Russell on idleness

I’ve long been an admirer of Bertrand Russell – I find him one of the more lucid writers on philosophy. I even carted a battered paperback edition of his History of Western Philosophy around with me as reading matter on cycling holidays years ago – the interesting ideas:weight ratio was excellent.
So I was interested to see my colleague Martin pick up John Naughton’s take on Bertrand Russell’s essay In Praise of Idleness. Martin wonders he would have made of the modern world:

Russell would I think be shocked to see that when given leisure time a lot of us spend it slumped in front of the TV drinking Pinot Grigio and watching other people on reality shows. But, the whole 2.0, user generated content world would delight him I think. For his painter who wants to paint without starving read Photographer who shares with the world via Flickr. And then there are all the bloggers, wiki writers, YouTube creators, podcasters who create material of mind-bendingly variable quality, but they are engaged in being creative, and that is fulfilling.

I’m sure Russell would’ve been a huge enthusiast for things like web 2.0, gift economies and the rest of it. But I really don’t think he would have entirely despaired at the vision of millions of people slumped on sofas watching reality TV for hours on end – at least they are not busy with pointless make-work.

I think it’s important to think about Russell’s distinction in the types of work, quoted by John in his post:

Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given.

Since the 1930s, we have seen a huge reduction in the physical difficulty of work of the first kind, a huge increase in the intricacy of it, and a quite staggering extension of work of the second kind, in a way that changes the whole dichotomy. Low-paid service industries as mass employers didn’t really exist back then.

Anyway: I think Russell would probably rightly focus his wrath on the education system that still deprives people of an appreciation of highbrow tastes. I don’t entirely buy that highbrow equals better. But I do strongly believe that all people should be offered opportunities to learn about things that they want to. Our education system is a long, long way from that.

Online references management

Another to-do is to get a decent academic references database sorted out, since I’m going to be doing a lot more papers and bids in the immediate future.

Years ago I had a system that worked beautifully and Got It Right (BibTeX) … but that doesn’t play well if you’re not writing La/TeX documents.  EndNote with Word plug-in was the only game after that and was so appallingly annoying that it’s easier and quicker (IMO) to do it all by hand.

But I think I need something better now, and the field has changed profoundly.  So – I’m in the market for a new system.  Planning to explore RefWorks, Zotero, CiteULike, Connotea, HotReference, and anything else I can find quickly.  RefWorks gains a lot of points out of the gate for being supported by the OU Library, with handy linkages from their search results pages.

Any other suggestions?  Recommendations?


Have just been to a meeting about the OU Library‘s services.  One provocative suggestion we discussed was whether we should drop print copies of journals entirely where electronic versions are available.

After an initial boggle, I came down firmly on the ‘yes’ side.  I can’t remember the last time I looked at a print copy of a journal myself.  All the stuff I want access to is online anyway – in my area, if it’s not online, it may as well not exist.  I’ll print stuff off if I want to read it properly (terribly wasteful, of course) – but most stuff I only want to skim anyway.

There are good reasons to be careful, though, which came up in the discussion.  The impact is profoundly different in different disciplines (of course).  In my area, science, and technology, there’s probably less of an issue.  But, for instance, in Art History, the quality of the reproduction in electronic journals is rubbish, and you really need the print copy.  There are some journals where electronic copies lag print by a year or more (mad but true).  There’s the (perceived?) risk of being held hostage over ongoing service fees when you shift from a product to a service model.  There’s the loss of the facility for serendipitous physical browsing (which is different – and arguably more effective and efficient – than electronic).  There’s the loss of access to journals for physical visitors who aren’t members of the university.

And there is the aesthetic aspect that made me pause at first.  There is something secure, comforting and inspiring about printed media, and particularly large collections of it.  But that may be becoming a luxury we can’t afford any more.

On the other hand, our students and ALs simply can’t access the physical stuff.  At least, not most of them.  Resource diverted from electronic access to physical copies is effectively taking resource away from serving them.

(The Library also have some nice stuff going on with journal searching, and they were also talking about setting up a ‘service quality’ version of Tony Hirst‘s OU Library Traveller … but perhaps a post for later.)

Microsoft acts as if Microsoft is doomed

Microsoft is trying to buy Yahoo – or, as El Reg puts it in inimitable form, Microsoft! bids! $44.6bn! for! Yahoo!

That’s … surprising.  With the huge credit crunch at the moment, the conventional wisdom was that mergers and acquisitions activity would be negligible, particularly at the monster scale. Of course, Microsoft has a huge cash pile.  But it was never $44.6bn huge at its peak, and it must be a lot less than that by now.

It always bothers me when the normal run of economics don’t seem to apply to high tech companies.   They’re different, for sure – for short or even medium periods you can see growth rates that you just can’t see in most other industries. But you can also go from massive to bust much faster too.  I don’t think it’s possible to defy financial gravity entirely.  So I’m getting that “but but but” feeling that I had round the dot-com bubble.

That time I didn’t have the courage of my convictions.  I imagined that all these bright people saying that the usual rules didn’t apply were right.  But they were wrong.  So this time I’ll be a bit more forthright with a prediction: no good will come of this for Microsoft.  Yahoo shareholders would be mad to say no.

(Worth noting in passing that this would entail Microsoft owning, since Yahoo bought it at the end of 2005.  I think’ traditional userbase might find that … interesting.)


Some  people are being a bit sniffy about the news that McDonald’s has been approved to offer the new level 3 advanced diplomas, along with Flybe and Network Rail.  Who, they ask, would want a McDonald’s qualification in management?

The obvious answer is – people who have jobs as managers at McDonald’s.  Which is, after all, the whole point of the qualification. I’m no fan of fast food, and dislike McDonald’s particularly as a company, but they do run a very efficient operation, widely admired in the industry, and employ lots of people.  The idea that their employees shouldn’t be allowed to get qualifications to develop and recognise their skills is, frankly, regressive and snobby.

There are wider, ongoing arguments about the relationship between vocational and academic qualifications, of course.  I’ll note, though, that people who see themselves as defenders of tradition in this debate are defending a pretty recent tradition.  Universities were always vocational from the very start – the pure academic study idea is at best a C19th invention and arguably much later.

(Which reminds me of one of my favourite Oxbridge urban legends: the College is discussing what to do with a generous bequest.  The Bursar suggests investing it in property, “because property has been an excellent investment over the last 500 years.”  “That may be so,” counters the Dean, “but you must remember that the last 500 years have been exceptional.”)

Positive time_t generation

There’s an awful lot of talk about the Google generation, the born-digital generation, Generation Xbox, the iGeneration and so on at the moment.   Usually the boundaries of these generations are vague, and just as well, since chronological age is far from perfectly correlated with just about anything in the domain of very hard science, let alone such social constructs as facility, familiarity, or fear when it comes to new technologies.

But if you had to ignore all the counterexamples and draw an arbitrary birthday boundary at some point in time, this xkcd cartoon from this morning made me wonder if the Unix epoch (midnight on Jan 1, 1970) isn’t a bad candidate.  If you were born much before then, with a birthday that comes out negative in time_t terms, you’re much less likely to take a sea of technology for granted; if you were born then or after, you’re more likely to be positive.   Hey – perhaps even quantifiably more or less likely, varying with some slightly-less-than-linear function of your time_t age … hmm … possible little project there.

When people talk about ‘born digital’, I like to think of myself as an immigrant naturalised at an early age.  One of the things I like about my time_t > 0 dividing line is that it plops me down just on the techie side too.

Restart – skimpy plan

Well that was an embarrassingly long hiatus. Sorry about that.

I’m now free of my management responsibilities (well most of them, plus a few bits of tidying up) and my main task for the next while is – as I mentioned before – to re-kickstart my research profile. I’ve enjoyed being a manager, but it has been at the expense of my research activity, so I’m now looking forward to a spell of being a researcher.

First job is to set out a two-year plan, based on an assessment of my research profile and strengths. I had an outline of this somewhere but can’t put my hand on it, so in the spirit of getting moving quickly, here’s a quick-and-dirty redraft from memory, in very loose terms:

1. Outputs/writing

  • Journal articles above all else. Need quick wins (rewrite/re-place a couple of bounced joint papers) .
  • Plus churning them out on all the projects I’m involved in.
  • Also stuff that looks across a lot of projects with my management eye, to gain traction and impact.
  • And/or the Theory idea I blogged about before.

2. Bids/income

  • Focus on hard-research stuff, so aim for RCs, foundations, EU in that order. JISC etc low priority unless it has a clear route to something more big-R research, even though it might play to some of my strengths.
  • Develop bid for Big Pet Project, with me as PI, linked to the labs and the Big Lab idea since I have the clearest conception of how that should work.  Could include the U3A people as a particular focus – very neat fit and hits lots of interesting buttons.
  • Work as Co-I on OPAL, plus other bits and pieces as appropriate.

3. Research students

  • Keep up with existing students, think about taking on another one or two, if synergistic – contribute specific project to next recruitment round.
  • Think about EdD supervision, maybe.
  • Fish for an external examiner gig or two.

4. External recognition

  • Get out more. Virtually for sure. Blog more and better. Pick off clever conferences to go to. Be ruthless about what I’m getting rather than just ‘for general background’, even when it’s staff-development funding, not research.
  • Look for external chums to be regular partners, and a (preferably nascent) community to locate work in. (Pick one, or go my usual liminal route between several? One is easier to start with, plough-your-own synthesis might be better long-term strategy to build a chair profile.)
  • Maybe pick up reviewing/journal editing if opportunities come up (JIME, *sigh*).
  • Fish for keynotes (yeah, right – hard to do from a standing start but may be possibilities linked to new labs)

Supporting activities

  • Do systematic reading/lit reviewing to meet specific writing projects, but no general background. But develop some better literature-scanning habits/routines so I don’t miss things coming through that route.
  • Keep reading blogs (fold research-related blogroll in to here and expand?) etc.
  • Keep playing with bits of new technology.
  • Think about how to develop all of this in to something approaching a unified take across a lot of stuff, that can build over time into a huge chair-securing portfolio of Clever Stuff.


  • Write little and often. Aim to blog on research at least once a week, and bang out a paper or a bid every month, at least in discussable draft.
  • Work with others/openly – easier with shared projects than my own pet one.
  • Remember to have fun.

Posts to come

Specific projects and how they fit with all this –

  • OPAL/Biodiversity Observatory/Evolution Megalab
  • Knowledge Network 2.0
  • My Pet Project (Big Lab idea).

Gadgets gadgets gadgets

It’s been a great time for gadget enthusiasts recently. By ‘recently’ I mean the last few months, but of course, the last thirty years or so have been pretty good on the gadget stakes.

Anyway – there’s the iPhone and its phoneless little sister, the iPod touch, there’s the Asus Eee (and its distant cousin the XO from the One Laptop Per Child project), and now there’s Amazon’s Kindle.

iPhone and iPod touch

I have an iPod touch and it’s absolutely marvelous. The interface is just so right. I mostly use it for wireless web browsing. It’s physically slightly smaller than a PDA, but the web experience is so much better. The finger scrolling and text resizing is a wonder.

The Wifi just works. It’s been a nightmare on every PDA I’ve ever used – endless fiddling and tweaking and unreliable. It’s not always smooth on laptops either. But everywhere I’ve tried the iPod touch, it’s been a dream. If it’s a new network, it asks if you want to connect first, and then – boom (as Steve Jobs would say) – you’re in. If it’s a network you’ve connected to before … you’re just connected. The experience is the antithesis of the configuration fiddle of Bluetooth, which was my least-loved technology until fairly recently. (It’s now Adobe’s PDF plugins for browsers.)

The web experience is so wonderful you can even use the execrable Outlook Web Access on it without it being too painful.
The text entry is way better than I expected. In my own personal and highly unreliable testing, I scored 26 wpm on it, versus 31 wpm using predictive text on my phone, and I expect the difference will reduce as I build up practice on the iPod touch. (For comparison, my legible handwriting is 35 wpm, illegible scrawl is 50 wpm, a PDA fold-out keyboard rates 86 wpm, and a full-size keyboard is 104 wpm. Worst score ever was 6.4 wpm for handwriting recognition.)

The down side is mainly stuff it simply doesn’t do. The Calendar is next to useless since you can’t add entries (and I can’t sync it with my work calendar, but that’s true of anything ever, and I can at least see it via the web). You can’t sync or suck down fresh data by wireless. Except, of course, if you want to pay money to iTunes for a fresh tune.

This is part of the secret of Apple’s success with hardware, though: if they can’t do it well, they simply don’t do it, which makes the total experience so much nicer.
Sitting around the house, reading the very latest news, watching silly YouTube videos, catching up on what friends and interesting people are up to via their blogs … all via a tiny thing that sits in one hand … it feels like I’m living in the future.

Mini-laptops (Eee, XO)

These are very impressive at first glance, and lots of fun. It’s clearly a new form factor niche between PDA/smartphones and more full-function small laptops/tablet PCs. It’ll be interesting to see if that is a big zone outside of us initial technical enthusiasts.

Personally, the form factor is out of a sweet spot for me. They’re too big to fit neatly in to a jacket pocket (like a PDA/fold-out keyboard combo, or my iPod touch), but if I’m going to have to carry something in my hand or bag anyway, I’d rather have a larger tablet PC.

The price point is extremely attractive, but I hear that Dell has slashed prices on its Vostro range of full-function laptops to $400, so that reason for them is less compelling too.

Amazon Kindle

This is the newest device here – announced officially yesterday. It remains to be seen whether it’ll ever be available outside the US.

The form factor seems just right: close to a paperback book. But the interface and design! It’s just so ugly and clunky, particularly by comparison with the iPhone and iPod touch. I read somewhere that the intention was to make it seem more serious than most gadgets, to appeal to less techie, more bookish people. I think that’s a mistake (lots of techie people are heavy readers too, and they are surely the main market for this), but even if it isn’t, nobody actively wants something that’s hard to use. I’ve not actually played with one yet, so I could be wrong in my extrapolations from the demos, but it certainly doesn’t look pretty and easy-to-use.

The eInk display looks good, and is definitely the Right Thing if you’re trying to replace books. I really hope eInk technology moves on even further – it seems so much better than LCDs.

Not requiring a monthly contract is a very smart move as well. And it doesn’t need cables to get fresh content! You pay to download a book (via One-click, which I always worry about enabling, but then I’m paranoid about accidentally spending money) and it’s beamed to your Kindle via a 3G mobile network.

(It’s a US-only version of 3G, with patchy coverage, which is a potential big problem. I think wifi would’ve been a better choice – at least with wifi, you can set up connectivity yourself at home or at work for fifty quid or so. With 3G phone networks, you have to wait for the network provider to set it up.)

But having said it doesn’t require an ongoing contract, you have to pay a subscription to get a newspaper downloaded. Eh? When I can see newspapers’ websites for free on my iPod? I don’t think so.

And the pricing gets more surreal. You have to pay to get access to blogs. I’m sorry? Pay, to read a blog? You must be joking. And it offers access to ‘the top 250 blogs’, which misses the entire point of blogs. Most of the blogs people will want are way out there in the long tail (like this one!) – hardly anyone reads them, but the few who do are often personally connected.

And yet more questionable. You can read your own documents (Word, PDFs, images) on the device … if you pay to have them converted and downloaded. I have to pay … to read content that I actually wrote and own myself? No.

It offers free wireless access to Wikipedia, which is great … but not the rest of the Internet. Because you might visit the newspapers’ websites, or blogs, instead of paying! This is an extreme walled garden, and, like all walled gardens, doomed ultimately. (Although ‘ultimately’ can be an awfully long time coming – see e.g. Facebook.)

Content is king, and they seem to have the right content initially – plenty of bestselling novels. Unlike every other eBook, including Sony Reader. The price point looks clever too – $10 rather than $25+ for hardbacks.

But the DRM! Oh, the DRM. Electronic books offer the potential for you to do so much more with a book than the traditional paper-based format – to search, annotate, share, edit, comment, cut-and-paste or even, dare I say it, mash up. But the DRM stops you doing anything but a cut-down crap version of the first two in that list. I can lend a book I’ve enjoyed to a friend, scrawl marginal notes on it and give it to a colleague or student, release it in to the wild with a BookCrossing sticker, donate it to a charity shop, or even sell it second-hand – perhaps on Amazon (!). I can’t do any of that with a Kindle eBook.

OU course materials would render much more nicely on this than – to take a random example! – on Open Learn. Students could transfer the PDFs of course materials to their Kindle – for the appropriate fee, naturally – and take a whole stack of units with them everywhere. There’s plenty of bookmarking, but it doesn’t appear to offer much in the way of annotation, which many students find invaluable in studying.

Long-term something like Kindle will overtake books, and generations of readers will form the same attachment to eBooks that the Baby Boomer generation has with print books and Gen X has with the Internet. But it won’t be Kindle that does it. I can see, using a version of Martin Weller’s VLE succession model, that this is another step along the line to a rosy future.

I still think there’s a big window for local print-on-demand for books, though. Amazon’s ability to corral vast quantities of quality content in to electronic format shows that it can be done, and if the deals can be done for an eBook reader, they can surely be done for a proprietary print-on-demand system.

Update: Apparently it can’t read PDFs, at all, even via the paid-for conversion system.  Another nail in the coffin.

Book recommendations

Just had a lunchtime conversation about how you find new music that then turned to how you find new books.  There are lots of differences, with obvious reasons, but there’s one that is interesting and related to stuff I’m interested in work-wise.

For music, there’s things like LastFM, where social network effects help tell you that if you like X you might like Y, because lots of people who like X also like Y, and things like Pandora, where serious processing and analysis of the data can tell you that if you like X you might like Y, because X shares some computable properties with Y.

For books, there’s some social networking stuff (e.g. LibraryThing), but they don’t seem quite so effective.  (Possibly because books are less exciting than hot new music?)  And there is, of course, Amazon’s “people who bought X also bought Y”, but general consensus is that this is not much help.  There isn’t – so far as I know – anything that does the analysis-of-data thing and tells you that book X is like book Y in some computable way.  On the face of it that seems entirely possible and potentially very interesting.  But the trouble is getting hold of the data.  Google’s busy scanning the world’s books in, but they’re not going to let you have the entire data corpus to play with.  You can definitely do interesting stuff with full-text analysis – remember all that enthusiasm for Shakespearean authorship stuff years ago, and the who-wrote-Primary-Colors game?  Things have moved on since then.

I’ve gone on elsewhere about my belief that print-on-demand is going to be even more huge in the next five to ten years, reaching up from smallish documents that were the triumph of the 90s to full novel-length books.  Iff the publishers allow it, of course.   If they don’t they’ll go the way of the traditional music industry, which is looking extremely doomed at the moment (Radiohead having just released their latest album direct, eschewing the music industry, followed swiftly by Nine Inch Nails, Oasis and Jamiroquai, and today by Madonna – although she seems rather to have signed a traditional-style deal with a non-traditional outfit.)

Anyway – if publishers will allow distribution of electronic book texts as far as bookshops and libraries (and on to e-paper technologies as they come on stream), there is the potential for getting hold of the text of new books and doing interesting stuff with it, which will help people find new books they like.  Which would be cool.

 Edit: My lunchtime colleagues have suggested LibraryThing and What Should I Read Next – both ways of mining lists of what people have read/liked to generate suggestions for your own future reading.  (LibraryThing’s UnSuggester – books you are unlikely to find appealing – is far more fun to play with!)