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I have no excuse. I don’t know what happened. I started blogging again and then I stopped.

Now I’m starting again. Nudge me if I go quiet for too long, won’t you?

I am glad to say that I didn’t leave Lynn Truss’s talk feeling inadequate when it comes to my skills with the English language. In fact, I felt the emphasis on convention rather than rule was refreshing and honest, reflecting a pragmatic attitude to English grammar and acknowledging changes over time which, doubtless, will continue.

The focus was on the purpose of punctuation: the meaning-making that is an essential process of writing.  Not that perfect punctuation can ensure perfect understanding (‘I know you like the back of my hand’ vs ‘I know you like the back of my hand’) but it can help (‘The Queen: without her, dinner is noisy’ vs ‘The Queen without her dinner, is noisy’).

An interesting point was brought out by a questioner: is this lack of interest in punctuation linked to a lack of interest in thinking of the needs of others? Do we think the recipient is responsible for finding the meaning in a message, rather than it being the role of the writer to punctuate it correctly to give the meaning?

Two questions mentioned ‘text speak’ and how it might be part of the decline (symptomatic if not causal), but another mentioned the telex machine which also used a system of abbreviations. An essential difference is of course the number of people who have some experience of text-speak (either using it or have to decipher it) compared with telex users (who must have been relatively rare.)

The one area where I disagreed with Truss was her imagining of a future where all punctuation disappeared. I can’t imagine, since English took up punctuation to enable it to develop a greater level of sophistication, it reverting to a punctuation-free form again whilst it is still written down.

Bath Literature Festival 2012 http://www.bathlitfest.org.uk/lynnetruss.aspx

According to John Gribbin, those of us entertaining the idea that we might find intelligent life on other planets are destined to be disappointed. There appears to be no sign that another advanced civilisation (Gribbin typifies this as one which has advanced to the point of developing radio telescopes) exists.

His central argument hinges on Fermi’s remark that “If aliens exist they would be here“, not seeing any reported ‘alien sightings’ as credible. We have already started to explore beyond our home planet; it would be reasonable to expect another technically sophisticated civilisation (it would only take one) to have done the same. If they think Earth too ‘infected’ to visit they could have sent probes. If their politics are isolationist, it would have only taken one independent individual (with sufficient funds) to explore themselves (and would all alien civilisations be isolationist simultaneously?) We know that only part of our galaxy is inhabitable, they could have worked that out too, and reduced the time it would take to find us. One possibility exists, that we are the oldest and most advanced of the civilisations in the universe and the others have yet to reach a level of technical ability to explore space; but is this likely?

It’s not a happy thought for us members of the Star Trek generation, brought up with space exploration as just another one of those thing we did. We expected that we would have been on Mars long ago. We didn’t know that we wouldn’t have to worry about aliens because there weren’t any.

[‘The Reason Why’ – John Gribbin; talk given at The Mineral Hospital on March 3, 2012 as part of the Bath Literature Festival 2012]

I’ve recently become involved with ebooks on both a personal and professional level. As a keen reader I’ve been considering whether ebooks were for me and whether I should consider a dedicated ebook reader (ereader). We are also considering ebooks and ereaders, for our distance learners, as an alternative to supplying them with traditional textbooks.

A little research reveals that ebooks are produced in different formats but not all ebooks are available in all formats… and not all readers can display ebooks in all formats. There are extremely detailed comparison tables of ereaders (this one, for instance) and unless ebooks can always be converted into a format of choice, the user is left making a decision on their choice of ereader based on what format of ebook they foresee wishing to use. A less than optimal situation.

As well as dedicated ereaders there are of course other options for reading ebooks, including tablets/PCs/laptops/netbooks and mobile phones. The first group offers the greater flexibility in formats that can be displayed, but possibly a less comfortable reading experience than with a device with an e-ink screen and less mobility some cases. Mobile phones offer the greatest access when it comes to mobility, but the small screen size brings issues of its own along with limited memory size.

Attending the very well attended JISC Digital Media online surgery ‘Getting Started with ebooks’ this week we learnt more about creating ebooks including multimedia, insuring accessibility and copyright.

Those producing ebooks have obvious responsibilities (eg accessibility and copyright) but many options with the technology they choose to use. Recognising that readers may be using one (or more) of many possible devices to access the ebook must be the first consideration, because it determines:

  • what formats of ebook can be accessed (and therefore what titles)
  • the screen size which could affect how well the pages can be displayed (eg large tables or detailed diagrams)
  • whether colour can be seen (coloured diagrams rendered in B/W may be much less useful)
  • memory size (if the ebooks are intended to be stored on the device)

 

Possible solutions to this for ebook producers are:

  • produce ebooks that can be viewed fully on  the lowest specification device (eg smallest screen, B/W, lowest memory)
  • produce ebooks in all the major formats

 

Those wanting their students to access available ebooks could:

  • prescribe a device that the student would need to provide for themselves
  • provide a device for each student (could be a loan)

 

I would be interested to hear if anyone has succeeded in making what they feel is a successful choice of ereader/other device for students to access academic texts.

Since moving to Bath I’ve been privileged to be able to attend Bathcamp meetings (http://bathcamp.org/). I’d picked up on these events via Twitter before I moved here, even before I knew I was moving here, and at the time couldn’t help wishing that I could somehow have the opportunity of attending. And here I am in Bath… which is how life works sometimes.

The theme of Bathcamp 29 was design.

Richard Caddick (@richardcaddick) kicked the evening off with a presentation entitled The Value of Imagination which touched on the importance of the interplay between differing fields (eg artist and scientific approaches to cooking). It’s not the first time this has been pointed out and it always makes me think of the lack of design for (almost design-against) cross-fertilisation in organisations; but I digress…

Many interesting points about form design in Forms are Boring from Joe Leech (@mrjoe) based on his experience of designing them and, perhaps more importantly, seeing the user experience test data when forms are trialled. Just as I’m convinced you can’t effectively proof your own writing, it’s got to be just as important to get someone else (preferably a member of the target audience or at least a real person*) to try using a form you have designed. Tips included dropping the asterisk next to mandatory  fields and just putting ‘optional’ next to the others (since real people tend not to look for the meaning of the asterisk, and ‘optional’ is a term real people understand). For the slides that accompanied the talk see: http://joeleech.net/user-experience/forms-are-boring/ which proved that forms are not boring and there really is no excuse for a badly designed form.

Last but not least was Jon Waring on Designing Recognisable Sites that have an Agenda, a really inspiring look at how a creative organisation looks at design when they work with clients. Slides for this talk can be found here: http://www.slideshare.net/3SixtyInternet/measurable-meaningful

*if you’ve scrolled down here to look for the meaning of the asterisk this may mean you are not a ‘real person’. Don’t worry, I would have scrolled down too, and yet I still find I am able to live a full and active life.

This was the title of the presentation given by Adrian Bowyer of the University of Bath at Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute (BRLSI). Dr Bowyer is best known for the RepRap (replicating rapid prototyper), a 3D printer capable, of amongst other things, of reproducing its own composite parts. However, rather than focus on that, this talk comprised a number of ‘problems’ (or at least, situations) where Dr Bowyer offers his particular insights and possible solutions based on currently available technology or understood principles.

Ideas on which he elaborated including translating glasses (based on holography); explosive-metabolising microbes; robots that created photovoltaic cells from desert sand (laying them as they were produced and powering the robots to continue);  shoes with inbuilt bellows for cooling and a chemical name capitalisation convention to aid pronunciation.

For those who haven’t yet seen it, Darwin, the first machine released by the RepRap project, is currently on show in BRLSI (Queens Square, Bath): http://www.brlsi.org/

More information on the RepRap project can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RepRap_Project

I’m in the process of handing over a website to be archived and backing up a large number of related resources by adding them to a repository.

It’s coincidental that I was also in the process of updating many of these resources with Creative Commons (CC) licences. As part of the process, I created a rights register, basically a combination of a spreadsheet recording all the resources and their copyright holders,  and copies of the replies received when the copyright holders were asked for their permission to use a CC licence on their work. This rights register was then passed on to those archiving the website and managing the repository.

As these resources shortly become someone else’s responsibility, it occurred to me that perhaps this sort of information (particularly permissions given) should be routinely held in the repository that stores the resource. This could be useful should there be a challenge to the licensing, particularly since materials can outlive their creators and the ‘depositor’ information that repositories routinely hold can quickly go out of date (job change, retirement, etc.)

Are there any repository managers thinking about storing information from rights registers for the long distant future of their resources?

I was probably not the person who found their heart sinking  a little when they read the comment from a government adviser with regards the removal of climate change from the national curriculum.

Rather than for the sake of the topic itself,  I thought it important enough for inclusion because of how well it illustrates a couple of important issues:  science doesn’t always deliver nice pat answers and scientists don’t always agree. Some non-scientists have been known to express complete disappointment in science/scientists when this happens. Including subjects where there is still debate would seem to be a suitable way of countering this naive view of science as something that does your thinking for you, and scientists as people without opinions.

Further along in the same article, it is suggested that we need to teach content that doesn’t “…date”.  So no content based on theories then which, by definition, could be disproved? I know this wasn’t what was intended but again it seems to suggest a lack of understanding of what science is, something changing and developing.

Presumptuous, I know, but I’ve a request: next time you make a podcast, please release it with a transcript.

‘Why would I want to do that?’

Because someone, in fact many people, would appreciate it. For someone profoundly deaf, an audio-only podcast is inaccessible, without a transcript it offers nothing whatsoever. But even for those who can hear the audio, a transcript can be a help if the podcast is in a language with which the listener is not fully familiar or the speaker is aware they have a heavy accent. A transcript can be useful for all as it can be scanned through to see if the content is of interest before listening, to review key points or to extract specific information quickly.

‘But it’s extra work.’

Yes, but not a great deal if you are working from a script and you probably at least have some notes to get you started. And the point is, the podcast will be of more use to more people.

‘I don’t make podcasts.’

No, neither do I, so why not ask those you know who do if they will consider adding transcripts in the future, or at least trialling the idea.

‘And what will you be doing while we are doing this?’

To get you started, if you have a podcast* you have made for use in an educational context of no more than about 3 minutes, send it to me and I will produce a transcript for you**; then you can see if anyone uses it and whether they found it useful. I will also tell you how long it took me to produce (and that’s typing with two fingers.)

‘Anything else?’

Well, a comment below would be appreciated if you have experience of transcripts,  as a producer or user.

* one podcast per person; some editing on your part may be necessary when it comes to names and specialist terms beyond my ken; offer ends April 2011; English is my only language, sorry.

**I’ll be doing this in my own time, in case my line manager reads this.

 

Update 24/01/2011:

I’ve learnt via Twitter that the QAA will provide a transcript to a podcast upon request. When I asked why they were not made available  on the website without request I was informed ‘Providing resources when requested lets us target funding where needed, rather than routine transcripts that may be unread.’ In a world when resources are a) finite and b) always a bit less than you would like, I can see this argument, but I can also see contrary ones (see original post above.) What do you think?

I was attracted to this conference both for the content which sounded intriguing but also to experience a wholly on-line conference.

The presentations and workshops were spread what at first seemed very thinly across the time available. But once I had attended a couple of sessions I began to really appreciated the breaks: it allowed me to keep up with my other responsibilities for the day, catch my breath and gather my thoughts. Each session was very intense with the oral presentation, slides, the synchronous and asynchronous panes to follow. It was a real challenge to take it all in and keep up; how the presenters managed, I do not know. The use of facilitators seemed to be an excellent idea and did at least aid the speaker in the balancing act of giving their presentation with following the ‘conversation’ going on amongst the audience sufficiently well to be able to comment and answer questions.

I couldn’t choose a highlight as I enjoyed all the sessions I attended both for the presented material and the interaction with other attendees. All were thought provoking.

I have attended a number of individual on-line sessions before this conference, many of them using Elluminate (the same tool used here), and though I could never say that I would like virtual meetings to replace all face to face events, I see real benefits. Short meetings are simply hard to justify the time spent in travelling, let alone the expense, and attending remotely may enable some to attend and still fulfil other commitments on the same day. Virtual conferences may enable some to attend events they would not otherwise be able to afford. Who wouldn’t support something that enables conferences and workshops to continue in lean times and possibly attract a greater range of attendees.

But I wonder also if there isn’t something extra to be gained from on-line meetings. It’s often said one of the most important aspects (or at least most often achieved) of face to face meetings is networking. I don’t know if it just the virtual meetings that I have attended, but I notice a lot more interaction, and between many more people, than in face to face events. Of course, what the quality of this interaction is, only time will tell. It would also be interesting to know how presenters feel about the kind of session where the audience can be ‘talking’ even more than they are.

My Tweets on the event