The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.

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5:32pm on Wednesday, 7th December, 2016:

Visit Day


We had a visit day today, which is the name given to those occasions upon which prospective undergraduates visit the university to be shown around and interviewed. It's not the official name, which is New This Term and therefore unmemorable (I think it may begin with A); everyone calls it visit day, though.

I was a student guide for visit days when I was an undergraduate (as was my wife) (yes, your conclusions are correct). Back then, everything was run with military precision by a former member of the armed forces. Nevertheless, somehow it never went to time.

It's the same today. Some people take longer to do what they're supposed to do than they should take, and everything gets knocked out of whack. The organisers know this, of course, so will say that we have 15 minutes to interview prospective students when we really have 20, or say that a sample talk or demonstration should take 20 minutes when it really could be stretched to 25. Unfortunately, we all know the times we've been given are short by five minutes, so some of us compensate by taking those extra minutes anyway — and then overrunning on them. As a result, everything is a mad dash at the end and some students barely make it in time back to catch the bus to take them to the train station.

I expect it'll still be the same 30 years from now, if attending university is still a thing.


2:47pm on Tuesday, 6th December, 2016:



Now our motivational posters are trying to sound like tweets.

Hackneyed tweets, at that.


2:23pm on Tuesday, 6th December, 2016:

Before a Fall


"If a form's worth filling in, it's worth filling in well."

Probably not the best remark to make while the head of department is looking at a different form that you didn't fill in very well.


5:17pm on Monday, 5th December, 2016:



The university made a real effort with today's sunset. Unfortunately, my phone made very little effort at all to capture its colours.

I knew it wouldn't, which is why I didn't try to find a better vantage point. No camera I've ever owned has managed to take a sunrise or sunset that closely resembled the natural phenomenon at which I was pointing it. Today's sunset was far, far redder than this feeble rendition shows.

I could doctor the colours in a paint package, of course, but then I'd be doing the work I want the camera to do.

Mutter ... grumble ... damned lazy cameras...


2:11pm on Sunday, 4th December, 2016:

Freaky Christmas


My younger daughter told me she'd started listening to Christmas songs in her car. I started singing Joy to the World, and she exclaimed "No way! That was the one I was listening to! How did you know? How did you know?!". I really freaked her out.

Unfortunately, as I didn't know and had chosen that song pretty well at random, I freaked myself out too.


3:01pm on Saturday, 3rd December, 2016:



To save us from having to buy the game, W H Smith's have a blow-up of the map for Monopoly: Colchester Edition in their window.

Here's a list of the properties, so you don't have to zoom in:
Colchester Zoo
Community Chest [St Helena Hospice]
The Roman Circus
Income Tax
Colchester Town Station
Dutch Quarter
Chance [Essex County Standard]
Hollytrees Museum
St Botolph's Priory
In Jail/Just Visiting
War Memorial
Colchester Electric Company
Mercury Theatre
Weston Homes Stadium
First Essex Buses
Culver Square Shopping Centre
Community Chest [East Anglian Daily Times]
High street
Free Parking
The Green Room at North Hill
Chance [Top Trump It]
Daily Gazette
Alter Ego Hair Design
Colchester North Station
Stagecoach Colchester
Moors Health & Beauty Salons
Colchester Water Works
Go to Jail
Littlegarth School
Holmwood House School
Community Chest [Action of the Wild]
Colchester Institute
TS Colne Light (LV16)
Chance [Dream 100 100.2fm]
Super Tax
Colchester Castle Museum

The presence of so many things on there I've never heard of, or have heard of but they're no great shakes, suggests that most of the manufacturers' profit comes from advertising income rather than sales.

I'm glad to see that non public utility stumped up any money so they had to invent a Colchester Electric Company and Water Works.

I'm also glad that the university stayed out of it, given that Monopoly has probably put more people off board games than any other single factor.


3:44pm on Friday, 2nd December, 2016:

Rights and Wrongs


I went to a meeting of the Human Rights Centre at the university yesterday. There were about 25 people present, mainly from the Law Department but with interested parties from other departments, too. I didn't speak beyond saying my name, job title and that I'd done some work in games and human rights before. Instead, I spent the next hour and a half listening to the discussion (which was dominated by five individuals, although perhaps another ten did chip in at least once).

Here's my take on it.

The concept of Human Rights operates at different levels: local, national and international. International is where all the action takes place that everyday folk think of as relating to "human rights": people in parts of the world really are in danger of being dragged from their beds in the middle of the night, never to be seen by their families again. If you live in a country where that happens (we don't), then national is also important; for most of the western world, though, national-level human rights involves trying to stop governments from enacting ill-conceived, slippery-slope legislation and corporations from exploiting loopholes in the letter of the law; it doesn't involve defending people from despotic regimes out to stifle freedom. Local human rights is when you walk out onto the street and are subject to racist or sexist abuse, or you can't get a job because you're too old or too gay or too in a wheelchair.

The problem Human Rights has is when local-level rights-abuse percolates upward to national or international level.

Human Rights conventions were created primarily to call governments to account. They are badly suited to calling powerless individuals to account. The Human Rights Centre is great at talking to liberal elites, but these people are already on board when it comes to human rights; it's beyond their competence to speak to "Daily Mail readers" (as some of those present at the meeting I was at characterised them).

The experience of the liberal elite in trying to educate the masses is the same today as it's always been: they come across as paternalistic, patronising busy-bodies. This is counter-productive: as a general rule, if someone you don't like tells you how to behave, you're not predisposed to act on their instructions. From the perspective of, say, unemployed adults in their early twenties who have little prospect of a decent job and no great future to look forward to, human rights are something other people have. Human rights advocates can offer these individuals nothing but lectures on how they should behave towards oppressed minorities. Telling them that they'll only know how important human rights are when they don't have them is about as relevant as telling them they'll only know how important life is when they're dead.

The mistake the Human Rights Centre people were making was believing that if someone abuses human rights then taking them to task over it will improve matters. It's as if they feel that you merely have to enlighten individuals as to the errors of their ways and they'll stop using racist language, picking on effeminate men and spitting at women in hijabs. One-on-one, it might. Beyond that, it won't — especially if your way of enlightening them is to put on a play that brings home the consequences of their actions (yes, this was a suggestion). That's really going to work for a group of people whose only access to theatre is a school musical... No, rather than attributing the people at the bottom of the pile with the same cultural access and interests that the elite have, you should instead look at why these people are behaving the way they are in the first place. No-one at the meeting seemed to grasp this point, except for a chap from Government who did recognise the problem but who wasn't really understood by the others speaking.

As for why these people are acting like they are, well when you're stuck at the bottom and have no hope of escape, you look for someone to blame. This could be immigrants, who seem to be given advantages and opportunities unavailable to you or your children. It could also be people — "minorities", for example — who are being given special attention while your own plight is ignored. It doesn't matter what the truth of the matter is: the perception is what counts. Human rights advocates, by promoting the rights of particular groups of individuals, make those individuals special. This makes them a target of the unspecial. The reason for this is not that human rights are unimportant (obviously they are important), but that at this stratum of society they're only of secondary importance compared to the general disadvantage everyone suffers from their social and economic situation. If enough people are trapped in this kind of hopelessness, then what previously was a local-level problem becomes a national-level one. Trying to get them to mend their ways by addressing the symptoms, rather than the cause, is doomed to failure.

Until the right not to be poor is ensconced into Human Rights conventions, we're unlikely to see an improvement in this dynamic.


8:03am on Thursday, 1st December, 2016:



This photograph of me, my brother and our wives was taken using a Polaroid camera in 1985. Actually, as it was the day of our wedding, strictly speaking my wife was actually my fiancée at the time.

I knew back then than Polaroid photographs would keep developing over time, and would eventually become too dark to see. I didn't know they'd do it in such a striated manner. It's probably something to do with the roller that pushed it out of the front of the camera.

Memories fade over time, too, but at least with those you can refresh them to arrest the process.


6:02pm on Wednesday, 30th November, 2016:

Spunky Princess


I received my first Christmas present today! Here she is:

She's the Spunky Princess out of my old JavaScript game, Spunky Princess. Amazingly, she was hand-crocheted by Carlos Diaz, a PhD student from Colombia/Denmark/Germany who visited the IGGI group for a month earlier in the year and endeared us all to him.

I think he should forget the PhD and crochet game characters full time.

Do you think she'd look nice on top of a Christmas Tree?


3:36pm on Tuesday, 29th November, 2016:



I was working from home today (presentations to prepare, PhD reports to read). It was probably just as well, because so far four separate people have knocked on the door delivering packages.

It was all so much simpler when the Post Office did it all.


9:11am on Monday, 28th November, 2016:



After being exposed to an episode of Strictly Come Dancing this weekend, it occurred to me that if a new law came out that made men take their wife's maiden name upon marriage, Jamie Redknapp would have to change his surname to Out Of Eternal.


10:56am on Sunday, 27th November, 2016:

Grave View


We picked up a bunch of my wife's family photos yesterday when we visited her brother and his family (it was their dad's 94th birthday). Most of the photos are old black and white ones from the 1920s to 1940s, some with people we know in them, some with people we've no idea who they are, and some of people we probably would know if the picture had more information than just "6 months" or "8 months" written on the back.

One photo, however, doesn't fit in with this at all.

It's Lawrence of Arabia's grave, which is in some churchyard in Dorset.

Er, OK...


6:06pm on Saturday, 26th November, 2016:



From my 1979 copy of Phenomena: A Book of Wonders, citing a 1975 "modern Grail miracle":

No, Mrs J. Tidmarsh from 1975: you can't understand it, but I'm pretty sure your husband (with his secret stash of ground coriander) can.


8:05am on Friday, 25th November, 2016:



Because of the effect that university league tables have on undergraduate recruitment, UK universities find themselves obliged to put resources to improving their ratings in the various metrics used by newspapers to calculate rankings. Non-rated areas of their operation get left by the wayside, but Vice Chancellors' hands are pretty well tied by the vagaries of newspaper editorial opinion so they do what they must.

One of the areas that's nototiously hard to quantify is "student satisfaction". Students fill in a national survey, saying how satisfied they are along a number of different dimensions. That this is unreliable is easy to see. For example, I'm an external examiner at Falmouth University and the amount of high-quality feedback their games students get is phenomenal — much more than I've seen anywhere else; unfortunately, the students don't know it's phenomenal, because for them it's normal and they have nothing mediocre to compare it against. Falmouth therefore doesn't get the credit it deserves for the amount of work put in by its academic staff in providing feedback.

Here at Essex University, analysis of the returns from the surveys indicates that we score low for pastoral care: put bluntly, students don't feel that they are being treated as individuals rather than as statistics. To remedy this, university high-ups have decreed that all students must have a personal tutor, who must maintain regular, personal contact with their tutees. Whether the students want such contact is not a factor.

So it is that in Computer Science we've been told when to send out emails to our tutees, and given a bunch of templates saying what information we should be conveying. We're not allowed to bulk-email them, we have to send them one by one to each of our tutees. They should be addressed to that tutee only, so they know they're getting a personalised message.

Well, that may be fine in theory, but in practice if every student gets a near-identical email from their tutor within a few days of each other, they're going to know it's all a set-up job. They'll see right through it. They're not stupid — they're at university! — and they won't therefore be fooled into thinking that they are indeed receiving personal attention from a caring member of the academic staff. It's almost certain to backfire. We may as well have just sent a single email to all of them at once, because at least then we wouldn't be giving them the impression that we were trying to trick them into thinking they were getting a meaningful, one-on-one communication.

I have 17 tutees. As a result, I had to send 17 individually-crafted emails yesterday. I have to send another batch early next week (as does every other tutor in the department).

If we're lucky, it's not going to reduce our student satisfaction ratings.


8:57am on Thursday, 24th November, 2016:



I'm putting this on Facebook:

I considered having a picture, or having "Sharing isn't fun", but both would be too sophisticated for Facebook.


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Copyright © 2016 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).