Now that I've found an interesting local route for some cycling I've been getting out for a ride every couple of days. One of the nice side-effects of this is that I'm getting to see more of the activity on the river, given that I cycle along the bank from the old Garden Festival site all the way to the Albert Dock.
As I've got my phone with me (tracking my progress via the GPS and MapMe.At) it means I can use @merseyshipping's twitter feed to find out the names of the ships I see; it's been good to start putting some "faces" to the names I've been seeing coming and going on the river over the past year.
To complete the "living in the future" scenario, I've been streaming live video of some of the more interesting happenings that I encounter on the river. The app from Qik makes it trivial to share video on the web, although it would be nice if you could download your videos too. You can see all the videos I take by visiting my page on Qik but I thought I'd share some of the recent river ones here...
First off is one I took when out with John. We had to wait until these yachts had left the lock before we could carry on our ride, as we needed to cross the bascule bridge over the lock...
A few days later I caught the dredger Norma clearing the entrance to the Canning Half-tide Basin next to the Albert Dock...
And on Saturday I happened to arrive at the Albert Dock just as the cruise liner Crystal Symphony was departing. By the time I'd made it round to the cruise liner terminal I'd missed the tug pulling her round, but did get to see them both leave and the Isle of Man catamaran Manannan coming in and the Liverpool pilot boat Pv Dunlin heading out.
I've been part of the British Computer Society for almost my entire career. I can't remember exactly when I joined - I think I toyed with the idea while still a student, but had been working for maybe a year or so before I finally got round to filling in the paperwork and sending off a cheque (which gives a clue as to how long ago it was :-)
For a long time I was just a Fellow of the BCS, because I hadn't bothered to find the two members to sponsor me and go for the interview which would be needed for me to become a Member of the BCS; it was one of those things-to-get-round-to that I've still not gotten round to. Then a few years ago they relaxed the rules to become a Member, so since then I've been MBCS but still not a Chartered Engineer (that used to come with MBCS status, but now is the extra you get for jumping through some additional hoops, and understandably so).
I think the main reason I've never bothered taking my membership any further is because I've never felt particularly engaged with the society, and over the years that's something that's only become worse.
There are three problems I think with the BCS: certification; domination by corporate IT; and an absence from the modern web.
This is the thorniest problem to solve, and I can't really offer any suggestions of what to do about it, just point out some of the issues in the hope that it will improve understanding of the area.
The theory is that people in IT need to have a professional certification to prove that they know what they're doing. On the face of it, it's a no-brainer: IT is becoming increasingly important and we need people who understand how it works and who will do a good job of implementing the systems we're putting in place. I'm consistently disappointed by the quality of work that I encounter as a user of IT, and the big government IT project failures are well documented in the press. There are lots of people selling websites or "social meda" expertise to businesses and making money off sub-standard implementations and snake-oil.
A certification body would give people confidence that they were getting a decent product or service and for safety-critical systems like those in aeroplanes one could argue it should be mandatory.
The problem is that exams and formal qualifications puts off a lot of the best people in IT. One of the good things about computing has been the lack of barriers to entry, as it's given us a wealth of people from other disciplines whose passion and interest in the subject mean that they care about what they're doing. There are lots of us with formal qualifications in computer science, etc. who also fall into that bracket, but it would be a great loss to exclude the almost-accidental coders and technologists.
What you really need is a way to certify the passionate, interested and capable, rather than those who have an inclination toward, or an aptitude for, formal qualifications. However, I don't know how you do that.
I've been trying to work out exactly what I mean by this, or where the criticism comes from, but I can't quite put my finger on it. It might be to do with the Young Professionals Group networking event that I attended years ago, which was all suits and networking as career progression; or it might be the tendency for the BCS magazine IT Now to contain lots of dry articles about heavyweight project management techniques or outsourcing; but I think it's more pervasive than that.
At present the board in charge of the society are trying to implement a BCS transformation project, and a group of members have objected and called an EGM (extraordinary general meeting, as opposed to the usual AGM). I was quite optimistic when I first heard of the challenge, as I thought that maybe some of the problems were being challenged, but that doesn't seem to be the case.
There was a webinar about the EGM broadcast earlier (which, along with the discussion on twitter is what prompted this blog post) which seemed full of corporate waffle trying to deflect the issues and not really engaging with the questions being asked on twitter, despite those very questions being encouraged beforehand.
From the ensuing conversation on twitter (specifically comments like this from Andy Piper) I had a look round the EGM information on the website but found it all rather inpenetrable. It seems to be full of the corporate bland wording that sounds impressive but conveys little information. Either that or my tolerance for such language has dwindled since I left Microsoft. I suspect it's a combination of the two, but that sums up the sort of "this is big, important IT, performed by us important corporations" sort of vibe that feels very hostile from the "small, independent entrepreneur more interested in working with interesting stuff than having a fancy office" perspective.
The heading above is taken from the front page of the BCS website. I don't have any problem with that as one of the aims of the society, in fact I think that's a lot of what it should be doing. The society and its members should be at the forefront of computing, working out what works and what doesn't, and using our code of practice to inform debate about the direction that technology should take.
Only I don't believe the BCS is doing any leading and that's the biggest problem that the society faces.
The easiest way to see that is to look at what it's been doing on the web. The website looks very fancy but it's still missing the sort of touches that have been default practice for anyone "leading" the web for years. Things like URLs that are human-readable and hackable, ".../mcfilter/archives/computers/interplay_2010.html" rather than ".../server.php?show=nav.9312"; or machine-readable links to the RSS feeds on all pages.
For a long time they didn't have any way for members to network online, despite technologies like newsgroups predating the web, and when they did get some web forums a few years ago they were pretty useless. I only tried them once or twice, and IIRC I did provide some feedback on what might improve matters but was told that there was a new system coming along soon, and encouraged to wait for that.
And now that we've got a wealth of ways (and off-the-shelf packages) to meet and interact, the society has spent a load of money on a shiny new "members network" which is painful to use, looks like a poor Ning rip-off, and is still missing fundamental features like RSS feeds for the group discussion boards.
Normally I'd try to work out how I can get involved and improve matters - after all, complaining is easy; doing things is hard. However, this afternoon there have been ~600 comments from 88 people on twitter about the discussion and in the nine hours since the webinar started there have been a sum total of zero responses from the official BCS twitter account.
UPDATE: Tim has written another, much more eloquent take on some of these issues too.
"The coming wave of transparency could transform this in a hugely positive way, using open data on costs, opportunities and performance to become a much more creative, cost-effective and agile institution, mindful of the money it spends and the results it achieves, and ensuring individuals are accountable for their work.
But it might make things worse, frightening senior managers into becoming more guarded, taking fewer ‘risks’ with even small amounts of money, and focusing on the process to the detriment of the outcome. It may also make public service less attractive not only for those with something to hide, but for effective people who don’t want to spend their time fending off misinterpretations of their decisions and personal value for money in the media."
As I mentioned in my write-up of the Degree Show, I didn't get round the graphic design section when I visited. However, when I was at the Art & Design Academy for the Re:Think lecture last night (no promises of a write-up for that - we'll see how things go) I picked up a nice cardboard envelope full of A5 cards - a catalogue for the graphic design section of the show with one card from each student.
I'm not going to provide any analysis of the work, but here's a list of the ones that stood out when I had a look through earlier. At a guess it's roughly a fifth of the catalogue, and unlike their product design and architecture compatriots they've all got a web presence (although some of them are yet to put anything much on it...).
In no particular order, categorized by how they list themselves on the card, they are...
I'm afraid this isn't going to be a particularly in-depth review of the individuals work, more a collection of thoughts on the show as a whole. The architecture work in particular got me quite riled up and it would take far too long to unpick and marshal my thoughts into a cohesive blog post, but it was mostly to do with the fact that parts of Liverpool had been chosen (obviously) as the sites for the designs and there seemed to be a lack of thinking about how to integrate into the surrounding area - the idea put forward by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen that one should "Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context - a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan." Lots of big sites being redeveloped (one of the briefs had been a design for a mini-city in Edge Hill, adjacent to the area I was talking about recently!) with the usual boring apartment blocks clustered around some "iconic" tower or civic building. I don't know if that's a problem with the state of architecture; with the briefs that the students are working towards; the fact they're working in groups (for the Edge Hill brief at least); or a lack of ambition and experimentation from the students themselves.
I should stress that there were lots of little bits of interesting and good work spread among the show, and you'd need to be particularly brave to do something really different when you're worried about your mark. I think my beef is more with architecture and the course than the individual students.
One thing that would be useful would be for the student briefs to be shown somewhere in the show. Almost all of the pieces I viewed, across all disciplines, were obviously different students responses to a given brief. Particularly as there were few students around to ask, it would have helped me understand the work if I could find out what they'd been tasked with doing. I think the interior design section did cover that to some extent, although that might've just been contained within one of the student's pieces.
Another thing that surely is essential in this day and age is an online presence. Or even just sticking your name somewhere prominent next to your work! There were plenty of stands where it was hard or even impossible to find out whose work you were viewing, and many more had just a mobile number or an email address. That's fine if someone wants to get in touch with you right now, but it precludes any further investigation into your portfolio and makes it hard to share details of your work with others. So, Dahlaina Jones, Paul Richardson, Tim Spencer and Thomas Kenny - if any of you happen to read this - I thought your product design work was interesting enough to pick up one of your business cards, but I can't show anyone else what your work is like because you haven't included any web links. Contrast that with Leigh Adkins, whose work can be found over here.
Maybe the course could require an online part to the submission and provide a few lessons on getting things online? It would be an easy few marks to acquire for the student but would set them up for life after uni...