Meeting on the ledge

(or why I don't get out much…..)


There were some shocking statistics in Saturdays Grauniad. These came originally from the Office for National Statistics. The top 10% of the UK population now owns 45% of the country’s private wealth. The bottom half shares just 9%. Since the previous survey only 2 years earlier that top 10% has seen a 21% rise in wealth. Research by organisations such as the Equality Trust has shown that such disparity leads to poor health, reduced social mobility, increased crime, economic instability and many other factors, but perhaps because opinion is dominated by that same 10% the divides continues to widen.


December 22, 2015 Posted by | General | Leave a comment

Michael Gove and World War 1

With the anniversary of the start of World War 1 approaching, the Education Secretary Michael Gove has criticised the ‘left-wing’ for creating ‘myths’ about the reasons why the war started and how it was conducted. He would prefer to see it as a ‘just war’ to ‘combat aggression by a German elite bent on domination’. Not surprisingly the former Cambridge historian and now Stoke Labour MP Tristram Hunt has criticised Gove’s argument as a  ‘simplistic’ and ‘crass’ attempt to ‘rewrite the historical record and sow political division’. He has been backed up by popular TV historian Tony Robinson, who describes Gove’s argument as an ‘unhelpful’ and ‘irresponsible’ attempt to ‘slag off teachers’. From the rumblings on the radio news this morning I suspect this won’t be the last we hear of this debate.

Standing back for a moment however, aren’t we just seeing here an example of that truism ‘History is written by the victors”? Gove is Education Minister and is rewriting the history curriculum. Not surprisingly he is rewriting it from his own perspective, and that perspective is Conservative, with its connotations of nationalism, patriotism and a public-school attitude. No matter whether the facts are more complex than he admits, if he (or his party) can establish ‘ownership’ of the Wordl War 1 commemorations and portray those of different opinions as snide and unpatriotic the facts become  less important.

Of course the manipulation of history to suit those in power is nothing new – just read the Greek historian Herodotus for this. But how this might change, or indeed whether it will, in our age of connectedness, remains to be seen.


January 6, 2014 Posted by | General | 1 Comment

Google Books

I saw a rather good documentary, Google and the world brain on BBC4 the other night. If you didn’t catch it I can recommend it. It was intelligent,well made, and allowed the viewer to draw his/her own conclusions.

The subject matter was Google Books. Google seems to have surrounded this with layers of legalistic secrecy that are bound to incur suspicion even if this isn’t actually justified. Several of the talking heads mentioned that they’d been told to sign non-disclosure agreements and there was one scene where the librarian of a monastic library just stopped speaking in obvious confusion about what he could or couldn’t say.  This was exacerbated by Google US’s odd decision not to participate in the programme (and yet one of their Spanish staff did do so?)

Yet the logic of Google Books seems clear. As a librarian I’m all for free availability of information, and it seems obvious that a search engine provider would want to add ever more information to their database to improve the quality of the answer. I think it was the fact that the digitisation puts the scanned images into the control of one organisation that drew most suspicion. Can we trust one organisation to do this fairly? The jury is out on that one.

The other objections were equally predictable. The programme painted a perhaps unfair picture of the nationalistic objections from the former head of the Bibliotheque Nationale. However the objection which has done most to hinder the original aims of the Google Books project is copyright. Up until recently Google Books was scanning in-copyright books but said that this was legal because of the ‘fair use’ clause in copyright law.  Due to legal actions they’ve now stopped this and are scanning only books outside copyright (even though the laws which define what is and isn’t copyright aren’t exactly universal either!).

The programme touched on the murky world of copyright. Both sides of the argument were presented: that knowledge itself can’t be held to be private and so only the author’s arrangement of the words is copyright-able, versus the argument that if an author has spent a year or more of his/her time creating a book they deserve some kind of recognition and reward for this. Much can be said on this and opinions are very entrenched so I won’t say any more!

Another aspect of the programme which deserves further exploration is Google’s motives in developing Google Books. It is costing them millions of dollars. Improving the search engine is an obvious aim, but also mentioned was an aspiration towards Artificial Intelligence. There were several quotations from H.G. Wells musing on the World Brain. However the acquisition of knowledge is not the same thing as being able to use that knowledge logically, fairly and morally (just look at many of the occupants of the House of Commons for evidence of that!). If Google is working towards AI, then the ‘thinking brain’ must be another one of those Google side-projects, some of which blossom (like Android), and others which never go anywhere. Of course if they are working on AI they are not alone, as there are many projects of this nature around the world, some overt and sharing their results in the scientific principle, but doubtless others which are under the radar. But I suspect that Google’s slightly quirky approach to development might have led them further down the road than others which are less free to question doctrine. Google Search was a game-changer when it emerged, but an adaptable AI which could operate outside very closely defined parameters might well be a society-changer. ….

February 20, 2013 Posted by | General | | Leave a comment

Planning law

There was a rather interesting juxtaposition on the Radio 4 news today. Firstly, the Ordnance Survey have been looking at our criteria for buying houses – apparently for about about 45% of us proximity to some kind of countryside is important in our choice of a home, more so than proximity to work (sorry, no reference for this story yet as I can’t find it on the BBC news site!). Secondly, the government’s plans for reform of the planning laws have had the go-ahead, which are likely to result in a reduction of the amount of green spaces. What happened to the idea of a government representing the views of the people?

March 27, 2012 Posted by | General | | Leave a comment

Secrecy and the Internet

I’ve been following the recent furore about THAT footballer with a wry interest. I’m not particularly interested in the details of his love life, or indeed in football generally, but the way that Twitter has made a nonsense of the Superinjunction does demonstrate that the Internet is not good for secrecy. Another example would be WikiLeaks. Some of the motives behind publication are different: my impression is that WikiLeaks was initially motivated by a combination of anti-US sentiment and idealism, while the footballer furore is celebrity gossip, but  in both cases the Internet has been used to make  information public which other people strived to keep silent. Of course, a common feature in both cases was human nature: the possession of secrets makes us feel privileged, while gossip about them creates insider and outsider groups which promotes belonging and self-worth. Moreover the way that the Internet fosters conspiracy theories demonstrates that information (whether true or false) is made much more available that it once was, so there is much more opportunity for these feelings.

Maybe then, this demonstrates the way that the Internet is changing society. Information literacy – the ability to understand and manipulate information – is becoming more important, and this skill is becoming more widely important across society. Secrecy isn’t going to go away but its promotion and techniques will get cleverer.

May 24, 2011 Posted by | General | , | Leave a comment


A bit of philosophy this time. Sparked by an article in the Guardian last weekend I’ve been musing over the concept of truth in our Internet-centered lives. Arithmetical truth such as 2+2=4 can be said to still exist (unless you’re a quantum physicist) but truth and right and wrong have always been more fluid concepts. One person’s truth is not the same as another’s, so academic practice teaches that you should assess all possible interpretations and synthesize from these.  A core concept of information literacy is therefore that you shouldn’t always believe everything you read, and as librarians we teach cues which help users assess the quality of sources (is it peer-reviewed, from a trusted publisher, etc).  However information literacy often doesn’t get taught until people enter higher education.

Prior to the Internet most people’s exposure to the broader world would have been via newpapers, magazines, TV and radio as well as people they met in the course of their everyday lives. In turn they didn’t have much opportunity to pass on their views to other people. However this is changing. Now they are exposed via the Web to a wider choice of less regulated information sources, and in turn they can express their own opinions to a wider audience (indeed, I’m doing the same here). If you don’t have the skills to assess the information you hear, a simpler truth tends to appear: truth is whatever is shouted loudest (usually with a jabbing finger for emphasis I’ve noticed). This implies that more radical ideas are going to become  prevalent and that as a result society will become less cohesive. Far from being a declining career it looks like librarians (if they choose to accept it) are needed more than ever……..

April 8, 2011 Posted by | General, Universities | | Leave a comment

Kindle launched in UK

After a long time waiting, the Amazon Kindle is now available for order on the international market, according to their UK website today. They will be supplied from the US after 19th October.

There’s a very interesting sentence in the advert:

“Our vision for Kindle for Kindle is to have every book ever printed, in any language, all available in under 60 seconds”.

A very high aim, but I wonder how long it will be before our students are expecting us to populate their Kindles for them?

October 8, 2009 Posted by | General, Libraries | Leave a comment

Twitter and pointless babble

There’s a wonderful story on the BBC news website about a survey by Pear Analytics indicating that 40% of messages on Twitter are ‘pointless babble’, 37% of messages are conversational ( ie they might be more easily conducted by email or instant messaging) and only 9% is of ‘pass-along’ value (ie it might be more effectively transmitted as a blog). As a Twitter sceptic  I’m surprised the babble figure is as low as that…..  Admittedly surveys have shown that blogs are not without their faults, but for me the fact that there are several long-standing blogs I monitor via Bloglines indicates that the medium works for me.  It may be my age, but even as a self-proclaimed  Internet-native I’m still to find any reason to use Twitter…..

Possibly the added value of Twitter is that the 140 character word limit fits nicely onto a mobile phone screen – a new form of texting, in other words. That would explain why it doesn’t attract me as much as others, as I discovered the Internet long before I got my first mobile.  In which case, as mobile phones grown more sophisticated and get larger screens, will Twitter move to longer messages or will the ‘Twitterati’ move on?

August 17, 2009 Posted by | General | , | Leave a comment

Govt goes Twitter…

Most amused to read this morning that the Cabinet Office is urging other government departments to start twittering. It is all to improve its communication apparently. Even better, although Twitter is limited to 140 characters, this guidance has come out in a 20 page document…..

I’m afraid I’m rather sceptical of the idea. I don’t think many civil servants, used to producing the massive volumes of paperwork that fuel most bureaucracies, could limit themselves to 140 characters. And if they did, how would the rest of us find the facts behind the political spin? It seems to me more like the govt is trying to appear to be keeping up with current trends without fully understanding them (maybe better than sitting back, doing things the same way as it alway has and trying to ignore them, as it often does!). Most twitter feeds (and most blogs) don’t last more than a few days or a few weeks as their authors either get tired of writing them, or realise that nobody is reading them. Information overflow is forcing us all to limit what we follow, and positive spin from govt depts wouldn’t be my priority.  Twitter is just the current trend, and like Facebook is going to become just another part of the Internet revolution once the next trend comes along. Only when that happens will we see whether Twitter has lasting value. The trick is to identify the next trend….

July 28, 2009 Posted by | General | | Leave a comment

E-Books and ownership

Kindle e-book reader

Kindle e-book reader

A rather interesting story has just emerged about Amazon’s Kindle and e-book versions of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. There is a well-researched account of it at Copyfight. From my reading of this, Amazon distributed the e-books and then found out that the third party which had made them available via the Kindle store didn’t have the rights necessary to make them available. Hence Amazon pulled them from the store, removed them from user’s Kindles and gave them a refund.

I don’t own a Kindle, but if I did I would be worried when I found that something I thought I’d bought was removed from my device without asking me. That ‘purchase’ of an e-book becomes something more like a ‘license to view’, and even the ‘ownership’ of an e-book reader becomes questionable when Amazon can access it and delete items without authorisation. However on the other hand,  as the e-books weren’t fully legal they were in a sense stolen property, and as such the moral rights become blurred. I wouldn’t claim to be a lawyer and I would imagine that Amazon must have taken legal advice before taking any action.  In my own mind I’m undecided where rights here should lie – I sympathise with the people who bought the e-books in good faith, but I can also understand that this was a breach of copyright.  I wonder how many more new questions of this kind await us as we move to new forms of media?

July 23, 2009 Posted by | General | , | 1 Comment