A visit to a bookshop

I’ve just spent the day at the University of Nottingham having some very interesting meetings. While I waited for my cab back to the station I popped into the bookshop for a quick browse. On doing this I realised that the only reason that I’ve gone into bookshops for about the last five years is to buy last minute birthday presents. I’d guess that the days of bookshops in every town are probably numbered so it is one of those pleasures that you should revisit while you still can.

There was a time when I used to spend entire afternoons piling up possible purchases in bookshops, often reading half of them before deciding not to buy. However, these days pretty much all of my books come from Amazon or similar. While Amazon has various tools that aid browsing, actually walking round the shop enabled me to buy much more random things than I ever would online. This has surely got to be a good thing. I hope that making unexpected purchases challenge me to read things I’ve never heard of, that just sound interesting, or that have a nice cover. My purchases on Amazon tend to be a bit more purposeful.  So what did I buy?

Nigel Benson’s, Psychology a graphic guide to your mind and your behaviour

  • Sam Gosling, Snoop: What your stuff says about you
  • Slavoj Zizek, Violence
  • Marjane Satrapi, Persepholis
    Will I actually read any of them? Only time will tell. But, I resolve to visit a bookshop a little more often.


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    Nowhere to hide


    I’ve just finished reading Spy in the Coffee Machine by Kieron O’Hara and Nigel Shadbolt. This book is subtitled “the end of privacy as we know it” and includes an alarming picture of a coffee cup that has been turned into an eye. To be honest this isn’t the sort of book that I’d normally buy, from the cover I concluded that this was some kind of anti-Web 2.0 book that would have spent its time diagnosing various kinds of decadence that I and Western society are suffering from because of the need to share information with the world in general. However, I was way off the mark and the book is actually much more measured than the Orwellian cover might suggest. O’Hara and Shadbolt are internet enthusiasts who feel that the challenge to privacy is more than compensated by the opportunities that it offers. However, they also caution against letting the positives create a world where the idea of private data is allowed to vanish altogether.

    O’Hara and Shadbolt are interested in the issue of privacy and how new technologies are transforming this. The books gets pretty techy at times (you’ll learn the difference between PKI,PGP and P3Ps) but, is actually most interested in the human bit of the machine. Having said that, one of the most interesting bits of the book is the discussion of Moore’s law. This “law” states that the power of computing doubles every 18 months or so, which means that the power of computers to synthesise, search, investigate and penetrate our lives is likely to go on increasing with corresponding impact on privacy. This is a technical book about internet privacy, but it is also a book about the politics and philosophy of different approaches to privacy.Broadly the book makes the following points:

    • The development of the internet has fundamentally changed our approach to privacy. Information is now routinely shared across the world in ways that would have been limited by simple logistics before the development of the internet.
    • It is possible for government and other state-like bodies to regulate issues relating to privacy. However users are likely to find ways to circumvent these regulations. This is likely to mean that privacy continues to be challenged despite governmental attitudes.
    • When privacy is challenged it is usually because of human actions rather than faults with machines. Your decision to publish your drunken antics on Facebook or to give your credit card details to the phishing email are a much bigger issue than organised and purposeful attempts to hack the security on your computer.
    • That privacy has a particular place in the philosophy and practice of different political systems. Therefore changes in the nature of privacy are likely to have wider political and economic implications.
     O’Hara and Shadbolt argue that in liberalism/Western political models there are three spaces the wholly public e.g. government, the wholly private e.g. your bedroom and the in-between e.g. the world of clubs and societies.  It is pretty obvious how the internet starts to challenge this model. Things that are published for our small worlds e.g. the parish newsletter are now available online and for all. The public and the in-between have come together. The decision by some to post details of their private lives in public or semi-public spaces e.g. Facebook, dating sites etc means that the distinction is blurred further.

    Essentially this means that our notion of privacy is going to change. O’Hara and Shadbolt aren’t unduly worried about this, they discuss both positive and negative implications, exploring how it might impact on our relationship with the state (big brother?), with our friends and colleagues (little brother?) etc. They are clear that we can’t put the internet back in the box and that while it is important that we regulate appropriately and educate users about privacy issues, we are also going to have to accept a different level of privacy as normal.

    Issues around the internet and privacy get quite a lot of coverage from commentators on careers and recruitment. Usually these articles focus on frightening people off of social networking. “Don’t put your drunken photos online, potential employers will be frightened off” they scream. So Career Builders’ recent survey noted that 35% of employers had made the decision not to hire people based on what they found by googling them up. Conversely 18% said that they had hired people after looking at their online presence. I find this very interesting. Firstly the idea that recruiters are spending time researching candidates suggests a pretty high quality recruitment process. If you get a decent response to a job advert it can be challenging to even read all of the applications, let alone to chase them down and work out what they do with their weekends. Secondly it is interesting what employers are supposedly concerned about 53% were worried about inappropriate photographs while 44% were worried about drugs. Only 20% were worried about candidates who shared confidential information from their previous employer.

    This seems weird to me! When I recruit people I don’t think that I’m particularly worried about the odd picture of them with a wine glass in their hand. Especially if I’m recruiting a (usually young) graduate I’d pretty much expect it. OK, so they like to cut loose at weekends, fine, it doesn’t really tell me anything relevant either positive or negative. If, however, they are invisible online I’d be much more worried. The higher up the professional ladder the  more I’d expect/be positively influenced by someone who gives good Google. If you’ve been active in your field for years and you aren’t mentioned anywhere online I’d wonder what you’d been doing. Maybe I’m unusual in this, but it seems to me that employers should be more interested in the positive evidence of professional activity than in the negative evidence of foolish indiscretion. Having said that – there is no harm in checking the privacy settings on your Facebook account.

    Any thoughts on this?

    Let’s have a heated debate!

    I’ve got involved in a potentially interesting discussion on the Times Higher website about the value and future of the Roberts funding. The debate is in response to the article Doubts over Roberts cash ‘damaging’, says Vitae. The debate initially got sidetracked into a discussion about a course which apparently taught ‘brain gym’. I’m not a big fan of ‘brain gym’, but I don’t think that finding one bad course is particularly significant for the wider debate on Roberts.

    The debate has now started to heat up a bit and talk about things like impact, evidence and value for money. Obviously I am going to be a supporter of the Roberts agenda as I’ve worked in it for four or five years. I’m also deeply committed to the idea of developing researchers and of supporting the people who do research as part of the development of the research infrastructure in general. I suspect that most people would probably agree with this aim even if they might take issue with some of the ways that it has been implemented. However, I’m also really interested in hearing some public debate on the Roberts agenda. I think that it would be really healthy to get some more of the views out in the open.

    So I’d suggest that anyone with an interest or an opinion on Roberts should post a comment on the Times Higher website. The more we talk about this stuff the better.

    What is the point of a website?

    I’ve been having a think about where next for the Vitae website today. One of the things that occurs to me is whether the time has come when we should be questioning the form as well as tinkering with the function of websites. What I mean by that is how much are institutions and businesses going to continue to put their energy into creating large scale branded websites with hundreds of pages on them. How long are we going to spend looking at navigation structures and designing and redesigning home pages. An organisations website is often concieved as as a product in itself, but it is generally consumed as a series of small chunks often with the user being fairly unaware of the purpose of the whole.

    So on the Vitae website one of the most popular bits of content are our pages on academic CVs. This is not surprising the content on these pages is really useful and a google search for “academic CVs” ranks the Vitae content as number one. So people surf in, gut the pages for useful content and surf out again. Hopefully some of them stay and poke around, some of them even come back the next time they think about their career, but on the whole the content is probably being encountered out of the context of the whole Vitae site. Google facilitates this kind of interaction with content. Twitter and social tagging tools facilitate a different kind of interaction and create a different kind of context, but none of these really require (or utilise) the context of the entire Vitae website.

    Obviously the Vitae site isn’t unique in this. Most (possibly all) content on the web is encountered as part of a context that is outside of the control of the writers/publishers of that content. The site is where we put our energy, but the content is encountered almost entirely divorced from our imagined context. Navigation schemes, logos and links are relegated to being advertising teasers that try to engage the user around the edge of the main content. Something seems a bit wrong here.

    So let’s try a little thought experiment. What if a big company, let’s say Coke or Virgin just dumped its website. Maybe it put up one page with a big picture of a logo on it, but apart from that it dropped the idea of having a website altogether. But at the same time it pushed all of the money and energy that used to fill up discussions about the hierachy of the website or location of the logo into the creation of content and the building of relationships. What would happen? Well that company could be churning out YouTube videos without worrying about hosting the files, it could spend the money that it used on web creation to hire funnier ad writers or more spectacular video directors. The marketing departments could be cultivating relationships on twitter, building engaging facebook aps and tagging associated content through their delicious accounts. The big impressive website would have gone, but would the impact have diminished? If I want to find out about Coke I can now just go to the blog of the MD or the marketing person or the scientist who boils up the brown liquid and talk direct to them.

    I’ve come to some of these conclusions myself, but a quick google demonstrates that I’m not the only one. See

    And I’m sure a lot of other people too. I’m so retro that I’d barely registered that there was such a thing as Web 3.0 until I started thinking about this tonight. But essentially I think that what it is saying is that more powerful indexing and semantic protocols will enable us to encounter things in a more miscellaneous way. To decode my last sentence further, stuff will become easier to find so we won’t need existing tools like web site navigation menus to help us make it available and find it.

    So who wants to be the first big organisation to throw away their website? And what will they put in its place?

    The part-time researcher

    I’m writing this blog on the way back from the University of Strathclyde where I’ve been presenting on some of Vitae’s work focusing on part-time researchers. My presentation is attached if you want to look at the rough outline of what I said.

    If you haven’t come across the part-time researcher project before have a look at it on the Vitae website. The part-time researcher was a collaborative project based around a number of HEIs in the Midlands. Essentially we investigated the experience of part-time researchers and developed the following resources:

    • A report called Understanding the part-time researcher experience which uses a new analysis of the 2008 PRES results and some qualitative surveying to help understand the part-time researcher experience and make some recommendations for HEIs and other stakeholders.
    • A film of nine successful (completed) part-time doctoral researchers talking about their experiences. This is designed to be used in training or as part of a VLE or website aimed at part-time researchers.
    • A resource pack of training materials which is designed to give HEIs some resources to use in the training of part-time researchers.
    I’m really pleased with the package of resources and feel that we’ve managed to make a really powerful intervention into the experience of part-time researchers. I’d like to hear the experience of anyone who has used any of these resources with researchers.

    Everyone at the event at the University of Strathclyde was really positive. There was even some talk of rolling out a regional/national programme of events for part-time researchers based on the materials that we developed. Good luck with this!

    Where there were challenges to what I presented it was generally around the “can’t you do….” area. I talked to people today about the possibility of doing research into
    • what happens to part-time researchers who drop out?
    • what career destinations do part-time researchers go on to?
    • can we construct an empirically validated typology of different part-time researchers to help HEIs plan?
    • can we improve the way HESA collects data to make it easier to look at part-time researchers?
    • can we look at research staff and how they work part-time?
    • what about lecturers who have to do research in between all of their other responsibilities – are there any lessons for them?
    • what technologies can we use to support part-time researchers better
    • etc etc etc
    I’d be really interested in taking forward some of this work and looking at how we can support the skills and career development of part-time researchers into the future. Has anyone got any idea about who might fund a study building on some of this work?

    The other area where I got some challenging questions was around the statistics used in the PRES section of the report. I feel very comfortable in the validity of the conclusions that we are drawing from the stats – but I recognise that my stats are rusty enough to make it difficult for me to mount a really confident defence of the work that Gosia did in that chapter of the report. I want a nice book, website or crash course to get my stats back up to scratch. Can anyone recommend anything? 

    The career searchlight

    In this post I’m going to detail a little activity that I thought up while I was away on holiday. I haven’t run this with anyone yet, but I thought I’d put it out there to see what people think. If anyone wants to run it – go ahead, just let me know how it goes.

    The activity is designed to get people thinking about their career and making some plans, but it is also designed to encourage people to think about their career as a series of opportunities and choices rather than a linear progression.

    The career searchlight

    Many people look out at their career and see only a foggy void. This activity is designed to illuminate the void with a searchlight. The career searchlight asks people to look into their own future and to speculate about how their career might progress. They might do this in a very uninformed way using pure guesswork, or they might use the career searchlight to help structure some of their thinking after a period of studying the labour market and patterns of progression in the area in which they are interested. The career searchlight can be used either to expand the curiosity and horizons of the uninformed or to help the informed to make decisions and consider career development strategies.

    The searchlight is based on the idea that from each job you will have a choice to make, moving from your current job to either this or that as your next job. The searchlight represents each job, or possible job, as a box and then divides each box into two as you move on to your next job. Obviously this is an abstraction, in fact we have many more choices, but keeping it to two choices ensures that the activity stays manageable across your next six moves. It is also worth noting that not all choices are equal, for some the choice may only be between one poorly paid dull job and another, but the searchlight hopefully encourages people to think long term and to consider whether (or not) either of these poor choices offer more over the longer term.

    So the activity is simply to fill in each box. Start with your current job and then imagine two jobs that you might get after that. Then look at those jobs and imagine two jobs that you might get from each. Keep going until you have filled up all 63 jobs on the searchlight. You might want to keep the following sort of things in mind as you fill it in.

    • Try and make each job a realistic move from the last. You might want to make one of the two jobs a bigger stretch than the other.
    • Remember that there is usually more than one route to the same place. You may find that the same jobs appear in more than one pathway. This is fine – but try not to let all of the pathways end up identical. Have some that take you off in different directions to see what might be down that path.
    • Remember you can move up, down and sideways in your career. It would be unusual if all five moves were promotions.
    • If you get stuck google up some options or just make a guess. Remember this isn’t a legally binding document it is just an exercise to get you thinking.

    You may have noticed that the searchlight is only illuminating a relatively small section of the darkness. If you assume that the darkness surrounds you what you can see with the aid of the searchlight is small. It would be worth speculating on what might be out there in the places that you can’t see. My answers to this question might include:

    • Recession
    • Redundancy
    • Unexpected opportunity
    • Relocation
    • Changes in family or caring responsibilities
    • Retraining
    • Technological changes
    • Changes in your profession or in your sector
    • etc, etc
    All of these factors are likely to turn the searchlight and to illuminate different possibilities and career paths. You might want to experiment filling in the searchlight with a “what if” scenario in mind. e.g. “What if my industry collapses? What would the career searchlight be showing me then?” However, it is also important to realise that you can’t plan for everything and that events might take you out of the well lit pathway that you have planned and move you into the darkness. At this point you need to shine the searchlight again and look at what might lay ahead once more.

    So there you go, have a look at the career searchlight and see if you find it useful. Is it something that you can use or something that you could use with students/clients that you work with?

    Let me know… if people are keen I might play with it a bit more and see if I can develop it further.