Category Archives: Special Topics (2013)

For the lent term, 2013, as part of the HighWire MRes I have to keep a weekly journal. That, is this.

Spesh To’ics: Week {minus some} – An end on some stuff

I one titled a tune I made ‘an end on some stuff’.. and since this is an ending it sprung to mind. The tune ended up being called Interlude to get stuff…. what the ‘stuff’ is, is up to you. It’s an instrumental piece, but here are some concluding words reflecting on my special topics experience.

In the beginning, whirlpools came
In the whirlpools, no two bubbles were the same
Out of
In rage
Some sage said “hey Joe”
“What do you know, Joe?”

I thought, who cares?

This shouldn’t be flippant
And it…. isn’t
(Supposed to be)

But the point is.. reflecting on everything…. the most difficult thing was
Remembering oneself
Remembering others

Each of those lines do mean something… I’m not going to elaborate as I’d like it to , but they’ll serve as a reminder. Special topics has been great. I’m so glad that I’ve explored the area I did (although I’m also itching to further explore some of the ideas I had in week 1!) And in fact, my masters dissertation will be on a related subject I’m fairly sure. As for the PhD itself… still not sure! :o)


Spesh To’ics: Writing doesn’t wrong

So… I’ve been immersed in the actual writing of my special topics piece: Communities of Impact. This has been some time coming, and until today has been a very daunting task. The piece only has to be 4000 words long, although that’s longer than anything else I’ve written in some time. Also  it’s the first piece of work on the HighWire programme that has involved an extended period of research (first of many I hope!)

The reason for the reflective log though is quite simple: it is good to remember the cathartic value of writing! As soon as I started actually getting words down I re-discovered something I’ve noted before, it’s almost like its relieving pressure, and its also a fantastic process for actually ideating. The latter is occasionally an issue…. as you end up having to rewrite to take account of new ideas, but other than the time consumption element of this it isn’t too much of a problem.

Note to self: writing… it isn’t that bad, and you don’t have to know all the answers before beginning.

Spesh To’ics Week(s) 5-10(ish): Awkward talk

At the start of the special topics module I had no inkling of what kind of space I’d like to work in, in fact I had a list of disperate ideas (that indeed I spoke about at our initial presentation). From that initial session, during which I was pointed toward the work of Eugene Garfield, the terrain of my inquiry has emerged gradually, with some moments of great realisation within it. Along the way I’ve discussed my thinking with my peers, with lecturers from other taught HighWire courses, with the module leaders for special topics, and with anyone else who would care to listen to me! Alongside the less formal discussions I also attended workshops and had some one-to-one meetings as part of the ‘official’ special topics support offered. I guess as a whole, this could be considered my community of practice.

I want to reflect on this because, interestingly, some of the conversations have been bordering on confrontational and certainly came to occupy space on the edge of my comfort zone. I think it’s probably to do with my chosen subject, and in particular – in the early part of the studies on the module anyway – my naivety about it. I realise that occupying a space that involves contention isn’t at all unique, in fact it is probably desired in order to be truly innovative, but I’ve been intrigued about the range of feedback I’ve had on this piece of work, which I’ve perceived as being unusually strong – the whole way through the module. While the strength of opinion about my ideas has been consistent throughout, the depth of my knowledge has continued to grow. I’d say I have a fairly good handle on these ideas now (I’ve written various blogs on the subject, as well as a dummy grant proposal, actual grant proposal and literature review).

So what to make of this, why bother writing a reflective log about it? Well there are two angles that interest me. Firstly I guess the reason for a significant interest is that I’m working with something that is directly relevant to all of my peers and all of our mentors; it’s no secret that in this realm we pretty much live or die my the success of, or the lack of, our publications. This interesting piece in the Essex Student Journal gives an interesting introduction to why publication is so important. What was really interesting though was that there seemed to be a strange distribution of how strongly worded peoples opinions were. Generally speaking, students are intrigued and encouraging. Professional academics are much less positive, although having extended conversations, after a time seem to become more positive about my desire to explore this area. Some academics have been extremely anti, and made me feel like they would rather that I didn’t pursue this line of study. All of these are of course according to my subjective viewpoint, they’re also moving targets. What is really interesting, however, is that in the early stages of my inquiry I was as I already mentioned, very naive. I didn’t have the confidence (or knowledge) to stand up for my thoughts, and hence felt slightly ‘battered’ by some of these conversations, at the time at least. Looking back at those kinds of conversations, if I were to have them now I think I could stand up for myself properly. I think my initial hunches were actually quite good. So on reflection, I think although being respectful of ones mentors is of absolute importance, having the confidence to challenge them and enough self-belief to stick to a your own trajectory. That.. that…. that is a valuable thing, and I think it worked for me on this occasion.

Spesh To’ics: Presents for all

The special topics module has three marked components:

I did the presentation today, so I thought it makes sense to write some reflection about it. Firstly, I don’t think it went that well! It certainly wasn’t a complete failure, but at the same time I would have preferred things to go better.

This, is pretty much unrelated, but was a video I used in a presentation while studying Interactive Arts… I needed to sum up how the last few months had been, so I simply put all of the images I’d taken during that period into a very fast video that showed them all in chronological order. It uses an early ‘prototype’ version of the Joe Galen track Interlude to get stuff.

I was actually quite pleased with the slides I put together to support the presentation, and therefore the planned structure of my talk. I used a metaphor of various periods in history to relate to the ‘narrative’ I tried to put together: I thought it was quite neat. I also thought the content I included, and references, were the most relevant and would contextualise the research questions that concluded the presentation. 

Unfortunately I was stung by two quite fundamental issues. Firstly, and I knew this before I started, my talk was too long. I needed about 12 minutes to get through everything and the allotted time was only 10 minutes. This resulted the zero-hour decision to skip out some of the early information I intended to talk about. Secondly I hadn’t memorised my ‘script’ and I hadn’t printed the notes, so I was left to read them off my computer screen. Sadly this meant that I was in a rather unnatural position: if this were a stage show it wouldn’t have gotten good reviews. A final basic/schoolboy error was that I used my new Macbook to give the presentation, I had underestimated quite how small the text would be (due to the insanely high resolution): I could hardly read the notes!

In the end I totally failed to present the final slides, so didn’t have chance to actually explain the direction I want to take the research in, in any detail. I was quite upset that I didn’t manage to get that in, as this was really the only ‘new’ part to the presentation. I did manage to refer to some of the missing content in the questions at the end of the talk, but not in the same manner that I’d liked, and also the link to my narrative structure was missing.

So.. these are my take aways:

  • Be conservative with timing
  • Print notes
  • Test with the ‘live’ kit (to avoid the tiny-text problem)
  • Learn your script

But…. like I said….. it could’ve been a whole lot worse, so not all bad. There isn’t that much information on the slides themselves (it was supposed to be contained in the talk) but here they are anyway!

Spesh To’ics Week {unsure}; The revelations of research

Well, in hindsight, I’m quite impressed with myself that I managed to do a weekly blog for four weeks running. It’s been…. *goes to check dates*… precisely one month since I last did a special topics reflective blog. I was insistant that I’d do it regularly.. and, well, although there’s been a several-week break, I don’t think that this is a bad thing on this occasion! Between my last update and now I’ve had conflicting priorities. A few assignments. A few distractions. A deep dive week. All the while however I’ve been thinking about this piece of work, and my area of research for special topics. The one annoyance, and something that in terms of reflective practice might be useful, is that I haven’t managed to do as much reading as I’d liked to have done. Fortunately, however, the deadline has been extended for the written piece for special topics, so that means more time for reading (and procrastination).

I’ve become so excited about this topic that I’ve been thinking ahead and envisaging continuing the research for my HighWire summer project (the summer project runs or somewhere in the region of three months, and the expected outcome is a paper, or other artefact). In support of that I met with Jon Whittle and Matthew Rowe at Lancaster’s InfoLab21 to discuss. It was quite an enlightening discussion. Firstly I realised I still hadn’t narrowed my thinking to anything specific enough to begin a “proper” project around and secondly, I was pointed in the direction of some really interesting work by Matthew.

altmetrics was the most significant thing Matthew pointed me toward, a movement started a couple of years ago. Their work hinges around a manifesto, and broadly speaking this movement encompasses all of what I’ve been thinking about. The very fact they’ve termed it a manifesto is indicative of the size of the problem. A “normal” paper wouldn’t manage to communicate the problem that is trying to be addressed. So those behind the altmetrics movement, and I, are both hinting that a wholesale change is necessary to resolve the engrained issues in the way “impact” is measured, not to mention a whole host of inter-related complications of this. While it’s always reassuring to find somebody has had the same kind of thoughts as yourself, it’s also daunting and worrying to understand quite how large the scale of the issue is. Going down the altmetrics rabbit hole, there is no sigh of the depth abating. There’s a lot of stuff down there, mostly juicy, the occasional dropping. The occasional juicy dropping.

I think this is all part of the Science 2.0 movement, in some way or other. What is it with me and tending toward “2.0” stuff? My project Prayer 2.0, my undergraduate dissertation (Web 2.0: Web as canvas), and one of my recent assignments for HighWire (Do we need Smartphone 2.0?). I dunno. Maybe I just tend toward buzzwords. I hope not though.


Spesh To’ics Week 4; The well-being of innovative thinking

I had a great chat with Dr Maria Angela Ferrario a few days ago (Marie is a researcher at Catalyst) – inspiring this blog. It was one of those chats where we went in and out of all kinds of areas, and with a 3-day-long 30th birthday celebration having happened between then and now, I’m struggling to recall exactly what I was thinking when I had the epiphanylike moment. I think it was to do with the effect that forcing (or attempting to force) creative (or innovative?) thinking can have on one’s well-being.

I just tried typing a few key words into various search engines and came up with a few interesting-looking papers. This one, published by NESTA, is particularly interesting and makes some good observations, although its main conclusion is certainly along the lines of needs more investigation.

The reason for my interest is a personal one. I’ve been feeling increasingly rundown in the last few weeks, and while it’s possible I have an underlying health problem (I’ll go to the doctor if it persists) I actually think it’s more likely that my energy has been sapped by a combination of constant creative thinking, and an unrelenting calendar of social events (oftentimes low on sleeping, high on consumption). Obviously I could try to minimise the social stuff, but I’m not sure that would help at all (as it would simply open up even more time to think about being innovative).

Most reflective methods suggest (variations on the theme of) figuring out what happened, deciding what went well, and what has not gone so well. Since Christmas, I’ve had some ideas that have really excited me. They’ve come ‘from nowhere’. I’ve innovated: created them. Of course in hindsight – reflecting on the epiphanies – this isn’t the case. I think all innovation comes in increments, even if those increments happening over time lead to an atomised radical innovative ‘black swan’ moment. The constancy of that incremental thinking is sapping, and seemingly unrelenting. So the thinking has gone well, the ideation, coming up with ideas. The effect on me has not been so good. So the conclusion: find a way of mitigating this. What that mitigation can be, I’m not sure yet, but I’ll think on it (which, ironically, might well contribute to the problem, in the short term anyway).

The talk with Marie.. well that has stimulated a whole new branch to my thinking around special topics, maybe that’ll contribute to my run-down feeling.. but… maybe it’ll result in a great outcome for special topics, which could lead onto a great summer project, an entirely new – and exciting – direction for my PhD. Who knows. But what I’m sure of is that I need to figure out a way of managing these thought processes so I can think sustainably. Hmmm……. ideas?

Spesh To’ics Week 3; Confronted by volume

Well this week has been a week of procrastination for me. No greatly detailed research for Special Topics has taken place. Actually most weeks are procrasto-weeks for me, in reality. Maybe that has some benefit, but maybe that’s a different subject than the one I should be writing about! I think my ‘dinosaur brain’ (a term I’m told my sister’s boss uses.. I can’t find any references to it on the web, but I do like it!) has been working away in the background though, and is bearing some fruit.

I’m confounded by the complexity and depth of knowledge in general. It’s one of those things that when observed from a macro level is as tantalising as it is terrifying. I guess this is something that I’ll have to consolidate into my thinking and accept, particularly given my chosen area of research, which I suppose you can broadly just define as ‘the academic method’ (something that I do believe to be something of a nonsense, in the same way I believe the ‘scientific method’ is a tad nonsensical).

My reflective nugget for today is: reading is good. But also that not reading is good. I’m not sure if this is a general thing in certain ‘types’ of person, or if it is something that’s quite localised to myself. I’m pretty good at gobbling up a large volume of information all at once, but only if it is delivered in more aural or visual ways. Textual information I find hard to digest quickly. For academic purposes this is a problem, because the point of the academic study I’m currently embarked upon is to discover new things, to be innovative, to ‘create’ knowledge or wisdom. So being able to consume knowledge conveyed in lectures, videos, sound bites is one thing… but the vast majority of the knowledge that I need is trapped up inside PDFs. Not only that, but PDFs that have to be teased out of their (oh so large, and generally – in my experience – devoid of any usability for fledgling researchers like me) repositories and (if your eyes are anything like mine) generally printed on copious amounts of oh-so-cheap but oh-so-expensive paper (not to mention oh-so-easy-to-run-out toner, print credit or inkjet cartridges).

I’m finding some incredibly intriguing stuff though.

Patrick pointed me in the direction of Eugene Garfield – founder of the Institute for Scientific information. Some of Garfields early work describing the indexes he had set up, how to develop them, and how they might develop in the future (starting in the 1950s) seem to touch upon some of my own concerns with the established norms that exist today. This is something of an uncomfortable discovery: the thought that went into Garfield’s early work has not meant that we’re doing things any ‘better’. We’re just doing it on a much larger scale, and much quicker, but for my mind almost exactly the same processes are taking place, and I don’t like them!

A couple of notes from what I’ve been reading this evening. In Citation Indexes for Science (1983) Garfield says:

“… then in the future every author ought to be required to include the serial number of each item he referred to, so as to facilitate not only the compilation of citation indexes but also other operations such as requests for reprints”

Does this happen? Maybe a bit, but not in the most ‘usable’ way, not when compared to proper linked data. In my mind we could apply some wiki principles to how that could take place.. I’ve procured my friend Cormac’s thesis (Edit this space: participation and expansive learning in developing Wikiversity) to see if I can find some synergy with that.

From the same paper Garfield noted:

It also becomes quite obvious that many references to Selye’s paper were general and contribute little or nothing to the readers’ enlightenment…

A practice that is pervasive, still. And indeed something I can confess to having done myself, and I have been told is normal, and, something that I’ve been advised to do by academics in order to play the gameNow if there’s a game, intend on playing it as well as I can.. however going ahead willfully in a manner that involves doing things wrong on purpose seems ridiculous. There’s an obvious need, value, and dependency on citing earlier work. In the preface to another paper that Garfield contributed to Joshua Lederberg of Stanford University mentions that “A cumulative index to all of science would, of course, be a large undertaking but of course no larger than the problem to which it is addressed.” In the actual paper that was being prefaced in the previous quote, the writers concede that “For economic and editorial reasons [trying to make a comprehensive index] was not practical in these experiments“.

Oh, and here’s a photo of Eugene Garfield! (hot linked, I hope that that doesn’t contravene copyright – does it? – and also that the link stays up!)


It’s starting to become clear to me that this topic that I’m studying isn’t at all new. In fact, in spite of the contemporary abundance of computing power, appetite for open information, and ever-growing number of journals, articles, conferences, and scholars.. we’ve far from fixed the problem, or changed the nature of it. Rather it has grown exponentially, and somehow persists. The Observer reported last week that the Council for the Defense of British Universities published an open letter to government positing that the intention to make all publicly funded research freely is “attack on academic freedoms”. Now I don’t want to immediately disagree for David Attenborough, David Starkey, Richard Dawkins or Alan Bennett. But I think they’re shortsighted. I hope the government are not.

Spesh To’ics Week 2; Deciding on a theme

Well I’m still bitterly working my way through the assignment on software engineering. I guess not so bitterly actually though. Having spoken with the horse, and taken words directly from its mouth – life is much simpler. I worked for about 16 hours yesterday, and figuratively speaking broke the back of the report, even leaving time to contemplate my special topic towards the end of the day; a topic that I was to present today! Despite one of my peers saying to me, immediately afterwards – “well… I see you were making it up on the spot” –  I thought it went well though. I wasn’t making it up on the spot, although I’d done scant reading or proper research before getting up and speaking.

The three doctors in the room – Patrick Stacey, Keith Cheverst and Martyn Evans – all seemed relatively positive about the concept, unformed as it was, so that’s a pleasant surprise. I think coming up with an idea, and articulating why I think that’s interesting is one of my strengths. At the same time I’m very aware that the counterpoint to that is one of my most fundamental weaknesses: the trouble I have with taking the ideas and putting the flesh on them. I’m not knowledgeable enough about knowledge to do it intuitively, and I’m not experienced in the techniques required to develop that knowledge, put the argument together cohesively, and then deliver it. I know that it’s within my ability, that isn’t the problem… it’s more an issue of frustration and maybe laziness. This is in fact why I ended up choosing this topic to pursue in ‘Special Topics’.

I haven’t mentioned the topic! So… now would seem like the right time.

Well, it isn’t very honed yet, but I hope I can frame it in a meaningful way…

Referencing, when producing academic and/or scholarly ‘stuff’. That’s the general area. Specifically, there are two things that I think deserve some research, and they also upset me and annoy me (both good motivational factors). Firstly, access to journals (for both readers, and writers, but I’m focussing just on the readers really..) is, in my view, ridiculous. Asked rhetorically… these are my questions: Why are articles so expensive? Why do Universities only subscribe to some of the available journals? Why is it that I know the paper I want is there, but I can’t access it? Why isn’t all scholarly data in the public domain? Okay. So that’s the first issue. The second one is that of referencing. Again, rhetorically asked, these are my questions: Why is referencing, for want of a better term, such a ‘ball-ache’ to do? Why hasn’t anybody done anything to distinguish honourable citations from those that are really included in papers to further somebody’s careers somehow? Most importantly, most significantly, why isn’t the data that describes the relationships between papers (who has cited who, and why)…. why isn’t that data available? Could the principles of the semantic web and linked data be applied to this problem?

So those are the two issues I’m concerned with.. which are, admittedly, massive. Where to go from here is the problem.

To be reflective for a moment, I have mixed feelings about this ‘new’ area that I’ve become enticed by. I’m really excited… probably the most passionate I’ve been about anything since starting the HighWire programme. However, it’s yet another distracting idea to be concerned with. I’m not sure how I feel about that, is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? Will this phenomenon of constantly being distracted by something new lead into a problem. I don’t know. But for the time being I’m riding the wave, and trying to soak up the excitement of it, plus who knows, maybe I’ll end up fixing both of those problems. Unlikely, but I think there’s value in the dream.

Spesh To’ics Week 1, incorporating meta-stress, buoyancy, being reunited, divergent thinking

I find my self,
Back here again,
In pressure to the core (of emotion, work, and more),
Called it ‘meta stress’,
A serious test,
Like collapse,
A moreish emotion,
And sure enough,
That’s the pain of a concrete bucket,
In the head of a man,
I’m happy to be back here,
I’m happy that it’s hard,
I’m happy that I’m stressed,
But I can’t believe I said that,
Special topics? Special topics!
While grappling with the aforementioned stress,
While sorting through a, frankly, torturous assignment on,
And a nonsense data set,
But special topics..? Special topics!
Sounds like fun,
I feel like I’m floating (just),
Buoyed by inspiring academics,
Buoyed by my growing lists,
Buoyed by my happy-to-be-backy,
Thoughts akimbo,
Divergent thinking

So! A poem to start. I’m inspired by Mari on that one, to be honest. What I’m trying to say is… this whole “being a HighWire student” thing, it’s still sinking in. I’m still trying to harness any degree of plasticity still left in my aging brain, and learn the tricks of the trade required to be a (good?) PhD student. I am stressed, to the core. I’m not that happy with my personal life, but there’s little to do about it at the time being, and, if anything, I’m seeing the stress as a good thing as regards my personal life. Distractions are always good. This cognitive compromise, alongside some achievements on the previous terms projects (and a couple of personal projects), finally allied with the inspirational seminars delivered from various academics already this term (and I’m only 3 days in) – that brings the buoyancy.

I’m excited about the idea of the “special topics” module, mainly because for the first time I will – alone – be able to determine my own direction. I’m not a control freak, but I do have serious issues with (things that I perceive to be) futile. So, hopefully, I can avoid that.. which I hope will give me more motivation, more excitement, and better outcomes.

(back to stress, just need to get these other assignments out of the way)

And now, the divergent thinking part. I currently have these ideas to work with (for all, assume ‘something in the field of’):

  • After death, digital legacies
  • Dynamic television, film, or other media, that can reform itself according to the viewers’ use of secondary screen-based media (so a TV programme that realises when you’re checking Facebook and automatically reformats itself accordingly, seamlessly)
  • Sonification as story telling, maybe in healthcare
  • Preserving digital formats (so, what if the ‘original’ version of Hamlet was in a Word Perfect file, but all machines that can run Word Perfect are no longer working… is that a problem?)
  • Can music be an aid at different stages of ideation? What changes how effective it could/can be?
  • A better model for academic referencing; the “semantic web” for academic literature
  • The importance of seed content (as mentioned by Keith), demonstrable in various iterations of my antimatable project
  • Is there space for distance learning (or tele-teaching) to be the preferred method of teaching, in some scenarios? What are the barriers to that, and what would be the potential advantages?
  • …. hard to sum up, but, multi-dimensional sketchnoting on e-ink tables, with the ablity to 3D print the results for physical review (sculpture meets analogue note taking)
  • Is now the time for consumers to power a revolution moving towards modular consumer electronics?