Sunday, 30 May 2010

why I am fascinated by the classics

in a word – exoticism.

I am, and always have been fascinated by the classical world in much the same way that I love going to to Asian supermarkets and looking at packets in languages that I cannot read. And also in the same way that I love Persian and Indian minatures, Turkish and Moroccan rugs, and am always more than happy to have a bowl of pho for lunch.

It is a fascination for the exotic, the different. In much the same way that once France was fascinating and exotic because the cars had yellow headlights and everywhere smelled of black tobacco and dodgy plumbing, I am fascinated by the classical and early medieval world as a window into somewhere different.

Increasingly the world is the same everywhere. Globalisation has brought benefits but it has also made the world more uniform, more bland.

So I’m seeking a different world, one of colours and differences. An explorer journeying in time.

And the thing is, there are always new things to fascinate. Like Pausinas’s off the cuff comment about how traders from China avoided Bactria and Parthia and walked over the Hindu Kush and down into the Indus valley.

Which of course is why Alexander went there and why we have the periplus of the Erythrean sea – it was a better safer trade route.

Or that the Romans had a silk works on Cos. Or Pliny’s story about Roman soldiers on the Rhine encountering a man in the skin boat from over the ocean.

Or, despite my complete lack of religious belief, feeling my spine tingle when, at an archaeological site somewhere in the hills of western Turkey, the guide casually mentions that there is a record of St Paul preaching on the still visible podium in the forum of a ruined city.

And it’s the same urge that makes me want to try a green tea from Vietnam, because the packet looks interesting, rather than the tea everyone else drinks.

Not rational.

But it’s my kink and what makes me who I am. It’s also what I enjoy about living in Canberra. The old guys talking in Greek and Italian in the market, the fat Chinese schoolgirls giggling in Cantonese while doing their music practice on the bus home, and the pouty Indian teenagers looking on, waiting for someone to buy them a Lexus. And the shops full of jars and packets labelled in Thai, Macedonian, Russian, Chinese and Korean. The Vietnamese grandmothers scolding their daughters for picking up vegetables that are not absolutely fresh. I enjoy it all.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

what newspapers on the iPad might do for scholarship

Scaling out from my previous post, and also my earlier posts on e-readers and linearity, one thought that strikes me is that the newspaper apps for the ipad might give an experience more like scholarly reading, flicking back and forth etc, and might give us a basis of design for a scholarly reading application and a toolkit for building one.

I must admit though, that despite the logic of the market pushing us towards the iPad as a platform, I feel uneasy at the lockin to Apple’s walled garden that would fall out of this.

On the other hand I’m damned if at the moment I can suggest a sensible viable sounding alternative platform..


like almost everyone else I’ve not been immune to the iPad hype, as my twitter feed attests. I’ve even vaguely thought of getting one, despite the only iPad I’ve seen so far has been powered down and sitting in a protected sleeve on someone’s desk.

It may be a game changing platform or it may not.  Certainly a number of newspapers are hoping that it will be and that  subscribers will be sufficiently motivated to move online via an iPad.

Take the case of the Australian. Like all the serious Murdoch owned press it is moving its web content behind a paywall. At the same time it is offering iPad users access to the content via its app for $4.99 a month – the cost of three copies of the printed paper.

If one was Machiavellian one might guess that they’re hoping that people who read the paper online will prefer the better experience on the iPad, and then doubtless content via the iPad will creep up in cost, and at the same time make the content available online more and more restricted.

Of course, if like me you like to skim the Australian, the Guardian, the Times, the NYT and the SMH, one’s newspaper addiction becomes a fairly expensive habit …

Thursday, 27 May 2010

ereaders and linearity

building out from my recent post on e-book readers and scholarship, I came across a report from the Seattle Times that college students are also unhappy with the linearity of the reading process on the Kindle.

This is a live issue - informal tests of reading on e-book readers of various types, including my own - have concentrated on the mechanics of the reading process, not on usability for different types of reading.

This linearity problem seems to be a major stumbling block for using e-book readers - either devices or software like stanza - to work with reference works. We are of course talking digitised reference works rather than born digital reference works that come with search and indices built in, ie as an extreme example, compare looking for a word in a digitised dictionary, as opposed to using an online or cdrom version.

It also blows away one of the major use cases in universities. One thing that most universities want to do is to encourage students to read around their subject, and start to think and analyse content.

In the old days this was done by reading lists and putting journal articles on reserve. Nowadays, quite often this is done by producing a reading brick - basically a thick bound wodge of supporting material that students plough through.

Obviously if it worked putting this out as an electronic reading set for download would save a vast amount in printing costs as well as saving students having to lug around a large pile of bound paper. Unfortunately it doesn't look that this is the case.

As I've said before, we need more sophisticated ereader software, and perhaps some standards around metadata and indices to avoid some of the problems of lack of standardisation that were found in the glory days of cd-rom networking, where different vendors engines worked differently and provided different user intefaces

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

ktlo and bau

Computing, like medicine, and half a dozen other disciplines abound in TLA's (three letter acronyms) and ETLA's (extended TLA's, ie acronyms with four or more letters)

Some are obscure and deeply technical and some, like RTFM - please read the accompanying documentation - have entered popular culture.

This morning I was at a Google presentation and I came across two acronyms new to me:
  • KTLO - keeping the lights on - that nebulous part of IT operations management that ensures servers are patched, maintained, storage is provisioned, servers are configured, data is backed up and so on , ie the routine operations that ensure that the magic keeps working for users
  • BAU - business as usual - that part of a company's business that is enabled by KTLO

Monday, 24 May 2010

travelling and toilets

If one travels, one sooner or later needs to go to the loo, usually in a public-ish toilet (public-ish as sometimes it belongs to a cafe or a restaurant and is nominally provided for clients).

And one thing that differs the world over is the attitude to public-ish toilets - as seen by this post about the need to bring your own toilet paper in Chile.

In fact bringing your own toilet paper is generally a good idea anywhere, availability and quality can vary dramatically from location to location. So here's my summary:

Australia - almost always free. Ones in servos and airports are usually not to bad, the long drops in national parks can be smelly, and the roadside dunnies, especially in NSW, can be disgusting. Own paper, own hand sanitiser and a bottle of water to wash of any residue from the sanitiser a good idea.

Singapore - nowadays clean, functional and generally ok

France - can be sit downs, can be squatters. If it's not in a cafe or a restaurant can be disgusting. Own toilet paper, hand sanitiser etc a must, along with a ready supply of small change. Attended toilets are generally clean and pleasant.

Spain - surprisingly good. Countryside seems infested by underemployed middle aged women with a bleach fixation who look after servo toilets.

Netherlands - usually clean and efficient.

Germany - beware the nice trick of putting the toilet paper dispenser outside of the stalls - a bit of forethought can be required.

Morocco - small change is always required and the quality can vary from glistening to disgusting. Carry your own paper, hand sanitiser and a bottle of water. One of the oddest experiences I had was in a hotel where the attendant flushed the loo for you (and expected a tip)

Greece - again surprisingly good, but remember that the paper goes in the bin and not down the loo.

Turkey - varies from the glistening to disgusting but usually ok. Carry your own requisites and remember that paper goes in the bin, not down the loo. Also not all toilets flush - instead you fill that nice little green plastic watering can from the tap and use that to wash your residue away.

Thailand and Laos, much as Turkey, except that the paper can go down the loo. Be alert to the implications of cheap hotels that mention asian style toilets - this could simply be a squatter, or could involve that nice little watering can again ...

Malaysia - variable. In the cities can be clean and sparkling, but in the country rather more like Thailand or Laos. Small change and requisites generally a good idea.

United States - go to McDonald's (or indeed any other reasonable fast food restaurant)

UK - highly variable, rarely disgusting, but often not quite as clean as you'd expect. Public ones at main train stations are extortionate. Having some small change is usually a good idea, as increasing is following the US strategy of going to fast food restaurants to use the loo

bottles and jars

Archaeologists like pots. Pottery is durable, and is used to cook or store things in.

In the Roman and Byzantine context it's even more valuable as pottery production was concentrated in relatively few centres and we can work out a sequence of various types for each production centre. This tells us stuff like where a particular place was getting its pottery from, and at what times in history.

And of course the Romans and Byzantines used amphorae, pottery storage jars to ship around stuff like olive oil, fish sauce, wine, and wheat from place to place, letting us work out things about the flow of trade. That's why for example we can say with reasonable confidence the Byzantine period trade with the post roman British successor states came from north Africa, and not from Spain or somewhere further east under Byzantine control.

Recently I woke up at three in the morning and couldn't get back to sleep, and I started thinking about beer bottles and jam jars. Like pottery they're durable, and a lot of them are quite easy to identify. For example a Grolsch 330ml bottle is quite characteristic, and while a Bon Maman jam jar looks like a Bonjour jar - both have a fluted neckless design, they have different factory marks making them easy to tell apart.

The other thing that's good about jars was that they are quite often reused to store things, like pulses and bottled fruit.

Now our knowledge of european settlement in nineteenth century Australia is sometimes a little sketchy, but of course these people were in contact with the cities, and perhaps by mapping jar and bottle types to location, and tracing their provenance.

And we should be able to do this as people would have got their beer and whisky from particular places, and their bottled and preserved products, and when they'd used up the contents they'd either toss them on the dump out the back of the house, or else re-use them, and once they broke, toss them on the dump.

Doing this means we can perhaps start asking questions like:
  1. Did people always get their beer from big breweries in the cities, and if not when did this centralisation begin (my guess is with the railways)?
  2. Did people get many of their preserved products from the UK or elsewhere in preference to local production?
  3. Can we see a developing pattern over time of the displacement of imported products by local products?
  4. Can we use the distribution of jar types to map the boundaries of european settlement over time?
  5. Do we see in the distribution of jar and bottle types in aboriginal camps evidence of contact and trade?
And of course, does this tell us anything that we don't know about the process of settlement.

This of course doesn't just apply to the archaeology of european settlement in Australia. The same model could doubtless be extended to european colonization in Africa, in New Zealand, Malaysia, and North America.

All that needs to happen is to do it. The only problem is getting the initial information. In Australia at least there is a problem of bottle hunters, people who go fossicking for old nice looking bottles to sell as antiques, and like some metal detectorists in the UK, they're not particularly careful about recording what they found where, and of course only want the 'nice' ones.

Still, it might be interesting to give it a go, perhaps initially by looking at datasets from existing digs ...

Sunday, 23 May 2010

ebook readers and scholarship

I recently tweeted a link to a YouTube video entitled ‘A scholar gets a kindle and starts to read’. It’s certainly well worth a watch, especially if you enjoy the patrician disdain style of lecturing affected by Oxbridge and the Ivy league.

It’s also quite interesting for what it says about ebook readers and scholarship. Now I’m not a scholar, I’m an amateur, but I used to be a scholar – experience which has stood me in good stead over the years – and I have an insight into the business of scholarship and something that actually is not too removed from the business much of my day to day work.

Now what I have been doing with my Cool-er e-reader is reading Tacitus and a set of letters from 1870’s Japan – recreational reading and definitely not scholarship. What I have not been doing is reading technical documents – which is what I thought I would do given most of them exist as pdf’s. Use an e-reader, save a tree, etc.

Well that’s just not happened. Firstly, one really needs a reflowable format such as epub, rather than a fixed ‘this is what a printed one looks like’ format like pdf to work on an e-reader, and the damned linearity of the reading process on the e-reader. It took a scholar to point it out but it’s true.

If one reads Lindsey Davis it’s reading for relaxation and one wants to be told a story and start at the beginning and go through to the end. Definitely a linear narrative.

Read Tacitus, or 19th century letters describing life in early Meiji Japan, one still needs linearity and to break off and think about things. Here the e-book reader is good – it remembers where you are so you can easily go back to the place you were.

Try and read something complex where one needs to refer forward and back, highlight and scribble notes it doesn’t quite work. You can’t do it, you need what is effectively a commonplace book to write notes in and refer back – just as one did as an undergraduate in the days before technology – in my case St Andrews in the 1970’s, and like the 70’s one then needs to diagram some sort of relationship between the notes.

So, the e-book reader fails scholarship, but then it never set out to be more than a text presentation device. The question is can one develop a scholarly workbench set of tools that work on an iPad like device that let one carry out complex reading.

I purposely say iPad like, as I suspect a linux based tablet such as the JooJoo with a multi tasking operating system and an enormous code base of scholarly tools might be a better place to start from …

Thursday, 20 May 2010

News journalism and the new media

The events in Bangkok, and possibly elsewhere in Thailand are a tragedy. They are also a tragedy for the Thais alone. I personally would not claim to have enough of an understanding of Thai politics to comment, other than to say that there is clearly a tension between the prosperity around greater Bangkok and the relative poverty of the rural poor in the north and east of Thailand.

And I doubt if this is just a recent problem. When in 2006 we rode the ordinary second class green bus to Chiang Mai from Chiang Khong via Chiang Rai there were a lot of armed police checkpoints and identity card checks for the Thais on the bus, but not for the foreigners. This could have been because it was New year, or because there was a major international economic summit in Chiang Mai the following week. It doesn't matter, what matters is that there was something even then that caused the authorities to increase security.

However one lesson which was reinforced by yesterday's events was the power of the new media. Pictures posted to twitpic and facebook, updates from reporters blackberries and iphones, video uploaded to youtube, showing that in a country like Thailand, with relatively good infrastructure and a belief in democracy censorship really is no longer possible.

The other thing that was interesting was the number of professional journalists and news photographers embracing the new media to report on events as they unfolded - journalism is not dead, but the process of newsgathering has clearly changed.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

talking about things people find unacceptable

A long time ago I used be an animal behaviour researcher.

And one of the reasons why we study animals is to find models for the models for the biological bases of human behaviour, which means human sexual behaviour, social behaviour and the rest. Fundamental questions like 'why are humans (fairly) monogamous?' when other primates are not. 'Why do we not live in extended family groups?' is another such question.

And this research can take you to some places that some people find uncomfortable because it touches on aspects of their lives. Other people are of course fascinated and utterly open about it. We really are all different.

If you have any doubt about the range of things people consider acceptable try a search on Flickr for words like nude with safe search turned off. You may be amused, surprised, offended or all three. Don't say I didn't warn you.

The reason I'm writing this is the news (THES, New Scientist) that a lecturer at University College Cork, has been placed on a sexual harrassment charge for showing a female colleague material relating to his research on sexual behaviour in fruit bats.

Now, it may be that sexual harrassment took place - we all know that such things do happen in academia, and that what we'll coyly call coercive assymetric relationships do sometimes occur between researchers and students, certainly that was the case in at least one department I worked in, and also that these turn bad.

And if such behaviour has taken place the college authorities are right to be concerned.

However, what I am worried about is that this case and the fall out from it will inhibit research in these areas which may or may not help us understand the biological bases of human behaviour and why sometimes we do what we do. Researchers will simply shun work in some areas because of the risks of being hauled up on a disciplinary charge, despite the research topic and design being agreed by the departmental ethics committee and (usually) subject to clearance by funding bodies or regulatory agencies. And that would be bad.

Monday, 17 May 2010

It's the browser stupid...

A few months ago I wrote that the imac I recycled into a linux desktop had reached the end of its useful life and, at the same time, my $83 linux desktop had died, and as a consequence I'd gone and bought myself a Dell laptop running Windows 7.

At the time I was slightly wary of the experience, having moved away from Microsoft as a result of some of their more monopolistic practices, and also I never quite felt comfortable with Vista and XP didn't seem show much progress beyond 2003.

Well three or so months using Windows 7 I've found that as along as the operating system is competent, you don't care.

Windows 7 is competent.

It runs what I need well. And increasingly all I need is Firefox and a Skype client. being able to run Firefox means email, Google Docs, Google Reader, Twitter, and a calendar. Productivity has moved to the cloud, so that I have the same desktop at home on my laptop that I do on my work laptop - a MacBook - or within some limitations - on my Asus netbook.

And this is interesting. Well into the middle of the last decade the operating system you ran controlled the applications you ran, so the operating system with the richest software base won out.

This isn't the case. And while there are some nice tricks I can do on windows 7, such as using Gladinet to mount my windows skydrive, none of them are showstoppers.

And if for any reason I need a heavier weight office application I can run Open Office, which runs equally well on Windows, Mac and Linux and does everything I want professionally.

Running browser based applications means one becomes agnostic as to platform, and equally frees oneself from having to always carry a particular machine. The combination of dropbox and the Google ecology means I don't have to take my laptop home unless I want to, and with a little bit of forethought can preload documents and material on my netbook to save the continual hassle of carrying a full size laptop through airport security

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

non anglophone open access

In the anglophone world, the move to open access (and or online publication - the two are not synonyms although they are often treated as if they are) is often seen as a way of breaking the monopoly of academic publishers over scholarly publication and hence reducing the operating costs of libraries, as well as having the by product of increasing access to scholarly communication, given that electronic distribution is effectively free (it isn't, but the cost of a webserver, a copy of eprints and some poor RA's time to look after it make it considerably cheaper to do, especially if all or part is funded on the user pays model).

So far so good. And we also all recognise that the flaw in argument that the established journals are seen to carry more weight, and consequently, in the points means prizes culture of academic publishing and bibliometrics, researchers are not going to want to publish in an online open access journal if they can get in to the Journal of Very Important Things.

However, lets say that you publish in French, in a French language journal. The publication costs are higher due to the smaller subscriber base and the impact is less, well, because it's in French.

Consequently your publications are not going to be as highly ranked as publications in English in the same field, which risks condemning your research to obscurity. And not just French, Publish in German, Spanish, Portugese or Russian and you face the same problems.

Open access/online publication works for you, especially if you provide an english language abstract, simply because search engines are agnostic as to source, but instead rank order on the number of referring links. If your field is not well known, everything is probably fairly flat and equal, meaning that the english language abstract of a paper on byzantine pot assemblages is as likely to be found as a paper in english on the same subject, ie it gets your research out there, and as a consequence increase its apparent worth.

So it's not surprising to see that open access (and multilingual open access at that) is alive and well in France, with sites such as operating to publicise new work and content.

One question for us in Australia and New Zealand though is, that if we go open access, do we drop off the publications map, and do we then need a similar initiative to publicise our research?