"Real Artists Ship"

Colin Johnson’s blog

Archive for October, 2014

Language (1)

Monday, October 27th, 2014

When we are learning creative writing at school, we learn that it is important to use a wide variety of terms to refer to the same thing. To refer to something over and over again using the same word is seen as “boring” and something to be avoided.

It is easy to think that this is a good rule for writing in general. However, in areas where precision is required—technical and scientific writing, policy documents, regulations—it is the wrong thing to be doing. Instead, we need to be very precise about what we are saying, and using different terminology for the sake of making the writing more “interesting” is likely to damn the future reader of the document to hours of careful analysis of whether you meant two different-but-overlapping words to refer to the same thing or not.

Incomprehension (3)

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

From my late grandmother, in the corner shop:

“I’d like an uncut sliced loaf, please.”

Incomprehension (2)

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

A conversation from many years ago between my late mother and the dentist’s receptionist:

Mum: “I’m here for the 2pm appointment.”

Receptionist: “And your husband? He is here for his appointment at 2:30.”

Mum: “No, I’m afraid I’ve lost him.”

Receptionist (with a look of deep sympathy): “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.”

Mum: “No, I haven’t lost him; I mean he’s wandered off to the shops round the corner and I can’t find him.”

Priority Claims (1)

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

I was doing the ice-bucket challenge before most of you lot were born (from 1976).


Incomprehension (1)

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

A while ago I had a conversation with a colleague, that went something like this:

Me: “I’ve come across a new book that would be really useful to you for the module you’re teaching next term.”

Colleague: “I don’t really think I need that.”

Me: “No, it’s really good, you will find it really useful.”

Colleague (rather angry): “I appreciate your suggestions, but I REALLY DON’T NEED A BOOK ON THE SUBJECT.”

It eventually transpired that my colleague was interpreting “you will find this book useful” as “Because you don’t know the subject of the course very well, you will need a book to help you learn the subject before you teach it to the students.”. By contrast, I was meaning “you will find it useful as a book to recommend to your students“.

This subtle elision between “you” being taken literally and being used in a slightly elided way to mean “something you are responsible for” is easily misunderstood. Another example that comes up frequently is when I am discussing with students some work that they have to do on a project. I will say something like “you need to make an index of the terms in the set of documents”, using the common elision in software development of “you need to” to mean “you need to write code to”, not “you need to do this by hand”. Most of the time the students get this, but on a significant minority of occasions there is a look of incomprehension on the student’s faces as they think I have asked them to do the whole damn tedious thing by themselves.

Work-life Balance (1)

Friday, October 10th, 2014

To help with work-life balance, we have changed staff meetings so that they start at 3:30pm rather than 4pm, with the aim of allowing everyone to finish the meeting and be back at their normal place of work by the notional end of the working day (yeah right) at 5pm. Except, of course, that rather than lasting from 4-5pm, they now go on from 3:30-5pm. That is progress.

Abbrvs (1)

Friday, October 10th, 2014

I didn’t realise that the Guardian had started censoring swear-words:

Friends at 20: How 6 Cs were the basis for a comedy masterpiece

Version Control (1)

Friday, October 10th, 2014



Dynamics for Brass Players

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

A handy chart:

pp: pretty powerful

p: powerful

mp: mightily powerful

mf: meaningfully forceful

f: forceful

ff: frightfully forceful

fff: fantastically f***ing forceful

“That’s your job really, mate.”

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

Oddly, the bus driver asked me this evening what route the bus was meant to be taking. I didn’t think until after I got off the bus that I could have exploited this to my advantage by diverting the bus down the road on which I live and convincing him that the stop outside my front door was one of the stops on his route.

Significant (1)

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

I really really really wish we hadn’t settled on the term “statistically significant”. There’s just too much temptation to elide from “these results show that situation X is statistically significantly different to situation Y” to “the difference between X and Y is significant” to “the difference between X and Y is important”.

Statistical significance is about deciding whether it is reasonable to say that the difference between two things is not due to sampling error. Two things can be statistically significantly different and the magnitude of the difference of no “significance” (in the day-to-day sense) to the situation at hand.

We really should have gone for a term like “robustly distinguishable” or something that doesn’t convey the idea that the difference is important or large in magnitude.