A year squeezed between summers: 2018 retrospective

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They say the skies are bigger Up North. I’ve recently witnessed this natural phenomenon first-hand. It’s true. The best theory I have so far is that the sky expands, inching out and pressing down toward the horizon. Meeting abrupt and solid bedrock, it flexes and springs up, vault-like, forming a dome. As any structural engineer will tell you, this paraboloid is capable of supporting and holding back crushing weights. The arch transfers the load deep into its footing, pushing downward and outward. The earth supports it, gentle and sufficient. As long as the horizon remains firm, anchored, the cosmos remains supported and the world still turns.

For the past two years (2016, 2017), I have taken some time over summer to write a retrospective. This year was a big one, only just squeezing itself in between two summers. During the year I feel like I’ve performed necessary maintenance on the foundations and things have held firm. As a result it feels like I’m not so much looking back at the year as up at the annual narrative arc. I’ll try not to keep this, or you, long.

time is not set

The biggest news is that this year brought us a son, and he has brought us a fierce happiness, love and and recalibration in our lives. Now in his fourth month he already takes after his father, finding enjoyment in standing up on his hind legs and making noises with his mouth.

Subsidence

Whilst it has been a year of heightened joy, much of it was spent in search of solid foundations. I’ve never worried too much about the meaning of life but suddenly being responsible — in more than one sense — for a new one has caused me to reconsider. In the post-truth age (as it insists on being called), that’s a risky journey.

A big part of me wants my offspring to be a better version of myself, to feel like some semblance of progress is being made. But, given the year’s socioeconomic background, in which the collective failure of my corner of the world to progress has loomed large, this makes for significant cognitive dissonance.

A chain of failures in public discourse and government has led us down an increasingly depressing and desolate path. Over the duckpond things seem to be steering the course of demagoguery and beyond. Whatever the rights and wrongs are, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that our tribe of naked apes, whilst occasionally showing flashes of brilliance, are still susceptible to the same biases, tricks and foibles that we have always been. We are captives of our genes, and we are a deeply flawed species.

The recognition that we keep making the same mistakes that we’ve made throughout our history is pretty deflating. What a world to bring a child into.

Tetris, space-ships and the heat death of the universe

As we crossed our fingers during the pregnancy, I found myself under the surgeon’s knife, receiving treatment for an illness that may follow me through life. I had pictured my recovery time as a grand opportunity to do all those things I didn’t have the time to do: read all those books I’ve been putting off, brush up on my tonal harmony, finally get good at playing that chromatic accordion that I’ve had for two years. But in the event, I didn’t have the physical energy to do much more than lie down and play Tetris and much more mental energy than to make peace with the fact that we are alone in the universe and will all one day die.

Those seem like horrifically indulgent and negative things to say, but they’re not. On the one hand, most people go through life pretending that they will never die, when it’s clear that everyone will. Coming to terms with it is a good thing. On the other hand I got to the bit where you see the space ship in Tetris and it’s quite exciting with the sound effects.

The result of all this is that I came back from sick leave with a renewed drive to find and, if necessary, construct, meaning in life. I can’t say I found the secret that humanity has been pursuing for millennia, but I found enough that I can sleep at night.

As Voltaire said, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”. If you start from the premise of a dead universe, save for a little island of life, made up of nothing else but animals chatting to each other, where do you end up?

Dictionaries and Encyclopaedias

birds

I have always been fascinated by dictionaries, and what they represent. Very little in them has any bearing on the universe as a whole. The names of atomic elements correspond to real, extant, things, but beyond that, the meaning of every word is defined only by its relationships to other words, in context. Lacking the rigour and inclination that my wife does, I have not made any study of linguistics. Instead I prefer to marvel in ignorance at the phenomenon of language and meaning. Kind of like the big skies Up North. I’d rather not know exactly how it works.

So my meaning in life is defined by relationships between people. It’s all about our interactions with others, and finding meaning from those relationships. And from there springs brutal moral relitivism. There are no moral absolutes. I don’t entirely hold with free will either, but that’s for another day.

Community

A friend of ours celebrated her birthday recently, holding a get-together at Felin Uchaf. This is a community of volunteers dedicated to building beautiful structures from natural materials. We were inspired to find so many communal spaces, big and small - everything was designed for groups of people, from story-telling circles to roundhouses. And very few corners.

circle of people

But on the global scale, the prognosis isn’t good. We seem to be increasingly divided as a society, with each side retreating to their corners. This has been facilitated in part by social media which has come seemingly out of nowhere in the last decade and turned everything upside down. Now everyone has an enemy and is suffering an injustice. Part of the wedge that has divided us is being deliberately engineered. But part of it was always there, it’s just we never knew it.

People suggest that Twitter is structurally designed to fail public discourse. I agree, but I don’t think it’s possible to make something that doesn’t fail. As long as humans are involved, there will be conflict. We should make steps toward a solution, but we shouldn’t pretend that we will ever arrive.

Regeneration

Since the new year I have tried to bring new rigour to my life, at home and at work. My job involves helping to identify and collect the connections between all kinds of scholarly activity, including some of the murkier edges. We like to think that collecting and making available this information is a neutral act, but it isn’t. Again, it’s like a dictionary or encyclopaedia: including or excluding various grammatical forms, entries or definitions, encodes the bias of the compiler, even if they strive to be neutral.

Should I be collecting this kind of data at all, since it encodes biases and could cause harm? I could ask the same about being involved in science publishing in general, given how much fraud and malpractice there seems to be.

I think we should all ask ourselves these question whatever our walk in life, but there are no right answers. There is no neutral, only net benefit or harm to society.

My solution to this quandry remains radical transparency: if you can’t be neutral, at least be open. I have built the Event Data system from the ground up, and I tried to lay the foundations of transparency and openness from the start. I’ve developed and described these ideas in various talks and blog posts.

In pursuit of trying to work out how the data I’m collecting can interact with society, and how society can interact with it, I wrote Five principles for community altmetrics data as a personal, rather than official work manifesto. I’m going to be presenting it at the altmetrics18 workshop in London.

I think I’ve found a new footing for the year and the semblance for an ethical framework for raising a child.

So, a joyful, trying and deeply satisfactory year, all in all. But what actually happened?

Autumn

As the year gave way to autumn, I headed to Toronto for a trio of events: the altmetrics17 workshop, followed by the 4:AM altmetrics conference. ‘AM’ stands for altmetrics, not ante meridian, although the timezone and programme made for a punishing week.

I wrote two pieces in the lead-up. One, You do want to see how it’s made — seeing what goes into altmetrics, argues that even though we’re aiming to make an end-product that is as close to a raw ingredient as possible, it still undergoes refinement and processing. Drawing analogy to the refinement of crude oil, I describe the various stages, why I should be making them open, and why you may want to use them. I also wrote a piece to accompany my 4:AM presentation, Event Data as Underlying Altmetrics infrastructure making the case for the collection of links as an infrastructural activity quite aside from the value-add that research and commercial altmetrics providers bring.

I presented Crossref Event Data: An open and underlying data set (slides) at the altmetrics17 workshop, simply introducing the concept and dataset to the audience.

altmetrics17

On the third day (so to speak), the do-a-thon took place. I co-organised and ran this with with Stacey Konkiel. We decided to brand it a do-a-thon rather than a “hack-day” or “hackathon”, to specifically broaden out the inclusivity with regard to technical ability. As a result we got a great range of people. We wrote up a retrospective.

The strongest theme from that week, at least as far I can remember a year later, was the human aspect of altmetrics. The playing field is still very uneven in science, and by encouraging people to use social media to promote their research, or enabling people to encourage others, we mix in all the complexities, and potential unpleasantness, that social media brings. The most obvious example is that many women face harassment on social media, and many more fear it. If funding and tenure decision makers take into account how much a piece of research is discussed on social media and in the news, do they take responsibility for this? How do they make sure that decision makes allowances for this effect? I’m don’t know if they do.

Winter

I had the privilege of attending FORCE2017 in Berlin in October. This gave the much needed injection of inspiration about how people are using open publications and data to do worthwhile things.

The following weekend was Skint, a small, low cost weekend festival of music and dance. Knowing us lot, there’s a strong focus on the Swedish and French traditions. It’s always a deep joy. Being on the committee and running the booking system is always a little nerve-wracking. Such is the demand for a relatively small number of places, we usually get more applicants than can attend in the first minute of sign-up. This obviously privileges fast clickers with speedy Internet connections. To try and alleviate this, for the third year running, we shuffled the first 30 minutes of sign-ups. We still got the initial rush in the first few seconds.

I spent most of November, and all of December, recovering from surgery. When I returned to work I found that two close colleagues had moved on. This was a sadness and a challenge. I found and oversaw cover for some urgent work, and got stuck in with the group effort of looking for and interviewing candidates for open positions. A bit of an unexpected glut of extra work. Now things have settled, I am very pleased to be working with my new colleagues!

Spring

In January PIDapalooza came round. I was on the programme committee. The previous PIDapalooza had been held in Reykjavik on the eve of the big American election. This one was held under altogether happier geopolitical circumstances, held in Girona, but we visited at a time of political upheaval in Catalonia in their struggle for independence from Spain. I saw some genuine Tabarnia graffiti.

Tabarnia graffiti

I gave a talk on the subject of ‘bridging identifiers’, focussing on how the infrastructure we build can bridge divides. I talked about various divides, some societal (and therefore human) and some technical (and therefore human), and how we can bring them closer. You can read my blog post on bridging identifiers.

Welcome

And then at the start, but thankfully not at the very start, of April, the most incredibly significant thing happened. We welcomed our son into the world.

welcome

It’s difficult to express the impossibly enormous and overwhelming feelings, even months later. Even if I could, I don’t want to embarrass him. I was asked to write a short piece for the company newsletter, and I was paralysed with writer’s block for weeks. I eventually wrote something that I’m quite pleased with, but it wasn’t easy.

I try to take him for a walk for an hour every day along the river before work. I take the opportunity to tell him about the world around us. He often sleeps through it, but I’m not sure he derives any less benefit from our little chats. He already enjoys grasping hold of my thumbs for support, standing up and stepping. It won’t be too long before I’m running after him. Heaney comes for us all.

welcome welcome welcome

My extraordinary wife Hinny has witten about her experience of pregnancy and parenting as a Forrest Yoga teacher.


Remembering JP

During FORCE2017 I had received the news that my old colleague from Torchbox, JP Stacey had died suddenly. JP was a thoughtful, methodological and helpful person with huge integrity and hands. He used to run Oxford Geek Nights, a regular coming together of the technical community in Oxford. Since he moved away from Oxford it had lost a little steam and come to a halt. Torchbox organised a special one-off in January to commemorate the man who was so special to so many of us. There was a grand showing and a huge amount of love in the room as we met to celebrate him.

It was such a success that they decided to have another one. On previous Oxford Geek nights I’d talked about static typing, making time lapse sound recordings of my bee hive, and the Go programming language (on, I assure you, separate occasions). My latest talk was as different to the previous one as that one had been to the one before it: I spoke about scholarly publishing, Event Data, scholarly citations on the web. In hindsight, three sleep deprived and profound weeks after the birth of a child wasn’t a great time to be giving talks in public, but it did lend an air of surreality to proceedings. In retrospect, I defend my use of fake blood on stage. If nothing else, it helped communicate to the room how weird I was feeling.

A few weeks later in May, I attended the two-day eLife Innovation Sprint. Like our do-a-thon, this might previously have been described as a hack-a-thon but was so much more inclusive for the deliberate naming and framing decisions. Around 60 people came together to pitch ideas and work together to bring them to fruition. After hopping between a couple of groups, I settled on a project that ended up being called Plaudit.pub, a lightweight little service for allowing researchers to lend their support to publications, including preprints. It’s still a prototype, but we’re working on making it a reality. Huge props to Naiomi Penfold, her team and eLife for putting this together. It was a truly inspirational gathering.

eLife sprint

Talking of meetings, I also spoke at Crossref Life in Hannover, giving an overview of the things we have in the pipeline. I also attended the JISC / ORCID hack day, which was helpful for refreshing my understanding of the University sector’s angle on scholarly metadata.

Summer

My sister and her fiancé married this summer, and not only once! Being from England and Belgium it was, of course, necessary to do the honours twice. Each event was different too, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to get to know my new Belgian in-laws! The happy couple are both beautiful people with exceptional integrity, compassion and work ethic. I don’t mind expressing how much I love and admire them and envy them their cat.

Due to our recent change in lifestyle, we weren’t able to engage in our customary summer activies. We did not visit Le Son Continu this year. In fact the most French I said all year was “on cherche du ficelle” to a Flemish shopkeeper. Instead, we kept things low-key and tried to get enough sleep and string.

splicing the mainbrace

Ten years

This year marks a decade since I went out into the big wide world and started making a living from writing computer programs. It’s interesting to look back and contrast. In that job, a fresh graduate in a largish corporate software company, I more or less did what I was told (at least, to begin with). The people I interacted with on a daily basis — tech leads, software architects, line managers, quality assurance, build engineers, technical writers, support personnel — were all in the same building. When I needed to discuss something, I could walk over to someone’s desk. When I was responsible for overseeing the build of the Anti-Virus for Mac product, I would physically take the disk from the build server in the secure build room to the Antivirus Lab for scanning and thereafter to the QA department. The physical presence at work was very tangible, but in Engineering we didn’t talk to the customer unless things got really bad. There was a department for that. Toward the end of my time there I got a glimpse of the outside world as I lurked in the support forum.

These days, two employers later, I spend a great deal of time talking to people round the world who work with scholarly publishing systems, trying to understand what they are trying to do, what their problems are and how I can help. I still go into the office every day, but I don’t physically see most of the people I collaborate with daily; they are spread over Boston MA, London, Hannover, San Francisco, New York, Rennes, and that’s when we’re not travelling.

This year also marks a decade since I started FolkTuneFinder.com. It’s been popular more or less since I put the first version up, and I continue to get hundreds of visitors a day. When I started I had quite a proprietary, protective feel about its inner workings. I put in a lot of work to collect tunes and build a search index. It’s been free to use, and I have never asked for money, for a decade. I daren’t think how much money I have spent on it. But few hobbies are without cost.

I have been inspired over the past few years, mostly through the professional company I keep, to open up. All the source code I have written at work has been open source. This year I took the leap and committed to opening up FolkTuneFinder.com, both in terms of the source code that makes it run and the data.

Writing programs for fun

I think on and off I’ve used more languages over the past decade than there have been years, and mostly forgotten a similar number. I spent most of my time writing Clojure at work, which is a great language. In my spare time I’m learning a new programming language, Rust, which is completely opposite in almost every respect, except that it’s fast becoming my second-favourite. I’m writing the new FolkTuneFinder search engine with it, and it provides the perfect combination of low-level bit-twiddling and thinking about memory layout with fastidious safety and the ability to express abstractions. It also has extraordinarily helpful, kind error messages, with suggestions.

Part of the software I’m making includes a parser for the ABC music transcription language. Inspired by my experience with Rust, I’m designing the parser to report errors in the most helpful and useful way.

It’s a very early work in progress, and I don’t think I’ll have a huge amount of spare time this year to work on it, but as it’s open source you can follow along at home.

Books

I can only remember having read three books this year. That means either that I did indeed only read three books, or that I read more than that and they were so forgettable that I did. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between; after all, if my wife is to be believed (and she is), I have a habit of opening books half way through. This infuriates her, although she tends to read spy novels, which are vindictive and tend to give things away if you don’t approach them with respect. Doubly so the Danish ones.

“Piloting Palm” and “Made in Japan” continued my habit of reading corporate biographies. They were both engagingly written. I read them partly for nostalgia and partly because I’m fascinated with what makes successful and innovative organisations tick. But if the story wasn’t very exciting I wouldn’t last long. There was also a book about the the story of PowerPoint. That went unread.

When I was at school I saved up all my pocket money, for a very long time, to buy a second hand Palm computer. Having a portable computer in my pocket was the most exciting thing. The book about how and why they were invented was no less exciting and, like the book on BlackBerry demonstrated, it wasn’t plain sailing by any means.

“Made in Japan” is a fusion of history, anecdotes and advice. It was published the year I was born, but feels surprisingly fresh, mentioning as it does American and European trade wars fought through tariffs and underhand bureaucracy. I was surprised to read that many of the quintessential stereotypes of Japanese corporate culture were only recently adopted in Japan. Historically much of commerce had been owned by a very small number of monopolistic conglomerates, there was no loyalty between employers and employees, and Japan had a reputation for poor quality manufacture. It was only since the second world war, it seems, that an emaciated Japan emerged from the bombed-out wreckage, under the direction of the US and/or A, and found its feet. Reforms broke up the conglomerates, and the focus on loyalty, employment-for-life, and quality procedures was the way by which Japan found its way to success.

The third book, “The Peregrine” by J. A. Baker, is a book in a million. It follows the author has he watches bird life and forms a remote bond with birds. Every entry pulls one into a hyperrealistic depiction of what it is to be a bird. I felt like I was there too, not only watching the fluttering, catching thermals, washing in the stream, but in there, getting my feathers wet. Notwithstanding the titular peregrine, this book is about all of the birds he saw.

I have a particularly strong esteem for blackbirds. I consider them deeply special. I found it amusing how prosaic and unsentimental a regard the author has for them. Every page I turned I wanted to quote. Instead here are three paragraphs that spoke to me.

For two hours, a heron stood at the side of a field, by the hedge, facing the furrowed stubble. He was hunched, slumped, and dropping, on the stilts of his legs. He shammed dead. His bill moved only once. He was waiting for mice to be come and killed. None came.

 

Swallows and martins call sharply, fly low; jays and magpies lurk and mutter in hedges; blackbirds splutter and scold.

 

A greenshank flew over, calling monotonously for a long time, making the small waders very uneasy. They reacted as they would to a hawk. Red-legged partiges walked among them, bumping into the dunlin, jostling turnstones. They walked forward, or stopped and fed. When a wader would not move, they tried to walk over it. For a bird, there are only two sorts of bird: their own sort, and those that are dangerous. No others exist. The rest are just harmless objects, like stones, or trees, or men when they are dead.

I hope I have the presence of mind to keep coming back to this book.

My colleague Jennifer Lin very kindly gave me a book about Spinoza. She thinks I’m a latent Spinozist. My grand ambitions for the year include finding the time to give this book my concentration.

Scholarship

This year I co-authored a paper, and my work was the subject of a paper. Both were published in the PLOS ONE journal.

“Wikipedia as a gateway to biomedical research: The relative distribution and use of citations in the English Wikipedia” was led by Lauren Maggio. Her aim was to try to quantify whether or not various Wikipedia medicine pages make a measurable impact on the readership of a particular genre of papers. We bounced some ideas around within the group, and settled on a methodology that involved attempting to correlate the use of DOIs with their prevalence in the Wikipedia pages. Identifying a correlation was a tall order, and conclusion that was reached failed to show evidence for what we hoped. It did, however, establish some methods that I hope we can build on in future.

“General discussion of data quality challenges in social media metrics: Extensive comparison of four major altmetric data aggregators” was a study of a number of altmetrics data providers, including Crossref Event Data. I’m very pleased that Zohreh and Rodrigo did this study, and I hope it’s the first of many. I wrote a reply on my blog and it led to the Five Principles post.

The year ahead

The year ahead is looking promising. We’re going to launch the project I have been working on for is it really as long as that? I’m on the programme committee for PIDapalooza again. I’m heading to London in a few weeks to present at 5:AM and the altmetrics18 workshop, where I’ll be presenting Five principles for community altmetrics data and something else that will, I hope, become less vague. And there may be, just maybe, a new version of folktunefinder.com at some point.

Fin

Onward!

Blog posts

As if that wasn’t quite enough.

These two posts really get to the point of what I’ve been thinking about this year:

And these ones fill in the background:

Read more