“Real Artists Ship”

Colin Johnson’s blog

Archive for October, 2013

Graffiti for Conservatives

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Why is graffiti such a conservative medium? The vast majority of time when I see some graffiti, it looks like this:


This looks very similar to the graffiti that people were doing when I was at school in the ’80s—we had a “graffiti wall” in common room, in a futile attempt to dissuade pupils from graffiting all over the school. Going further back, when I see the well-known images of graffiti on US subway trains in the 60s, again the overall look is very similar. For example, letters are bulbous and surrounded by a firm outline.

Naively, we see graffiti as a fast-moving avant-garde practice. We would expect it to be a rapidly changing medium, and we would imagine that there would be a rapid change of styles. But, this isn’t the case. Of course, there are exceptions, but the mainstream of graffiti looks essentially static compared with the mainstream of commercial design. Anyone with the slightest eye for design would be able to distinguish a number of design styles in the last 50 years, whereas a similar look at graffiti would fail to pull out much distinction. Graffiti seems to be a timeless, fashionless practice, more like a traditional medium like embroidery or baking than a high-fashion practice.

Perhaps the idea of avant-garde is more parochial than we think. We tend to assume that all practices will progress in the same way, with a cutting-edge fringe pushing ideas forward, feeding ideas into the next generation of the mainstream. But, of course, a lot of practices are not like that; instead, they are characterised by absorption in a craft tradition, showing deference to previous masters, etc. Perhaps graffiti is more along these lines.

Tattooing is another area where similar arguments can be made.

Deletion Mutation (1)

Monday, October 21st, 2013

Not quite what the student intended to write, I hope:

To: Colin. "Hell Sir,"

Provocative Thoughts (1)

Friday, October 18th, 2013

“MOOCs are Mensa for the 21st Century.”

No, I Don’t do That (1)

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

I get an email like this almost every day.

Have you ever spent much time and energy to generate an antibody, which unfortunately fails to perform in your experiments?

The answer is “no, I haven’t”. Clearly, having the word “science” on my web page provokes this kind of thing.

Worryingly, there must be enough lab scientists who are prepared to buy antibodies from web-sites advertised by spam to keep this spam-ecosystem alive.


Friday, October 11th, 2013

Weirdly, my email folders all begin with the letters A-E. What’s the chance of that?


Sub-disciplines (1)

Friday, October 11th, 2013

When I first started to meet humanities academics, it surprised me how many defined their interests in terms of nations: they were “Scottish historians”, their subject was “British cinema”, etc. There were even things like “American philosophy”—the idea that something as abstract as this can be influenced by something as concrete as nationhood still discombobulates me.

This struck me as rather odd. I’d assumed that this sort of characterisation would be super-naive. I would not have dreamed of asking a historian which country they specialised in: I assumed this would be like asking a mathematician which of the four basic arithmetic operations they specialised in, or (more controversial, this) a computer scientist which programming language they use.

I suppose I thought that at the research level, humanities would be characterised by larger, more abstract problems: the relationship between expressiveness and language, the common features of political systems throughout world history, the interplay between economic forces and art produced, etc., etc.

Of course, the humanities do deal with questions at this level of abstraction; but, largely through the lens of a particular example. There is a similarity here with biology. Biologists will characterise themselves as being experts in fruitflies or large primates or whatever; I have just about gotten over a sense of mild amusement at seeing signs on campuses for things like the “British Yeast Symposium”. Of course, they are using these as a means of investigating deeper issues about gene expression, development, virus transmission, or whatever. It is easier to focus on one organism, as the techniques vary so much for different organism types. Similar with history, but perhaps the issue is less one of techniques than one of accumulated knowledge.

Why did I make this assumption that this characterisation was naive? I suppose I am used to this from studying mathematics, where we leave behind concreteness at a dizzying rate. But, then, it is possible to study mathematics in abstraction; once you have defined a mathematical concept formally, you can deal with it as a formal object, rather than through concrete examples. This isn’t so possible in the humanities; theoretical points are usually argued via the concrete examples. Perhaps there is scope, in some areas, for “big data” methods to change this—for example, having tools that allow historians to take a concept and a database of its realisations in different historical periods and ask questions about that mass of realisations, rather than give a couple of examples and a vague hint that this is a large scale phenomenon.

Old-fartery (1)

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

I’m been using email for over 22 years now. This isn’t long enough to be a proper old-fart who remembers when emails were delivered on punched-cards by carrier pidgeon, but long enough to have notices some changes in practice.

In the early days of my email usage, it was common for replies to emails to consist of replies interspersed between quotes from the original email, so-called interleaved reply. So, for example, an email like this:

From: personnel@rummidge.ac.uk
To: cgj@rummidge.ac.uk

Are you able to come to the interview panel on the 25th? If so, can you confirm any dietary needs for lunch.


Bob from Personnel

Would get a reply like this:

From: cgj@rummidge.ac.uk
To: personnel@rummidge.ac.uk

On 7th October personnel@rummidge.ac.uk wrote:
> Are you able to come to the interview panel on the 25th?


> If so, can you confirm any dietary needs for lunch.

Yes – vegetarian.



Which is clear and concise (provided you are familiar with this format) and doesn’t require a lot of typing. This kind of interaction-through-quotes is sometimes called bottom-posting, because the reply comes after the relevant quote. An alternative is top-posting, where (usually the whole) original email comes after the reply—basically, it is there as a reference, in case something is unclear, rather than as part of the email. Increasingly, default settings in email don’t quote the original message at all (instead, relying on people using threaded email clients).

I’ve noticed that I’m more-or-less only person I know who still uses this quote-and-reply style of email exchange. I’m thinking of giving it up. I’ve noticed it causes confusion: sometimes people think I’ve accidentally cut-and-pasted pieces of their email into my reply, sometimes people read it as if it is all my reply and it therefore doesn’t make sense, some people think it is rude to not formulate a proper reply email, etc. etc.

It is interesting to think about why this has gone from being a more-or-less standard way of replying, to a piece of old-fartery practiced only by email-grognards. I would speculate that this is because people don’t really get taught how to use email any more. This used to be part of what used to be called “computer literacy”; back in the day, computers were so unknown and hard-to-use that just sending emails needed people to go on courses (I have a delightful old book on my shelf somewhere called “Using an Electronic Mailbox”). Now, user-friendliness of systems and general familiarity with computers has rendered these courses otiose; instead, people learn by informal advice from others, trial-and-error, and RingTFG.

But something has been lost here. Alongside the practical skills of how to use your new-fangled electronic mailbox, these courses also taught the slightly more advanced soft skills around email: understanding quoting, knowing what cc: and bcc; are and when it is sensible to use them, the difference between reply and reply-all, and more generally how to interpret, and make efficient use of, emails: what we might call email-semantics.

This is a minor loss; we still communicate effectively using email. But, it is a loss nonetheless which still stings an old-fart utopian-oriented email-grognard like myself, as I mourn the passing of something that made communication just that little bit quicker and clearer.

Provocative Question (1)

Sunday, October 6th, 2013

If you had to pay to vote—how much would you be prepared to pay?