On the use and abuse of Technology and its Management from the perspective of an academic at UCL specialising in Project Management, Systems Engineering and Space Science/Technology.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Firefox 1.5

Got it yet?

Firefox, a multi-platform web browser has many qualities (free, not IE, tasteful, RSS, tabs), and price performance is another one of them. Now with 50% extra free. (At time of writing, version 1.5 updated from v. 1.0. )

Go on!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

elgg Learning Landscape

I'm intrigued by elgg and its Learning Landscape. I discovered it by following, through the flocking mechanism of delicious, who else had linked to a particular post on the corporatisation of universities (this is the little flock) following their adoption of electronic media (itself an ironic current).

Which goes to demonstrate that sometimes this social stuff actually works.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Doug Mather : communications

Doug Mather of The Creation Company spoke at tonight's UCL/APM Project Management workshop about communications issues in project teams, using a fun exercise based on Myer-Briggs Type Indicator theory.

The fun part was getting up and moving around according to one's assessement of position along the various type axes. Great ice-breaker, and also the physical act of moving seats places you in a mental "camp", which illustrates the theory nicely.
Why can't that lot be more like us?
He's graciously provided his slides: 760 KB Powerpoint file

Friday, November 18, 2005

Hello Dave

I'm glad to see Peter Antonioni has resurged his blogpiece. He's a management lecturer with me at UCL, but he's got good qualities as well.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Subscribing to feeds

You might have heard of RSS FEEDS, or Atom feeds, and wondered what they all are.

RSS and Atom allow you to simply subscribe to a weblog to receive new postings in what’s called a news aggregator or newsreader (NB not the same as software that gathers Usenet articles).

First get hold of an aggregator. I’d recommend setting up an account with Bloglines (it’s free and works on any machine with a web browser, and there's no software to install) – but if that's not to your taste there are many others.

If you’d like some step-by-step help then this ‘how to’ is perfect for a Bloglines beginner.

Then copy and paste the URL of the RSS feed (in this case of Double Loop: “http://loop2.blogspot.com/atom.xml”) into the appropriate box and click on ‘Subscribe’ (or ‘add’ or whatever looks best)..

Now you can check your aggregator the same way you can check email. Each time a new item is posted to this weblog you’ll be able to read it there.

What’s even better is that you can now use the aggregator to subscribe to as many weblogs and news sources as you like… for example if you like one site you will probably like some of the sites they are reading (typically listed down the right of any given blog), they all have RSS or Atom too.

In fact the Guardian has RSS feeds, so does the NY Times and so does the BBC. These links will tell you more about their feeds.

So when you turn on your aggregator it’s like you’re reviewing hundreds of sites to check for new content, all by visiting one place.

So what are you waiting for, get going… get a bloglines account (1 minute), subscribe to my RSS feed, check out the sites I’m reading, your favourite news sites, subscribe to them and you'll wonder how you managed before!

[If this text looks familiar, it's because I nicked it almost verbatim from Incorporated Subversion.]

Friday, November 11, 2005

Mind the planet

I'm really not sure about Minding the Planet. On the one hand it's interesting enough, and up to speed on right-now things in webness. On the other hand, it's a bit gee whizz and breathless about other topics. I had thought about unsubbing (a bit of churn in my bloglines can't be bad - let's get things done - GRR!) but I'm letting it stay for now, especially since I might get one of his 178+ readers to come here.

My aim is to steer my blog reading habit away from the obvious top of the rankings pioneer blogs to sources that are directly related to what I'm all about, with a healthy mix of the broad and the deep.

You know, everybody subscribes to Kottke, because he's Kottke. It's how the power law is powered. These days he's in HK looking for things to eat rather than doing groovy web design (which is why everyone latched onto him in the first place – only he had a clue about what CSS was for).

And another thing, just while I'm being iconoclastic, I really don't get calling things Web 2.0, (graphic) let alone Web 3.0 (semantic layer). I see a sort of progressionist fallacy emerging, and I don't think life's like that. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for microcontent and emergence and user-driven change and peer power, but I don't think I need a one-dimensional label for it.

Speaking of links in general, if you look at Matt Whyndham on Superglu you'll see there's now a feed. So you can subscribe to all my web stuff in one place if you want to.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Visualisation tools

I hate long lists, so I quite like mind maps (here's one by Suw Charman on the UK digital rights advocacy landscape) and like a lot of people I start using the techniques in documenting ideas, presentations or projects, forget about them, pick them up again ad infinitum. One day, I'll reach the tipping point and adopt them permanently into my toolbox. Part of the resistance to persistent use is the obvious need to turn my frightful green feltpen creations into communicable electronic documents. Over the years I've tried numerous mindmap tools but none of them have stuck. The other resistance, which might be the same as the first, is the effort it takes to get other people (colleagues) involved as well.

At the Mindjet blog, they are furiously exicited about a new release of Mindmanager? What seems like ages on their website – ahh Windows only. If you want to share your maps with Mac and Unix users, try Freemind. This is free, so at least worth investigating as a baseline even if you feel the need to spend money on something else later, and it's cross platform. Loads of platforms. I might stick with this, especially as colleagues look like they might wanna play too.

My ideal product would play nicely with OmniOutliner as well as the usual Word and HTML formats. What about some standards?.

Our Technology Management Group has had a lovely time with EndNote. The fact that it reformats citations on the fly within Word is the killer feature, and that has sold it to us. We are few, so sharing – and keeping synchronised – a small number of bibliography databases has been un-troublesome. Had we been a larger number, we might have elected to go with a product that allows networked databases, like Reference Manager. There didn't seem to be a cross platform solution to this last time I looked, whereas EndNote plays on Windows and Mac. We could always save to the web, I suppose, and adopt Cite-U-Like, but then we lose the Word integration.

Now what's this on the radar? RefViz, a little (Windows) tool that does textual analysis of references and shows you the correlations. Because I hate lists, I used to dream of this stuff when I was seriously slurping literature, and I could use it again I'm sure. It looks promising, but I'm not clear whether it needs the full texts to succeed, or just the abstracts.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Learning in an engineering environment

A research student I supervise has started blogging his research on Learning in an Engineering Environment.

There are many theories of learning and practices of teaching around. Some of them actually relate to each other. Most of what we do in life consists of spontaneous learning episodes (i.e. unplanned and self-directed), but funnily enough most of the economic action in teaching and learning revolves around formal teaching/learning.

These are undertaken when, to disparage it unjustifiably I am sure, the learner hasn't got (or been given) anything better to do.

For example, amongst the tedium that new employees undergo, they are often "sent on a course".

A UCL student in Systems Engineering, Dan Singh, is looking at these phenomena in an engineering context. His main question is "what knowledge-related practices affect the effectiveness of engineers", or something like that. One way this is manifested is in the way an engineer, let us say a software developer, adapts to the knowledge (tacit and explicit) about a complex system they will work on. Clearly there are different ways of storing and transmitting system-specific information and translating this into useful knowledge. The question for a manager or an organisation is what methods actually work for them? Writing man pages? Going on courses? Having a wiki? Writing blogs? Anyway, enough of me, watch Dan's blog, Learning in an engineering environment.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Requirements: stated or discovered?

Or, the Cathedral/Bazaar dialogue hits hardware engineering?

At some point, I'm going to come to the topic of Requirements and how they should be generated. Particularly, I'm interested in how a research community (like mine in space science) ought to work to generate technological requirements for itself. From a single configuration-controlled document, or in an ant-hill like a Flickr forum?

Because I simply don't feel (am I allowed to have an emotion in this?) that technological features must be (as I read it at least one System's Engineering textbook) driven top-down into the product from on high, I'm going to study this carefully.

Here's one (trendy?) place to start, and to store up my feelings before heading into the desert of hard engineering. from Eric von Hippel's Democratizing Innovation (Freely downloadable from his site, but if you want to pay money for dead trees, try the Milton Keynes branch of Amazon.)

The user-centered innovation process just illustrated is in sharp contrast to the traditional model, in which products and services are developed by manufacturers in a closed way, the manufacturers using patents, copyrights, and other protections to prevent imitators from free riding on their innovation investments. In this traditional model, a user’s only role is to have needs, which manufacturers then identify and fill by designing and producing new products. The manufacturer-centric model does fit some fields and conditions. However, a growing body of empirical work shows that users are the first to develop many and perhaps most new industrial and consumer products. Further, the contribution of users is growing steadily larger as a result of continuing advances in computer and communications capabilities.

In this book I explain in detail how the emerging process of user-centric, democratized innovation works. I also explain how innovation by users provides a very necessary complement to and feedstock for manufacturer innovation.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Knex parts

originally uploaded by Drift Words.
These are the parts used in the first session of our UCL Project Management course.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Awareness of risk

I'm pretty certain that most managers know what they are talking about most of the time, but, despite applying tools, techniques and frameworks diligently, still find themselves in trouble with their projects.

I happen to think that a big driver of project problems is not that tools are inadequate but that deep skill is needed to select the right ones for the circumstances. Methodologies and standard processes (such as PRINCE) assist by pre-selecting a range of tools, but success here depends on the conditions in the project at hand being consistent with the assumptions in the methodology.

Assuming that managers can compentently select appropriate control paradigms, awareness of the project environment and internal health is critical. Risk Awareness is one case in point, one that I think is undervalued at present, despite the apparent depth of numerical frameworks. I wrote about this before, showing my framework for the descision space of all projects.

Here's another project classification I like, since it focuses on the nature of uncertainties that may be met in a spectrum of projects.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Link roundup

  • Hilarious analogy by Richard Stallman between software and literature that shoots a torpedo at software patents.

  • How management should be done:
    There were no complicated negotiations between Worthy Farm and the Jaxx camp, adds Buxton. "They said: 'Do you want to move up the bill?' and we said: 'Yeah'."

  • What is Learning? by Albert Ip. That's a nice taxonomy you got there, Albert. Does it actually run?

  • Interesting blog on, er, blogging. Specifically productive blogging ideas for all sorts of professions. Comes from James Farmer, who's been promoting innovative tools in education for a while, and has now branched into the so-called professional world.

Monday, June 13, 2005

On Being Dumped into an Existing Project

No link or anything, just some musings sparked off by what one of my students is about to embark upon, which chimed with some of my own experience. I found myself on both sides of the same knowledge divide at various times. First as the have-not, then as the have, or rather, once-had.

I asked my student if he had some headway with developing some descriptive models or frameworks for learning and knowledge processes? In truth, we are still looking for generic or well-worn models in this area.

I had some overlap with this topic, which sparked this post, when a colleague consulted me on a project she had become involved with. This is a data analysis and instrumentation calibration exercise that I had worked on some years before. It is one aspect of a larger system of instruments and spacecraft. We discussed what it was like to join a pre-existing technical community.

We both felt that the experience of climbing aboard an ongoing project is typically likely to have a confusing aspect. There might be several hundred documents (or software code examples) that serve as the reference literature, but it will not be clear to an outsider what the relationships between them are. Strategies to improve this might involve indexing or tagging/keywording collections of documents, or for a documentation writer to write meta-documentation that assumes particular specimem tasks, and guides the user through the documentation as much as the task itself.

Workers already on the team might be unable to articulate their knowledge in a way needed by the new arrival, especially if the newbie's question is regarded as trivial. A very advanced query might get rapt attention, on the other hand. This is a cultural and/or timescale issue.

Finding the right mentor is a crucial step - someone with the time to deal with enquiries, with sufficient expertise, and yet empathy for the learner's point of view.

Another strategy of acquiring knowledge is to proceed in chunks, studying some aspects of the functionality of the system in isolation.

As the learner grows in knowledge, one way that they deal with the confusion is start gathering references to the body of knowledge, and building a store of useful links - a subset of the entire content set.

Later, when they are able to describe their work process in relation to the existing system (which might be different from everyone else's process) it can be documented and added to the system archive. This documentation activity is a valuable learning tool for the author.

There are difficulties in ensuring that this new secondary knowledge does not itself become lost in the body of knowledge. In some cases there can be barriers to such publication or amendment of the archive (configuration management system?). Knowledge systems should have an alternate channel (preferally collaborative such as a wiki) or allow grades of control. If the quality system demands the perfect document it will never get written (and will hence cause product quality to suffer).

Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Merlin is a wizard. Merlin is a project wizard for Mac OS X.

It's an interesting application, with some of the non-Microsoft feel of Pertmaster mixed with a bit of Basecamp. It's light, fresh, and cogniscant of non-bureaucratic ways of thinking at working. In contrast, MS Project feels stodgy and administrator-centric.

I think it's a bit immature to be relied upon as the sole tool in the box, and certainly not representative of the industry enough to be used in teaching (we feel we have to prepare people for the prevailing practices, even if they are not the best ones -- is that wrong?).

Playing with the demo, I feel like Mickey turning on spells I don't understand.

Fantasizing that he's in control of the very forces of nature, he's rudely awakened to a flood of reality; even the simple broomstick is beyond his control. Realizing too late that there's no shortcut to greatness, Mickey learns you've got to slosh your way to the top one bucket at a time.

from the Disney Archive

One of the things that got my toes wet is the concept of Elements, despite skimming the 10-page explanation on their site, I couldn't understand if these were defined data types within their project database or arbitrary links to external files, or, confusingly, a mixture. I'm clearly going to have to study this.

These Projectwizards also need some translation into actual English. Though the Eurolish is effective enough it keeps me chuckling.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

New MSc project : assessing engineers' understanding


Rather than sit and take notes, we both stood and filled the whiteboard. This is fine for planning a short research program.

We started by thinking of an airport-book style subtitle: "Why some engineers are so much better at getting to grips with complex systems projects, what this means for product quality and what to do about it."

I think we both concluded that informal learning mechanisms are going to be quite significant in determining the performance of engineering teams.

In addition, both of us will be feeling slightly nervous as this research gets into social and qualitative areas, as distinct from engineering or physics. There seem to be some tractable fronts of inquiry, so a start can be made.

I'm very interested to see how this one will turn out.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

UK Education resources : changes afoot

My usual mode of operation in the edu-game revolves around the annual round of production and feedback linked to the academic year. I'm looking ahead to future concepts right now, and it's around this time that I start trawling around the national resources. I've just spotted that the entity formerly known as LSTN has mutated into the UK Higher Education Academy.

The reason I'm looking here is to get a sense of what practitioners are doing with learning technology around the country. I'm suspicious that what I'm seeing is not representative of the best. Certainly sites the the UK HEA don't fit the zeitgeist of now, and more importantly my working practices. No attribution (Who are you guys?), no contribution (no comments boxes!), no RSS (what, none at all?). Too many empty strategy papers (aarrgh PDF!! arrgh dead URLs in the PDFs!!!) and out of date case studies.

An example, I came across an LSTN-branded working paper, in the Physical sciences subsite (why?), entitled Virtual Learning Environments stating that
The most basic form of asynchronous communication with computer technology is the use of email, where a message is sent and the reply is sent later i.e. asynchronously. So, all VLEs should provide at least basic email facilities.
What, university students don't have email they can use? Why are these dated papers still being circulated? Hasn't the community moved on in the last two years?

I suspect the valuable practical lessons are out there somewhere not being reported, at least not here. Back to the blogfields.

I'm ramping up my orbits around blogdom looking for inspiration. A very small sample can be seen in the sidebar of e-learning reports, an e-learning blog I'm involved with. I'm getting a consistent impression that the best learning technology practitioners, at least the ones who blog, are seriously struggling against two things.

1. Managerialism and corporate approaches to learning technology implementations. Example: teachers being required by directive or circumstance to use a particular VLE tool.

2. Directed experiences of the learner, i.e. prior programming of a student's responses at course-design time.

To some extent these two aspects support each other. Heavy tooling up leads to industrialisation of production, whereas the opposite models are also mutually supportive. Many commentators are advocating a pick and mix (a.k.a. the filling station model) toward both provider technology (blog, wiki, podcast, webpage, VLE if you must) and learner acitivity (browsing, using Google, emailing each other, discovery).

Friday, April 15, 2005


This link: points to a podcast. Double Loop Audio.

Er, What?

Pointing your podcast-gathering software to the above link will cause an audio file to appear automatically in your [insert media player of choice here]. If you set it up right, it'll happen quietly in your sleep. Later, you can listen to the 'cast on your 'pod.

If you want to know how it was done, blow by blow, leave a comment below.

It's done as a capability test. We might use it for teaching later on.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Why is it a triangle?

You know: time, cost, quality. Pick any two.

But why three? And not four points?

It could be because :
- jokes use triplets
- it's the next paradigm after Dualism
- it's just a verbal construct used in marketing

This is serious because something better could be in the fog, waiting. Like an integrated cost/quality metric. Or something.

There's a rambling thread on Jason Kottke's blog about this. Numerous forgotten-their-college-philosophy types and over-reductionist engineers pull and push at the question without its centre moving very much. It's even so long it reaches repetition point, but don't let that put you off. You know: Funny, Informative, Short. Pick any two. Or something like that.

Three Mind map blogs

I've just followed (mooo!) Beyond Crayons by adding three mind-map related blogs to my bloglines - over there in the sidebar. They are:

The Mindjet Blog (quasi offical team blog), Hobart's Mindjet Blog (again?), and the application-centric Writing about art is like dancing about architecture.

These are all by Mindjet staff - they make MindManager software. This tool seems to be growing in capability all the time.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005


Increasingly people are turning to web-based services to manage their personal information clouds. Here's mine:

Photos (and chat!) Flickr
Blogs : Bloglines
Bookmarks : Del.icio.us
Did I also mention Furl - haven't tried it but it behaves a lot like del.icio.us, but with storage of bookmarked pages and more privacy. Note that this is more of a commercial outfit than open-sourcey del.icio.us - look around as user:demo password:demo to get a feel if that gives you goosebumps.

The deal about these is that they don't care where you are, and they encourage sharing.

And now, real work. Academic citations can now be gathered in the same type of thing. Throw away your clapped out old EndNote and RefManager, embrace the shiney new world of CiteULike,. online, sharable, taggable reference collector.

Note the big big thing in common: tags tags tags tags tags.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Tipping Point reached

I am behind the curve, possibly, but I finally got round to picking up a copy of The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (link Amazon.co.uk). This looks interesting from a variety of perspectives: social theory, project organisation, bottom-up behaviour etc etc. Even more interesting is the thought that one may be able to engineer and exploit -- for good, of course! -- such phenomena.

I go forewarned, thanks to this amazon reviewer:
The chapters on context and the case studies are the most interesting. He does a particularly good job in demonstrating how very small changes in environment (context) can have a profound impact. He provides the best and most convincing explanation I have read of why New York's 'no broken windows' zero tolerance policing approach worked. The case studies of smoking (smoking isn't cool, smokers, or rather people with a strong disposition to smoke, are), Micronesian suicides and the law of 150 are very interesting.Overall, it is worth reading (providing you are not too cynical or too familiar with the subject areas that he draws on) and it does provide a number of good conversation topics - I just wish that either he was more familiar with Occam or had a better editor.