Tuesday, 8 September 2009

I had two thoughts

1. Mathematicians have a concept "trivial" for things which are theoretically solved, and do not therefore present a challenge. If you've shown that something's as true for x+1 as it is for x, then there's really no need to worry about x+2. A Mathmo friend of mine, someone I had known at school as well as university, had a really bad break-up in his second year. He was worried that this was something with which he simply could not cope, and he couldn't see how things would get any better. But one day I met him looking much more cheerful, and he told me that he had suddenly remembered that he had felt the same devastation when he split up with his sixth-form girlfriend. He realised then that he had dealt with this before, and that it was therefore trivial: and from then on he was completely fine about the whole thing. (One of the lesser known uses of maths.) There's also a joke about a mathematician who wakes up to find his bed on fire, works out exactly how to put out the fire with his water jug, and then goes back to sleep in the burning bed, because the problem is trivial.

Anyway I think that this concept is not a helpful one when dealing with joint technological and academic projects. The technological people can see how things would work all mapped out in their heads, in beautiful clarity, and every layer of extra information causes no trouble whatsoever, because the design is extensible -- addition of an extra layer is trivial. In fact these additions often result in serious increases in the actual complexity of amassing, mostly inputting, data.

My experience with working on academic projects which are mostly just ways to represent existing data online has made me sad whenever I hear techie people talking about how theoretically easy everything is. For this reason I have just invented the concept "intermediate information technology". This is based on the idea of intermediate technology, e.g. things which are perhaps more basic but more fixable by the non-skilled. A bicycle is intermediate technology, but a DVD player is not. From now on my aim is to be involved in information technology which I can understand. I don't mind needing a few days' training or even a week or two: but I don't want to have to have a masters in Computer science. My current limit is some light XSLT, and some Visual basic. A good example of the right sort of stuff is the tiddlywiki, a stand-alone .html file which does some very powerful things, but which even I can hack about. I want more of this! Down with total reliance on the schedules of over-worked humanities computing providers! I very much envisage my future self as a sort of IT Ray Mears.

2. I wish people would stop using the words steatopygous and callipygous as if they expect us to be wowed by their saucy erudition. This does not except Stephen Fry.

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