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A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to get a new iPad at work. Now that I’ve had it for a little while, I thought it was time I shared my first impressions.

The device

It’s a good size with plenty of screen real-estate — I’ve never found myself wishing that I had a little bit of extra space, something I often do when browsing the web on my iPhone. That size also makes browsing much less effort: the buttons and links on most websites provide a big enough target to hit with a finger.

It feels very thin, although that’s partly the illusion given by the bevelled edge, but also nicely substantial. In fact, if I have one criticism in this area it’s that it’s a bit too heavy to hold in one hand and type with the other for more than a minute or so, but then trying to type on QWERTY with one hand is a pain at the best of times.

I expected typing to be quite difficult, but it’s actually pretty painless, especially with a flat surface to set it down on. Because you only have to touch the screen, rather than pushing down a physical key, very little effort is required to type, which seems for me to cancel out the disadvantage of not having any haptic feedback.

Useful apps

There are loads of really good apps for iPad, but a few really stand out. Twitter for iPad is beautifully designed, making perfect use of the extra screen space to pop up profiles, hashtag searches and conversations without hiding the main feed. Because you can scroll to the left and right with a swipe, you can explore many levels deep without getting lost.

OmniFocus is another excellent app, syncing well with the desktop and iPhone versions. It lets me view my tasks in a number of different ways, including syncing custom perspectives (combinations of filters and sorts) from the desktop. You can turn it to portrait mode to hide everything but the list of tasks, which is also nice. Easily my favourite feature, though, is the new Review mode, which makes doing a GTD-style review on a Friday afternoon with a cuppa a doddle and keeps my todo list complete and focused.

GoodReader is a recent discovery for me, though it’s been available on iPhone for some time. It’s a very well designed PDF-reading app, with some very cool features: sync with DropBox and SFTP; download documents from email; and highlight and annotate documents as you read. The ability to both read and annotate documents on a decent-sized screen has pretty much reduced my printing to almost zero.

It’s great that you can connect a projector via the VGA adaptor to the iPad and use it to present, but since I use LaTeX and beamer.sty quite a lot for this I need to be able to project PDF files. PDF Presenter is a very simple app which does just that, displaying next and previous slides on the iPad itself and giving you a selection of simple transitions to boot. Keynote eat your heart out.

Cool stuff

I have a fairly recent iMac at home with one of the new Apple wireless keyboards — imagine my delight at discovering that I can disconnect it from the iMac, pair it with the iPad and start typing away! I can even set it to use my preferred Dvorak keyboard layout.

When I took a look at the “official” iPad Smart Cover, I was pretty underwhelmed — they’re pretty expensive (though coming down in price) and even the leather version just looks cheap and tacky. Thankfully, there’s an alternative in the TeckNet folio case which is both cheaper and nicer.


Support for images in the CMYK colour space is lousy, which is unusual for Apple, since they tend to think things like that through quite carefully. I can’t imagine it’ll affect many people, but it’s been a real pain because the background we use for our slides at CSCT turns out to be in CMYK and the luminous green it became on iPad put me off using it for presentations until I finally figured out how to fix it using ColorSync on Mac.

As I mentioned above, I prefer to use the Dvorak keyboard layout, so it would be nice if it was possible to switch layout on the on-screen keyboard, but that isn’t currently possible.


I can see how it wouldn’t make a big difference for everyone, but for me the iPad has really made a big change to the way I work. I’ve stopped printing things to read (and my annotated reading material is now backed up). My todo list is looking a lot leaner because I can do many of the little bitty jobs on the go instead of needing to sit down at a desk or open up a laptop.

I’m still learning how to make it a seamless part of my workflow, but I’m pretty happy so far!


Shoots by Gemma Garner How often do you try something new? Not sure? Well today a whole bunch of research students at the University of Bath gamely had a go at signing up for Twitter and investigating the power of RSS feeds.

This was the first of a series of events under the banner of “The Connected Researcher @ Bath” (a title shamelessly stolen from Cardiff University’s Susan Smith and Sarah Nicholas; I hope they don’t mind!). The whole thing came about when Geraldine Jones (E-learning Officer for Humanities & Social Sciences) and I got our heads together. We’d both been wondering how to get more research students to try out social media and found that together we were in a position to make it happen.

Tristram Hooley very kindly travelled down from Derby to explain to our students why he feels social media are an important tool for modern academics. He also led the first of our two workshops, getting students to sign up to Twitter and take their first hesitant Twittering steps. Geraldine led the second workshop, introducing the students to RSS and iGoogle, and I finished off that session with a brief introduction

The main thing I learned from today’s event? If you’d like your Twitter followers to join in with a real-world activity by tweeting at a particular time, give them plenty of notice. I’d tried this before without the notice and it was something of a flop, but today Twitterers all over campus were primed and didn’t disappoint! Having chosen a hashtag (#bathcr) and started using it a couple of days ago, there was a real buzz going on by this morning, which really added to the atmosphere when the participants saw it on Twitter for the first time.

So my thanks to Bath’s Twitterers, to the students who took part and to Tristram, Geraldine and everyone else who contributed to making today work.

Initial feedback from today has been great, and we’re going to be running several more (smaller) events over the next few months, starting with a panel discussion and workshop on blogging on 11 May. I’m looking forward to it already!

Image credit: Shoots by Gemmer Garner


My second main session at the JISC conference was entitled The A-B-C-Ds of Open Scholarship, a panel discussion with four speakers:

Les Carr began the introductory remarks with a little bit of roleplay. Though perhaps a little bit over the top, this nicely illustrated his point.

Publishers used to (and arguably still do) serve a useful purpose. Before the rise of the internet, communicating your research to large numbers of your peers around the world would have been impossible without publishers to provide the benefits of scale.

Yet in an age where rises in journal subscription spending is rising even as numbers of subscriptions fall and putting a new page up on the Web costs almost nothing, it’s feeling pretty hard to justify keeping the publishers around.

Clearly the major hurdle is quality-assurance. Without publisher-mediated peer-review, I can publish absolutely I like on the web without an up-front guarantee that it meets some minimum standard of rigour. We need either to make pre-publication peer-review work right for open access (the risk is that the publishing author becomes the paying customer who has to be kept happy), or work out an acceptable system of post-publication peer-review.

For Peter Murray-Rust, bibliographic data itself is an incredibly rich source of information. As well as helping us find useful books and articles, it also lets us look at who’s worked with whom, when they did so and where they were working at the time. In an world where collaboration is vital, that’s a very valuable tool.

Although bibliographic collections can be copyrighted, individual record cannot. Projects like Mendeley are giving us the tools to build up high-quality open bibliographies, rather that having to buy them from large companies who don’t get what we need and tend to munge the data in unhelpful ways.

OPEN by Tom MaglieryDavid Shotton followed on, adding that “citation is the glue which holds scholarly endeavour together.” The majority of citation data is currently locked up in the references sections of papers, but by making it open and accessible to data mining lots of interesting possibilities open up.

Key among these in my opinion is the ability to trace the evolution of ideas through series of articles and make visible the conversations which researchers are having through their published outputs. This turns the citation record into a valuable companion to peer review in assessing the quality of ideas.

Dr Shotton talked about citation distortion (where an idea starts life as hypothesis but becomes accepted as fact because it is cited a lot rather than because overwhelming evidence is presented). Opening up citation data means that this type of distortion can be objectively analysed.

Rufus Pollock heavily stressed the need for incentives: his favourite phrase seems to be “Where’s the candy?” It’s clear at the moment that many researchers repeat effort in many places that they don’t need to, even taking account of the need to independently verify findings.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to slip into thinking that my own openness benefits everyone except me, and overlook the fact that my openness also encourages others to be more open with me. Charmingly naive though this may seem to the average embattled academic with marking deadlines and REF looming large on the horizon, the success of projects like Wikipedia tells a different story.

The quote of the conference for me came from Les Carr in this session: “Science is the by-product of scientists trying to get promoted.” For me, this embodies the main theme of this session, that researchers have the same basic motivations as everyone else, and are not necessarily driven by some high-minded ideal of making all knowledge equally accessible to all people.

There are big benefits to be had from making scholarship more open, but they will only be realised as and when individual researchers see them as outweighing the cost of changing their behaviour.

As Les Carr pointed out: until then, those who “get it” will share their stuff and damn everyone else, while those who don’t will do anything to avoid rocking the boat.

We need the true value of openness to be recognised as intrinsically linked with academic success. For example, we need standards for the citation of data so that it can contribute properly to the impact metrics so beloved of funding bodies.

It would be nice to think that all it needs is for someone to come up with the one idea that convinces everyone and causes a step-change in academic culture. But that’s not going to happen. It’s going to be a long, hard slog in a sector where change happens at rates comparable to continental drift, but I think it’ll be worth it.

Photo: OPEN by Tom Magliery


This post is part of a short series in which I share the thoughts prompted by the recent JISC conference in Liverpool.

The first session I attended at the JISC conference was entitled “Cloud Solutions: Risk or Reward?” I was particularly looking forward to it as I’ve become increasingly interested in the affordances of cloud computing for higher education.

Prof. Paul Watson, Director of the Digital Institute at the University of Newcastle was first to speak. I think he has it spot on to go after the ‘long tail’ of researchers: that large majority with little access to IT skills & resources.

It’s too easy to focus on serving the easy few, with the budget to purchase their own computing power and the expertise to make use of it. The remainder of researchers who could make use of shared computing resource to analyse and store their data more effectively have neither the time, the expertise nor the budget to buy big machines for relatively small tasks. It’s these users who represent the majority of those who could benefit from cloud computing, if only the tools can be found to let them.

To make this work, using the cloud has to be much more like using apps researchers are familiar with, like Office and EndNote. Newcastle’s e-science central project seems to be taking a good approach: everything works through a web browser and is designed to be as easy as possible.

They’ve even thought about supporting a progression in use, from simply storing data, to analysing it, automating common analysis workflows and finally sharing and reusing those workflows. As well as supporting research, this has big implications for teaching too: the ability to let students experiment with established workflows on real datasets could be a really powerful tool.

As an aside, there was an interesting question from the floor about whether this heralded a return to thin-client computing, with all the loss of freedom that entails. My own view is that cloud computing finally let’s us find a happy medium between running everyday apps on the desktop and passing resource-hungry jobs off to dedicated clusters.

Going the other way, Dr Phil Richards, Director of IT Services at the University of Loughborough suggested that the “killer app” for the cloud would be the ability to provide cheap virtual servers, an approach known as Infrastructure-as-a-Service, or IaaS.

This makes sense from the perspective of those supporting the IT needs of researchers, but without the skills to know what to do with a virtual server, I’m not sure the researchers themselves will see immediate benefits. IaaS might make the cloud worthwhile to implement in the first place, but it’ll only make a big difference when it’s easy and cheap for researchers to store and analyse data.

All three speakers naturally made the point about cost reduction. Phil Richards cited HP as an example of a large organisation who have made real savings by rationalising their data centres, going from 85 to just 6 and halving the number of applications running on them to 3,000, and saving $1b per annum in return.

Cloud computing brings the cost benefits of scale to end-users who only need a small proportion of the total resource available. It also transmutes up-front capital expenditure to ongoing operational expenditure for those end-users, making planning much easier at a time of great financial upheaval.

As ever, there are risks attached to new developments. JANET’s Middleware Group Manager, Henry Hughes, gave a good summary of these. Cloud services must be able to comply with legislation (such as the Data Protection Act, with the US Patriot Act muddying the waters). They must handle multi-tenancy securely, without putting sensitive or confidential data at risk. They must provide protection against lock-in, so that applications can be migrated to new services as necessary. Finally, they must be able to guarantee availability of their services. These are all big challenges, but I think we can meet them.

In meeting these challenges, we have a big advantage on our side. One of the biggest costs in HP’s data centre project was building a secure, high-performance network, and UK HE already has one in the form of JANET.

I know not everyone will agree with me, but my overall impression is that the rewards of cloud computing for HE vastly outweigh the risks. It’s time for those universities still holding out to stop talking about it and got on with it!

Thanks to Chris Sexton for her cloud computing notes, which reminded me of a few figures that I’d failed to write down.


Right now I’m on a train on my way to Liverpool for the annual JISC Conference there. There are a few small things going on this afternoon, but the main event doesn’t start til tomorrow.

There are loads of interesting sessions going on, but I’ve narrowed it down to these three based on the abstracts:

  • Cloud Solutions: risk or reward?
  • Open scholarship
  • Amplified Events, Seminars, Conferences: What? Why? How?

If you’ll be there too, please come and introduce yourself — it’s my first JISC conference and it’s always nice to meet new people. I’ll be blogging and tweeting for anyone who’s interested (so apologies in advance to anyone who doesn’t care: it’s only for one day).


As part of my ongoing efforts to introduce a virtual research environment to the CSCT, I’ve been thinking about running a general Digital Researcher type workshop for our students. After putting out feelers I discovered that quite a few other people across the university are thinking about similar things right now, so we’re working together to avoid duplication as much as we can.

I think it’s important to focus on things that researchers actually want to do, rather than just thinking about the technologies. So far, based on my own experiences and conversations with one or two research students, I’ve come up with the following list of goals:

  • Promote my research;
  • Communicate with existing collaborators;
  • Find potential new collaborators;
  • Find reliable information on X (including recognised experts);
  • Keep up to date with news & opportunities;
  • Find my next job.

What do you think? Is there anything missing?


I promised some shorter posts, so here’s one. I’ve just finished reading Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky and since it made me think I thought I’d post a few of those thoughts up here.

It’s a clear and well written, and gives a well constructed theory of how and why communities form in or around things like Wikipedia, MeetUp and the Linux kernel.

Through the use of case studies, Shirky builds up a convincing framework of three elements: the promise of what the community offers; the tool which sets the environment for the community; and the bargain between the users which sets the rules of engagement. He also points out that the patterns of behaviour we see today have been emerging for quite a long time.

If there was a weakness to the book, it was that Shirky labours the point a bit with his case studies; at times it feels like he’s repeating himself so as to make use of all the carefully researched examples. I don’t think that really detracts from the overall picture though.

I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in what makes the social web tick.


As I’ve grown older, I’ve gradually made more conscious attempts to think about what I want my life to be like. Like most people, I’m typically rubbish at either making or keeping New Year’s resolutions, so this year I’m following David Seah’s Groundhog Day Resolutions pattern.

The idea is to start thinking about the resolutions around Christmas and actually commit to them on the 2nd of February (2/2) and then review them on 3rd March (3/3), 4th April (4/4) etc. I’m not making these solid commitments, but things that I want to track my progress against. It’s ok to let one or two go if I don’t have the time — I’m not Superman after all.

I hope that by publishing this that I’m more likely to follow through on the process, and that it will prompt others to do the same.

Do more

  • Blogging;
    • My strategy here is to write shorter posts — this one is an example;
  • Playing Go;
  • Photography;
  • Running (10k target time 50 minutes);
  • Walking with Elly and friends;
  • Playing music, at home and socially.

Do less

  • Watching crap telly;
  • Avoiding things that are important but not urgent (housework, taxes, etc.).

Keep the same

  • Kicking ass at work;
  • Meeting new and interesting people;
  • Morris dancing.

The other day, I blogged about my experiences using BigBlueButton for video-conferencing. It occurs to me though, that getting the technology right is only half the battle, or even less: the rest is about people’s familiarity with the concept.

Several times over the last few months I’ve been using Skype a bit more to communicate with friends and family. With people who are used to using Skype or similar technologies, it’s a pretty seamless extension of the phonecall. For inexperienced users, however, there’s a lot of awkward silence and waving and repeating “Hello? Can you hear me?”, especially when there’s a bit of a delay on the line.

Then there’s The Feedback Issue. Unlike analogue audio systems there’s no squeaking or whining. Instead, everything that comes out of the speakers is retransmitted through the microphone on a slight delay, which is offputting for the person speaking and downright confusing for everyone else listening. And when more than one participant is causing feedback it just gets worse.

Feedback can be mitigated by turning down the volume on speakers and gain on microphones, but it can only really be eliminated by the use of headphones or echo cancellation hardware/software. Yes, the solution to this is so simple it bears repeating: use headphones.

How to fix this

Getting the user interface right can help. This is where Elluminate falls down: the window is covered in buttons, none of which are labelled and many of which have icons which only vaguely represent their purpose.1 BigBlueButton is better: it has very few buttons. There was a minor issue that one of the buttons didn’t do exactly what was expected (you had to click the microphone button to be able to hear the sound). This stuff is important and worth spending time to get right.

Training can help too, and I think the best form of training in this case is just to give people a safe place to try things out and get used to them. We’ve lived with phones for so long now that we know exactly how they work, but there are a lot of people who just aren’t familiar with video-conferencing.

Anyway, that’ll do for now, though it feels like I’ll probably be visiting this again in the future. Let me know what you think.

  1. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of pressure on the developers to make it too easy to use, as Elluminate makes part of its money from training.


Last week, some colleagues and I tried out promising new videoconferencing tool BigBlueButton. I’d previously used it It’s completely open source and based on Adobe Flash so it works in your browser without the need to download any software.

University of Bath colleagues Nitin and Alex have already published their thoughts, so I’ll try to avoid duplicating them. I’ll also draw comparisons with Elluminate! Live, which I’ve been using quite a bit recently to facilitate a guest lecturer on our course: she lives in Yorkshire and we’re trying to reduce the need for her to travel to Bath, especially since our course is all about sustainability!

As someone who supports the IT needs of research staff and students, I can clearly see the value in this type of tool: all the end user needs is a web browser and they’re away.


  • Uses technology that almost all users have installed already — Elluminate, for example, requires users to download and install Java on platforms that don’t ship with it, and there’s always one person who didn’t read the instructions and complains 10 minutes into a session that they can’t connect;
  • Seems to cope quite well with lots of people — we had 6+ transmitting sound and video at times;
  • Simple, no-nonsense interface — Elluminate has lots and lots and lots of features, which can be useful but makes for a very cluttered and confusing interface.


  • There’s currently no pre-flight check for users to test their hardware is detected and set up correctly, so there tends to be a lot of testing going on as people connect — ideally this could be done beforehand;
  • There are a few minor user interface tweaks which would be useful: for example, it’s not clear why you need to enable your microphone to hear audio, and there’s no easy way to neatly arrange a large number of video feeds;
  • There’s apparently an incompatibility between the current Flash plugin for Mac and Google Voice which prevents video from working, but this will apparently be fixed in the next Flash release.

Other notes

Importantly for us in the CSCT, there’s a rapidly maturing Sakai interface for BigBlueButton which allows users to schedule their own meeting for collaborators in their project sites. It’s one of the few Sakai tools being developed in the UK, with Adrian Fish of the University of Lancaster as a major (main?) contributor.

The Sakai interface is also open source, making it much cheaper than the Sakai bridge for Elluminate! Live (the bridge itself is open source, but requires Elluminate to flick a switch at their end to enable the API it uses).


Overall I think that, for fairly technically savvy users, BigBlueButton can and should be used in higher education. Open source projects like this need the oxygen of community, and the only way to smooth off the rough edges is to find them and talk about them.

For everyday use, it might need a little more polish, but probably not much. As long as it avoids the feature bloat which plagues Elluminate! Live, it will soon become a much better option than that product, both on price (usual caveats about open source cost-of-ownership notwithstanding) and on usability1.

If you’d like to try it out for yourself, just visit the BigBlueButton demo server: as long as you’ve got Flash installed, it should just work.

  1. And as a bonus, it lacks the annoying extraneous exclamation mark too.