Monday, October 11, 2010

A letter to my MP

I have signed the Science is Vital petition. I sent this letter to my MP:

Dear Mr Lazarowicz
The Science is Vital [] coalition, along with the Campaign for Science and Engineering [], are calling upon the Government to set out a supportive strategy, including public investment goals in step with economic growth.
My job at The University of Edinburgh is to nurture the future generations of physicists and I would like to share my professional perspective with you.
If the investment in physics research is cut, the experts will follow the funding abroad and take the next generation of physicists with them. We know this because it has happened before. Many of my contemporaries left the country in the brain drain of the early and mid eighties. Margaret Thatcher’s cuts took a whole generation of physicists away from our institutions and made them unavailable to our young people. The world-class researchers who left in the 1980s have only just started to return – several of them live in your constituency - and they attract the very best students to the UK. These young researchers move to the UK to take advantage of the expertise that is here.
If the UK withdraws funding from the big fundamental science projects, it will lose the current generation AND the next generation for small, short-term ‘savings’ that will quickly result in a loss of expertise and a very big loss of GDP. It is estimated that a cut of £1bn in science investment (approximately 20%) will result in a loss of £10bn to GDP. As Sir Patrick Moore (a supporter of Science is Vital) says: “If we cut funds for science we’ll be shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Without investment in science research the UK risks its international reputation, its market share of high-tech manufacturing and services, the ability to respond to urgent and long-term national scientific challenges and the economic recovery will falter.

•    sign EDM 767 – Science is Vital (
•    sign the Science is Vital petition – (
•    attend a lobby in Parliament on 12 October (15.30, Committee Room 10).

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,
Karon McBride
11/10/2010 17:20:33

An email to my father

This post continues the theme of keeping control of your public profile(s) that I began in the Peas and Potatoes entry. It came about because my father, who has come the the Internet somewhat late in life, found my name, and the names of other family members, listed on a website in juxtaposition with the names of neighbours. To his eyes, it looked as if someone was making claims on our identities to which they were not entitled.

Here is an edited version of the email I wrote to my father. The email finishes with an exploration of the real problem, which is that my father feels disappointed that the Internet in theory provides a mechanism through which he might track down and contact some of the people he knew as a young adult but it doesn't work as well as hoped in practice. If anyone has any ideas, please let me know.

Hi Dad

The company that listed the names of our family alongside those of our neighbours is called They appear to have combined the 2002 electoral role with the 2009 electoral role. market themselves as a people finder and a directory enquiry service. The positive side of their services is that people or companies can check the bona fides of, say, customers or prospective romantic partners. The negative side is that their computers link people's data without any thought to the distress this might cause. used to have access to the full electoral roll but when the law changed in 2003, and we could all opt out of being in the public register, 192 took the Government to court to claim that the new law was 'irrational.' The company lost the case: You and I (sensibly) opted out of the public register from 2003 onwards, but some of your neighbours have yet to choose to do that.

As a result of the change in the law, the only full register to which companies like 192 have legal access is the 2002 electoral roll and some have chosen to continue to use it. That decision probably made sense in 2004 but less so now and their competitors make much of how out of date some datasets are these days.

192's privacy policy is here: As you can see, 192 is a UK company so we can do something about this problem on this occasion by downloading the form C01.pdf from the website and sending completed copies by recorded delivery to the address on the form. I doubt they'll act very quickly to remove the data but the recorded delivery should concentrate their minds a little. I will fill in a form on my own behalf.

The wider problem is that the Electoral Roll 2002 is a public document and other companies may get hold of it in the future. If they aren't UK companies, or are operating without a traceable postal address, there will be little you or I can do about it. However, I'm going to take this further and see what might be done to stop the councils in the UK from making old data available.

On the positive side, it would be a very, very odd combination of circumstances that would bring someone to the Google search that you found. However, if for example a neighbour decided to change energy supplier or you changed your car insurance then conceivably the 192 data might turn up in a standard credit search. But in cases like that companies will want to see a full address and so will use a proper credit agency to check that you really exist. I'm sure banks, energy companies and insurance firms know all about

People don't believe everything they see on the Internet but companies and government agencies are becoming increasingly suspicious of people who have no internet presence at all. It is therefore probably a good idea to put an internet profile out there yourself on a reputable professional contacts site. This would be a profile over which you would have full control and it would turn up higher up a Google search than the rubbish datsets put together by the mindless computers of directory sites. This way anyone from your past who is searching for you, just like you're searching for them, will find proper, useful information and a secure contact form - people can send you a message through the website but aren't given your email address.

I think the best site to use is Linkedin It's free and has a very good reputation. It is secure and they won't do anything naughty with your information but admittedly it is set up for workplace contacts so you may have to be a little inventive when filling in the data fields. There are other options but give Linkedin some thought.

Having a prominent profile on a well-Googled site like Linkedin in certainly a step towards making yourself findable. Of course, those of your contemporaries less Interweb-savvy than you won't have a web presence at all so we're back to relying on old copies of the Electoral Roll. Most unsatisfactory. Perhaps a tv programme or a tv presenter could help to start a Linkedin revolution among the retired population. Maybe they could start a campaign against 192's use of old data. What programmes are most likely to be watched by the people you're trying to reach?

I hope this helps to put your mind at rest. I wish I could think of cleverer ways of helping you catch up with the people you've known in the past. I can see that it's like having read the opening chapter of lots of books - it would be good to know how the stories end.

All my love


Sunday, September 5, 2010

Keeping the peas away from the mashed potatoes

Photo of peas by Jo Richards
If you live online, as I do, it's not easy to keep your personal life (i.e.,  Facebook postings) from contaminating your professional persona.

Or, as Amber Naslund, Director of Community at Radian6 quoted by Zachary Sniderman on Mashable in his useful article '5 Ways to Clean Up Your Social Media Identity' puts it,
"You can’t keep the peas from touching the mashed potatoes."
Does it matter?

I have been worried for some time that when it comes to social media I might not be taking sufficient care to separate the personal from the professional (or the peas from the potatoes). I don't draw a sharp line between work and play in real life either but I respect those who do and think I owe it to my colleagues to make my online writing and resources available to them without requiring them to sacrifice their privacy.

I eat my peas with honey; I've done so all my life

My use of Facebook, and later that of Twitter, started out as a a work-related experiment and only later on took on a social dimension as friends and family members found my Facebook account and joined in the game. Being something of a solitary wasp, I suspect I wouldn't have felt the need to sign up with Facebook just for the social contact. In that respect, I wouldn't miss Facebook if it disappeared tomorrow but I would miss the professional contacts I maintain through social media including Facebook, Twitter, blogging and microblogging.

So there we were at ALT-C 2007 in Nottingham. I was enjoying spending time with colleagues from the my department (the School of Physics and Astronomy @ Edinburgh) and in much the same line of work but with whom I had little contact in the ordinary run of things because I worked by myself on a project that was largely outwith the department. Could Facebook allow me to keep in contact with these colleagues whose input and support I valued?

I can now report that the experiment had a positive outcome, at least for me. Not only have I shared information of professional interest and kept in touch with people but, more importantly, I know my colleagues much better than I would otherwise have done and I have received a level of personal support that has, at times, saved my sanity.

Three years on, the project on which I was originally employed is winding down, I've been redeployed to mainstream activites and, in one of those strange quirks of fate, I now share an office with some of the people who were there at Nottingham at the start of the Facebook experiment. From my point of view at least, it's been a painless transition and I think that's largely due to the Facebook relationships I developed and maintained with my 'new' coworkers during the experiment.

It makes the peas taste funny but it keeps them on the knife

Three years is sufficient for a trial phase and my approach to the use of social media has matured. I sense a sea change in the academic use of social media and an emerging realisation of the dangers of not having an online presence - it looks downright suspicious these days if you google someone and find nothing. In addition, I contend that a professional presence is not enough - people want and expect to be able to see something of the person behind the persona.

Facebook worked for me in the days of innocence, when few of my colleagues were online, but it isn't the right tool for me now and I wouldn't recommend it to others. The big problem with Facebook is its reciprocal nature. You're welcome to look at mine but you have to accept that I get to look at yours in return. Some of my colleagues created dummy accounts to avoid giving offence by refusing to be my 'friend' on Facebook and this is a shame because I really didn't want to pry or judge but I did hope for something more personal than a waxwork stand-in.

I need a professional presence online. It's no longer an experiment, it's a requirement and I think I have to accept that some cross-contamination between the peas and the potatoes is inevitable and might even improve the palatability of both. Indeed, having very little personal information about you out there on the web may be more dangerous than having a lot. For example, if this blog post was the only piece of writing by me online, a prospective employer might be concerned about my 'solitary wasp' comment. Perhaps I wouldn't play nicely with others? As it is, there's plenty of evidence out there about my sociable and collaborative nature.

Yes, it's possible that a someone might look at my Ping profile and wonder if someone who likes everything from Bach to Boogie might lack focus (probably true). And what I would like to call a quirky sense of humour might be seen as a tendency towards flippancy (also true). But what counts is that you understand the peas and potatoes problem and are seen to be addressing it in an informed and systematic way.

Improving my table manners

I'm working my way through '5 Ways to Clean Up Your Social Media Identity'. I'm paying attention to developing my personal brand and  I've started to divide my accounts into those that are personal and those that are professional. Where the purpose of accounts has become muddled, I'll either abandon them or divide them into two.

To facilitate stealth followers (those who wish to follow without reciprocating), I pledge to add RSS feeds to my blogs and microblogs. In October I'll jump ship from Facebook to Diaspora in the hope that it will give me more options and better levels of control.

Above all, I've decided that, within reason, I'm not too worried about the peas touching the tatties. I blame the gravy.

Professional links
My LinkedIn profile
My professional Twitter account

Personal links
My personal Twitter account

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Too Much Information

Beltane Fire Festival
This morning I went to a Beltane Breakfast. Some of you may wonder if this involved fireworks or dancing round something without my knickers. I'm afraid I am not at liberty to divulge this information but they did do a good line in hot breakfast rolls in the Scottish tradition.

On the event webpage it says "The session includes a presentation, “What is the value of science blogging for public engagement?” delivered by two national and international authors, Ken MacLeod and David Shenk" (the organisers' emphasis, not mine).   I booked it in a fit of enthusiasm on 07 July at, according to the printed ticket, 3:22 am. Quite why my weird personal habits should appear on the ticket is beyond me but I'm glad I went nevertheless.

A member of the audience asked about handling the information overload. With so much out there, how do I go about finding blogs worth reading and how will people find my blog? Will I be wasting my time writing something that no one ever reads?

These questions resonated with me because similar concerns had arisen in a complete different context during a workshop by Paul Denny on Peerwise, an online application which supports students in the creation, sharing, evaluation and discussion of assessment questions. Peerwise has been used with very large groups of students who between them might contribute a couple of thousand multiple choice questions during a semester. It isn't sensible for students to try all of the questions but how can they choose the ones that will be of cognitive benefit to them?

Teaching students how to be discriminating is part of the reason for using applications like PeerWise but in fact many of our students (and academic staff) already have those skills in other contexts. For example, they know how to use ratings systems on Amazon to find music or goods worth buying.

In the PeerWise workshop we had been asked to estimate how long it would take one person to watch all the video loaded up to YouTube today. I don't think any of our guesses were close. On the YouTube website it states that 'every minute, 24 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube.' This means 34,560 hours-worth of video per day, which would take about 4 years to watch provided you only took very infrequent, short comfort breaks and didn't sleep at all.

And yet no one panics about missing the good stuff on YouTube. Users have learned to use personal recommendations, rating systems, review websites, tag clouds and 'following' to find the stuff that interests or amuses them.

In conclusion, the academic blogger shouldn't dwell on the thought that their little blog will be swamped in a big ocean of other blogs. David Shenk said in the meeting that all that was important was that each blog reached a small number of the right people. And in that he's quite correct.

Blogging in a previous life

After numerous attempts to add an old but pertinent blog to my blogroll I admit defeat and post the link here:

I'd forgotten all about the photoshopped picture. I made it to amuse my father. Definitely one for facebook!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Rearranging the deckchairs

A pink deckchair
I've had a lot of conversations recently in which managers have assured me that they're determined to do more to sort out my working arrangements than to just 'rearrange the deckchairs.' And it's certainly true that no collapsible furniture has shifted, but then neither has anything else. As a result, I've had time while sitting in other people's offices to reflect on the effect of chairs and their arrangement.

The managers I trust the most go for the sideways option. Their desks and chairs are placed so that they are sideways on to anyone coming in through the door and they can move easily into the neutral space of the rest of the office. On the other hand, quite a few opt for the 'sitting behind the desk' arrangement. That works if there is enough room at the side of the desk to make a rapid move to a more informal seating arrangement at the front of the office but it's a shame when they hide behind the desk, using it as a defensive barricade.

But what can you make of the guy who hunches over a tiny desk at the back corner of the office, keeping his back to the visitor for as long as possible, offering his visitor nothing more than a perch on a 'star chamber' typing chair nowhere near a flat surface? As a chess player, this makes me think of a castled king. Safe, defensive, conservative. And I feel like the pawn on an open file; I feel I have potential for greatness but I'm also wondering when a rook is going to swoop down and remove me from the board. I'd give anything for a deckchair.

Friday, August 13, 2010


I start this blog on Friday 13th. There's nothing in that at all, except that when a colleague threw my banana skin at the bin at lunchtime, he missed. That's never happened before. It makes you think.

Fingers crossed it was just a statistical aberation.