Reviewing my reading habits

I’ve got a blog post brewing about my love of Kindles but whilst I ruminate on that a while longer it’s occurred to me that I’m becoming an increasingly lazy reader, preferring to read reviews of books than the books themselves.

Below are some snippets from the latest to have caught my eye.

Reviews of books about dark Jewish comedians and insightful Australian art critics. Books on how the internet has changed our understanding of knowledge, how word processors have changed literature, and about how art can save us from our bone-deep solitude.

The wondrous critic

The most manifest virtue of these essays is their language, marked by an uncommon command of vocabulary and (in our day) a far rarer mastery of syntax, allied to a thoroughly antiquated respect for the rules of grammar. Open this anthology anywhere and you will be hard put to find a sentence that is not as memorable for its very phrasing as it is for its thought.

The lonely city

She tells us that she often moved through New York feeling so invisibly alone that she felt like a ghost, and so started to think of other ghosts as suitable company. The dead, for Laing, are not so much historical figures as they are very vibrant modern companions, and she invokes them with an ease and familiarity of old friends. She allows Warhol to pop up in the chapter on the web, Hopper to pop up in a chapter on Warhol, and so on. In Laing’s head, all of these artists are still alive somewhere – perhaps even in communion with one another. This thought makes her feel less alone, and she passes it along to us.

Rethinking knowledge in the Internet Age

In fact, knowledge is now networked: made up of loose-edged groups of people who discuss and spread ideas, creating a web of links among different viewpoints. That’s how scholars in virtually every discipline do their work — from their initial research, to the conversations that forge research into ideas, to carrying ideas into public discourse. Scholar or not, whatever topic initially piques our interest, the net encourages us to learn more. Perhaps we follow links, or are involved in multiyear conversations on stable mailing lists, or throw ideas out onto Twitter, or post first drafts at, or set up Facebook pages, or pose and answer questions at Quora or Stack Overflow, or do “post-publication peer review” at There has never been a better time to be curious, and that’s not only because there are so many facts available — it’s because there are so many people with whom we can interact.

How literature became word perfect

The literary history of the early years of word processing—the late 1960s through the mid-’80s—forms the subject of Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s new book, Track Changes. The year 1984 was a key oment for writers deciding whether to upgrade their writing tools. That year, the novelist Amy Tan founded a support group for Kaypro users called Bad Sector, named after her first computer—itself named for the error message it spat up so often; and Gore Vidal grumped that word processing was “erasing” literature. He grumped in vain. By 1984, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Michael Chabon, Ralph Ellison, Arthur C. Clarke, and Anne Rice all used WordStar, a first-generation commercial piece of software that ran on a pre-DOS operating system called CP/M.

Jews on the Loose

In his movie roles Groucho, for Lee Siegel, represents not an amusing attack on pretension but “the spirit of nihilism.” Siegel disputes the view that Woody Allen is Groucho’s descendant, for he feels that “Allen is simply too funny to be Groucho’s direct descendant.” Groucho is—and he is right about this—much darker. “No other comedians of the time,” Siegel writes, “come close to the wraithlike sociopath Groucho portrays in the Marx Brothers’ best films.”

Rather than solely answering our “Should I buy the book or not?” question, these reviews act as companion pieces to the books, whether the reviewer is agreeing with the author or not. The dialogue only adds.

I need to resist the temptation of considering the review as a substitute to the book, though. Maybe I need to find a review of a book about tackling laziness or something…

All the graphs you can eat

What’s better than data and loads of graphs? Data and loads of graphs about food and drink, of course!

Britain’s diet in data | Explore the data

The British diet has undergone a transformation in the last half-century. Traditional staples such as eggs, potatoes and butter have gradually given way to more exotic or convenient foods such as aubergines, olive oil and stir-fry packs.

Explore the changes across four decades and hundreds of food and drink categories in this interactive visualisation, featuring data from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Whilst I’m not surprised to see the fall of lard and the rise of olive oil over the last 40 years, why is nobody buying marmalade anymore? Goodness me.

Visualising data; the good, the bad and the quirky

The data’s everywhere, but can we make sense of it? Here are some data visualisation approaches and examples – how to do it, and how definitely not to.

This article suggests the young folks are demanding better presentations of statistical data because of Google or Wikipedia or something. Sounds fishy. Surely us old folks appreciate good design too?

Data visualization drives the era of information activism

Having grown up with the web, millennials are used to having access to all the information they want with just a simple finger tap on a screen. As millennials enter the workforce, they are bringing these expectations into the office, behaving less as data consumers and much more as information activists.

But how far should we go in leading the horses to the water?

Narration and exploration in visualization

What should we emphasize when designing a visualization? Should we explain the data, perhaps through a narration, or should we let readers explore the data at will?

Here’s an example of how an interactive presentation not only helps with a story but can spur you into looking for your own.

What happens when a newspaper editor and a data-viz whiz team up to tell stories

With two wins behind them, Rob and Daniel are already discussing future collaborations—perhaps something with sports or crime data. The idea is to tell compelling data stories that have a longer shelf life. (“If you put time into creating something like this, you want people to see it over a certain scale of time,” says Daniel.)

I do like these images, though. Not sure how replicable this approach is, but it works well here.

These playful, funny 3D printed infographics can liven up any data

Instead of flicking hastily to the next page, your gaze can’t help but linger on the adventures of the miniature figures scaling, swinging from or exploring the plastic pieces.

But here are the real gems. Bar pies? Caramel latte football fields?

BestWorstViz contest result

As with last month’s graphiti contest, picking a winner was ever so hard with lots of wonderfully bad work heading my way. The submissions generally fell into two different camps: (1) the most blatant, inelegant in-your-face explosions of design awfulness, and (2) the more subtly deceptive “wolf in sheep’s clothing” designs. My judgments were based on the degree of violation against each of my three key principles: Trustworthy, accessible and elegant.

To err is human, to totally mess things up needs a computer

Here’s a fun article about a guy who accidentally deleted everything from all his company’s servers, including all his off-site back-ups too – in effect, deleting his entire company. As you can imagine, the forums weren’t especially helpful.

“Well, you should have been thinking about how to protect your customers’ data before nuking them,” wrote one person calling himself Massimo. “I won’t even begin enumerating how many errors are simultaneously required in order to be able to completely erase all your servers and all your backups in a single strike. This is not bad luck: it’s astonishingly bad design reinforced by complete carelessness.”

A timely article, as there’s a project underway here to look at the feasibility of replacing one MIS with another and how we’d manage the data migration that that would entail.

It’s not just a matter of moving bytes around though. The horrible mess-up above notwithstanding, that’s the easy part. When implementing a new MIS there’s as much people stuff to resolve as techy stuff.

Here’s an interesting essay from the University of Michigan, from a dim and distant past when universities and other large organisations were wanting to move away from mainframes to more networked environments.

The implementation of a management information system can be a traumatic experience. At a minimum, changes in procedures will impact the ways in which plans are made, programs are developed, and performance is evaluated within the organization. New patterns of communications will emerge, and new – presumably better – information will be available to assist in carrying out decision-making and administrative responsibilities. Efforts to improve the MIS may also uncover the need for organizational changes which may be even more unsettling than the procedural changes necessary to implement the system. The introduction of a MIS may represent substantial change in the established way of doing business, which can be viewed with considerable alarm (and generate significant resistance) by those within the organization.

Different technologies, but the same concerns.

I found the principles proposed at the end of the article very interesting, and hope that a similar approach will be undertaken here.

It is important not to oversell the potential of the new system. Aaron Wildavsky offers a number of “rules” that are applicable to the implementation of any new management system. The rule of skepticism suggests that organizational officials should exercise a good deal of skepticism when presented with the initial concept of an improved management system. The rule of delay cautions officials to give the system adequate time to develop and to be prepared to face periodic setbacks in its implementation. As Wildavsky observes: “if it works at all, it won’t work soon.” The rule of anticipated anguish is essentially a restatement of Murphy’s Law – “most of the things that can go wrong, will.” Wildavsky suggests that management must be prepared to invest personnel, time, and money to overcome breakdowns in the system as they occur. And the rule of discounting suggests that anticipated benefits to be derived from the new management information system should significantly outweigh the estimated costs of mounting the system. Much of the cost must be incurred before the benefits are achieved. Therefore, the tendency is to inflate future benefits – to oversell the system – to compensate for the increased commitment of present resources.

And let’s not forget that Hofstadter’s law applies here too, as well.

A link-baity article about universities and drug gangs

A thought-provoking read, in the style of Freakonomics, about pay structures and working conditions within higher education. The similarities to drug gangs catches the eye, of course, but it’s interesting to read how this compares across countries.

How Academia resembles a drug gang

Academic systems rely on the existence of a supply of “outsiders” ready to forgo wages and employment security in exchange for the prospect of uncertain security, prestige, freedom and reasonably high salaries that tenured positions entail. Drawing on data from the US, Germany and the UK, Alexandre Afonso looks at how the academic job market is structured in many respects like a drug gang, with an expanding mass of outsiders and a shrinking core of insiders.

But who could possibly hate Excel?

This tool makes it stupid simple to turn data into charts

Here’s something handy for people who hate Excel. Venngage, the company that lets you make infographics with the click of (a few) buttons, recently launched a new product called Beam. Beam does for charts what Venngage does for infographics as a whole. Which is to say, it makes the process of transforming data into useful visuals very, very easy.

Academies shmacademies

Didn’t have them in my day, of course, but academies are all you ever hear about now. A change for the better and a force for good, or privatisation by the back door? As ever, I’m finding it’s more complicated than that. Coming from the HE sector, I’m not so familiar with the politics here, so here’s a round-up of some of the news stories that have caught my eye.

First there’s this, about central government’s plans to take every school in England out of local government control.

Every English school to become an academy, ministers to announce

Concerns have already been raised about whether there would be enough good sponsors to take on schools. With many more schools facing academisation, that task will be even greater at a time when some academy trusts are facing criticism for under-achievement. MPs sitting on the education select committee announced this week they would be launching an inquiry into multiple academy trusts after a series of Ofsted inspections raised concerns.

Those plans were unveiled in the budget, of which more here.

Budget 2016: The 5 things schools need to know

#1 Every school to become an academy
Every state primary and secondary school will be expected to have either become an academy by 2020, or to have an academy order in place to convert by 2022. Osborne has already indicated that schools which fail to meet these criteria will face “radical intervention”.

And here.

Budget 2016: School days to become longer as all schools forced to become academies

Mr Osborne will tell MPs he is allocating an extra £1.5bn in the Budget to increase classroom standards to help pupils match the levels of their international counterparts. English secondary schools will be invited to bid for a slice of that money to enable them to stay open after 3.30pm, offering up to five hours a week of additional classes or extra-curricular activities. The cash will enable around a quarter of secondaries to be open later.

I wonder if that invitation to extend the curriculum is in response to the perceived shrinking of it following EBacc. But back to academies. People seem quite negative about them, so I thought I’d look for a more positive opinion.

This Budget will liberate schools from the tyranny of local authorities…

It’s impossible to say definitively that this improvement is due to academisation, but that was the provisional conclusion of the House of Commons Education Select Committee which produced a report on academies last year. There’s plenty of international research showing the effect of competition in public education is positive.

It does seem easier to find more negative stories than positive ones, though.

Government under fire for secrecy surrounding key decisions about academies and free schools…

The DfE argued that releasing the information would prejudice the conduct of public affairs and said “it is considered to be commercially sensitive information”. Scott Lyons, joint division secretary for Norfolk NUT, said: “Parents should be worried, especially in the light of proposals to get rid of parent governors. How are people going to be able to challenge how academies are run?”

‘Never look where their hands are pointing’: The hidden parts of the white paper…

Forcing freedom on schools is bizarre. Planning not to enforce it until 2022 is even stranger unless you are hoping that people will do the hard work for you, and convert before you even need to pass a law. While that battle is being fought, however, remember the other 37 policies, plus these oddities, will also be on the go.

‘They’ve gone bonkers’: Tory councillors angry with academy plans…

Perry, who also speaks on a national level as chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, has always been open-minded about academies. But on forced academisation, he said it was like an entire class of children being kept back for detention just because one or two have misbehaved.

Headteacher promises ‘non-corporate’ academy chain if forced to convert…

“Any Huntington academy will focus upon improving the quality of teaching and learning above all else, to the benefit of our children, just as our parent wishes,” he said. “If you begin and live by those values then whatever decision you make about academisation, because clearly it is inevitable, then you have a chance of doing something good.”

Academy trust lauded by Cameron in ‘serious breaches’ of guidelines…

Government reports raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest involving Perry Beeches academy trust and companies linked to some of its senior administrators. They also found problems with the number of pupils declared as eligible for free school meals.

I’ve never worked in an academy before this one, and I have to say there is a positive and upbeat approach here, one I wouldn’t expect to find if I believed everything I read in the media. There is a definite mismatch between what I’m seeing and what I’m reading.

And some other people, at least, think the future could be bright for academies and multi academy trusts:

How can MATs be more than the sum of their parts?…

How can Multi Academy Trusts realise their potential in a rapidly changing educational landscape so that they become more than the sum of their parts and make a contribution to system leadership that transforms education as we know it?