Back to Tiree – and being ‘half-time’

I’m on the ferry on the way back to Tiree. It’s been 2 months since I was home and then only one long weekend since the end of August, so it seems both familiar and strange sitting on the Calmac ferry again as it makes its way out of Oban.

Last autumn I had a similar long stay away, then mostly in the camper van near the University as I was still working full time at Lancaster. This year I am working half time at Lancaster, but also half-time for Talis and for the first three months at Talis spending half my time on site at the Talis offices in Birmingham. After that I’ll be doing my Talis job based from home, only going down more occasionally, so after Christmas will get more time at home.

Instead of my camper van I’ve been staying a lot at the ‘Talis house’, a house near Solihull for small off-site meetings and for those like me who live a long way away from Talis’ Birmingham offices (others live in France, Italy, and the USA). It was rather claustrophobic last autumn spending most of my weekends in my office at Lancaster, so having Talis house as a base has been good. However, I do miss that snug feeling in the back of the camper van hunkering under the bedclothes, with a take-away on my knees and watching a DVD, while the van rocked in time to the whistling wind outside.

Working half time for Talis has also imposed a discipline on my time working in my University role. Since last Christmas I have been formally working half time at Lancaster (certainly getting half pay!), but as those who work in the universities know, it is hard to put a limit on things. The idea was that this meant I would get half my time to do ‘my stuff’, research and writing. Of course I knew cutting my old 80-hour weeks down to 20 or even 40 would not happen, but I would at least get a little more time than I have become used to.

One of the half expected and half surprising things about the shift to half-time working for the University last January was the way other people dealt with it.

I guess for years I have implicitly ‘educated’ both fellow academics and students in their expectations; whenever there was something to be done, a report to read or write, I would say things like “ah this weekend I’ve already got this other task to do, but I’ll do it the next weekend” — basically assuming that weekends and evenings, strictly the unpaid times, were the times when things happened. After a bit students would get used to giving me things on Friday in the expectation that I would then have time to do it.

When I shifted to half time people would extend this notion and say “ah now you have more time you can do X”: reviews, reading student work, etc. As I said this was half expected, I had the feeling I would need to re-educate people. However, what surprised me was not that people acted this way, but that they said it, and even wrote it in emails. I would have thought that when they saw it explicitly in front of them they would think, “oh no Alan now has less time for these things”, but no; it is amazing how little we notice of what we say and do.

Anyway now things are different. Instead of it being ‘my time’ that my academic life intruded into, it is now Talis’ time and this is something others can respect more, and I guess I also respect more than my own time.

So how is it working — really being a half-time academic?

In fact of course, I still work most weekends and long days, so I have somewhat more than a full-time week of effort, so I am not yet down to 20 hours of university work, but certainly a lot less time then when I was simply trying to protect my own (unpaid!) time.

In January when I shifted to half-time, I said I’d do a day a week while at home effectively eating nearly half of my ‘half time’, meaning I was expecting to spend about 60 days a year away from home whether on site in Lancaster or travelling. In fact during this Autumn alone, by Christmas I will have spent 53 days either on site in Lancaster or travelling on University business, that is more than 2/3 of the formal 75 working days in the period and nearly all my annual ‘not at home’ Lancs working days! This doesn’t seem to add up given 1/2 time spent in B’ham, but of course the 53 days of Lancaster time includes many weekends away while travelling that I wasn’t used to counting when a ‘full time’ academic.

I clearly need to cut this down further! However, even now, being stricter than I was with ‘my time’, cracks are beginning to show. I can see students getting unhappy as it takes me longer to find time to read things they have written, and colleagues patiently realising that email to me is getting even less reliable. So much of the life of an academic depends on things done in ‘extra time’ whether weekends or evenings, or in my case earlier in the year unpaid time; when you cut back on that things simply do not happen.

From Christmas I will not have the imposed discipline of days at the offices at Talis, so will need to maintain this more for myself. However, the last few months have helped and I will certainly keep careful records to make sure Talis gets its fair share of my time and that the University does not consume so much of my ‘own’ time as rest is also part of working well.

Even though I have effectively ‘used up’ most of my university on-site/travelling days, I will of course not say “no more until next September’ (!), but will at least try to control it more. And I will also try to let some of the more balanced view of work and life I am learning at Talis influence my attitudes at the University.

And no, I won’t be reading email this evening.

Qualification vs unlimited education

In “Adrift in Caledonia“, Nick Thorpe is in the Shetland Isles speaking to Stuart Hill (aka ‘Captain Calamity’).  Stuart says:

“What does qualification mean? … Grammatically, a qualification limits the meaning of a sentence. And that’s what qualifications seem to do to people. When you become a lawyer it becomes impossible to think of yourself outside that definition. The whole of the education system is designed to fit people into employment, into the system. It’s not designed to realise their full creativity.”

Now Stuart may be being slightly cynical and maybe the ‘whole of education system’ is not like that, but sadly the general thrust often seems so.

Indeed I recently tweeted a link to @fmeawad‘s post “Don’t be Shy to #fail” as it echoed my own long standing worries (see “abject failures“) that we have a system that encourages students to make early, virtually unchangeable, choices about academic or career choices, and then systematically tell them how badly they do at it. Instead the whole purpose of education should be to enable people to discover their strengths and their purposes and help them to excel in those things, which are close to their heart and build on their abilities.  And this may involve ‘failures’ along the way and may mean shifting areas and directions.

At a university level the very idea behind the name ‘university’ was the bringing together of disparate scholars.  In “The Rise and Progress of  Universities” (Chapter 2. What is a University?, 1854) John Henry Newman (Cardinal Newman, recently beatified) wrote:

“IF I were asked to describe as briefly and popularly as I could, what a University was, I should draw my answer from its ancient designation of a Studium Generale, or “School of Universal Learning.” This description implies the assemblage of strangers from all parts in one spot;—from all parts; else, how will you find professors and students for every department of knowledge? and in one spot; else, how can there be any school at all? Accordingly, in its simple and rudimental form, it is a school of knowledge of every kind, consisting of teachers and learners from every quarter. Many things are requisite to complete and satisfy the idea embodied in this description; but such as this a University seems to be in its essence, a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse, through a wide extent of country.”

Note the emphasis on having representatives of many fields of knowledge ‘in one spot’: the meeting and exchange, the flow across disciplines, and yet is this the experience of many students?  In the Scottish university system, students are encouraged to study a range of subjects early on, and then specialise later; however, this is as part of a four year undergraduate programme that starts at 17.  At Lancaster there is an element of this with students studying three subjects in their first year, but the three year degree programmes (normally starting at 18) means that for computing courses we now encourage students to take 2/3 of that first year in computing in order to lay sufficient ground to cover material in the rest of their course.  In most UK Universities there is less choice.

However, to be fair, the fault here is not simply that of university teaching and curricula; students seem less and less willing to take a wider view of their studies, indeed unwilling to consider anything that is not going to be marked for final assessment.  A five year old is not like this, and I assume this student resistance is the result of so many years in school, assessed and assessed since they are tiny; one of the reasons Fiona and I opted to home educate our own children (a right that seems often under threat, see “home education – let parents alone!“).  In fact, in the past there was greater degree of cross-curricula activity in British schools, but this was made far more difficult by the combination of the National Curriculum prescribing content,  SATs used for ‘ranking’ schools, and increasingly intrusive ‘quality’ and targets bureaucracy introduced from the 1980s onwards.

Paradoxically, once a student has chosen a particular discipline, we often then force a particular form of breadth within it.  Sometimes this is driven by external bodies, such as the BPA, which largely determines the curriculum in psychology courses across the UK.  However, we also do it within university departments as we determine what for us is considered a suitable spread of studies, and then forcing students into it no matter what their leanings and inclinations, and despite the fact that similar institutions may have completely different curricula.  So, when a student ‘fails’ a module they must retake the topic on which they are clearly struggling in order to scrape a pass or else ‘fail’ the entire course.  Instead surely we should use this this as an indication of aptitude and maybe instead allow students to take alternative modules in areas of strength.

Several colleagues at Talis are very interested in the Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU), which is attempting to create a much more student-led experience. I would guess that Stuart Hill might have greater sympathy with this endeavour, than with the traditional education system.  Personally, I have my doubts as to whether being virtually / digitally ‘in one spot‘ is the same as actually being co-present (but the OU manage), and whether being totally student-led looses the essence of scholarship, teaching1 and mentoring, which seems the essence of what a university should be. However, P2PU and similar forms of open education (such as the Khan Academy)  pose a serious intellectual challenge to the current academic system: Can we switch the balance back from assessment to education?  Can we enable students to find their true potential wherever it lies?

  1. Although ‘teaching’ is almost a dirty word now-a-days, perhaps I should write ‘facilitating learning’![back]

wisdom of the crowds goes to court

Expert witnesses often testify in court cases whether on DNA evidence, IT security or blood splatter patterns.  However, in the days of Web 2.0 who is the ‘expert’ witness?  Would then true Web 2.0 court submit evidence to public comments, maybe, like the Viking Thing or Wild West lynch mob, a vote of the masses using Facebook ‘Like’ could determine guilt or innocence.

However, it will be a conventional judge, not the justice of social networks, who will adjudicate if the hoteliers threatening to sue TripAdvisor1 do indeed bring the case to court. When TripAdvisor seeks to defend its case, they will not rely on crowd-sourced legal opinions, but lawyers whose advice is trusted because they are trained, examined and experienced and who are held responsible for their advice.  What is at stake is precisely the fact that TripAdvisor’s own site has none of these characteristics.

This may well, like the Shetland newspaper case in the 1990s2, become a critical precedent for many crowd-sourced sites and so is something we should all be watching.

Unlike Wikipedia or legal advice itself, ‘expertise’ is not the key issue in the case of TripAdvisior: every hotel guest is in a way the best expert as to their own experience.  However, how is the reader to know that the reviews posted are really by disgruntled guests rather than business rivals?  In science we are expected to declare sources of research funding, so that the reader can make judgements on the reliability of evidence funded by the tobacco or oil industry or indeed the burgeoning renewables sector.  Those who flout these conventions and rules may expect their papers to be withdrawn and their careers to flounder.  Similarly if I make a defamatory public statement about friend, colleague or public figure, then not only can the reliability of my words be determined by my own reputation for trustworthiness, but if my words turn out to be knowingly or culpably false and damaging then I can be sued for libel.   In the case of TripAdvisor there are none of the checks and balances of science or the law and yet the impact on individual hoteliers can make or break their business.    Who is responsible for damage caused by any untrue or malicious reviews posted on the site: the anonymous ‘crowd’ or TripAdvisor?

Of course users of review sites are not stupid, they know (or do they) that anonymous reviews should be taken with a pinch of salt.  My guess is that a crucial aspect of the case may be the extent to which TripAdvisor itself appears to lend credence to the reviews it publishes.  Indeed every page of TripAdvisior is headed with their strap line “World’s most trusted travel advice™”.

At the top of the home page there is also the phrase “Find Hotels Travelers Trust” and further down, “Whether you prefer worldwide hotel chains or cozy boutique hotels, you’ll find real hotel reviews you can trust at TripAdvisor“.  The former arguably puts the issue of trust back to the reviewers, but the latter is definitely TripAdvisor asserting to the trustworthiness of the reviews.

I think if I were in TripAdvisor I would be worried!

Issues of trust and reliability, provenance and responsibility are also going to be an important strand of the work I’ll be part of myself  at Talis: how do we assess the authority of crowd-sourced material, how do we convey to users the level of reliability of the information they view, especially if it is ‘mashed’ from different sources, how do we track the provenance of information in order to be able to do this?   Talis is interested because as a major provider and facilitator of open data, the reliability of the information it and its clients provide is a crucial part of that information — unreliable information is not information!

However, these issues are critical for everyone involved in the new web; if those of us engaged in research and practice in IT do not address these key problems then the courts will.

  1. see The Independent, “Hoteliers to take their revenge on TripAdvisor’s critiques in court“, Saturday 11th Sept. 2010[back]
  2. The case around 1996/1997 involved the Shetland Times obtaining a copyright against ‘deep linking’ by the rival Shetland News, that is links directly to news stories bypassing the Shetland News home page.  This was widely reported at the time and became an important case in Internet law: see, for example, Nov 1996 BBC News story or article.  The out of court settlement allowed the deep linking so long as the link was clearly acknowledged.  However, while the settlement was sensible, the uncertainty left by the case pervaded the industry for years, leading to some sites abandoning link pages, or only linking after obtaining explicit permissions, thus stifling the link-economy of the web. [back]

endings and beginnings: cycling, HR and Talis

It is the end of the summer, the September rush starts (actually at the end of August) and on Friday I’ll be setting off on the ferry and be away from home for all of September and October 🙁  Of course I didn’t manage to accomplish as much as I wanted over the summer, and didn’t get away on holiday … except of course living next to the sea is sort of like holiday every day!  However, I did take some time off when Miriam visited, joining her on cycle rides to start her training for her Kenyan challenge — neither of us had been on a bike for 10 years!  Also this last weekend saw the world come to Tiree when a group of asylum seekers and refugees from the St Augustine Centre in Halifax visited the Baptist Church here — kite making, songs from Zimbabwe and loads of smiling faces.

In September I also hand over departmental personnel duty (good luck Keith :-)).  I’d taken on the HR role before my switch to part-time at the University, and so most of it stayed with me through the year 🙁 (Note, if you ever switch to part-time, better to do so before duties are arranged!). Not sorry to see it go, the people bit is fine, but so much paper filling!

… and beginnings … in September (next week!) I also start to work part-time with Talis.  Talis is a remarkable story.  A library information systems company that re-invented itself as a Semantic Web company and now, amongst other things, powering the Linked Data at

I’ve known Talis as a company from its pre-SemWeb days when aQtive did some development for them as part of our bid to survive the crash.   aQtive did in the end die, but Talis had stronger foundations and has thrived1.  In the years afterwards two ex-aQtive folk, Justin and Nad, went to Talis and for the past couple of years I have also been on the external advisory group for their SemWeb Platform.  So I will be joining old friends as well as being part of an exciting enterprise.

  1. Libraries literally need very strong foundations.  I heard of one university library that had to be left half empty because the architect had forgotten to take account of the weight of books.  As the shelves filled the whole building began to sink into the ground.[back]

On the edge: universities bureacratised to death?

Just took a quick peek at the new JISC report “Edgeless University: why higher education must embrace technology” prompted by a blog about it by Sarah Bartlett at Talis.

The report is set in the context of both an increasing number of overseas students, attracted by the UK’s educational reputation, and also the desire for widening access to universities.  I am not convinced by the idea that technology is necessarily the way to go for either of these goals as it is just so much harder and more expensive to produce good quality learning materials without massive economies of scale (as the OU has).  Also the report seems to mix up open access to research outputs and open access to learning.

However, it was not these issues, that caught my eye, but a quote by Thomas Kealey vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham,  the UKs only private university.  For three years Buckingham has come top of UK student satisfaction surveys, and Kealey says:

This is the third year that we’ve come top because we are the only university in Britain that focuses on the student rather than on government or regulatory targets. (Edgeless University, p. 21)

Of course, those in the relevant departments of government would say that the regulations and targets are inteded to deliver education quality, but as so often this centralising of control, (started paradoxically in the UK during the Thatcher years), serves instead to constrain real quality that comes from people not rules.

In 1992 we saw the merging of the polytechnic and university sectors in the UK.  As well as diffferences in level of education, the former were tradtionally under the auspices of local goverment, whereas the latter were independent educational isntitutions. Those in the ex-polytechnic sector hoped to emulate the levels of attaiment and ethos of the older universities.  Instead, in recent years the whole sector seems to have been dragged down into a bureacratic mire where paper trails take precidence over students and scholarship.

Obviously private institutions, as  Kealey suggests, can escape this, but I hope that current and future government can have the foresight and humility to let go some of this centralised control, or risk destroying the very system it wishes to grow.

making life easier – quick filing in visible folders

It is one of those things that has bugged me for years … and if it was right I would probably not even notice it was there – such is the nature of good design, but …  when I am saving a file from an application and I already have a folder window open, why is it not easier to select the open folder as the destination.

A scenario: I have just been writing a reference for a student and have a folder for the references open on my desktop. I select “Save As …” from the Word menu and get a file selection dialogue, but I have to navigate through my hard disk to find the folder even though I can see it right in front of me (and I have over 11000 folders, so it does get annoying).

The solution to this is easy, some sort of virtual folder at the top level of the file tree labelled “Open Folders …” that contains a list of the curently open folder windows in the finder.  Indeed for years I instinctively clicked on the ‘Desktop’ folder expecting this to contain the open windows, but of course this just refers to the various aliases and files permamently on the desktop background, not the open windows I can see in front of me.

In fact as Mac OSX is built on top of UNIX there is an easy very UNIX-ish fix (or maybe hack), the Finder could simply maintain an actual folder (probably on the desktop) called “Finder Folders” and add aliases to folders as you navigate.  Although less in the spirit of Windows, this would certainly be possible there too and of course any of the LINUX based systems.  … so OS developers out there “fix it”, it is easy.

So why is it that this is a persistent and annoying problem and has an easy fix, and yet is still there in every system I have used after 30 years of windowing systems?

First, it is annoying and persistent, but does not stop you getting things done, it is about efficiency but not a ‘bug’ … and system designers love to say, “but it can do X”, and then send flying fingers over the keyboard to show you just how.  So it gets overshadowed by bigger issues and never appears in bug lists – and even though it has annoyed me for years, no, I have never sent a bug report to Apple either.

Second it is only a problem when you have sufficient files.  This means it is unlikely to be encountered during normal user testing.  There are a class of problems like this and ‘expert slips’1, that require very long term use before they become apparent.  Rigorous user testing is not sufficient to produse usable systems. To be fair many people have a relatively small number of files and folders (often just one enormous “My Documents” folder!), but at a time when PCs ship with hundreds of giga-bytes of disk it does seem slighty odd that so much software fails either in terms of user interface (as in this case) or in terms of functionality (Spotlight is seriously challenged by my disk) when you actually use the space!

Finally, and I think the real reason, is in the implementation architecture.  For all sorts of good software engineering reasons, the functional separation between applications is very strong.  Typically the only way they ‘talk’ is through cut-and-paste or drag-and-drop, with occasional scripting for real experts. In most windowing environments the ‘application’ that lets you navigate files (Finder on the Mac, File Explorer in Windows) is just another application like all the rest.  From a system point of view, the file selection dialogue is part of the lower level toolkit and has no link to the particular application called ‘Finder’.  However, to me as a user, the Finder is special; it appears to me (and I am sure most) as ‘the computer’ and certainly part of the ‘desktop’.  Implementation architecture has a major interface effect.

But even if the Finder is ‘just another application’, the same holds for all applications.  As a user I see them all and if I have selected a font in one application why is it not easier to select the same font in another?  In the semantic web world there is an increasing move towards open data / linked data / web of data2, all about moving data out of application silos.  However, this usually refers to persistent data more like the file system of the PC … which actually is shared, at least physically, between applications; what is also needed is that some of the ephemeral state of interaction is also shared on a moment-to-moment basis.

Maybe this will emerge anyway with increasing numbers of micro-applications such as widgets … although if anything they often sit in silos as much as larger applications, just smaller silos.  In fact, I think the opposite is true, micro-applications and desktop mash-ups require us to understand better and develop just these ways to allow applications to ‘open up’, so that they can see what the user sees.

  1. see “Causing Trouble with Buttons” for how Steve Brewster and I once forced infrequent expert slips to happen often enough to be user testable[back]
  2. For example the Web of Data Practitioners Days I blogged about a couple of months back and the core vision of Talis Platform that I’m on the advisory board of.[back]

digging ourselves back from the Semantic Web mire

Discussions on the Talis Platform Advisory Group prompted me to look at some of the APIs of new Semantic-Web-like services such as Freebase1.

Freebase is interesting as its underlying representation is graph/relationship based like RDF, but its Metaweb Query Language (MQL) uses JSON which is a more programming-like whole and parts representation with arrays and slots. Facebook’s new Data Store API also has objects and associations, but does not use RDF or other obvious web technologies.

So the question is – if the closest things to Semantic Web apps on the internet don’t use SemWeb techology like RDF, SPARQL etc. … are these SemWeb techologies fit for purpose or indeed useful at all?

I think the answer is that (i) partly they are not fit for purpose – caught in a backwater by their history, but (ii) that is like all things and they are what we have got, and (iii) we can use some of the tools of computing to make them work …

Continue reading

  1. listen to Talis’ pod cast interview with Jamie Taylor Freebase’s ‘Minister of Information’ (sic).[back]