In which I confess things about code

I have a confession and my confession is this:
I have a masters degree in computer science and am an out-and-proud geek, yet I couldn’t code my way out of a wet paper bag.
Ask me to use existing software to work out the viewshed analysis of an ancient Mesopotamian settlement, or display the pottery distribution of an Egyptian burial mound and I am *there*. I’ve even been known to set up the odd blog and website in my time, tinkering with templates and settings and what-have-you. I wrote this post using markup language to make certain words bold and create the hyperlinks and so forth.
But ask me to do anything more complex than working out why something isn’t displaying as italic on a webpage and I am lost. Honestly, anything more involved than coding a simple webpage (and let’s not forget using tables for layout was still an accepted practice when I learnt, gods help me) and I am stumped.

Suggest I create a computer programme from scratch? I will laugh and laugh at you. And then go hide under my desk hugging my MacBook, sobbing, feeling like a traitor to my geek-self.
Coding is a skill set I have just never learnt.

I’m clearly not scared of computers or technology and I have been playing with them since my father first brought one home in the late 80’s. I cut my geek-teeth on DOS and the C: prompt.

Somewhere along the way, however, I fell into the role of playing with (and frequently breaking!) the software that my brother coded. I became all about making existing software dance to my tune – learning what could be bent to do what was needed, and what you just had to work around because “it wasn’t built for that”. When faced with these limitations however, for some reason, I never thought “well, the tool I want doesn’t exist, so why don’t I just make my own?”

Which is crazy, when you think about it.

Because I am, first and foremost, all about learning the WHY. I have to figure out how things work and their underlying logic. It’s why I am constantly trying new things, picking up new hobbies. I am driven to understand how things are put together. So it would make sense, wouldn’t it, if I was to learn more about how the software I love playing with was coded and put together?

It’s not really because I doubt my ability. I’ve just… never learnt. Is that because I was never given the opportunity? Was it assumed that the boys would learn this stuff whilst the girls would just learn the touch-typing? Did I mentally just put this stuff into a “the things my brother does” box and move on to other things?

No matter.
2015 seems like the perfect time to change that. And Emma Barnes couldn’t agree more – her clarion call in the Bookseller lays out wonderfully all the reasons we should, every one of us, be reaching for that how-to guide. (Whilst Publishing-centric, the argument holds true for any industry really).
It really isn’t rocket science. Learn to code and you will be much better prepared to understand what is possible and to know when the tech-heads are having a laugh and taking you for a ride. You’ll be better placed to articulate what you actually want. You will be able to understand the limitations – certain things HAVE to be done certain ways because you decided things right at the beginning. Do ISBNs have 9, 10, or 13 digits, for example. Only code the capacity for 9 into your programme at the start and… Oops! Time and money to fix.

I’m not saying we all have to become professional coders and build our own Twitter, or version of Word, our own publishing platform, or a remote control that turns the kettle on in the morning three minutes before the alarm goes off so it’s boiling when I stumble into the kitchen…

(OK, someone has to build me that. NOW.)

I’m not saying you have to build a whole new thing from scratch. We can’t all be the ideas people and we can’t all have the desire, or quite frankly the time, to be the next Silicon Valley innovator. But in this day and age of open source, RaspberryPIs, and APIs, I do think we all need to educate ourselves and learn at least the basics.

Computers don’t scare me. Code, for some reason, does. A little bit. So here I will make my stand and say “Enough”. I will not be defeated Ruby, or Python, or Java, or (insert programming language here). I am reaching for the coding tutorials and I am excited about it.

I really am.

Who’s going to join me?


Twitter, anonymity, and social networking

It hit me today; I have been using the name “Cas” for 13 years. What started out, longer ago than I care to remember, as an RPG character, has become so much more. In many ways it has become my “real” identity. I’ve talked about identity countless times before, so I’m not going to bore you with the detailed arguments again. (Though there are some gems in there, in particular this one, so do go read!).

However, identity is something I find myself reassessing a lot at the moment, with my current job getting my real name more online traction than I am perhaps totally comfortable with. Not being comfortable with my online presence is a new feeling for me. I have always been honest, occasionally brutally so, online. I share details about my life where other people might choose not to. This is how I live my life and it is how I have chosen to live my life. It is vitally important to me that both the bad and the good are talked about. The chances are, if I’ll talk about it over a cup of tea with friends, I will talk about it here on Bright Meadow. Sometimes I will sit on a topic for a while, but most things do get written about eventually.

I also tweet a lot as BrightMeadow.

Over the years I have developed the “Cas” personna into one I am comfortable with online and, in some contexts, offline. Cas is an adorable ditzy klutz with an abiding love of tea and penguins, who finds the humour in most situations, hides insecurity in a sarcastic wit, and who occasionally talks a little bit of sense about topics which interest her.

You would be forgiven for having the an impression that I am totally open about everything. I am not. I self-censor and editorialise constantly. Even though Bright Meadow and Cas are personal and real, everything I post is filtered through the fact that it is ridiculously easy to work out my real name. There are things I will NEVER talk about online, whatever the channel. Just as there are things I won’t talk about offline to anyone but the very closest people.

Most importantly for the purposes of this discussion, is that I do NOT use the Bright Meadow identity for work in any way. If you talk to me on twitter (or here for that matter), you are talking to Cas, not CLK or the company she works for. If you ask me something work related, I nicely, but firmly, direct you to my work email/twitter. I toyed with merging the two for a while, with being “open” about Bright Meadow, but I decided not to at the moment. There is just no way I could blog and tweet the way I do as Bright Meadow whilst retaining the professional air required for work. Most of the time I actually like the small amount of separation I have maintained – it is good that work and play are distinct.

The boundary between personal and work is blurry, but it is there and I know it. Before I say anything I always gut-check and, if doubt, I won’t publish. Yes, my tone is often frivolous, but it is always carefully considered. On the blog this might be obvious: the Girls & Geeks piece was rewritten 21 times, and languished in draft state for over a week before I pressed publish. This very post has been kicking around in my brain, and various draft states, for nearly two years. (That’s not even the longest – the dyslexia piece took five years). On twitter it is less obvious but trust me, every word and retweet is carefully considered.

I like to think this is partly what makes me so fun to talk to on twitter and has helped keep this blog going as long as it has.

That very longevity and success, however, has led to my current dilemma – the overlapping communities of followers I have. I have been using twitter since pretty much the start and as I have always been involved with publishing to one degree or another, a LOT of the people I follow and talk with are in that field. I am fortunate to work in an industry full of lovely, talkative people, who like to network just as much as I do. Such interlinking networks is a natural result of having work and your personal interests overlap as much as mine do. I’m not sure how to work any other way. The thing is, in the last year or so I have reached the point where the people I have been talking to for years as Cas, I need to connect with as CLK…

As mentioned above, I am firm on the personal/professional divide when it comes to social media. Not to mention it seems sort of skanky to try and trade on that connection – to go up to someone and go “Hi, we’ve been talking for years on Twitter, now I am going to ambush you for work”.

So not my style.

But it’s hard, really hard sometimes, when someone I class as a “friend-of-Cas” completely blanks CLK. More times than I care to admit I want to send them a message and go “but you love me!!!!” There are also times when I’m engaging online as Cas and get looked down on, when I want to whip out the CLK card and go “but you were asking my opinion yesterday!!!!!

Not to mention now every time I meet someone new (if they are in publishing), I have to decide if I want to trust them with the “real” identity behind Bright Meadow.

These aren’t issues unique to me, and I do not claim to have any answers. Nor is it exactly a question unique to social media, because we all have various negotiated identities and interlocking networks of connections, and have done since we first sat down round a fire and gossiped with our fellow cave-dwellers. What social media and our hyper-connected lives do is amplify those networks and give a perception of impermanence to what we say that masks their underlying permanence. A tweet is scrolled into oblivion within minutes, but its shadow remains in a Google cache forever. Where once we went home and could bitch to our family/friends about our coworkers, now we are all following each other on Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr and god knows where else and it is all too easy for words to have unintended consequences.

Once upon a time no one would have heard my opinions of that Women’s Hour programme but the colleague who was unlucky enough to phone me just after it aired. Thanks to the miracle of blogging and twitter, it got picked up and read by (among others) people I’d mentioned in the article… Gulp. All to the good, and knowing that was likely to happen did focus my writing REALLY well, but there were also arguments/evidence I couldn’t use because they fell on the wrong side of the Cas/CLK divide.

We are encouraged to open up, and share with everyone, but we often don’t think of the possible implications until they bite us in the bum. In one regard I am fortunate that I started the process of curating my online identity early and I am proud of what I have built. The flip side of that coin is that I have to be hyper-careful about what I say and yes, this has led me to being silent on certain topics and sometimes I have to build from scratch professional connections I already have personally. It is a small price to pay, I guess. I have drawn a line in the sand that (currently) works for me. It isn’t perfect and I can’t imagine that my solution will work for everyone/anyone else, but it is a compromise I can live with.

Side question – at what point does as pseudonym become a nickname?

How does your comment policy affect your blog?

I am a firm believer that it is personality that is important in this modern age of Web 2.0, distributed communications and mediated, online societies. I have always felt that blogging is about making connections between people. Easier said than done, but possible. The blogs I enjoy reading are the blogs where the authors are clearly identifiable. They have personalities and opinions and voices that I do (and don’t) enjoy reading.

As Mia has pointed out, blogs from a “personal” standpoint as opposed to an official view are rare in corporate environments. This is not to say that they can’t be done and done well, but these are the exception rather than the rule. I think that people need a ‘face’ to relate to. The Net is a hyper-crowded market place and you need to make full use of any hook you can develop to bring the customers in. One of the reasons I keep coming back to Innocent smoothies, despite their high price, is that they are just so fun and approachable as a brand.

How does this relate to blogging and in particular the “personal” blogging that I practice?

I used to joke that Bright Meadow was a small community of people, more than just me, made up of everyone who reads and comments. I have also said time over time that I couldn’t do it without y’all. I would still be writing and blogging without the regular input of readers, but for damn straight it wouldn’t be the same. It was brought home to me recently that this jest has actually become the reality. In my latest moment of blogging angst (yes, even the best of us have our moments of insecurity) several people stepped up to the plate and flat out told me that I had created a great community around the site.

And that chuffed me to bits.

I am also chuffed to bits by the fact that I have had just three – yes, three – trollish comments in the five years I have been blogging. And the people responsible for two of those came back to me, apologised, and now contribute to the wider BM community.

What has perhaps chuffed me to bits the most is the welcome my guest writers have received. I know it was/is a big thing for both of them so my heart is always in my mouth when they post (not because I don’t like to let anyone loose on my baby, but because what if the readers are rude?!) but I should know better. Somehow there has developed a unique group of people who hang around Bright Meadow and I can trust them (you) to treat the space and everyone in it with respect.

How have I done this? I am not exactly sure, but I think it is something to do with my personal policy on comments. I do have a comment policy, but as you can see it is fairly basic: no spam; no meanness; and I reserve the right to remove/edit obscene or inflammatory comments. My unofficial comment policy is that I leave no comment un-answered, even if it is just a “hello”. All first time commenters get a “welcome to Bright Meadow and thank you for commenting” and as much of a personal response as possible. Even if the comment left is rude I much prefer to respond in a reasoned fashion and try to engage the person in dialogue than just summarily delete it.

I think it makes a difference. I know it has worked on the trolls because one of them flat out emailed me, said mea culpa, and now joins in the fun.

I know when I comment on other sites and don’t get a response, something that happens all too often, I feel unwanted by the blogger. Quite frankly, I find it rude. If you don’t want to join in the conversation, don’t have a comments field. I am a reluctant commenter at the best of times because I am shy and hate to be rebuffed. I can’t be the only one who puzzles for an age over the simplest comment and who more often than note clicks on from the page leaving her contribution unsaid. It is a big thing for someone to leave a comment. Acknowledge it!

This policy, I think, has directly led to readers getting involved with Bright Meadow; makes them want to come back and contribute again and again. It has got to the point where whole conversations and debates happen in the comments between readers. We even had our first duel a few months back! I can’t express what this means to me. It means I have succeeded. And it makes me think other bloggers should do the same. Without our readers we are just one more self-obsessed geek pouring our hears out to the disinterested Net. People read our words, especially on personal blogs, because they want to make a connection. It is unpardonably rude to ignore them.

Where did this thinking stem from? I am not totally sure. It certainly has something to do with my background in customer service, where more often than not a smile, an anecdote and a personal connection with a customer got me that machine sale, and more importantly for my manger, repeat sales. I wouldn’t be surprised if my first introduction to the web being on gaming communities where all the posts contributed to an ongoing story doesn’t have something to do with it. But it is also the inescapable conclusions my research over the past few years have led me to draw. I am not the only one. Neko is finding it hard at the moment to get this personal approach into her research and I can understand her frustration *. There are currently certain arenas where it is not deemed appropriate to bring the personal voice (scientific research being one of them) but blogging is categorically not one of those arenas!

So how has my comment policy affected by blog? It has made my blog! It is not an after thought, but something integral to the site. Just as I will not tolerate spam or meanness, I will not tolerate ignored comments. If I ever ignore a comment you make, feel free to take me task.

And now we perhaps come to the best bit and what keeps me sitting at the computer, typing away despite the RSI in my wrists. Here, as always, is where you all get to say your stuff. How did the welcome make you feel? What are your thoughts on commenting? Am I totally talking out of my hat?

And can you help me update the Usual Suspects page? I really want to get it up-to-date and to include as many of you as want to be included, but I don’t want to miss anyone! If you want in on the page, pipe up in the comments or shoot me an email. Requirements are a name and a short bio (no bigger than 50 words if poss). If you want to include a link to your own site, then even better 🙂

* Yes, I did read it sweetheart, I just needed to think things through.

Wiki Thoughts

The following I throw open to everybody to contribute to and talk around. I lack the coding skills to create this myself and I lack the experience in the field to 1) know if it already exists or 2) if I am alone in even thinking this might be a good idea. It is what it is – a moment of possible inspiration that struck (very) late at night after a (very) odd week.

And now time for something a little bit different. My “research” in the field of Archaeology/computing/mulitmedia has taken something of a back seat to life lately. If I’m being one hundred percent honest with y’all, I haven’t so much as looked at a proper academic text or a field report in about a year. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t stopped thinking about things. Bit and pieces have been ticking away in my back-brain and, every now and again, I have to jot something down before I forget it. That’s what follows here. It’s not a concise piece, or very coherent. In fact, it’s more a collection of notes: but I hope you enjoy and it makes you think as well –

Take as our start a complex hypertext document – Holtorf’s infamous piece will do very well here. Hyperlinks are used extensively throughout the thesis to present information in a new way and to forge links between pieces of information and ideas. You, the reader, follow these links through the material, and create your own ‘reading’ of the document. My ‘reading’ will not be the same as your ‘reading’, as we will have chosen to follow different links at different times, taking different paths through the document. Holtorf’s argument is that the sum is greater than its constituent parts. By working your way through the document in your own time and way you make something new and better. He also mentions, though does not really utilise, the fact that hyperlinks can go outside the original material to other extant sources.

All well and good.

However, you the reader can only travel down paths that Holtorf the author has already mapped out for you. You are only able to make a connection between two points, pieces of information, or ideas if he has previously forged that link by hardcoding the link into the document structure.

What if I, Cas, feel that a particular occurrence of the word “neolithic” should link to a different definition of the term than the one Holtorf has used? My own reading, and hence my own version of the document, are severely limited.

With a wiki you are given the choice to make your own edits to the basic source text and to forge your own links between things. I don’t like the definition of neolithic that has been chosen, I can change the link to a different source. Among other things. I can add pages, delete content, change things. The document truly becomes MY document.

However, the original Holtorf vision is lost. What the new user sees is the Cas-Holtorf vision. Previous versions can be looked at, by using the underlying wiki database which saves ‘histories’ of pages, but in looking at them, you loose the Cas aspect.

And what if a third user comes along after Cas and edits yet again? You have spent time editing the wiki and made it your personal reading, yet when you come back, destinations have been changed, links have been added or removed that mean nothing to you, and suddenly it is a completely different document AGAIN.

This is what happens in a wiki – the ideal is the ‘community’ or consensus view. In reality, you tend to get what is the view of the most vocal authors and the most persistent members of the community. These may, or may not, be representative but there comes a point when any but the most ardent editor will give up rolling back edits or making new edits. They will just give in and say “ok, let this person have the final say”. And the reading of the document becomes fixed yet again into that final editors version.

Now I do not say that this is wrong. A community view could be argued to give them broadest view, the view that is least radical and, as such, maybe most correct?

But is there anyway that a wiki can be all things to everyone?

Would it be possible to have a system where the links YOU make are related to you personally – already it is possible to see who has edited what. But is it possible to make your view of the document can be separated from everyone elses. When I sign into the wiki-version of Holtorf’s work, I view the base-work with MY edits and MY links. MY reading.

I can then, if I will, turn to the ‘community’ view of the document. The amalgam of all the edits and links (though I imagine that this would/could become insanity if strict version controlling was not kept in place). It would theoretically also be possible to view the individual collections of edits/links relating to individual people. As overlays? that can turn on/off?
You want to see Johns path through a document, click on Johns view…

Want to see your own, click on your own…

Want to see what the community has decided on, click on the community view…

As I said at the start I am not sure if there is a use for this sort of methodology. I am not sure if there are tools out there which allow you to do this already. But the idea of what it could be excites me. Does it excite you?

Ponder This

I always used to be behind the curve with things. I never got things “first”. I put this down to not being one of the cool kids in school but, frankly, I never really gave a flying teaspoon for most things that were classed as cool. Still, it would have been nice to know things before other people…

Lately however, I’ve been privileged to start to drift into circles that are responsible for moving the shaking on a bit, instead of watching from the sidelines.

Take memes for example. It used to be that I’d only get tagged when something had been round the houses so many times it had blisters on its feet. Now I’m frequently in the first rounds of people to be tagged (that I’m aware of) and then I get tagged a few weeks later when it comes back round again.

And don’t get me started on Facebook games and the like. One week it’s zombies, then it’s pirates, then it’s vampires, then it’s zombies again, followed by vampires, and zombies, and – ooh! How about zombie-pirate-vampire-ninjas?!

What I’m trying, very incoherently to say is that I am fascinated by how these things travel round the Internet. On more than one occasion, I’ve stumbled across something and had a momentary “ooh, that’s cool” pause, only for my father or other individual who’s life is as equally un-involved in the internet to tell ME about it four or five months later.

There’s a research question in there somewhere I’m sure, not to mention cracking how ideas permeate the internet would make marketing people very very happy bunnies.

Me, I’m just sitting back and gazing at things with a bubbling sense of school-girl excitement.

Wikis, Screen Names and Authority

On why maybe registration might be a good idea for communities and wikis

The following post is prompted by experiences on many online communities over the years and my own research into wikis. It’s also partly in response to recent occurrences on the Antiquist Wiki where it seems the spammers have been more prolific than the real contributors.

My thanks as always go to Neko for sitting with me on the Common and helping me work through some of this. The ideas are mine, but as with so many of my ideas, she’s been there in the midwife role. As I didn’t start out actively researching this topic with an aim to anything more than making my own mind up, I unfortunately don’t have lots of links and resources to hand – this essay is just the culmination of ideas and experiences that have been brewing in my head for the past few years. However, see the end of the article for a few thought-provoking posts to kick off your own reading.

Due to it’s length (3000+ words), I have made the decision to take the actual content of the post off the front page. I can also provide other formats (txt, doc, pdf and html) at request.

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