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March 30, 2010

iPhone to the rescue

We had a two hour power-cut at home yesterday evening. A somewhat strange experience that took me right back to the regular power cuts of the early 70s, the 3-day week and all that. Once we'd sorted out candles and torches and stuff we sat around wondering what to do. My youngest son suggested playing Monopoly, which resulted in a big hug from his mum and howls of derision from the rest of us. Instead we decided to go out for a walk, an idea apparently shared by half the local neighbourhood. The streets were dark, no street lamps, but there were plenty of people around, all wondering what was going on. We even met a few of the neighbours that we haven't seen for a while. Much of the local area was without power it seems.

Back in the house, we sat around lost for things to do. Immediately before the power-cut, I'd been on the computer, my other half and my daughter were watching TV, and the two boys were on their XBox and Playstation 3 respectively. But take away our power supply and we didn't have a clue. After about ten minutes the boys we pacing the room and starting to argue with each other. Then I remembered... TVCatchup allows you to watch TV on your iPhone - battery power and 3G meaning no mains power required.

Ta da... iPhone to the rescue!

Somewhat sadly, the five of us spent the next hour huddled round the world's smallest TV screen watching Married Single Other until the lights came back on.

Mobile use at Edinburgh

The IS team at the University of Edinburgh have released the results of their survey into Mobile Services 2010. The online survey was undertaken during a 16 day period in March this year and received 1989 responses - pretty impressive I think.

The headline results are as follows:

  • 49% of students surveyed have smartphones.
  • Apple accounted for 35% of smart handsets, followed closely by Nokia at 25% and Blackberry at 17%.
  • 68% of students have pay monthly contracts.
  • 39% have a contract that gives unlimited access to internet.
  • An average of 50% of students access Email and Facebook through their mobiles several times a day.
  • 25% claim to have no internet access from their handsets.
  • The top 3 potential University services which students would most like to see available from their mobiles would be;
    • Course Information
    • Exam and course timetables
    • PC availability in Open Access Labs.

The balance of handset manufacturers in the second bullet point (I assume the switch in language from 'smartphone' to 'smart handset' isn't significant?) doesn't seem too out of kilter with the figures reported by StatCounter (e.g. see their Top 9 mobile browsers in UK from Mar 09 to Mar 10) though I guess the lower figure for BlackBerry in the Edinburgh survey is indicative of the particular audience (and, in any case, StatCounter is measuring usage rather than ownership so I'm not sure it is meaningful to compare the figures anyway).

Not all that surprisingly, access to course information and timetabling is a winner in terms of desired mobile functionality for students.

It would be interesting to see similar data for staff.

And my favorite quote... "Can the wireless service be made to NOT log me out after like, 5 minutes of inactivity?" :-)

March 24, 2010

'Slide talks' as contemporary theatre

I turned 50 a few weeks back. There's no reason for me to tell you that other than someone gave me a copy of David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries as a present. It looks like a good read though I haven't started it yet - but flicking through it earlier today (it's not a novel so I think that's allowed!) I noticed the following passage on PowerPoint which I quite liked:

A History of PowerPoint

I do a talk about the computer presentation program PowerPoint at the University of California in Berkeley for an audience of IT legends and academics. I have, over a couple of years, made little "films" in this program normally used by businesspeople or academics for slide shows and presentations. In my pieces I made the graphic arrows and the corny backgrounds dissolve and change without anyone having to click on the next slide. These content-less "presentations" run by themselves. I also attached music files---sound tracks---so the pieces are like little abstract art films that play off the familiar (to some people) style of this program. I removed, or rather never included, what is usually considered "content," and what is left is the medium that delivers that content. In a situation like this one here in Berkeley one is usually asked to talk about one's work, but rather than do that I have decided to tell the history of the computer program itself. I tell who invented it and who refined it and I offer some subjective views on the program---my own and those of its critics and supporters.

I am terrified. Many of the guys that originally turned PowerPoint into a software program are present. What are they going to think of what I did with their invention? Well, couldn't they just get up to talk about it? They could call me out and denounce me!

Luckily, I'm not talking about the details of the programming but about the ubiquity of the software and how, because of what it does and how it does it, it limits what can be presented---and therefore what is discussed. All media do this to some extent---they do certain things well and leave other things out altogether. This is not news, but by bringing this up, reminding everyone, I hope to help dispel the myth of neutrality that surrounds many software programs.

I also propose that a slide talk, the context in which this software is used, is a form of contemporary theater---a kind of ritual theater that has developed in boardrooms and academia rather than on the Broadway stage. No one can deny that a talk is a performance, but again there is a pervasive myth of objectivity and neutrality to deal with. There is an unspoken prejudice at work in those corporate and academic "performance spaces" that performing is acting and therefore it's not "real." Acknowledging a talk as a performance is therefore anathema. I want to dispel this myth of authenticity somewhat, in an entertaining and gentle way.

The talk goes fine. I can relax, they're laughing. Bob Gaskins, Dennis Austin, and Peter Norvig are all here. Bob Gaskins was one of the guys who refined the original program and realized its potential. Bob declined to be introduced, so I stick with a picture of a concertina when I mention his name. (He's retired and buys and sells antique concertinas now.) That gets a laugh. He tells me afterward that he likes the PowerPoint-as-theater idea, which is a relief. I mean, there is a lot of hatred for this program out there, and a lot of people laugh at the mere mention of bullet points, so he must feel kind of vulnerable.

In working on these pieces, and others, I have become aware that there is a pyramid of control and influence that exists between text, image, and sound. I note that today we give text a preferential position: a label under an image "defines" that image even if it contradicts what we can see. I wonder, in a time before text became ubiquitous, was image (a symbol, a gesture, a sign) the most influential medium? Did sound---singing, chanting, rhythm---come in second, and text, limited as it might have been thousands of years ago, come in third? Was text once a handmaiden to image and sound and then gradually managed to usurp their places and take control? Did the pyramid of communicative power at some point become inverted?

Wittgenstein famously said, "The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for." I am a prisoner of my language.

This presupposes that conscious thought cannot happen without verbal or written language. I disagree. I sense a lot of communication goes on nonverbally---and I don't mean winks and nods. I mean images get ahold of us, as do sounds. They grab and hold us emotionally. Smells too. They can grip in a way that is hard to elucidate verbally. But maybe for Ludwig it just wasn't happening. Or maybe because he couldn't express what sounds, smells, and images do in words he chose to ignore them, to deny that they were communicating.

I like the notion of "presentation as performance" and have increasingly come to see things that way myself. One of the reasons I don't consider myself to be a particularly good presenter is that I'm not a particularly good performer.  I get too nervous and am typically not able to marshal my thoughts clearly or consistently enough.  That said, it is certainly the case that the presentations of mine that I consider to be my best are those where I was able to lose myself in the material - when stuff just flows, something cuts in and takes over.

Role models for good performances/talks are also rather more in our faces than they used to be. (This can be seen as being both good and bad since it highlights how good others can be and probably raises expectations across the board a little.)  I'm thinking particularly of TED talks here.  It strikes me that the Ten Commandments for TED speakers are a good indication of the general move from 'talk' to 'performance'.

And thinking specifically about PowerPoint, it seems to me that the role of the 'slides' in the performance is now a little confused.  I don't know when Byrne wrote this piece but I suspect it was before (or in the absence of knowledge about) the rise of Slideshare.  My slides are certainly part of my 'performance' (such as it is) - and the whole trend for and discussion about the use of image-heavy rather than text-heavy slides is part of that - but if I give my performance in front of a room of, say, 50 people, but then have my slides viewed 5000 times on Slideshare, where is the major impact taking place?  Do I design my slides for the 'performance' or for the 'record'?  Do I create a separate set of slides for each?

I think one now has to acknowledge that the slides live on (in a very significant way) after the performance has been given and design accordingly.

PS.  Noting Byrne's use of the phrase content-less "presentations" - I've seen plenty of those where the slides have lots of text on them! :-)

March 23, 2010

JISC Linked Data call possibilities

Hmmm... I should have written this post about two weeks ago but my blog-writing ain't what it used to be :-).

On that basis, this is just a quick note to say that we (Eduserv) are interested in strand B (the Linked Data strand) of the JISC Grant Funding Call 2/10: Deposit of research outputs and Exposing digital content for education and research.

What can we offer? A pretty decent level of expertise in Linked Data, RDF, RDFa and the Dublin Core and and some experience of modelling data. This comes in the form of your favorite eFoundations contributors, Pete Johnston and Andy Powell. In this instance we are not offering either hosting space or software development.

I appreciate that this comes late in the day and that people's planning will already be quite advanced. But we are keen to get involved in this programme somewhere so if you have a vacancy for the kind of expertise above, please get in touch.

Federating purl.org ?

I suggested a while back that PURLs have become quite important, at least for some aspects of the Web (particularly Linked Data as it happens), and that the current service at purl.org may therefore represent something of a single point of failure.

I therefore note with some interest that Zepheira, the company developing the PURL software, have recently announced a PURL Federation Architecture:

A PURL Federation is proposed which will consist of multiple independently-operated PURL servers, each of which have their own DNS hostnames, name their PURLs using their own authority (different from the hostname) and mirror other PURLs in the federation. The authorities will be "outsourced" to a dynamic DNS service that will resolve to proxies for all authorities of the PURLs in the federation. The attached image illustrates and summarizes the proposed architecture.

Caching proxies are inserted between the client and federation members. The dynamic DNS service responds to any request with an IP address of a proxy. The proxy attempts to contact the primary PURL member via its alternative DNS name to fulfill the request and caches the response for future requests. In the case where the primary PURL member is not responsive, the proxy attempts to contact another host in the federation until it succeeds. Thus, most traffic for a given PURL authority continues to flow to the primary PURL member for that authority and not other members of the federation.

I don't know what is planned in this space, and I may not have read the architecture closely enough, but it seems to me that there is now a significant opportunity for OCLC to work with a small number of national libraries (the British Library, The Library of Congress and the National Library of Australia spring to mind as a usefully geographically-dispersed set) to federate the current service at purl.org ?

March 16, 2010

We met, we tweeted, we archived... then what?

We're all getting increasingly used to using Twitter as a back-channel at events. Indeed, it is now relatively uncommon to turn up for an event at which there isn't both a pre-announced hashtag and an active circle of twitterers already in attendance.

We also recognise that Twitter doesn't leave our tweets lying around for very long in the Twitter search engine and that if we want some kind of a more persistent and accessible record of Twitter activity at an event then we need to arrange for a copy of all the tweets to be archived somewhere. Normally, in my experience at least, TwapperKeeper is currently used to create that archive.

So far, so good... but then what? Offering a vanilla view of a few thousand tweets is potentially useful for those who want to delve into the detail, but it hardly provides an easy to grasp summary of the event.  How can we present a view of the Twitter archive such that a summary is offered without the need to read every tweet?

There are some obvious simple things that can be done with the RSS feed of tweets offered by TwapperKeeper, and I've knocked together a quick demonstrator to show the possibilities...

Firstly, we can count up the total number of tweets, twitterers, hashtags and URLs tweeted during the event. That gives us an overall feel for how 'significant' the use of Twitter was.

Secondly, we can display a list of the people who tweeted and were @replied the most (in Twitter parlance, an @reply is a tweet that directly mentions another Twitter user). We can also see who was involved in most 'conversations' (exchanges of @replies between any two Twitter users). That gives us a feel for who was tweeting the 'loudest'.

Thirdly, we can look at what hashtags and URLs were tweeted the most. That gives us a feel for the topics and resources most related to the topic of the event.

And finally, we can unpick the individual words used in the Twitter archive, providing a kind of 'word cloud' for the event.

None of which is rocket science... but it is potentially useful nonetheless. Here are such summaries for the Repositories and the Cloud meeting that we recently organised with the JISC, for the JISC Dev8D event, and for the National Digital Inclusion 2010 conference (based on the associated TwapperKeeper archives for each of the events).

In a follow-up post to the NDI10 event, After the event, and a subsequent message to the UK Government Data Developers Google Group, Alex Coley suggests going further:

I wondered if a flash based tool could be used to map sentiment by session/topic by giving positive/negative meanings to words and applying this to tweet traffic. Perhaps some real meaning and value could come out of conferences that anyone can access and use.

Sounds interesting, though I have no idea how to implement it!

Dave Challis of the Southampton ECS Web Team has also written up a couple of blog posts following Dev8D, A first look at the dev8d twitter network and Dev8D twitter network, part 2, in which he discusses the analysis of Twitter to see how people's social networks evolve during an event. Fascinating stuff!



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