Housekeeping: Move to

I’ve moved the blog to a shiny new domain. Farewell, hello!

If you still use bookmarks, you might care to update them, but it shouldn’t be necessary.

The old URLs should work indefinitely, with appropriate redirection. (Let me know if they don’t!)

This is a blog post about a news website article about a scientific paper

At the start of this post, I link to the site where I saw the news website article, and selectively quote a piece of it:

In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of “scare quotes” to ensure that it’s clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever.

In this paragraph I will briefly (because no paragraph should be more than one line) state which existing scientific ideas this new research “challenges”.

If the research is about a potential cure, or a solution to a problem, this paragraph will describe how it will raise hopes for a group of sufferers or victims.

In this sentence, I raise several overlapping criticisms, ostensibly of the article, but actually of a superficially-similar article that the journalist did not in fact write, ranging from accusations of basic misunderstanding to having completely misrepresented the research process. In the middle of this paragraph, I critique the way in which the journalist has used emotional manipulation to add spice to their article, I attempt to morally blackmail the journalist with the plight of the group of sufferers and victims, which I implicitly assume actually exist, and I make an inflammatory rhetorical demand of the journalist in retaliation, seemingly unaware that this really isn’t likely to help. Here at the end of the paragraph, I make a series of contrived links to previous posts on my blog, in the vain hope of directing traffic to them and making it look like I have a coherent subject to talk about.

Here I realise my sentences are far too long. Fragments better.

And shorter paragraphs.


At this point I insert in a pretty but entirely arbitrary image I found on Flickr by searching for a word or phrase from the subject and picking something eye-catching, because it makes my blog look nicer than if it was just a relentless stream of text.

Arbitrary Symmetry #5
(cc) Syntopia on Flickr

Here I make a misrepresentation of my own point, if in fact it turns out I have one, and put a break in to spare my blog’s home page from being overwhelmed by what is manifestly too long a piece of writing for the genre.

Continue reading “This is a blog post about a news website article about a scientific paper”

Medium and message (liveblogging debate round 2)

Today, the OU’s Vice Chancellor, is giving a speech to Council (the OU’s governing body – like the Board of a company) and an internal audience on ‘Scholarship in the Digital Age’.  She will be speaking “about the impact of new technologies, including Web 3.0, on the University’s business: how it affects teaching, research and the student learning experience”.

I’m really encouraged: this is exactly the focus we as a University need to be taking.  And I’m not just saying that because it’s my area and so I obviously think it’s important. (Although there probably is an element of that.)  I’ve said before that the VC is reading the right stuff (e.g. Here Comes Everybody) and there was further proof in the internal publicity for the talk – it was accompanied by a big copy of the xkcd Online Communities map:

But I’m also worried about whether to bring my laptop or not.  Last time I liveblogged from a talk by the VC, people complained – entirely reasonably – that I was disturbing them with my typing – which I was.  I did a post arguing (not entirely clearly) that the fact that such typing was disruptive showed that we have a mountain to climb in getting the OU to where we need to go. The discussion generated more traffic – and blog links – on here than anything else I’ve written, and ended up with me realising that by (inadvertently) reinforcing the stereotype of laptop users as antisocial inconsiderate types, I’d set things back, not forward.

Just to be totally clear: I am not saying that people are wrong when they say they are being disturbed.  They are being disturbed, and that impairs their ability to hear and understand what’s going on.  And with this particular presentation, people who aren’t (yet) natural laptop users and bloggers are the ones who really need to hear it: us techies are the choir the VC is preaching to here.

So do I bring it or not?  If I do, it’ll disturb people.  If I don’t, we lose (some of) the benefits of doing just what (I expect) the VC will be exhorting us to do.

Happily, our Comms team have come up with an excellent compromise: there’ll be a blogger area outside, with a screen showing the VC, and we can hammer away on keyboards to our hearts’ content without disturbing people who find such things distracting.  (There may even be sufficient power sockets!)

It’s not ideal – to exclude this group from the room itself is a little unfortunate.  But I’d rather leave the people inside free of distractions from technology so that they can come to love (appropriately used) technology.

… and I’m also going to try to keep the meta-discussion about liveblogging separate from the actual stuff, at least on here.  I’m sure there’ll be all sorts of stuff on Twitter.

Twittering in to the sand?

I’ve been twittering away for nearly a month now, and really enjoying it for the sense of tight community it gives.  Even when I was off work with the flu for a week and only managed sad whiny tweets.

One odd side effect is that it’s dragged me back to Facebook.  I’d more-or-less abandoned Facebook, until I wired my Twitter feed in to Facebook updates.  All of a sudden people who are on Facebook – that I’ve not been in touch with for ages – start responding to me there.

My colleague and noted Twitter enthusiast Martin is worried about Twitter’s ongoing technical issues, which are annoying, and sensibly points out:

there’s nothing really in the design of Twitter over Jaiku, Friendfeed, Pownce, etc that makes me use it – it’s just that it’s where my network is, and I can’t migrate without them. But if they started to go, the infamous tipping point might be reached very quickly.

Andrew Chen observed that Metcalfe’s Law – that the value of a network grows with the square of the number of nodes – can work against you.  He posits a reverse law – Eflactem’s Law,

As you lose users, the value of your network is decreases exponentially (doh!)

Chen has Facebook in his sights.  And I think he’s right, especially given Facebook’s determination to keep the walled garden thing going – in a networked world, that’s only ever going to work as a short or medium term strategy, and ‘short or medium term’ in Internet years can be not very long at all.  But I think Twitter is far more vulnerable.

The big danger – and big win – for Twitter is that their userbase is small (compared to, say, Facebook or MySpace) but highly skewed towards techie opinion-formers.  Those are precisely the sort of people who will find migrating to a new service very little hassle.

On the other hand, I think Twitter is likely to be robust over small, short outages compared to a lot of online services.  The great thing (for my money) about Twitter versus one great big IM clusterparty or IRC (does anybody use IRC these days?) is that you feel quite safe ignoring it
for a while if you want to do something else.  So if you feel like Tweeting, but can’t, it’s no big deal to get on with Actual Work instead.

It’s all a bit fluid, and who knows what will happen?  As Martin concludes, “that’s the fun of it – we get to see the new paradigms being created”.

We have a mountain to climb

Three separate people complained about me liveblogging the OU Conference today.  They had found my typing very distracting from the presentations.  One was indirect, although it seems obvious to me that I was the problem, but two were direct to my face immediately afterwards.  This was from three separate sessions.  Most British people wouldn’t dream of complaining like that even if they were bothered, so I think it’s a very safe assumption that many more people were silently fuming but didn’t like to say anything.  It has been made unequivocally clear to me that I was breaking a social rule.  For the direct ones, I apologised profusely; with one I started trying to explain what I was doing but tailed off in the face of a withering stare.  I am genuinely sorry to have disrupted people’s conference experience.  But on reflection I think it shows up a big problem for the OU that I’ve been thinking about for ages.

Now, for me, I found it hugely useful to do.  My handwriting is awful – it makes my hand hurt and I can’t read what I’ve written.  By typing, I have excellent notes on what was said, that I can refer to and even search.  (Much better than even the best physical filing system!)  Even better, by having another browser window open and doing some fast flipping, I was able to pursue some of the references that interested me then and there and put in proper links to them for later. (Or read those if the presentation wasn’t very interesting – which didn’t happen often, I should stress.)  Even better better, by blogging it, I’ve made those notes and links available to the local OU community and beyond.  And also been part of the future of academic practice – as the VC was saying we must do in her keynote.

But clearly, those benefits came at a cost to the people around me.  Having someone banging away on a laptop (I did churn out over 9,000 words today – well over 10k if you include this rant too) in a conference was obviously a strange and new experience for them.  Just to stress, it wasn’t a particularly noisy keyboard – my current laptop is pretty quiet, certainly in comparison to a full desktop job.

Part of this is unfamiliarity, but part of it I think is a lack of engagement with technology bordering on technophobia.  I’m often struck by the deep lack of basic technical skill around – even among people who you’d expect to know this stuff.  I encountered today people who seemed almost proud of their inability to work a projector/laptop combo, or their lack of knowledge about what Twitter was, despite the fact that their jobs involve them teaching other people about technologies like that. (I won’t identify them.)

Technophobia seems a good word for it: as with homophobia, among polite middle-class people you can almost imagine that nobody’s bothered about it, but from time to time someone will come up to you and make it quite clear that decent people don’t like what you’re doing and wish you would stop, or at least go and do it elsewhere so they don’t have to see you doing it.  So you know that lots of people think that way, and you’ve no way of telling them from people who are genuinely supportive – or at least supportively indifferent – and so you end up changing your behaviour to pass as something you’re not out of fear.  (I’m not saying it’s the exactly the same phenomenon, but there are parallels.)

I’ve wondered and experimented in the past about using a laptop more to take notes in meetings – it really makes things much better for me.  But I’ve fallen back on a paper notebook for all but a handful.  (At least those can include meetings with my boss – Patrick is a very good boss.)  The laptop kept getting in the way of the social interaction, and that’s what meetings are for in my book, so the laptop went.  Until now I hadn’t realised that the ‘getting in the way’ bit was quite possibly a result of a deeply held technophobia.

The contrast with – say – the Open Learn conference I went to back in October is profound.  I foolishly didn’t take my own laptop there out of habit … and so now I want to refer back, I have no access to the paper notes I made (they’re in the office and I’m at home), and it’d take me ages to find the right page and decipher my handwriting even if I did.  But every session was stuffed full of people hammering away on their laptops – between 25%-50% I’d say, more in some particular ones.  Some of those were liveblogging, some were making some small notes for themselves … and some were off doing other useful tasks when the particular presentation wasn’t capturing all of their attention.  Nobody minded, or even noticed particularly.

I really think the VC gets it: in her keynote (see what I was able to do there that I couldn’t with the other conference?) she quoted Ernest Boyer and Clay Shirky – top-notch scholarship and top-notch new technology.  She argued that “Scholarship in this university, in this century, has to be irrevocably tied to the technology and knowledge media.”  I agree!  That’s what I want to be part of, that’s what I’m good at.  That has to be the only future for the OU.

But my, oh my, how far we have to travel to get there.   Remember, this techno-hostile audience was a self-selecting group of those particularly interested in innovation.  One of the VC’s recurrent themes recently (including at the conference today) is how difficult but vital it is to get excellent innovation out of the individual pockets where it happens and spread out across the OU’s provision.  (I have some ideas about that but that’s for another post.)  Why’s it so difficult?  It’s not that people aren’t sold on the OU’s mission – in fact OU staff have a sense of ownership and deep commitment to the mission that most senior managers couldn’t imagine in their wettest dreams.  That profound and widespread technophobia is, I think, a big part of the answer.  Nearly every good innovation in OU teaching relies to a greater or lesser extent on new technology.  And the overwhelming majority of people who need to pick up that innovation don’t know or like new technology.

I don’t quite subscribe to the Private Frazer view of the situation (“We’re doomed!  Doomed I tell ye!”), nor the Sir Richard Mottram one (“We’re all f***ed.  I’m f***ed.  You’re f***ed. The whole department is f***ed.  It’s the biggest cock-up ever, and we’re all completely f***ed”), but we do have a serious problem.

We have a mountain to climb.  I’m not sure how to get there, or even what the next steps are.  Alas, I do know that my own next step is backwards: I’m not taking my laptop to the conference tomorrow.

Twitter away

For those of you reading this via RSS feed, you won’t have noticed my spiffy new site look.  You’re not missing much in graphic design terms, if I’m honest, but you may have missed that I’ve added a Twitter feed for me in the sidebar.  As instructed by my boss (Patrick), and in fulfilment of one of my objectives from my annual appraisal, I’m trying to Twitter properly for at least a week.  We have this semi-formed idea to try to do some more Web 2.0-style management, and Twitter seems like it could be part of that.  At the very least it means we have slightly more idea about what each other is up to on a daily basis, which is a good thing in and of itself.

(I note sadly that my neologism ‘twittorial‘ has failed to gain traction – rating a grand total of six hits including my original land-grab post and two from a Spanish site.)

Blog comments

Oh no, another blog post about blogging …

John Naughton discusses whether blogs need to have comments, picking up James Cridland’s piece on the topic. John Naughton doesn’t have comments on his blog – and neither do many other big-noise bloggers, including most famously, Dave Winer.

All of them make good points: with posts rather than comments, you get a single voice in a single place; there’s more space (and links) in a post; readers of either blog can see the conversation develop; and even very light-touch moderating a busy comments section is a major task in itself. (As you can see on any high-traffic blog site that enables comments.)

It seems to me that working through posts seems to be working the medium to its strengths. Comments are fine, but they are fundamentally a different medium to blog posts, even though they are usually attached. Using media to their respective strengths is one of those fundamental good ideas to have been developed by the OU – originally articulated and developed through and by my own Institute of Educational Technology. So for me that’s a pretty strong argument.

I’ve been getting more interested in economics recently, and one of the central good ideas of that field is that it’s worth paying attention to the incentives for individuals in any system. So I think James Cridland put his finger on something important when he noted in passing that

The extra addition of Google Juice, etc, also is a good thing for both of us.

That’s the thing. If James and John have a discussion in the comments on one post, they might help develop an interesting thought further. However, if they do it through posts, they also both gain Google Juice, Technorati authority, and so on. As well as all the other benefits above.

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).