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Colin Johnson’s blog

Archive for the ‘Observations’ Category

On Exponential Growth and Fag Ends

Wednesday, January 9th, 2019

I have often been confused when people talking about family history—often people with good genealogical knowledge—talk about their family “coming from” a particular location in the distant past. Don’t they know anything about exponential growth? When you talk about your family living in some small region of north Norfolk 400 years ago, what does that mean? That’s (inbreeding aside) over 32,000 people! Surely they didn’t all live in a few local villages.

Now, I appreciate that this is a bit of an exaggeration. Over a few hundred years there will be some (hopefully fairly distant) inbreeding and so each person won’t have tens of thousands of distinct relatives. I appreciate, too, that people travelled less in the past, and that even if you are genuinely descended from thousands of distinct people, those people will have been more concentrated in the past. But, still, the intuition that “your family” (by which they are imagining, I think, a few dozen people at a time) “comes from somewhere” still seems a little off.

The naïve explanation is that they just don’t realise the scale of this growth. I would imagine that most people, asked for an intuitive stab at how many great-great-···-grandparents they had 400 years ago, would guess at a few dozen, not a number in the tens of thousands. Perhaps they have some cultural bias that a particular part of the family tree is the “main line”, perhaps that matrilineal or patrilineal lines are the important ones, and that other parts of the family are just other families merging in. Or, perhaps they recognise that in practice main lines emerge in families when there are particular fecund sub-families, and other branches fade out.

Overall, these “fag ends” are not very well acknowledged. Most people depicted in fiction, e.g. in the complex family interconnections of soap operas, have a rich, involved family. There isn’t much depiction of the sort of family that I come from, which is at the ragged, grinding to a halt twig of a family tree.

Let’s think about my family as an example. Both of my parents were somewhat isolated within their families. My mother had three siblings, two of whom died in infancy. The other, my uncle, went on to have three children, two of whom in turn have had children and and grandchildren, and the one who didn’t married into a vast family (his wife has something like ten siblings). By contrast, my mother had only me, who hasn’t had any children, and didn’t get on particularly well with her brother, so we were fairly isolated from her side of the family after my grandmother died. So, from the point of view of my grandmother’s position in the family tree, it is clear that my uncle’s line is the “main line” of the family.

Similarly, on my father’s side, he was similarly at a ragged end. He had three sisters. One died fairly young (having had Down’s syndrome). The one he was closest to went to Australia and had a large family—four children, lots of grandchildren, etc; but, they were rather geographically isolated. The one that lived a few miles from us he wasn’t particularly close to, and only had one child, who remained child-free. He had one child from his first marriage (who had children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, which bizarrely meant that by the age of 44 I was a great-great uncle), and had only me from his marriage to my mother. Again, there are big branches and fag ends: the branches of the family tree that dominate hugely are the Australian one, and the one starting from my half-brother, whereas mine (no children), and my aunt (who had only one child) are minor twigs.

So, perhaps there is some truth in the genealogist’s intuition after all. A small number of branches in the tree become the “main lines”, and others become “fag ends”, and there isn’t much in between. It would be interesting to formalise this using network science ideas, and test whether the anecdotal example that I have in my own family is typical when we look at lots of family trees.

Learning what is Unnecessary

Friday, December 28th, 2018

Learning which steps in a process are unnecessary is one of the hardest things to learn. Steps that are unnecessary yet harmless can easily be worked into a routine, and because they cause no problems apart from the waste of time, don’t readily appear as problems.

An example. A few years ago a (not very technical) colleague was demonstrating something to me on their computer at work. At one point, I asked them to google something, and they opened the web browser, typed the URL of the University home page into the browser, went to that page, then typed the Google URL into the browser, went the Google home page, and then typed their query. This was not at trivial time cost; they were a hunt-and-peck typist who took a good 20-30 seconds to type each URL.

Why did they do the unnecessary step of going to the University home page first? Principally because when they had first seen someone use Google, that person had been at the University home page, and then gone to the Google page; they interpreted being at the University home page as some kind of precondition for going to Google. Moreover, it was harmless—it didn’t stop them from doing what they set out to do, and so it wasn’t flagged up to them that it was a problem. Indeed, they had built a vague mental model of what they were doing—by going to the University home page, they were somehow “logging on”, or “telling Google that this was a search from our University”. It was only on demonstrating it to me that it became clear that it was redundant, because I asked why they were doing it.

Another example. When I first learned C++, I put semicolons after the brackets at the end of each block, after the curly bracket. Again, this is harmless: all it does is to insert some null statements into the code, which I assume the compiler strips out at optimisation. Again, I had a decent mental model for this: a vague notion of “you put semicolons at the end of meaningful units to mark the end”. It was only when I started to look at other people’s code in detail that I realised that this was unnecessary.

Learning these is hard, and usually requires us to either look carefully at external examples and compare them to our behaviour, or for a more experienced person to point them out to us. In many cases it isn’t all that important; all you lose is a bit of time. But, sometimes it can mark you out as a rube, with worse consequences than wasting a few seconds of time; an error like this can cause people to think “if they don’t know something as simple as that, then what else don’t they know?”.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

Wednesday, April 26th, 2017

Here’s something interesting. It is common for people in entrepreneurship and startup culture to fetishise failure—”you can’t be a proper entrepreneur until you’ve risked enough to have had a couple of failed businesses”. There’s some justification for this—new business ventures need to try new things, and it is difficult to predict in advance whether they will work. Nonetheless, it is not an unproblematic stance—I have written elsewhere about how this failure culture makes problematic assumptions about the financial and life-circumstances ability to fail without disastrous consequences.

But, the interesting point is this. No-one ever talks like this about jobs, despite the reality that a lot of people are going to try out a number of careers before finding the ideal one, or simply switch from career to career as the work landscape changes around them during their lifetime. In years of talking to students about their careers, I’ve never come across students adopting this “failure culture” about employeeship. Why is it almost compulsory for a wannabe entrepreneur to say that, try as they might, they’ll probably fail with their first couple of business ventures; yet, it is deep defeatism to say “I’m going into this career, but I’ll probably fail but it’ll be a learning experience which’ll make me better in my next career.”?

The Subtlety of Prepositions (1)

Monday, March 13th, 2017

The English language is very subtle. One of the causes of this subtlety, and one of the things that makes it very difficult to go from advanced non-native speaker to native-like fluency is the influence of prepositions. Some of these are very simple—I remember years ago trying to explain the difference between “in the corner” and “on the corner” with the aid of various bits of cutlery and salt/pepper pots—but, others are much more complex. I’ve just been writing a work-related email to a colleague, and I found myself correcting “If you want to meet up to talk about this further, let me know.” to “If you want to meet to talk about this, let me know.”. Somehow, the verb “to meet up” is casual, about social meetings, etc.; whereas the verb “to meet” is about serious, work-related meetings. Not a distinction that had ever struck me until just now!

Indirect Remembering

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016

Here’s an interesting phenomenon about memory. I sometimes remember things in an indirect way, that is, rather than remembering something directly, I remember how it deviates from the default. Two examples:

  • On my father’s old car, I remembered how to open the window as “push the switch in the opposite way to what seems like the right direction.”
  • On my computer, I remember how to find things about PhD vivas as “really these ought to be classified under research, but there’s already a directory called ‘external examining’ under teaching, so go in there and look for the directory called extExams and then the sub-directory called PhD“.

It makes me wonder what other things that I do have a similar convoluted story in my memory, but where the process just all happens pre-consciously.


Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015

My mother used to knit faster when she was getting to the end of the ball of wool, in the belief that if she went quick enough she would reach the end of the current row before the ball ran out. I have an isomorphic delusion when it comes to typing—if I want to get a certain sentence on the current line without wrapping, I will type quicker, hoping to reach the end of the line before the computer decides to put a line break in.

The bells, Esmerelda, the bells…

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Church bells are surprisingly controversial. To people like my friend Greg, they are a micro-artform. Not content with annoying his own neighbours at early-o’clock on a Sunday morning, when travelling he emails the bell-brigadier of the local tower and asks if he can join in in their latest attempt at ringing grandbob-sire-rhesus-negative, or whatever fancy pants name the community has chosen for that particular permutation of a subset of the positive integers.

On the other hand there are people who see it as a form of noise pollution, analogous to erecting giant neon signs around the neighbourhood that flash “go to church” at inconvenient times of the night. A particularly annoying subset of these people are those to whom I am trying to sell my house at the moment, who tell me that it is “lovely, but I don’t think I could cope with the bell-ringing” (two out of three viewees so far). I should have been warned. A couple of decades ago, I was surprised at the level of vitriol that the proposal to include regular quarter-hour daytime peals in the church clock restoration generated amongst local residents (the connection between clock and bells having broken down decades ago). Overall, it seems to be one of those things that many people like the idea of in general, but when it is proposed in a specific location opposite someone’s house, they object to.

I’m largely on the side of the ringers. Having lived opposite a church for ages, and lived in a university hall where there was a regular quarter-hour bell for a while, I’m astonished that the brain adjusts quickly to filter out the bells very quickly. People don’t believe me when I say that.

And btw, I made up the term “bell-brigadier” earlier, though I think I am going to write to the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers right away and propose that they adopt the term immediately.

“In Anger”

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

I’m surprised at the number of people who don’t know the phrase “used in anger”. Also, if you use it at the person you are talking to doesn’t know what you are taking about, it sounds like quite a nasty accusation: “no, of course I’ve never got angry about this, what sort of person do you think I am?”.

Forms of Embarrassment (3)

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Get to the bus stop to find that someone is waiting at the wrong end of the stop. Stand at the correct end of the stop, a few other people come to the stop. The bus arrives, both of us want to get on the same bus, I let them get on first, get a slightly strange look from them, like I’ve broken some taboo about having paid enough attention to someone in a public space to recognise them a few minutes later. But, I didn’t want to barge on in front of them in case they felt I was being boorish by not recognising that they had got to the stop before me.

Terms of Art (1)

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

In most areas of human endeavour, we adopt words that have an everyday meaning and use them as the basis for terminology. For example, in physics, we talk about sub-microscopic objects having “spin” or “colour”. By this, we don’t mean this in a literal way, but we adopt these terms because we need to find names for things, and so we find something that is very loosely similar, and use that terminology. This doesn’t subsequently mean that we are allowed to take other properties of these labels and reason about the objects using those other properties (an elision that often seems to occur when word-drenched literary theorists wade into discussions of science).

When the day-to-day and technical usages of a word coincide, we can sometimes end up in a muddle. A couple of years ago I set a programming assignment about card games, and I used the word “stack” of cards. Despite being very careful to explain that this use of the work “stack” was not meant to imply that this piece of data should be represented by the data structure known as a “stack” (and, indeed, was best not), I still got lots of questions about this, and lots of submissions that did confuse the two. Perhaps I should have simplified it—but, there was a valuable learning point about requirements elicitation to be learned from leaving it as it was.

Another example is the UK government report from years ago that talked about the UK needing a “web browser for education”. This got lambasted in the technical press—why on earth would the education sector need its own, special, web browser? Of course, what was meant was not a browser at all, but some kind of portal or one-stop-shop. But, this could have caused a multi-billion pound procurement failure.

I think that we have a cognitive bias towards assuming that the person we are talking to is trying to make some precise, subtle, point, even when the weight of evidence is that they have simply misunderstood, or been unfamiliar with terminology.

I try to be aware of this when I am the non-expert, for example, when dealing with builders or plumbers.

This is a great danger in communication between people with different backgrounds. The person who is unfamiliar with the terminology can accidentally wade in looking like they are asking for something much more specific than they intended, because they accidentally use a word that has a technical meaning that they don’t intend.

Forms of Embarrassment (2)

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Turning up to a restaurant where you have made a reservation, only to find that it is almost completely empty. I vacillate between saying “I reserved a table for two at 8pm”, which seems silly and otiose, and saying “Do you have a table for two?”, which makes be feel like they are going to think I’m a flake when they look in their reservations book at the end of the evening and see that I never claimed my reservation. In the end, of course, I do the worse thing possible and say something like “I can see that it doesn’t really matter, but I made a reservation for two at 8pm”, which does the double duty of being basically unnecessary and emphasising to the owner quite how empty their restaurant is.

“Who Bought you That?”

Monday, December 16th, 2013

I’ve noticed a communication difference between people like me, who grew up in small families without much of a tradition of present-giving, to people who grew up in big, richly-connected families where dozens of people exchange presents for Christmas and birthdays.

People in the latter group often ask the question “Who bought you that?” when enquiring about some day-to-day object—a scarf, a watch, a pen that I have. I always thought that this was a weird question—why on earth would you imagine that someone bought it for me? But, of course, to people from such a background, the idea that you would ever need to buy such day-to-day tchotchkes is weird. For their whole lives they’ve never had any need to buy all these little bits and pieces, every since childhood they’ve had an endless supply of little day-to-day objects in the form of presents from cousins and great-aunts. Of course, they are in an economically neutral position, as they have had to keep up their part of the exchange.

Mock (1)

Saturday, May 18th, 2013

Something that is easy to forget is that when some activity is assessed by government or some public body, that the organisation or people being assessed will inevitably hold at least one mock/pilot exercise, which is at least as onerous than the real one (perhaps more, as the feedback is often more thorough). I’ve seen examples of this in public examinations (when head teachers complain about the “constant” exam load on their students, it is worth bearing in mind that students are doing one mock exam for every real exam) and in universities with research assessments, teaching inspections, etc. I’m sure the same is true for hygiene inspections in cafés etc., and with quality assessments in hospitals, prisons etc.

Therefore it is worth bearing in mind a rule of thumb: if you say “X will happen every (say) four years”, on the ground it will seem like it is happening every two.

On Being the Right Size (1)

Monday, December 31st, 2012

It is a source of ongoing frustration, torn cuffs and dropped soup-bowls that I am exactly the right height, right down to the nearest inch, so that when I am walking between rooms my rolled-up shirt cuffs are at exactly the same height as doorhandles.

Rubes, Tyros and Uptight Noobs

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

One difficulty that I have when place in a new environment, e.g., travelling to a new country or working in a new place, is adapting to day-to-day norms. Travel books are full of advice of the “always insist on taxi drivers using the meter” kind, but I always find it difficult when the reaction of the local is a slightly shocked-bemused look and a comment like “really?”. One problem is that the travel books tend to be quite stiff and risk-averse, for good reason. We don’t want to be taken as a rube or tyro, and so we go along with “what seems normal” in a particular situation, rather than being the stiff outsider who seems to be the first person in a century to insist on rules being followed to the letter.

I wonder if this sort of thing happens at all levels of engagement with novelty. We sometimes here of a senior politician who is railroaded along into carrying out some corrupt or biased action. The common response to this is to say “come on, you were the Prime Minister, how could you have been so ignorant/allowed yourself to be taken along for a ride”? But, I don’t think it is as easy as that; I can readily imagine a situation in which you are told “actually, minister, we don’t really do things like that” by some adviser or civil servant, and exactly the same kind of psychology as above kicks in. However experienced a politician you might be, being Prime Minister (or whatever) is still new, for quite a while, and I can imagine that the pressure not to look like some uptight noob is very influential.

Oh the Irony! (1)

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

Conference centres and universities are just about waking up to the need to put in lots of power sockets in lecture and seminar rooms, just when battery technology is getting good enough that laptops will last all day without needing to be plugged in.

Unfair Comments (1)

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

“Video art is a con. It’s just a way of getting people to spend way more time in front of your piece than in front of other pieces, so that your piece sticks in people’s minds more.”

Things that Seem Perfectly Reasonable to me but which Sound Very OCD when I Actually Write it out (1)

Saturday, January 7th, 2012

Looking at a plate with several half-slices of toast and ranking them in order of tastiness so that I can work from the least tasty to the most so that the best one is saved for last.

Propositional and Deduced Knowledge and Memory Conditions

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

Here is something that I have observed, which has interesting implications for memory problems like Alzheimer’s disease. My father has some memory problems, and what is interesting is that he can recall some facts learned a long time ago, but some of the deductions from that knowledge aren’t readily recalled. For example, he can remember each of his two marriages, but when asked “how many times were you married?” he doesn’t know.

Here is my hypothesis about what is happening. He has a clear memory of the two marriages as specific sets of events, but has not “bothered” to learn the fact “I have been married twice” as a specific propositional fact, as this can be deduced immediately from the memories of those two specific facts. However, as he has lost speed of access to specific memories, the ability to make that link from particular pieces of knowledge to a new “deduced” piece of knowledge has declined, and so he has trouble accessing the pieces of knowledge that were never stored as explicit propositional knowledge but which were always present as immediate deductions from readily recalled facts.

Do we not bother learning some things because we can instantly deduce them from other knowledge, and then if we have memory problems we actually end up with this being a problem?

December Rituals (1)

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

Taking last year’s plastic-wrapped phone book off the shelf, unwrapping it, putting it in the recycling, replacing it with this year’s phone book, still in its wrapper.