Absentee ballot requested!

I’ve just put in an online request for an absentee ballot for the November election — Maryland has statewide elections this year in addition to the Congressional one, so it’s important. (It’s always important, but Maryland’s having its statewide elections in the “off year” makes it especially important that I vote every time, if I can.)

I put in an online request for the primary, and they sent me the ballot via email. I was in the US at the time I received it, so I asked a friend to mail it for me, which she did, but then I got an email from the state saying they hadn’t received it. Big sad. This time I’ll post it from the UK (I wish I could send it electronically as well) and hope that service is more reliable. At some point I have to go look at the ballot questions and also see what the Democratic Party recommends for each one. I may or may not move back to Maryland, but I intend to remain involved as long as I’m able.

There’s nothing* I’d rather spend Sunday doing…

…than singing early music in Italy with a bunch of congenial people of similar ability (i.e., not perfect and not crap). Most of the early-music choirs I’ve sung with have been full of people whose main concern was to sing the pieces well, and everyone felt free to give and receive comments and tips on what they were doing that wasn’t quite right (rhythm or note or whatever). There have been a few exceptions, but for the most part I’ve found that the people who come together to sing this music are just interested in the joy we get from singing this glorious music with a group of like-minded people.

I can also say that there’s no way I could have done this workshop (or the Tallis Scholars Summer School, either) seven years ago when I began singing early music. I’m sight-reading relatively well these days (although admittedly these groups don’t sing anything as rhythmically difficult as Dunstable or Parsons or, god forbid, Fawkyner, all of which Collegium Cantorum did while I was with them). Although my use of music technology to learn CC pieces gave me the spiritual experience that motivated my PhD topic (and without which I wouldn’t be living in the UK or studying at Northumbria), I have to confess that I’m just as glad to be less dependent on it nowadays.

*Well, almost nothing… ;-)

Coming up on two years

I’m taking a bit of a break from Newcastle and the intense PhD work, having submitted my Second Annual Review (AR-2) materials for review and comment by my panel. I hope to have the review meeting in early October, so that I can make any changes they require and re-enroll (sorry, UK friends, this is my blog, not my thesis, and I refuse to spell “enroll” with one “l” :-) for my third year before my anniversary date of 19 October. My supervisor said he thinks it will be mostly a formality, as (he says) I’m ahead of most PhD students at this point.

Problem is, I don’t feel ahead! There’s so much I wanted to do that I haven’t gotten done. But I have done a fair amount of other stuff along the way, and I guess he feels that’s enough to put me on track for where I should be at this point. He did say that I have an amazing publication record for a PhD student. (With respect to that, however, I have been around the HCI academic community for many years, and I have some idea of what should go into a research paper.)

I’m taking a week off for a singing workshop in a small hill town in Liguria, Italy, about 40 minutes’ drive north of Arma di Taggia and very close to the French border. It’s a beautiful little town, and I’m staying in a tower room that is up one flight along a spiral staircase. Wonderful people, great cameraderie — and I know it will be a week’s worth of fabulously satisfying singing.

Then on to Torino, Bologna, and Rome, with probably a side trip to Milan during my stay in Torino. I have a seminar to prepare for Bologna (my friend Fabio is a professor there) and I’m thinking about how I might speak to a group of computer science students about awe and wonder and how technology might support them. Hmmm…

Good thing Bologna isn’t next after Triora! :-)

Online dating

Tonight I’m here to confess that I have begun exploring online dating. I’m not going to give any details about how it’s going (I’ve gotta keep some things to myself, eh?* :-) but I will say one thing: There are a lot of fakes out there. And I am learning to spot them rather quickly. (OK, that’s two things. But they’re intimately related.)

Two guys tried to convince me that they had grown up in Italy. (Heh heh. My profile doesn’t mention that I speak Italian.) So I wrote to these guys in Italian. One pretended that he had been away so long he had forgotten most of what he had learned as a child, and the other insisted on using English because I am American and I “wouldn’t understand Italian very well”. So I called their bluff. (Fortunately, automatic translators have not yet reached the point where their output would be mistaken for natural speech.) Haven’t heard from either of them again — which is A Good Thing. ;-)

Other red flags I’ve noticed are:

  • “I don’t know how to describe myself. Ask me anything.” They want to find out what you care about, without revealing anything.
  • Describing who they are and what they’re looking for in language that sounds like what they think women want to hear (sensitive, communication, etc.)
  • Refusal to answer questions about what prompted them to move to where they live and what they like and dislike about it. (I want to know what makes someone tick.)
  • Pushing to move to direct contact (phone, usually) before any correspondence of any substance has been exchanged

I’m sure I’ll identify more red flags with time. There’s probably a list somewhere, too; I haven’t looked. My friend Dave says these people have a manual that tells them what to write and how to respond to people they’re trying to con. Another friend (the one who encouraged me to do this, btw) reminded me of the usefulness of Google, especially its reverse image search, in which you upload an image and it finds similar images on the web. In doing this I found that one guy was using photos from an Australian actor’s website. My friend and I often say to each other, “Geeks with Google, FTW!”

I should also reassure my friends that I am keeping myself safe. Just for communications resulting from these contacts, I have created a new email address and bought a cheap (99p!) pay-as-you-go (what we call “prepaid” in the US) mobile/cell phone. The phone number cannot be traced to me, and I won’t give anyone my regular number until I am truly confident I can trust him. So far I have met one guy in person (nice guy but no chemistry) and followed the guidelines: meet in a public place, tell a friend where you’re going, tell the friend what time you’ll text or ring them to let them know you’re safe… I have also talked to four guys on the phone — one is fake, two may become friends but aren’t good matches, and the fourth may be a possibility (and without going into detail about how I came to this conclusion, I will say that I trust him enough that I gave him my regular phone number) and I look forward to meeting him in person (which won’t happen until next month, for scheduling reasons). We may well not be a good match, but at least I am in no doubt that he is who he says he is, and I’m confident that he’s a good guy. And that’s not such a bad thing.

*Besides, one or more of the guys may someday read this. Not gonna make that an uncomfortable thing, nuh-uh.

August in Newcastle…

…is like October in Maryland. (Without nearly as much leaf color.)

Every once in a while I find myself surprised by the treatment of early August as the beginning of autumn and the harvest season (the harvest festival is what the August 1 Celtic holiday of Lammas/Lughnasadh is, by the way) — but then mid-August hits and I say to myself, “Ah, October!” This is my second August here, and so far I have found the month to be fairly sunny, windy, and cool, with highs 15-18C and lows hovering around 10C. Just like October back home.

I might wish there were more leaf color (no, cancel that — I do wish there were more leaf color), but I have always enjoyed the feel of autumn and I am again enjoying August in Newcastle.

Data collection: The neverending process

My late husband was a very good cook. Born and raised in Italy, he used to say that there was no such thing as too much garlic in a dish — the only way you knew you had enough was you couldn’t stand to cut any more.

(Then Trader Joe’s started carrying frozen crushed garlic cubes, and that blew that heuristic: it was possible to have too much garlic.)

It occurrs to me that it’s the same with data: one always wants more. It’s oh, let me interview this person, or oh, let me interview that person!

I do have a few more interviews to conduct, to get a broader variety of spiritual and religious perspectives in my data. But I keep thinking of more perspectives I’d like to add — and I do have to stop somewhere. Interviews take an amazing amount of time to transcribe — although as I do so I’m already analyzing the data mentally — and I’ve got less than 15 months left of my nominal three years before my thesis is due.

That said, I will continue to interview people until I have captured the important perspectives that I still lack.

And I’m sure I will always wish I had more data.

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.


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