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Colin Johnson’s blog

Archive for January, 2014

Overheard (1)

Friday, January 24th, 2014

Walking down an ordinary suburban street this afternoon, someone in casual clothes chatting on their mobile phone is standing at the corner. As I pass by I hear exactly seven words: “…we’re going to need a ballistics expert…”. That’s almost a short story in its own right.

Information Systems vs Innovation

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

It is common for a particular sector to be dominated by one or two large, commercially-available (or, occasionally, freely available open-source) computer-based systems to manage the information within organisations. I wonder if this has the side effect of militating against innovation within organisations.

I was at a meeting a few weeks ago, to talk about the new student admissions computer system that the University is installing. This is the industry-standard system, used by probably 75% of UK universities. Obviously, there is some scope for such systems to be customised; nonetheless, they come saddled with a certain amount of assumption about the way in which information is being handled within that kind of organisation (otherwise, you would just use a generic database system).

As we discussed how this system was going to roll out, it was clear that we were making some kind of compromise between how we wanted to do admissions and how the system was set up to handle admissions. In quite a lot of these discussions, it became clear that the assumptions in the system were rather deeply embedded, and so the system “won” be battle of how to do this kind of activity. It became clear that we hadn’t just bought a system to manage our information; we had bought a whole heap of workflow assumptions with it too.

Does this matter? From an administrative point of view, perhaps not. The argument can just about be made that all organisations in the sector have broadly similar requirements, and the major players in the provision of information systems will gradually drift towards these requirements.

But, it might matter in terms of competition. One of the tenets of the current government’s policy is that systems improve be competition, and to drive competition we need diversity of practice so that new ideas come into the sector. But, in a situation like this, innovation (and thus diversity) is quashed because the systems that are managing the information can’t be readily adapted to handle innovative experiments with practice. As someone said at the meeting: “We’ve been working carefully on how to attract students to our courses for the last five years, and now we have to throw all that away because it isn’t supported by the admissions system.”.

No, I don’t do that (2)

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

I’ve blogged before about getting lots of wet-lab spam. Most recently I’ve been getting regular spam trying to sell me transgenic mice. It is remarkable how similar this spam is to advertising for everyday things: “buy-one-get-one-free”, “buy one and get a free tchotchke”, “use this discount code”, “make buying one of these your new year resolution”.

Free Coffee Maker with your Nuclease Mouse Order

every new transgenic mouse customer will get a free iPad mini

Have you got a transgenic mouse order in your new year's resolutions?

Job Titles (2)

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

Two real job titles from UK universities:

Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor

Associate Executive Pro-Vice-Chancellor

The hyphenation is is very variable. One poor sod is described as an “Associate Executive Pro-Vice Chancellor”, which is just about the worst possible of the large number of hyphen placements possible between those five words.

I think this reflects the idea that “pro-vice-chancellor” is now seen as a single unit concept, not as a deputy-of-a-deputy-of. Indeed, spelling out the phrase is very rare; they are almost invariably referred to as “PVCs”, which provides much confusion and amusement outwith the academy.

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.

No Shit, Captain Obvious (1)

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

As far as I can tell this is meant to be an entirely serious suggestion:

"make a tofu sandwich" (an oversized piece of tofu forcing its way our of a small bread roll)

Other Lives (1)

Monday, January 13th, 2014

Colin Johnson serves as an Extension Specialist for the Iowa Pork Industry Center at Iowa State University. In this role, he also acts as a consultant for the Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers (CSIF).

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.

Spam vs Non-spam (1)

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Almost the only place where you see large sums of money written out in full is in spam emails. If I’m reading a budget document at work, a figure like £150,000 is written as £150k, and £28,000,000 is written as £28 million; or else, these are in tables with a footnote like “all figures in thousands”. I’ve just realised that this is one of the mental heuristics I use to determine whether something is spam or not—the moment I see a long string of zeroes with a currency symbol prefixed, a little “spam” flag goes off in my head.

Social Anxiety (1)

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

The idea that there is such a thing as the “thing to bring when you’re told not to bring a thing” (cf. last year’s Cadbury’s ads) is the sort of thing that brings the socially-anxious part of my brain out in a cold sweat.

Temporary Storage

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

This is an interesting part of the day-to-day environment that I have been interacting with for years:


The small, flat surface affords the placement a single object, or a small stack of them. This affordance leads on to it being used as a temporary repository for things that need to be taken downstairs the next time I am going downstairs. Here is an example:


It is interesting why it lends itself so naturally to this. It is partially because it is “in the way”. Many parts of the house afford having things placed on them, but are just a little bit too out of the line-of-sight to be effective as reminders. It also has the advantage of being quite small, so I am reminded every time I go past it to take the thing off before I break it. Other places are a bit too stable, and rapidly become permanent repositories for a certain category of things: the little stack of items in the corner of my desk used to be (and is still, in my mind) the place where I put things that I will need to use in the next week or so; but, it has now become a foot-high stack of stuff that I need to deal with one day. This space has the advantage that it is just the right size so that putting something there is an easy task, but too unstable and in-the-way that it can’t be used semi-permanently.

The design of locations to act as “reminders” within a physical (or online) environment is really difficult. Either the reminder is too in-your-face when you are trying to do other things, or it is too out-of-the-way to actually serve as a reminder.