First a disclaimer. I’ve something of a vested interest in this app, as a graduate of computer science at St Andrews, before I switched to history and picked up three more degrees. I really like the idea of St Andrews computer scientists and historians working together to provide this resource. And I like that it’s free.

My husband – also a computer science graduate from St Andrews – and I attended the app launch in November 2014, where we got to try out the app on Android tablets provided on the day. We’ve been keen to try it out properly ever since, so as soon as it was available for iOS I downloaded it to my iPad to try.

Unfortunately I have run into a lot of usability issues, which I’m going to detail below. But I want to stress that I think the content of the app is superb, the underlying historical resources which it aims to provide access to. For 22 sites in the town each one has a summary description, with a relevant portion of the Geddy map of the town from circa 1580, and typically additional resources like photos (modern, historical and virtual reconstruction), videos and audio files.

Viewing core details of site

I particularly like where modern and virtual overlap in the app, as in the screen shot below, from the entry for the church formerly above St Andrews harbour.

Reconstruction overlaid on modern photo

The app also has a modern digital map of the town, with its historic sites indicated, providing alternative access to sites of interest. And a section for guided tours, just one tour at the moment, but expect more to be added in future

But the implementation of the app and its user interface proved to be a stumbling block for me, and it’s only fair that I detail the issues, not least to help the app creators improve things. I was testing it on my iPad. However my husband and I also noticed many problems in our brief try out on an Android tablet at the app launch. Particularly how slow the app is to use, probably due to it constantly needing to download information to show the user, an inconsistent user interface design, and troublesome bugs cropping up. However what I’m writing below focuses on my experience with my iPad, an iPad Air 128GB 3G + WiFi model running iOS 8.1.2. I was using the Mediaeval St Andrews App version 1 for iOS.

The first major issue, and it’s a design issue, is that the app requires a permanent online connection. If it’s started with no network connection the screen goes blank and gets stuck in that state. Started with a network though, and all is well. As a long-time user of iOS apps I’m used to offline working, and apps installing everything they need. In practice it’s likely that the amount of data in this case is very substantial, so having an 8MB core app, as it is for iOS, and downloading everything else is appealing. But it won’t always work well. For example I could take the app on my iPod touch to St Andrews, but couldn’t use it as a reference tool without Internet – the iPod touch relies on WiFi, and is not a smartphone. Likewise my Dad has a WiFi only iPad mini, which he wants to use the app on. He can from home, but not elsewhere, including on visits to St Andrews. The constant need for downloading data also makes the app, as we noticed on Android on launch day, often seem sluggish to use, as the user waits for more data to download. And even with a smartphone I wonder how good constant downloading is in terms of data use, especially for larger resources like videos.

On the subject of videos, many of the sites in the app have these linked to them. But the videos would not play reliably for me on my iPad. At the first attempt, and even after rebooting my iPad, they would not play at all. They’d start to download, with a download spinning animation, but the videos wouldn’t play at all. Well apart from any linked sound, as in the Katie Stevenson narrated St Andrews Castle video. The sound started as soon as the spinning animation started, indicating downloading. But no pictures would appear. Fortunately a later attempt did get the videos to work, in a window in the centre of the screen, but I don’t know what was different this time, certainly nothing I was aware of having changed.

An irritating issue when viewing linked photos for sites is that the user interface changes when you view a photo. Normally there’s a back button you tap to go back to the previous screen. To get the same effect when viewing an image, and to close it to return to the previous screen, there’s no back button, but instead you have to look for and tap a small x cross at the bottom left of the screen to close things. I found this very unintuitive and have not got the hang of it.

I ran into other issues. For example the in-app map won’t appear at all if location services are turned off. I don’t normally give iPad apps location services access, and since I don’t have a smartphone I’m unlikely to be carrying this app around as I walk. But turning location services on, even for me located at a distance in Dundee, and suddenly the map worked. I also repeatedly ran into a nasty bug – which I cannot replicate reliably unfortunately to help get it fixed – where I’d be looking at a site’s core listing, complete with Geddy map portion, and suddenly the right half of the screen would go white, and then as I tried to navigate to other sections text would overlay my screen in a very unreadable manner. I also sometimes found the categorisation of linked photos confusing, particularly photos incorporating both virtual reconstructions and modern views, which weren’t categorised as virtual images. But that may be a personal thing for me.

This all sounds very negative, but I can’t stress enough that the underlying content is superb. I’d like to see these user interface issues ironed out, at least the easier ones. Change the photo back interface to use the standard everywhere else back button rather than that confusing cross, fix the app so it at least acts elegantly if started without network connection, and check the videos to see if there might be a bug in there re playing them. It’s probably also a good idea to get the map working with location services turned off. Likewise I’d recommend considering the feasibility of providing an offline version of the app, but don’t know how much data that would take up. Perhaps it might be possible to store the core content for example, such as the core site entry pages, which might speed things up in many places, not least loading up each site initially. But if the app must be used in always online mode, then that should be made clear in the App Store description for people to read before downloading and trying to use it.

At the moment I can’t rate the app higher than 4/10 for implementation and 9/10 for content, giving 6.5/10 if averaged. But I feel that it has much potential, if only some implementation issues could be ironed out in the next version.

As the month nearly comes to a close I’m winding up my AcWriMo activities. And as always around this time I thought I’d look back on how things went.

At the start of the month I had three goals outlined, all involving academic journal papers in various stages of development.

Two of these goals were fully or better accomplished. One was revising an accepted paper, which I turned around in the first week and emailed to the relevant editor. Another was starting to convert a conference paper from spoken talk with PowerPoint slides to a written version suitable for an academic journal paper. I set out only intending to start this process, the first draft of converting the spoken text to words, with much further development and enhancement required later. But as things turned out I went far beyond this, developing many sections of the paper more fully, and having it much closer to possible submission to a suitable academic journal.

The remaining goal was to finish developing an already mostly written academic paper, ready to send to a colleague to read through and give suggestions before I develop it further prior to submitting to a journal editor. This was the only goal not fully completed, although I managed to overcome a major impasse, working out a new strategy for approaching one of the main case studies in the paper, which I then largely wrote up. There are many sections still to be finished off and polished, and it’s not ready for that read through yet. But it is well advanced, and I should be able to get it ready to email off by Christmas, with hopefully the aim of submitting it to an academic journal paper sometime early in 2015.

All this was achieved against the backlog of struggling for much of the month with my neurological illness, more so than usual. There were several weeks when I could barely manage an hour of writing total. And then there were better weeks when I might manage 2-3 hours total if lucky, again done in 1 hour bursts.

The main strategy I found for keeping going when well enough was to think in terms of which goals I would target in specific weeks. So I had in mind key activities for the first week, and the second week, and so on. This broke down what might still have been quite a daunting task – three quite ambitious goals for the whole month for someone so very ill with so limited time – into more manageable chunks. And if I put in the time, even in isolated one hour chunks here and there, I could make slow but steady progress. Breaking it down into week by week goals also helped to keep the momentum going, and that I had to get on with things, lest time slip by and be lost. But I did have to rest when too ill.

Academic writing month can be a wonderful focused time, but for me the best thing about it is the good habits it can help to develop, which can be applied throughout the year. So the importance of making achievable goals and to-do lists, breaking down larger tasks into manageable chunks, and keeping going, even in small bursts, to make progress in spite of time and other limitations.

So I’m very glad I took part again. I look forward to taking part in 2015!


Well it’s a few days later than I’d intended to post it, but it’s still roughly the middle of the month, so I thought it would still be a good time for a post looking at progress so far.

On the downside for the last two weeks I’ve been struggling a lot with my neurological disease. However I’m coming out of that bad patch now. And despite that I’ve still managed to make progress with my writing goals.

Goal 2 – to revise and submit an accepted prizewinning journal paper – was finished by 7th November. Lots and lots of changes made to the paper, and the revised version emailed off to the editor.

Goal 3 – converting my SHARP Antwerp conference paper into the first rough draft of an academic journal paper – is well under way, and I hope to have it completed by next week. This is very much only the first step in the process, and I will need to develop it further in future. But it will be a great start.

Goal 1 – get a journal paper in progress ready for a colleague to read and give feedback – is under way too, though more in the early stages. The paper itself is already well developed, but I still have a few sections to flesh out. In particular one, a case study of the Perth book trade circa 1825, needs me to learn a lot more about Perth then to do it justice. So to that end I’ve been reading a number of old books about the town, including several written back then and fortunately available in digitised PDF form from the Internet Archive, to better acquaint myself with how the town functioned then, and its layout of streets, and shops. I should be able to move on to writing up the case study more next week, with a fair amount of confidence of completing this goal by the end of the month.

So all very encouraging I think. As I’ve said before I can’t do AcWriMo in a hugely intensive way. Rather I have to write in short bursts, often no more than an hour at a time, a few times a week if I am lucky. But I stick at it, and give myself achievable goals, and that way get things done. So I’m very encouraged.

I was interviewed recently by Geneabloggers for their “May I Introduce To You …” series. The interview focuses in particular on my background as a genealogist, and my genealogical blogging, but also covers academic issues too.

I’ve taken part in Academic Writing Month for the past two years. Some academics use this as a period of very concentrated intensive writing, writing for many hours each day they can manage it. That isn’t an option for me with my neurological disease, which wipes me out for most of the time, and means any writing has to be fitted in occasionally, in short concentrated bursts. So instead I use it to prioritise finishing off some outstanding projects, getting them done and dusted, and out of the house. It’s also a good ritual to go through to build up good writing practices, fitting in writing in limited time around other things.

Academic Writing Month starts on 1st November. For a good description see here.

Because it’s coming up soon I’m going to declare my AcWriMo goals in this blog. I will then blog about my progress during November, including a reflective blog at the end of the month looking back on how things went.

My three goals for AcWriMo 2014 are:

  • Get a journal paper in progress – a cross of book history and urban history – ready for a colleague to read, and thus that bit nearer final submission. At the moment it still has a few too many sections still to fill in, including some relevant historiography.
  • Produce a revised version of an accepted prizewinning journal paper, based on the editor’s suggestions. This will get it nearer to being published. I will have it ready to email to the editor by November 30th.
  • Produce first rough draft of a journal paper based on my SHARP Antwerp conference talk about Doctor Who and its fanzines. This will involve converting my spoken talk (largely improvised on the day, with slides supporting) into written text, and seeing how long that is in terms of words, and which areas might need further development post November.

Yesterday was the third day of the Worldcon, but my second day there, and indeed my last day. Because of my MS-like illness I need to pace myself very carefully, resting before and after big days. So once the programme of events was confirmed I decided to attend on Thursday and Saturday only. My husband however is attending on all days.

First impressions on our return to the convention were that there were more staff and volunteers visible, something I’d voiced concerns about in my last blog post. Security staff were checking that everyone coming in to the events was a paid-up Worldcon member. And there were more volunteers and helpers, including an access lady who was standing by the lift on Level 3, and gave us our proper access ribbons (to be visible for extra help mobility-wise, for me, and husband as my plus 1) to replace the temporary versions we got on Thursday. We also noticed more cosplayers i.e. fans in costume e.g. Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Lara Croft, Link from Zelda, and many others. And there were more people generally.

That last point caused some problems. In particular a number of rooms were overcrowded in terms of people wanting to get in, but were turned away. In addition I think some panels had been placed in too small venues, including the Doctor Who panel I attended, which was filling up rapidly half an hour before start time, and in the end was standing room only, despite rules introduced that said people without seats shouldn’t stay – at least more fans got to experience the talk, but it should have been in a larger room. Other people on Twitter commented about this in other panels.

My first panel of the day was at 10am, a retrospective looking at 1938 in scifi and fantasy, picking up on 1938 being the Retro Hugos year at this Worldcon. The panelists, including Jo Walton and John Clute, really knew their stuff, and gave a fascinating insight into the time. I particularly liked their analysis of differences between what scifi fandom then and now would perceive to have been the best works of 1938, based partly on what we are familiar with, including earlier and later years, but also based on how a 2014 audience defines scifi compared with a 1938 one. For example the panelists thought it unlikely that massively selling pulp magazine “Weird Tales” would have been perceived as scifi, and likewise both “The Sword in the Stone” – which won this year’s Retro Hugo award for best novel in 1938 – and “Out of the Silent Planet” were at the time viewed as respectively a children’s book and a literary work. As someone who voted in the Retro Hugo awards this year I found Jo Walton’s observations on the difficulties voters faced echoed many of my feelings. I only felt confident enough to vote in the Best Novel and Best Dramatic Presentation Short Form categories, and even then I had not read or listened to all of the works, but was confident enough in my assessment that my choices “The Sword in the Stone” and Orson Welles’s radio version of “The War of the Worlds” were outstanding, and I should vote for them anyway. Both won the Retro Hugo, which the panel agreed with, albeit with the caveat that the book would not have been even shortlisted. But I felt quite unable to vote in the short story or other categories, and this is largely because I’m not familiar with the pulp magazines of the time, and the Retro Voting Packet did not include the material. As a book historian I found some of the statistics for the pulps astonishing: circulation figures of hundreds of thousands in North America, which meant that they were the main way many people encountered sci fi, far more so than in published books. A fascinating panel anyway, and remarkably well attended – a packed room – for 10am on a Saturday morning, as one panelist observed.

After that we explored the dealers’ hall again. I was particularly keen to get back to the PS Publishing stall, a UK publisher I’ve bought a lot from in the past. This time I wanted to look through their reprints of 1950s horror comics, which I’d considered buying previously, but being able to flick through them and choose just the ones I wanted was much better. I found out later I got a real bargain: both paperback books for £8 each at the Worldcon stall, versus £14.99 each if bought normally. After that we looked at some more of the displays, and especially those about the history of Worldcons and scifi fandom in the UK. I photographed a bit of a poster about the history of Leeds fandom – Leeds apparently held the world’s first scifi convention in 1937! – and emailed it to my Yorkshire-born Dad, whose Dad was born in Leeds.

Horror comic reprints bought

Then we had early lunch at the Cornish pasty shop further along the boulevard on Level 1. My husband’s paternal ancestry is Cornish, and indeed our surname is Cornish, so it hadn’t taken him long to find that stall the day before and try it out! Tasty lunch, and convenient and quick. And best of all, as we were sitting munching, my husband spotted my former university classmate and friend walking by, and called him over. It was wonderful to see him again. We don’t live too far apart in Scotland, and keep meaning to arrange to meet, but with my fluctuating health it’s difficult. But we were students together, graduating in computer science 20 years ago, and the only two single honours students in our year which had a tiny class size. So we were able to catch up, and had a lovely chat. I also met his academic mother (St Andrews has a system pairing new undergraduates with more senior students – their “academic parents”) which was nice.

After this we headed towards my second panel of the day, the Doctor Who Restoration Team. As I said earlier I think this was put into far too small a venue. Fortunately though we got there early, and I was able to nab a good wheelchair space. I twittered about how packed the room was, which gave another friend warning to leave his panel early and come round promptly to be sure of a seat! And I was able to meet someone I’ve only corresponded with online before. The panel was good, though let down a bit by the panelists being out of sight for most of the audience, too low down. Also it was a little too talky, at least at the start, but improved as it went on, and the various panelists got into the nitty gritty of how they do the restoration. This wasn’t just about restoring the visual images, but also how they restore problems with the audio tracks, as guru Mark Ayres explained. We also learned how old material is still being thrown away even now, which was thoroughly depressing. The panel included a number of clips from “Out of the Unknown” which the team has been working on recently. There was also a fascinating question and answer session at the end, including one lady – Scottish no less! – who had worked at the BBC in the 1970s, and had probably created some of the video recordings which the team were now trying to restore. All in all very enjoyable, and very glad that I got to this event in particular.

After this my husband and I explored the fan village for the first time. We saw the TARDIS model on display, though the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones had been removed by now. I also picked up some material for the proposed bid for a Worldcon in Dublin in 2019. I’d love to go to that, as someone with a Dublin-born great granny. We even got a Dublin 2019 badge ribbon to add to our growing collection. And then because we were both so thirsty we plumped for cider. Really strong cider! My husband is from Somerset, and he was rather bowled over by it. After that there was time to browse some of the free leaflets, before we headed back to our hotel.

As I said it was the last day of the con for me, but I’m delighted I came. I enjoyed all the panels I went to, had great fun in the dealers’ room and displays, and had a great chance to meet friends old and new. Generally I’ve been impressed by the organisation, which has, by and large, run very smoothly. I like the venue used, and as a wheelchair user while here found it easy to get around. I also found all the fans I enountered friendly, smart and cheerful, and a very good advert for scifi and fantasy fandom in general. And yes, if it comes back to this rough part of the world in 2019, I will be back!

I’m currently attending the Worldcon sci fi convention, which this year is being held at London, at the ExCeL convention centre on the Docklands. I last went to a Worldcon in 2005, for a day flying visit when it was held in Glasgow. I vowed then that if it came back to the UK again I would attend properly, including travelling if need be to stay in a nearby hotel. And I am.

Because of a progressive MS-like illness I have to use a wheelchair for some of the time, especially on longer more intensive days. And this meant that I could apply to the con organisers for suitable accessible hotel accommodation, which for mobility challenged people was largely in the Aloft London ExCeL hotel, right by the convention centre. So that’s where my husband and I are staying. We have a wheelchair accessible room, and being so close to the con has had an unexpected benefit. I’ve been able to return from the con to lie down in the day several times: great when I’m starting to feel really wobbly, and would be impossible if our hotel was further away.

The con runs over five days, from Thursday through to Monday, 14th to 18th August 2014. The queues for registration on the morning of Thursday were massive, causing some problems. But because of my wheelchair we were told to skip the queues, go straight to the access team, and were registered with their help very quickly. This left us time to explore before our first panel, and we explored the various eateries in the convention centre. On the downside the dealers’ room would not open on the first day until 1pm – quite late given that people were queuing for registration from 9am. So this caused us to rejig our plans a little, and switch to a different first panel, to allow us time after to explore all the goodies on sale, as well as the artworks and other displays in the same room.

There are over a dozen panels on simultaneously at any given time, with many hundreds of scheduled events over the five days. This makes it quite a challenge to pick what to attend: often you find there are multiple things you want to go to at the same time. But it’s nice to be spoilt with choice, and there is some freedom for people to nip in and out of panels as needed. But being prepared helps, and my husband and I both spent some time before the convention, studying the programme carefully and marking up those panels that might be of interest to us. Even then there were some difficult decisions to make!

Our first Thursday panel was at noon, an astronomy one, with Professor Tim Horbury talking about the ESA Solar Orbiter mission, which he is actively involved with. My husband’s day job is space technology research, and I studied astronomy for two years at university, so have an active interest in it too. And this was an excellent talk, well judged time and content-wise, with excellent visuals. I found it particularly interesting to get an insight into what it is like to be a principal investigator on a research project like this, which also gave us an idea of what it must be like for my husband’s boss day to day! There was also a lively question and answer section at the end. I asked firstly a double question about how long it would take the orbiter to reach the Sun once launched, and how quickly it would start sending results and how fast they would come back. And then when the answer brought up the issue of results going online I had to ask in what data format – former computer scientist coming out in me there! Anyway that was answered well, as were the other questions.

One nice thing about the con is that speakers are given warning about when to stop, and are encouraged to wrap up about 15 minutes before the end of the panel, allowing time for this panel’s audience to leave the room, and for the next panel’s audience to come in promptly. On the downside it seemed – and this may be a misimpression on my part – that there was a shortage of con volunteers around at times. For example there was a blind con goer in our second panel, using just his white stick, who really could have done with a volunteer accompanying him, or at least being in the room and noticing when he needed help. My husband gave him some assistance, but was unable to spot any con helpers outside to take over after.

After our first panel we explored the dealers’ stalls, which by now had opened. Much to see, but I was able to resist most temptations. Though I did give in and buy – as expected! – a second beeblebear for our household: a two-headed, three-pawed teddy bear with eyepatch sold by the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy appreciation society, ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha. Normally these are only for sale to members of the society – and I am a member – but today anyone could buy them. And I got a free badge for him (“Don’t Panic!”) and had a good chat with the ZZ9 stallholders.

New beeblebear

We also took the chance to look at many of the displays and artworks on show. The artworks were generally very impressive, though I thought some artists missed a chance by not having a business card or leaflet with their name people could take away with them. Many of the artworks are being sold over the next few days, and there are some gorgeous pieces available. Likewise there are many displays of items of interest, including a large number of astronomy-related ones, which appealed to us both. And my husband took part in an ongoing experiment where people breathe out to see if they are a methane emitter or not, which provided some amusement!

After this we nipped back briefly to the hotel for me to have a lie down – braving the biblical downpour and thunder and lightning outside. Then we were back for the 4.30pm Tolkien Society talk. This is another literary society I’m a member of, and they are sponsoring a number of events at the Worldcon. This one saw David Brawn of HarperCollins, the man responsible for looking after Tolkien publishing for 20 years, reflect on the last 20 years, and how things have evolved, including their links with the Peter Jackson movies.

This was a fascinating talk for me, as an academic book historian. The audience was gifted to an eye-opening insight into the publishing world, including some of the difficult decisions they have to make, and the delicate balancing act of respecting the wishes of the Tolkien Estate. I took masses of notes during the talk, noting some of the statistics cited, as well as anecdotes. And it was particularly impressive that the speaker spoke in a very informal ad lib way, working from a minimal set of notes. On the downside he spoke for a little too long, which reduced the time for questions. But what he said was so very interesting, that I don’t think anyone in the audience minded. I asked the first of the three or so questions answered, curious to know more about the Tolkien Estate’s attitude to ebooks, saying for example that I would love to read Christopher Tolkien’s “The History of Middle Earth” series of books in an ebook form. I was rather expecting to hear that the family is not very keen on ebooks, but was delighted to learn that they have adopted them eagerly, though not as early adopters, preferring to allow the technology to settle down, and viewing them primarily as a way of supporting the reading experience. And there are problems with publishing “History” in this format, partly because of how best to handle the extensive linked notes, but more critically because of many strange characters used, which in the past ereaders did not support well. But innovations since mean that it should just be a matter of time before “History” is available in this format, alongside all the other Tolkien books, though probably after the publisher has finished dealing with all the publications linked to the current Hobbit trilogy of films.

That was our final panel of the day, and afterwards we met friends for cocktails in our hotel bar, and a good chat, which was lovely. Then dinner, and a fairly early night, after a very long, but rewarding day. I will be resting tomorrow, but my husband will be attending the con while I sleep. I will be back there with him on Saturday, for more eagerly-anticipated panels.


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