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 del.icio.us, since Yahoo bought it at the end of 2005.  I think del.icio.us’ 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).

Neat hack: reCAPTCHA

I’m not a huge fan of CAPTCHAs – those annoying prove-you’re-not-a-spam-bot thingummies where you have to type some disguised letters.  Even if you can deploy them without the outrageous accessibility issues, they’re at best a necessary evil.  (At worst, they don’t even fox sophisticated spam tools.)  It’s fundamentally wrong for a computer to be setting a human make-work.

But reCAPTCHA is a fantastic hack around this.  Instead of generating an image by distorting some known text, they use scanned text that has failed to OCR.  This is very neat in two ways.  Firstly, the human effort involved contributes to digitisation projects and so becomes real, useful work instead of wasted drudgery.  And secondly, the images in question are a great source of images that are likely to be easily read by a human (who has no visual impairment or challenges) but are known to be hard to read by a computer.  Excellent!

(Of course, it’s no help to the clever counter-attack strategy of bots getting people to solve CAPTCHAs in exchange for access to porn, although I’m not sure that’ll work in practice at scale.)

This sort of issue isn’t usually a problem in formal educational settings, since anonymous access isn’t usually allowed.  But it is for informal educational projects like OpenLearn.  And as I like to keep saying, the boundaries between the two are fuzzy and getting fuzzier.