The Fighter

Read this and couldn’t help but smile … the last six months has felt like a constant battle, like I’m constantly treading water …

       The Fighter
I fight a battle every day
Against discouragement and fear;
Some foe stands always in my way,
The path ahead is never clear!
I must forever be on guard
Against the doubts that skulk along;
I get ahead by fighting hard,
But fighting keeps my spirit strong.

I hear the croakings of Despair,
The dark predictions of the weak;
I find myself pursued by Care,
No matter what the end I seek;
My victories are small and few,
It matters not how hard I strive;
Each day the fight begins anew,
But fighting keeps my hopes alive.

My dreams are spoiled by circumstance,
My plans are wrecked by Fate or Luck;
Some hour, perhaps, will bring my chance,
But that great hour has never struck;
My progress has been slow and hard,
I've had to climb and crawl and swim,
Fighting for every stubborn yard,
But I have kept in fighting trim.

I have to fight my doubts away,
And be on guard against my fears;
The feeble croaking of Dismay
Has been familiar through the years;
My dearest plans keep going wrong,
Events combine to thwart my will,
But fighting keeps my spirit strong,
And I am undefeated still!

        by S.E. Kiser

… but there’s a lot to be said for never giving in.

{TWR} Meeting in Knightcote

Last weekend I met up with some of my team mates from {TWR} for one of our annual get-togethers. Rather embarrassingly I hadn’t bothered to even find out where we were spending the weekend till the night before – several months ago when the plans were first made I think I said something like … “I don’t care where it is, I’ll be there!”, and never really got round to checking on how the guys were getting on with organising the venue, but that’s really a testament to how much I trust Alan and Wim. previous venues for our get-togethers have included New York, Ghent in Belgium, Oxford and an assortment of other cities around the UK.

For those who don’t know {TWR} stands for Team Wolfenstein Resource, its an FPS gaming clan that plays several games created by idSoftware, these include the original Return to Castle Wolfenstein, and it’s sequels Wolfenstein Enemy Territory and the recent Enemy Territory Quake Wars, some of us also play Quake 4. We are, as you might imagine, a pretty diverse bunch – if the phrase unity of opposites ever applied to anything then its definitely a moniker that fits {TWR}. Whilst it’s easy to try to dismiss us a bunch of gaming geeks the reality is that although we all share a common interest the friendships that we have formed have transcended that – the truth is the game is now simply a way we keep in touch, rather than the reason we do. Events like this are really so we can all catch up and see how everyone is doing.

This get-together was special because it was the first time Mike, the founder of was able to attend given that he lives in Melbourne in Australia. We chose a weekend that we knew he’d be in the UK visiting relatives with his wife Analina and their son Brodie, who spent most of the weekend clambering over me or chasing me round the kitchen table – he’s a wonderful kid! The weekend was full of humour, it’s a {TWR} tradition to make fun of each other as much as we can, and whilst I’m not going to recount any specific things here, I did laugh my head off when Wim presented me with a radio controlled K.I.T.T car from Knight Rider – it’s an ongoing joke πŸ™‚ .


Wim+Julia, Penny+Alan, Me,Lois+Mark,Joanne+Marcus

Like all of our events it was awesome, the house that Wim found for us to stay in was amazing and the day out in Stratford Upon Avon was also a lot of fun πŸ™‚ It was nice to leave everything behind for a weekend and simply have a laugh πŸ™‚ even if it was mostly at my expense ( thanks Alan! πŸ™ lol ). I can’t wait for the next one.

I’ve uploaded a selection of pictures to my flickr account, and so did Alan to his Picasso account.

To everyone who took part I want to say … Thank You!

The Conflict of Convictions

Been feeling torn lately … so I’ve been reflecting a lot on why that is … was almost ironic that during my introspection I recalled a passage from one of Melville’s old poems, I’ve transcribed the piece below in full …

    The Conflict of Convictions
       by Herman Melville

On starry heights
  A bugle wails the long recall;
Derision stirs the deep abyss,
  Heaven's ominous silence over all.
Return, return, O eager Hope,
  And face man's latter fall.
Events, they make the dreamers quail;
Satan's old age is strong and hale,
A disciplined captain, gray in skill,
And Raphael a white enthusiast still;
Dashed aims, at which Christ's martyrs pale,
Shall Mammon's slaves fulfill?

    (Dismantle the fort,
    Cut down the fleet--
    Battle no more shall be!
    While the fields for fight in Γ¦ons to come
    Congeal beneath the sea.)

The terrors of truth and dart of death
  To faith alike are vain;
Though comets, gone a thousand years,
    Return again,
Patient she stands--she can no more--
And waits, nor heeds she waxes hoar.

    (At a stony gate,
    A statue of stone,
    Weed overgrown--
    Long 'twill wait!)

But God his former mind retains,
  Confirms his old decree;
The generations are inured to pains,
  And strong Necessity
Surges, and heaps Time's strand with wrecks.
  The People spread like a weedy grass,
  The thing they will they bring to pass,
And prosper to the apoplex.
The rout it herds around the heart,
  The ghost is yielded in the gloom;
Kings wag their heads--Now save thyself
  Who wouldst rebuild the world in bloom.

    And top of the ages' strike,
    Verge where they called the world to come,
    The last advance of life--
    Ha ha, the rust on the Iron Dome!)

Nay, but revere the hid event;
  In the cloud a sword is girded on,
I mark a twinkling in the tent
  Of Michael the warrior one.
Senior wisdom suits not now,
The light is on the youthful brow.

    (Ay, in caves the miner see:
    His forehead bears a blinking light;
    Darkness so he feebly braves--
    A meagre wight!)

But He who rules is old--is old;
Ah! faith is warm, but heaven with age is cold.

    (Ho ho, ho ho,
    The cloistered doubt
    Of olden times
    Is blurted out!)

The Ancient of Days forever is young,
  Forever the scheme of Nature thrives;
I know a wind in purpose strong--
  It spins against the way it drives.
What if the gulfs their slimed foundations bare?
So deep must the stones be hurled
Whereon the throes of ages rear
The final empire and the happier world.

    (The poor old Past,
    The Future's slave,
    She drudged through pain and crime
    To bring about the blissful Prime,
    Then--perished. There's a grave!)

  Power unanointed may come--
Dominion (unsought by the free)
  And the Iron Dome,
Stronger for stress and strain,
Fling her huge shadow athwart the main;
But the Founders' dream shall flee.
Agee after age shall be
As age after age has been,
(From man's changeless heart their way they win);

And death be busy with all who strive--
Death, with silent negative.

    YEA, AND NAY--

Talis – Xiphos Research Day

Earlier in the week we at Talis hosted a Research Day the theme for which was around what we refer to as Project Xiphos. Through Project Xiphos, we are exploring the impact of applying the latest Web scale technologies, including Web 2.0 and the Semantic Web, to the challenges of education and research within Higher Education institutions.

The program for the day was quite varied, with speakers talking about a number of different issues related to higher education We opened with Peter Murray-Rust from the University of Cambridge, who spoke passionately about the need to open up research and research data. Following him was Andy Powell from Eduserv who talked about Web 2.0 and Repositories, I found his talk to be rather enlightening since I’m fairly new to this domain and still learning. Following Andy was Carsten Ullrich from Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Carsten had flown in from China to give a presentation on “Why Web 2.0 is Good for Learning and for Research: Principles and Prototypes“. I had already seen a variation of this presentation at WWW2008 last month, in fact those of us who were there felt that his ideas were hugely relevant to some of the issues we are trying to understand around Higher Education so we invited him to speak at our event. Carsten is based in the e-learning lab – and is researching into how learning can be made easier and more interactive using technology. Most recently his team have been looking at Web 2.0 technologies/approaches and how they can applied to learning. What they found is that these approaches were transformational, in other words that you you have to change the way you teach to use these approaches and benefit from them. The final speaker before lunch was Alan Massen from University of Ulster, who presented a project he has been involved in using a Hybrid Learning Model to Describe Learning Practices. The model he presented addresses a issue in higher education around the fact that teachers don’t posses vocabulary to describe their teaching practice/pedagogy, and actually this information is quite important to students as well since it can be used to help them understand their learning goals. After lunch my colleague Chris presented one of our research prototypes, Xiphos Network, which creates a social network from a Web Scholarly Data. Following him another of my colleagues, Ian Corns, presented Project Zephyr, a resource (reading) list application that we will soon be trialling with several institutes here in the UK. Following this, the final session of the day was me, giving a presentation on Open World Thinking. The remainder of this post will focus on what I said during that presentation, with some links at the end to my slides.

Open World Thinking

I started off by introducing myself and explained that whilst my colleagues had presented some examples of applications we had developed that addressed some of the issues raised during the day, my talk was going to be slightly more esoteric … and understanding that we might need to change the way we think about problems.

In order to set the tone for some of what I wanted to address later in the presentation and in attempt to get the audience to start to appreciate the complexity of some of the problems we want to be able to solve but currently can’t because of the way we think about things I posed a couple of questions for the audience:

1. What is the most referred to text in first year
    undergraduate computer science courses in the UK?


2. Based on pedagogical approaches, what are the
    recommended resources required to teach an
    emerging subject in a new department a University

The questions are largely rhetorical, or just plain impossible to answer. So they next thing I asked was whether the audience felt that the reason we couldn’t answer the question was because the data didn’t actually exist? I stated that I believed that the data probably did exist but if it did then it existed within individual institutions, across a myriad of internal systems, and sometimes even across departments. This led me to make the observation that Higher Education Institutes are not just silos they are in fact “silos within silos”. I also pointed out that as long as they remained silos we wouldn’t ever be able to answer the kinds of questions I had posed earlier. Which is the fundamental reason why we need to start finding ways of linking data together across these silos.

I diverted slightly to ask the question “Why have we ended up with silos?”, and offered my own answer that really these silos were a product of close world thinking, historically the systems implemented with institutions where designed to solve a set of problems for that institution, they were never designed with interoperability in mind, and were really about controlling data. However the problems we are trying to solve today are different to the problems of old, the world has changed and so we need to change too. One way of addressing these problems of interoperability, problems of sharing and reuse is to be more Open. Tim Berners-Lee said that “Openness tends to be an inexorable movement through time” and that’s something that I believe is true. I mentioned that I wanted to talk about two aspects of this what I describe as an Openness of Description and an Openness of Access.

However before going any further I wanted to make an important point, that what absolutely not talking about is a technology change. What I’m talking about is a paradigm shift, a very different way of thinking about the problems we are trying to solve. I then displayed a picture of the Linked Data Graph with another of Tim’s quotes that “Linked Data is the Semantic Web done right, and the Web done right”. I explained that this graph represented data sets published by communities in an agreed form in order to facilitate re-use and linking disparate data sets together. Through this level of openness others can come along and build new applications and services that use this data. I talked about how this facilitates the notion of “Designing for Appropriation”, where the creators of an artifact might intend it for a purpose but others can appropriate it for a completely different use. This is also the promise of the semantic web the fact that we no longer need to rely on structures to be defined up front, we can slice and dice this graph of data in order to create structures on the fly. However in order to achieve this we need to design data at the right level of granularity.

So openness of description is about agreeing on ways of describing certain kinds of things. When you have shared, open ways of describing things it makes it easier to Share, to relate things together and to integrate across. I also anecdotally pointed out that as Rob had pointed out to me “through openness of description and dereferencible URI’s you get interoperability for free”, which is true … kind of πŸ˜‰

One way agreeing on shared descriptions is through the use of Ontologies, I explained what they were and cited a few examples. In order to illustrate the point further I used Alan Massen’s Hybrid Learning model as an example and suggested that since it was a “controlled vocabulary” that defined a set of “concepts” and the “relationships between those concepts” what he actually had was the basis of any ontology. I also suggested that if every institution in the UK/World used this ontology to describe their courses you could present an enormous amount of information to students in a standard way which might make the selection of courses or indeed the choice of which institution to go to more transparent in terms of the learner understanding what the institute provides and how, but also what is expected of them as students.

I pointed out that Talis has worked on developing a number of ontologies that are all being used to underpin the applications we are producing as part of Xiphos, but others outside of Talis have also started to adopt. I pointed the audience to for more information.

I then went on to talk about Openness of Access ( which is not Open Access ), it’s the idea that we need to provide users with ability to consume content and information anywhere, anytime, anyhow. I also pointed out that unless we do this we can’t create the kind of truly personalised learning experiences we envisage. Part of this is recognisng what I’ve referred to a lot recently as the need to develop applications as Contextualised Perspectives onto this amorphous web of scholarly data.

This is a large part of the paradigm shift, recognizing that if this Web of Scholarly Data exists then we don’t own it, it exists independently of the applications and services that are built upon it. However it becomes the job of application vendors or developers to create value by developing Contextualised Perspectives onto that graph of data that allow their users to perform a set of activities, or achieve some goals that he or she sets out to. In other words this Web of Scholarly Data allows us to create contexts on the fly that are relevant for a task your doing at the time your doing it … in some ways thats the grand vision. A perspective could be a facebook application, or an iPhone app, or some functionality embedded in an institutions VLE, an enterprise application … anything … but the point is that we need to create these perspectives since it’s only through them that ordinary users can make sense of it all.

… *phew* … I think i’ve pretty much covered most of what I said … however for a slightly more coherent view of it all, I’ve written a piece on Open World Thinking in issue 2 of Nodalities.

You can access the slides here.

I’m an INFP … apparantly …

Earlier this week I took one of those Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator tests … and according to it … I’m an INFP which stands for Introversion, iNtuition, Feeling, Perceiving. I wasn’t quite sure how to react to that … I didn’t really think too much before taking the test, it felt like it was a bit of a joke, and afterwards I wasn’t too sure how to feel about it … largely because I didn’t fully understand what it meant … then I read this description of an INFP ..

The polite, reserved exterior of INFPs can at first make them difficult to get to know. They enjoy conversation, however, taking particular delight in the unusual. When INFPs are in a sociable mood, their humor and charm shine through. Disposed to like people and to avoid conflict, INFPs tend to make pleasant company.

Devoted to those in their inner circle, INFPs guard the emotional well-being of others, consoling those in distress. Guided by their desire for harmony, INFPs prefer to be flexible unless their ethics are violated. Then, they become passionate advocates for their beliefs. They are often able sway the opinions of others through tact, diplomacy, and an ability to see varying sides of an issue.

INFPs develop these insights through reflection, and they require substantial time alone to ponder and process new information. While they can be quite patient with complex material, they are generally bored by routine. Though not always organized, INFPs are meticulous about things they value. Perfectionists, they may have trouble completing a task because it cannot meet their high standards. They may even go back to a completed project after the deadline so they can improve it.

INFPs are creative types and often have a gift for language. As Introverts, they may prefer to express themselves through writing. Their dominant Feeling drives their desire to communicate, while their auxiliary iNtuition supplies the imagination. They enjoy metaphors and similes, having a talent for symbolism. They continually seek new ideas and adapt well to change. They prefer working in an environment that values these gifts and allows them to make a positive difference in the world, according to their personal beliefs

So there was something that felt familiar in all that … and for the most part It does feel familiar, although I don’t know why that admission makes me feel awkward. I asked a couple of friends of mine to read it and asked what they thought … they seemed to think it did reflect the kind of person I am … which on one hand feels pretty cool … but on the other hand the notion that my I, or anyone, can be analyzed and reduced down to a four letter acronym disturbs me quite profoundly.

Memes and “temes’

Susan Blackmore studies memes: ideas that replicate themselves from brain to brain like a virus. She makes a bold new argument: Humanity has spawned a new kind of meme, the teme, which spreads itself via technology — and invents ways to keep itself alive

A fascinating TED Talk, if we believe Susan then Darwin’s idea’s around evolution are not just applicable to biology they also apply to culture. “Memeticsis a neo-Darwinian approach to evolutionary models of cultural information transfer based on the concept of the meme. This is the theory that, like living things, ideas or ‘memes’ – naturally vary and that the fittest ideas survive and are absorbed into a our psyche and replicated across generations. Susan argues that Earth now has three replicators – genes (the basis of life), memes (the basis of human culture) and temes (the basis of technology). Technology, through temes, she argues, is now driving us forward as a species, whether we like it or not.

You can read more about this over on Susan’s site.

A life of fascinations

Truly inspirational … Nathan Myhrvold talks about a few of his latest fascinations — animal photography, archeology, BBQ and generally being an eccentric genius multimillionaire. Listen for wild stories from the (somewhat raunchy) edge of the animal world.

Bibliographic Ontology 1.0 released

After months of development the first version of Bibliographic Ontology was published today. This represents an incredibly important milestone for this project, it’s been discussed, developed and evolved over a number of months in order to make sure that this ontology was expressive enough to handle all kind of scenarios for all kind of bibliographic projects. It’s been particularly relevant to us and some of the work we are trying which I’ll be commenting on over the next couple of weeks.

The Dream Called Life

       The Dream Called Life

A dream it was in which I found myself.
And you that hail me now, then hailed me king,
In a brave palace that was all my own,
Within, and all without it, mine; until,
Drunk with excess of majesty and pride,
Methought I towered so big and swelled so wide
That of myself I burst the glittering bubble
Which my ambition had about me blown,
And all again was darkness. Such a dream
As this, in which I may be walking now,
Dispensing solemn justice to you shadows,
Who make believe to listen; but anon
Kings, princes, captains, warriors, plume and steel,
Aye, even with all your airy theatre,
May flit into the air you seem to rend
With acclamations, leaving me to wake
In the dark tower; or dreaming that I wake
From this that waking is; or this and that,
Both waking and both dreaming; such a doubt
Confounds and clouds our moral life about.
But whether wake or dreaming, this I know,
How dreamwise human glories come and go;
Whose momentary tenure not to break,
Walking as one who knows he soon may wake,
So fairly carry the full cup, so well
Disordered insolence and passion quell,
That there be nothing after to upbraid
Dreamer or doer in the part he played;
Whether tomorrow's dawn shall break the spell,
Or the last trumpet of the Eternal Day,
When dreaming, with the night, shall pass away.

            -- by Edward Fitzgerald

Something Inside So Strong …

The last few days have been quite enlightening. Our offices at Talis were closed on Thursday and Friday as the entire company took part in a two day internal conference for all employees which was held at Warwick University. I’ve never worked for an organisation before that shut down shop for two days so its emloyees could learn about each other and what the various parts of the business did. Sounds surreal right? and I suppose that’s how it felt to begin with.

The conference was two days long and comprised of 26 featured presentations by colleagues from every part of the business as well as a dozen or so three minute lightning talks. There were also a number of breakout sessions where staff split off into their respective divisions and worked on discussing issues around vision, ethics and culture.

From my perspective it was hugely valuable and gave me an opportunity to listen to colleagues from other parts of the business, whom I ordinarily wouldn’t have really gotten to speak to or have ever really gotten to know – thats a failing on my part. In fact this realisation was part of the reason I did a relatively spontaneous lightning talk during which I put up pictures of cartoon characters and revealed the names of colleagues that, from my personal perspective, embodied the characteristics of each character – this was a variation of a game that Sarah often uses when she asks us to think of a character that embodies us on a good day, or when we are in a happy place, and a character that embodies us on a bad day :). The point I wanted to make though was that out of roughly 90 people in the company I could only really do that for maybe twenty: that’s how many people I felt I had enough of a rapore with, and felt comfortable enough around to be able to do that. So if we were here as a group talking about the direction of the company, our shared ethos and developing a culture then how could we do that unless we first got to know who we are. I think the point was well received, and I do believe that events like this internal conference are definitely a step in the right direction and serve as a great way of bringing us together. Oh and incidentally for those who are curious here’s the two characters that I believe reflect my good and bad sides …

click on either for more details

On the friday afternoon, I had to give the penultimate presentation. Rob and I were asked to put together a presentation about our recent trip to WWW2008 in Beijing, and to talk about why the trip was important for the company, and for each us as individuals. Rob and I wanted the presentation to be amusing, however since Rob wasn’t going to be at the conference in person, we had a bit of a challenge on our hands. We opted to record a bunch of pre-canned videos with rob in various guises (including Princess Leia), and I had to work each of the clips in as I was talking. I think it went down really well, the first half of the talk focussed on the conference itself, the people we met formed relationships with, and the importance of that to us as individuals and the company. The second half of the presentation was about the five of us who went and what the journey meant to us a individuals and how it brought us closer as a team. I used a slideshow of photos from the trip which was overlayed with a some music ( well it was me playing my flute ), I talked about the journey we went through, and how dealing with adversity is what often brings teams, or any group of people, together. I finished with a slide that said “a journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles“. I wasn’t sure how this half of the talk would be perceived since it deliberately lacked the outlandish humour of the first half. Yet if the response I got from everyone who came up afterwards is anything to go by, then I think it was really well received.

Our CEO Dave Errington gave the final talk of the conference, and offered a very personal perspective of Talis and what it means to him. It was a brilliant talk, and quite inspired, although my heart did skip a beat at the end when he put a slide that said “the journey is its own reward”, since I had used the same quote on my final slide but removed it about half hour before I presented since I didn’t think I had enough time to explain fully what I meant.

After the conference we all headed to the venue for the Summer Ball and spent the evening eating, drinking and some people even danced πŸ˜‰ it was a great way to end two days of collective thinking and sharing of ideas and vividly recall as I left the ball around midnight feeling very happy, and in many ways re-invigorated.

I spent most of yesterday recovering from the conference and the ball, and also reflecting on it all which is why I’m writing this piece. I spent some time thinking about what the conference had taught me about the people I work with as well as a few things I’d learn’t about myself. At some point yesterday evening, I was sitting and reading through some notes when my ipod randomly shuffled to a song I hadn’t heard in a very long time … and as I listened to it I realised that it epitomises the image I have in my mind of the kind of people I work with, the kind of people make up Talis, and the kind of ethos we share, the resilience we have, the “fuck off great big ambitions” and dreams we share (as Dave put it), … that something inside that is so strong …