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Colin Johnson’s blog


Archive for September, 2018

The Map that Precedes the Territory

Sunday, September 23rd, 2018

I’ve sometimes joked that I only have hobbies because they are necessary for me to indulge my meta-hobbies of project management, product design, and logistics. Sometimes, I worry that I get more pleasure from the planning that goes around an activity than doing the activity itself. The planning the travel and activities for a trip, the well-organised and well-chosen set of accessories or tools for doing some craft, preferring to be the person who organises the meetings and makes up the groups rather than being a participant in the activity.

I wonder where this comes from? I think part of it is from growing up in a household where there wasn’t much money to spend on leisure stuff. As a result, I spent a lot of my childhood planning what I would do when I had things, making tables and catalogues of things, and endlessly going over the same small number of resources. I remember planning in great detail things like model railway layouts, devising complex electrical circuits, and filling notebook-after-notebook with code in anticipation of the day when I might finally have access to a computer to run it on—a computer which would be chosen not on a whim, but from detailed comparison tables I had drawn up from catalogues and ads so as to get the very best one for the limited money we had.

The intellectual resources I had access to were interesting. We had some books, bought from W.H. Smith, brought home from the school where my father taught, bought from a catalogue of discount improving educational books which was available at School (which introduced me to the excellent Usborne books which I still think are a model for exposition of complex concepts), or bought from the eccentric selection available at remainder shops (I particularly remember three random volumes of encyclopaedia that I had bought from one such shop). The local library was a good resource too, but I rapidly exhausted the books on topics of relevance to me, and just started reading my way through everything; one week I remember bringing home a haul of books on Anglicanism, resulting in my mother’s immortal line “You’re not going to become a bloody vicar, are you?”. Catalogues and the like were an endless source of information too, I remember endless poring over detailed technical catalogues such as the Maplin one, and spec sheets from computer shops, compiling my own lists and tables of electrical components, details of how different computers worked, etc. I remember really working through what limited resource I had; endlessly reading through the couple of advanced university-level science books that a colleague of my mother’s had given to her via a relative who had done some scientific studies at university.

There’s something to be said for trying damn hard to understand something that is just too difficult. I remember working for hours at a complex mathematical book from the local library about electrical motors, just because it was there and on an interesting topic, and learning linear and dynamic programming, university level maths topics, again because there happened to be a good book on it in the local library. These days, with access to a vast university library, books at cheap prices on Amazon, and talks on almost every imaginable topic available on YouTube, I think I waste a lot of time trying to find some resource that is just at my level, rather than really pushing myself to make my own meaning out of something that is on the very fringe of my level of possible understanding. Similarly, I remember the same for courses at University—I got a crazily high mark (88% or something) in a paper on number theory, where I had struggled to understand and the textbooks were pretty ropey, whereas the well-presented topics with nice neatly presented textbooks were the golden road to a 2:1 level of achievement.

Talking of lectures and YouTube etc., another thing that is near impossible to have a feel for was the ephemerality of media. There were decent TV and radio programmes on topics I was interested in, science and technology and the like, but it seems incomprehensibly primitive that these were shown once, at a specific time, and then probably not repeated for months. How bizarre that I couldn’t just revisit it. But, again, in made it special; I had to be there at a specific time. I think this is why lecture courses remain an important part of university education. About 20 years ago I worked with someone called Donald Bligh, who wrote an influential book called What’s the Use of Lectures?, which anticipated lots of the later developments in the flipped classroom etc. He couldn’t understand why, with the technology available to deliver focused, reviewable, breakable-downable, indexable online material, we still obsessed about the live lecture. I have a lot of sympathy for that point of view, but I think lecture courses deliver pace and, at their best, model “thinking out loud”—particularly, for technical and mathematical subjects. When everything is available at hand, we just get stuck in focus paralysis; I do that with things I want to learn, there are too many things and it is too easy when something gets hard to not persevere, and to turn to something else instead; or, I spend endless amounts of time in search of the perfect resource, one that is just at my level. This is what I wasn’t able to do, 30 years ago, in my little room with limited resources, and so I got on with the task at hand.

How can we regain this focus in a world of endless intellectual resource abundance? Some approaches are just to pace stuff out—even MOOCs, where the resources are at hand and could be released, box-set-like, all at once, nonetheless spoon them out bit-by-bit in an attempt to create a cohort and a sense of pace. Another approach is pure self-discipline; I force myself to sit down with a specific task for the day, and use techniques such as the Pomodoro technique to pace out my time appropriately. Others use technologies to limit the amount of time spent online, such as web-blockers that limit the amount of time spent either on the web in general, or specifically on distractors such as social media. But, I still think that we don’t have a really good solution to this.

Memory (3)

Thursday, September 20th, 2018

When I was around 12 years old, we went for one of our regular family trips into the Derbyshire countryside. After lunch, I went off for a bike ride. I thought that I had communicated this to my parents, but they thought I had meant that I was going to ride my bike through the woods for 5-10 minutes, whereas I meant that I was going for an hour or two of riding.

When I got back, my family were worried sick about where I had got to. Later, I found out that my grandmother had at some point during my absence uttered the immortal line: “If he’s gone and cycled off a cliff, I’ll bloody well kill him!”.

Memory (2)

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018

At York university in the 1990’s, there was a lane called “Retreat Lane” which was the start of the main route from campus into town. It was somewhat sketchy, and we were warned not to use it at night; it is good to see that it has had proper lighting installed a while ago. There were three prominent pieces of graffiti on the walls and gates:

  • The words “WATFROD F.C. RULES OK” (yes, that spelling) in huge letters.
  • The words “Ah good the sea!” in chalk. That seems to have been there for years, it was still there a few years ago, people must re-chalk it from time-to-time (I would, I suppose, if I noticed it was fading).
  • The words “Meat is Murder” written at the top of a gate to a field that sometimes had cows in it. Later joined by various other (rather less sincerely meant) slogans, such as “Veg is Vomit” and “Fish is Foul”.

Computational Thinking (1)

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018

The idea of computational thinking as as set of skills that should be promoted as part of a broad education. The term originates with work by Jeanette Wing (e.g. this CACM article) over a decade ago. Computational thinking has developed to mean two, slightly different things. Firstly, the use of ideas coming out of computing for a wide variety of tasks, not always concerned with implementing solutions on computers. Systematic descriptions of processes, clear descriptions of data, ideas of data types, etc. are seen as valuable mental concepts for everyone to learn and apply. As a pithy but perhaps rather tone-deaf saying has it: “coding is the new Latin”.

A second, related, meaning is the kinds of thinking required to convert a complex real-world problem into something that can be solved on a computer. This requires a good knowledge of coding and the capabilities of computer systems, but is isn’t exactly the code process as such: it is the process required to get to the point where the task is obvious to an experienced coder. These are the kind of tasks that are found in the Bebras problem sets, for example. We have found these very effective in checking whether people have the skills in abstraction and systematisation that are needed before attempting to learn to code; they test the kinds of things that are needed in computational thinking without requiring actual computing knowledge.

A thought that occurred to me today is that these problems provide a really good challenge for artificial intelligence. Despite being described as “computational thinking” problems, they are actually problems that test the kind of things that computers cannot do—the interstitial material between the messy real world and the structured problems that can be tackled by computer. This makes them exactly the sort of things that AI ought to be working towards and where we could gain lots of insight about intelligence. One promising approach is the “mind’s eye” visual manipulation described by Maithilee Kunda in this paper about visual mental imagery and AI.

Lift and What?!

Wednesday, September 12th, 2018

Your current SQL Servers can lift and shit without seeing any change,

Scared (1)

Tuesday, September 11th, 2018

As we approach the beginning of term, and a new cohort of students joining our universities, it is worth remembering that a decent number of our new students are arriving frightened of us, or assuming that we will look down on them. I think that the comment here, from a student admissions forum, is not untypical:
You never feel like you're inferior to the seminar leaders (despite their PhDs!) and nearly all of them are genuinely nice people.
It is important, in our first few interactions with them, to make it clear that this isn’t the case.