On 7th-8th February, John Kirriemuir attended the Netskills launch, which was combined with a Netskills training session; an overview of the event appears below. In addition, pictures of the launch (warning: very large files) are available. In this same edition of Ariadne, you can also find an interview with Jill Foster, the director of Netskills and Mailbase, as well as a more detailed description of the Netskills project.
Take the train from Bath to Newcastle, via London, armed with new (and unknown to me at the time, broken) camera and tape recorder for interviewing. On the second leg of the journey, encounter a nervous Frank Norman, the project manager for OMNI, who is the guest speaker this evening at the Netskills event. Upon arrival at Newcastle, dump clothes at respective hotels and head off to the campus.
Arrival at University of Newcastle campus, and spend several minutes wandering through depressing 60's architecture in search of the Netskills training camp. Arrive at what appears to be a council tower block, to find professionally-produced signs pointing the way to Netskills. The afternoon session of day 1 is already at an advanced stage; the trainees are sitting in a well-equipped lab of pentium PCs, going through "search and find on the Web" type exercises. Go slightly envious when I notice the speed at which people were able to connect to resources on the Web.
The evening meal, guest speaker and demonstrations are all taking place in an impressive auditorium, full of plants draping over upper balconies and trees and assorted potted bushes everywhere. One table, full of large stacks of flyers from other eLib projects, looked as though it was ready to collapse. The food was impressive, and the adjoining bar was well used by the 30 odd trainees. These seemed to be a happy bunch, mainly librarians from the North East of England and Scotland. Numbers were slightly down, as howling blizzards in Alba meant that a few people were stranded at home.
Speeches were given by the vice-chancellor, and messages of goodwill read out from several people, such as Nigel Gardener (who sent a telegraph) and the EduLib project. Frank then gave an interesting half hour talk on the "information desert", illustrated with slides from what appeared to be his various holiday in deserts, jungles and forests around the world. This showed how the networked resources in the UK had built up in the last ten years or so.
One highlight of Franks talk was his assault on "acronym hell" (which caused much shaking of heads from the audience); Franks alternative definition of "Acroynm" was:
which was swiftly followed by "nightmares", which stood for:
Franks talk was then followed by a few demonstrations. Brian Kelly, the senior Netskills trainer, was at a TAPin training session, and therefore left a hilarious movie of him creating a world wide web. Out of inflatable balloons (you have to see it to appreciate it...). This was followed by a simultaneous CU-CMe (video and sound link) session with several people from around the world. George Brett, in Colorado in the US, was one of the participants; his voice and picture came through quite faintly, until he asked if the camera connected to the session at the Netskills node could be pointed towards the bar. This was done, and a sudden improvement in sound and picture quality was noticed by all. George conversed with the bar staff, via this CU-CMe link, which he had become very aquainted with during his previous visit to Newcastle.
Following the global link-up, four parallel demonstrations were started, which people could wander about at will. Worldchat, a chat system with a highly graphical interface, generated the most interest (and noise); in addition, Donal demonstrated HotJava, while Jon gave a very impressive demonstration of VRML. In this, he demoed manipulating a helicopter, as well as zooming around a "virtual" Wallace and Gromit; in addition, Emma played "chopsticks" on a virtual piano.
The obligatory Netskills trip to the pub then ensued; the author of this piece, having suffered from excessive alcohol consumption on previous trips to Newcastle, wimped out to stay sharp for the next day.
Very early morning
Get up, catch the laid on coach (at 8:15) from the Hotel to the session. Very surprisingly for Newcastle, hardly any early morning traffic, with causes us to arrive early and ingest some very welcome caffeine.
The first morning session saw Walter Scales talk about searching on the Internet. He gave an excellent overview of the search engines available (Archie, Veronica, Lycos, X500, etc), and demonstrated some of the capabilities of Web-based systems, such as the Leeds University Library catalogue and the facilities in Mailbase for searching for people.
Walter was followed by Jon Shepstone, who made the audience participate in a "Netskills Internet Lottery". This consisted of people picking coloured balls out of a bag at random, which determined what type of Web site Jon would randomly access. This worked very well, as many of the problems (speed, lost links, moved sites) associated with the Web were illustrated to good effect. Jon used Lycos to search for UK government sites; he noted that what some Internet resources/indexes called abstracts were really just collections of words, or word streams from part of a Web page or document. Jon also changed the search slightly from "UK" to "British", which produced a severely different set of results, illustrating the perils of search keyword choice and the lack of search engine thesauri.
Jon demonstrated SOSIG, and showed how useful it was (in terms of speed and access) to differentiate between worldwide and UK-based resources. He quickly found, by searching, the CCTA service, and showed that in a proper index/gateway system, such as SOSIG, an abstract was really a proper abstract as opposed to a collection/stream of loosely/unrelated words.
A coffee break gave me the chance to talk to some of the trainees out of earshot of the Netskills trainers, so I could gain some unbiased comments; here is a sample:
"I'm surprised how honest the demonstrators are; they can be quite negative about the problems of the Web."
[In response to the above] "It was refreshing, 'cos you knew you were getting an accurate picture of the problems. The last course I went on, we paid a small fortune to be told how wonderful the Internet was, with no chance to verify this ourselves. This is so different, I wish I hadn't bothered with that course."
"Been here less than a day and have learnt stacks; the package we got [the trainees are handed a formidable package of materials, such as copies of the slides, descriptions and URLs of useful Web sites] will keep me going for weeks."
"This is so good; the staff seem to be working themselves to the bone to keep us busy, especially last night."
"Absolutely excellent; wish I'd have had this available to me a year ago."
"Brilliant, but a bit scary; all those things we saw last night, Java, VRML, the thing with the bloke from America on the computer, all new. How often will I have to keep coming on training courses to keep up, or stand still? I wish all this internet development would just slow down for a while."
"Can't believe how much I've learnt since I got here."
"Isn't the young lad with the Irish accent [meaning Donal] cuddly? Think they'd notice if I stuffed him into my bag and took him home?"
More opportunities to train on the PCs took place; the trainees had structured question and answer sheets by which (to win a prize) they had to find things on the Internet, in the process flexing their Internet searching skills. Dave Hartland then gave a talk on various side-issues concerned with the Internet, such as Netiquette, copyright, libel, "bandwidth wasting" and the effects of commercialisation.
Following this was a group discussion for the trainees, and some comments from Jill on Netskills overall and future courses. We then trooped off to one of the legendary Netskills buffet lunches (wide selection of foodstuffs, including diet destroying chocolate eclairs), a spot of unwinding and a chat with the departing delegates. However, there is no rest for an information Officer; straight after, it was off to interview Jill, then hop on a train for the international networking conference.