Birmingham Mail website makeover

New website for the Birmingham Mail newspaper. In design terms it’s quite pleasing. Nice clean layout, although I run AdBlockPlus so my first glimpse of it was without adverts. An eight second load-time for the front page, for me. Photos not too ‘shouty’ or ‘grim’, but I still blocked all news story images on it forever with AdBlockPlus. No immediate annoying pop-up or ‘sign up to our mailing-list’ blocking overlay. I see their “What’s On” menu has no ‘Arts and Culture’ category, nor any sort of ‘Quirky’ category, which seems a pity and assumes their reader demographic is not catered for in that regard. But if one went digging one could probably dig up a dozen items a week that would appeal to the readers. The Commercial Sales navigation bar is nicely separated from the News navigation. There are separate RSS feeds for Business, Politics, and Midlands, although the latter two are heavily dominated by crime ‘n grime. Sadly there’s no filter for: “I have no interest in local crime or sports news, never show me such stories”.

After my AdBlocker and clutter-trimmer has done its work…

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Birmingham City University – research repository

Birmingham City University has just launched a public research repository. Currently it’s too new to be indexed by Google, which would enable one to discover if there’s actually any full-text open access PDFs in there. Most record pages I tried were “full-text not available”, even when one went back a year or two. Which seems to rather contradict the ‘open access’ idea and the URL name of open-access.bcu.ac.uk.

Dull Brum

A stunning level of boring uniformity and dullness was on show to the press yesterday, as Birmingham’s bosses officially backed the Coventry bid for City of Culture. Expect better odds on the gritty bid from Stoke-on-Trent as the winner of City of Culture, from today.

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A Midlands Engine mis-fire

Midlands Engine chairman Sir John Peace appears to favour Coventry for City of Culture, while forgetting about the equally major bid by the West Midlands city of Stoke-on-Trent…

“Sir John said the Midlands is readying itself for a “golden decade” which will include the arrival of HS2 in 2026. Birmingham has also put its name in the hat to host the 2026 Commonwealth Games and Coventry hopes to be the UK City of Culture in 2021.”

Love the economic optimism, which is probably well justified if we can Brexit. But please let’s not have ‘Greater Birmingham’ try to further sideline or even offload places like Stoke-on-Trent, as the boom happens.

Middle Earth, a major Tolkien biopic

I’m pleased to hear that a very major Birmingham / Staffordshire movie is going ahead. Directed by James Strong (Downton Abbey), Middle Earth will explore Tolkien’s early life and his romance with Edith Bratt. The screenwriter will be Angus Fletcher, and The Lord of the Rings producers Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne are both on board.

In my view the geographical timeline of the movie, if done without flashbacks, would be: semi-rural south Birmingham / school at Birmingham New St. / the Birmingham Oratory / Exeter College, Oxford / the Lizard, Cornwall / Warwick / Lichfield / Cannock Chase / his rifle training in North Staffordshire / Great Haywood / he leaves for the war by train, from Birmingham.

We can be fairly sure that the centre of Birmingham and the Staffordshire countryside will get a pretty good boost from such a major movie.

New Art Gallery, old leftist tactics

I see that the bedraggled remnants of the political left are scaremongering widely in the media around a possible “closure” of Walsall’s New Art Gallery. Aided by Walsall’s Labour-led council, which used the word “closure” as part of a pitch aimed at justifying and driving through a rise in Council Tax. Typical leftist tactics, by the sound of it: benefit politically from one’s own threats, while blaming ‘the evil Tories’ for forcing you into making cuts. Meanwhile raise a howling mini-mob of Guardianistas around the proposal, to bring both the extreme left ranters and the Guardian readers on-side in a ‘broad front’ against ‘Tory cuts’, comrade. Then, after a few months, let the mob have ‘victory’ when you do what you always intended — back down on the threat. Friends on the left satisfied, Guardian readers purring, and all the while you were slipping a Council Tax increase past them that directly hurts the poorest people.

One has to dig a bit to find the facts behind the scaremongering. The local subsidy from Walsall’s taxpayers is around £900,000 per year, excellent value for money re: the tourism boost (it’s the only reason one would want to visit Walsall, unless one has a leather-fetish). The Council claims this amount “could” be reduced leading to savings of £100,000 in 2017-18, “and by as much as £390,000 in 2019/20”.

Even if Walsall’s Labour councillors do suddenly go into swivel-eyed Corbyn-mode and cut all subsidy immediately and in one fell swoop, there’s still the £880,000 a year from the Arts Council, and a 4% funding uplift for the English regions that is expected from the Arts Council very soon.

Otherwise the Gallery may be facing hard times ‘chugging along’ on a reduced budget of a piffling £1.6m a year, but would not be facing the prospect of “closure” that the Council is scarily claiming in their press release and which the leftists are howling about.

Moanbook

The perils of keyword-based affinity algorithms: Facebook thinks that lots of my acquaintances like Stoke-on-Trent City Council, therefore I should start a Facebook group for them. I know better, looking at the top candidates for membership of such a group. Talking about the Council doesn’t mean they like it, quite the opposite in fact.

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Libre Baskerville

Libre Baskerville, a historical Birmingham font now made web-tastical…

“Libre Baskerville is webfont optimized for web body text (typically 16px). It’s based on 1941 ATF Specimens, but it has a taller x height, wider counters and minor contrast that allow it to work on small sizes in any screen.”

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Devil’s Dictionary of Learning Technologies

A Devil’s Dictionary of Learning Technologies

Failure, “A temporary practice educators encourage in students, which schools then ruthlessly, publicly, and permanently punish.”

Flipped classroom, “The practice of replacing lectures that instructors give to summarize a course’s readings with videos of lectures that summarize a course’s readings.”

Kenneth Clark

Wonderful to see that there’s a major new biography of the great Kenneth Clark, Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation. Country Life has a review of the book. The review gives a nice anecdote about the impact of Clark’s magnificent Civilisation series, on art appreciation in Stoke-on-Trent…

“Even when the programmes were first broadcast, in 1969, quite a few young critics thought Clark antediluvian in his patrician demeanour and unembarrassed focus on a European cultural elite. … Listening to the future head of Radio 3, John Drummond, complain about Clark’s grasp of political history, [An unnamed BBC journalist then] interrupted: ‘My father is 74 years old and lives in Stoke-on-Trent. He has never been interested in art. Last week, he came to London to see me, and his first question was “Where is the National Gallery?”’

Looks like an interesting book, and it’s getting excellent reviews. The reviews make it sound somewhat prurient and muck-raking, but perhaps it just seems that way that’s because today’s press reviewers have to go straight to the most sensational bits in order to please their editors. The Amazon UK listing suggests there will soon be an audiobook version.

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Coin Curator at the Barber Institute

Wow, what a fabulous job. Coin Curator at the Barber Institute, University of Birmingham

“The Barber Institute is home to one of the finest collections in the world of Roman, Byzantine, medieval Islamic and medieval and modern Hungarian coins. The Byzantine section is arguably second only to that at Dumbarton Oaks. The whole collection consists of nearly 16,000 pieces, housed in modern storage facilities in a Colin Study Room at the Barber Institute. The post-holder will be the collection specialist and advocate for the Barber’s numismatic holdings, and lead on their management, research, development (including acquisitions), accessibility and promotion. A priority for the future will be the completion of the online catalogue.”

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Kidding?

BMAG gives up entirely on the quaint notion that temporary exhibitions might actually be for adults…

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PayPal gets political

PayPal has just changed the appearance of the pound symbol on UK accounts, to make it look much more like a Euro symbol. How horribly and needlessly political…

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A history of the comic-book font

King Edward’s School, New Street

A 25 minute documentary about the important school that used to stand in New Street, Birmingham, from 1838-1936: King Edward’s School – “New Street Remembered”.

Also documentaries by the same film-maker on two of the school’s most famous pupils: Tolkien’s Great War and Tolkien’s good friend R. Q. Gilson.

Postgrad student loans

The government’s new postgrad student loans are here. If you plan to take a Masters course from 1st August 2016, you can apply for a loan of up to £10,000 to help with course fees and living costs. All types of courses are eligible, including media and the arts. Payback only starts when you start earning more than £21k a year.

Our Armed Forces and members of their close family will also be able to study at UK universities while posted abroad, via distance learning. This follows changes in the rules a few weeks ago, and means they can also access the new postgraduate loans…

“…the Government is adding a new exemption that will allow them to gain student funding for a UK based distance learning course, even if they are posted overseas at the start or during the course itself.”

The government has stood by its promise to allow applications for all Masters topics, and media and the arts are not excluded. However, if my local university is anything to go by, universities will be deeming just a few of their Masters courses to be ‘not eligible’ for a postgrad loan — these seem to be the ‘professional body’ sort of postgrad courses that give professional qualifications in things like marketing, education, and sports.

Shock news: suggestion algorithms still crap

The Silly Season is here. So here’s an amusing 20 minute pinpointing of just how rubbish Facebook’s “Discover Groups” function is. Facebook’s suggestions for me are:—

Friends: “Momentum North Staffordshire” (extreme-left Labour Party members) and similar. Er, no, definitely not.

Location: “Shell Island, North Wales”. Probably lovely, but never heard of it and can’t afford to get to it. The vintage resort of Llandudno and its breezy headlands are more my style.

Parenting: “Can I Breastfeed In it?” and similar. Er, not for me. Man-boobs may make that possible soon, though 🙂

School & Education: “School of Education’s doctoral researchers at Staffs University”. I didn’t even know they had such a thing.

Sports: No. I have no interest in sports, other than the final few matches in the World Cup once every four years. Certainly not tabletop war-gaming.

Food: Nope, I’ve no interest in real ale either. I don’t drink.

Photography: “Peak District Photography”. Well, it’s the best suggestion yet. But I really don’t want to join a group that allows people to use it as their photo-dump for the 45 pictures of sunsets and ducks that they took today.

Buy, Sell, Trade: “Garage Sale – Bangalore, India”. Nope. It’s probably because I also participate occasionally in the Open Access India group, which aims to boost open access publishing there.

Professional Networking: “Forces Online Employment” or “Scaffold Jobs UK”. Not all blokes from Stoke are builders, Facebook.

Animals & Pets: No, I do not own a greyhound. Or even like dogs much. Not all blokes from Stoke are obsessed with racing greyhounds, Facebook.

Outdoor Activities: No, I’ve no desire to go camping these days – even in this nice weather.

Business: DisruptCyprus.com. No. But I guess it’s nice to hear that they’re having a disruptive business revolution in Cyprus, and not a petrol-bomb throwing disruptive revolution. Possibly I’m seeing this group because of some of my former students.

News & Politics: Ugh. Not everyone in Stoke is an old socialist, Facebook. The city is actually effectively run by the Conservatives, these days, thank goodness. Update your city profiles, Facebook.

Hobby & Leisure: Richard Corben Fan Club. Yes, maybe. A bit late now though. I mildly liked his early pre-1986 comic-book art, but haven’t followed him since.

Science & Tech: Finally, a good suggestion! “The Institute of Unnecessary Research”. News of unusual arts-science projects and opportunities. ‘Join Group‘!

Health & Fitness: “Vegans”? Eeeek!

Funny: “Jokes” groups. No. Ban them now!

Arts & Culture: “Patti Smith” and “H.R. Giger”. No, and I didn’t even like them when they were actually trendy back in 1978.

Games: “Boardgames” and hyper-realistic nerdy button-pushing “Space Simulators”. No interest.

Cars & Motorcycles: Nope, never owned a car or motorbike. Looking forward very much to the future arrival of the driverless robo-taxis.

Identity & Relationships: “BBW Big Women”. Just so wrong.

Neighborhood & Community: “Middleport Matters” and “Narrowboat Users Group”. Sort of, I do have a passing interest in canals and narrowboats due to living alongside a canal.

Home & Garden: For some reason “Synthesizer Freaks Music” is here. Does Facebook imagine that I’m sitting in a summer garden shuffling between early Gary Numan, Mirror System and Kraftwerk? They might not be far wrong there, if I actually had a garden.

Style: “Canal market place interiors”. Well, I guess I do live near a canal. Not sure I want to fix the place up to look like a canal narrowboat, though.

Travel: “Alfred Barnard Society” (visit breweries worldwide!) and “The Hovercraft Museum”. No, I don’t drink. And have no interest in hovercrafts.

Spiritual & Inspirational: “The Paranormal Billboard” and “Shanti & Jai Yoga”. No, no interest in all that silly ghost-hunting mumbo-jumbo, nor in yoga.


So, 95% wrong. Even if I had also included the suggestions I skipped. Similar to how wrong Amazon gets it, even after their taste system has been ‘trained’. Which all goes to show how poor website ‘suggestion’ services are. The first person to invent a decent suggestions algorithm that actually works will make a fortune.

Glass making lives on in South Staffordshire – new £5.5m glass museum, studios, maker network website

I’m pleased to see there’s a new £5.5m glass museum in South Staffordshire (*) which is having open days and which is only a few months away from fully opening in 2017. To be more precise the new museum is in Wordsley, which is my ancestral village and also where my ancestors engraved glass in the 1800s.

The ‘White House Cone – Museum of Glass’ has been developed by the British Glass Foundation, which has a “making of…” talk on the new museum in nearby Stourbridge on 17th August 2016.

glass

The new museum, which seems to include several maker studios and several galleries, looks very impressive. It replaces the old Broadfield House Glass Museum, which was run down and then closed last September by the Labour-controlled Dudley council. You may have heard a lot about that closure from those moaning about arts cuts, but what they don’t choose to mention is that it’s about to be replaced by a bigger and better museum.

The White House displays the internationally important Stourbridge Glass collection, as well as an upstairs gallery of contemporary work, and takes its place as part of a wider network of glassmaking in South Staffordshire. For more on that wider network visit Heart of England Glass, a low-key but excellently informative new website hub for craft glass makers and glass researchers in the West Midlands. The craft has mostly clustered in South Staffordshire, at Stourbridge and Wordsley (with some makers hanging on in Birmingham, last I heard, where glass used to be a vast industry). Plus there’s glass expertise at Dudley and the Bilston Craft Gallery, and now also a new hot glass degree at Wolverhampton University.

* For me, Staffordshire will always retain its old pre-1911 boundaries, regardless of modern municipal bickering and land-grabs.

New Audience Multimedia Journalist (trainee)

Excellent job in Birmingham, albeit with the Birmingham Mail: “Trinity Mirror plc is looking for a New Audience Multimedia Journalist (trainee) to generate story ideas, write them with our digital audience in mind, create and curate further multi-media content and put together total content packages that work brilliantly on all of our platforms.” Deadline: 4th August 2016.

The new Brexit cabinet

Well, what a fascinating day in politics. Yesterday I watched closely as May’s magnificently bold re-shuffle unfolded. The result seems almost perfectly pitched — provided they can keep hapless motor-mouths like Boris and Leadsom on a tight brief. And also keep Gove and Osborne quiet on the back-benches, perhaps by subtly holding out the prospect of re-entry into government after a successful Brexit and 2020 general election.

It’s also amazing how events have once again closely paralleled a great movie. Elizabeth: the Golden Age was the movie of the referendum and its two week aftermath, almost perfectly matching the events and personages. Now the movie’s prequel, Elizabeth, quite closely parallels May’s swift and decisive reshuffle. In Elizabeth the young queen Elizabeth, with the aid of her shrewd new bearded advisor and spy-master Walsingham, moves swiftly to suppress threats both internal and external, ruthlessly executing her internal enemies. Amusingly, May’s equivalent of Walsingham — Nick Timothy — even rather resembles Walsingham as portrayed in the films…

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Good to see that Nick Timothy is a proud Brummie, by the way, which may bode well for Birmingham. It’s probably also good for the West Midlands that Javid, from Bromsgrove, is the new Communities Secretary. And the new Conservative Party Chairman, Patrick McLoughlin, is a former coal miner from Staffordshire.