“Real Artists Ship”

Colin Johnson’s blog


Memory (2)

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)

September 18th, 2018

The idea of computational thinking has been used to denote 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 coding 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?!

September 12th, 2018

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

Scared (1)

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.

-1+1=0

August 28th, 2018

What happens if you wrap an Engagement Chicken inside a Hand-knitted Sweater?

Growth Mindset

August 27th, 2018

In B&Q yesterday there were two parents and a child (around 5-6 years old) pushing a trolley out to their car. The child was insistently declaring an interest in helping to move the large boxes of tiles from the trolley to the car; the father insisting each time that it was pointless, that it would take two adults to move it, and that there wasn’t any point in helping.

One thing that helped me to develop a “growth mindset”—the view that skills and intelligence are largely not fixed or innate but the result of the right kind of study and development—was that my parents found lots of ways to involve me, at a level appropriate to my knowledge, skills, and development, in so many areas of life. I have no idea whether this was a deliberate strategy or that they just fell into it, but it was very helpful in instilling a positive view of the value of productive work.

A side note: I have often wondered if being a (to a first approximation) only child helped with my learning a wide range of skills, in particular not having a gender-sterotyped pattern of skills. Because I was the only child around, I would be co-opted into helping with a lot of things, whether cooking or washing, car-repair or plumbing. Perhaps in a larger family with a mixture of genders in the children, the girls might go off to help with “women’s stuff” from female relatives, whilst the boys do “men’s stuff” with males.

Blank-equivalent

August 27th, 2018

An idea that I got from Colin Runciman. When marking student work, and you come across a bad answer, ask yourself “is this blank-equivalent, i.e. does this show the same level of insight into the problem as if the student had written nothing?”. In many cases, the answer is “no”. We frequently fail to use points on the marking scale that are between zero and pass, particularly when marking short answer questions in exams. Thinking about “blank equivalence” gives us a tool to decide which answers genuinely show insufficient knowledge or skill to be worth any marks, from those that are still fails, but nonetheless show some insight.

Perhaps the idea of “blank-equivalence” is valuable elsewhere. Perhaps a work of art is not good enough to be worthy of critical attention and positive aesthetic judgement—but, it is still not sufficiently devoid of skill and imagination to make the same impact on the world as doing nothing.

Memory (1)

July 24th, 2018

An extremely vivid memory from childhood—probably about seven or eight years old. Waking up and coming downstairs with an absolute, unshakable conviction that what I wanted to do with all of my spare time for the next few months was to build near-full sized fairground rides in our back garden. I don’t know where this came from; prior to that point I had no especial interest in fairground rides, beyond the annual visit to the Goose Fair. I wanted to go into the garage immediately and start measuring pieces of wood, making designs, etc. It took my parents a couple of hours to dissuade me that doing this was utterly impractical, against my deep, passionate protestations. Truly, I cannot think of anything before or since that I wanted to do with such utter conviction.

Historical Facts Don’t Exist

July 3rd, 2018

To historians, “history” basically means the (complex, disputed) knowledge that contemporary people have about what happened in the past. To the general public, “history” is the stuff that happened—about which contemporary people might have limited evidence, disputes of interpretation, etc. This can lead to confusion in communicating ideas about the methodology and ontology of history. For example, when I first came across people saying things along the lines of “historical facts change over time”, I thought that they were embracing a much more radical vision of history than they were. They were making the (important) point that what we call “facts” are based on incomplete evidence and biased by political/social/religious views and our biases coming from the contemporary world. I thought that they were making the much more radical claim that the subjective experience of people in the past changed due to our contemporary interpretations—a kind of reverse causality.

KPIs ShmaPIs (1)

May 16th, 2018

Do KPIs encourage a culture of making small improvements to stuff that we know how to measure well, rather than disruptive changes in areas where we haven’t even thought about how to measure things yet?

Patronage (1)

May 11th, 2018

Bus driver (paraphrased): “Since the new big-businessman owner took over, [my local football club]’s been run like a profitable business.”, “Sounds good”, “No, its crap. When rich people have taken over other clubs, the’ve done it for a hobby, and put loads of money into paying top players; our man wants to run it like a proper business.”.

Competition

May 3rd, 2018

Contemporary governments typically like competition, and also want to allow companies to act in a free market. Unfortunately, the free market also means that companies are free to purchase other companies, and regularly do so, usually in cognate areas to their current areas of business. This ends up creating uncompetitive situations where there are few buyers and sellers in a single area of business. To combat this, an interventionist scheme is usually put in place, whereby mergers and takeovers have to be approved by some governmental body. One of the occasions when that body will typically exercise that power is when the merger creates sufficiently few firms to compete effectively.

This is clumsy. It makes single, complex decision points and is prone to political intervention and bias. Perhaps instead, we could have a system that delegates this choice to the companies. For example, let’s imagine a graded scale of costs to register annually as a limited company. If you are registering in a business area where there are lots of players competing, then the cost is minimal—say, close to the cost of administering the registration. As the number of viable players gets smaller, the cost artificially ramps up very rapidly; if you are looking to merge two out of the last three remaining supermarket chains, then the annual registration cost is millions.

If, like me, you believe that hypothecation of taxes isn’t automatically to be avoided, you might even dedicate the sums earned from this to a fund to support startup/disruptor businesses in business areas with little competition.

The details are tricky. How do you set the cost, and the ramping? How do you define “the same business area”? How do you prevent formally distinct entities actually being controlled by the same entity in practice? But, these might not be insurmountable.

Sorites at Small Scale

May 3rd, 2018

The sorites (Greek for “heap”) paradox is a puzzle about language. We unambiguously use the word “heap” to represent a large pile of, say, stones—say a few hundred. If we remove one, that is still, uncomplicatedly, a heap. Yet, we cannot do this indefinitely. Once we have, say, two stones, everyone agrees that this is clearly not a heap. The usual resolution to this is to argue that concepts such as “heap” are irreducibly vague; there will always be a fuzzy middle ground between “heap” and “non-heap”.

Interestingly, there are still examples of this at very small scales. There is currently a proposal to merge two of the small number of supermarket chains in the UK. At present, most people would agree that the current system is decently competitive. Reduce is by one and—well, is it still a competitive system? Interestingly, this shows that a sorites-like situation can exist with small numbers of objects, and so perhaps isn’t a problem of fine-grainedness as much as we might first think.

Credits

April 3rd, 2018

Graduation ceremonies should have credits, in the same way that films do. This would emphasise to students and a wider set of stakeholders the scale of the support and the hidden activity that goes into providing the environment in which students can flourish.

Overheard (2)

April 2nd, 2018

“Oi!” (Whole bus goes silent) (parent shouting at child) “You’ve got a tissue in your pocket—don’t wipe your bogies on other people.” (collective “ugh” from the remainder of the bus).

Innovative (1)

March 20th, 2018

The major social media companies have basically been providing the same, largely unchanging product, for the last decade. Yes—they are doing it very well, managing to scale number of users and amounts of activity, and optimising the various conflicting factors around usability, advertising, etc. But, basically, Twitter has been doing the same schtick for the last decade. Yet, if media and government were looking to talk to an innovative, forward-looking company, they might well still turn to such companies.

By contrast, universities, where there is an enormous, rolling programme of change and updating, keeping up with research, innovating in teaching, all in the context of a regulatory and compliance regime that would be seen as mightily fuckoffworthy if imposed on such companies, are portrayed as the lumbering, conservative forces. Why is this? How have the social media companies managed to convey that impression—and how have we in higher education failed?

Just Can’t Imagine

March 9th, 2018

I’ve been on a lot of student disciplinary panels over the years—examining students for plagiarism, etc.—and something that comes up over and over again is that some weaker students just can’t imagine that students are able to produce work of high quality without some amount of copying, patch-writing, or similar processes The idea that you could sit down and produce from your head a fluent piece of fully referenced writing just isn’t what they imagine “ordinary people” are capable of. Writing, comes from elsewhere—a mysterious world of books and articles that is somehow disjoint from the day-to-day world of ordinary people.

I once came across a maths version of this—a student who, when asked to solve simple algebra problems, was just plucking numbers from the air. They couldn’t imagine that other students in the class were actually solving the problems as quickly as they were. Instead, they assumed that the other students were somehow getting there by some kind of mysterious intuitive process, and that the way to get to that was just to start by “saying the first number that comes into your head” and then, over time, their subconscious would start to work things out and after a while the numbers that emerged would start to coincide with the solutions to the problems.

I think I had a similar problem with singing once upon a time (though, at least I was conscious that there was something I wasn’t getting). People who had had no problem with grokking how to sing in tune with others would just say “you listen to the note and then you sing along with it”, which put me in the same position as our maths friend above—it just seemed to be something that you did until some pre-conscious process gradually learned how to do it. It doesn’t. Eventually, thanks to a very careful description from the wonderful Sarah Leonard of exactly what the head/mouth/ears feel like when you are making the same note as others, I was able to improve that skill in a rational way. Before that, I just couldn’t imagine that other people were managing to do this in anything other than a mysterious, pre-conscious way. Somehow I had failed to pick up what that “in tune” feeling was like as a child, and carried this a decent way into adulthood.

Design Puzzles (2)

March 2nd, 2018

For a while I wondered what these benches were all about:

Benches at Stratford International

They appear at a number of London and South-East railway stations, and when I first saw them I thought they were a bizarre and out of keeping design decision. Why choose something in such bright, primary-ish colours against a generally muted design scheme. They wouldn’t be out of keeping somewhere—but, not here! And after a couple of years it suddenly struck me—they are the olympic rings, that hung up at St. Pancras during the games, sliced and turned into benches! My supposition is confirmed by Londonist here.

Design Puzzles (1)

March 2nd, 2018

What’s going on here?

# _____ DAY

This is the back of the packaging of my protein bar. What’s with the white stripe across the top left? It reads, basically “# _____ DAY, fuelled by 12g of PRIMAL PROTEIN”. Presumably the the # is a hashtag marker, and there is meant to be some text between that and “DAY”. Is this some kind of fill-in-the-blank exercise? I don’t think so, it seems rather obscure without any further cue. Did it at one point say something that they had to back away from for legal reasons: “# TWO OF YOUR FIVE A DAY”, perhaps? If so, why redesign it with a white block? Does packaging work on such a tight timescale that they were all ready to go, when someone emailed from legal to say “uh, oh, better drop that” and so someone fired up Indesign and put a white block there. Surely it can’t be working on such a timescale that there wasn’t time enough to make it the same shade of red as the rest, or rethink it, or just blank out the whole thing. Is it just a production error? At first I thought it was a post-hoc sticker to cover up some unfortunate error, but it is a part of the printed packaging. A minor mystery indeed.

Puzzle (1)

February 28th, 2018

Here is a graph that purports to be a summary of numbers of divorces per 1000 married people between 2009-2016, i.e. the first part of the graph up to 2014 is before same-sex marriage became legal.

divorces per 1000 married people

My immediate thought is that this must be wrong—if every marriage is between a man and a woman, then the numbers of divorces must be equal between men and women. So, could the “per 1000 married people” be the gotcha here? Again, no. It doesn’t say “per 1000 people”, but “per thousand married people”, and so in the era that this is referring to, the number of married men and married women would be identical. This suggests that there is an error in the calculation here; oddly, the graph has identical numbers from 2013 onwards; we might expect some divergence if we carry on with the graph, even simply due to statistical fluctuations the number of same-sex male divorces and same-sex female divorces is likely to be different.

So, what is happening during the 2009-2012 part of the graph? I suspected initially that they have mistakenly used “per 1000 people” on those entries in the graph, rather than “per thousand married people”. But, this is at odds with the numbers from 2013-2016, where the graph is as expected—numbers “per thousand people” will be a lot less than “per thousand married people”, and this huge leap isn’t apparent between the figures for 2012 and 2013. So, what explains it?

I’ll restrain myself from ranting about the heinous sin of connecting discrete values with lines.

Here’s another graph (from this Daily Mail article (ugh!)) that seems to be from the same source and shows a similar error:

another similar graph