30 January 2011

LIKE 21: Information blackholes

What better way to spend your birthday than at a LIKE event?

And so it was that I spent the evening at The Crown Tavern on Clerkenwell Green at LIKE 21 participating in a discussion on Information blackholes.

The upstairs room at The Crown is a good venue for events like these. It shares many of the characteristics of The Wheatsheaf used by Big Ideas being heavily traditional with darkly coloured walls thick with pictures and other ephemera but it gains in being just that much bigger and having a mix of seating. This month it was the turn for us vegetarians to get the clutch of leather sofas.

The topic was introduced by Hanna Kazerani who regaled us with some horror stories from her career. The one that drew the most gasps was the UK company that was struggling to manage over 40 million documents which Hanna's analysis showed contained over 30 million duplicates. One does have to ask how an organisation could possibly think that it had produced 40 million documents let alone 40 million worth keeping.

The best bit of LIKE is the interaction between the people there and this was kicked-off with some questions set for each table.

Not precisely sure what we were asked, and it matters not in the slightest, but it set us off on a discussion on the interactions between IT (boo!) and IM (hooray!). The sadly all too familiar, and all too true, story was IT's decision to buy SharePoint and then appealing to IM to find out what yo do with it.

From an IM perspective, we covered concepts like Information Governance, Retention Policies, Classification/Taxonomy and Authentication. From this you could see how a conversation with IT could be possible as all of those concepts have their equivalent in the IT world.

But that just makes the main problem more obvious, neither IT or IM can talk easily to business where the key words are things like value, efficiency, profit and effectiveness.

The conversation developed from there, we spent quite a while talking about branding and logos for some reason, until the excellent food and the second drink slowed things down for a while.

Food dispatched, the mixing started and the conversations continued but without notebook to hand so I have to rely on a memory of croquet, Huddersfield, Rugby League, marathon running, London buses, commuting to Northampton and contract rates.

Another successful LIKE event that reminded us why we do this every month. LIKE is rather special.

29 January 2011

Big Ideas on epistemic injustice

Who knew I'd enjoy a debate on epistemic injustice?!

The first Big Ideas debate of 2011 was advertised as "Why Should I Believe You?" but Nathan let slip at the Christmas social that this is a philosophy group so I was forewarned that there would be more to the evening than just a simple question.

But before the question comes the setting and I do like The Wheatsheaf. The talks do not start until the comfortable hour of 8pm which gives plenty of time to work reasonably late, walk up to Fitzrovia from Victoria and have a leisurely beer (a Brakspear Oxford Gold) and a frivolous bowl of chips and cheese. Such is the life of the twilight talk attender.

I learned at the last talk that it is safer to head upstairs well before the start time if you want to be sure of a chair and so it proved again and the lovely room was packed and the later arrivals had to stand.

The discussion leader was Miranda Fricker, a Reader in the Department of Philosophy at Birkbeck and the author of the book Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing.

She hides being a philosopher well and comes across as the sort of person that you would like to be placed next to at a dinner party due to her captivating conversational style. She listens well, talks better and know what she is talking about.

Miranda Fricker opened by explaining her concept of testimonial injustice (a subset of the wider epistemic injustice) where a listener denies the testimony (knowledge) of another due to a prejudiced against them.

The example was given of to Kill a Mocking Bird where the testimony of Tom Robinson is not believed by the jury because he is a black man. Later we were also given the example of the Talented Mr Ripley which did not help much as I've not seen it.

Most of the debate that followed centred around the hard words "prejudice" and "injustice".

There was a consensus that we will always approach testimonial with some bias, for example we will usually to believe people we know and trust rather than a complete stranger. These biases, some of which may be as general as distrusting a wide group such as women or a different race, build up continuously as we interact people and will often be a fair reflection of our experiences.

And if these biases are only natural, and also useful, then it seems wrong to call using them an injustice.

Miranda responded at length to all the questions and comments but I felt she was not carrying the audience with her. I, for one, was certainly not convinced.

In my notes from the evening I turned to that most common of management consulting tools, the 2x2 matrix. If we consider the degree to which we are predisposed to believe somebody and the degree to which we are willing to have our minds changed then we can prejudice only when we have firm beliefs and little change.

The other three quadrants are virtue (low predisposition and high change), bias (high and high) and fickle (low and high).

This strikes me as a more helpful way to try and understand the issues around epistemic injustice than railing against injustice.

I may have been unconvinced by the main theme and, unusually for me, did not participate directly in the debate but it was still an evening well spent and it did more than enough to entice me back next month.

28 January 2011

Sex and Violence

This catching up with my uinread comics is working out really well.

The latest success was the three-part mini series, X-Force: Sex and Violence. X-Force is the X-Men's black operations group whose simple job is to kill the bad guys. Obviously Wolverine is in it.

The story fits firmly in to the X-Force canon and is written by regular scribes Craig Kyle and Chris Yost, and they deliver a great story. In addition to X-Force we have the Guild of Assassins and the elite ninjas The Hand. A blood-bath is the obvious result but it's a lot more that.

The story is nicely paced across the three issues with unexpected plot twists to keep the story fresh and interesting and also humour and romance (well, sex actually) to make the characters more human and believable.

The art work is stunning too.

As with X-Force, the art is dark to match the mood of the story.Gabriele Dell'Otto plays a large roll in the telling of the story with several double-page spreads that capture all of the protagonists in the battle scenes but, more that that, also the movement and the mood.

It's masterful.

23 January 2011

Little news at the Kingston Society AGM

January's meeting of the Kingston upon Thames Society is its AGM with elections, speech and social.

Not necessarily a great rallying cry but I went along anyway as I had nothing else on that evening and I like to keep in the routine of going to their meetings every months. Habits like that once dropped can be hard to pick up again.

The Chair's report had some interesting nuggets about the society's membership numbers and distribution. As previously there was a wish to see numbers (and participation) increase but little serious effort to achieve this. For example, the Committee renominated itself and was re-elected unopposed. Not the best way to attract new blood.

The Deputy Mayor, who chaired the meeting, said a few words about current planning topics in Kingston which included the specific case of the former bingo hall in Richmond Road that may become another nightclub and also the recurring theme of "garden grabbing".

A bit thin as meeting go but AGMs are a necessary pain in an organisations life, and I've been to worse. The talks resume next month and that's something to look forward to.

20 January 2011

New Parties in the New Europe

"Live Fast, Die Young: The Short and Curious Life Cycle of New Parties in the New Europe" was the title of a talk that incited me to SSEES on a Thursday evening.

SSEES, that's the UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies if you want it in full, runs a number of interesting lectures relating to Central Europe but I get to fewer than I would like as they normally start at the student-friendly 5pm when I'm still chained to my desk. I could make this one as it started at the more worker-friendly time of 6pm.

For reasons that were never made clear, we actually met in a cramped lecture room in the building next door to SSEES which was bit of a challenge to squeeze in to and also deprived us of the promised wine and nibbles. Luckily the talk was diverting enough to overcome those difficulties.

The speaker was Professor Kevin Deegan-Krause from Wayne State University, USA who betrayed his nationality through his accent and his constant referral to the countries under discussion as being in Eastern Europe when it was made very clear to me when working there that they are in Central Europe. The name of the time-zone they are in is a clue here.

Professor Deegan-Krause took us through a model that he and colleagues have been working on that attempts to explain how political parties grow and die in the New Europe where each election see the emergence of new parties and the gradual decline of old ones.

The talk explored some of the types of parties that emerge, e.g. those that focus on fighting corruption or those that are built around a charismatic leader.

It then explained some of ways that these parties decline. For example, parties fighting corruption when elected can be tainted with the same corrupt tag that the electorate applies to all politicians and the party become part of the problem rather than the solution and so it withers and dies.

Elements of the birth/death model were interesting and illuminating but I found the model itself unconvincing and quite possibly unnecessary.

I asked a simple question at the end, and that was "so what?" and Professor Deegan-Krause was kind enough to say that that was something that they wanted to look at in further research, e.g. the correlation between party volatility and outcome metrics like voter participation or economic growth.

I'll be interested to see how that turns out.

17 January 2011

Growing Knowledge with LIKE

The Growing Knowledge exhibition at the British Library showcases innovative research tools and LIKE went to see it.

This was not an official LIKE event as such but it's best to see something like this in a group, one of LIKE's founders works at BL and LIKE are good at organising things like this.

Numbers were limited due to the size of the room and only the first 22 of us to sign-up were able to go. Strange to think that only a few months ago LIKE's monthly venue only held that many, now it seems a ridiculous restriction.

Growing Knowledge is an experimental room in the public part of the library (in the far right corner from the main entrance) that has modern technologies in what looks somewhat like a trendy bar, in a good way.

Or maybe it looks more like the SS Enterprise with its clean lines and bright surfaces.

The dials you can see here on the right are showing the real-time volumes of tweets in various locations. You need to know that.

The room impressed but the technology less so.

While it was cool to scroll along at a very long image, to zoom in on parts of it, to jump to embedded links and to do all this on a large touch screen, there is nothing intrinsically new in any of this.

Perhaps it seems new to librarians used to curating old books. But new or not, it is clearly useful to scholars to be able to see images of old documents that are so detailed that the marks made in erasing text can be easily seen.

Of more interest to me was the use of social networking in research with tools that show you things like people who read this also read that.

Social tools can help researchers to build collaboratively on each other's work by, for example, sharing links between documents and notes on those documents and links.

So, some food for thought there. And, this being LIKE, there was food to eat too and we made our way to the Somerstown Coffee House for, in my case, a spinach and mushroom pancake washed down agreeably with a couple of pints of London Gold.

There the conversations continued until sanity prevailed and the joint decision was made to home happy and safe in the knowledge that we would be meeting again in a couple of weeks.

15 January 2011

Catching up with the X-Men

My usual New Year's Resolution to catch-up with my unread pile of comics is off to a good start.

Part of this is to read at least two comics every day, normally last thing at night. As I buy about one a day that should get me through them before the year end - we'll see.

The first step was to claim the spare room to organise the backlog and they are now spread over the bed by title and in order. This means I can easily grab a few for the next reading session.

The X-Men seemed to be a large part of pile (I do keep up to date with some titles like Avengers, Batman and Fantastic Four) so that's where I started and early on I hit the Age of Apocalypse limited series from, er, 2005.

Having got over the shock of having unread comics that are six year old (and I bet they are not the oldest, either) I ploughed in with gusto.

The story is engaging, well paced, self-contained and still relevant after six years but what really got me was the art work by Chris Bachalo.

I'd seen Chris Bachalo's art work before, and mostly on the X-Men, but this is the first time that I had immersed myself in a story arc in one sitting and it was a treat to do so.

The two things I like most about his drawing style are the smooth curling lines and the packed panels. This produces very busy action scenes where the actors almost look like children due to the freshness of their features.

This is demonstrated admirably from the above picture of the cover to X-Men 188 published in 2006. It's a picture to savour and linger over, if nothing else just to find all the people in it.

If the rest of the reading pile is as good as this then 2011 is going to be a good year, provided I keep my resolution up. And, on that point, I'll go and read some X-Force.

13 January 2011

Another lively BCSA social

Most of my regular meetings (LIKE, Kingston upon Thames Society, Big Ideas, etc.) have a social element but the monthly BCSA "Get to know you" Social is the only one that is just a social with no pretext of learning or collaboration needed to justify it.

The format is simple, we book a room at the Czechoslovak National House in West Hampstead (usually on the second Wednesday) and open the doors to anybody who wants to come. Normally this includes Richard and Ruzena who I first met when we were all working on a project for the Czech Savings Bank waaaay back in 1992 (I had to look that up).

Apart from the people, the other ingredients to the evening are food and drink.

In my case the food is always Smazeny Syr (fried cheese in breadcrumbs with chips and tartar sauce) but most people go for something with dumplings that, frankly, does not look that appetising to an English Vegetarian.

They seem to enjoy it.

Beer drinkers have a lot of choice of what to drink.

I always start with a draft Pilsner Urquell in a jug and this time that was followed by bottled Zlaty Bazant. Other drinks are available, such as the Dark Budvar being shown off below.

Phones/cameras are probably the other common factor. I always take a few pictures, as I do of every event I go to (and get told of for sometimes), and usually a few other people do to. This then leads to the usual conversations about phones and the traditional iPhone v Android argument.

I have an iPhone 4 and it is fantastic!

I was playing with my compact camera (IXUS 80IS) too, only to discover that the picture I took, with the clever and colour tint to just show the green of the beer bottles, was almost identical to the one I took last month.

The second photo came from the iPhone using the Instagram app that lets you apply some colouring effects and to post it directly to Facebook and/or Twitter. I'm easily impressed by things like that!

The final part of the mix is the conversations but I may no attempt to capture these. However there was a "moving on" theme with various people about to change jobs or homes. And one occasional visitor to these events had given his apologies for missing as his new job meant that he was flying a commercial plane in to Afghanistan.

The best laid plans of mice and men go aft awry so it's better not to make any plans and just let the mood and the people take you through the evening.

12 January 2011

Salad Days at the Riverside is a delight

One of the best ways to get your cultural life organised is to get somebody else to do it for you.

This works well for me with my employer arranging group bookings for some events and a friend arranging all our trips to the Orange Tree Theatre. It works the other way too when I take friends to Glyndebourne each year.

Now I am developing this a little further and a group of four of us have agreed to take it in turns to arrange a cultural night out that is not one that we would usually think of.

And so I found myself at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith to see Salad Days of which I knew very little and it was only a chance remark late in the day that alerted me to it being a musical. I went anyway.

Riverside Studios is an interesting if small place. That is there is a nice bar with good beer and an unusual menu but too few seats so I was left in the not unfamiliar position of propping up the bar with a pint and a bowl of nuts.

Studio 2 was arranged like an indoor tennis court with the seating set in straight terraces along the two long sides. This kept me close to the action and made the atmosphere really cosy.

Salad Days charmed from the beginning with catchy (oft repeated) songs and some superb performances.

In particular, the leading lady, Katie Moore, was dazzling and captivating. The 1950's dresses really suited her too.

The singing was great, the dancing was energetic and enthusiastic (the story is all about dancing), the acting was convincing and the engagement with the audience was above and beyond the call of duty with the front rows being asked to join the big dance.

The cast and songs were both bubbly, joyful and uplifting. Even an old grump like me was smiling, laughing and tapping toes. I drew the line at the group singing though!

I don't, as a rule, like musicals, and Salad Days is one of those delightful exceptions that prove the rule.

9 January 2011

Once Bitten fills the Orange Tree with laughter

I have been slightly less positive than usual about this season at the Orange Tree so it is a pleasure to say that Once Bitten is a hoot and a complete triumph.

Once Bitten is a French Farce that has all the features you would expect, and some you might not, including, mistresses, lost trousers, many doors with many passages through them, a hectoring mother-in-law, an over confident commissioner of the police, false names, and a dead dog.

The Orange Tree is the ideal stage for this with each of the four corners acting as doors to other rooms with the actors rushing through them with great regularity in their desperate attempts to get away from somebody who is about to enter through another door.

A good farce needs a large cast and this is another strength of the Orange Tree. It's good to see regular David Antrobus in the lead role and equally good to see the quirky support roles played so well, e.g. the useless maid and the sleepy uncle.

Once Bitten is a reasonably complex farce and you have to keep your wits about you to remember who is pretending to be who and why. It's this complexity that drives the humour, as it should in a farce, and there is a lot of it.

The only way to judge a comedy is by the laughter and the Orange Tree was full of it.

The word has got around that the play is good and the theatre is packed, so much so that I was forced to take the unusual step of getting a seat upstairs.

I much prefer to be in the front row downstairs to be close to the action in the emotional drams but this farce can be seen just as well from upstairs.

And it should be seen, upstairs or down this is a real treat.

8 January 2011

First trip to Kew Gardens in 2011

One of the reasons for getting an annual ticket to Kew Gardens is to see it as the seasons change it. Even in January there are things to see and enjoy and on this trip it was the trees.

So it was in to the gardens via Victoria Gate on Kew Road then West past the lake and on to the river.

From there I walked along the riverside path slowly through the trees.

Here it is the easiest to forget that you are in a large city. The busy (even on a Sunday morning) Kew Road is a long way away and the river is a large natural barrier to the noises and nuisances of London.

It's only the constant airplanes heading for Heathrow that dispel the illusion but even they cannot spoil things and it's wonderful place to stretch your legs with brisk long strides.

Some of the trees look as though they resent those that are not rooted to the ground like themselves and they try to link their branches to make a barrier but that merely adds to the experience.

I find myself going to Kew Gardens about once a month at the moment so the annual ticket is proving to be exceptional value. I would tell you how much it costs but the Kew Gardens web site is strangely silent on that point but, from recollection, it pays for itself after 3 visits and a single visit costs £13.90.

6 January 2011

Meltdown Man is a cracking adventure

One of my self-selected Christmas presents was the wonderful collected edition of the Meltdown Man.

For those with a weak, or absent memory, Meltdown Man was serialised weekly in 2000AD from September 1980 for a year. I loved it at the time but the memory of the story had dimmed somewhat so when I saw that it was coming out as a collected edition it was a simple decision to put it on my wish list. And Santa was kind to me.

A long train journey today elevated it from the to-be-read pile (which is ridiculously large) and I had a delightful couple of hours wallowing in it.

The story, by Alan Hebden, has some familiar themes being set in a post-apocalyptic world with human/animal hybrids. Jack Kirby's Kamandi covers similar territory as does, obviously, Planet of the Apes.

But there the similarities end.

The other stories are firmly in the science fiction genre whereas this is an adventure story that happens to be set in a sci-fi world. The main plot is the uprising of the animals against a cruel human master.

One of the things that I like most about the story is the way that the core group splits up to follow different parts of the overall plan so we get several concurrent stories and the suspense of whether they will ever meet up again to complete their joint mission.

Lord of the Rings does the same thing when the Fellowship breaks up and its a neat storytelling trick.

The large cast is assembled and managed well too. We have a goody and a baddy both of which have a large number of supporters/helpers and there is some interesting interplay between them, e.g. the cat fights with the dog all time, some of them change sides and some of them die along the way.

So not the sort of story that you might want to write a thesis on but it is clever enough to keep you fully engaged and all the parts come together to produce a cracking adventure.

And then you have Massimo Bellardinelli's sumptuous art work.

This page is fairly typical.

It shows the detailed pencil work, the strange characters, futuristics machines and dramatic panel structure.

You would want to read this story even if the narrative was weak.

The only thing that could have made this book better would have been to reuse some of the original artwork rather for the cover rather than getting Dave Gibbons (who I like) to do something in a different style.

My only concern here is that I don't think the cover sells the book very well, whereas the cover of Prog 183 (above) tells you what the comic is about and how it looks.

But the cover is the only thing that I can find the slightest fault with. I thoroughly enjoyed rereading this story and it reaffirmed my faith in the power of comics and the originality of 2000AD.

5 January 2011

TFPL Connect: Cash is tight, KIM is core

The final TFPL Connect event for 2010 looked at the impact of the current economic climate with presentations from consulting firms and a business school.

But first the preliminaries.

There were some changes from previous events. The new venue was the Grand Connaught Rooms, which I suspect most consultants have been to at some time. I think this was my third or fourth event there.

The bigger change was the new tfpl logo. I rather liked the previous orange block which was both striking and simple. This new one looks a little washed out to me and also too busy with the name fighting for contention with the artwork and two strap-lines.

Some things don't change though and the pre-talk networking was most welcome. The champagne helped too.

TFPL Connect is somewhat dated relying still on the presentation format, rather than group collaboration, but they do attract some good speakers so I can put up with being talked at. And by "good" here I mean people who have real knowledge of the subject in hand and have something useful to say about it.

The talk by Philip Weinberg of McKinsey gave some interesting insights on how they position and use KM within the company but more interesting were the glimpses of life within the company with comments like it is not necessary to always work late in the office, you can go home and work from there.

Jane McKenzie of Henley Business School presented some analysis of KM adoption which showed no great changes over the last three years and the private sector being much more enthusiastic about collaboration than the public sector.

The view presented of Enterprise 2.0 was more gimmicky than useful with concepts like the Agile Archipelago in the Anthropocene Era (seriously!).

There were some nuggets in the presentations but the relentless being talked to got to me and my interest waned at times. It's partially because of this that it has taken me over a month to pull together my few thoughts from the event.

So not the best TFPL Connect event but, overall, good enough to make me want to come back for more.

3 January 2011

Strand-on-the-Green is a pleasant destination for a walk

Strand-on-the-Green is one of my irregular walking haunts locally that attracts me with its river frontage, lovely buildings and quaint pubs.

I'm not sure what the boundaries of Stand-on-the-Green are officially but the stretch that I frequent follows the Thames from Kew Bridge downstream a few hundred meters just beyond the railway bridge to The Bull's Head, passing the Bell and Crown and City Barge along the way.

The Thames here is still very tidal, it's only when you pass Richmond Lock that the tide's influence is controlled, so how much of it you see varies dramatically. At low tide large swathes of the river bed are exposed tempting you to think that you could easily walk across the gentle stream but the steep steps up to the houses along the tow path reveal what a harsh tyrant the slumbering river can become.

Alongside the moody river runs a collection of houses that look as though they fought a worthy race against an assortment of properties to capture the best positions. Among these winners are some astonishingly grand houses but also some more discrete cottages that have managed to squeeze themselves in to the modest gaps between their more august neighbours.

The houses stop just short of the river to leave enough space for the footpath but not enough for gardens. Walking close to the houses like that almost feels like intrusion at times but they are used to it and know how to respond. Some close the shutters to present a blank face to the world but others, mostly the more ostentatious, delight in the opportunity to show themselves off and make to attempt to fill their windows with wood, cotton or silk.

The changing buildings give purpose to the walk and the pubs provide a good destination. They are all charming, cosy, go heavily on the food (like most pubs these days) and proffer views of the river.

I don't think any of the pubs are special in their own right but the location makes them worth visiting, a welcome break before continuing the walk either upstream or down. In my case it was upstream back to Kew Bridge and the 65 bus home again.

1 January 2011

secondSight delight in Croydon

secondSight get better with every gig and comfortably exceeded my already high expectations at the Scream Lounge in Croydon.

First some logistics. Travelling straight from work meant playing with the smart casual stuff again so as not to be too conspicuous at work or play. It also meant eating out beforehand which a trip to The George for some nachos and seasonal beers.

Fed and watered I then used Google Maps on the iPhone to guide me to the Scream Lounge, a walk of some ten minutes. Arriving a little early I managed to bag a table at the front, which is where I prefer to me.

The Scream Lounge is a nice little venue. The stage is well appointed for sounds and lights, the cosy room has a few tables and benches at the front and standing room at the back and, right at the back, a small bar to avoid the walk to the main bar downstairs.

This was the fourth time that I had seen secondSight in just a few months but it probably counts as the first proper gig the others being woefully short or partial dress rehearsals for the real thing.

The set was no great surprise, opening with The Knife and including many songs that I had heard them do before, e.g. Aqualung, Epitaph, Dogs and Supper's Ready.

There were some small surprises to further enliven the evening, Pink Floyd's Echoes and Radiohead's Lucky.

Clearly there was no problem for me with the set list and there was no problem with the band either. The stage, sound system and lighting suited them well and their playing rose to the occasion. The slight roughness and looseness of the warm up at The Old Explorer were gone and precision and polish took their place.

The drummer (Mike) and tune-smiths of secondSight (Norman on lead, Nick on bass and Julian on keys) do not move a great deal but that does not matter as the band's energy in funnelled effectively through vocalist Chris who is incapable of keeping still.

When not singing, Chris bounds around the stage bashing a tambourine with gusto against, well, almost anything including his head and heels.

It's hard to find any fault with a gig like this and the worst that I can come up with is that somehow I missed the last train to Richmond so had to catch the bus instead which must have added all of a quarter of an hour to the journey home. I'll know better next time.

And there will be a next time as the promoter liked the gig too and secondSight will be back there on 11 March.