IWMW 2013 (3)

July 3, 2013

This post summarises the last three plenary sessions from day 2 of IWMW 2013. It follows on from the summary of day 2’s first three plenaries.

Day 2 Plenary Sessions (part 2)

P8: Paul Walk: Working with developers

Paul Walk talked about how learning to work well with developers can help institutional web managers get the most out of their software/systems. He said that managers need to get good at estimating the time projects will take, and learn some of the developers’ jargon (though they shouldn’t pretend to know more than they do), specifically understanding what key concepts like ‘the cloud’ and ‘software as a service’ really mean.

Over the years we’ve had lots of different words for developers: developer, programmer, engineer, analyst, data-wrangler… even “software authors”. Different words have different connotations; the words we choose can tell us a lot about how we think about the work of development. We also have different words for the process: we talk about “writing” software, software “engineering”, software as a “craft”, as an “art”, and so on. “The last time people constructed a vocabulary for software development was in the 1960s, when they coined the phrase software engineering, both as a wish and a direction for the future.” The different words reflect different development paradigms.

Walk gave an overview of the ‘waterfall’ methodology and then moved on to ‘agile’ development and how it differs. The ‘agile’ attitude can be summed up as “rough consensus, running code” and its articles of faith are that innovation happens in a local context and local developers empower the organisation to innovate. ‘Local’ in this sense means ‘close to the users’ — we have to recognise that the users are part of the process, and that building software is about building on existing relationships. There are lots of advantages to having local developers, e.g. better understanding of local context, and better availability/responsiveness during projects.

It’s not just about developers doing development work, though; Walk argued that Universities need more technical people in their higher echelons: “bring engineers into your company at all levels, including the top” (as Eric Schmidt puts it). He also identified a gap in the career path for developers, the difficulty of letting developers keep developing but also contribute to management, strategy, and governance, and claimed that universities can learn from industry in this area.

Further reading:

P9: Ranjit Sidhu: 9am, 16th August, 2012: What the fcuk just happened then?

‘What happened then’ was that the A-level results came out, and universities got a shock as they realised that the game had changed. 17 of the Russell Group universities went into clearing in 2012: applications were down by 7% across the board. But we don’t need to wait for A-level results to find out how bad things are: we can get the data and work out who we need to target and how.

Sidhu talked about how ‘data science’ was becoming more prevalent (in fact, apparently, “the sexiest job in the 21st century“) and how we need to work out what we should be analysing: the web is uniquely placed to analyse statistics and help universities to target the area it needs to. And this targeting is big business: Sidhu estimated an £8,500,000 spend by universities in the week after clearing; a keyword ad in the top spot on Google during clearing costs £22.12 for just one click. Online marketing is perfect for targeting our spending more effectively, and we need to get more students in — Sidhu claims that tuition fees are the only way that HEIs can make money now.

However Sidhu warned of the dangers of thinking ‘big data’ will solve everything (“If you didn’t do anything meaningful with the small data you had, why will you do anything with the big data?“) and reminded us that databases are easy, but you can’t outsource thinking. He was particularly sceptical about the value of UniStats (apparently fewer than 1 visitor per day actually clicks the UniStats widget).

After lots of hard figures Sidhu finished with some more philosophical questions: whether free content is destroying diversity; whether the free pricing model unfairly benefits the rich (should people pay more if they can afford it?); and whether early adopters of tracking/analytics technology (what we used to call ‘spyware’) have a responsibility to make sure it’s used ethically.

Further reading:

P10: Paul Boag: Institutional culture is crippling your web strategy!

Paul Boag didn’t pull any punches in his talk; highlights included telling us that we were a bunch of whingers and that when it came to our organisational structures we were all, not to put too fine a point on it, completely screwed. It’s just his way of showing how much he cares…

He identified the problem as our “pre-web organisations” being mired in bureaucracy, with slow, committee-based decision-making, lots of internal politics, a “project mentality” and lots of departmental silos, and a misunderstanding of what the web is (a marketing tool, an IT service). The “project mentality” is unhelpful because the web requires cross-departmental working: organisational structures are a barrier to this. Departmental silos occur for the same reason: websites and services are organised around organisational structure, departments, faculties etc. This slow-moving bureaucracy results in “big bang redesigns” (rather than incremental change) leading to yo-yoing expenditure and long periods of ineffectiveness.

Boag argued that fundamental changes are needed – we need to:

  • Become user-focused
  • Have a strong centralised web team
  • Create policies and procedures
  • Create a consistent user experience (including establishing a tone of voice)
  • Work incrementally (be agile)
  • Create a way to talk to each other

Policies can help us say “no”, e.g. if we can’t remove redundant content simply because it’s irrelevant, we can establish policies to help facilitate this, such as saying that if a page isn’t updated within a certain amount of time, or falls below a threshold of visits based on analytics, then it gets marked as archived, removed from search, and so on.

Boag suggested some other techniques to help us improve our sites in the face of organisational obstructions: “user cards” (and insisting on them before introducing new content/functionality) can help us build a user-focused experience; testing and monitoring everything can help us justify our decisions. We also need to communicate: we need to share best practice, blog our experiences, find ways to talk to each other. We also need to talk to senior management, tell them what we think, market ourselves within the organisation.

His diatribe against institutional culture ended with telling us that if we want to enjoy our jobs, we need to fix our organisations or look for another job. I’m not sure the audience were entirely convinced by his insistence that losing/leaving your job is nothing to be afraid of, but I think most of us recognised the relevance of at least some of the ranting!

Further reading:

IWMW 2013 (2)

July 3, 2013

This post summarises the first three plenary sessions from day 2 of IWMW 2013. It follows on from my summary of day 1’s plenaries.

Day 2 Plenary Sessions (part 1)

P5: Jonathan Hassell: Stop Trying to Avoid Losing and Start Winning: How BS 8878 Reframes the Accessibility Question

What I want is to strategically embed inclusion into [my organisation]’s culture and business-as-usual processes, rather than just doing another inclusion project.

This quote sums up where people want to be, Hassell said, but in general organisations are scared of accessibility — they don’t really understand it, or they only have one committed individual who does it, or it only happens in specific projects/products; they don’t know what’s in it for them apart from risk mitigation. Accessibility solutions often seem piecemeal — they’re tactical, not strategic.

They also feel like they’re competing for your time with (rather than linking in with) other useful web strategies:

  • mobile strategy (including apps, responsive design, etc)
  • open data strategy
  • content strategy
  • social and search strategy
  • UX strategy

As a result, people tend to do the bare minimum for accessibility, then spend their time firefighting as complaints come in. This is just treating the symptoms: “we need to fix the problem in the process, not the product.” But this is made harder by organisational structure and culture — it’s difficult for individuals to change processes.

We need to reframe the accessibility question, says Hassell, to see it as a business opportunity: by increasing inclusion we can maximise our reach. There are a lot of people out there for whom accessibility is an issue:

  • 11 million disabled people
  • 12 million older people (of pension age)
  • 7 million adults with low literacy levels (< age 11)

BS8878 is a new accessibility ‘code of practice’ which gives a framework for reducing costs and improving quality; it allows you to choose the right guidelines for your product/audience, rather than making you mould your product to rigid guidelines.

Hassell compared BS8878 to other accessibility guidelines — many assume you actually code HTML by hand — most of us don’t any more; instead we need to think about how we can make the best of CMSs and other third-party software that we can’t ‘fix’ completely. Some of that is about the people using them — how can we motivate content creators to do their job better? WCAG 2.0 is good as a ‘roadmap’ but doesn’t tell you if you’ve got there — that’s when you need to do user testing to see if people can actually use your product. Remember the goal is to “build a better website, not just a compliant one.

Further reading:

P6: David Cornforth: Adapting to Responsive Web Design

Get your content ready to go anywhere, because it’s going to go everywhere.

David Cornforth reminded us that we need to stop thinking in terms of “web pages” and how they look, and start thinking about content and how we can achieve content parity between desktop and mobile.

He gave a quick history of how the web used to be (including some nostalgia-inducing screenshots for those of us who remember the days of Times New Roman and blue underlined links!) and how we used to design for different screen sizes, different browsers… and how this became unsustainable as the number of different devices and browsers increased exponentially.

Instead of designing device-specific experiences, we need to embrace the flexibility of the web, and stop making assumptions about the content users want based on the device they’re using (90% of users switch devices to complete a task; 98% move between devices on the same day). We also need to be more iterative and more agile to cope with responsive design.

Further reading:

P7: Martin Hamilton: The inside-out University

Once again we were reminded that the Higher Education landscape is changing significantly and rapidly, with MOOCs and ‘open by default’ being among the key culprits.

Hamilton took us through an array of cutting-edge technologies before asking us whether our institution was ready to embrace this sort of change, or whether it was stuck in the past. He then talked about ‘extinction level events’, comparing the drop in student numbers in the age of the MOOC with the recent failure of businesses such as Jessops to adapt to competition from Amazon.

He then moved on to the main focus of his talk, the move towards ‘open by default’ as a result of a combination of drivers towards openness: funders requiring Open Access publication, funders requiring research data to be made available, demands for University statistics, developments in Open Educational Resources (OER). However, he reminded us that the flip side of ‘open by default’ is the increase in useless information: “you can splurge all this information out, but if it’s not useful, what’s the point?

Hamilton then took us through several interesting Jisc case studies using course data, VLEs, and ‘big data’, before leading into the ‘crowdsourcing a Jisc innovation strategy’ promised in the title. This was an interesting exercise in collaborative brainstorming, though it inevitably leaned more towards voting on existing suggestions (by adding a ‘+’ after them) rather than coming up with new input.

Further reading:

IWMW 2013 (1)

July 1, 2013

I was delighted to be able to go to IWMW 2013 this year. IWMW (the Institutional Web Managers’ Workshop) is an inspiring and entertaining three-day conference for institutional web folk (webmasters, web developers, web managers, web editors… whatever we’re calling ourselves in this job, this institution, this decade); it has been organised by UKOLN, so this may be its last year in its current format now that Jisc have dropped funding for UKOLN. Appropriately for this time of uncertainty, the conference theme was “What next?” — not just for IWMW but for web management, the web community, and HE in general.

I’m attempting to write up all the plenaries and both the parallel sessions which I attended. This will be a relatively neutral writeup, partly for my own record, partly for the benefit of colleagues or other interested people who couldn’t attend; I’m aiming to do some more personal opinion-based pieces on specific bits later.

Day 1 Plenary Sessions

Brian Kelly: Welcome to IWMW 2013

Brian gave us an overview of the current situation in the world of the institutional web: the continued financial challenges we all face (an unsurprisingly prevalent theme throughout the conference) and the changing technical environment.

He also gave us a whistle-stop tour of the history of IWMW, from the first meeting at KCL in 1997 (before the name ‘IWMW’ was coined) through to 2013; it was interesting to see how the buzzwords and focus shifted: web strategy, e-business, web 2.0, APIs, video streaming… then from about 2009 onwards there were constant rumblings of “change”, “managing change”, “uncertainty” and similar concerns — and for UKOLN, of course, all that anxious uncertainty resolved into an awful reality earlier this year when Jisc cut the organisation’s funding and decimated its staff.

With so much doubt about the future, I thought it’d be hard to begin the conference on an optimistic note; but as always Brian’s enthusiasm for the institutional web and the IWMW community was infectious, and without further ado we launched into the plenary sessions…

P1: Cable Green: Open Education:
the business and policy case for OER

Cable Green explained that open educational resources (OER) let us “take advantage of the technical and legal tools of the day to make sure everybody on the planet has access to education“. This balance of the practical and philosophical basis for OER sums up the tone of his talk; he moved effortlessly between lucid explanations of the ins and outs of Creative Commons licences and passionate advocacy for the social benefits of freely and openly available educational resources.

However, as he clearly showed, there are tensions between technology, morality and legality; the technology means that “we are now in a read/write world“, and educators and publishers are still adapting to that change. We now have the ability to share resources at the speed of light, but the law prevents this; Green pointed out that copyright can be a positive thing, but it hasn’t kept pace with the available technology.

Green recalled his own OER journey, from the first time he published his own course materials on the web, inviting people to use them (“it’s free!”) without realising that the institutional copyright statement at the bottom stymied his attempt to give his work away. He discovered that “to get your work into the public domain, you have to die! and then wait 70 years!” — but as educators, we want to share now, not 70 years after our death.

He gave a clear explanation of the Creative Commons framework (“the backbone of OER”), the way the licences are a sliding scale of “how free” something is, the importance of open licensing for internationalization and accessibility (translating and creating accessible alternatives is often prevented by more restrictive copyright) and for customisation and affordability of educational resources (allowing you to modify, modularise, only take the bits you need).

If the marginal cost of producing and distributing digital resources is effectively zero (this was illustrated with figures comparing the cost of “copy” for hand-copying a book, printing it traditionally, ‘print on demand’, and digital copying) then, argued Green, educators have a moral responsibility to share. “Publicly funded resources should be openly licensed resources“, and, as Winston Churchill put it, “If you have knowledge, let others light their candles with it“.

His final soundbite or ‘thought for the session’ was this: “the opposite of ‘open’ isn’t ‘closed’. The opposite of ‘open’ is ‘broken’.

Further reading:

P2: Doug Belshaw: Mozilla, Open Badges and a Learning Standard for Web Literacy

Doug Belshaw gave an overview of the Mozilla Open Badges infrastructure and how it underpins the new learning standard for web literacy which is being developed.

Open badges, he explained, are essentially just “images with metadata hard-coded into them” (not unlike Creative Commons licences as explained in the previous session). They’re a “portable credential” which can be embedded in digital content, and they “can accommodate formal and informal learning pathways”, capturing learning wherever and however it occurs. This simple but powerful infrastructure allows any organisation to issue its own badges, and lets users bring their badges together into a single ‘backpack’ or portfolio — breaking through the “silos of accreditation” which currently constrain our qualifications.

Of course, open badges can represent any qualification, accreditation, achievement or statement about a person’s experience, from a university degree to the example ‘Open Badges 101’ badge you can claim from the Open Badges site — or to badges which aim to change behaviour, such as a badge for releasing resources under a CC licence. The value of an open badge comes from how rigorous the criteria are.

Belshaw then moved on from general issues of qualifications and competencies to the specifics of the open learning standard for web literacy that is currently being developed. Mozilla are working on the ‘skills layer’ now with the web community: this is the time to get involved.

Further reading:

P3: Kyriaki Anagnostopolou: Et tu MOOC? Massive Online Considerations


MOOCs are looming large in the HE landscape at the moment; it’s not clear if they are ‘the answer’ (and if so, to what?) but Anagnostopolou’s talk gave us plenty of questions.

She started with some useful facts and figures about: levels of participation in and completion of courses (with the caveat that these ‘traditional’ measures of success may not apply); the costs of running MOOCs (where estimates vary so wildly that direct comparisons are often impossible); the way institutions are currently funding them (usually through marketing or ‘widening participation’ budgets); and the ‘openness’ of MOOCs (the data often isn’t ‘open’).

Then on to the questions, a mixture of practical and philosophical considerations (I’ve only included a selection):

  • Is a MOOC the new textbook? Should we consider integrating MOOCs from other institutions into our teaching?
  • Are we as institutions prepared to be judged based on the online learning experiences that we offer? They’re not necessarily representative of our campus-based courses…
  • As a tutor/facilitator, how do you deal with a 1:8000 staff-student ratio? How do you make your presence felt and make students feel supported in the massive global classroom?
  • Should MOOCs count for accreditation?
  • Will MOOCs change the expectations of traditional campus-based students?

She also raised the questions of how ‘learning analytics’ will work as a new research area, what the business model of MOOCs might turn out to be, and the broader consideration of what education is actually about: is it simply transmission of content or a more holistic experience? Lots of food for thought!

P4: Amber Thomas: Turning our attention to supporting research

Amber Thomas talked about how the landscape of research is changing and how we as digital experts could do a lot more to support researchers (especially early career researchers), as well as giving specific examples from her own department at Warwick.

The funding and evaluation of research has changed: many funders now insist on Open Access publication; a new focus on impact is changing the notion of where research happens and who the end users are; and research data is now a more prominent part of the research process.

Lots of the signs of change are already familiar to us: academic blogging, open lab notebooks, collaborative texts, crowd sourcing, citizen science, open access research papers, public datasets… and they’re all pointing to a more participatory and public scholarly discourse. Public engagement doesn’t just mean putting up information on the institutional website — it can be “the long tail of scholarship“, making research more accessible to all.

The changed research landscape is also more collaborative and interdisciplinary — and there’s a danger that this doesn’t fit well into the fixed web structures we maintain. Research these days is more social: and the social is happening outside our institutional websites. Research is also broadening in terms of what ‘counts’ (no longer just traditional publications but research datasets, code, blogs, slidedecks, podcasts, videos…). More collaboration and interdisciplinarity means that research is happening between specialisms, across departments, across borders, outside the university.

Out of this diversification came Altmetrics, the new movement towards new ‘social web’ metrics for analyzing and informing research and its impact. Within this movement “some fundamental questions are being asked that could change how we manage and evaluate research within universities“. Research footprint monitoring provides a way to collate usage data “from where your research lives and breathes”, and feed this back onto institutional web pages through APIs, feeds, and widgets. (Examples of specialist aggregators of analytics from research outputs include AltMetric, ImpactStory, PlumX.)

Thomas then talked about her work in the new Digital Humanities department at Warwick: the themes and technologies which are emerging in research support (CMSs/databases, visualisation tools, social media, impact and analytics); and the importance of the one-to-one conversation between digital technologist and researcher in the requirements gathering process — and how to maintain that relationship throughout the life of a project. She concluded by saying that the implications for the institutional web are that we really have to get good at the following:

  • re-aggregating distributed content analytics
  • using third party specialist platforms (and related risk management)
  • using data and databases, throughout the research lifecycle
  • preservation and archiving
  • being technology collaborators in complex projects
  • responsive innovation through to service provision

and finally, admitting that we don’t know the answers sometimes!

Further reading:

Just for the record

June 3, 2013

Recently an interesting speaker event was scheduled for a Tuesday evening. I wanted to hear the talk, but wasn’t sure I’d be able to go to the event: having a small child means often having to say ‘no’ to things that happen in the evenings. So, a week before the event, I emailed the organisers (using the contact form on their website) to ask whether the event was going to be broadcast, recorded or transcribed. If they assured me that it would be broadcast after the event, then I’d be able to miss it with a clear conscience, knowing that I could catch up later; if they said that it definitely wouldn’t be recorded, then I’d know that the only way I’d get to hear it would be by going along.

Shortly after submitting the form I got an apparently automated reply from the organisers saying “Your question has been received. You should expect a response from us within 24 hours.” 24 hours came and went, and I got no reply. I dithered about whether to go or not, and then, as chance would have it, my husband got an official invitation to the event and the reception afterwards; I decided that this gave him a better claim, and I stayed at home.

The day after the event, I got a reply from the organisers telling me that the event had been “video recorded”, that they hoped to have the film up on YouTube “within the next few days”, and that a brief summary of the discussion would be posted on the website before the end of the day.

Now there is no way on earth this was a last-minute decision. You don’t make last-minute decisions to film an internationally-recognised speaker in the Sheldonian in the hope that they’ll let you stick it up on YouTube later. You plan the filming, you get permission to publish the video, and if you want the material online as quickly as possible after the event then you make sure the people who have to edit the film and publish the transcript know it’s important and have time allocated for doing it. I realise that that’s a lot of preparation. But would it have really thrown that schedule completely off course to take the time to send an email saying “Yes”, or better still, to put a note on the event page saying “This event will be recorded”?

This was only a small annoyance for me; the talk was by no means essential to my work (or even to my happiness), and in the end the decision was made for me by other factors anyway. But I wanted to note it as a little example of the bigger question of how you communicate with your users and why, which is part of the even bigger question of accessibility. I’m not an expert in accessibility, and this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive overview (it’s a complex subject), but put simply: if you give people information about your event and your venue, they’re more likely to be able to engage with it in whatever way works best for them — not to mention being more likely to help you make everything run smoothly. If you give people good directions, they’ll be able to find the event, and get there in plenty of time, and not interrupt others by scrambling to their seat at the last minute. If you tell them whether there’s level access, or how many steps there are, they can make a rational decision about whether to allow extra time for finding the hidden level entrance, or for climbing lots of stairs, or whether to leave the buggy at home, or whether in fact it’s too much hassle to go at all. If you tell people what time an event finishes, they know if they can get back in time for dinner, or if they need to get a babysitter, or if they’ll have to leave before the end. If you tell them they’ll be able to catch up with the content afterwards, they can make an informed decision not to go in person but still participate, still feel positive about the event and the organiser. Conversely, if you withhold this information, then you make it more difficult for people to make an informed decision, more likely that they won’t participate, and more likely that even if they do participate they’ll feel irritated or resentful when they discover either that they didn’t need to worry — or that they should have worried more.

Of course, if you do communicate these things then you need to be sure you can deliver what you’re promising. The very brief report of the talk did go up on the website the day after the talk, but the video still isn’t on YouTube nearly 3 weeks later…

Edited to add: The video is now online, nearly a month after the event. Worth a watch!

To blame computers is human

May 26, 2013

I’ve read many variants on the parodic proverb “to err is human; to really foul things up requires a computer”, mostly cheaply printed on mugs and tshirts (and often using somewhat coarser language), and had assumed it was relatively recent, but the other day I stumbled across the meme in a rather surprising place:

“Do you know what you sound like?” said Mrs. Oliver. “A computer. You know. You’re programming yourself. That’s what they call it, isn’t it? I mean you’re feeding all these things into yourself all day and then you’re going to see what comes out.”

“It is certainly an idea you have there,” said Poirot, with some interest. “Yes, yes, I play the part of the computer. One feeds in the information—”

“And supposing you come up with all the wrong answers?” said Mrs. Oliver.

“That would be impossible,” said Hercule Poirot. “Computers do not do that sort of a thing.”

“They’re not supposed to,” said Mrs. Oliver, “but you’d be surprised at the things that happen sometimes. My last electric light bill, for instance. I know there’s a proverb which says ‘To err is human,’ but a human error is nothing to what a computer can do if it tries.”

—Agatha Christie, Hallowe’en Party (1969)

[This text appears on pp.38-39 of the 1971 Fontana paperback edition]

I wondered if this was a particularly early attestation, so turned to (of course) more computers for the answer. The ever-helpful Quote Investigator gave April 1969 as their earliest cite for this saying; Christie’s novel was first published in November 1969, so my discovery didn’t push their date back, but it was still interesting, both as a question of provenance and an insight into “computer culture”. Had Christie read it and remembered it? Did she independently come up with the same idea? Did Bill Vaughan (whom QI credits with penning the proverb) just write down something that was already common currency by this point? We tend to think that eye-rolling exasperation with computers is a modern affliction, the contempt born of familiarity, but it was clearly unremarkable enough to find its way into Christie’s bag of clichés over 40 years ago. I’m actually surprised the quote hasn’t yet been attributed to Cicero, or some long-forgotten pre-modern scribe on his ancient tablet (perhaps a Newton MessagePad).

A name that’s particular

January 29, 2013

Oxford University has 38 Colleges and 6 Permanent Private Halls. Don’t worry, I’m not going to rehash the various debates about the advantages and disadvantages of the collegiate system here (for one thing, I should finish reading David Palfreyman’s book on the subject first). I just want to point out that for anyone who’s interested in web information architecture or website design this organizational circumstance gives them a fascinating corpus (including a probably-fascinating Corpus) of 44 roughly equivalent websites to compare: sites situated in the same cultural context, which deal with a similar size and shape of institution, similar sets of target users, and so on… but which are sufficiently autonomous that they can make very different choices about how to organise and display their information.

Before we even get to the content of the websites, I’ve long been intrigued and/or frustrated (depending on my mood) by the fact that the Colleges’ domain names are inconsistent in the way they relate to their actual names. Basically, they’re all www dot [name of college] dot ox dot ac dot uk… except where they’re not. I’ve reproduced the full list here so you can see what I mean:

All Souls College
Balliol College
Brasenose College
Campion Hall
Christ Church
Corpus Christi College
Exeter College
Green Templeton College
Harris Manchester College
Hertford College
Jesus College
Keble College
Kellogg College
Lady Margaret Hall
Linacre College
Lincoln College
Magdalen College
Mansfield College
Merton College
New College
Nuffield College
Oriel College
Pembroke College
The Queen’s College
Regent’s Park College
St Anne’s College
St Antony’s College
St Benet’s Hall
St Catherine’s College
St Cross College
St Edmund Hall
St Hilda’s College
St Hugh’s College
St John’s College
St Peter’s College
St Stephen’s House
Somerville College
Trinity College
University College
Wadham College
Wolfson College
Worcester College
Wycliffe Hall

By my count, that’s 25 colleges whose domain names are as close as possible within the characters allowed in domain names (omitting apostrophes, replacing spaces with hyphens) to their real name; 10 whose domain names are their intials; and 9 whose domain names are an abbreviation other than their initials.

Even the initials aren’t consistent: it’s not clear why the ‘nose’ of ‘Brasenose’ deserves its own initial (so perhaps ‘bnc’ should strictly count as an ‘other abbreviation’ rather than initials…), or why ‘St Stephen’s House Oxford’ has to have ‘Oxford’ added to its name/initials when the ‘.ox.ac.uk’ domain should locate and disambiguate it. Others look like initials at first glance (‘pmb’, ‘stx’), but aren’t.

Of the nine ‘other abbreviation’ Colleges, four of them (magd, sant, univ, worc) use the first four letters of their name — this is their ‘OUCS code’, the unique identifier* assigned to them by Oxford University Computing Services (now IT Services). These identifiers are used, among other places, in the University’s single sign-on system usernames — e.g. I was at Pembroke, and my username was pemb0471.

The remaining few (bfriars, chch, pmb, stx) are completely anomalous, and fairly unguessable (OK, St Catherine’s College is colloquially known as ‘St Catz’, but they’ve omitted the hyphen that nearly all the other ‘saints’ have included).

And of course, the names of the colleges themselves are inconsistent; Christ Church does not have ‘College’ as part of its name; Lady Margaret Hall is a College, not a Hall, while Regent’s Park College is a Permanent Private Hall; some of the Saints are possessive (St Hilda’s, St Hugh’s, etc) and others aren’t (St Cross College, St Edmund Hall — which is also a College, not a Hall). In fact, in some cases, their true names are very different from the names by which we know them: either “The President and Fellows of the College of St Mary Magdalen in the University of Oxford” or “The College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in the University of Oxford, of the foundation of Sir Thomas Pope (Knight)” (better known as, respectively, Magdalen College and Trinity College) would make a ridiculously long domain name (though not actually exceeding the technical limit); unsurprisingly, of course, that wasn’t a major concern in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Is any of this a problem? Not really; it makes the URLs hard to guess, but who guesses URLs these days? Typing any of the Colleges’ names into Google will take you to them in less time than it would have once taken you to dial up. However, it’s interesting to see that the same issues come up again and again in any attempt to derive a consistent naming scheme for computers from things that were named by and for human beings. I don’t want to fix it; I just find it fascinating.

* In fact, they’re just one of the many sets of unique identifiers used for departments and Colleges (and those sets are subject to change), but that’s probably a subject for another post.


September 28, 2012

There are many different shapes of procrastination:

The evil toad: You have one big, important, and difficult item on your to-do list, and it squats there glowering at you while you do everything else on your list in the hope of distracting your mind from it, but you can find no satisfaction in any of your other achievements while the black hole of guilt is still there.

The fake toad: You have one big, unimportant and probably long-deferred item on your to-do list, and it functions as a decoy from which to procrastinate by doing all the actually-more-important little things.

The tangled web: You know you’re supposed to be doing X, but you convince yourself that you can always say that you were doing Y (which also needs doing) instead, while actually avoiding both and doing Z (which may or may not need doing), with the result that you not only haven’t done X but you now also have to fit Y in somewhere as well if your story is going to hold water.

The void: You know there are things you need to do, but all you seem to be able to do is click refresh on Twitter, Facebook, email … maybe just one quick game of solitaire before you start on the important tasks … and before you know it several hours have passed and you’re no closer to doing the things that need doing.

The bouncing ball: You have a task that’s sat in your inbox or at the top of your to-do list for weeks, and it seems impossible to start it now, out of the blue, without any kind of trigger or marker or change to your circumstances; you need to give the task some kind of momentum again, so you can feel like you’re returning the ball rather than fishing it out of a stagnant pond. In order to do this, you phone or email someone else who’s involved in the project and ask something vague like “Can I just check where we are with this?”

Sound familiar? Can you think of any more?