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Colin Johnson’s blog

Archive for April, 2013

Trust without Identity

Saturday, April 20th, 2013

Most work on the notion of trust online has been about identity verification. In order to do a transaction with my online banking system, I have to verify to that system who I am (and vice versa, just about).

This is not the only trust model out there in the bricks-and-mortar world. Another model is that of a security deposit. If I, for example, hire a bicycle, then I lend the company something of value to me (e.g. a sum of money, a key) that I get back when I return the bicycle.

Could this be implemented online in some way for some applications? Are there any other ways of splitting apart the usually-conflated concepts of trust and identity-verification?

Joke (5)

Saturday, April 20th, 2013

Joke for time-management junkies who also remember a particular, rather obscure internet meme. Probably rather a small demographic.

(See www.schneierfacts.com and www.pomodorotechnique.com for some hint towards an explanation/justification.)

Time Management (1)

Saturday, April 20th, 2013

I’d rather that someone was accurately vague than precise but wrong. For example, I’d rather that a student or colleague said “I’ll be able to come and find you for ten minutes sometime between 4 and 5 o’clock” rather than “I’ll see you for ten minutes at 4 o’clock” and then show up at 4:45.

People who think that I’m pedantic and autistic about appointments don’t realise this. They think that I want everything nailed down, and so endeavour to be exact even when that isn’t possible. The problem is that they think I am going to be unsettled/offended at the imprecision. The imprecision as such doesn’t bother me—it’s spurious precision that I’m offended by.

Chatting with the Vice-Chancellor

Saturday, April 20th, 2013

A thought about time-management. If you want to get hold of someone who is busy with lots of appointments for a “quick chat”, a good time to do so is at around 15 minutes to the hour. Many busy people have hour-long diary slots, even for things that don’t last a full hour, and at XX:45 they are likely to be both free from their previous meeting and not too close to the next one.

Levels of Indirection (1)

Friday, April 19th, 2013

So, let me get this right. The company that sent this letter used a private mail provider, which have been encouraged because it is assumed that they would be able to undercut the publicly run mail service due to “private sector efficiencies”. Then, having taken its admin costs and profit from that service, they were able to subcontract this out to the publicly-run Royal Mail, who were able to do the work at break-even or better for whatever money was left. Who’s efficient now?

This has somewhat of the same flavour as James Meek’s piece for the London Review of Books, in which he points out that one of the completely unexpected consequences of electricity privatisation was that the privatised industries would, to a large extent, be bought up by nationalised companies elsewhere in Europe: “Why was it that we had to lose our nationalised industries in order to hand them over to nationalised industries from other countries?”

(1.0+\delta) \times Wild

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

Word problem: if Wilder Clothing has merged with Wild Clothing, how wild are the clothes in the combined shop (please give your answer to 3 decimal places)?

"Wlider" has moved to "Wild Clothing"

Local Derby (1)

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

East midlands’ rivalries are alive and well (from an East Midlands Trains service from London to Nottingham):

Do not flush while in station (unless we are in Derby or Leicester)


Thursday, April 18th, 2013

I’ve often been tempted, but never quite dared, to press the “biddle” button when I pass this piece of antiquated technology (from Rutherford College, University of Kent, Canterbury).

Obscure old panel with a button marked "biddle" on i

Ugh (1)

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

The name of this place (in Sherwood, Nottingham) has long struck me as rather grim. It is clearly meant to combine the casual, leisuretime connotations of sitting in a nice cafe with the, to some people rather stressful, event of having your hair cut. Unfortunately, to me it just brings to mind a mug of coffee with stray hairs in it.

The Hair Cafe

Constraints (1)

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

Here’s a nice piece of design (from the University of Kent Canterbury campus):

Path with a bin at the end

There is clearly a plan here to stop people walking on that side of the road; the formal path stops, and there is a crossing point installed in the kerb. But, this hasn’t been very effective, as illustrated by the desire paths trailing off into the distance.

The new component here is the bin. This provides a nice terminator for the path without it coming across as an aggressive barrier. Bins are part of the regular street-furniture vocabulary, so it doesn’t jar (or look ludicrous) like a little fence would. Its secondary function of encouraging people to cross the road is effective without being obtrusive.

Utopias (1)

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

An interesting question raised on AskMe earlier today: why, when there is an event like the Boston Marathon bombing, do some people (people from the UK are particularly noted) make a point of pointing out that similar, indeed much worse, events are happening every day in other parts of the world with hardly a register on news media in “the West”.

Certainly such thoughts have occurred to me, though I find it rather crass to express them at a time such as this. Why do I feel this way, and why might others? Certainly not for the “anit-Americanism” being suggested in some of the responses; my impression is that most people who have commented upon the bombing in that way are not saying that the Boston events should not be reported, but asking why it is reported in that way relative to, say, the low-key reporting of 24 people being killed in incidents in Afghanistan a couple of days later (there may be an exception to this in the smaller number of people who are saying things like “America has perpetrated worst incidents”, which has the dangerous and illogical implication that events such as this are somehow “deserved”).

Nor do such thoughts give rise to the “moral superiority” discussed by other commenters. I wouldn’t want to point out these inequities just to feel smug about doing so—the idea that people would think that I’m getting my moral rocks off by having such a thought seems disgusting.

I think the reason that these thoughts come to mind to me is more to do with a background sense of what I feel ideal news reporting should be like; my “news utopia” reports on things because of the importance of the topic, not because of the nationality or race of the participants. When something so clearly works against this I feel a genuine emotional sense of unsettledness.

It seems weird to me that some people think that the only reason someone could want to be critical is to come out as superior or biased in some way; I feel that the main role of criticism is to bring us collectively towards something better and more equitable.

I used to think that everyone went around with a set of “utopias” like this in their heads; some sense of what, if we could sort out all the pesky details, we could get to that would be better than what we currently have. But, it surprises me how little this mode of thinking exists.

One of my favourite management techniques is the “queen for a day” thought exercise. If you are in a situation, what would you do if you were “queen for the day” and could just make everything work right (in an unmagical way; no defying the laws of physics or having billions of pounds to throw at the problem). This is really useful to act as an anchor point; once you have determined peoples’ ideals, then you can work back from them to find a good solution that goes pragmatically somewhere towards them all. But, it surprises me how often I ask this question and people haven’t given it a thought at all before I mention it; by contrast, I usually have a (contestable, changeable, incomplete) idea of the “ideal” in a particular situation as part of my day-to-day thinking toolbox about the situation.

Mail Fail

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

As a vegetarian, I avoid both eating meat and reading it (from the Daily Mail):

People who eat white bread, butter and read meat are most likely to die young.

Variations on Folk Sayings (14) (Rural Austerity Special)

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

“Sheep at half the price.”

We Don’t Take Comedy Seriously Enough

Monday, April 8th, 2013

Despite the rise and rise of complex, richly engaged comedy, people in other artforms still don’t have any respect for it. For the last few years I’ve been interested—in a rather inchoate way—in how comedy and contemporary classical music might interact, in particular whether the forms and structures of comedy provide an interesting and novel analogy for the structuring of a piece of music, or whether music-theatre can learn from comedy performance practices. I’d be interested, for example, if the tension inherent in a Stewart Lee performance, and the sophisticated use of reference and callbacks, could provide an emotional flavour that could be delivered in a musical way, or whether the emotional trajectory of Daniel Kitson’s storytelling performances could give us an idea of how to hold an audience for an extended period of time.

Very few people take this seriously. When someone raised a point like this with Larry Goves at a tutorial last summer, the response was incomprehending. What could the mere stimulus-response of joke-laugh have to do with a sophisticated artform such as composing a string quartet? Similarly, at a meeting the other day, the idea that a contemporary music group might put on a joint event with a comedy group was treated rather distastefully—”I don’t know if we want to be associated with that sort of thing”, whereas collaborations with poetry and art groups were greeted with enthusiasm.

I don’t want to suggest that all comedy is deep and profound—there is a big place for “summat as meks yer ears laff”. But, when some people in contemporary comedy are making a rich and distinctive contribution to new ways of taking an audience on an emotional trajectory, it is a pity that this is ignored by other artforms.