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September-October 2011

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FMF Celebrates Five Years: A Conversation with Founder Jordi Fabre

Figure 1. Jordi Fabre.

Figure 1. Jordi Fabre.

What do a former curator of the Smithsonian, an international mineral dealer, a European veterinarian, and an international inspector of nuclear power stations have in common? Well, they are all passionate about minerals and have their own shared space on the Internet: the FMF Forum (http://www.mineral-forum.com), which recently celebrated the fifth anniversary of its appearance on the Web (7 August 2006).

Its founder, Jordi Fabre of Barcelona, Spain, combines his role as a dedicated professional mineral dealer with his wide interest in mineralogy and has the clearest insights into the main activities and growth of FMF. Perhaps his closing salutations Audaces fortuna iuvat (“Fortune favors the bold”: Virgil's Aenid) in the English version of FMF and Todo suma (“The whole is greater than the parts”) in the Spanish FMF sum up nicely what the forum is all about.

ANTONIO ALCAIDE (AA): First of all, why did you establish FMF?

JORDI FABRE (JF): The whole idea was to create an open forum that pulls together all the news, science, and rumors about mineralogy worldwide. My idea from the start was to create a forum that went beyond simple reporting, one that had significant scientific input pitched at a level that would not put off amateurs. I firmly believe that amateur and professional mineralogists need to work together if the world of mineralogy is to really move ahead. The scientists need the field collectors to supply the raw materials with which they work, and the field collectors need the more scientific members of our community to keep observations and interpretations rigorous.

AA: Did you have any concerns when you began FMF?

JF: One of the things that initially concerned me was that my position as a mineral dealer might attract mostly mineral business people to FMF, making it overly commercial. This is why from the start we avoided “sale-purchase” postings and why much of my time as moderator is spent weeding out thinly veiled attempts to circumvent this prohibition.

Another important concern was finding exceptional moderators to provide scientific help. Right from the start we were lucky to enlist the help of a person well known in scientific circles, John S. White, who was then joined shortly afterward by Dr. Peter Modreski, and then later by Dr. Peter Megaw. They are well enough known that I do not think that I need to tell readers much about them, but it is clear that in large part thanks to them the FMF has been able to avoid trivial debates and commercialization.

AA: What do the initials FMF stand for?

JF: They really don't mean anything; it is just a convenient construction to avoid spelling out Mineral Forum, or something similar, so many times.

AA: How does FMF work technically?

JF: It is based on open source code, phpBB, which has both advantages and disadvantages. The most positive thing we get from being open source code is that FMF has been able to evolve far from the original design in both appearance and internal functionality. The major drawback is that each minor change implicates ignored and hidden parts of the open source code, so for every change we make we must revise the whole code; sometimes even a minor change becomes a kind of nightmare.

From the outset FMF has had an international dimension that is manifested in two almost parallel concurrent forums, one in Spanish and the other in English. We started in Spanish, and we often test new ideas on the Spanish FMF before adding them to the English version. Improvements such as the “most viewed photos,” messages announcing new postings, the “5,000 and 10,000 Clubs,” and the FMF Gallery all started in Spanish and then migrated to English once we saw that they worked well.

AA: How much technical support is needed?

JF: Basically, I do almost everything, with a lot of help on the Spanish FMF from Frederic Varela and Antonio Alcaide and some help from various people on the English FMF. Technical problems are solved by a team that, in addition to myself, includes Xavi Tutusaus and Joan Fabre.

Trying to keep with our original aim of providing an outlet for immediate and open communication, FMF has never competed with other prestigious mineralogical websites such as Mindat. In fact, we often work with Mindat and have developed a system of agreed mutual links between many of the webpages. As a result of this cooperative spirit we recently reached an agreement between the Spanish FMF and Mindat to create a special section of the forum (Zona Mindat), featuring a process somewhat like that used by Wikipedia, where we work to refine information on specific Spanish localities. Once we're satisfied with the results they are added to Mindat with the reference “FMF forum.” This has been a great new experience in collective knowledge gathering.

AA: In terms of numbers, how popular is FMF?

JF: As you might expect, we count our visitors, and the numbers are high overall as are the numbers for some specific discussions. Between its inception (7 August 2006) and mid-May of this year, users on the English forum posted a total of 17,072 messages on 1,549 topics; there were 1,601 registered users, 17,802 posted images, and 5,128,541 forum views. Curiously, visits to the English forum are not as high as those to the Spanish version (57,451 messages/17,201,712 forum views), which may be the logical result of the difference between the two: the English forum is somewhat more professional and the Spanish one somewhat more amateurish … and, of course, the Spanish forum draws many participants from South America and other Spanish-speaking countries.

Figure 2. A large group of Spanish FMF members who gathered to say farewell to the Mineralogy Museum in Barcelona before it was moved and modernized, losing its warm, familiar atmosphere.

Figure 2. A large group of Spanish FMF members who gathered to say farewell to the Mineralogy Museum in Barcelona before it was moved and modernized, losing its warm, familiar atmosphere.

AA: I think that really gives us a feel for how the forum works. Some collectors follow the discussions but feel that they are not able to participate because the debate is too technical for them to join. Is this a concern?

JF: We get many positive messages from new members who tell us that they have “shadowed” the forum for months or even years before deciding that they had knowledge to contribute. We always respond positively to new posts and encourage new members. It takes time to explain what a twin is or how to check the streak of a mineral, so one of my greatest pleasures is seeing someone who initially struggled (to put it gently) gradually learn and develop into an active member. The range of knowledge can make it hard to get a balance between old-timers and newcomers, so we try very hard to show respect and courtesy—often people can misinterpret a tone as condescending that is really more an outgrowth of the virtual environment than any real ill will. At times there are people who you think you will really detest because of how they “talk” online, but who actually turn out to be great when you meet in person.

AA: Which sections of FMF attract the largest following?

JF: I guess for number of visits that would be the “Show Reports” and “Images from Collections.” We have recently started a section called “A mineralogical trip through the states of USA” in which we get members to publish mineral photos from the various states. Through this we have had some real surprises! It is something I would like to continue to add to as well as expand to include other countries.

FMF is somewhat complex and has lots of sections, which creates somewhat of a paradox: I am a Spanish speaker yet I coordinate the English forum. But I think scientific themes are universal, and we always manage to understand each other.

AA: Well, I have always thought of you as an American who somehow was born Spanish. But that is something those of us who do not speak native English really miss when using the English forum: being able to make jokes fluidly. I would love to be able to use more irony (or even a little sarcasm), but that is really difficult for me. However, I guess we do have our white knight in John White, who we all know can beat us all in that particular field!

Getting back to interesting sections, are there any others you would single out?

JF: We created within FMF a list that pulls together the most interesting discussions, those that have had the most visits. These are in the 5,000, 10,000, and very recently the 100,000 (“Collection of Carles Millan” and not far behind “Gail's Collection”) clubs. On top of that I have chosen the most interesting discussions and put them together in a section called “Mineralogy Online” (see www.minerales.info), to which we also recently added the “FMF Gallery” (www.topminerals.info). Because FMF is not actually a database, with the great processing power that would give us, we went to considerable effort to create the Gallery, which people can get to from a link on FMF. In it you can see photographs of the minerals that have been added to both the English and Spanish forums. These are indexed and updated daily, and there are now more than 25,000 images available that visitors have published. The Gallery can be left in random order, or sorted by author, date, or title; by clicking on the image one can link back to the discussion where it was originally posted.

This should convey a sense of the wide range that is covered, from the novice collector who found a rock in their garden that they do not know anything, about right through to comments from a world-renowned authority on something that really helps all of us. So I feel that FMF encompasses numerous levels of mineralogical knowledge.

AA: What about the future of FMF?

JF: I hope that we have found a way of continuing it. I have spoken to two organizations that have said, as a minimum, they will maintain what we have already created if one day I or the current moderators should no longer be able to do so.

AA: So I guess I should explain why I spend hours each week in front of my computer working on FMF. Well, it built up slowly. At the beginning my Web searches about minerals often seemed to end up on FMF. When I became a member, I knew 10 percent of what I know now—now I know a beryl from a galena without any analysis—and I quickly learned that it was better to get involved and give something back in return for what the forum was giving me. At the same time, Jordi began to let me do things. So now the FMF is part of my daily life. I talk with mineralogists from across the world.

JF: Understanding your personal reasons for being involved with FMF leads me to invite our moderators to tell us their reasons for helping with FMF. I think that their thoughts, along with those of a few others, will help wrap up this interview. I would just like to take a moment to point out that the world has changed a lot, and that by becoming more virtual, it has become both more spacious and more intense (and you are talking about someone who a few years ago did not even know how to start up a computer). It is true that at times the change has led to a world that can be more trivial, confusing, and difficult to get involved with, but I guess that the first people to use an automatic washing machine were also very dizzy watching the machine turning.

Figure 3. Some of the party-goers at the 2011 FMF get-together, an annual event held in conjunction with the Tucson Show in February.

Figure 3. Some of the party-goers at the 2011 FMF get-together, an annual event held in conjunction with the Tucson Show in February.

Reasons for Involvement

Peter Megaw: I enjoy mineralogy and mineral collecting immensely, so interaction with other collectors and their collections plays a major role in this enjoyment, either in person at shows or online through FMF. As a professional exploration geologist I am very interested in large, complex mineralizing systems and how to find them, so many of my mineralogical interests focus on complex mineral parageneses and what unraveling them systematically can tell us about the evolution of the conditions from primary crystal growth through secondary oxidation processes. Wherever I am, calling on the collective resources of FMF participants gets me almost immediate access to images of related examples, additional observations, and different perspectives on what it all means. This can help support or disprove an idea quickly, and I love how dissenting opinions often lead in wholly unexpected and delightful directions. I like to help people wring as much knowledge as possible from their specimens, and I enjoy seeing folks make the careful scientific observations needed for reaching supportable interpretations of what they see. I wholeheartedly agree with Jordi's dictum to maintain scientific rigor while understanding that folks not steeped in science sometimes need gentle reminders of what that means. Perhaps most importantly, being a moderator gives me the opportunity to stir the pot and try to provoke wider-ranging discussion of the implications of features seen in certain specimens. This provocation is often done tongue-in-cheek to invoke a friendly, informal feeling … and so we don't start taking ourselves too seriously.

John White: I am in it for the money; Jordi pays extremely well! Seriously, though, a major focus of my professional life has been education, so FMF is a natural fit. I have lectured on mineralogy, taught courses, written a couple of modest books and many articles, created educational mineral sets, served on editorial boards, and, yes, I created a mineralogical journal. My participation in FMF started quite innocently; I had no idea that this idea of Jordi's would grow into what it has become. The creation of FMF is one of those events representing a profound change in the evolution of the hobby. Just as with Mindat, all of a sudden there is now a format in which collectors, and even mineralogists, can go to take advantage of a huge database in seeking help in a multitude of areas. FMF is something that I would have done if I had the energy and the talent to do it. I feel privileged to be a part of this noble effort because my admiration for what Jordi is doing is boundless and deserves whatever support I can provide. Are you blushing, Jordi?

Pete Modreski: I've been a member of FMF for almost four years, and for a time I was one of the moderators of the English forum. I have very much enjoyed reading the posts and being a part of it. The forum has an international flavor and perspective, and through it I've viewed a lot of great mineral photos and participated in some interesting discussions about mineral “puzzles.” But most of all, I've enjoyed meeting the people who take part in it: some just online through the forum itself, but many in person, whether in Jordi's room in Tucson, at the very enjoyable “tapas” parties he has hosted the past two years (and smaller get-togethers before that at El Minuto), and at the various show venues. Of course, it's been especially nice to have an extra reason to chat with Jordi himself when I see him there—he's really a great person, and his creating and maintaining the forum has been a very useful and enjoyable enhancement to the mineral-collecting community worldwide!

James Catmur: I have been a member of FMF since its early days, especially given my involvement in developing Jordi's website back in 1986 (a role I have now left to others). In fact FMF is my homepage on every computer I use, and I normally check what is new in both the Spanish and English forums every time I open a browser, as I use both of them as a means of keeping up-to-date with news and events. The Spanish forum is a great way of knowing what is going on in the Spanish-speaking world, and I have followed the Zona Mindat avidly (and even helped a little bit). I just wish I had more time to contribute to FMF, but work and kids mean there is too little time for FMF (and, it has to be said, for my minerals too!). One day I will publish photos of my collection, I promise! Keep up the great work on both forums.

Frederic Varela (FMF-Spain administrator): I am a dedicated fan of the English forum, even if I am less involved than I would like. The reason is the amount of work I have on the Spanish forum, where I am one of the administrators, as well as my somewhat limited knowledge of English. There is clearly a difference between the two forums. I feel that the English one has a feeling of tranquility and gentle currents. The Spanish one seems to move so much more rapidly; it is more rowdy and frenetic and requires more effort by the moderators. That is due, in part, to the larger number of members—some days we have avalanches of postings—and it may also be due to the Latin character. But I cannot complain, as I never get bored working with the Spanish forum!

Peter Lyckberg: FMF's forum, both the English and Spanish versions, is important in that many interesting questions are raised and are often answered by several people willing to share their knowledge and ideas. Those with little mineralogical or geological background who find the forum get much encouragement and information to develop their newly found interest and hobby, and the reports by Gail Spann are full of enthusiasm, love for minerals and people, and great images.

Gail Spann, perhaps the most prolific contributor to FMF: I love FMF; yes, really I do. I enjoy the camaraderie and the more gentle nature of the members of the forum. There is a patience and a sense of caring that is, in particular, appealing to women. And as a woman I appreciate the respect that I get while on there. I love the number of diverse topics and the sense of family. Learning from others is a vast part of entering the mineral world, and, as you can see, there are many very knowledgeable people who mentor on FMF. I love that I can do my show reports and upload photos in a fairly quick format. My hat's off to the moderators and, as one might guess, to Jordi himself. Cheers!

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I express deep thanks to James Catmur for translating the article into English, John S. White for reviewing the text, and Peter Megaw for his very useful comments.

Antonio Alcaide is a poet and a high school teacher in Spain. He holds a degree in philology and is fascinated by the mineral world.

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