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Colin Johnson’s blog

Archive for September, 2011

Linda McCartney vs. the Laws of Physics

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Linda McCartney sausages for tea tonight (not had them for a long time; still don’t really rate them relative to Quorn). Here are the cooking instructions on the back:

Here’s what puzzles me. I don’t understand why grilling 6 sausages takes longer than grilling 2 sausages. Surely the grilling process is about radiative heat transfer, and any heat that goes where the “missing” sausages are in the 2-sausage case is just wasted, heating up the grill pan or whatever. I can understand the situation more for the oven, because the (cold) sausages are in a contained thermodynamic system with the heating element, and so the total amount of energy required is larger as there is more stuff to be heated up for the same output from the heating element—but, the grilling situation I don’t get at all.

Miscommunication (1)

Monday, September 26th, 2011

I’m interested in things that appear to be communication but which in practice communicate almost nothing. Here is a good example. During my years at primary (5-11 years) school, we had to say “the Lord’s Prayer” almost every day, as part of the vaguely um-Christian ethos that tends to be around in such schools; therefore, I spent a few hours with this text each year. I am sure that the teachers thought that we were getting something from this, and that we knew what it meant. Here is what I got out of it:

Our Father, which art in heaven

Bizarrely, given the misunderstandings below, I think I basically understood this, despite the obscurity of the grammatical construct “which art in” and the use of “Father” for “God”.

hallowed be thy name

I had no idea what this meant. If pressed, I might have thought that “hallowed” was “hollowed” but where I would have taken this thought I don’t know.

Thy kingdom come,

No idea what this meant.

Thy will be done

I didn’t really understand the basic idea that a prayer was “talking to God”. I thought that this was some kind of “God’s voice” making some vague threat, interpreting “will be done” dialectically as “will be told off”. I thought that this meant something like “you’ll be in trouble with God if you don’t behave”. I had no idea that the word “will” was anything other than the verb.

On earth, as it is in heaven.

I had some vague idea that this meant that earth is more-or-less the same as heaven.

Give us this day, our daily bread

I didn’t get the synecdoche of “daily bread” as representing food, and thought that this was a well-meaning but obscure concern on behalf of God.

and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us

I only knew the word “trespass” from “no trespassing” signs. Whenever we got to this pair of lines, a particular mind’s eye image of a “no trespassing” sign in the fog came to mind (I can still picture this to this day). I thought that it was basically about not walking on land that I wasn’t meant to, and not being too bothered if people took a short-cut across our garden. I remember thinking that this was a pretty obscure topic to occupy two whole lines of what I was told was the most important prayer in Christianity.

and lead us not into temptation

Don’t really remember how I interpreted this, if at all.

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever,

I kinda understood this—but, it was always said with a kind of upward, crescendoey sweep, and I think I felt it was more of a sound-gesture than anything meaningful.


I remember being told as a very little kid that we say “amen” at the end of prayers as an abbreviation of “all men”, i.e. we are saying something like “and this is something that all men (people) should believe”. I have no idea to this day whether that is true, but it sounds a bit hokey to me (I’ll look this up in a minute).

So, there we are. About two lines fully understood, several others grievously misinterpreted. I don’t think that this constant rote-repetition of this helped me to get any closer to God—indeed, it probably set in my mind the idea that God was some obscurantist who was obsessed with bread and walking across other people’s gardens. But, I do remember it word-for-word, even to this day!


Sunday, September 25th, 2011

I expect my watch to update more than once an hour (from amazon.co.uk):

"Watches: Men's: Updated Hourly"

Personal Progress

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

In today’s Guardian there is an article about a dispute between Julian Assange and publisher Canongate about whether the publisher is right to publish the early draft of an autobiography that they had commissioned and paid for, but where no final version has been received nor the advance returned to the publisher.

There are lots of complex legal and moral issues here, but I want to use this to raise an issue that I’ve been thinking about for a while. We always assume that the current state of a person is the one that is allowed to make decisions that override the wishes of the person at other times. Let’s just introduce some informal notation: let persontime represent the mental state of person at time, persontime1-time2 represent the generalisation to a range of times (to do this properly requires a lot more complexity which will detract from the argument).

So, we can phrase our argument thus: why should AssangeSept 2011 be able to unmake a decision that AssangeDec 2010 made? That this is a meaningful question seems at first doubtful—he has changed his mind, and the current state of mind is the one that we universally accept as completely dominant overall all other previous states of mind (except, perhaps, in cases of temporary “out of mindness” such as mania or drunkenness).

And yet, and yet…this seems to throw up some bizarre consequences. Consider for example the case of Alice, who from 1980 to 2010 wanted to will her money to her children. At the beginning of 2011 she converts to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and changes her will to leave her money to the church. A few months later, in a tragic incident involving a pasta strainer, Alice dies and all of her money gets left to the Church, in accordance with the will of Alice2011. The much longer lasting will of Alice1980-2010 is completely ignored. Why should Alice1980-2010 not have some—indeed, most—of the rights over what happens at the end?
Note that we are not talking about the state where Alice2011 discovers that the beliefs that Alice1980-2010 were false—e.g. that the children that she was to give her money to were acting in some way that she disapproved of; we are just talking about the case where she “merely” changed her mind.

This gets even more complex when we think about future states too. Imagine depressive Bob, who has had quite a good time of it from 2005-2010, but in 2011 decides that it is too much and that Bob2011 wants to commit suicide, against the will of Bob2005-2010. Perhaps this doesn’t matter—but, what about the will of Bob2020, who has successfully gone though therapy and is now basically happy with his life? Should Bob2020 not get some consideration, even some legal protection, from the murderous intentions of Bob2011?

A somewhat lighter example concerns phrases like “their marriage failed”. If Charlie1990-2005 and David1990-2005 are both in a happy marriage, which falls apart between 2006-07 ending in divorce during 2008, why should the opinions of Charlie2008 and David2008 be the definitive opinion on the marriage as a whole? If, in a counterfactual world, David had had a sudden heart attack in 2004, the eulogy would have talked about his “happy marriage”; why is it suddenly rendered unhappy by the events of 2006-08?

Underpinning all of this seems to be some notion of “progress” throughout life. We have worked hard to be critical of naive notions of progress in other domains; we are, on the whole, critical of accounts of, say, politics or technology as being a universal progress towards better states. Yet in terms of an individual’s personal life, we are uncritical about this. There is the occasional exception—the temporary loss of mind discussed earlier, the person who loses decision-making capability due to mental illness, or the individual who is painted as “throwing away” their previous rationality for short-term gain (as in the Anna Nicole Smith case). But, on the whole, the idea that the current person has valid domain over that person at other points in their life, particularly the past person, seems to dominate and support the notion that a person just makes “progress” throughout their life.

Shibboleth (1)

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

It is commonly stated that in-groups within e.g. careers or activities use specific language as a way of ensuring the coherence of the group and to exclude outsiders. I’m not too sure how reasonable this is—I can see some examples of it, but the argument often just boils over into the whole “all jargon is just obfuscation” argument, which seems wrong to me.

However, there is a variant on this which I think is more interesting. That is, the use of specific generic terms by people within a group. Comedians always refer to the places that they work in as “rooms”, and people in the theatre talk about “spaces”. IT people call computers “machines”. Classical musicians refer to the individual bits of music as “pieces”, and in music theatre the words are called the “book”. Is it possible that these specific choices act as these kind of in-group markers? Or is that just arbitrary—you have to call it something, and so you end up settling on one specific term? But, that argument seems a little flaky—there are also some perfectly good non-generic terms that could be used instead, that are if anything more informative—e.g. “computer” rather than “machine”.

I wonder if this has been studied properly at any point?

“Like an express train, with me standing at the platform…”

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

In universities we teach programming at a breakneck speed, even if we think that we are doing it fairly gently. Contrast the teaching of programming with the teaching of mathematics. If we taught programming the way that we taught basic mathematics, then we would spend a few hours a week for several years doing basic drill-and-practice on programming constructs: a few hundred for loops, a few thousand if statements, and so on, all in isolation before we even think of bringing it together. Why on earth should we believe that we can teach something of comparable complexity in a couple of terms of a-few-hours-a-week courses.

Why do we have this irrational exuberance in our ability to teach programming so quickly? Do we believe that it builds on transferrable skills that have been learned by that point? That students at that age (and, who have elected and been selected to do computer science or a similar subject) are capable of coping with the pace? That programming is vastly easier than these mathematical skills? That we try to teach the mathematical skills at a much too early age?

I wonder if this is why we occasionally get student feedback comments that are like the one we got many years ago: “the course is like an express train, with me still standing at the platform”.

Irrational Exuberance (1)

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

When I was a student, I moved into a house in my second year with two other students. We had all brought a glass bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup with us. I had been learning to juggle that summer, so the obvious thing to do was to juggle the three bottles of ketchup. Equally obviously, I dropped two of them on the hard kitchen floor within a few seconds, splatting ketchup everywhere. What my housemates thought of this, within a few hours of moving in, I have no idea.

Spam (1)

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

I like the idea of having a baking account; much more exciting than a bank account:

"Unauthorised use of your baking account !!!"

Liberal Sea Angling

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

This odd sign is in the window of Arnold Liberal Club in the suburbs of Nottingham:

"Arnold Liberal Sea Angling Club"

It is the specifics of it that make it weird. The idea that Arnold, a town almost as inland as you can get, would have enough demand for a sea angling club is remarkable, as is the idea that there are several different sea angling clubs in the Nottingham area—but, the sign goes on to suggest that not only is there one sea angling club in this town of 30,000 people, but that there are several such clubs, divided on political lines.

Some Reward for Loyalty…

Monday, September 5th, 2011

It struck me a while ago that loyalty to TV shows is actively unrewarded. Shows that have a loyal following can be shoved hither-and-thither around the schedule, postponed for three weeks because of the bloody snooker, and so on—trufans will always follow. By contrast, shows that have a more casual following get punished for such manoeuvres by reduced audience.

Are there any other examples of this phenomenon?