Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The 95th birthday of JFK

(For my friend Amy, who is an amazing person and will soon be a mother, and who went with me to see the current president win on that night in Chicago in 2008)

It’s May 29th 2012. Back on May 29th 1917, before the end of World War I, a man of Irish ancestry was born to a family dynasty in Boston, USA.

John F Kennedy, if he were still alive, would be celebrating his 95th birthday today. That’s a strange concept, imagining JFK as a very old man, half a decade off his centenary. Possibly because, after being assassinated nearly half a century ago, there’s no pictures of him at more than early middle age.

My mother and father christened me “John” after JFK. They were admirers of him, his presidency and the way he spoke. Britain was a very different world, then, especially in the way information about current events and politics was obtained. A few TV channels, newspapers more restrained than todays, radio, your peers, and that was about it. Unless you were rich - and my parents certainly were not - going to America was not an option. So they got all of their information, impressions, from those few sources, liked what or who they saw, and named me after him. Which was also possibly a lucky escape, as the other politician they both admired was Winston Churchill.

My father was born just a few years after JFK; I was born nearly five years after the president’s assassination. Consequently, I never saw him “live” on TV, though my earliest memory is of the moon landing, a program he instigated and pushed for several years before ...

... the memory being of being in someone else’s living room, full of adults, and the strange box in the corner showing some moving black and white images. I didn’t have a clue what was going on - I was less than two, but can remember, sharply, the excitement in the room.

As I was growing up, I understood a little more about JFK. The Cuban missile crisis. The election battle with Nixon in 1960. The Cold War. And that politics in America was changing, different in the 60s to other decades, and certainly different to the toxic, hysterical and impossibly bipartisan governance that the country now struggles with.

Those differences come through in the speeches and the soundbites. And, as acknowledged by many, JFK was one of the best presidents, up there with Lincoln, at public speaking. This is one of his most famous lines:

It would be a curiously libertarian statement if made by a mainstream president, or (especially) a presidential candidate, now. They probably wouldn't say it; the risk of it being misinterpreted, or used against him or her. But when it came to speaking, either from a script or off the cuff, JFK had memorable quotes, and he had balls.

And speaking of balls, there was his private life, his alleged private life, his family life, and the like. Jackie. Camelot. The new first family. The first presidency out of the shadow of post World War II reconstruction. And the links with Marilyn Monroe, who, even in black and white footage, is to me the personification of sex and desire. You can kindly keep the modern day pop videos complete with people shaking their 'booty' and wiggling whatever else they choose to wiggle, in an advanced state of undress. This ... this is sexy:

We'll never know how different the world would have been if he had not been assassinated. Or, if he had lost in 1960, and it was close, whether there would still be a world under Nixon's presidency during scary-events-time Cuba. And we'll never be entirely sure why he was assassinated, very nearly half a century ago now.

Somehow, in eleven trips to America, over two years spent there and many experiences, I've never visited any JFK-related sites, with the notable exception of Air Force One, the actual plane which took Kennedy to Dallas and brought his body back.

Maybe I need to rectify that in the future, in America or Ireland. Especially as I come from an English village that had a significant involvement in the American presidency and flag, as well as a lifelong fascination with things America and American politics.

But the thing about JFK that most fascinates me is how much he achieved. Yes, he had the family dynasty to get a good start in life. But, like FDR a few decades before him, he was beset with ill health, to the extent of having a disrupted education and, on one occasion, receiving the last rites. That's not the only time John had a brush with mortality, having been in Germany on September 1st 1939, and having to dash back across to the USA in a deteriorating war situation. But, he still managed to rise and win the presidency, reinvigorate the sluggish US economy, and deal with Cuba, Russia and a number of international situations (though even then, the US was getting bogged down in Iraqi politics) in the space of a few years, plus moving American society on to make it easier for his successor to pass sweeping legislation, before being assassinated at the age of 46.

His legacy? America was never the same again, socially or politically. Communication between rulers and people changed, with television predominating. And those hard things - man landing on the moon, equality, significant social reform - were done or progressed.

7.20.1969 Man on the Moon - Aldrin on Surface after Descending Ladder on LM (2 of 5)

Which is a thing that makes me humble, acutely aware of time. In less than 3 years time, assuming I live that long, I'll be older than JFK was at the time of his death. Barring some completely implausible chain of events, I won't have achieved a small fraction of what he did in his equivalent time on this rock; I am like JFK in first name and gender only.

Though it's often not healthy to compare your "progress" to that of others (especially, perhaps ludicrously, to a president of the USA), when you reach a certain age you become more aware of what you've achieved - and what you haven't. Adventures and experiences, I've clocked up more than most people will in their whole lives, but in terms of conventional achievements, and doing things that slightly change humankind and society for the better, my scorecard is lacking. I'm hoping that the best years and decades are still ahead for me - though perhaps more actual "doing", and less "hoping" and writing about doing, would help them actually happen.

Certainly, JFK didn't slowly build up to a period of "late life achieving", instead becoming president of the USA just before 43 and a half (younger than I am now), and doing it all, when he could, as soon as he could. And he didn't let poor or bad health get in the way (self: take note). It's a good thing that he got so much done, bearing in mind how young his life was cut short. Which is a reminder of what someone I follow on Twitter said in the spring of 2009:

Don't take your potential to the grave.

Final thought: I wish JFK had been alive to see the moon landing.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Worlds collide: one degree of separation

As a codicil to a previous post about how things online, especially with social media, seem to inevitably converge at some point so everyone seems to be directly connecting and speaking to everyone else.

A local colleague retweeted a tweet from someone I'd never heard of and didn't follow, @ftrain. Though on checking, he's followed by half a dozen people I follow, including a work colleague from a previous career.

The tweet was good. And a good reply followed by someone else I'd never heard of before, @mulegirl.

Because the reply was worth sharing, grabbed it as a screen picture, and pasted it on Facebook:

Within three minutes an ex-work colleague, Tony - the manager of the JISC elib ADAM subject gateway in the 1990s who has since moved to Brooklyn in New York - and also another previous colleague of @danbri - added a comment, pointing out that ...

Aarggh. #WorldsCollide. Continuously.

Update more from @danbri who is also intrigued by the connections with @ftrain. Dan points out that ten years ago, Paul wrote A bit of commentary on Google and the Semantic Web (while now Dan works on taking RDF mainstream), plus more recent stuff on the Semantic Web. And more from Dan:
In 1997 Tony Gill told me RDF wouldn't be ready by next summer, and wasn't wrong. And i still work around models for describing Mona Lisa.
One of Dan's other projects, FOAF, was useful in highlighting coincidences and less apparent connections. All of this is more data, anecdotes, links towards a (personal) long-held suspicion that:
  1. the whole Internet/Web data movement over the last twenty years has been actively driven, engineered, moved forward, by a surprising small collection of people, several hundred or just a few thousand at the most.
  2. some forms of "social media", but especially Twitter, are gradually enabling and highlighting direct connections between these particular people.
Update #2 so I went to the 30th birthday party of an ex-housemate, Samira, who now lives in the house the party is in. Samira is heading west to San Francisco soon for a new life, which is great. There was a bloke wearing a hat there; I'd met him before briefly, and he looked ... familiar in some way. I dropped Samira's card in the punchbowl (oops), spoke to some people (two of whom I recognised from somewhere else, but again not sure where), then left for a sleep.

A few days later finds me looking at the twitter stream of my next door neighbour, and realising that she is tweeting the same bloke (orangejon) about going to the same party. So I follow him, then look through *his* twitter stream to see chats with my neighbour, the cheap cafe I eat in, a load of other places I've eaten or drunk in, an ex, several friends, a fellow library campaigner, several organisations on twitter I've also chatted to in the past, and a whole bundle of friends/contacts of friends. Of whom @dubber and @gridinoc are of particular personal interest (though I've never met either of them), as we have mutual twitter friends (more than just followers; people chatted to) from every period of my life since escaping from the Vale of Evesham in 1988.

Oh, and Mr O. Jon has also retweeted Mike Ellis. Seriously, everyone I know seems to know and/or retweet Mike Ellis at some point. I've never met the guy (though we've twitter-chatted and I like his life philosophy) but I know many of his colleagues and friends, far more than most of the people I've met in the real life.

The thing is, it's not like Orange Jon and myself follow and communicate with millions of people each on Twitter. It's just a couple of hundred, especially when you remove organisations. And yes, there will be coincidences; a lack of coincidences would be strange. But the accumulating number of links, and @ chats, is really odd for someone I do not know and have chatted to for approximately 15 seconds in real life, and do different things and "move in different circles" to.

Perhaps @orangejon is the anti-me, like anti-matter, and if we shake hands either we will cancel each other out and disappear, or the universe will implode, or we would be immediately replaced by an exact replication of Mike Ellis.

Or twitter would crash.

(Thinks a while. Or, and scarily there is a strong argument that could be made here, the Matrix does exist and it is in fact Twitter. I feel a paper coming on...)

Oh. And I forgot to ask why he's called "Orange Jon".

And as a further afterthought and back on the track of "breathing", a retweet a few minutes later by @ppetej (an ex-colleague and metadata guru who used to be at Eduserv but now works at Cambridge University with twitter followers of Becky, who maintains a list of metadata and cataloguing people on Twitter) is a refreshing analogy on not being unnecessarily distracted from writing that is to be done.

And, as an even further afterthought, tonight I "went viral" - as in one of my tweets being retweeted several thousand times - for the only time this year. During #eurovision.

And the only time I managed it in 2011, was ... during #eurovision.

Digital games in education, libraries, geocaching, digital library developments, anything else; a mild amount of retweets. On a good day.

But Eurovision? The tweeting floodgates doth open.

#DoingTwitterVeryWrongly #BahHumbug

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Observations from the Online

Revised 23rd May. Added another "thing". Also please, for the love of god, stop sending me "did you specifically mean me when you wrote X?" emails and DMs. The answer to most of these has been "No, and perhaps ask yourself why you are asking that".

Also; if this whole post seems annoyingly cryptic or pretentious or whatever, then I don't care. It's to get my own thoughts in a rational order (making it public forces me to explain things rationally). You can stop reading it at any time. Or don't read it at all :-)

Recently, I stuck up a snarky little post containing ten of the reasons I've unfollowed people on twitter lately. The upshot of that post was:

  • Getting unfollowed myself by some people who realised that I was referring to them and had unfollowed them.
  • Getting unfollowed myself by some people who incorrectly thought I was referring to them (in two cases, people flouncing off, for want of a better word).
  • Some bizarre private correspondence. The proportion of private to public replies to a post, tweet, some other info or opinion missive, is often notable.
  • Getting some new followers, from people who were on Twitter, but didn't like it or were cynical about it.
  • Getting some new followers who found the post funny. Personal irritating failing: when I try to be funny, I'm often not. When I try to be serious, it often comes over as funny. Gah.

Anyway, the reaction pretty much showed that the reasons people use social media are varied, and often complex. Like most people, I use it for several reasons including, but not limited to:

  • Getting information that's of use to actual work and potential work.
  • Information and news about causes and issues I'm into e.g. public library funding.
  • Fun. "Here we are now; entertain us."
  • Communicating with colleagues, ex-colleagues, potential colleagues, and the like.
  • Communicating with those relatives I can tolerate.
  • Making myself available for communication in the most convenient ways possible.
  • Adding information and content that others may find useful.
  • Making a virtual ramshackle scrapbook of "stuff" so I can go back and remember what the heck I was doing at a certain time (as I can't even remember most of the time what I did the day before).

But, like most other people, I've sometimes used social media for perhaps less straightforward, or less healthier reasons. The kind of "I was online looking at A because of B" things most people wouldn't happily say in public. Probably everyone does this, and those who deny it are probably lying. We're human.

A couple of months ago, someone I've never met in RL but have followed on twitter, facebook, Gmail chat, and a few other places for years, put out a tweet. They probably weren't in the best, happiest of minds. Ironically I sort of agreed with what they had written and could see where they were coming from. However, that tweet disturbed me so much that I immediately unfollowed them on Twitter, and on everything else. All communications were cut and they were blocked, which apparently upset that person (we have many mutual friends). But it was necessary; it indicated a personal "line in the sand" with social media use that I hadn't considered.

It's not right to say what the tweet was as it was a seriously dangerous thing to put out there. The kind of thing that can ripple through people's lives, and occasionally cause very bad things to happen to a few of them. Some things are best left not said in public, and that was definitely one. I have thought about it every day since reading it, and it's a main reason why I've eased off use of social media a lot recently.

So that's one of the darker reasons why I've unfollowed some people on Twitter. There's others, but that one has stuck in my mind. And that one tweet made me examine and think why some of the people I "follow" use social media in the way they do. Especially some of those who I'm closest to, or respect the most. The answers were not always positive, or comfortable.

That's thing one.

Cheeses of Wisconsin

What people write online, about themselves and others, how they project themselves, isn't of course always a true reflection of who they are and what they are thinking. That's probably the understatement of the year :-) There is, again, a load of reasons why people write stuff that is actually different to how they feel and think, including:

  • to fit in with their peers, friends, whatever herd they are in, want to be in or be associated with
  • to give an impression that is favorable to people who may give them work
  • to give an impression that is favorable to capturing a partner
  • to give a false impression to someone they think will read their content
  • letting off steam, or some other private emotion
  • self-deluding themselves that this is how they are, feel
  • nakedly promoting their content, work, services
  • to get support of some kind

Call it fake, false, misleading, whatever. Sometimes it's innocent, sometimes with good intentions, sometimes bad. I've done, you've probably done it, everyone has probably done it. And it's exacerbated by media such as Twitter, which forces you to bleep out in 140 character maximum chunks.

But it's weird watching people you know, or knew, quite well doing it, especially when they do it frequently. Their online "persona" becomes markedly different to their Real Life persona, and sometimes you wonder if they realise this. I was struck by this a few weeks ago on Twitter, seeing two people I know (historically) well, who both tweet in a markedly different way to how they are when you meet them face to face. They connected, and tweet-conversed in a way in which they just would not in the atomic world; it was like watching two different people meet for the first time. They're still carrying on now, and it's just bizarre. And I wonder what will happen if/when they do meet in real life.

(As a side point, from oft-bad experience, the first rule of dating online is "meet the person in real life as soon as possible". The longer you drag it out online, the more artificial and problematic things will become. There's no strict timescale for this so don't email me if you've been in a happy online-only relationship for the last eight years [unless you want awkward questions back about the quality of your sex life], but when pushed I've advised others to meet someone in real life "within the month at the latest" if possible.)

That's thing two.

The last year in particular on Twitter, it seems that "all worlds" have collided. Self-centric networks of people, based on where I've lived previously, worked previously, socialised with, have bleeded into one. It's been weird, seeing people e.g. that I've...

  • socialised with, in Birmingham especially
  • academically connected with online
  • lived close to in the Outer Hebrides, or America, or Worcestershire
  • dated, or their current or ex-partners
  • worked with or for
  • never met, but have chatted to a lot online (over the last 20 years now) about all manner of things
  • know about in some way through mutual contacts or friends

...all seemingly connecting, at an increasing rate. There have been days where several times on Twitter I've been startled to see two people from utterly different, mutually exclusive, periods of my life connecting, following, retweeting, chatting.

This gives rise to a whole bundle of probably insecurities and "inner frowning", especially when turning up at social, and social media driven, events and seeing people from these different worlds chatting, or doing the same online. It sometimes brings a "who knows what" burden to the social conversation. And it's also strange, seeing the "degrees of separation" thing apparently converge to 1.

As an example that happened recently; when you turn up at a social media organised event and see your ex's boyfriend speaking to an ex work colleague of yours AND your cousin's wife, all oblivious that they know you in different ways, it's a bit weird. No. More than a bit. Freaky. And meant that I didn't want to participate. History overload.

That's thing three.

This last period of my life has involved fighting several battles. We all do it. Nothing different, special or unique there. Social media has in some ways helped, and in a few ways hindered (it's that "complicated" thing again).

But I'm turning to a different set of battles to fight now, some of which are my choice, and some of which are forced onto me. A different phase, period, whatever of life. But as social media has gradually become a significant part of how I communicate with many (most?) people, I have to use it differently, in much more efficient and positive ways I haven't figured out or got right yet.

That's thing four.

Those four things together mean my social media output has gradually ground to a halt. Which is a good thing; I need to rethink the whole damned personal communication and information thing again, properly this time (rather than previous "I'll use twitter a little differently" fudges), so it can be used better in the future (whatever "better" means). And stop getting into regular situations where I'm unfollowing lots of people, being startled by what I read, or disturbed by people connecting.

I also need to work out how to integrate communication, especially social media communication, properly with writing, in ways which are professional and that I'm happy with. I have a now-epic backlog of writing to do, or consider doing, from putting together an archive of the past two decades of words, to writing about time spent in interesting places, and people, family and relationships encountered.

Though not all of this positive, and if I wrote at this time about some of the personal and weird stuff from the last five years then a few people would be seriously upset and those aren't battles I currently want. For another day. But, after arguing out online about the ethics of writing personal stuff, the feeling was that honesty and accuracy do, in the end, trump positiveness. So, yes, for another day. It's one of the upsides of life experiences, good and bad; more things that happened to write about at some point.

But on the online front, the ways I've been using social media in particular has hindered, not helped, writing for a long while now. And there's a feeling that when I've gotten it (re-)figured out, I'm going to lose a large part, most, of my personal current online "audience", and gradually accumulate a different "audience".

Which may be a good thing.

I'm not "disillusioned" with the net, social media and all that. Certainly not; there are many, many, positive and useful benefits. Most of the people I now regard as good friends, not just acquaintances, I've initially met online or through some online happening or chain of events. As well as my fiancee, through a combination of social media and cheese (see the previous picture). Many - most - of the good and positive things I've done over the last two decades have been facilitated through something or other online.

But it's good to have a serious drawback at some point and have an objective, thorough and above all honest think about the online things that are personally hindering, negative, or obstructive, especially when life is taking some major directional changes.

Hence, if you know me and notice that I'm not actively tweeting or using other social media much for a while, then that's why. Though I'm still reading a subset of content and information sources that's useful for work, and on the recommendation of one of the few people I trust 100 percent, am signing up for a news filter which seems to have its act together better than most others.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Geocaching afternoon

A few words. I had to get some air, get out of the house, stretch the legs, calm the mind a little bit.

So, I went geocaching around Birmingham in the West Midlands, where I'm currently staying as the NHS patch me up. And I managed 9.5 miles, which after several weeks of being weak and unwell, was a bit of a surprise.

I looked for seven geocaches. Found four of them. Two more were in areas so full of non-geocachers they were pretty much impossible to get. The seventh one puzzles me, as it wasn't where it was supposed to be. I may try that one again.

A small cache (the terms micro and nano are used for caches of this size, or even smaller), magnetically attached to the inside of a metal plate:

Concealed cache

Logging a cache find through the app:


A cache hidden inside a hollow metal pole:

Hollow post cache

...and what's inside it:

Roll of finders

Another tiny cache, and the reel inside it for signing, next to a smartphone for comparison:

Micro cache

And another tiny cache, in the hand.

Micro cache

All good fun.

The public library and the forum

It is amusing when people use buzzwords to describe what they think is a new concept. And isn't. Gamification is one such word, the concept, theory and application of which goes back into the 90s and before.

Social media is another. There were services before Facebook, Twitter and the rest - well before. Forums, in particular, were one method for people to build up a profile, add content, discuss, and so forth. This short post discusses a recent public library campaign, and the use of such a forum - which has now been operating for over a decade - in the campaign.

Lochwinnoch is a commuter village, about 20 miles southwest of Glasgow in Renfrewshire, Scotland. I bought my first house and lived there, a decade or so ago. On the social side, I ended up moderating the forum on the village website, and was elected onto the Community Council until we moved to the Outer Hebrides. I'm still in contact with a fair few people there, and hang out on the forum under the moniker of Groundhog Day (long but irrelevant story).

It's a pretty town, with some good places to eat and drink, and a loch for doing sporty things in. It's worth a visit.

And if you visit, you'll find that it still has a public library.

Lochwinnoch community library

In 2010, Renfrewshire Council decided that they wanted to move the library - or rather, the contents of it. The problem is, those contents were to be reduced drastically to just a few paperbacks and moved into the village hall, evicting the after-school club that used the space. This forum thread was the first warning and debate about it.

As you can see, it was pretty muddled as to what was happening; the council also wanted to close The Annex, an old sports building that had been neglected for decades and was obviously in an advanced state of disrepair. Much of the arguing throughout the campaign took place on the town website forum.

This is a famous/notorious bear pit for debate, and for a town of the size of Lochwinnoch generates a huge amount of online traffic. Over the last decade, the forum has been a rather incident-happy place, reflecting the busy nature of the town. It's retrospectively moderated by a few people, mostly the senior couple (Barbara and Graeme) who set it up, with the usual courses of action for dealing with rogue poster being posts edited, deleted, then users banned. They do a good, and a fair, job of surgically removing clearly libelous material from the forum.

Though, as with all forums, it's impossible to keep everyone happy. Some people complain bitterly because they have been censored or blocked. And a vocal minority in Lochwinnoch who don't use it, hate it, often because it offers a means of mass dissemination and debate that they cannot control, or be the centre of. In rural communities, gossip and news acts often acts as a second currency, and forums disrupt this localised "soft information" economy. The owners/moderators of the forum and website have seen their fair share of legal threats - all of which have failed, due to a lack of substance in any of the allegations.

The forum is also notorious for attracting people who debate or argue under multiple identities for whatever reason, or for residents who hate each other and argue across many topics, over many years. Here's a good example. Ironically, it was due to the forum that the website won the "Best community website in Scotland" award so many times in the last decade - to the extent that the award was discontinued. A pity, as the annual ceremonies were great. The multiple forum personality thing was itself debated by, ironically, several residents using multiple personalities.

A campaign group sprang up pretty quickly, complete with a "Keep Lochwinnoch Library in the Library" facebook group. They also made a pretty good video which detailed the nonsensical economics behind the argument for moving the library, and some of the aspects of their campaign:

As mentioned in the video, even at an early stage, there was some uncertainty on the ownership of the building...

14 official threads for information were started on the forum. However, most of the debates, arguing and sockpuppeting took place on several other forum threads. And while some people stuck to the facts e.g. for example one pointing out that 22,000 visitors to the library broke down to almost 2000 a month, from a population of only 2500, most of the rest argued.

People, forum users and non-forum users, wrote letters and campaigned.

The response of local councillors to residents complaints about the library closing was ... not good. Not helped by councillors accidentally sending fruity emails to the wrong people. One of the local councillors returned to the village to do a presentation, putting the councils point of view with possibly the most selective bunch of statistics any of the audience had seen. This was quickly rebuffed by the local campaigners showing that the library was actually well used.

When the council indicated that they could maybe offload the library onto a community group, one such group put forward an alternative proposal, though not without controversy as to the feasibility. Alasdair Gray did a reading. A poster was made for downloading. Sockpuppeting and abuse degenerated (as it oft does) with legal threats against the forum owner - which (as usual)* did not come to anything. Another resident suggested withholding council tax. Lots of residents started taking out their maximum allocation of eight items. Letter writing to councillors became frenetic. The council held a "consultation" which was widely agreed to be a bit of a sham.

Meanwhile, the cash strapped council spent money elsewhere and tried to save money by replacing teachers with non-qualified people standing in front of a classroom. Seriously.

And, as per usual for online rural Scotland, the debate also became an arguing ground between Labour and SNP supporters.

And argumentative forum debates continued. Where it really took off were a number of residents arguing that the library should be moved, or closed, or - and this point was crucial - the existing library building being vacated. For some odd reason. "Numerous" anti-library residents joined the forum and argued against retaining the library building, often using the same style of writing, grammar or spelling mistakes.

SOTTS Sock Puppet Style! 65/365

Strange, that. As it turned out (there are ways that forum moderators can check this kind of thing) the number of real people arguing against the library staying in the library was in the single digits.

The low single digits.

In fact it seemed to be centred mostly (not totally) around one couple, who wouldn't attend any of the protest meetings (repeatedly saying "too busy") but who had the time to type several hundred posts. The couple ran a dog obedience training class and, as one of them posted on his facebook profile, were looking to expand into new premises, when such premises became available. Who knows why they wanted the library moved out of the library building. Guess we'll never know, as most of their forum accounts were deactivated, and the remainder have been silent for a while. The behavior of the anti-librarian posters was best summarised in this post (Mickey Recounts is an anagram and also a sockpuppeter).

How did the library campaign end? Sort of well. And sort of not. It turned out that one eagle eyed resident spotted that the council could not dispose of the building and kick the library out. Cut to June 2011, and the councillor who did the presentation with the dodgy statistics sends this letter to residents.

And the council reduced costs anyway, as they "retired" two of the three librarians, leaving just Margaret as the lone qualified librarian in the building.

To quote Lesley from one of the forum threads:
I think that finally we can draw a line under the library issue now. We have 2 Labour and 1 SNP councillors and a council with a Labour majority. The Labour candidates said it was in their manifesto to leave our library where it is and even the SNP said at the meeting called by Lochinnoch Elderly Forum that they would not revisit the issue and the library would remain in the library building.

The whole thing was unnecessary, though. And I don't believe for a second that it's truly or permanently over. When the council next needs to reduce its budgetary spend - something that comes up every year - it's quite possible that funding for books, for the last remaining member of staff, for opening hours, will be squeezed. That's part of the problem with library campaigning; even if you win, it's often a stay of execution. If you do manage to save your local public library, you have to use it and make sure it isn't eventually killed, more slowly, in death by a thousand cuts.

Why is this a strange case? Because the case for moving the library was so badly made as to be bogus. And the real reason for the move was never clear. It's possible that a developer had their eye on the library building and would have paid the council well for it. Or a business wanted it for their own purpose. Or some other reason, as the official one - of saving council money - was just false.

If you're in Lochwinnoch, drop in to the library. It's really nice inside; lots of things to browse; there are PCs for use, and some interesting local history material. Long may it stay open, be used, and be well used at that.

* - There have been several legal threats against the forum over the last decade, and it's gotten to the point where the website maintainers - who do this for the community without payment - are bored with silly and empty threats. None have been credible. All have been from people aggrieved that someone has posted something they don't agree with. Everyone has options; agree with something, disagree with something, ignore it, or start their own blog or forum.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Marking funding proposals is fun

No, I'm serious. An expansion of tweets from earlier in the day.

I've been assessing/marking/commenting on funding proposals from various UK funding bodies for the past decade or so, most being for programmes concerning digital games, or virtual worlds, in education. Perhaps I'm a little mad, but I find it really enjoyable.

There's several benefits to marking proposals. It's satisfying. You get to see what direction the field is moving in. References and citations in proposals are often of interest. And, so long as you don't go off on an ego or power trip, then you can have a positive influence over what projects come about, and how funding is allocated.

On that last point - with marking comes a great responsibility. What you comment and mark will directly affect the lives of a lot of people. What they do. What they earn. What they produce. A particular rung on their career ladders. If you aren't comfortable with this, or you have problems with bias, favoritism or grudges, then simply don't mark funding proposals.

It's also interesting to see how funding proposal writers cope with emerging concepts, paradigms, and buzzwords. Take the buzzword "gamification", which is a mangled business speak word referencing an old concept (people have been trying to turn things into games, or add game elements to non-game tasks or systems, for many years). In the last batch of funding proposals I assessed*, approaches included:

  • Enthusiastically using the word.
  • Cynically using the word, and dissecting it.
  • Impartially using the word, and putting it into a historical context.
  • Not mentioning the word altogether.

I should stress there's no right or wrong approach here.

Money Talks

And there's a few disadvantages, to marking funding proposals. It's rarely paid work. The systems of assessment have gotten gradually more complex and fiddly over the years, and sometimes you feel like a robotic checklist ticker. The variation in proposal quality for the same call can be unnerving. A *lot* of reading is involved, and you have to take it all in. Some funding bodies give you little time to do a good, reflective, job. You can't tweet or discuss openly anything you've read. And very occasionally (has happened to me), you will come across someone slagging off your previous work in their proposal - and because of the confidentiality process, you can't call them out on it, ever.

Some tips for proposal writers

I can't give specific examples but here's a few things that come up over and over.

1. And the most important. Ask for funding for the stuff the funding brief or circular says you can have. Not what you think you should have. It's difficult to believe at times, but some academics/institutions still do submit proposals that don't make it past the first stage because of this.

2. Yes, these are competitive times, but if you promise the earth on a shoestring budget to try and be the "best value for money" bid, you may get marked down or out as being unrealistic.

3. There is rarely any justification for the director to present the findings of your project in another continent, so don't include eye-watering expenses so he can do so, even if he has told you to include them. Dissemination nowadays can be a cheap activity. Should be a cheap activity.

4. Spell check. Grammar check. Check your budget adds up. Get someone else to check the whole thing before it is despatched. If it's for a UK funding body, use UK language, not US language.

5. Justify, justify, justify. The ideal funding proposal outlines something new and unique, which otherwise wouldn't be funded, and is argued convincingly with reference to other works.

6. Humor very rarely works in funding proposals (often in real life) and I'm puzzled by what appears to be a recent trend in this. Did someone influential recently say something about winning markers over in this way? I just find it odd - especially as most funding proposal circulars put a strict word or page limit on what you can submit. Just avoid this.

7. Don't repeat yourself. See previous point about page limit.

8. Yes, yes, interesting and well argued. But what exactly will your project have produced by the end of its funding. If it isn't clear by the time the whole funding proposal has been read, then there's a problem.

9. Don't resubmit a failed proposal from a previous year with just a few things changed. Veteran proposal markers will spot this. In relatively small academic fields, we may even remember the previous failed proposal. Resubmits rarely read well, even if a few of them do get funding.

10. Please label graphs and charts clearly. There seems to be some kind of persistent problem with this in UK Higher Education proposals, and more than once have puzzled "so what do these units mean?" or even "what units are they altogether?"

Anyway, no funding body is going to phone you out of the blue and say "We've just found a load of money. Have it to spend on your pet project idea." So, if you do have an idea, get writing.

(* checked with funding body and they are happy with this post)

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Why I unfollowed you on Twitter

I've unfollowed a fair few people on Twitter over the last month. A couple of these have noticed and asked "Why?", which is always an amusing question - asking someone why they've unfollowed you on a social media system runs the risk of getting a negative, personal or hurtful response back.

My own number of followers goes up and down daily; so be it. Some people probably find my tweets boring, irrelevant, offensive, crude, too frequent, politically incorrect or different to their own. Whatevs. Getting obsessed, or worried, about being unfollowed is unhealthy - and, pointless. Social media connections are simply not the same as friendship connections. Following someone on e.g. twitter is merely stating "I wish to receive your tweets automatically in my tweet feed". It does not mean "I now regard you as a friend" or "I like you unconditionally" or "I have more respect for what you say than all of the people who I do not follow".

This is illustrated by the reasons why I chose to unfollow some people. Non of these were agonisingly long decisions; there simply is not the time to have a long think about whether to follow someone, or not follow them, or to unfollow them. If you do invest lots of time in that activity, you need to seriously have a hard and honest look at how you spend your very finite time. Some of the people I've unfollowed I still regard as friends in the real world. And some of the people I still follow I don't regard as a friend(*), and possibly don't even like, or would avoid in the real world. In some cases - certainly not all cases - I'm following you on twitter because your tweets are useful, but I certainly don't want to go out for a curry with you.


To ram this point bluntly home; see this graphic from xkcd.org. If this happened to you - and at some point in your life you will become seriously ill or die - then do you want a large chunk of the "before the bad time" episode of your life timeline to just be "considered in great details who to follow, or unfollow, on social media networks."?

Anyway; why I unfollowed some people lately:

  1. You tweet-ranted about the "evils of advertising" in exaggerated detail. Then, straight afterwards, tweeted every time someone bought a copy of your fucking book. (Not a book about sex; it was just deeply annoying to see the same tweet over and over). Strike out for hypocrisy.
  2. You bitched about your ex, openly, in public, in intimate gynecological detail. Whether he or she was a good person or a bad person, I didn't want to know these details. They're probably false anyway as you obviously hate them. Also - any future partner who comes across your tweets will run a mile away.
  3. You made unamusing jokes about rape, sexual abuse or domestic violence. Unacceptable; to me, anyway. One of the downsides of twitter in particular is "trending topics", where you become aware that you're sharing the same social network with a lot of people who have a very different mindset to your own. That's one thing, but when people who you had respect for, and thought were, well, better than that start picking up on the very dodgy hashtags and trends, it's enormously disappointing. Not sure I want to spend time with you in real life, let alone on a social network.
  4. 92 tweets in one day (yes, counted them) was too much, blocked out much other stuff from my tweet stream. While tweeting a conference is good and often useful, tweeting literally every sentence a speaker said: not good.
  5. "The library is dead." Oh just fuck off.
  6. "This [bad thing done by right wing politicians] disgusts me." Here's the thing. I agreed with most, possibly all, of your tweets. But with a 24/7 avalanche of news, and much of it bad things done by conservative politicians in the US and the UK, I know what you're going to say, and seeing many tweets per day - or hour - of the same ilk means I ignore them and miss your occasionally useful tweets. In other words; your tweets are completely predictable, so it's a waste of time reading them.
  7. [When no football on TV] "Sport A is boring. Sport B is boring. Sport C is boring. Sport XYZ is boring." [When football on TV] "Oh great shot. Nearly scored. Another shot. Oh he misses." Yadda yadda yadda. There's a peculiarity with football in particular that more than a few fans seem remarkably and vocally intolerant of everything that is not football. I don't like it for many reasons (who benefits financially, and the violent culture which surrounds it, being two) but I accept that many do like it. Tweet that you find football boring, however, when there's a football match on and my god the reaction is often extreme and just bizarre. Even from above average intelligent people who you mutually follow, and seem to undergo a 90 minute temporary lobotomy when the match starts.
  8. "I've donated to [worthy cause]. And so should you." Do not tell me how I should spend my money. Do not try and guilt-trip me. At best, come up with a dispassionate reason. You glowing in self-worthiness of donating is not a reason, irrelevant of the cause.
  9. "Here's my latest blog post:" (nothing till next day) "Here's my latest blog post:" (nothing till next day) "Here's my latest...". One I am guilty of myself, and I will probably hypocritically do by tweeting this post as soon as it's finished and live. If you do this, at least try and tweet other things, rather than use twitter solely for self-promotion.
  10. "I've changed my avatar to protest [cause x]; change yours too". "My twitter count for this week is up 3 followers, 14 retweets, 7 being an asshat, whatever these automated things vomit out." "My klout score today is 73.3% pretentious douchebag." "I have joined InstaHipstaGram. Follow this link to join." One or two automated messages; okay. A regular flow of them, and they're all vacuous; bye.
The common thread? To save time, and get a higher quality over quantity information feed from the collective herd of twitter.

Off the top of my head, that's just my personal list of reasons why I've unfollowed some people in the last month or two. Your list will be different. Each to their own. Some people use filters to block out hashtags, or people who talk about certain things, but after some experimenting, it's yet more time spent/lost on fiddling about with people and what they say.

(*) insecure people: please don't DM me with "Did you mean me when you typed that?" :-)