the form of promoted Tweets or Trends, which are Tweets or Trends in their own right; by contrast, the content delivered by Facebook has advertising, but not as part of the main News Feed content.

A more complex example is provided by the choices made by travel, insurance, banking and energy companies. In the early days of the web, much was made of the idea that online commerce would be a purer form of commerce because aggregators would be able to draw a direct comparison between different providers. Clearly, this vision has been realised—up to a point. A number of firms, for example insurance firms Direct Line and Aviva and some of the discount airlines have largely avoided being on comparison sites. What is the business case for this? Possibly, to avoid the commission fees charged by the sites; possibly, to create a more direct channel of direct negotiation with the customer, akin to the old print-advertising strategy of not listing prices but saying “call us for our best price”. Again, this is an info-stream versus interface decision: the “not on comparison sites” are pursuing an interface strategy, where they want to control the interface between the information and customer in their own way; by contrast, the firms that are supplying information to comparison sites are providing information in an info-stream fashion.

"not on comparison websites"

This is clearly not something that was anticipated in the early discussions about e-commerce. It was assumed that organisations would be falling over themselves to provide information for aggregation and comparison. Clearly, though, it is possible for firms to adopt a strategy of opting out of such comparisons. This does not bode well for the development of the semantic web, which (rather naively) assumes that any organisation online will want to readily provide information in a computer-readable fashion. Instead, the choice for a firm is more complex: to provide an info-stream and work on an objective (as far as the measures used) comparison as a strategy, or to provide an interface and rely on more traditional advertising and marketing strategies that leverage the lack of ability to compare directly.

Are there other organisational/business arguments about the info-stream/interface choice?

Waiting (1)

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Virgin Trains (IIRC) tried an experiment a couple of years ago with making the experience of waiting for a train to leave its first station more like the experience of waiting for a plane to take off. When passengers got on the train, there was music playing in the background, and, perhaps I am remembering this wrongly, dimmed lighting.

The effect of this on me was negative. Usually, when I get on a train, I don’t really care whether it is moving or not—I settle into my seat, put my headphones on, and start reading. At some point the train starts moving, and I hardly notice this. This redesign of the experience made for quite the opposite effect: by constantly reminding passengers that the train hadn’t started moving yet, it can create the effect of “drumming your fingers waiting for something to happen”, which is quite the opposite of the relaxing effect intended. The important difference is that take-off is an unignorable part of a flight; a train starting moving is eminently ignorable.


Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Over the last few years lots of money has been spent building automated ticket barriers at stations. However, I wonder if this is all going to be rather wasted, as train companies are gradually moving towards e-ticketing, and the barriers are designed to take a very specific form factor of printed ticket. At the moment, e-tickets have to be checked by a human operator, which kind of defeats the point. I wonder if this is why the new barriers at King’s Cross have some kind of barcode scanner thingy on them?

Speedball Nurse

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Ugh feeling ill. Not enough Night Nurse in the flat to make a full dose. Topped it up from the Day Nurse bottle. Disappointingly, it just mixed to make a dull green colour rather than layering like a fancy cocktail.

Speedball Nurse

I’m going to call this the Speedball Nurse.