Thursday, November 20, 2014

Could you please stop upgrading me in the wrong direction?

It keeps on happening; I go into an online service that I've had wrestled into a functional position (sorry no time to get anything beyond the first working position) and it's had the i-pad nanny makeover. You know the look I mean. Big dumb buttons that can be stabbed by an inattentive finger. Data visualisations that explain the exact knowledge that somebody thinks you want to know in graphs with rounded corners and kinder-executive tones. More options on things that don't matter, often including the menace that is draggable modules, because the certainty of having something in same place on the page after you were interrupted by a phonecall is so last century.

In some ways its nice. We can feel the old programmes (web based, Java, etc.) crumbling. But like employees who had found the exact ways to keep our rooms at a perfect ambient temperature despite the sticking windows and leaky radiators, when we're sent to the new building with its automatic temperature controls and self-opening windows it doesn't feel like an upgrade. It feels like being asked to spend the rest of your life being uncomfortably hot and not being able to fix it. 

Three months later you have the trick of finessing the automatic windows and know the bits of the office where nobody sits without a coat on, and it is better than the old place, with its broken door and the wasps in the roof. But those three months didn't seem like an upgrade, and you weren't especially excited by all the new things you had to learn. The gain was too marginal; the learning scale too steep.

It is increasingly the case that upgrades and redesigns are actually transitions. They come online because the old item is too damaged, can't cope with modern hackspam, relied on something that's been lost in another upgrade on another system, had one fix too many on top of all of the other fixes.  The sites and systems are seldom honest about this; amazing redesigns and fantastic upgrades and new features!!! interrupt me so regularly now I feel little more than a small stab of annoyance when invited to view a five page introduction to the obvious way to use the new page. When asked to trawl through five videos in order to try and find out where a useful function has gone when the answer is it's not possible to implement under the new system - well, that's a bit more than a stab.

Not that there's much that can be done about all this. I'm absolutely aware that the developers have no time for anything beyind the first working position either. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Solution du jour for viewing notes data in Flickr

So here I am, faced with the awkward discovery that I left my instructions for making home-made wine in notes on a photograph in my Flickrstream. "Well, where's the problem with that?" you might ask. Hmmm. Well, if I can get this right, the flapping back and forth caused by Flickr's incredibly successful and/or famously distastrous redesign  and the various redesigns of the redesign means that a few of the features - most notably, notes - have been left behind for "technical reasons".

I've always been a big notes user on Flickr. In addition to the winemaking diorama (below) I've also used them creatively with friends (that mass of chicks all have "secret thoughts" penned by friends), to identify products (all those small press comics are labelled with creator and source) and of course for the flickr groups What's in your bag? and What's in my fridge?, among others. You can't see any of that, of course, you'll just have to take my word for it.

But of course it isn't until you go and try and find if there's any way to turn a thing back on that you discover that other people felt very differently. "Graffiti on photos!!!!" and "Runs the purity!!!" and "Hate the way strangers can comment literally ON my photo" and my personal favourite, "A great picture of a butterfly's eye does not need a rectangle drawn around the eye and the comment "great eye" added. Fair enough. Looks like there was, once again, a whole pile of shriekyweb going on that was pretty much invisible from my calm, early adopter*, civilized corner.

Still. I'd already made notes re-appear once (I needed them to label some flowers) using the recommended-on-help-forum hack of viewing the site in French (which I can read, though I talk it very badly) which meant an older style sheet, notes still show, blah-de-blah, worked for a few months, but at some point it had stopped working, and I'd switched back to English till the next time I needed the notes.

That day was today, and at first I was wondering if the data I'd entered was even still accessible anymore. It is, and thanks to Elmophoto,  I have a new trick -- switch to viewing the site in an obsolete browser (you don't actually need an obsolete browser, that link there sets you up with a plug-in that will allow your modern browser to pretend it's an obsolete browser for a single site) and ta-da! The information reappears. That seems to be working for now, though of course no-one else will see the notes, unless they install the same plug-in, ugh, of course.

Funny thing, notes was (and is still, I think) unique to Flickr. But instead of a USP, it seems to be being treated like a random annoyance - a relic of the web before. Like me, I suppose.

*I wasn't a tester, but I was a sufficiently early adopter that I remember the site before anyone had paid for advertising and it was all just random hamster-related google ads.

Friday, October 17, 2014

creative output/traumatic insemination

There's been some very innovative music release actions this year. First there was Beyoncé's 17 videos vs Bowie's secret album and oh the world was full of delights and mysteries, and any morning might bring an unexpected creative explosion in the most unexpected places. What joy!

Then, of course, it had to get creepy. I'm looking at you, Thom Yorke. The decision to release via Bittorrent doubtless felt very right and now as it was happening. Perhaps he had been advised that everyone with a computer had Bittorrent, but that's not exactly true, is it? Perhaps he had also reflected on those old early-days CD releases which would install some bit of crapware on your computer and thought, this isn't unbroken territory! Perhaps there was some thought that only people who were able/willing to install a piece of 3rd party software on their computer should be able to purchase the album - a sort of initiation test, the music hidden behind a technical tiger. So we had Bittorrent. Briefly. And felt slightly violated.

But worse was to come. Itunes is of course WAY more ubiquitous than Bittorrent. There are three iterations of it running in this household alone (if you don't count the ones on the i-pods, and if you do, there are five*) and that meant potentially THREE copies of a U2 album we never ordered parachuting into the household. Alas, I'd lost my iTunes log-in in a password reset fiasco about four years ago and never got round to fixing it**, so it was only my dearly beloved suddenly exploding in a pile of swears. "Violated!" he choked, "By Bono!"

Unusual. But it got me thinking. Why are we staring at Beyoncé and Bowie going ooooh! aaaaah! like kids looking at fireworks, and going uuugghh aaaaaah at Yorke and Bono waving our hands like teenagers startled by a creep at the busstop? There's the obvious difference of course (the former being glorious edifices of alien glamour and the latter being essentially middle aged men with ponytails) but there's something more going on I think; and I think that we must reach for gender studies.

We choose what entertainment we let into our homes (and our computers are our homes, or at any rate an important part of them). We choose the providers and tools and methods and programmes that make up our own individual technical support zone. This area holds our memories, creative output, social group and task lists. Our body doesn't end at the skin, it extends outward, into our household and its echo, in the remote servers of the cloud; and for most adults*** access routes to that body-echo is as carefully monitored and controlled as access to our actual body.

What then of the music release that requests that you download and install a programme that you are fully aware of but consider a risky access route? It strips choice away from the receiving partner. There's a power shift, a power imbalance. Consent is compromised, or at least carries an unwanted freight, and one which exposes you to further risk. The act of receiving the music requires an act of self-compromise. Like certain encounters with gentlemen (or ladies) you might have had in your early twenties, it's not technically what you'd call .... awful ... but it leaves you feeling nasty and desperately scrubbing the programme from your computer, thinking, I didn't want this.

Bono, of course, went rather further. The traumatic penetration of iTunes libraries resonated around the world. Of course, it made a bigger splash than Bowie and  Beyoncé. He'll have made more money (does he need more money? do any of them?) and got more media coverage. But he's also joined that long list of powerful men in the entertainment industry who feel you should be grateful for (you may insert pretty much anything here) . Last I heard, Bono was being chased down the street by angry Germans, and I laughed, along with the person telling me the story, because I have been (like many people of all genders and ages) a powerless girl, and, oh, wished for that, or something like that.

*The extra ipod is fully functional bar the sound chip which got fried in a tragic headphone jack/power lead confusion incident.
**As I already have a surfeit of entertainment channels and music acquisition routes.
***Children's access is moderated by their parents/carers/schools.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

43 things I need to do now 43 things is closing down

It is a sad moment when one of your bookmark links announces that it is closing down. I clicked through absently to 43 things - a website where I keep a heady mix of hopelessly optimistic, vaguely aspirational and eminently achievable goals - and discovered it was closing. Sad days.

I'd always quite liked it. Neither a bucket list nor a workplan, just a list of wishes that strangers turned up and cheered, randomly. You could record didactic how-to instruction lists, steps on the way, meditations on the unachievability of your goals. Anything you wanted.

Everything you finished went onto one list, everything you decided wasn't worth the bother and gave up on went into another. It could be structured or free form, loose or tight. You could be cryptic as you liked. There was a separate bit for New Year's resolutions. And so it was that I turned goal-setting into a game, and quite a fun one. at that.

So, why did they take it away?
While we wish the site could live on, it has suffered from a number of challenges - changes in how people use the site, the advertising industry, and how search engines view the site. We wish the outcome was different – but we’ve always been realistic about when our goals are met and when they aren't.
That's a little vague, but fortunately I was able to spot more-or-less what had happened just by glancing at my profile, which had a short deleted comment appended to all of my "How to Guides" and - oh yes, look - here's what's being deleted, on one of my entries. A comment in ALL CAPS promoting a visibly broken "earning link" to a major internet retail site.  Spam comments. It's been brought down by spam comments.

These probably aren't being added by hand. It has the look of an automated injection attack of some sort. Just the sort of horrible, intractable thing that script kiddies think is hilarious to fire at a a bunch of well-meaning do-gooders until they crumple.

Well, that's one interpretation. Another is that they looked at their quite sweet old project that was clearly well-liked (if a little creaky round the edges) and considered the amount of effort that it would take to fit up this site, built for the positive, prosocial internet of the early adopters, into enough of an iron-bound, copper-bottomed, radar-lidar-laser-shark protected behemoth that it could survive the slings and arrows of the bottom half of the internet...

...and closed it down, with a pang of regret, but not too much, because when you have 43 things on your list, there's always another place to put your time, energy and enthusiasm.

In the meantime, happy days. 43 things saw me get a glamorous cocktail cabinet and bake dinosaur shaped biscuits and start topiarising the front hedge.

It saw me get a rescue kitten, stop pulling my hair, and make a music video. All in all, I did 149 things, gave up on 26 (including, slightly tragically, "Turn the Bathroom into an Alien Tiki bath-hut") and had 41 still on the list when the site switched to frozen, including the very first goal I ever set for myself which was learn to set things in resin.

Too bad, I had another one to tick off the list. Grow Nosferatu Chilies well enough to give some away to friends.  Done that. Achievement unlocked.

But now how will I tick that box?

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The spamtide is rising

On the several websites I roughly corral, the spamtide is rising. Comments spattered with Ugg boots and heating systems, spurious resubmissions of forms full of gobbledygook or try-it-on phrases. Even my inbox (behind two spam filters) is starting to receive sharp arrows of sour links.

But last week, a machine generated wordsalad flew in, and I felt a wash of nostalgia.

There were about 30 murders from the general area.

On 8 January 1928, Fradin filed suit for defamation against Dussaud. In Pisa, he probably obtained his doctoral degree in 1546, and returned to his native land two years later.
He died in Harare on 5 November 1990. Fists flew freely for a few seconds but the mix up was stopped without damage to either player.
Death of Charity Gardener. Vera means well but she is a loud, controlling alcoholic who spoils Will and subtly despises Sasha.
I believe belongs to Captain Roberts. World Championship on ---------------- Proper title, proper determinor

Back at the time of the spam high tide, I found the wordsalad generators fascinating, gave them names, imbued them with personalities. At the time I was high volume spamsifting (sometimes this needs to be done) and (particularly after holiday weekends, where compromised servers would spew out thousands of messages) I would see these messages again and again. I made small booklets of them, wrote comics about them, shared their latest oeuvres with bored friends. I wasn't the only one. People were obsessed. They still are. Websites  and Web Toys and Twitters and Pinterests and endless posts on blogs bear testimony to our brief fascination with these things that sound like communication, but are actually just non-intelligent machine generated language. Wikipedia even decides it needed a new name, but I'm not sure Spoetry will really catch on (indeed, it has a non-notable notice on it).

The one above is like an echo of the memory of those early wordsalad bots, which started as an attempt to avoid work-checking filters and ended as a sort of wordmusic, computer generated but nevertheless lovely. I think we love it for the hint of intelligence, the sense that there might in some bot somewhere be something that in time and with care will straighten and self organise, like a child learning to talk. We briefly nurture these imitators before realising that the thing we are holding is a doll, a simulacrum, a generation.

And then think: maybe the next one.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

On the invention of Social Networking Sites

According the archive, it was October 2001 that I was introduced by a friend up the curve from me to a site called Livejournal. Now, as then, it is somewhat obscure. A niche site for enthusiasts of open source, creative work, privacy and anti-corporatism. But its combination of creative posting, forum-type commentary, friend-lists, communities of interest and solid, tag-enabled archiving hinted at a thing my oversocialised brain had been waiting for. Long before Dunbar's number entered popsci vernacular I could feel the creaks and cracks emerging in my social group as we found all-consuming projects, demanding jobs, started families. "Join this," I remember saying, "This is how we'll organise our parties now. This is how we'll make holidays and fun stuff happen. Get an account. Here's an invite code. You don't need an invite code now. Do you still not have an account? Join. You don't have to blog. You don't even have to comment. You can just watch. Didn't you know? I put it on LJ. Get an account."

At the same time I was looking at how other people were using it, the strange rag-bag of needs it fulfilled. It wasn't all about socialising and talking. There were private posts, secret messages, communities for two or one or none. Something prickled a memory, a short story I'd read years ago, when I was a lonely teenager, far from friends and fun, caught in the alternating fixed boxes of the determined life of the child; green walls for rural smallfarming, gold for the clever scholarship child. I couldn't remember who wrote it, I couldn't remember what it was called. All I could remember was an angry father, a lonely yellow farm, vistas suddenly opening, not of land but of information; and a red cloak, whirling in the night.

Years later, I described these fragmentary memories to a friend who is something of an expert on fantasy stories,  and she selected a scuffed book from her shelves. "I think it's a series of stories," she said, giving me a copy of Get off the Unicorn by Anne McCaffrey. "The hero is called Nora."

Nora Fenn, born on a farm, catapulted into life in university town, dressed in rags and living on brainpower alone. No wonder the stories (Daughter, 1971, and Dull Drums, 1973) had appealed. And there, on page 98, the revolution described in a single phrase: "Every citizen had the right to Bank-storage:" by which she meant free individual use of computer access. Private storage, locked behind a privacy seal; a searchable, extendible space to keep the attenuated self that the future demanded. In a utopian moment McCaffrey imagines how this unassailable self, this core of protected privacy, this reflective space that has to listen, that can only remember, accurately, perfectly and completely, might lead to happier, saner people, reduce substance misuse and paradoxically increase community activity and promote community feeling. She even puts a date on it; "From 1990," she says. The year I made my first web page.

In the story, Nora and her classmates are in charge of decommissioning obsolete records, sifting the private storage of the dead for sociological gold, advising recommendations about limits of bank storage for citizens. In real life, Facebook followed Livejournal and Twitter followed Facebook and communication has perhaps triumphed over reflection within the social networking environment, but at least our bank storage and programming time has an aspect of functional infinity our predecs could only dream of.

It's not set very far into the future, McCaffrey's oddly gentle fable of programming and social advancement, but it teasingly reveals a very heartful vision of our post-millennial future. In the flutter of ambitions and necessity, in the whirl of a crimson cloak you couldn't really afford in a courtyard you got to via a strange ladder of ambitions and declarations. And you spin, spin, caught in the promise of a future where everyone is held and no-one is left behind.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Women in Engineering Day Talk - 2014

(Delivered to a local technical college for a lunchtime talk on Women in Engineering Day 2014.)

In preparation for giving this talk I did a short piece of research among my friends who were engineers and those working in associated fields like ICT, technical project management, system administration and programming. This research took the form of; one blind survey (delivered online) where participants did not get to see what each other were saying, in order to promote full honesty; one online discussion where people could see and comment on each others' opinion; and several discussions, including a detailed discussion with a male engineer.

Gathering and organising data, capturing the useful and most helpful information, and re-presenting it to decision makers, such as yourselves, is often my mode of working. One of my duties is the specification, construction and testing of new tools which enable online access to services. I get to make things myself sometimes, but far more often I am assembling information and explaining it to different interested groups in language they understand.

Or, as one of my interviewees put it, "I speak Geek, and I translate".

This talk includes five points, five questions, and lots of opportunities for you to join in!

1. Engineering is not ICT is not Technical Management is not Civil Engineering is not Software Engineering 

Among the women I spoke to, about half of those working in ICT had not studied technical subjects at school at school and college. They had instead found conversion opportunities in their workplaces, and done study either funded by or provided by their place of work or self-financed to upskill themselves. The other half had studied maths or computing or Computer Sciences or something along those lines.

> Can I ask you quickly to introduce yourselves and say what you are studying/hope to study? 

> Thanks!

The engineers had all studied sciences, in particular physics and maths, and were qualified to degree level or beyond. There were a few PhDs in the group, too. However this probably reflects bias in my group. The engineers were aware of certain professions within civil and mechanical engineering which had a vocational route, and those in ICT discussed (or had taken) on-the-job routes.

Some had been strongly motivated to enter their area, others had just wandered into it as something useful to do while they were figuring out what to do with their lives. But they all spoke of having a knack or a feel or an aptitude for where they ended up.

They had ended up in lots of different jobs that were very unlike each other.  It's a very diverse field.

2. Know someone who does it already, or get to know them or the subject area

The usefulness of already being known cannot be overstated. Engineers (and employers in general) like reliable measures, known quantities and understood capabilities. They also like experience, and this is reflected in salary. The younger workers (and several of the people I spoke to said being young was a bigger issue than being female) is at a disadvantage.  But there are ways round this:

  • Go for established companies, where there is a regular process for getting to know new staff members like graduate or school leaver programmes or apprenticeships
  • Go for new/start-up companies where everyone is a stranger
  • Get to know a company through holiday working, contracting or similar 

Several of the women spoke of a family background which encouraged their engaging with technical topics. Parents who teach them to program and not to be afraid of computers or mechanical tasks were listed as important. It made them think about their own capability and not underestimate it.

> Can I ask which of you have family members working in technical fields?

> Thank you.

Pretty much all had got jobs, work experience and crucial career breaks from the people around them. This went from getting jobs at places where course mates or college friends were working, to getting a holiday job making a small busines website for a father's friend. Her comment on this? "Outright nepotism - but I did a good job, and that was on my own merit - don't feel guilty about nepotism."

3. Don't let other people's expectations (or your own) limit you 

The women and men I spoke to thought it would be useful if there were more women in the field, but that to be an engineer you have be a certain sort of person. I thought that was a bit vague, so I asked - what sort of person? They said:

  • Prepared to get stuck in, get their hands dirty, and fix or make stuff
  • Able to stick to their opinions, be persistent, and persuade people to do the thing that will work
  • You need to have people skills in situations where there are problems or conflict 

There was also a tendency to describe themselves as "not typical women", but what did they mean by that? Let me hand over to S, an engineer working on farm machinery:

"The difficult bit is breaking through the expectations to let yourself even try to get into the field in the first place. Girls pick up the message from media/family/peers/people-who-don't-do-engineering that it isn't something for them, and it's sometimes hard to keep going against that message even if you're certain you like what you're doing."

And often the easiest response to that is to say, "I'm not a typical woman" and carry on doing the thing that you love. But it can still come back, at the strangest moments:

"It's also hard to keep the message out of your own brain. I was discussing this with a female colleague the other week who knew she wanted to have a go at welding and learnt how to do it but still felt that sense of 'can I do this, as a girl?' at first - knowing at a conscious level that it was a ridiculous thing to think, but still having it pop up from her subconscious anyway."

The female colleague went ahead and did the welding anyway, but for teenagers, the pressure can be much more insidious and hard to resist:

"I saw so many girls drop A level physics as soon as they had difficulties with it, because that undermining 'oh, well, I'm a girl, maybe this isn't for me after all' let them drop out rather than put the work in to get through it."

> Can I ask you all to say something you're good at, or something you are not  good at, if that's easier!

> Thanks.

Welding comes up a lot. Some people are good at it - they have a knack. Others don't! This includes a male engineer I know. But he would never interpret his lousy welding as meaning that men can't weld or that he's in the wrong job. Instead he got himself good enough to do a passable job, and leaves anything skilled to colleagues who are better at that part of the job.

4. Sexism isn't a constant problem, but you will need some strategies

Pretty much everyone I spoke to said their workmates weren't sexist, but that they had all worker in or knew of environments/people/situations that were. So, you are likely to come across problems, and you will need to solve them. But you won't always be fighting.

> Can I ask you what problems you are worried about?

> Thank you. I'll respond to these, in order:

People will think I don't have the strength to do the job. Let me hand over to J for this one: "Take yourself seriously, buy tools that are the right size for your hands, and use tools that are the right ones for the job. Above all, never go into a situation you feel uneasy about. Just walk away."

I won't get given the good work, the opportunities, or the breaks. Concentrate on the work that's yours. Other people's work pretty much always looks better, because you don't see problems from a distance. Also, remember that as a long as the work is necessary, it is good - if you're doing work that seems to serve no purpose, or is boring, you need to challenge or ask; it could be you have misunderstood something, or there could be a problem. Remember; the difficult and nasty jobs are a sign of respect.

Going to college will be difficult because there won't be other girls. The women I spoke to said that was not a problem (bar the occasional off-colour joke from academics). Some had positively enjoyed it.  But blokish environments were discussed by everyone, and there were lots of different strategies. Being thick skinned or not particularly caring what other people thought of them helped to an extent, as did standing up for yourself and making it clear what is and isn't acceptable. Calling people out on nasty banter helped make working environments a nicer place. But so did being friendly, effective and reliable, or as one person put it, "so good no-one can say you shouldn't be there."

Male colleagues will get more respect or pay than me for doing the same things/will claim my work as theirs.  The main comfort I had to offer here is that often these things will happen (and from a senior female worker saying, dryly, "In practice we are strongly discouraged from comparing salaries" to an academic talking about how, the higher you get, the less likely you are to see someone who isn't a straight white male, it clearly did happen) was that these things also happen because you are young and inexperienced, and these will both improve over time.

There was also a question I prepared, but didn't use -- about having children (pick a company with established processes/procedures, continue some work or study during your maternity break(s), make sure that you're in a well-run workplace) but none of the girls were interested in that!

There was also a question I was asked and hadn't prepared for: I am worried people will refuse to work with me because of their religious or cultural background.

Hmmm. Tricky one.

5. Not much queuing for the loos and more money than I could contemplate

My anonymous poll allowed me to ask about salaries. Starting salaries wandered from £15-25K (although with some notable outliers like my less-than-impressive £7.5K) but current salaries were much more exciting, topping out in the £90K+ zone and averaging around the high £40K zone.

Interestingly there was not a clear relationship between salary and level of qualification. My investigation suggested that technical specialisation into a particularly desirable fields may have been the single biggest factor in raising salary after simply being good at what you do - but predicting what will be crucial infrastructure and what will be just useful transferable skills may not be possible!

They also spoke about other benefits of being part of a cherished and valued minority (and mild annoyances, like being asked to pose for photos for company brochures a lot) after all, most of the workplaces knew that they should have more than just a couple of women in the workplace. Those individuals and organisations that didn't (and I had some hairy stories, not just from small tech and games companies, but from a worker at what one would expect to be a very ethical workplace) were often coming from individuals or workplaces with wider problems, the sort you needed to either solve or leave (and the women I spoke to had done a mixture of both). But they were, on the whole, very positive about their work.

> Can I ask you what you are really looking  forward to in your careers?

> Thank you

The women and men I spoke to all enjoyed the culture in their workplace ("being surrounded by people like me is more important than if they are men or women") and the satisfaction of doing the work they loved. Being surrounded by other people who really care about getting things right, making things work and getting all the details done, properly is really satisfying. Let me hand over again to S, for one last word:

"Most of the people I work with are your stereotypical quiet, thoughtful types who care about getting the thing itself right, not about status or approval, so they really don't care about *who* came up with the right answer, they just care about the answer. So I'd like to see more women in engineering (I'm one of about fifteen women in a department of three hundred) but not to fix something about where I work directly. I'd like to see more women in engineering so that non-engineers stop making girls rule themselves out of it before they even get a chance to try."

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Women in Engineering Talk 2014 by Jeremy Day is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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Thursday, June 19, 2014

DO put your daughter on the internet Ms Worth

Two odd things this week; I've been asked to talk as part of Women in Engineering day, and I ended up with someone on one of my e-safety course feeling so aware of the risks that they felt they should close their social networking presences. I feel bad about both, but not really for different reasons. Both have to do with gender, visibility, and the difficulty of pressing out into the unknown.

Disclaimer; I am a woman, but I'm not an engineer. Lots of my friends are software engineers, or work in data and systems and web. My background is web and communications, not web and development. But there are many ways in which you can't really separate the content from the medium/function and in common with many others who started work as web something-or-other I have over the years drifted techwards, fuelled by a desire to help make things work better. I have also found myself acting as translator and advocate for back-room systems and it was in this spirit I polled my friends and rolled their opinions into a short talk on being a woman in ITC and engineering.

 Not ready yet, but here are three points, by way of a sneak preview:

  1. The sort of person you are is more important than whether you are or are not a woman when it comes to entering the ICT/engineering field. However, it will have an effect on your career because of the attitudes of other people you will meet professionally. How this goes will depend on your workplace, but it can go very well (also badly).
  2. Having social and professional contacts within the field and having the confidence and entitlement to exploit them fully really mattered. Jobs (not all jobs, but many, and many that were important in the careers described) were gained through parents, partners, friends, social contacts. Everyone does it; don't fear it.
  3. Although you may well get paid less than male colleagues, and suffer more hassle and harassment (though you might not) you will still earn more and more regularly and more steadily than most, all for a job you (pretty much) enjoy, working with people you (pretty much) get along with.
Digested down still further, this says; "Don't fear going somewhere new, even when it attracts problems. Use your social contacts, don't fear them. Don't worry about doing worse than other people, as long as you're doing well enough, it doesn't matter."

Which was very, very close to the arguments I was making for keeping your social networking presence.

Friday, June 13, 2014

don't blink during the database stand-off

A lot of us dream of the database. The one great database that will take all of the data from our tiny scrappy datastores, match fields, cross-validate and deduplicate and place our data into the rich promised land of absolute knowledge that drifts in front of our eyes like a mirage, perpetually two and half minutes into the future. That's my vision, I suppose; a single person-orientated record, that follows them from record creation, through time and eventually into the archive like an obedient electronic shadow, plus an information layer over the world, that provides administration points for that record, mapping and pinning and attaching them in the spaghetti junction tangle of their official environment.

Anyone looking at that thinking, that's Facebook and there's Google, that's fine as long as the world you live in is permitted to be partial, optional and mostly centred around relationships and buying things. Not that their data isn't often much better than ours. But I digress.

Across the room, there is a different vision. A series of people who share this vision are explaining it over to an assembled group of people who have suddenly been swept up into this vision. The vision includes a variety of things but one of them is a datastore. Would it not be better if all the datastores were just one? Think of the savings and the improvements to the service!

Across the room from the people with the vision sit the operational managers and asset holders. They have a variety of systems, all of which are in use and fulfilling a non-optional service. They may not be the best systems (all large systems have a tendency to stay jammed into first working configurations) but they work, within tolerance, and they do a variety of things. 

There is a brief moment of silence. Into it, a single sentence falls: I wonder if we're really talking about more than one system here.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

on the difficulty of avoiding data devalidation

As is my wont, I was updating my website. In this case the key product I was linking to was the NHS Service Finder database. I smacked through a sample search (like you do) and my eye snagged on a thing halfway down the page. A thing I knew had not existed since 2011.

So I went to the button, you know the button, the one that opens a challenging half-remembered route to the data curators who keep your information in a reasonable state of validation (my memory ran something along these lines; there's some forms, and a phone number and a guy and a thing you have to do, but he knows his stuff so it's OK) but the button was gone, and in its place was a simple line of text: "This information was supplied by Serco Global Services on 12-03-2014"

OK, I thought. New route. "Report an issue with this information" link. Insta-auto-holding-reply received. Take it from there. Then I thought to myself, I wonder if [redacted] service is still there?

It was. Four years gone and repeatedly removed from everyone's databases.

But (and this is really the but) it persists, haunting the local databases, or those that don't (or barely) update, linked to long-gone web content, or copies of that content, or copies of copies of that content. We're guilty of it, to an extent ourselves; one of the sources I found was (or at least appeared) official, or from the right source, though I think it was a random scrap lost on a server somewhere.

 24 hours later, I get the email from the person. "This information has been passed to our third party information supply service. Please be advised it may take as long as 6 weeks for any changes to be reflected in the database."

Spare a thought for the information curators. I think about them a lot. Specifically I try to think about how to encourage them to try the emails and phone numbers they copy from database to database. Because they're dead, every one of them. The email, the phone number, even the web address (which was a surprise to me, I thought it was redirect to current content and oh, another thing for fixing).

We never want to throw away data, us humans. I remember the days I kept a careful list of all my database deletions, a list of the discontinuations, each with a justification that no-one would ever ask for. The services, clubs, groups, activities that make you go ooh! are the worst, persisting and re-entering for the sake of being interesting, that common currency of the internet.

Well, I have work to do. Time to attend to the synaptic pruning of the semantic web. 

A final note on skipping the email and phone call stage of three-point data validation and just relying on the web search; Google is adjusting its search around you constantly. If it looks like you're searching for evidence of long-discontinued services, it will give you evidence of long-discontinued services. And if you find yourself thinking, "ooh, that sounds like an interesting service," beware. Others have gone ooh before you.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Poem for Safer Internet Day 2014

I needed a poem for Safer Internet Day 2014 (don't ask) and for some reason there was not a useful one anywhere I could find. So I wrote this one:

Always ask if you get lost on the internet

The internet is a very big place
Bigger than the world
Bigger that the sky
Bigger than everyone
(Though not actually bigger than space.)

And this is why you must always ask if you get lost on the internet.

If you’re looking for something and you can’t find it
Or if you find something bad
Or strange or confusing or nasty
Or not what you expected
Find an adult you trust and sit down together to find it

And then maybe you will still be lost on the internet

But you will be lost together, which is better
Finding the right links to click
The right sites to visit
The best places to visit
And the right people to talk to, together

Always remembering (even if you don’t feel lost on the internet)

To think before you click, post, press, send
Keep your name, phone number
Address, school, and pet’s names
Safe behind safe passwords
No-one knows not even your best friend

And when you find someone else who looks lost on the internet

Be gentle with them and remember it’s
Their first time here, and
They don’t know what
To say, or how to say it
To make sure other people understand it

And then you can help them not to feel too lost on the internet

And when you find yourself (you will)
Seeing things you don’t like
Reading things that should
Not be said to anyone
Close the page, stay calm, report, and tell

And someday there won’t be anyone lost on the internet

Jeremy Day 2014

This poem may be freely reproduced and used with attribution for educational purposes.

  Creative Commons License
Always ask if you get lost on the internet by Jeremy Day is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at