Category Archives: random thoughts

Where did my work go?

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As I look around for work (my current search is for freelance pieces of work in the digital humanities area), I’ve been working out how much of what I did in my sixteen years at ILRT at Bristol University has survived in a recognisable form. Obviously there are publications, such as an article in Ariadne and more recently a prizewinning essay. But my online legacy is harder to trace.

Many projects I worked on were pilots for services which never appeared, or in one case planning what one might do if suitable funding could be found. Others were never intended to last long (e.g. surveys), or have changed out of all recognition over time. Few websites provide anything like the same service as they did in the last millennium, when I started working. The mighty edifice that was SOSIG and then Intute (in which I had a small hand) was frozen when the funding on it was pulled. Other services are now inaccessible to me: for example, BOPCRIS and the 18th century parliamentary papers are behind a paywall, and INASP may or may not be using the repository I designed for them.

A recurring pattern seems to be that my clients (the people I worked and communicated with directly) and their superiors had different ideas about what should actually be done. A case in point was From History to Her Story (for WYAS); our site was on the point of release when the content ‘had to’ be moved to another service provider. Most of the content vanished from the new site, and what remained was largely broken. Years later the site moved again to a third host and the content reappeared – at the cost of paying twice for the same piece of work! Something similar, but with less duplication of effort, happened to EPPI. I have written elsewhere about some of the aftermath of BOPCRIS. I could give several more examples.

Also, looking more closely and bearing in mind the passage of time, what strikes me is not that there isn’t much online now, but that a lot of things I worked on never saw the light of day at all. Perhaps this was the nature of work there, that we undertook a lot of pilot, proof-of-concept and experimental projects.

So what remains? Hidden Lives Revealed (for the Children’s Society), which won a prize from the Institute of Archivists, was handed over smoothly to another service provider and is still active. Another functioning continuation of my work is Bristol University’s Research Data Management service, for which I was involved in the pilot phase, data.bris. data.bris made sufficient impact that its name is still attached to the service, although not all the staff could be retained. The Bristol University InfoSafe tutorial (aimed at support staff), which I helped to write, is also still available as is Jisc Digital Media’s ‘Developing Community Collections’ resource, although in the latter case I was only involved with putting the content online, not creating it. There are other tutorials and the like around the place which I helped to put together. Not very easy to point out my contributions to a potential employer, but there is a body of stuff there.

What I’d have done about Olympic tickets

Like many people I had the frustration of trying to buy Olympic tickets (remember, I’m a tennis fan!) in the days leading up to the Games, only to find that tickets had been sold by the time I’d got through the application procedure.  The whole ticketing procedure was a mess – we inadvertently disqualified ourselves from some of the early rounds (which were on sale only to the ticketless) by having bought tickets for the football, which was so undersubscribed we could have walked up and bought them on the gate on the day.

But above all there was the frustration of seeing banks of empty seats at events I’d have loved to attend, representing tickets allocated to sponsors etc. and not used. May I suggest for Rio 2016 the following procedure?

Give sponsors and the other ‘Olympic family’ not actual tickets, but a voucher which the recipient (the person going to the Games) has to exchange for a real ticket by a given date, say 6 weeks before the Games begin.  Tickets corresponding to vouchers which have not been converted in this way by the deadline go on sale to the public.  Of course setting up the mechanism for converting vouchers to tickets costs money, but some of that at least would be recouped by the sale of the unconverted tickets which would otherwise have been unused.  And there is value in having pictures of full stadia, swimming pools and other venues to beam around the world on TV, rather than embarrassingly unfilled areas.

While I’m on the subject, there was the usual mess with modern pentathlon, where it makes a huge amount of difference how well an athlete gets on with a horse they have just ridden for the first time.  I’ve nothing against equestrian events in the Games, but this much randomness is farcical. Why not make the modern pentathlon really modern and have the competitors race cars or do karting (say), rather than ride a horse?

Wimba style

I’ve been editing a Word document which we are then going to convert into a set of slides using Wimba Create.  A little way in, I started to feel that there was too much use of abbreviations such as etc., e.g. and i.e. – I then remembered that this text was destined to be displayed on a slide and so writing things out in full would result in something that was too wordy.  After that I restrained the urge to expand abbreviations.

But it was quite hard to exercise this restraint, because of the visual mismatch between the format of a Word document and the style required for something that is going to appear as slides. I wouldn’t have had a problem with editing the same text presented to me as slides.  This is a problem with the Wimba approach, where you create your slideshow as a Word document, and apply particular styles which tell Wimba where to put slide breaks and so on.

Why smartphones are like Colman’s Mustard

It used to be said that Colman’s Mustard made their money not from the mustard that people consumed, but from what they took from the jar and left on the side of their plate.  After a few months of using a Samsung Galaxy Ace, I’m beginning to think that the makers of some mobile phones work in a rather similar way.  If I get an answerphone message because I miss a call, I have to ring up and collect it.  I try to keep such calls short by knowing which keypad numbers play and delete messages and typing them as soon as I can.  But there’s often an awkward gap at the end, especially if my phone has locked itself in the meantime, so I must type a password and then ‘pull down’ a special screen to end the call. 

Sent from my laptop

I’ve noticed an increasing number of messages arriving with ‘Sent from my Blackberry/iPad/iPhone/HTC’ or similar at the end.

Now I think I know what the official purpose of these tags is.  It’s to explain to the reader why the message may be lacking the usual signature, and be terser than usual, without a salutation or other padding, and to excuse typos.  But let’s face it, part of the point is to crow ‘I’ve got an iPhone (or whatever) – bet you haven’t!’  It’s a bit like the ‘Baby on board’ stickers on cars.  Of course, there’s nothing to stop you putting one of these tags at the end of a message if you don’t have the equipment in question but would like people to think you did.  (Just be prepared for them to ask to see it next time you meet!)

farewell to cyber-

A couple of weeks ago I visited a website I occasionally use, CyberHymnal and reflected that you hear a lot less of the cyber- prefix these days.  It’s essentially a 1990s usage (CyberHymnal was started in 1996), and has dated in the new millennium.  For many the term ‘Internet’ has taken over the semantic area that ‘cyberspace’ used to denote, and the prefix has not thrived independently of the word which gave it birth.

As a classicist, I’m not terribly sorry about the loss of this, as it was always annoying that the root kubern- meaning ‘to guide’ had lost its final letter.  Perhaps we just don’t think of computer-mediated activity as being purposive and directed any more, or more likely the prefix has just fallen out of fashion.

I will leave this subject with fond memories of another ‘cyber-‘ institution of the 1990s (and still in existence), Cybersitter, a package for censoring undesirable content from computer screens.  When implemented at one public library, it caused much merriment as it zealously ignored word boundaries in its eagerness to obliterate the rude words on its list.  I was told that a phrase on one of my pages now read ‘StockporX XXXelf’, for example.  Cybersitter was discontinued after one enquirer found themselves looking at the page of Her Majesty’s CustomX & XXcise …

Proactis wishlist

Recently we started using Proactis for submitting expense claims and invoicing. There are a number of comments I could make about Proactis’ performance (for example that expense claims seem to take longer than they used to to process), but for now I’ll confine myself to its Web interface and a few things that have struck me as I’ve started using it, mostly in regard to terminology.

The terms used on the Web forms are not those used in emails to Proactis users.  For example ‘EL2 activity code’ in an email = ‘Completer’s Budget Check’ on the form, ‘EL1’ or ‘Element Code’= ‘Charge to Grant no.’  Sometimes I wonder whether Proactis should be added to our modern language courses.  At least it should be possible to read an email in conjunction with a form on screen and see what the email refers to. Either the staff who deal with processing Proactis submissions should be trained to use the terminology on the form, or the terms used by these staff should appear on the form (in brackets or failing that in an online help field linked from the form).  I’ve been referred to the training documentation, and while this may be useful it isn’t directly linked from Proactis forms, and one shouldn’t need a separate document to ‘translate’ emails into the terminology used on the forms.

‘Nominal code’  This field appears when you submit a claim, but does not appear as such when you review it.  A vaguer term would be hard to find; the only clue is that it should refer to a name somehow.  It’s actually a top-level way of referring to your department or section.  A particularly irritating feature is that it is impossible to change one’s default nominal code so I have to alter the default in the same way on each and every claim I make.

Very hard to edit the ‘comments’ for an expense item If I wish to do this, the only way to change the comment is to delete it and replace it. Although it appears possible to make changes in the comment box, the changes aren’t saved. Worse, it is possible to think your changes have gone through when they haven’t.

‘Awaiting coding’ Alongside a claim, this means that a claim has been received but hasn’t been processed yet.  The wording suggests that the next action should be on the part of someone processing the claim, but it can mean that your receipts haven’t arrived yet and so it is up to the claimant to investigate. No prompt is sent to the claimant to ask them to do this. One claim of mine was stuck for weeks until I found this out.

Add Multiple Expense Items These words appear when you add an item to an expense claim. There are various things this could mean, but none of them are what actually happens when you select the words, which is that you go to another screen where you are asked to submit details of the item you’ve just added.

Searching for claims It’s not clear that you can leave all fields in the search form blank and retrieve all your claims.

Deleting a claim If you mess up a claim and have to restart it, it is not obvious how you delete the rejected or draft claims, so they pile up. [Sep 2012 – the term you want is ‘cancel’, although that to me implies withdrawing something you have submitted, which is not the case with draft claims]

What is a link? Many words in the interface are hyperlinked, but these links are not made into buttons or emphasised by being a distinctive colour so it is hard to tell at a glance where they are (they tend to have little symbols beside them instead).

Keeping a record You can view claims that have been rejected or are in the pipeline, but you can’t use a claim that has been previously accepted as a model for a new one.  It disappears from the system completely. This means that when you make a new claim you have no record of the codes you had to work out last time, and you have to work them out again.[Sep 2012: There is a box ‘ignore paid claims’ which is ticked by default. Not sure if it has always been there. I would rather it weren’t ticked by default but you can’t change this. There’s also small pull-down menu to get all archived claims included, which is easy to overlook.]

Editing a previous claim Having recovered your claim, you hang on for dear life to your staff number and that mysterious ‘nominal code’ and try to change the details of the claim. I have not yet found out how to add items to the claim, only to delete or edit them, so let’s hope that you don’t have more things to claim for than before. Nor can you change the unit cost of an expense item or the receipt number. Nor can you delete comments, so your comments on the previous claim are still there, to mislead the person processing it.

Proactis should only be used in Internet Explorer The user is greeted with this message on the Proactis home page. Grow up! Web software needs to work with all major browsers. Not doing so potentially discriminates against disabled users who may rely on a version of Firefox or some other browser which has been customised for accessibility. It’s particularly ironic at Bristol University, where the officially supported browser is Google Chrome.

Proactis is joining that select group of services (my former account at the NatWest Bank branch in Manchester Precinct centre is another) which actually seem to get things wrong more than they get them right. However, the word on the ground now (April 2013) is that its days are numbered.

Save Floppy!

This is in fact the title of a book in the Oxford Reading Tree (Floppy is a dog).  But while the floppy disk itself is all but obsolete, it is still associated with the act of saving by its use as an icon.

Today I went to a course on our TopDesk incident management software, and among a battery of icons on the screen was a picture of a floppy disk one had to click in order to save changes.  I wonder whether this association of imagery will long outlive the floppy disk itself – rather as old-fashioned phones with a dial and a big handset still symbolise ‘telephone’, and the warning for an unguarded level crossing is a sign depicting a steam train?