The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.

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4:17pm on Wednesday, 16th October, 2019:

Your Stay


At breakfast in the hotel on Sunday, a random hotel worker appeared and gave us a card to fill in. This is what it looked like:

Some interface thought has clearly gone into this. I particularly like the way that its rating counts down 10 to 1 rather than counting up 1 t0 10, and it colour-codes the 9 and 10 in green but colour-codes the 1, 2 and 3 in red. They clearly want to be able to say that they have a 90%+ rating, and if they'd reversed the order and put the 8 in green then more people would have given them an 8 than a 9 or 10.

We only gave them a 9 because the choice of grub at breakfast wasn't all that great and the building only had one lift. Also, we're mean.

My wife filled in the card, by the way; I merely defaced the thumbs-up symbol.


5:40pm on Tuesday, 15th October, 2019:

Departmental, Compartmental


We had a departmental meeting today. It was made up of three segments, which can be summarised as follows:

Boss of Department: Everything's on the up, well done everyone!
Random University-Level Administrator: [Inaudible]
Boss of Boss of Department: You need to get your act together or heads will roll.

I'm so looking forward to next term, when I'll be teaching on the day of the meeting and so have an excuse not to attend it.


3:57pm on Monday, 14th October, 2019:



I think the cabling arrangements in the STEM building are unnecessarily complicated.

Why, yes, we did have an Educational Away Day in the STEM building today, and it may indeed not have covered the most riveting of topics.


9:32am on Sunday, 13th October, 2019:



This advertisement is in the lift of the (wrong) Holiday Inn Express, Bristol:

The man looks as if he really, really hopes no-one is going to make him actually take a bite out of that whatever it is he's holding.


9:49am on Saturday, 12th October, 2019:

Holiday Inns


We're in Bristol for the weekend, visiting our elder daughter.

We normally book the Holiday Inn near where she lives, but the Holiday Inn web site seemed to want to charge us rather more money than we wanted to pay. Weirdly, the price on booking.com was rather lower, so we used that instead.

Hmm. So it turns out there are two Holiday Inns in Bristol...


8:03am on Friday, 11th October, 2019:



I have lots of stuff for the students to make their boardgames from in Challenge Week. I never know what they're going to go for, though. Last year, they almost cleaned me out of 1cm cubes. This year, they went a bundle on cards, plastic containers, red counters and glue sticks.

Both years, they went for dot stickers. Both years, they went for the same colours of dot stickers. This means the dot stickers available for next year's students looks like this:

Only now do I notice that the sheet in the middle has the yellow stickers on the right when all the others have them on the left. That's going to bug me for the rest of the day...


5:44pm on Thursday, 10th October, 2019:

Titans of Text


I did an interview for the Titans of Text podcast recently, and it's now been released here: https://www.titansoftext.com/17. This podcast is unusual because the interviewers switch off their mics while the interviewee is speaking, meaning I could ramble for minutes on and and not even be sure that the line was still live. This, I duly did.

Another unusual feature is that the spoken word is transcribed (automatically) into printed text, so you can skip anything that doesn't interest you. Looking at the transcript, it seems that most of my sentences as spoken are grammatically ill-formed and are rarely coherent.
So, pretty much the same as my writing, then, except that with my writing I can re-read it before I release it whereas my speech is somewhat resistant to this.


8:20am on Wednesday, 9th October, 2019:

Essential Training


I've somehow managed to be bored at work often enough to complete the Essential Training modules I'm supposed to have completed. These are in: Equality and Diversity; Health and Safety; Information Security; Financial Regulations; Fire Safety; Computer Safety; Safeguarding; Unconscious Bias.

I don't even remember what the topics of some of these were, but I do remember that I did remember for the five minutes in which I completed the tests they usually contain.

I only had Unconscious Bias left, and finished that just now. It confirmed my entirely conscious bias against these tests. They're badly put-together, they require black-and-white answers and they're patronising. I think I may have learned something from the Financial Regulations one, but only because it was asking me questions about things I never, ever have to do so don't really need to know about them. All the rest were pretty obvious.

I left the Unconscious Bias test until last because it said it would take an hour to complete. It didn't, though, probably because its centrepiece — taking some test or other run by Harvard University — was "under review" so I couldn't do it. I dutifully watched a couple of random videos and an incongruous single-slide Powerpoint presentation, and clicked buttons that turned over and said something about unconscious bias. I played a memory game (with a bug in it), too, involving matching cards with phrases about unconscious bias on them with other cards that said the exact same thing. I was expecting maybe they'd have examples of unconscious bias, but no: the card saying "Age" matched another card saying "Age".

There was no test at the end, and I got out alive after half an hour. There was no comments section either, so I didn't even get to complain about the tester's unconscious biases about what people like me have as unconscious biases.

I can now hope to receive no more automated emails about my Essential Training Completion for three years, until the university makes me jump through the same hoops all over again so as to meet their statutory requirements as having trained me. Yay!


7:34pm on Tuesday, 8th October, 2019:

Free Hot Drink


One of my PhD students (hi, Joseph!) has submitted his PhD. The mighty university administrative machine immediately swung into action and sent him confirmation, thoughtfully CCing it to a completely different Professor Bartle (in the Government department) so I only eventually received it today.

The format is quite formal:
Student Name
Student Registration Number
Number of copies
Free Hot Drink
What happens next
Tier 4 International Students
ATAS for International Students

Wait, wait, what was that back there? "Free Hot Drink"?

Yes indeed. This is what the section says: "Congratulations from the Students Union - Well done on submitting your thesis, have a free hot drink on us! Show your submission confirmation email to SU Reception and they will give you a voucher for a free hot drink at the SU Kitchen."

That's nice, but as incentives to submit go, I can't really see anyone thinking, "you know what, I may not really feel like writing up a 60,000-word thesis after 4 years of work, but if I get a free coffee, I'm going for it!"


4:56pm on Monday, 7th October, 2019:

Challenge Week


It's challenge week this week in the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering. There's no teaching of first- or third-year undergraduates for the week, but they have "challenges" instead.

The challenge for final-year students is to write the Initial Report for their final-year project. Given that the latest spreadsheet lists the project for 18% of the students as "TBA", you can see why this might be a good idea.

The challenge for first-year students depends on what their degree subject is. Games students and some unlucky Computer Science students get to do the games challenge, which is always to design a board game.

The topic this year is "killer robots". This is why we don't let electronics students do it: they may make actual killer robots.

The first-tears start work on their projects tomorrow. I have a trolleyload of game design stuff that they can use to make their games. The trolley has two shelves, is hard to manoeuvre and is unstable. The first time we did this exercise, I was allocated the furthest teaching room from my office on the whole of campus. I complained about this so successfully that the second time I was allocated the second-furthest teaching room from my office. I managed to get that changed before challenge week began, though, so instead got to run the event in a room that was much more conveniently located but was basically a greenhouse.

This time round, I've been allocated the third-furthest teaching room from my office. It's too late to change it. Getting there entails pushing the trolley for some distance outside, so if there's rain, wind, or a crowd then I'm in trouble.

As it happens, I'm in trouble anyway. There was heavy rain over the weekend that flooded out the teaching centre. It was closed down today and may well be tomorrow, too. If it is, the game design challenge will be pretty well a bust.

Oh, I do have one session that isn't far from my office. It's in computer lab 1. I made the mistake of specifying that I wanted a room with flat tables in it without specifying that they shouldn't have computers on them. Lab 1 is a completely unsuitable venue for people making board games.

It's definitely going to be a challenging week, I'll give it that.


2:09pm on Sunday, 6th October, 2019:

Singular Response


At the IGGI conference in York last month, we all had name badges. The badges all had a section for us to fill in with our preferred pronouns.

I didn't fill mine in.

We were passively-aggressively informed that we all ought to fill them in, so as not to make people who really wanted to fill them in feel as if they were standing out by filling theirs in.

I still didn't fill mine in.

I don't like gendered pronouns. I'm more connoun than pronoun. I took a dislike to them when writing MUD, because they forced the issue of gender on the player. As for deciding which pronouns you want used, well it's not as if people use them about you in conversation with you anyway.

Ah, but my dialect is that of the East Riding of Yorkshire! We use the singular they there. If I don't like gendered pronouns, why didn't I just write down my preference as "they" instead of leaving it blank or putting "he"?

Here's why.

The programming language Prolog has a system of variables and values. Variables are either instantiated with a variable or not. Prolog statements are mixtures of variables (starting with capital letters) and values. In the statement f(X, 4, Y), X and Y are variables and f and 4 are values. Statements can be matches pairwise with other statements, a process known as unification. When two statements in Prolog are unified, any variable in one that matches a value in the other is instantiated to that value. For example, the expression f(X, 4, Y) unified with f(3, Y, Z) would instantiate X to 3, Y to 4 and Z to 4 (because it unifies with Y, which is instantiated to 4). The result would therefore be f(3, 4, 4). Were we instead to unify f(X, 4, A) with f(3, Y, B) , though, that would leave A and B uninstantiated (but referring to the same variable — let's call it AB). The result would be f(3, 4, AB).

The singular they is like a variable. It's what you use when you don't have a value. You might say "We have a new teacher starting soon, but I don't know their name" because you can't instantiate their gender. You don't know whether to use "his" or "her", so you use the singular "they"; if you did know, you'd unify the variable with the value and use that.

When people used to use male pronouns for variables, there was confusion over whether they were indeed variables or values. Saying "We have a new teacher starting soon, but I don't know his name" suggests that you do at least know he's male. Use of the singular they gets round this.

This does not happen when the word "they" is used as a value rather than a variable.

If an individual insists on having the singular they used as their preferred personal pronoun, it's as a value, not as an uninstantiated variable. If I say "We have a new teacher starting soon, but I don't know their name", it now seems to mean that I may not know their name but I do know that they self-identify as neither male nor female.

Unfortunately, though, I don't know that at all. They may happily self-identify as female. I want to use a variable there, not a value. It is a value, too, because saying your gender is non-binary is not the same as saying it's unspecified. It could be a changing value, sure, but it's still a value.

People who advocate the use of the singular they as a pronoun but who don't know this dialect usage will often point to centuries of precedence ("Shakespeare used it", that kind of thing) without necessarily picking up on the value/variable distinction of my dialect use. They're looking for a justification for their turn of phrase, and history provides them with plenty. They don't actually need a justification, of course — language use is always changing — but it can help them counter arguments that any use of the singular they is inappropriate.

That said, dialects are languages, too. My dialect doesn't just have a singular they, it has a singular reflexive form. The word "themself" is fine — I was at university before I found out it wasn't regular English. I'm very attached to this usage, and although I understand why some people would want to ground their personal pronoun as "they", I don't like what doing this costs my dialect. I don't, therefore, ever use the singular they as a value; I only use it as a variable. OK, well I guess I might do it to humour someone to avoid an argument, too.

Ah, the politics of personal gender identity versus the politics of personal regional identity.

I really don't like gendered pronouns...


11:06am on Saturday, 5th October, 2019:

Strained Relationship


My wife made me throw out some of my tea infusers, on the grounds that I had too many.

That doesn't mean I couldn't play with them before I said goodbye


1:50pm on Friday, 4th October, 2019:



My younger daughter was given a pair of £2 cuticle nippers as a present. Here's what it says on the back of the packet:

I hadn't realised that cuticle nippers had such high maintenance requirements.


2:23pm on Thursday, 3rd October, 2019:



The giant posters man was on campus today, selling giant posters. These things are the size of half a table tennis table.

The thing is, I'd actually buy one if instead of a picture it had a grid of 25mm-diameter hexagons.


7:17pm on Wednesday, 2nd October, 2019:



This monogram is on a building in SIr Isaac's Walk in Colchester.

If you're going to have a monogram, you may want to go for one that's not so over-elaborate you can't read it.


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Copyright © 2019 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).