A bit of catching up on the blog…

…after an overlong gap…

I haven’t written a blog post here in more than three months. Zowie. I can’t say I’ve been any busier than usual, so I really don’t have any excuse. But a lot has happened since my last post. Here are the highlights.

CHI 2014

At the CHI 2014 conference (Toronto, late April – early May) I participated in the Doctoral Consortium, two days of discussion with 13 other PhD students (there were supposed to be 15 of us in total but one couldn’t make it) and six “faculty” members who gave us feedback and other useful information. Most of the presentations were excellent, I thought, and I got some very useful and valuable feedback on mine. Each student had a principal “discussant”, who began the conversation after the student’s 20-minute presentation/summary; after the discussant’s comments the other faculty members gave their feedback, and sometimes other students asked questions or offered comments as well. Each of us took notes for one of the other students. My discussant was Bill Buxton, and his first comment just delighted me: “I had all sorts of questions from reading your submission, but in your presentation you answered them all.” He did go on to make some suggestions for things I might consider, as did the other faculty members. More than one of them sent me emails with suggested readings.

Then there was the rest of CHI. Other than hearing interesting talks and seeing people I care about and don’t get to see elsewhere, the best part was meeting, quite by accident, Nathan Matias of the MIT Media Lab, who is interested in digital pilgrimage (a type of techno-spirituality, no?) and who expressed interest in collaborating with me on such a project. We have yet to set up a time to have a more in-depth conversation about it, but I am confident that the mutual interest is there.

Here’s my PowerPoint presentation to the doctoral consortium. I’ll upload my submission later.

Visit to USA

After CHI, since I was already on the west side of the Pond, I took myself down to the States to visit family (North Carolina) and friends (Maryland, mostly, but also other parts of the DC area). This time I stayed in an AirBnB room — I didn’t want to burden people I’d stayed with before, and almost everyone else I know well enough to ask for hospitality has cats (to which I am, sadly, allergic). I met with my accountant and got my 2013 taxes straightened out. I had dinner(s) with some close friends. I went to CSC Headquarters to talk about how I might fit into the reorganized group to which I have been assigned. And I conducted interviews for my PhD research. I came back to the UK with eleven new recordings and some really good data. (I am still transcribing them.)

Northumbria Research Conference

In late May I gave a shorter version of last year’s DPPI talk, “Meditations on YouTube” at the two-day Northumbria Research Conference. At this venue the technology wouldn’t cooperate and so I couldn’t play clips of the videos, but I think it went OK.

Scottish Unitarian Association

I had been invited to lead the service at the end of the Scottish Unitarian Association’s annual general assembly (I think that’s what they call it), so I drew on what I’ve been learning about awe and wonder in my reading of literature on spiritual/numinous/transcendent/peak experiences and made it about awe and wonder. People said they liked it and it gave them something to think about, so I’m happy. (I will be giving a slightly longer version to the Newcastle Unitarians in October.)

I took an extra couple of days and explored Dundee, where the meeting was held. I stayed with a member of the Dundee congregation, and I feel I’ve made a new friend. She told me I have “a very Scottish face” — a wonderful compliment to receive from a native. (I have noticed that Scots tend to treat me as a native [until I open my mouth, of course :-)], but it’s nice to hear it expressed outright. Now, if Scotland would just go independent and relax their immigration policies to include anyone who can prove Scottish ancestry within the last 300 years… (I do have a Gaelic surname, after all!)

NordiCHI paper accepted

Just before CHI, my supervisor and I had submitted a paper to the NordiCHI 2014 conference*, to be held in Helsinki, Finland, in late October. About the end of June, we received word that it had been accepted! Mark is first author on this paper and we don’t know who will be going there to present it, but I do hope it’s me. (He agrees, but it’s not entirely up to the two of us, so we’ll see. Stay tuned and keep your fingers crossed!) The paper is called “Chatbots of the Gods: Imaginary Abstracts for Techno-Spirituality Research” (Mark is truly a genius at writing titles), and it combines our work on imaginary abstracts (a type of design fiction) and techno-spirituality with the treatment of spirituality and religion in science fiction. Here’s the abstract:

This paper reflects on the intersection of human-computer interaction (HCI) with techno-spirituality and science fiction (SF). We consider science fiction treatments of spirituality, religion and “the numinous” — a mysterious presence that evokes fascination, awe and sometimes dread — as stimulus for exploring techno-spiritual design through “imaginary abstracts”, a form of design fiction. We present an imaginary abstract — a summary of a paper that has not been written about a prototype that does not exist — to explore possible user reactions to an artificial intelligence system that provides spiritual advice drawn from diverse sacred texts as relevant to the user’s question. We argue that SF is a valuable resource for creating design fiction and may help HCI build a vocabulary for techno-spiritual experiences.

We got some excellent feedback from our three reviewers (I totally adore informed, thoughtful reviewers!) and are now preparing the camera-ready version, which is due next Monday. I’ll post a link to that when I am allowed to provide the publication version (with ACM copyright notice and all).

Tallis Scholars Summer School 2014

Earlier this month I spent a week in the East Midlands of England, in a picturesque and charming town called Uppingham, to spend a week singing the music of (mostly) Thomas Tallis and Willliam Byrd, composers of the middle and late 1500s. This was my second year there, and as I had last year I enjoyed it greatly. On the Friday, the last evening of our week there, we went to Lincoln to sing evensong at Lincoln Minster Cathedral, where Byrd had served as organist for several years. Here are my photos of the cathedral.

*I make no apologies for NordiCHI 2014′s illegible logo.

Another year in my flat – under the same landlord

My landlord came by last night so that we could sign a contract for another year’s lease (the buyers had asked him to do this before the sale completed), and he told me that the final appraisal had come in substantially below the price they had agreed on, and he wasn’t willing to lose money on it, so he said no to the lower price… and he took it off the market. (He said he thought it was due to a comparison of recent selling prices in the neighborhood.) I liked the (prospective) and anticipated that they would be decent landlords, and although there are a few things I’d prefer to have different about my current landlord, I gotta say he’s pretty good (FAR better than the letting agent that manages the flat upstairs, from what the nice Northern Irish boys tell me), and I like the idea of not changing to an unknown landlord when they might not be as good to me.

So I’ve signed for another year, with no increase in rent (yay!). I told him that I won’t want another whole year after that and am not sure I’ll want even another six months, so we’ll just go on month-to-month after this new contract expires. I expressed confidence that he won’t give me a notice to vacate even then, and he said “absolutely not!” and went on and on (again) about how fantastic a tenant I am. As an example, he said that he checks his two other properties every three months to make sure the tenants are taking care of them adequately, but he feels no need to do that with me.

It’s a nice feeling. :-)

Now I just wish the estate agent would come and take down the “Sold” sign!

Keyword frustration

Fairly soon (perhaps shortly after CHI), I’m going to issue a call for a consensus around the keywords we use in techno-spirituality research. Author keywords (the keywords that authors list when they submit papers) are all over the place, and this is causing me (and no doubt others as well) to miss finding existing research that could be useful. But a full-text search gets a gazillion papers that aren’t relevant, because they often use the terms in ways other than what would indicate religious and spiritual life — e.g., “in good faith” or “the spiritual successor to {X} project” or “the religion of open source”. Other HCI research areas may well suffer the same sort of inconsistency, but as techno-spirituality is a very small and relatively new specialization, I think this lack of consistency poses an especially large challenge to us in becoming aware of each other’s work and finding possibilities for collaboration and cross-fertilization.

I have many more thoughts on this, but I’m not going to go into them in this post because I am working on a paper and don’t have time right now to write them up in a clear and well-structured way. But I do have a few ideas for approaches to addressing the challenge:

  • A Facebook group for techno-spirituality researchers
  • A Twitter hashtag for techno-spirituality (I’ll certainly create a Twitter list from my own account — which btw is @ebuie)
  • A Google Doc or Spreadsheet for collaboration on the development of a set of common keywords we can use

I’d like to invite comments and suggestions here, to seed this effort. And if you’re going to CHI, let’s talk in person as well. If you’ve worked to address this problem in a different specialty, I’d especially love to hear about your experiences.

And now, back to the paper.

My biggest challenge in research

One challenge gives me more trouble than any other in my PhD work. (At least, one is in the forefront at the moment.) As I write for submission to a conference (and even more so to a journal, when I get to that point), I simply must keep in mind (and find an answer to, duh) one question:

“What research question does this paper answer?” 

What I learn in my research may be interesting, intriguing, fascinating, new, mesmerizing, etc. etc. … and that’s all well and good. But as I express my thoughts about the paper we’re currently embroiled in writing, Mark (my PhD supervisor and coauthor) keeps asking me what research question my ideas will help the paper answer. I understand this to mean that unless the paper answers a research question, other researchers won’t be interested in reading it or hearing me present it at a conference. And I wouldn’t blame them.

I must keep reminding myself to think of my work in these terms.

“Onward and upward,” as a former boss of mine used to say.

That quote prompted me to google my ex-boss, only to discover that he died less than a month ago. Sad face.

A new site for my research

Until now, I have provided my research products on this blog. Today I am changing that. At my supervisor’s suggestion, I have created a site specifically for my research — a less informal place that will allow people to learn about my research without having to wade through all the musings and personal-experience thoughts that this blog houses. It’s not fully populated yet — that will happen in the next three weeks or so — but it does have the poster that I’m going to be presenting at CHI 2014 (both to the Doctoral Consortium and to the conference as a whole). I’ve started it now because I needed a URL for the poster.

The new site is at uxandhumanspirit.wordpress.com, and the poster is at http://uxandhumanspirit.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/chi2014-dc-poster-buie-black-1000×1000.jpg. (Both of these links open in new tabs/windows.)

About to present twice at Northumbria Uni

In the next two months I will be presenting at two conferences at Northumbria University. One is the “PGR Conference”, for postgraduate researchers (i.e., research PhD students) to talk about our research. In that one, first- and second-year PhD students who want in get in.

The other one is kind of a big deal: It’s the Northumbria Research Conference, and it’s open to both academic staff (what we call “faculty” in the US) and research students. This one was competitive, and today I received word that my submission had been accepted. As you can imagine, I’m feeling pretty dadgum good about that. :-)

In both cases I will be presenting the paper I gave last September at the Designing Pleasurable Products and Interfaces conference (here’s a link to my blog post about that). The paper, called “Meditations on YouTube“, is an analysis of viewer comments on YouTube videos for meditation. I had hesitated to submit the same thing to both Northumbria conferences, but I was assured that there will be very few people attending both (probably only the PhD students who are presenting at the larger one), so I did.

I like being in a field that has so few people working in it and so little existing research. I’m not competing for attention with a lot of other people working in the same area, and it’s wide open for research contributions. This doesn’t make me a shoo-in, of course — my work still has to be of good quality — but I suspect it helps a bit.

Dental care in the UK: my introduction

Today I had my first dental care, other than a checkup I had last year just to get started with a local dentist. I had made an appointment for a checkup and “scaling” (the UK term for what we call a “cleaning” in the US), and I was kind of expecting the kind of cleaning I was used to getting. Dentistry is not covered under NHS care for most people, and I’ve been curious to find out how the cost would compare to what I’ve been paying in DC. I expected it to be somewhat less but relatively comparable.

Boy, was I in for a surprise.

Since I arrived in the UK I’ve been flossing more diligently than I did before (although I was never exactly a slouch), because I learned that Brits expect to get a routine scaling/cleaning only once a year (as opposed to twice in the US) and I knew I would have to be more conscientious in my own care of them.

I did such a good job, it turned out, that the dentist didn’t want to do a scaling at all. He said they don’t do them routinely here, and he said I had so little tartar that it wasn’t really necessary except in the lower front. But I said that I wanted one and was prepared to pay, so he did a light once-over and polishing. It was less extensive than what I’ve been getting (possibly because of my recent diligence in flossing) and it took only 15-20 minutes rather than 45.

I was amazed at the fee: a whopping £18. Folks, that’s only about $30. And that included the nitrous oxide. As I recall, the last time I had my teeth cleaned in DC (a year ago), I paid more than six times that much (including nitrous).

Dental care is pretty different here.

Driving test — passed the first time!

Holding my certificate

Holding my certificate

I am delighted to say that this morning I passed my practical driving test. In about three weeks I will receive my Great Britain Driving Licence. This will give me a lot more freedom and flexibility, as I will be able to rent a car — and I won’t have to shell out £34 and two hours every week or so for a driving lesson.

Driving lessons? you ask. Yes, driving lessons. Not because I don’t know how to drive — I got my first driver’s license in 1968 and learned to drive a manual transmission five years later. And I drive a clutch, too — I’ve never even owned a car with an automatic transmission. But the driving standards here, what they look for when you take your driving test, are extremely precise. They watch how you use your mirrors, how you turn the steering wheel and shift the gears (your licence indicates whether or not you are allowed to drive a manual transmission), whether you stay to the left side of your lane, how well you see things ahead that will make you stop or change direction — a gazillion things.

My instructor, a lovely Sikh guy and new father named Jas, had told me that a minority of people pass the practical test the first time they take it. (At £62 a pop, not having to do it again was really important to me.) We had been hoping for fewer than than the seven “minor marks” I received (you’re allowed 14), but Jas said that with the examiner I had, seven was quite good. My examiner was a bearded guy in late middle age, and although I liked him and found him congenial (he even made a joke as we were finishing up), Jas said that he tends to be very strict and has even been known to reduce examinees to tears. No doubt he could tell that I am an experienced driver, and maybe he factored that into his evaluation. Whew. 

Anyway, I am very pleased to have this behind me. #happylittledance

Update: I should add that I needed to obtain this licence because the UK allows me to drive on my Maryland license for the first year only.

Thoughts on next week’s driving test

I’ve booked my practical test for a week from Friday. Every time I have a lesson I do something that my instructor says would be a “fail” on the exam. (You can’t do anything that would cause another driver to slow down or change direction.) Yesterday we had to decide whether I’m ready for next Friday, and he said yes, as my general driving is fine and he himself tends to be more demanding than most of the examiners. We’ve pencilled in a second lesson for next week, and on Tuesday we’ll decide whether or not I need the second one.

I’ll be glad to be able to drive here. I’ll be even gladder to get rid of the expense of the lessons. Whew.


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