Category Archives: reviews


I remember fondly my first unconference, UKLocalGovCamp, in Birmingham in 2009. It really was life-changing for me; the way it opened my eyes to the possibilities of disruptive innovation was the catalyst for me eventually becoming a freelancer. I made many long-standing friends, makers and activists inside and outside local government, there, too.

Since then I’ve attended many more, and have run or facilitated a good number of unconferences, and unconference-style sessions within more traditional types of events. If I say so myself, it’s something I’m good at, and I certainly enjoy it.

So I was pleased, last Saturday, to be able to spend the day in London to attend, and help to facilitate, HASLibCamp, an unconference for librarians in the field of Health and Science. That’s a relatively narrow focus, and so the event wasn’t as big as some I’ve been to, but in no way did that diminish the quality of the sessions, nor the participants’ enthusiasm.

After housekeeping and introductions on behalf of our host, the Department of Library & Information Science at London City University (CityLIS), I asked for a few shows-of-hands, and quickly determined that we had been joined by academic, commercial, hospital and public librarians, and archivists, as well as some student librarians.

I then explained how unconferences work, and invited any of them who wanted to, to give a thirty-second “pitch” for a session in which they wanted to participate, or a topic they wished to discuss.

Luckily, we had just the right number of pitches for the rooms and timeslots available, leaving two gaps after lunch, which were filled during the day with follow-up sessions. A “chill out” room was also avaialable, as was space for ad-hoc discussions and meetings.

whiteboard with list of sessions, in timetable format

The pitched sessions.

I pitched two sessions, one on ORCID identifiers (what they are, and how librarians can help to embed them in their organisations), and another – in response to a request received before the event – on Wikipedia, Wikidata and my work as a Wikimedian in Residence.

I also attended a session on what public libraries might learn about giving healthcare information, from academic libraries. Several resources were mentioned and are linked in the Storify reporting (see below). My final session was billed as being about understanding customer needs, and took the form of a lateral-thinking exercise.

Here’s a brief roundup of coverage elsewhere:

I’m grateful to the Consortium of Independent Health Libraries in London (CHILL) for sponsoring my attendance at the event (a condition of which was that this blog post be written).

Using AutoHotKey macros to make typing – and life – easier

What things do you regularly type, over and over again? I’ll bet you’ve answered your name, email address, or your username(s) on sites you use regularly. Maybe also your postal address, phone number, or your job title and organisation.

For years, I’ve used a handy free windows app called AllChars, to type these things — and more — for me. For instance, I’d type /am, and it would magically change that to Andy Mabbett

12 Màquina d'escriure Underwood

You can’t use macros to paste text on one of these

I’d often use it, to type very long and complex template markup in Wikipedia:

<ref name="">{{Cite episode |title= |series= |serieslink= |url= |accessdate= 2014- |network= |station= |date= |season= |seriesno= |number= |transcript= |transcripturl= }}</ref>

which I could then populate with the relevant values.

Unfortunately, AllChars is extremely buggy under Windows 7 and subsequent operating systems; so much so that I found it unusable on both my parents’ laptop, and the shiny new machine I use in my recently-begun role as Wikimedian in Residence at the The Royal Society of Chemistry. (The Society has a very reasonable policy when it comes to allowing technically-literate staff to install software, licences permitting. Others take note!)

I’ve been looking for a replacement, and am absolutely delighted to have found AutoHotKey, which is easily configured to paste macros just like AllChars, and has many more features besides. Better still, it’s not merely free, it’s open source.

Here’s what I learned, in setting it up:

AutoHotKey uses scripts, one of which is loaded by default, and others can be loaded as required (say, just for writing about the taxonomic names of plants).

To make it type my name, I edited the script and added a line:

::am::Andy Mabbett

which is the most basic configuration. The two sets of colons are delimiters, and am is the string to be replaced. The replacement doesn’t occur until the user types a space, tab or return. I prefer to override that, making use of another feature, which is to add an asterisk after the first colon:

:*:am::Andy Mabbett

so that the string is typed without the space, tab or return — again mimicking AllChars’ behaviour.

Using that macro, however, interferes with typing words like “amicable”. Because all my AllChars macros began with \, and I have invested a lot of muscle-memory in them, I’m keeping that:

:*:\am::Andy Mabbett

so now I have a macro which works just like one in AllChars, and lets me type “amicable” without it triggering.

Another thing I learned is that some characters need to be escaped, using curly brackets (or “braces”). For example a hash:


which types #fb

and even curly brackets themselves:

:*:\ac::{{}{{}Authority control{}}{}}

which types {{Authority control}}.

Line breaks are made using:


I found these things by using the official AutoHotKey forum, where the users seem knowledgeable and helpful — my first query was answered promptly and effectively.

Once I’d worked all that out, it only took a few seconds find-and-replacing, and I had converted over 220 (yes, I was surprised, when I counted them!) macros from AllChars to AutoHotKey.

However, AutoHotKey isn’t only for pasting texts. It can be configured to carry out more complex tasks, such as opening and closing applications or windows, copying text from one and pasting it to another, and so on. I’m looking forward to learning more abut how to do that, and investigating the pre-written scripts provided by members of the AutoHotKey community.

Using IrfanView for image slideshows

The other evening, I went to see my friend Peter Shirley talk to the Sandwell Valley Naturalists Club about the wildlife he saw in Canada. Pete is @PeteWestBrom on Twitter and you should follow him, and read his , if you’re interested in nature, wildlife conservation, or green issues.

He mentioned to me that he was looking for some software to display images in a slideshow, but sorted into his preferred order, rather than by datestamp or file name. He wanted something less cumbersome than PowerPoint or its free equivalent in LibreOffice, Impress. I said I knew of something that would do the job, and would send him details. But on the principle of responding to technical questions openly, in public, in order to more widely share and disseminate knowledge, I’m posting the answer here, and I’ll send him a link to this post.

For some time, I’ve used the excellent programme, an image viewer which also serves as a lightweight, but nonetheless powerful, image editor. It’s not Photoshop (nor the free equivalent, GIMP), but it’s great for cropping, rotating, changing contrast or brightness, and other similar tasks, which it can also do on a batch basis. It’s free for non-commercial use, for Windows. Its author, Irfan Skiljan, is also very responsive to user requests, and the programme has several features which he’s kindly added at my request.

And it has a slideshow feature.

IrfanView slideshows can be used for talks and presentations like Pete’s, or be left unattended, as a “carousel” or “kiosk” style display. To make one, first, download and install IrfanView, and any of its various plug-ins you might use (I simply download and install the full set of plugins, in one file).

Next, to set up a slideshow, use the IrfanView File menu and select Slideshow. You’ll see a dialogue like this (taken from the current version at the time of writing, v4.36):

IrfanView Slideshow dialogue

Use the top-right quarter to navigate to the images you wish to use. You can select them in batches and use the add button or double click on them to add them to the list, which will appear in the bottom-right corner, one at a time. Once you have your list of files, you can use move up, move down or sort, to carry out those actions, and you can remove files that are no longer needed.

You can also include mp3 files, to have music, or other audio, played along with your images. That could even be a narration.

In the top left section, chose whether to have automatic transitions, based on a timer, or a keyboard/ mouse action, or random transitions. Below that, select your other options (I won’t list them here, but you can play around with them, to suit your needs — they should be reasonably self-explanatory).

Use the “play” option to run through the presentation and make sure you’re happy with it. You can reorder, add or remove images at any time.

When you’re happy with the slideshow, you can save the running order to a text file (and later reopen it), though that assumes that the images remain on your machine, in the original folder(s). Alternatively, you can burn the whole show to a DVD, or create an executable file including the images and running order.

And that’s it. What’s not to like?

Trevor Mabbett’s comments on ‘The Man on the Beat’

Last year, my friend Lloyd Davis did some work with the British Council, digitising their film archive. He kindly allowed my father, Trevor, and me to see an early screening of The Man on the Beat, which is now on their website (sadly, not under an open licence). The film was made on and around Ledsam Street in the Ladywood district of Birmingham, where my father was born and grew up.

Merlin Films presents The Man on the Beat - RCA sound system

The following are my father’s comments on the film, transcribed and annotated by me. Times are in minutes and seconds.

00:26 Little Miss Barber, mascot of a local brand of tea. A few of their painted adverts, featuring said female, remain on local (Birmingham/ Black Country) buildings; some as “ghost signs”, while others are lovingly repainted by whoever owns or lives in the buildings. Sadly, every now and again, one gets painted over. Andy wrote a Wikipedia article about her.

00:34 Top right as camera pans left is the Belliss and Morcom factory. St Margaret’s church is behind the Rann St sign — my parents were married there in 1919. The church is the building at 52.47875,-1.92304 on the old Ordnance Survey map. Rann Street is to the South of that, running SW-NE (roughly the line of modern-day Guild Close; which you can see by toggling the map selection, top-right). Monument Road LMS sheds can be seen further NE (now Kilby Avenue). My parent’s shop is a few blocks behind the camera. I used to climb on the wall on which the Rann St sign is fixed, often. The phone number on the back of the van is not genuine — perhaps it was changed for filming?

00:39 The pub is possibly the Ladywood House. “Discol” was a brand of diesel fuel.

01:25 Birmingham’s coat-of-arms.

01:47 An RAF corporal; I’m not sure what chevrons on his arm denote (possibly years of service?). The brick “box” in front of the shop in background is the entrance to a cellar bomb-shelter.

02:18 The man in a peaked cap looks like a railwayman (Monument Road LMS sheds were nearby).

02:19 St John Ambulance badge on arm denotes first-aid training. Note finger post (sadly unreadable) behind policeman’s shoulder. “A” on policeman’s collar denotes division to which he was allocated. The dome on top of the phone was blue flashing light, used when station needed to speak to a beat officer (these were the days before police radios).

03:37 Birmingham’s coat of arms in helmet badge.

03:58 Probably Steelhouse Lane Police Station (in city centre); certainly not Ladywood Police Station, which was inside a courtyard. Steelhouse Lane Police Station is still in use, so easy to check.

04:07 BDC — possibly Birmingham Dairy Company?

04:19 White bands on street furniture were added during blackout.

05:20 Reference to Witton on first tram, so Villa Park.

05:22 Second tram is route 3X.

06:38 Bus route 12.

06:40 Rhodes, a fine china shop. Left-hand shop has an owl, sign of Harrisons Opticians. This shop was on corner of Snow Hill (Andy’s mom adds that she remembers being taken to see a large owl sign on top of the building illuminated once the war ended). Note streetlamp above owl, with glass mostly painted black for blackout. Building on right may be the Gaumont cinema.

06:50 Street sign says “Steelhouse Lane”. When facing Rhodes, the city centre is to the left.

08:15 The box on a pillar, painted red, was a break-glass fire alarm, with a telephone connected to the fire station.

09:43 The shop under the street sign may be Mrs Noyce’s tripe shop, where I used to go with a jug, to collect tripe for my family and our neighbours.

10:09 “The Gunpowder Shop”, named after 19th century IRA man who lived
and plotted there. I found a picture in “Britain in old photographs — Ladywood” by Norman Bartlam (1999, p32, lower picture, ISBN 0-7509-2071-8) which also has a brief history of the incident.

10:27 The modern brick annexe with a concrete slab roof is an air-raid shelter.

10:44 The white-painted rocks in the wall are another remnant of the blackout.

Misc: None of the policemen have medal ribbons, which you would expect at the end of the war, so they’re possibly actors, not real officers.

Ian Emes’ ‘French Windows’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘One of These Days’ at Ikon

This evening, I went to the opening of a new exhibition at Birmingham’s Ikon gallery, ““.

The exhibition celebrates Ikon’s artistic programme from 1970 to 1978, and I particularly enjoyed Peter Sedgley‘s hypnotic Corona and David Hepher‘s No. 21.

David Hepher's 'No 21', painted in 1973, and Becky, who wasn't even born then.

But for me, as a Pink Floyd biographer, the highlight was undoubtedly the chance to see not only Ian Emes’ 1972 animation for the band’s One of These Days, projected onto the wall of a room the size of my living room (and in better quality than the YouTube version below), but also several cells from the animation, allowing close inspection. The film is accompanied by Pink Floyd‘s music (or is that vice versa?); sadly the sound system isn’t up to the job.

I had been told that my new book, Pink Floyd: The Music and The Mystery , would be on sale, but apparently there was a supply issue. Maybe soon?

Ian Emes will be giving a free talk on 18 August (booking essential); the exhibition itself runs until 5 September 2010.

Update: Spelling corrected; it’s “Emes” not “Eames”. Thanks to of Ikon for pointing that out. Sorry, Ian!

Update 2: I wrote a Wikipedia article about Emes.

Location: 52.477597, -1.912346

Manu Sporny recommends me on LinkedIn

I hope you will forgive me for immodesty repeating Manu Sporny’s kind and fulsome recommendation of me, from my LinkedIn profile, for the benefit of those of you who don’t have accounts there:

I had worked with Andy in the Microformats community, developing international standards for the Web. During this time Andy not only excelled at providing technical feedback and review, but led several bold initiatives to standardize the classification of planetary-geo-location and living species on the web. While a logically consistent and wise technical contributor, his influence on the direction of the community was also vital. Andy’s role in questioning and influencing the core philosophy and community process was and continues to be deeply appreciated.

I’m genuinely touched by that. Thank you, Manu!

Manu Sporny is CEO of Digital Bazaar.

Daughters of Albion review

Here’s my review of the Daughters of Albion at Birmingham Town Hall.

You can see more of my reviews, on the same site, ‘Birmingham Alive!’.

Update: Link expired; sorry. Here’s the original text:

Town Hall

I was really looking forward to this concert — and I was really disappointed by it.

It seemed shambolic and amateurish and the over-long changes between each song meant that it lost what little atmosphere it had had.

June Tabor, a singer for whom adequate superlatives simply do not exist, was sorely under-used — but not as much so as Martin Carthy, who spent most of the evening as the best-seated spectator in the venue. Presumably, he was only there because his wife Norma Waterson was in the line-up. Apart from the opening number, Tabor took part in none of the evening’s collaborations. Indeed, though she appeared on stage for the encore, she bizarrely refused to sing, standing mute and looking lost; something her fellow performers seemed to find amusing, unlike your reviewer, who frankly thought it insulting to the audience. Even so, her performances, with Huw Warren‘s piano accompaniment, were among the evening’s few highlights.

Also worthy of mention was the understated accompaniment from musical director Kate St John (late of the Dream Academy), especially her oboe playing, and her small band of backing musicians. For the most part, the contributions from Lou Rhodes and Lisa Knapp were insubstantial, lacklustre or — performing a much-anticipated cover of Kate Bush‘s This Woman’s Work — unbearably shrill. Kathryn Williams‘s rambling and apologetic introductions were, frankly, embarrassing. Bishi, a replacement for Sheila Chandra‘s role in the 2006 concerts under the same banner, was a poor substitute.

The impression given was that the whole under-rehearsed event was being treated as a bit of fun for the performers. Nothing wrong with that in itself, but surely not at the expense of the enjoyment of the audience.