I spent most of today in the company of a group of fascinating people who work at the NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute, my hosts while I’m here in Tokyo.  They had organised a half-day symposium on the future of broadcast archives, and especially on what we do with the written material that complements and explains the television and radio programmes that organisations like the BBC and NHK spend most of their effort making and broadcasting.

The Broadcasting Culture Research Institute was demonstrating the first version of a new archive search tool built in collaboration with the National Institute of Informatics and based on the same technology as the much- respected IMAGINE Booksearch

I had a sneak preview yesterday, and Jun Ibuki told me that the system was based around associative search rather than dumb keyword matching or a pre-defined data model. When he did so I thought of an old teacher of mine, Karen Sparck-Jones who was one of the foremost experts in natural language processing. Karen sadly died in 2007, but I remember her and her husband Roger Needham fondly, as I did the Diploma in Computer Science at Cambridge and was taught by both of them.

Today at the symposium I had a chance to talk to Professor Akihiko Takano from NII, who developed the system, and we discussed the technology behind Webcat Plus and the NHK system, and I thought the same thing.

And then, this evening over supper, I mentioned that my first degree was in philosophy and Jun and Akihiko and I started a complicated conversation about Wittgenstein, language games, search tools and the nature of programming (you had to be there), and at some point I mentioned Roger and Akihiko said that he had known him too, and that Karen’s work was behind his approach to search and that some years ago he had worked for Hitachi Labs, and that Roger and Karen had visited him in Tokyo.

At which point I felt a circle close, and another of the threads of my life became weft, trapped in the warp of my tapestry.  And I paused to remember old friends, now gone, and the times that had brought me to this place, and this life.

LiveCode Kickstarter

Five years ago I had the great pleasure of hanging out with Colin Holgate,  who was behind many of the Voyager CD-ROM titles that pioneerd interactive multimedia. We spent a few days in a meeting room inside Tower Bridge at a charrette about the future of education, and the ideas from that time are still central to my thinking about the wider impact on society.

Colin and I both share an interest in hypermedia, and remembered the days of Apple’s Hypercard (and its predecessor, GUIDE), so it was interesting to hear from him recently about RunRev‘s LiveCode, which he rates highly:

Like HyperCard it uses a card metaphor, and a near English scripting language.In addition to continued development, active community, and annual conferences, it can run onMac, Windows, and Linux (even talk of it being ported to Raspberry Pi), and it can publish apps to Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, Android, and be used for Server side applications.

 He was writing to let me know that RunRev want to make LiveCode open source and have started a Kickstarter project to fund a six month engineering team that will make the source code more modular, and easier for the community to contribute to.

They want to raise £350K to cover all the costs and are at £120K as I write, and I think it’s worth checking out. It looks like a good product and it would be great to see it available to the community of users. Too often we ask for code to be made available under a better licence without realising that doing this takes time and effort.

Sharing Digital Skills

On January 17 I took part in the Reading Agency/Publishers Association conference at the rather lovely Canada Water Library in Southwark, where we  discussed ways for libraries to embrace new technologies in order to take their support for readers online.

It was the final event of a project around digital skills sharing, and you can find more details at the Reading Agency website. I took part in a panel session, which was lots of fun.

Panel session

I also gave the keynote talk at the start of the afternoon, which you can read here.

The Age of Electronics

[Slide: Computers]

We live in a society that is as dependent on access to and engagement with computers, digital data and fast networks as the one I grew up in was on electricity and the one before it on oil – although of course we still depend on both of them, and seem have added computers to the mix rather than replaced what went before.

Continue reading “Sharing Digital Skills”

My pledge: I will not speak on/moderate all-male panels at conferences.

A couple of days ago tech writer Rebecca Rosen published an article in The Atlantic in which she made a modest proposal that could begin to address the enormous gender imbalance she’d observed at technology conferences.

Rebecca – @beccarosen on Twitter – suggested that men who care about this sort of thing might like to make a public pronouncement to the effect that they would (politely) refuse to speak on or moderate all-male panels at tech/science conferences.

The Atlantic article was prompted in part by an earlier post from Matt Andrews, a web developer at The Guardian, who was surprised and unhappy that the organisers of the Edge Conference on “advanced web technologies for developers and browser vendors” couldn’t find a woman to appear among the twenty-two speakers listed on their website (as of 3 Jan).

He’s not alone in being concerned, and there are many other focal points for this particular debate, including the cancellation of the BritRuby conference after arguments about the all-male lineup

In fact, I’d already been thinking the same as Rebecca Rosen, but only in that relaxed privileged liberal middle-class white male way that allows me to feel good about myself without actually going to the trouble of doing anything unless I happened to remember that I’d decided that I was really principled.

That means I’d look at invitations – and I get a lot of them – and sometimes I’d ask about the gender balance, but mostly I’d forget. I did usually manage to recommend only women as substitutes when I couldn’t do something, but that wasn’t exactly onerous.

So I decided to put my 140 characters to good use and tweeted:

(and of course I extend that to cover *all* the conferences I speak at – including arts, education and whatever else)

I did this not because I think it will make a difference overnight, or because I think that the male-female balance on panels is the most important issue facing the tech community (or any community), or because I want to show off my feminist principles, but because I think the current unbalanced representation of women at conferences does us all a disservice and I’d like to do something about it.

I’m asked to speak at a lot of events and by agreeing to raise the issue I can do something to make it more significant to conference organisers, where the real power to change this lies.

Now I’ll have to think more carefully, and actually ask the organisers what they are doing about making panels and conferences more balanced.

Because I’m working in the BBC’s archive development team there may occasionally be events I speak at where I don’t have the freedom to say ‘no’ – but where I do have a choice (and that’s the vast majority of my speaking engagements) I will now be checking before I appear, and I’ll honour existing agreements to speak.

If I’m giving a keynote then I’ll look at the balance of the whole event and if I’m on a panel or speaking in a session with other people then I won’t take part if it’s all male, though I will give organisers an opportunity to correct this if they choose to.

And if I can’t do a conference then I will always try to recommend a woman speaker who is as good as I would have been as a replacement.

It’s not much to do, it will cost me remarkably little, but at least it’s the right thing to do.



Holiday reading

Over at Memex 1.1 the redoubtable John Naughton talks about his holiday reading, and makes me feel guilty that most of mine has been <=140 characters… I did finish Will Self’s Umbrella recently, and am half-heartedly starting up with Iain M Banks new Culture novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, but John has gone for some serious stimulation:

One of the really nice things about Christmas is that the phone stops ringing and the tide of work-related email recedes, leaving time for reading. Here’s what’s I’m into just now:

Artemis Cooper’s biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Like many people I’ve been fascinated by Fermor ever since reading his two great travel books — A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. I’ve long been curious to know what the rest of his life was like. Now I’m finding out.

Sebastian Seung’s Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are.

Larry Lessig’s new book, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress – and a Plan to Stop It.

Age of Fracture,a terrific work of intellectual history and the first really convincing account I’ve come across of how and why the post-war liberal consensus ran out of steam and was replaced by the neo-con nonsense that has got us into our current mess.

 I need to read Larry’s new book, of course, and while the term ‘Connectome’ just irritates me, it covers an area that I want to write about myself. And just last weekend Katie’s mum was raving about the Fermor biography, so I should add it to the list.

SchroderBut just last week my good friends at Faber sent me Country Girl, Edna O’Brien’s fabulous autobiography, and I have an early copy of Schroder, Amity Gaige’s new novel, which Stephen Page thinks I will enjoy – and  I have learned to trust his judgement over everyone else’s when it comes to such matters.

I suspect this means that my tax return will end up being done on Jan 31 again.

Looking to 2013

It’s been an interesting year, both personally and professionally, as they like to say, and although I slightly resent the fact that my day job has been so exhausting, I’m enjoying the space between Christmas and New Year in a different way from that I experienced during my fifteen years as a freelance hack and pundit. This year, I need the rest.

Of course that didn’t stop me getting up at 0730 on Boxing Day and sneaking downstairs while the house slept, to feed the cats, make a cup of tea, and start puzzling over the cashflow for Working for an MP in preparation for submitting our tax return; nor did it stop me changing the template for this website (I was going to say ‘redesigning’ it but pressing the button in WordPress to activate a new template, cropping an image to upload and changing the widgets isn’t ‘design’ in anyone’s vocabulary); and I will be reading my BBC email this afternoon, just to stay in the loop and see if I’ve been asked to travel to any more exciting places.

Next year

In 2012 I married Katie, we bought a cottage in the Yorkshire Dales, my son went off to university, my daughter continued to live and work in Cambridge, and I kept a lot of plates spinning, some of them not receiving the attention they deserved.  I only ever make one resolution for the New Year, but I have decided to focus more on bigger things next year, and not let so much small stuff get in my way, both in the day job at the BBC and elsewhere in my work.  I will also try to write more here than I have, and not just post my Instagram pix.  Let’s see how that goes.