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Archive for June, 2015

My husband and I are both graduates of Computer Science at St Andrews. Because of this we received invitations to go to a day celebrating Internet founding father Dr Vint Cerf who is to get an honorary degree this week from the university. The day had a large number of talks running from about 10am through to about 8pm at night. Because of my MS-like illness I couldn’t attend the whole thing, and we ended up having to choose between the morning session and the evening to drop. In the end we decided to come for the afternoon and evening sessions. I would have to use my wheelchair to last the day, but the venue is good on accessibility grounds, and I was given a university guest parking permit, which would allow us to park in a disabled space directly opposite the venue.

We got to St Andrews about 1pm. There was a slight hitch getting our visitor parking permit, because the front door to Computer Science wasn’t staffed, and the secretaries we tried phoning were all at lunch. But eventually it was sorted, we got parked, unloaded the wheelchair, and wheeled into the venue. We were even in time to grab a sandwich or two from what was left of lunch before the talks started at 1.30pm.

The first afternoon speaker, Julie McCann, was excellent, talking about embedded systems. She covered a lot in 45-50 minutes, in a lively and interesting talk. This was followed by 10 minutes of questions, before a brief comfort break.

I had to go to the toilet an *awful* lot due to my MS-like illness, which was a problem. We usually left while questions were ongoing, so I could beat any queues. But I lost count of how many times I had to go. On the plus we were at the back of the lecture theatre, with an easy way out, in a space left for a wheelchair user. And one of the students helping was very attentive at helping us get through the lecture theatre doors, both out and in. But it was a menace! But we just got on with things. At least I was able to go, and was comfortable.

The 2.40pm talk with Lars Eggert had to be somewhat curtailed for time – he had perhaps put together too many slides for the time available. But he gave a good potted history of the Internet, which I enjoyed. I was at university as a computer science student in the early 1990s, and am a little vague about earlier Internet history, so always appreciate a recap.

4.10-5.10 was a panel with all the speakers and chairs of the day, all sitting together on the stage, taking questions. I asked the second question, which was answered by four of the panel, for ten minutes or so in total. I was curious to know what difference it makes to be researching a subject – the Internet – which is in many ways ubiquitous now, and well-known to the public, who have a perception of it, and thus resulting expectations. That’s different from just about any other earlier aspect of computing history, and I wondered what the implications are for how academic research in the field is conducted. The answers from the panel were diverse and insightful, and there were many other interesting questions asked. I think this might have been my favourite “talk” that we attended, because it was so wide-ranging in its scope, and fascinating.

5.10-5.30 was another break. I’d just settled with my husband, when I spotted my former PhD supervisor come in. So I wheeled over and said hi. I had to leave a full-time funded Computer Science PhD at St Andrews in 1996, after struggling for two years with worsening ill health, after my progressive MS-like illness struck at just 22, just as I was starting the PhD. On the plus after leaving St Andrews I later retrained as an academic historian, picking up three more degrees, including PhD. But it was hard to leave St Andrews. So it meant a lot to chat to my former supervisor. I also filled him in on what my husband – who did complete a Computer Science PhD at St Andrews – was doing work-wise.

Then on to the evening session. 5.30-6.30 with Jon Crowcroft was fun, perhaps a little rambling in places, at times skipping too much over some of the really intriguing bits, which could be frustrating. But it was entertaining, and enthusiastic, and we really did feel as though he was a real hacker, albeit an academic one, who’d seen a lot over the years.

Then it was Vint Cerf at 6.40. He talked about the problems of preserving data and software in a digital age, which echoed many of my views. He also proposed a technical solution, though it raised a lot of questions in terms of whether there would be the political will or economic support for it. I would have liked to have followed this up in questions, but Vint was having some trouble hearing the questioners, and with me at the back, even with microphone, it might have been difficult practically. As it was there were plenty of interesting questions asked. He received very generous applause at the end, and a birthday cake (it’s his birthday today) from Fisher & Donaldson. Plus we all sang happy birthday to him.

The room was packed. It is a big lecture theatre, in the new medical building, and most seats were taken. It was a very impressive turnout, and the audience seemed to be enjoying things a lot, and were engaging a lot in the Q&A sessions, which were very lively and interesting. As well as my PhD supervisor we caught up with various other friends and lecturers at Computer Science, and had a great time. I wish we could have attended all the talks, but we had to make a tough choice. As it was I think it was a very worthwhile visit.

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Last year I attended for the first time – but not the first time the conference had been held – the St Andrews Book Conference, as I blogged. Because of my MS-like illness I can only attend for a little time: at most a day there, and then a day of rest, and then back for the final morning. But if I’m weaker it’s just one day there. Yesterday the 2015 St Andrews Book Conference started, and I was back again for a single day. The theme this year was “Buying and Selling”, and I was among the speakers on the opening day.

Again I had to use my wheelchair, in a very old building. But again the conference organisers were very accommodating, holding the conference talks in a ground floor room with a disabled toilet nearby – which sadly I had to use alarmingly frequently, as my MS-like problems were playing up quite badly on the day. My husband was permitted to accompany me as helper, so he could fetch food and drinks, and help me manage the wheelchair around. And we were made to feel very welcome. St Andrews staff and students were also extremely attentive, often checking if I needed food or drink to be fetched. Very kind.

I had a lot of good chats during breaks over the day. The first was with a St Andrews book history PhD student who I’d been in touch with after last year’s conference. We chatted about shared experiences like writing a PhD thesis – which she’s doing at the moment. And I also got to meet a German book history professor who recently invited me to write a book chapter for a collection he’s editing. That was particularly useful – he was able to fill me in more on the publishing process, and I came away feeling very positive about the project, and the chapter I’m currently in the process of writing. Another contact was with a fellow Dundee history graduate, who is going on to postgraduate study. She read my PhD thesis as part of her dissertation work – wooh! And I had a great chat near the end with one of the professors who I’d asked a question after his talk, and he’d asked me one after mine. He was particularly struck by my brief passing evidence of a Scottish chapman – seller of cheap print, to relatively poor customers – carrying French language study books, which would conventionally have been assumed to be of more interest to the wealthy and elite. And we chatted about much else beside. All good.

Organiser Jan and St Andrews prof Andrew opened the event at 10.45, then the first session ran from 11-12.30. This session had three talks covering often the issue of debt and credit in early bookselling. One particularly interesting talk was by economist Jeremiah E. Dittmar, proposing an economics-based statistical analysis of lots of book prices, teasing out trends. This proved to be quite controversial, but was entertaining nevertheless, and certainly something different. I asked my first question of the day at the end of the session, the first of many I asked, and would have asked more, had time permitted.

The second session of the day ran from 2-3pm, with two talks. I particularly enjoyed the talk by French/TCD professor Jean-Paul Pittion, looking at the stock of a 1660s French bookseller. There was much he said I could relate to my own research from the 18th century, and it was nice that he gave us handouts of photocopies of the original book stock inventory to study. He was quite surprised to find a few women among the customers, thus revealing their reading interests, so I commented – as he probably knew already – that many women readers at the time would have been hidden in the records behind male relatives (husbands, fathers, sons or brothers) going into the bookshop for them. And I wondered which women might be more likely to go into a bookshop on their own then, which led to an interesting discussion about salon culture in Paris filtering through slowly to the provinces at this time, and these women going into the provincial bookshop being trend setters to a large extent.

My panel started at 3.30pm. Each speaker spoke for 20 minutes, Magdalena, then me, then my Dundee University history colleague Martine, then we had about 25 minutes for joint questions at the end. I sat at the table to give my talk, with a PowerPoint zapper to change slides. It was all going well until the PowerPoint screens cut out halfway through! Jan thought they had maybe overheated. I said that’s fine, I can go on without slides, though you will all miss my Fife map 😉 So I proceeded, even holding up my Fife map printout so they saw what they were missing! But a few minutes later the St Andrews team got the visuals working again, so my visuals including Fife map were go once more. The talk came in just under 20 minutes, and I covered almost everything I wanted to. Then I returned to my wheelchair, before wheeling up at the end after Martine’s talk for a group Q&A. We all had lots of questions from the audience. For example I was asked about literacy rates in Scotland, the price implications of the copyright trials and subsequent price drops for bookseller business viability, rural book supply, and someone else asked about chapmen and others and where they got their books from. All are questions I can usefully feed into my subsequent book chapter version of the conference paper. We didn’t have overlapping questions though, because each talk was quite different. But I had a question for Magdalena, and it was a very fun Q&A all round.

After a brief break next up was the wine reception. Originally this had been going to be in the St John’s House garden, but they moved it into the main conference room, and overlapped it with the final session. We were filled up with drinks – wine (red or white) and beer on offer – before the first speaker, then offered a refill after him, and a refill after the next speaker, and a refill after the third one! Some people took everything on offer! I stopped the wine after the second glass – was already feeling quite light headed. I’m amazed the audience managed to come up with coherent questions afterwards. The last session was a lot of fun, talking about book collecting, including bibliomania, incunabula and libraries. There was a fantastic talk to close by Daryl Green a Rare Books librarian at the University of St Andrews, talking about skulduggery among the St Andrews university academics – including a principal! – in the 19th century, and possible deliberate theft by them of manuscripts. He illustrated his PowerPoint with animated images from The Ninth Gate, one of my most favourite movies, all about a book collector and various bizarre characters. Which provided much amusement. As did his visual casting of the 19th century St Andrews academics, for a movie version.

Things wound up a little before 7pm when people were relocating to the Vine Leaf. We headed off then, saying goodbye to various people. I had a lovely day, but was pretty tired after, and will be resting solidly for the next two. I’ve emailed the organisers and prof Andrew my thanks. I really appreciate them holding the conference on the ground floor so I can attend. It also clearly benefited some other people there, who either needed to use the disabled toilet quite frequently, or were rather wobbly on their legs.

I’ve since followed up by sending LinkedIn requests to a number of people I met and chatted with. Great contacts made. Great ideas sparked. And yes I will have to write another book chapter by September.

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I have a number of academic writing projects on the go. I keep a track of things I’m working on in a mind map version of a to-do list on my iPad. But I also thought it might be helpful for me to make a note here. Partly to help me see the different things I’m juggling, but also as a statement of intent. I find the annual Academic Writing Month very motivational and productive, where I state my goals, and assess publicly how I’m getting on with them, both during the month and at the end of it. So maybe a similar process will kick in here. I hope!

At the moment I have four main writing projects on the go:

  • Write book chapter (invited by editor) for a new book history collected volume. This invitation came at short notice, and suddenly, and I need to finish it in the next month or so. This is proving to be a lot of fun, both in working to fit within the book’s theme and approach, and using elements of my PhD research and thesis that I haven’t published on before. I’m confident I can complete this in time.
  • Continue converting my SHARP Antwerp conference talk about Doctor Who and its fanzines into an academic journal paper version. Again this is time critical. For the journal I’m aiming at submitting it to there is a deadline for submission for consideration for publication next year. And I will have to clear image permissions with the relevant fanzine editors, so that I can have illustrations in my paper. But it’s well advanced.
  • Finish article about early directories as a source for book and urban history crossover piece. This is well advanced, and I hope to have it ready soon to email to my former PhD supervisor for a read through. But it isn’t time critical, and can be pushed to one side while I juggle other things.
  • Write a book chapter version of my upcoming St Andrews book conference talk. Again there’s a time limit on this, but it’s far enough ahead (deadline September) that I can worry about it after finishing the other chapter first. And probably also after the Doctor Who fanzines paper too.

In addition I have a journal paper that I need to rework before submitting to a journal. And two other journal papers are currently in the review process, with the relevant editors.

Looking at it listed like that it feels like quite a lot on! But I am comforted that some things are not time critical (the book/urban history piece and the reworking journal paper in particular). And those others that are time critical are somewhat staggered time-wise, so don’t overlap too much.

I’m also not writing intensively. I’m very seriously ill long-term, and have to snatch good moments here and there. But in an odd hour now and again I can pick a project to work on, and make progress with it.

But I may be quite pleased once it’s October. And after all that writing over the summer and early autumn it’s quite likely I’ll skip Academic Writing Month 2015!

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