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.