Jack of all trades

For much of my life, I’ve taken leaps from one interest to a seemingly unrelated other. As a kid, life was just a chronic habit of fads that my parents endured with some amusement. In my late teens, I slowed down and have managed to extend my interests over a period of years rather than weeks or months.

Typically, if I have a mild interest in something, I’ll buy a book.  Even in these days of the web, an interest is not ‘christened’ until I’ve got a book on the subject in my hands. Here are the pivotal books that marked turning points for me with a brief explanation of why. I’d be interested if anyone else can plot their life in this way.

Incredibly Strange Films

Jonathan Ross presented a series called ‘The Incredibly Strange Film Show‘.  It was the high point of his career, if you ask me, and came into my life out of nowhere.  I dropped out of college to watch films and work in a video shop. Had I missed this series, I might have ended up being a Civil Engineer.

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

For some reason, I don’t remember why, I left the video shop to study Journalism in London. By the time I ‘qualified’, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be a hack. Besides, at the age of 19, I knew nothing about the world. How was I supposed to write about it? I returned home with no plans and picked up this book that my dad was reading. It totally captured me, so I decided to apply to university to study Buddhism. Up to that point, I had no aspirations to go to university and was the first person in my extended family to do so. I got a 1st Class degree because I loved the subject and won funding to study for an MA in Buddhist Studies at the University of Michigan. I studied Japanese, practised Zen for four years, living for a while across the road from a Zen temple in London, and spent a summer in a Japanese Zen monastery. I went on to live in Japan for three years.  All because of this book.

Independent filmmaking

Towards the end of my MA, Buddhism had become entirely academic for me and I’d lost the deeply personal motivation that I had for it. Keen to complete my MA and move on, I looked for a distraction to see me through the last few months of study and picked up this book. I borrowed filmmaking equipment from the university and taught myself how to use an edit suite before heading off to Japan for three years. While I was in Japan, I ran a monthly cinematheque for experimental film and video called Eiga Arts and organised exchanges of experimental film and video between Japanese and international filmmakers. It was a blast but it wasn’t going to pay the rent so when I returned to the UK, I studied for an MA in Film Archiving at the University of East Anglia. It’s been paying the rent ever since. I was also able to use a lot of the film I’d shot while in Japan and the US to partially meet the requirements for my MA.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar

While in Japan, I had the money to buy a nice new iMac. It came with OS 9 installed, which constantly crashed. I got so frustrated having spent nearly $2000 on on a computer that didn’t work, that I looked for alternatives and found Linux. This was ten years ago and while support for Intel-based desktop computers was still fairly hit and miss, support for Apple machines was a niche within a niche. Still, I persevered and over the course of a year, learned my way around a Unix/Linux OS. It’s the only time I’ve ever worked on something all night. Repeatedly. Learning about the Open Source movement was unavoidable and I picked up this book and knew I’d made the right decision, despite the huge learning curve. It gave social and political significance to a simple act borne out of frustration. I’ve been running Linux on my desktop for over ten years now and have a basic certification in Linux SysAdmin. Open Source opened the door for me to the Commons.


After finishing my MA in Film Archiving, I landed a job as Moving Image Archivist, with the British Film Institute. I stayed there for a couple of years until I saw that Amnesty International were advertising for an Audiovisual Archivist. The focus at Amnesty was on digital archiving and Digital Asset Management and so I found myself moving into the more general profession of Information Management. The problem with this, for me, was that I became removed from the physical aspects of film. It was all bits and bytes, storage and standards. After a couple of years at Amnesty, London was feeling oppressive and we saw no future for us there. I got talking to my Mum and Dad about how we could help each other out and we decided to build a house in their garden (my Dad was a builder but he died before we got planning permission). The deal was that we got the land for free (so making the whole thing affordable), and with 30 years or so of earning ahead of us, we’d look out for them financially as they headed for retirement. We wanted to build something modest but exceptional and I bought this book which is still a huge inspiration to me. It’s full of illustrated stories of people that have built their own, often mad, places to live. As it happened, planning restrictions meant that we had to build a fairly conventional stone cottage style place, which is great, but I still have aspirations to build a geodesic dome or a house raised on poles some day.

Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today

Between March 2007 and February 2008, we had a baby daughter, moved to Lincoln two weeks after she was born, got married and built a house. I was also lucky to spot an advertisement for a job working part-time on a JISC funded repository project at the University of Lincoln, which connected nicely with my work on digital archiving at Amnesty and my interest in the Commons. When the project ended, I applied for the job I’m in now, as Technology Officer, looking at how technology might be used to support research, teaching and learning. I love it. Last summer, I started to think about the problems of technology and one that seemed obvious to me was the relationship between energy consumption and technology and how a future energy crisis and climate change legislation might impact the use of technology in Higher Education. It’s an area of research that I’m still pursuing, but the most significant effect it’s had on me is to open my eyes to the political dimensions of energy and the economy. Holloway’s book was suggested to me and it had a similar effect as reading the book on Zen. In particular, the first chapter which talks about ‘The Scream’, resonates for me with the central Buddhist idea of suffering. There have been other connections, too, not least the metaphysical aspects of Marxist theory, which often remind me of the metaphysical aspects of religious philosophy.

And that’s where I am today.

JISCPress: Developing a community platform for the JISC funding process

I’m very pleased to announce that my bid with Tony Hirst at the Open University, to develop a community platform for the JISC funding call process based on WriteToReply, was successful. The original bid document is publicly available and currently offers the most information on this six month, £32,500 project.

Note that this is an open project using open source software and we welcome volunteer contributions from anyone. I’ve set up a project blog, mailing list, wiki and code repository. Feel free to join us if this WriteToReply spin-off appeals to you. If you know anyone that might be interested, please do let them know.

If you’ve been following WriteToReply, you’ll know that we use WordPress Multi-User and CommentPress. Eddie Tejeda, the developer of CommentPress will be working with us on the project and this will result in significant further development of CommentPress 2. So, if you’re interested in CommentPress (as many people are), please consider following, contributing to and testing JISCPress.

I should also note that while the project is a spin-off of our work on WriteToReply, neither Tony or I are personally receiving any funds from JISC.  The contributions from JISC to cover our time on this project are paid directly to our employers and does not result in any financial benefit to us or WriteToReply (which is in the process of being formalised as a non-profit business).  In other words, while WriteToReply is a personal project, JISCPress is part of our normal work as employees of our universities (both Tony and I are expected to bid and win project funds – you get used to it after a while!). Money has been allocated to fund dedicated developer time to the project, which will pay Eddie and Alex, a student at the University of Lincoln,  for their work.

Anyway, on with the project! Here’s the outline from the bid document:

This project will deliver a demonstrator prototype publishing platform for the JISC funding call and dissemination process. It will seek to show how WordPress Multi-User (WPMU) can be used as an effective document authoring, publishing, discussion and syndication platform for JISC’s funding calls and final project reports, and demonstrate how the cumulative effect of publishing this way will lead to an improved platform for the discovery and dissemination of grant-related information and project outputs. In so doing, we hope to provide a means by which JISC project investigators can more effectively discover, and hence build on, related JISC projects. In general, the project will seek to promote openness and collaboration from the point of bid announcements onwards.

The proposed platform is inspired and informed by WriteToReply, a service developed by the principle project staff (Joss Winn and Tony Hirst) in Spring 2009 which re-publishes consultation documents for public comment and allows anyone to re-publish a document for comment by their target community. In our view, this model of publishing meets many of the intended benefits and deliverables of the Rapid Innovation call and Information Environment Programme. The project will exploit well understood and popular open source technologies to implement an alternative infrastructure that enables new processes of funding-related content creation, improves communication around funding calls and enables web-centric methods of dissemination and content re-use. The platform will be extensible and could therefore be the object of further future development by the HE developer community through the creation of plugins that provide desired functionality in the future.

How the world has changed…

“When I learned electronics, we soldered together discrete components to make a product. Today, we combine copyrighted units of other people’s intellectual property to make a product. And we don’t really have the tools to carry out that task properly.”

A comment by Bruce Perens, the creator of the Open Source Definition, the manifesto of Open Source and the criterion for Open Source software licensing. Perens represented Open Source at the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society, at the request of the United Nations Development Program.

Session 3: Interoperability

The final three presentations of the day focussed on interoperability. The first two, specifically discussed ways to make it easier for users to deposit materials into repositories. Julie Allinson, from the SWORD Project, discussed the work they have done and the use of the Atom Publishing Protocol as a framework for developing a derivative SWORD deposit profile. The presentation finished by noting that a NISO standard and tools are being developed for this same purpose and it is hoped that they take into consideration the work done by the SWORD project.

Scott Yeadon, from the Australian National University, gave a presentation on tools which the RIFF Project have developed for DSpace and Fedora to facilitate easier deposit of content into these repositories. Their work took real world examples of content to deposit and developed a submission service, a METS content packaging profile and dissemination service.

Both the SWORD and RIFF Projects demonstrated working examples of their services, albeit in early form. The main question remaining is whether they will be adopted beyond the confines of the project. Part of project work is research and development, but a significant part is also the marketing of the results of the project, for which OR2008 is clearly an important venue.

Finally, Dean Krafft, from Cornell University, presented NCore, a wide range of open source tools for creating digital repositories. Much bigger in scale than the previous two projects, the NCore platform is notable for being released on Sourceforge as a community project. It also has guaranteed funding until 2012, suggesting that even greater work is to come. It’s basically a suite of software tools and services built around the Fedora repository, developed to manage millions of objects, initially at the National Science Digital Library (NSDL). It was an excellent presentation of what appears to be a successful project and set of products. Building a Fedora repository requires a higher investment of resources than installing DSpace or EPrints and projects which use this platform, although often complex and difficult, tend to produce very interesting and impressive results.