About Me

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Web person at the Imperial War Museum, just completed PhD about digital sustainability in museums (the original motivation for this blog was as my research diary). Posting occasionally, and usually museum tech stuff but prone to stray. I welcome comments if you want to take anything further. These are my opinions and should not be attributed to my employer or anyone else (unless they thought of them too). Twitter: @jottevanger

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The End of the Road

Not some dire news, but a long-delayed write-up of the festival I went to on the 12th-14th September. Well, the long and short is that it was fantastic, the perfect reintroduction to (multi-day) festivals since it's been, um, a long time. I went with friend/brother-in-law John, who I went to Glasters with a few times (2-4, we can't really recall) in the '90s and we both felt it was pretty much the perfect festival and the perfect line-up. OK, if it was my actual fantasy line-up there would have been Micah Blue Smaldone and Kaki King, too, and one or two others, but quibbles aside there were so many acts there I'd been longing to see, and a number of wonderful surprises too.

Amongst the acts I was eagerly anticipating were the beautiful Shearwater. They struggled a bit with the sound and we didn't see the set through, mainly due to exhaustion. Micah P Hinson was super intense, looking like Woody Allen in wellies but blasting away any ambivalence I might have harboured about the album I have. Dirty Three! I cannot say enough about how exhilarating they were, another trio with an unfeasible amount of emotional energy in a small package. We were struck by the intimate dynamic you could see in quite a few trios, and the power it could generate, and none more so than D3. Kurt Wagner of Lambchop was an amazing one man show, entertaining and engaging but intense, and raw like a refracted version of the ancient country blues guys I'm listening to so much right now. Mercury Rev were deliriously cosmic. Calexico wrapped up the main stage joyously and mixed new material I'd never heard with favourites I'd yearned to see them do. We caught some of Bon Iver which was lovely. And the surprises? Bowerbirds (who also chimed in with Bon Iver for a couple of tunes), Liz Green, Devon Sproule, Sun Kil Moon (ex-Red House Painter Marc Kozalek), A Hawk and a Hacksaw (I knew them a little before, but they knocked me out). Any disappointments? Well, perhaps Conor Oberst was a little less enrapturing than I hoped, but then I had very high expectations and he gave it a lot. The band sometimes had a bit too much inclination to, um, please themselves, though. And Tindersticks were Tindersticks, but I preferred them in more intimate venues (Moles in Bath, I recall, was great. Way back when.) I had no great expectations of British Sea Power or Richard Hawley, which were borne out. There was a schedule clash which American Music Club lost, so I don't know how they were - I've loved that band so long it seems wrong to have missed them, but there was an embarassment of riches there and I've seen them several times (again, way back when...)

I'd love to write this up properly but perhaps instead I'll put in a Flickr slideshow and if I get around to annotating those photos that'll do for reviews. Oh, there are a couple of videos of Mercury Rev and Calexico too.

All I'd say to end is, lovely festival, great atmosphere and the right size (5,000 people, don't know how they afford to put it on but it works beautifully). Thanks Sofia and Simon!

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

OT: In't the interweb marvellous?

[Apologies in advance, this is a puerile post]

Oh, the wonder of the Web! Useless knowledge of the sort I most adore but which would previously have been simply unavailable, or impossibly hard to gather, is there in all its flawed glory, should you wish to look. Witness the answer to my casual question to colleague Prez, "surely there must be there people out there called Shirley Knott?". Yes, there are (or were). And I doubt they want us laughing about it, either, but hell, there are worse names.

Who wants to go in with me on a social networking site/self-help group? Perhaps http://www.blemishednam.es/ would do it. I'm seeing forums (OK, that's a bit old skool), widgets, dating, maybe a really pointless API. Well, if you beat me to the execution, at least give me a credit on the site.

A quick test of SemanticProxy: what, did you expect it to be perfect?

You can see Thomson-Reuters' newest semantic web leg-up here: SemanticProxy. The idea is great, it really seems to take OpenCalais' proposition further and offer a helping hand in building all sorts of RDF-centred applications. However a word of caution is advised: you'll probably get some pretty funny results so they need to be taken in the right spirit; they're a great first step but not perfect.
Take this page for example: Shakespeare’s first theatre uncovered. Paste the URL into the box on the demo page. If you look at the entities SemanticProxy identifies, some are impressively accurate. For example, it spots Jack Lohman, Jeff Kelly and Willian Shakespeare as people; identifies currency, facilities and companies reasonably well; finds phone numbers etc.
On the down side, quirks include that it considers the Museum of London a "facility" not a company or organisation; designates Chelsea Old Church (mentioned only in the navigation) both a person and organisation; thinks Taryn Nixon is the director of Tower Theater Company (though the text says "Taryn Nixon, Director of Museum of London Archaeology"); and calls Shakespeare a Hackney planning officer!
SematicProxy looks very impressive, still, but this quick test does at least illustrate what a fiendish problem these guys are trying to tackle. The team point out that it's a beta: "No guarantees, no promises", they say, and I hope they stick at it and that I get to play with it properly some time soon!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Boring notes on stuff cribbed from TechCrunch

OK there's lots of catching up to do but not now. Here are three things from TechCrunch that said to me "these might be useful at museums like MoL" or "research material!" Perhaps I can have some actual thoughts about them in due course.
  • Google Launches Audio Indexing. The first mainstream search engine to do this, AFAIK (though not the first with the technology), and the implications for search and semantic integration are obvious
  • Internet Movie Database adds video footage. This is here in part because (like YouTube etc, I guess) Europeana needs to keep destination sites like this in mind. Is the IMDB a suitable place for any material from museums, libraries and archives? Perhaps not, but on the other hand they may have material that can stretch the role of the IMDB
  • Amazon Gets In On the Content Delivery Business. As Amazon's cloud-play grows, MoL and others may be getting a more attractive way of offering media that has previously been quite hard and expensive to host. We await details and prices!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Gathery and Giftag

So here, by the sound of it, is the hProduct equivalent of Gathery, the application I built to collect museum objects marked up with some POSH. No-one was going to support an object microformat, for strong reasons (though I still wish there was a more general object uF for objects than hProduct), but essentially this product is the same thing, but for making a wish-list. Read more on RWW: Giftag: Social Wishlists Using Open Standards . I'm wondering now, though, whether there might be mileage in using hProduct with extensions for museum collections - it's still better than the nothing we have at present.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Queen and Open Source

A post by Alan McGee on the Guardian's blog on Tuesday argued that Queen, and especially Freddie Mercury, were actually "punk". He hung his case on the assumption that punk meant "never being boring". The vigorous debate that followed in the comments in part attacked this assumption or definition of punk, and in part added new criteria by which we might identify what deserves that label. For me, I'd say that, given the limited nature of the straw man McGee erected, he's right: Queen were punk. But he's wrong, too, in that punk (to many people) is/was more than simply a good show; more indeed than rebellion or subversion, as some comments argued. To be a useful category that doesn't also include, say, Marcel Marceau, Joan of Arc, Jack Kerouac or a nice crucifixion, we need to bundle these characteristics with others. My bundle of essential punk features might be very different from yours - I'd call the Litter, Faust and, yes, the Creation supreme punks, perhaps only the Pistols and Crass were punk enough for you. The point is that it's helpful to distinguish between the phenomenon or category, and the aspects that define its essence. Otherwise we end up with fun but muddled rhetoric - fine on the blog, of course, but not so fine for serious debate.

This next bit is related, bear with me...

Last week, in a meeting about a new delivery system for collections content, Mia and I had a disagreement which echoed a recent debate on the MCG list (parts of the "CMS specifications" thread here). The issue was Open Source and whether it's something that we should require as part of the system we are planning for (and future systems). My argument was, and remains, that we are interested in certain significant properties embodied by the O.S. concept, but that these may be found elsewhere. To find the ones that are important to use - say, the ability to modify the codebase, or the existence of a supportive community of users and developers - we don't by definition have to look for an OS badge (which relates purely to the licence, after all - definition). Things such as a community of developers that are claimed as virtues of OS software may be there as a consequence (or cause) of the licence, but they are neither required for the label to apply, nor present only when the label applies. Nik Honeysett made a related point the other day, arguing on the Musenet blog that

"the communities that would be best served by Open Source, i.e. small/medium museums, are the ones that can least afford to contribute and participate, so they are no better off whether its open source or not - the crux of selecting software is that it meets your requirements"
Once again, it's not that Open Source is "right" or "wrong" but that we need to think analytically about the aspects of it that matter to us and whether they can be furnished by any given solution, not whether it wears the right badge. Access to source code is good, but it doesn't dictate OSS. Communities of developers are good, but not restricted to SourceForge and the like (GotDotNet has served me well). Freedom from reliance upon suppliers is good, but think about which parts of the technology stack you're most concerned about. In our case at MoL, large parts of our stack are "closed source" - the operating system and web server, the framework (.Net) and the CMS we use are all Microsoft and essentially closed. But I believe that we'd be more vulnerable if we implemented, say, Drupal, because our in-house development skills are with .Net, and it's the ability to develop what we have that gives us power over our destiny. It's limited, yes, because the CMS's core is closed, but (a) the data is accessible and (b) around that core is a cloud of .Net source code that I can and do develop, some sourced in the community, and which underlies the bulk of the functionality on our sites. I can't modify .Net (though there's Mono) but I wouldn't want to, nor can I recode Windows (ditto). But we have access to the code that matters most, and that's what matters most. You could in any case build a CMS in .Net and licence it by OS rules, but the next level of the stack wouldn't be OS - does that matter? Chances are that if you're installing some OSS then there's still a proprietary element in your stack, or at least a bit that you would be unable to fix yourself. And even if you're top-to-bottom LAMP and could dive into the source yourself to tweak Apache or Linux if necessary, you're probably still dependent on patented hardware. Live with it.

Both the Queen argument and the Open Source argument, then, come out of mixing up labels and characteristics that can attach to those labels. OSS is great, but for reasons that aren't always relevant or found only in OSS. Queen put on a great show, but that's not the same as being punk. Significant properties, in other words, aren't The Thing Itself.