Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The best one of the year

Two announcements. Firstly, this is the last post here; there are no posts newer than 28th March 2007 on this blog and there won't be any in future. I've merged AE with my work weblog Cloud Street and moved to Wordpress; the result is The Gaping Silence.

Secondly, here's a book:

I'm in it. Jonny's in it. Harry's in it. Clare's in it. Justin's in it. (My son started quoting Chicken Yoghurt to me the other day, which isn't a sentence I ever thought I'd write.) Lots of people I've never even heard of are in it. It's good.

More specifically, it's funny. I'm not going to tell you it's all funny, because that wouldn't be very convincing. I mean, when you've got something like 101 different contributors with subtly different styles of humour and ideas of what's funny, the result of their intersection with any one reader's idea of the funny is going to be a pretty wide range of funniness (or, as we academics say, humorosivity). So for me to tell you it was all equally funny would be prima facie unconvincing. But to maintain the less extreme position that it was all merely funny would actually risk a similar error, as this would imply that my personal range of humorosivity values for the collection uniformly exceeded zero. Which would be nice, but it's rather a lot to hope for - I mean, 101 is a lot of discrete humorosivity values.

Where was I? That's right, it's not all funny. But some, nay most of it is, and some of it's very funny indeed.
“How can Amundsen be a Close as well as Scott?” I rage. “And it’s not even as though Amundsen Close is further south than Scott Close – that would have at least made some sense.”

My girlfriend phones our friends to explain that we are back by the shops and we may be some time.

Who could fail to be cheered out of their depression by the oh-so-cute antics of a kitten? And if you're not, at last you'll have a much better reason for having arms covered in scratches.

Student: Do you have that blue book my tutor recommended?
Bad librarian: Yes, we do. It’s kept with all the other blue books in the blue room, between the green and purple rooms. Once you get to the room, you’ll find them arranged in order by how much the tutors like them, with books written by members of staff at the very beginning.

If none of that made you laugh, all I can say that your idea of the funny (and your consequent derived range of humorosivity values) differs from mine. But in that case something else in here almost certainly will make you laugh, even if it didn't have that effect on me. You see how this works?

It's available for a very reasonable price from, who will print a copy for you personally on receipt of your order, which is rather clever. A large proportion of the said price goes to Comic Relief, which is good. And I'm in it, which is nice. And Mike Atkinson of Troubled Diva put the whole thing together in a week flat, which is frankly amazing. Yay Mike, as I believe the young folk say.

Go on, buy one. Buy two, why don't you. Ideal Easter gift.

PS Quite a lot of it really is quite funny.

PPS I'm in it.

PPPS Now go to The Gaping Silence. Go on, get on with you. Shoo!

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Friday, March 16, 2007

And we moved to Paraguay

Will is keen to dispel some myths about think tanks:
Imagine you're throwing a party, and invitations have to be equally split into three factions. Firstly you must invite your grandparents, great uncles and great aunts. Secondly, you must invite your colleagues. And thirdly you must invite the kids who hang around the local park. When they arrive, they inevitably split into their respective groups, and congregate in separate areas of the room. As the host, it's up to you to come up with topics of conversation on which all three groups will engage enthusiastically and frame that conversation in language that all three groups can understand. If any group opts out or feels alienated by the conversation that you introduce, you have failed in your hostly duties. Within those limits, you have complete freedom to take the conversation where you like.

Now substitute 'government, business and media' for 'grandparents, colleagues and kids' ... and you have a sense of how much independence a think tank has in what it says.
There's a bunch of assumptions here which could do with unpacking - who is 'media'? who is 'business'? come to that, who's 'government'? Do the answers change over time, and do think tankers make any contribution to the way they change?

But what struck me was something about the metaphor itself. Firstly you must invite your grandparents, great uncles and great aunts. What this tells me is that British thinktanks are populated by young people. The last time I could have invited a grandparent anywhere, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.

I used to work in IT - programming was my first job after college (Thatcher was in power then, too). Over a period of years I learned that young coders tend to be very bright, very keen, very confident and very prone to screw up (myself, in retrospect, very much included). They could really crank out the lines of code, but you needed to watch them. You wouldn't let them do their own program design without severe misgivings, and you certainly wouldn't let them go out and talk to the business.

This has nothing to do with intelligence or ability to learn - I had plenty of the former when I was a junior programmer, and probably more of the latter than I have now. (I seem to remember I had something called 'energy', too. Wonder what that's like?) What I didn't have was experience - including the experience of screwing up horribly. Consequently I didn't have a lot of the other qualities that go under the heading of 'maturity' - caution, circumspection, the sense that things are probably more complicated than you realise and that other people probably know more than you understand.

Greater than all of these is the sense that it's all been done. Back on (those were the days eh?) one of the regulars summed up the "old coder" mindset as

10 We tried it
20 It didn't work
30 GOTO 10

Which makes the encounter with old coders frustrating as hell for new-broom managers and business consultants.

Admittedly, this isn't a good guide to (in)action all the time - you'd end up with the character in La Peste who's described as a saint because he sits in bed all day, and hence doesn't do anyone any harm. But I can't help thinking that the old coders are likely to be right more often than not.

So, think tanks are meeting-places for government, business and the media, and places where they go to hear new and interesting ideas. And think tanks are staffed by young coders. I guess that explains a lot.

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