Monday, 14 December 2009

Thailand, that is not your beach...

A hurried blog entry while I wait at Heathrow for the plane to Chicago.

If I was (sort of) going in the other direction, I'd end up at the hotter location of Thailand, a country with lots of glorious beaches. But seemingly, rather less photographers...

Google Alerts pops up website where Berneray is recently mentioned; this one in particular came up last night. The blogger noticed that the picture wasn't of Kai Bae beach, but, erm of the west beach of Berneray in the Outer Hebrides. True, there are some similarities; great sand, unpolluted sea. But also some differences; if you swam off both beaches, you would very quickly realise what one of them is.

The particular picture looked very familiar, and lo and behold; it's one I took several years ago, put on the Berneray website, and forgot about.

West beach of Berneray, NOT a beach off an island in Thailand.

And it's now been lifted by the National Park Information Centre of Kok Chang island as a bit of "Hope they don't notice it's not really our local beach" advertising.


Maybe I should work my way to Kok Chang island, take some pictures, and put them in an Outer Hebrides gallery. Think anyone would notice?


I sent details of this to Angus the Stornoway blogger. He duly blogged it, local newsies such as the Hebridean News, then more national news organisations, started to pick it up, as well as umpteen blogs, forums, media scopers and bitty websites.

Press coverage has so far included:


...and it's gone international. A Swedish newspaper have done a piece, though my name appears to have changed to Jim. I've also declined an interview with a Fox News affiliate as it's getting a little silly now.

Best coverage in terms of proper attribution and fact presentation is the Daily Mail. Worst is the BBC. Who'd a thought it?

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Life in colour

Third of four batches from the family archive.

Someone else who I recognise but cannot name, and my mom, tying up onions at the driveway at the top of the house. This must have been the late 60s or early 70s, as I don't remember that shed being there:


My mom again, making jam in the kitchen of our house. Several thousand jars of 15 varieties, each year for nearly 40 years.


Me (bad hair decade - see also next picture) and my cooler first cousin Andrew. We only seem to meet at weddings and funerals nowadays, but ironically have probably passed each other in a conference hotel in Chicago without realising it. Andrew's got a young son now, Charlie.


My grandmother, on my moms side, and me, in front of one of the pickle stalls. I shot up to nearly full height when I was very young (old school pictures of me always have me dominating on the back row).


Final set of pictures tomorrow.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

The love of trains

My love of trains and train travel seems to go back a very long way. Here's me at home on a train I can just about remember:


Trains became a theme at school (always drawing them in art classes) and at birthday parties. September 15th 1972:


Friday, 15 May 2009

Early days

I'm going through the last of the photo albums before breaking up the collection and sending it to various members of the family. A few pictures to go online over this long weekend here.

My parents getting engaged in 1963. Britain was just coming out of post-war austerity then, and things were apparently done on a tight budget:


The engagement party. Dad in the back row, third. Aunt June in the middle row first, Uncle Brian middle row third. There's only three of those ten people still alive.


My mom and grandmother picking plums in the orchard.


First picture of me; homecoming with my mom, in front of the fireplace that's still there.


Tuesday, 5 May 2009

#MeLikes #jiscweb (I like the new JISC website)

A few days ago, the JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) put up their new website. I've been having a serious, and not so serious, play with it since. It looks, above all, clean and white. It's been noted that pleasingly there is less orange, and more soft corners; very Apple or Nintendo in design. Unlike the previous website home page, there isn't dead space; it's filled with content, but still easy to read.

Here it is:

JISC home page


To backtrack. There are still, surprisingly, quite a lot of UK academics who haven't heard of the JISC (even within the academic electronic info community). What do they do? In a nutshell they:

  • Provide JANET, which is the network and other stuff that hooks up academic institutions to the Internet. If it ends in a, that's pretty much their domain (no pun intended), so that's kinda important. Fund lots of projects that go into just about all aspects of technology in Higher and Further Education. They've been doing this for not far off two decades now, and in that time the number of projects must run into the thousands.

  • Fund a range of services for HE and FE, such as the excellent and seriously useful Digital Media service, legal advice, and regional support centres for post-16 education.

  • Provide access to all manner of online databases, collections, resource indexes and guides. And not just provide access, but also fund them being kept up to date. From hairdressing training to chemical data to news stories, there's not many subject areas of digital data which JISC haven't had some involvement in.

  • Do lots of other things, such as lobbying, consultation, negotiation with data providers, and trialling all manner of teccie things in education.

I've been doing JISC related things on and off for 15 years, having worked on, or for, 14 funded projects, several services, and for the JISC itself in various self-employed ways. My first bit of self-employed work, eight years ago, was with the redevelopment of the JISC website at the time, which was a mixed bag of experiences. At one presentation/meeting which did not go well, the debate pointlessly went round in circles about what people really wanted on the home page of the JISC website. I indicated that a large button saying simply "Give me funding" would be the preferred option of many people who used the site (I didn't phrase it quite that tactfully).

I'm affectionately fond of the JISC for a number of reasons, one of which is that they are generally forward looking, having an academically-oriented open-minded sceptical approach. Some funding bodies (and I've had a lot of experience, in different ways, of these) "talk forward" in terms of emerging technologies, then won't fund anything that isn't "safe" or "proven". Which is, like, a bit dumb as you can't usually "prove" that a certain technology works (or not) until you've funded some quality research in it.

JISC, on the other hand, are the Heineken of funding bodies in some ways, funding technologies that other organisations can't (or won't) reach. So, for example, they support an advisory service on Open Source software, fund projects that explore the potential of Moodle, Twitter and Second Life, take an open-minded exploratory (and funded) approach to virtual worlds in education, and provide social media services such as the Involve blogging platform for academics. Yay for JISC!

This experimental approach to funding is not new for the JISC. In the mid-1990's they funded the eLib (Electronic Libraries) programme, an excellent summary history of which is provided by the Bodley's Librarian at Oxford. eLib was a big kick up the posterior of trundling UK academic libraries for, looking at it now, a very small amount of funding.

Internally within the JISC, there's a wide range of opinions on many technology issues; collectively, the JISC attitude is usually "Hmmm; not sure about emerging technology X. Make a strong enough case that it should be researched further, and we'll probably fund it." As exemplified by Chris Rusbridge's "Let a 100 flowers bloom" ethos to eLib phase 1.

And it is the funding that is the key thing for many of the core audience of the website. So I was really, really pleased to see, slap bang in the middle of the home page of the new JISC website - a large "Give me funding" button! Yes!:


Give me funding


One click takes you to this:



And that's a cheerfully honest recognition of what many people want from the JISC (Money!) and the primary or sole reason why they use the website (How do I get money out of the JISC?). It would be better if more funding bodies took this approach. It drives me mad with certain other funding body websites, having to wade through loads of self-important crap to then find that they have no funding in my area, or that I'm not eligible. With the new JISC website - one click on a big orange button, I can see what they are funding at the moment, and one more click gives me a good and clear idea of how to apply, and what the future funding plans of the JISC are. It simply couldn't be made any clearer, so hopefully this approach will stay.

Other funding bodies: stop being so self-important on your websites and follow this approach. I don't care when you were founded and by whom; how does that pay my bills? I do care about whether you will give me money or not.

Another way in which the JISC website gets a #MeLikes is on the search mechanism. This works well. If anything a little too well, as someone in JISC has been very diligent with keeping old metadata. It was a shock when doing an "ego search" to find 479 results when searching on my name. WTF?! Turns out that the content of many of those pages from eight years ago have been slurped into the new website, metadata and all.

The search index and mechanism seems pretty robust. As Kerry may shortly discover, and despair, when she sees the logs, it has coped faithfully with serious, and not so serious searches. 

Searching on something more useful, such as "Second Life" OR "Virtual Worlds" brings up 320 results, some of which are new to me. But where it gets really good is being able to search across the JISC website and JISC services in one go, and order the results in terms of newest first. Which for the same search, gives 2,150 results:

Searching the JISC website


Oo la la! Stuff is coming up in that from the Intute subject gateway, the RSCs, JISC Digital Media and a whole range of other JISC funded services. In the spirit of the "Take two bottles into the shower?" advert, I can now do just do one search and go. (I was going to write that I'm as "happy as a pig in muck" about this, but then realised it's not a good saying to use at the moment).

Other things I like. You can customise what you see on the home page to filter out (or in) topics and other stuff you aren't interested in. The default is set to "Give me everything you've got, JISC." But you can sharply reduce this:



Other things:

  • They've kept the historical stuff. Some of it is, like, wow. Have a read of the 1996 to 2001 JISC strategy; it's a complete scream. It feels, not so much like a different decade, but a different age in civilisation altogether. And those amounts of money seem utterly tiny, especially in this age of banks losing the odd billion pounds down the back of the sofa.

  • You can listen to the latest podcast with just one click on the home page.

  • If you are topic-focused then the website is very much topic-oriented, from the home page to the "What we do" section. Topic browse is a significant part of the website.

  • In a stalker-friendly move, they've kept and even expanded the contact information for JISC staff. I loathe so-called advisory services which make it as difficult as possible to contact the relevant member of staff. However, and I know this suggestion will go down like a lead balloon but I'll say it anyway - staff pictures, please?

  • It's nice and clear what JISC do with the 82.5 million pounds they get and who they get it from. And speaking of banks (does quick calculation) that's, on average, what RBS lost every 30 hours last year.

  • The website has been tested against IE8 (forward looking) and IE6 (far enough backwards looking). I know more than a few people, especially in one geographical area, who stick stubbornly to IE5 and am glad that the drawbridge is being pulled up against them.

  • They've even got a Creative Commons statement for, and on, the website.

Having been involved in the development of the 2001 website - which had just a fraction of the content of this one - I've got an idea of the issues of dealing with a diverse collection of changing "stuff", produced by many individuals across an organisation. It is, to put it mildly, a "non trivial" task. The new website isn't 100 percent perfect, but is as near as dammit. I've found a few minor things worth reporting in, but for a website with many thousands of pages, created by people in a myriad of ways, there's surprisingly little wrong in there. And in the spirit of cheerful openness and using available social media, JISC asked for - public - reactions through Twitter, and also for stuff to be reported or fed back.

It looks good to me, and bang on what academics need. Funding first, information and news on relevant developments second, everything else meh. I hope the JISC will continue to add content to it, mesh in emerging technologies (*cough* JISC Second Life island, perchance? *cough*), and above all not feel the need to redo it all again for a good few years yet.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Mashup, and #FailWifiAccess, at Sunderland University

I went to the JISC RSC Northern conference on Virtual Worlds last week to schmooze, meet some academic developers, and deliver the keynote presentation. It was a hugely enjoyable event (apart from one massive problem I'll mention below). The conference was well organised, the people were all friendly, the catering (apart from the instant coffee - urgh) was good. And the location was excellent; I had reservations about going to Sunderland, but it turned out to be very nice. A big beach opposite the hotel, trees, green, and a lot of blazing sunshine. Sort of like the south of France, but with somewhat different accents.

As ever, social media was to the fore. Most of the speakers were on twitter and twittering before, during and after the conference. There were three conference tags which added to the fun :-) and Kathryn Trinder set up a service to pull together various content based around the most-used tag. Or you can just read the tweets associated with the event.

My presentation was the last in a roadshow I'd been doing for the Virtual World Watch project-service. It was presenting an overview of virtual world (especially Second Life) activity in UK Higher and Further education, though it ended up being more about the issues that confront actual and wannabee academic developers:

So, I had various slides up and the presentation, which was the opening keynote went well. The only time I slightly messed up was when I had a screenshot up of a particular chemical reaction, the tuberculosis bacteria undergoing a sugar chemical change. I had the slide up, and I could remember the twitter name, @graymills, of the person who had created the Second Life structure. But I couldn't remember his real name (Peter Miller) #KeynoteMemoryFail.

Big laugh, and a few pictures taken. One of which was, using the magic of iPhone technology, put up onto Twitpic, the picture feature associated with Twitter, and linked to a tweet.

Kate chipped in with a tweet on my memory fail as well:

@graymills /me tuts, @joe_librarian just forgot your name #ItsGrimUpNorth #rscn09 10:46 AM Apr 21st from TwitterFox

Here's the neat bit. Peter (or @graymills):


1. took the picture from twitpic

2. added a speech bubble caption

3. embedded it within a screenshot of the associated tweets

4. then embedded a screenshot of all of that into an installation in Second Life

5. then got his avatar to stand in front of it

6. then took a screenshot of all of that

7. then put it online:

@graymills in distress

... then 8. blogged about it.

For elegance, Kathryn finished off by twitpic-ing the blog posting.

Neat. And if none of this posting made any sense at all to you, then heck are you going to have an increasingly isolated and puzzled time in the coming decade :-)

Oh, the one big massive failing at the conference.

No wifi.

At a UK conference, in 2009, about an emerging Internet technology, and where for example nearly all the speakers were twitterers and/or Second Life users. So, without a dongle on a laptop, or a mobile phone, online access was difficult the whole day.

I found this bizarre. Even more bizarre is at the start of the conference when someone stood up and said that there would be no wifi access due to the, and I kid you not, "security problems with unknown laptops". Eh? Don't they have, like, firewalls and things like that in Sunderland. How come, like, every other university manage this - except Sunderland? We were baffled.

I emailed someone at the RSC centre about this after the event. As several speakers at the event noticed, some staff have a very open attitude to sharing emails in JISC RSC Northern, so they won't mind being quoted. The reply back said:


The IT Services at this university can be very difficult and uncompromising. The other significant problem was that we couldn't stream the keynotes into SL when this was supposed to be a doddle.


I also got an unexpected, and rather odd, email from the person who'd made the "security problems with unknown laptops" excuse, a few days later as my email had been forwarded to him. I'll give him this; he was bluntly honest and admitted that what he said was, let's just say a load of porkies, as:


... I had to deliver the scripted party line as an employee of the University of Sunderland. My team were exceedingly, more than Mr Kipling I might add, pissed off with the lack of support from the School of Computing. The whole conference was down to them and the frustrations they experienced in the run-up were legion.


And, from what I observed, he may have been right. The other JISC RSC staff were indeed working their butts off, as the saying goes, before and during the conference so all credit to them.

The lack of wifi was compounded by the speakers being put up in the very nice Marriott hotel the night before. Nice except for the fact that if we wanted wifi, we'd have to pay £15 per 24 hours to have it in our rooms and £15 per 24 hours to use it downstairs. Which is insane. And even galling when, on the way to the conference to present the next day, we had to pass the Best Western hotel with a big "Free Wifi" banner outside. It turned out that the Marriott had an arrangement with the university, so this was the hotel that the centre had to put the speakers in. Which was not good when it's the night before your presentation (on Second Life), you're a speaker, and you want to check online stuff or go into Second Life.

It's a shame about the lack of wifi at the hotel and the conference. And bizarre, considering the year and the nature of the event. Kinda like turning up to flying school and finding that instead of real planes outside you have to mess with Airfix models and make "Zoooom!" noises all day. It seems to be little fault of the RSC, and knocks down my personal rating for this conference from 8.5 out of 10, to 5 out of 10.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Border country

A person who won't read has no advantage over a person who can't read - Mark Twain.


The Sensible Book Shop

Quick blog entry. In Hay-on-Wye for a few days, a town which straddles the border between England and Wales. My accommodation is in the former; the town centre, 5 minutes walk away, is in the latter.

The picture set - more over the next few days - is over on Flickr.

Really lots of books

Latest media appearance: Fox News in Minneapolis, where they used some of the material (they asked permission first) from a blog posting about the psychology of Facebook.

Current tune in my head: No Line on the Horizon (title track), U2.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

First day of the month

Peculiar.  Despite a near-month of gloomy weather, February has started with a cloudless blue sky, birds tweeting, and a gentle sea. The view from my office window:

Bays Loch, Berneray, 1st February 2009

That was how January and 2009 started, as well. Am hoping that the rest of February doesn't follow the January pattern, though.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Calluinn night 2009

This year's group of local kids, carrying on the old tradition:

Calluinn night 2009

Several parents chaperoned them between the houses. This year they didn't get here until nearly 9pm, so it's going to be a long evening.

Pictures from last year, and further information.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

The reindeer and the stone circle

Another coincidence.

I was looking for an icon of a reindeer to incorporate into this website. A few searches on Flickr turned up the perfect one, combining the animal with the RSS logo (on the end of its nose). And the picture is under the Creative Commons licence, so it was installed:

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="354" caption="Icon by Dr Cole Henley"]Icon by Dr Cole Henley[/caption]

The coincidence part? The creator of the reindeer icon used to be an archaeologist, and his PhD was on the Neolithic of the Outer Hebrides. And so several years ago, he spent some time here on Berneray doing, well, whatever archaeologists do. While here, he took some pictures, of which this is one of many he has put onto Flickr:

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="450" caption="Picture by Dr Cole Henley"]Picture by Dr Cole Henley[/caption]

The picture shows Norman on his croft on Sunhill. He is standing in front of one of the stones in the circle that can be seen from much of the eastern side of the island.

The picture was taken on November 1st 2001, the field trip being postponed from that summer due to foot and mouth. The largest size version of the picture is of particular interest as it shows much of Backhill and some of Church Road in detail.

Surprisingly, perhaps, very little has changed between then and now. There's a wind turbine, and a few residents have different cars, but that's about it (unless am missing anything?). My house is just out of shot a few to the left of the picture.

Wonder what the odds of that are, that the person who designed the reindeer icon I use has previously visited Berneray.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

A new look for a new year

This is my fifth New Year as a resident of Berneray and the Outer Hebrides.

It's January 1st, and as I was getting a bit fed up of my cluttered website and blog, I've changed the theme. It's now the Nice Wee Sites theme, running on an installation of Wordpress 2.7.

The adverts for Berneray calendars et al have gone, as the clutter was getting a bit daft. These items are still for sale (I get back a few pounds for each one which goes towards the costs of hosting the Berneray website), and can be viewed and purchased on the Isle of Berneray e-shop on Cafepress.

I've been blogging now for 3 years and 2 months, though of late this has diminished somewhat due to work divergence, and also returning to Twitter (microblogging). Various bits of software pump out irrelevant statistics, and they show that during that time I've:

  • Written 512 blog entries.

  • ... comprising of 119,386 words.

  • Gotten 957 (approved) comments back.

  • ... and over 70,000 spam comments, most automatically generated.

Heck, that is a lot of words; in fact it's about a book and a half in size.

On the picture front, my Flickr account now has 1,235 pictures in it. Considering the variable speed at which I write, and the fact that the vast majority (easily 90%+) of pictures I take I delete without putting on line, it's suddenly easy to see how the last few years have flown past.