Thursday, 31 May 2007

Facebook: Social Networking grows up?

I'm not a great fan of the more talky social networking systems. By these, I mean services where you create a presence, link in friends, and add various media, join online interest groups and the like.

MySpace for me is a case in point. It seems to have been created in the University for the Aesthetically Challenged, possesses unintuitive navigation, and requires the volume to be turned down to avoid automatic, and usually very loud, music. Social networking should be a pleasant experience. I should not have to squint to avoid blood red flashing backgrounds while desperately hunting for wherever the various messaging functions have been moved to. I've also been propositioned by weirdo strangers on MySpace, who were either very keen, very desperate, or didn't note first where exactly I lived and the cost of the air fare here.

So it's not my cup of darjeeling. Maybe if I was a teenager - or does thinking that give me a snobby "Just for the kids, not for the grown-ups" mentality?

But, along comes Facebook...


Originally, facebook in the UK was a closed system, known for being mainly used by toffs at posh colleges to leave "Yah! Daddy has a marquee at Henley Regatta this weekend - super!!" type messages on. At some point more recently, the system was opened up so anyone could join.

In the US in particular, Facebook is big. From the Wikipedia entry:

"As of February 2007, the website had the largest number of registered users among college-focused sites with over 25 million members worldwide (also from non- collegiate networks). Facebook is the eighteenth most visited site throughout the world, and is the number one site for photos in the United States, ahead of public sites such as Flickr, with over 8.5 million photos uploaded daily. It is also the sixth most visited site in the United States."

I'd never given Facebook a thought until last week, when I got two friend requests. One was from a local with virtually no listed friends, the other from a Norwegian who seems to have listed half the people in her country.

So, I joined, accepted the requests, and sent out a few more to various people from my present and past.

Less than a week later, there are 56 people linked to my Facebook profile. This I was not expecting. So, time to experiment more.

Things I like about Facebook so far:

  • Applications - additional functions that you can add on at will. These remind me of Wordpress plugins; they offer a wide range of additional functionality, are of variable quality and robustness, and variable use. For example, I've got my most recent Flickr pictures mashed-up at the bottom of my Facebook page, and there's a log of forthcoming trips and events on there where I'll hook up with other Facebook folk.

  • Clear, crisp and readable. So not MySpace.

  • No spam and no stalkers. So far.

  • It's easy to add as little or much information as you want. Some chums have stuck loads of stuff on their profiles  whereas some of my other colleagues, peers and whoever have the minimum amount.

  • Easy to alter what information is public, and what is private.

  • It's helped a lot to remind me of where I've been (work wise) and who else was there, mainly in the seven universities I've either studied, researched or worked in.

  • Through looking at their profiles, I've discovered some social stuff that's of interest when I meet up with some folk later this year.


But above all I like the fact that it's full of "my kind of people" and "my kind of conversation". Within this first week I'm already in negotiation with another Facebook user over potential paid work, and I've had an invite to speak at an event. Private messages, and public wall writings, are readable and positive. I have exchanged short messages, had useful conversations, and longer dialogues. Conversation is so not YouTube.

"Friends of friends" are strangely fascinating. I wasn't aware of quite a few mutual friends until I had a gander through other people's lists. Out of my current 56, one person (Brian) has 12 mutual friends. I'm not sure what this means - if anything - apart from Brian possibly being my evil twin?

Most surprisingly of all is that 10 of my 56 are local people. This has never happened before. Residents of the Outer Hebrides are extremely reserved when it comes to leaving a named (as opposed to hidden or anonymous) online footprint. Most households out here are online (for getting goods it's pretty much a necessity) so this lack of named online interaction is probably a combination of the heavily related population, the utter viciousness of local politics [example 1] [example 2] and the fact that many residents are employed by a really small number of inter-dependant organisations.


Consequently, many adults here think you have to be careful - really careful - what you say. And it's often best to keep a low profile [nb it is notable that the kids here have the totally opposite view, research and parental anecdote showing that an extroadinarily high proportion use social network systems such as Bebo]. So it comes as a surprise that 10 locals have quickly signed up to be "Facebook" friends.

Looking at what the service offers; Facebook has also completely absorbed the functionality of quite a few other applications, such as Twitter. There's a status bar on every Facebook page that you can update with what you are doing (microblogging?) e.g. "Taking the dog for a walk" or "Microwaving my lunch" or anything else dull, mundane or dubious. Other web services, such as Friend of a Friend, have overlaps with the wider concept and functionality of Facebook.

Facebook as an alternative "desktop"? Not by a long way yet, but it's on the way. With applications such as voice talk, video conferencing, event organising, diary upkeep, calendar maintenance and many more, Facebook is a black hole, sucking in the functionality of other "Web 2.0" applications. How many of these Facebook will impact on we'll have to see; the crunch for them will be to sustain the growth in people signing up, especially amongst casual or non-users of social networks.

It isn't all good news. Facebook need revenue, so we have to put up with adverts. The "networks" function is a bit rubbish, covering mainly large cities (and the network for the Outer Hebrides is wrong as it reverts to Glasgow). The search function needs refinement and extra filtering options (try searching for a friend with a common name). Some people have concerns about the privacy and data collection methods of Facebook and similar services. It's yet another mailbox to check, along with my email, Flickr mail, and several other mail services I've probably forgotten about.


But so far, the usefulness and interest outweighs these cautions. Light bulbs have been going off in my mind regarding useful applications of Facebook. Librarians appear to be on it in strength (a reliable sign that there's something of deeper interest going on). The fact that other people can and are creating additional functionality also bodes well. Hmmmmmmmm. More investigation definitely needed, and I suspect I'm not the only one thinking of working up funding proposals regarding the application of Facebook to education, teaching and learning. Though with that many users to date, I guess (I haven't looked yet) that there's already been some research in this area.

Finally, maybe, there is now a social networking site that:

  1. is based around people and their real social networks

  2. looks quite good

  3. isn't full of inane people spouting inane conversation

  4. is very easy to use and configure

  5. has a growing number of add-ons, some with potential educational uses

  6. is expanding in terms of who is using it

p.s. my own profile on Facebook is here, and some links in this post require you to be signed up and/or friend-linked within Facebook.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Clouds over Berneray

A few pictures from various Flickr users, showing the changing clouds over Berneray. First, the sky over Berneray hostel, by Atomicjeep:


Kymara, related to Berneray residents, shows the sky over the water that seperates Berneray from North Uist:


Calum, another resident and son of Margaret, gets a pretty accurate shot of what the evening light often looks like on the east side of Berneray:


Gill Thompson has snapped the east beach on a particularly blue day, looking north west to Pabbay and Harris:


Here's Pabbay in the distance again, this time taken by goneindia2003:


... and to finish how we started off, with a shot of the sky over the hostel, this time by chris db:


Sunday, 27 May 2007

Boats: fun after all

Why I hated sailing ... 

I've never been a great fan of being in boats, much prefering watching them. From the hoose, there's a spectacular view of fishing boats and yachts, weaving their way across Bays Loch and going in and out of Berneray harbour. But, rather them than me. Not being a sea-person, and only seeing the sea for a couple of weeks every year for the first 20 or so of my life, it's always seemed an alien, somewhat threatening and dangerous environment.

My previous experiences on small boats have not been great. Most small boats immediately spell "cramped", with a lack of essential facilities e.g. bar, shelter, Wi-Fi internet connection:


My worst sickness - projectile vomiting the length of an onboard shop - happened about 10 years ago on a catamaran between Jersey and Guernsey (made slightly more acceptable by many of the crew also being sick). The year after I went overboard from a yacht sailing off Barbados and smacked the sea painfully. A boat trip around breezy San Francisco bay gave me a bad cold and sunburn simultaneously. I was stung by a jellyfish as I trailed my hand in the sea off Ireland (and a jellyfish sting is real pain). A barge trip on canals for a whole grindingly dull week literally drove me mad through boredom ("Why can't we go faster than 4 mph?" "Every canal looks the same" "If I see one more lock..."). And a journey on a recent birthday to Pabbay, an island a few miles to the northwest of Berneray, turned into an ordeal on the return, as we seemed to make no progress for ages against a choppy, stomach heaving sea.

And what if it rains, or gets choppy, on a boat with no cabin? Not attractive, is it?

Why I now like sailing ...

Yesterday I went to the annual Grimsay boat day, on a whim, with no intention of sailing. Grimsay is a sort-of island, in that strange region between Benbecula and North Uist when you're never really sure which island you are on. The day is the usual village fair mix of tea and cakes, burger barbeque, tug of war, idiots in 4 by 4 tanks parking stupidly, displays, buntings, old people gossiping enthusiastically, and a chance to meet your neighbours, work colleagues and people you get stuck behind in the Coop queue every week.

However, where this day departs from the norm are in the sea activities, based around the surprisingly busy and congested (with boats) harbour and the large boat shed:


The main event of the day is a parade of boats, many restored old fishing or peat-carrying boats. Amongst the array of sailing craft was a Berneray restored boat, the Mor Chaluim, which has been lovingly brought back into a smart and shipshape order by Fred over the winter.

The bright green boat was gently reversed into the water by Donald and Fred:


... and then sailed around to the harbour for Berneray residents to pile on. Despite looking small and crowded, I thought what the heck and piled in. I was originally given a bright yellow life jacket of size small (very witty, am sure)(and yes I did catch the comment about the sudden change in weight distribution when I got on board). This was swapped this for a worryingly thin lifejacket, worn around the neck, that resembled a long red sausage with a warning on one end "Do not pull this string". I didn't.

Then off we sailed, 10 Berneray residents (or 8 percent of the entire population of our island), in a tiny boat with utterly no cabin, bar or Wi-Fi Internet facilities, to participate in the parade. This involved the boats going round in a large circle in a sheltered bit of sea while judges had a good gander at the various entries:


And, surprisingly, this was both relaxing and quite fun. Helped by the banter on board (Berneray irony; you have to be there), and not affected by the lack of a bar (sailing turns out to be really thirsty work), we pottered around for an hour or so. No sickness, no ill effects, no lurching, bobbing, or clinging on to anything. Also, for a while, I forgot all about checking my email, filling my stomach, or whether I should have brought my Nintendo DS with me to pass the time.

Our sailing complete, we disembarked. Then off to the award ceremony, waiting patiently while the announcer went through prizes such as "Best welly thrower" (no, I didn't make that up) before getting to the big ones. And Fred won! Yay Berneray! In fact, he picked up not one but two prizes, which is pretty cool and a reward for his commitment over the winter:


I surprised myself by enjoying the experience big time. And, hmmm, am now considering doing some more boatie things over the next year or so. The boat club here in Berneray have this traditional boat with a great big red sail that looks spectacular as it shoots along the sea, like some kind of Viking warrior ship off to pillage and plunder the barbarian lands of Harris or North Uist. That now looks seriously good fun. Though I need to purchase more suitable attire first (and get some clothes on my next US trip that actually fit) I might, finally, give that a go now. 

Me, a sailor - LOL. Maybe it's time to have a mid-life crisis, buy a speedboat and terrorise the lobster fishermen.

There's more pictures from the Grimsay Boat Day 2007 available in a slideshow format. If you look carefully, you'll see at least eleven permanent residents of Berneray on them.

Some accuracy about the weather

I've just had a quick trawl of blogs (written by folk further south) updated recently that mention the Outer Hebrides, and there's the usual common theme. The Outer Hebrides must, automatically, be a permanently cold and rainy place. Sometimes, in comparison with the rest of the UK.

Twaddle. Why does this myth perpetuate? Everywhere in Scotland, the UK, Europe, it rains sometimes. And it is sunny sometimes. That includes here in the Outer Hebrides, where it is sunny a lot.

Let's compare now, Bank Holiday Sunday, between the Outer Hebrides and the diametrically opposite end of "Britain". Here's the view from my office window 10 minutes ago:


... and here's what the Met Office have to say about the weather down the other end:

Sunday 27 May WEATHER WARNING Heavy rain will affect southeastern England today and overnight. 50mm of rain is possible with perhaps up to 100mm locally which may cause flooding problems. Along with strong winds, conditions on the roads will be difficult.

Back up here, the sun is definitely strong enough to burn out there, so it'll be on with the Ambre Solaire before setting off on my daily walk.

Those people who chose to spend their bank holiday weekend in the Outer Hebrides, as opposed to Bournemouth, London, Torbay, Kent etc. chose wisely. And are dry.

I'm not being smug. Just not making daft assumptions.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Norwegian pancakes to go...

Due to a local (who doesn't like to be named but he's a top bloke and tractor obsessive) recently losing a bet and paying me (extremely generously) in excellent eggs, there are a surplus of this particular food item at the moment.

So, in partial preparation for the move to Scandinavia at some point in the future, it was out with the various Scandinavian cookery books to see what could be made. Tonights dinner ... Norwegian pancakes:


Your Norwegian pancake has a lot more egg in it than the British pancake, and it shows after 2 or 3 of them, with a full tummy.

Add on a traditional topping of strawberries, raspberries and blackberries (thanks to Tesco online grocery shopping) and it makes for a filling meal. It would have been nicer to have picked the berries oneself, as we did on our farm when I was growing up, but because of the climate and the acidity balance of the soil, berries aren't really an option for easily growing here (though some people do grow them in polytunnels in Lewis).

The recipe book this came from is Kitchen of Light, which also has some amazing pictures of fresh fish (as well as the odd recipe or two involving raw scallops - yay!).

Monday, 21 May 2007

The Hebridean "thirds" rule and a bear in the (local) woods

[Warning: contains toilet humour. Literally.] 

While in Lapland, I caught a glimpse of possibly a bear in the woods. "Possibly" as there were a lot of trees in the way, and not knowing "bear etiquette" I decided not to get any closer.

This was a reminder of the recent time the Outer Hebrides had a resident grizzly bear. When I first heard about this from a local, the "thirds rule" flashed through my mind. Basically, this rule-of-thumb states that:

  • a third of local anecdotes, stories, gossip, innuendo and rumour are truthful and accurate

  • a third are exaggerated, especially if the "information" has been passed on through several people, some adding their own layer

  • a third is completely made up nonsense

I immediately placed the "Bear roaming on Benbecula" story into the third category, and wished the local well.


But later, the story was retold by other people, and a quick bit of research online dredged up the whole story...

In 1980, Kleenex, makers of toilet paper, were filming an advert in the Outer Hebrides. The main character in this production was Hercules, an 8 foot 4 inches tall, half ton grizzly bear. He was transported over from the mainland as, not surprisingly, grizzly bears are not native to these islands.

Filming took place on the island of Benbecula.

Benbecula is flat; see the picture, above, by Flickr user Squigster.

It has no trees. If you stand on nearly any point on Benbecula, you can see for a long, long way. Much the same goes for neighbouring islands such as South Uist.

Hercules promptly escaped.

He went missing for 24 days.

Eventually, Hercules was spotted, tranquilised and unceremoniously taken back to his specially-made van in a net under a helicopter:


...where he was revived. During his little adventure, he lost 20 stones in weight, going from 54 to 34. Obviously these were the days before Tesco online shopping made it much easier to obtain food, and Hercules had a hard job scaveging. His much-publicised adventure (all of which passed me by) made him more famous:

"He made the cover of Time magazine and went on to promote anything from Russian vodka to the Miss World contest. He secured a cameo role in the James Bond movie Octopussy, appeared on Hollywood chat shows and did cabaret in Las Vegas."

Searching around the net brings up various anecdotes and comments. Some may explain why he managed to stay "undetected", on an island flatter than the Netherlands, for nearly a month:

"Yes, he used to come up to the bottom of the croft. The kids fed him boiled sweets. He never did us any harm, so we left him well alone." 

Boiled sweets in Benbecula? Hmmm (thirds rule).

Hercules died in 2000, aged 25 after one heck of a life. And a 24 day holiday in the Outer Hebrides.


As a postscript to this, the BBC Off the Ball team crudely considered the implications of the philosophical question "Do bears s**t in the woods?" and our treeless islands. Which is fair enough, considering the original point of Hercules going to our islands:

Incidentally, can you imagine how disappointed Andy Robin's bear Hercules must have felt when he escaped on the Hebrides and couldn't find enough trees? We hope you enjoy the image of a bear desperately trying to hold in a jobby as it searches desperately for a wood to take a dump in. "Come on, trees, I'm a bear on the run. Where are you now? I've been baking one for hours."

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Burning merrily away...

I previously wrote about the joy of making firebricks, paper mache constructs for lobbing onto the fire in the place of log, coal or peat. One small inaccuracy; I said "You don’t get much flame". Turned out not to be true - if the paper brick is totally dried out, then plenty of flame is produced.

Here's the fire last night, with some paper bricks on it in various stages of burning:


And is one hot flame. Frodo need not have bothered going to Mordor, and could have just popped round my house to chuck the ring into a melting fire.

There may be less blogging from me over the next few months. There's a lot of work on (which being self-employed, is a good thing) before my next trip away. But there'll still be pictures of Berneray and the Outer Hebrides, by me and others, going up on this blog every now and then.

I wish you a good summer, wherever you go and whatever you do.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

E-searching for Nigella seeds

Last week, I wrote on this blog about Nigella seeds, a commodity that people on the reality TV show The Apprentice had to find as part of a challenge. The original entry was more because one of the contestants had been somewhat obnoxious about the Outer Hebrides. Thankfully, she's turned into some kind of national pantomine hate figure now.

A few minutes ago I had a look at the referrals for this blog, to find this for part of the previous hour:


This is part of the statistics and monitoring provided by the Wordpress slimstat module. Note the times are 1 hour out - you have to take an hour off.

Bizarre - till I remembered that that particular episode of The Apprentice had just been repeated on BBC2. Cue people around the country watching it, with laptops appropriately on laps, and either thinking:

  • "I wonder what Nigella seeds are?" tap tap tap. Or...

  • "You stupid fool - I can find Nigella seeds in no time. Sir Alan should hire me instead of you." tap tap tap.

Such is the immediacy of the net.

(Thought: An interesting experiment to do in conjunction with a high profile tv presenter. Set up a web site that makes many mentions of a simple, made-up word. Get it indexed on various search engines. Get him or her to say the word on tv, with no explanation, at a peak audience moment. Monitor and analyse traffic to website.)

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Reflections on Second Life and the symposium

I'm currently doing a few pieces of research work on the use of Second Life. Their recent symposium provided a useful source of contacts and information, as well as a reality-check on what I'm doing and the way I'm doing it. Some reflections, and pictures by Roo, Anyaka and Beewebhead.

On being there, and here... 

It's kind of odd, a few days after a "blended" real world (RW) / Second Life (SL) symposium. Even though I participated from my house, I do feel oddly - and absurdly - like I've been away to a conference and have returned. Not sure why; maybe it is a combination of:

  • being aware that I was virtually "attending" a real conference, being held far away, and immersed in it. The audio, the video streaming, and so on.

  • the chance to communicate with a whole new bunch of people I haven't met before, and to follow their comments on the speakers, both during and after the event.

  • a change being as good as a rest.

  • doing an ongoing bit of work in SL and thus feeling like I'm "in a work environment" such as an office, surrounded by fellow workers 

What's more odd is that this is the fourth such event have been in, in SL, but the first time it's felt like a proper "real" symposium, more than an online experiment which may or may not work. I certainly don't miss the long trip there and back, and the several hundred pounds it would have cost me in flights, connections, hotels and post-conference drinks. And my carbon offset will be a lot lower than any of the real, atmosphere-destroying, attendees and speakers :-)

On the plus side, I get a lot more out of the actual session. In the RW version, I'd have had to sit there in total silence, whether the speaker was engaging, relevant, or boring and waffling. In the SL version, you have the option of dipping into the backchat and contributing, adding another level of discussion. "Questions and debate at the end, please"? Nope, we're discussing what you said, while you are saying it.

Here's an interesting picture to mess with your mind, from the RW event (or the RW part of the same event. Whatever.):


What you see is real people in the real symposium hall. At the front, a real speaker is about to take to the stage. On the screens are the SL versions of the event. But people are also crouched over their laptops (even after being asked not to blow the wireless bandwidth), in some cases participating in the event they are RW-present at within SL, and in others they are watching avatars in SL controlled by people in the RW (some in this room, others elsewhere in the world) watching them back in the RW at this event through the video feeds within SL. Still with me?

On deciding to use Second Life...

The comment which received much agreement in the Cybrary backchat was "I view SL as a prototype of a much more capable future 3D environment." by Martin Pattle. I think he's right. SL is interesting, and has lots of features, but has scalability issues and a problem with the relatively small number of active users within (compared to the vast number of net users).

However, the attitude of "I'll wait until the thing that replaces SL comes along" that some people take is bogus. For there will always be something bigger, better, faster, more immersive in the future. That's why it's the future :-)

It's the same when people say this about the current generation of games consoles; "I'll wait until the PlayStation 4 comes out". Why? When it does, then are you going to sit back, again, and wait for the PS5? And then what - you'll permanently be "waiting for the next better thing".

If you think it may be useful, or interesting, then it is worth trying, even just a bit, now. SL has been around for a while, and is very likely to be around for a while still, so it has (a) proved stability and (b) there is little danger of investing resource in something that then becomes unusable. The bottom line is that textual descriptions of SL don't provide a good enough idea of what it is like to use, and it's only through using it that you'll be able to make a more informed decision on whether it is practical for your application.

On whether Second Life is a game...

Does it matter? If Linden Labs turn round tomorrow and say "It was a game all along", then does that change the previous experiences you have had in SL? No. I'm getting increasingly annoyed that finite conference time is repeatedly used up by people asking "Is it a game, or not?".

A more interesting and revealing question is, perhaps, "Why does it interest or bother you if SL is a game or not?". From experience with getting video games used in schools, I wonder how much of it is the worry that some people have of finding a game (notion: fun) mutually exclusive and incompatible with learning.

On whether Second Life is Web 2.0...

Here's Stephen, in his "reality check" presentation:


Again, does it matter? Am not saying there is catalog-angst here, but there does seem an over-keeness to decide on a whole range of things that SL is, and what it is not, before considering its use. I'm not sure that's a healthy way to assess technology.

Now I've said it doesn't matter, I'll contradict myself with an opinion :-) Yes, Second Life is Web 2.0. You can socialise, network, and create content that looks good (as opposed to the aesthetically dire output of many MySpace offerings). The symposium links through to related user-generated content. Second Life can also be mashed-up with other applications. Example: in the same way you can create dinky cards in the Moo service using images (content) from your Flickr, Habbo or Bebo accounts, so you can with Second Life. Libsecondlife is a software library that can be used in a third party application to communicate with the servers that control the virtual world of Second Life. Yes, it's pretty much Web 2.0. Moving on...

On Second Life and other online environments...

Stephen was right; there are plenty of other online environments, and there have been for many years. And, rather than blindly assume that SL is the one-size-fits-all for whatever your learning or library application, people should look at - or at least be aware of - other online environments of potential use. Mike Ellis notes that:
What is happening with Second Life is the opposite - here, the technology is already in place, and people are trying to find ways to use it. Usually this is dangerous.

Good point. So why is SL much lauded and liked by many people, and why is it currently used by so many educators and librarians, over other online environments? Some indeed will be trying to find a use for SL; some will be influenced by the high media exposure of SL; and some will be attracted to it because their peers (either colleagues, departments or institutions) are using it. For positive reasons, and negative (the fear of being "left out" or "left behind" or appearing to be a bit, y'now, Web 1.0).


But there is also an analogy with the game Halo. This was released to universally rave reviews (Edge, for example, gave it 10 out of 10 for only the fourth time in its history), and it was lapped up by all but the most ardent PS2 fanboy. But, Halo wasn't unique.  Every element of the game, from the plot, to the weapons, the soundtrack, environments, physics, bosses, collaborative features and so on have been done in other games. What Halo did was to make many of these facets better, and made the integration and inter-dependance of these facets better too.

SL reminds me of Halo. It is not revolutionary. Most, if not all, of the features in it can be found in certain other online environments and in various virtual reality attempts over the years. Avatars? Check. Text-based dialogue? Check. Currency? Check. Building stuff a la The Sims? Check. But what SL does is to bring them together in a more coherent, easier to use, relatively untechnical and more fun (or less frustrating) fashion than many other systems.  

SL also has the advantage, unlike those VR projects from the 90's, that most people now have broadband at home. So, it's possible to create and use recognisable and complex avatars and structures within the online environment, without suffering severe lag or having to compromise functionality to an unacceptable extent.

On whether Second Life is "useful"...

Define "useful" first of all.

Within the context of enhancing the portfolio of services offered by libraries, there are some good reasons for at least exploring SL, and some reasons (and attitudes) for leaving it alone. There also seems to be a lot of librarians and educators who are using SL. As well as the estimated "500 active librarians" building stuff and providing services and support within SL, there are also quite a lot of real world universities and colleges offering services, content and education.


How much of this will "stick" will remain to be seen. But it should be noted that, in online terms, some have been around a while now. SL itself is not as new as many people think, the beta version was made publicly available in 2003.

On this timeline issue, I tend to look for the "Year 2 curriculum e-purveyors" (yes, I know that's clunky) most of all. These are technology-based services that have been offering curriculum-related learning (the core stuff, that policy-makers fret about the most, that leads to examinations) for more than a year. In other words, they weren't just a one-off pilot, and year one was successful enough to deem the technology appropriate for another year. Longevity breeds confidence.

If there is a mass of these e-purveyors using a specific technology, then it gets very interesting. That's what I'm trying to determine over the next few months, with concrete examples that demonstrate "usefulness", in SL. If you've got such an example, then please get in touch; cheers.

Friday, 11 May 2007

Half a dozen more Outer Hebridean blues...

Continuing the theme covered in recent posts...

Sky, hill, sea and sand at Luskentyre by Scotteforsyth:


Two more from Donald M. The first is the Sound of Scarp in North Harris:


...followed by a moorland shieling on the Isle of Lewis:


Paddimir presents a view from the southern end of the Outer Hebrides:


Finally, two more from David Graham, who also now has a blog. First, a sunset in Tong on the Isle of Lewis:


...followed by ripples on nearby water, also at sunset:


Thursday, 10 May 2007

At the Eduserv Foundation Symposium

Yesterday I described the scene of today's event, the Eduserv Foundation Symposium. The event is being held in the real world in London, and piped through to three areas within Second Life, plus streamed to a lab in the Open University in Milton Keynes and a few other places online. These screenshots in larger sizes are in my Flickr area.

Pre-event, various people start arriving and milling about at the various arena:


Pete turns up at our arena (or rather, his avatar does) to explain the procedure. The anarchist in me takes over, but my call to "rush the stage" is ignored by everyone. Ach, people in SL are much more serious than those in Animal Crossing:


The symposium has a "group" set up for it in Second Life, so people can communicate no matter which conferencing location they are at (you may need to look at the larger version to read the text):


As we approach 10:30, the auditorium starts to fill up. There's a good exchange of who people are and what they do, which was useful in grabbing contacts:


Andy appears from Eduserv on the big screen. The picture is good quality, and the sound is really excellent. There is one problem that several attendees have, in that he appears to be upside down and swaying, like a bat attached to the ceiling. A quick log out, then log back in...


...turns Andy from bat back to opportunist shoe salesman. The auditorium (and this is one of several) is getting quite full now. The first speaker comes on. Picture quality is good, his slides are integrated into the presentation, and the sound quality is superb. Second Life has astonishingly good audio quality compared to most other online events I've been to over the years. Here's a view of the auditorium from above and behind, as a speaker presents:


Roo Reynolds from IBM was on in the morning. He gave a well-balanced and inspirational presentation about how Second Life is used within the company. One of the many interesting things he outlined was a particular molecule (I think found in the eye?) which was constructed within SL and used as a meeting space. With 50,000 links within, (see the larger picture for illustration on the screen), there are plenty of places to sit:


One of the downsides of SL is the distraction of attire. Though on the plus side, you can turn up for any event, on anything - such as a winged horse, as the person in the picture below has done. He or she would have had little chance of getting that into the real world conference centre: "You aren't coming in 'ere with that, mate; health and safety regulations. I don't care if your name is Pegasus."


The sound and picture quality stayed continually excellent throughout the day. Remember this is live video footage, plus a live audio feed, being relayed to several places in SL where crowds of avatars - all doing their own things - are gathered. This is the fourth and most ambitious event of its kind I've been to in SL, and technically it's worked the best of all of them. Though I wasn't at the live event, it seemed to me to be a pretty convincing example of how to successfully "blend" a real world and online event. 

Just before lunch, we had a speaker from Scotland, who has travelled to London to speak, so it can be transmitted through SL and watched by people such as me back in Scotland :-)  His take on the "Is SL a game?" issue was that SL wasn't a game, but it had playful, game-like aspects.


The afternoon session kicked in, with more attendees - at different altitudes. Plenty of leg room for many:


 Gill Salmon from the University of Leicester made some good points about research and how older, traditional research methods were perhaps not that applicable to Second Life. Especially, she made the case for cognitive mapping (something I know little about) and pointed to some interesting comments and related software. Looks like my learning curve may have just gotten a bit steeper. 

There was also often a good level of discussion during and between the sessions between the attendees in Cybrary. On the upside, SL means you can have a lot of communication in a short period of time. Downside is that following several things, and participating, gets a bit exhausting for a 38 year old (even if I didn't have to get up till 9:30 and I've moved barely 100 yards so far today):


Stephen Downes was the last speaker, who provided a somewhat provocative serious of statements and opinions about Second Life, not all of them positive. This kicked off more debate locally in the Cybrary auditorium. It was notable that the comment with the most agreement in the local IM was when Martin Pattle said I view SL as a prototype of a much  more capable future 3D environment.


One of the more interesting questions of the day was directed to Stephen from Milton Broome (a lecturer in psychology at Derby University who seems to work from his bedroom).  In a difference from the Linden Labs speaker this morning ("Second Life is not a game"), Stephen drew analogies between SL and games, especially comparing the "create the best house you can" ethos of The Sims.

Milton asked: How can Second Life be a 'game' when at this conference alone I've made academic contacts and recruited participants for research. I've done all this on my wireless laptop at home laying in bed. Surely the platform is defined by usage.

My inner thought is "Does it matter if it is a game or not? Define a game anyway - does the magic circle exist in an SL session?". But this one will probably come up a lot in the next conference I'll attend - this time in the flesh - that brings together Gamers, Librarians and Second Life users in Chicago in July. See you there.

Katie and the nigella seeds

An open e-letter.

Dear Katie (current contestant on The Apprentice),

Perhaps if you had travelled to the Outer Hebrides after all, then you would have dropped in. And I would have showed you that:

  • within 1 minute of it being mentioned, I'd researched what nigella seeds were, and where you could get them from

  • if you'd popped in at Uist Wholefoods down the road, you would probably have got some, or some much needed help

But instead you floundered (no guidance from lovey-dovey chinless Paul anymore?), ended up in the boardroom, and had your card marked for a firing later on in the series.

Never mind.

SilverSprite, Berneray, Outer Hebrides.

Eduserv Foundation Symposium 2007: pre-event

Here's one part of what I do for a living, and also a glimpse of another world I inhabit, outside of the Outer Hebrides.

I'm currently doing some work for the Eduserv Foundation on the use of Second Life (an online environment) in education in the UK. Tomorrow, they have their annual symposium.



As the subject matter involves online environments, this year their symposium is being held in both the "real world" and in Second Life. That means that speakers and some delegates will trot down to London in order to do the conventional (or traditional, or soooo last century) way of meeting, presenting and discussing. Here's the programme and real world location.

The event will also be streamed through to Eduserv Island, an area within the Second Life environment developed and maintained by the Foundation for meetings, events, education and social occasions.



The pictures on this page shows me wandering through Eduserv Island the evening before the event. Second Life is a bit difficult to explain if you haven't used it; basically, you do everything through your computer. Go online, develop an avatar (as you can see, mine is kitted out in formal wear), and walk, fly and wander round various places. Either socialise, meet, or attend events, and/or develop a whole range of buildings, infrastructure and multimedia stuff.


Communication is the key within Second Life, and the Eduserv Island has bags of facilities. In the previous pictures, see some wooden seating and a formal conference room. In the one below, here's a seating area for eight, on a transparent glass bridge connecting two bits of the island:


Meetings in Second Life are currently done by using messaging and other textual systems. Soon, voice will be added to the software which will speed things up a bit. 

Best of all is the Eduserv bubble, which floats high in the sky, and is reached by a teleportation switch from the island ground:


I quite like the way they Eduserv have modelled the SL arm of the event on a typical conference. Entering the conference location...



...the first thing you see is a registration desk and a delegate bag of (I presume?) (virtual) goodies to pick up:


Here's the main conference auditorium. I've chosen here to fly up and stand on the roof to overlook where tomorrows event will be held. Speakers, who will have avatars, will stream their media through the big screen on the right, so people can follow what is happening in London. Delegates in both London, and on the island in Second Life, will be able to ask the speakers questions:


I've been to several online events in Second Life now, and am finding them slightly preferable to "real world" ones. One key reason is that, as with tomorrow, I can get up at 9:40, make myself a pot of coffee, sit down and still be able to attend the opening of the event at 10am. I'll look very smart and presentable in Second Life, though in the real world I'll be sitting in my dressing gown, unshaven, eating porridge and looking my usual unkempt morning self. But no-one will see! (Roll on the day when job interviews and all meetings with clients will be conducted in this manner).


One of the other good things about Second Life is how easy it is to mash-up or blend content in with other web applications. As you can see, in my session I took 10 snapshots (basically screenshots), using the facility for this in the Second Life software. These I've quickly uploaded to my Flickr account, and tagged with the conference tag - efsym2007 - so they can be easily found by Flickr searches and other applications. I've then merged them into this (Wordpress) blog entry on my website. All surprisingly quick and no deep teccie knowledge required.

What happens when the event is over tomorrow? I can go outside, then activate and watch the sunset:


...and be cheered by the fact that my participation in the event will have:

  • cost me zero in travel and accommodation expenses

  • committed me to a total travel time of some 20 to 30 seconds

  • been totally carbon neutral (apart from the electricity used to power my PC that day)

  • not been subject to the whims of air traffic controllers, leaves on the line or some other transport infrastructure problem

The downside is that the drinks reception at the end of the event will only be "tasty" for those delegates attending the real world version. Ah well.

Roll on the conference (both virtual and "real")...