“Experiences of the Human Spirit”


I have struggled mightily with what to use as a general term for the type of experiences I’m studying and hoping to develop design concepts for products that can support. Initially, Mark (my PhD supervisor, but regular readers of this blog will know that already :-) and I referred to them as “spiritual and numinous experiences”, but too many people thought “spiritual” implied religious (so I had to explain that) and not enough people had even heard the word “numinous” (which is OK in academia but not in general life). More recently I’ve been saying “spiritual experiences, which doesn’t necessarily mean religious but could also involve nature, the universe, etc.”, but that’s just too long and it also sounds defensive.

Then I’ve listed the various phrases that people use to characterize these experiences:

  • spiritual experiences
  • peak experiences
  • mystical experiences
  • numinous experiences
  • experiences of awe and wonder

Too much explaining!


Just a few days ago the perfect term came to me: these are experiences of the human spirit. The title of my research, after all, is “User Experience and the Human Spirit” (which I came up with almost four years ago, when I started exploring the path that this blog covers) — and it’s only my subtitle that uses more specific terms. Amazing that I didn’t think of this sooner.

Fortunately, it’s not too late to use it. I’ve got my Second Annual Review meeting this coming Monday, and I’ll float it to my panel then. (Mark already called it “Nice!” :-) But I really do think it’s perfect.

And a few days in Rome

After a week in Torino I went to Rome for four nights. I was supposed to have four days in Torino and three in Bologna before proceeding to Rome, giving a seminar at UniBo, but something came up and Bologna had to be cancelled. Next time.

I didn’t get as much work done in Rome as I had in Torino, probably because I had less time there and there’s more to see. I know Rome very well, as my late husband had lived there for 20 years before emigrating to the US, and he and I went there together many times (his brother still lives in the area). I don’t carry a map when I visit Rome. Once in a great while I need to ask directions (usually if I’m looking for something specific that I haven’t visited before, or not often), but most of the time (and especially in the centro storico) I know very well where I am and how to get to where I want to go.

Detail, Fontana delle TartarugheThis time I walked some streets I hadn’t walked before. I wandered the Ghetto — I had been there before, but not all around it as I did last week — and I discovered (again) the Fontana delle Tartarughe (the Fountain of the Turtles), which Antonio and I happened on once and he exclaimed that he could never remember just where it was. Well, now I know, and I’m not likely to forget. This makes me happy. I also walked some of the streets of the area called Monti — north of the Foro Romano and south of the Termini train station. I was early for an aperitivo with a friend and took advantage of the time to wander. I love wandering and exploring.

I tried three times to go to St. Peter’s, and never made it. The first two times, the queue to get into the basilica was too long. The third time, Wednesday the 24th, Piazza San Pietro was full of people and Pope Francis was riding around the piazza in the Popemobile, greeting and blessing the people. I didn’t go inside — I didn’t feel like removing my backpack/handbag and my camera for the security scanner — but I watched from outside the barricades and I did see the pope (although from a distance). So that’s three popes in a row that I’ve seen in person, and I’m not even Catholic. :-)

I was sad to notice that my Italian has deteriorated a bit in the two-years-plus since my previous visit to Italy. I was aware of not pronouncing the words as easily and of working harder to get the grammar correct. This time, although lots of Italians complimented me on how well I speak the language, no one asked me if I was Italian. Guess I’ll just have to go back more often. :-)

I have returned to the UK energized and ready to get moving on finishing my PhD. I have to complete AR-2 (my second annual review) in just over three weeks, and then to plan and execute a couple of workshops. After AR-2 I go to Finland (Helsinki) to present at NordiCHI 2014 the paper that Mark Blythe (my primary supervisor) and I wrote on science fiction, design fiction, and imaginary abstracts for techno-spirituality research. I’ve never been to Finland before (not been anywhere in Scandinavia, actually), and although I won’t be taking any time before or after the conference to travel around I’m looking forward to seeing what I can of it.

The most difficult thing about coming back to the UK was remembering to speak English to strangers (on the street, in shops, etc.). Haha. But I’m over that now. :-)

Oh, and I lost three pounds in Italy.

A refreshing week away

I’ve just spent almost a week in Torino, Italy, a city where I spent 25% of my time for 18 months, 25 years ago. I learned some things about the city that I had not known before:

  • Torino has 18 kilometers (more than 11 miles) of portici (covered sidewalks), and many of them go along what were the old city walls. Many were built when Torino became the capital of Italy, to add a common façade to a row of buildings and give the city a clean, unified look.
  • Some streets have continuous portici over the cross streets on one side but gaps across them on the other. This is because the side without the gaps was intended for the use of the nobles.
  • The city does have a medieval section (which I had never noticed before, if I had seen it at all), although it is tiny compared to those one finds in many (if not most) other Italian cities.
  • The Borgo Medievale (in the Parco del Valentino) is not only a reconstruction (which I knew), but is one that reflects what the 18th Century fantasized that the Middle Ages were like.

I’ve walked and walked and walked. On the side of the river where most of the city lies, Torino is almost completely flat, and one can walk forever without tiring (except for one’s feet). I walked eleven miles on my first day, then seven, five, six, seven, and four. I thought I wasn’t going to do much today because some friends took me to a nearby town for lunch, but I did manage to do nearly four miles after I got back. And even with all of this walking, I still managed to transcribe three interviews for my PhD research. (If you have any idea how long this takes, you’ll be impressed. :-)

I feel refreshed. And slightly lighter, perhaps. I may do this again in the spring. I certainly want to do it when the air is clear and the Alps are visible.

A stroll down memory lane

I’m spending a few days in Torino, the city where I first came to know Italy. For about a year and a half, some 25 years ago, I spent 25% of my time here; I was working on a contract with the company that at the time was called Aeritalia* and is now part of Thales Alenia Spazio. Aeritalia built the Columbus Laboratory, the European module of the International Space Station, and I was providing consultation in human factors and human-computer interaction. The project sent me to Italy for two weeks every couple of months (the perfect setup in the days before online bill pay :-). It was a magical time. On my first visit, I landed in Milan on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, 1987, and took the Alitalia bus to Torino, where my colleague met me and took me to lunch at a self-service restaurant called Brek. It soon started raining in the city, but in the hills across the Po it was snowing, so on the Sunday we went for a drive and a frolic in the snow and a coffee. (I adore snow, and I wish we had more of it in Newcastle.)

The Monday dawned clear. We were staying east of where we were working, and when we reached the crest of the bridge over the train tracks entering Porta Nuova station, wow! some 20 miles away, in all their snow-capped, Alpenglowing glory, stood the Alps. I was instantly in love. (Here’s a photo that gives an idea of what that looked like, although the Mole Antonelliana was not in our view as we were going to work.)

Torino is not a touristic city, and most visitors to Italy would not place it on their itinerary. It’s not full of Renaissance history like Florence, canals like Venice, or Roman history like Rome. But it is a beautiful city full of parks, where most things work, and every time I come here I am reminded of how much I love it. Yesterday I ambled around the city and savored the memories. Most of the attractions are closed on Mondays, but that’s OK. I walked up to the Monte dei Cappuccini (which should have a bar where one could get cappuccini), through the Parco del Valentino, and by our favorite pizzeria of the time, the Flegrea (which I’ve heard isn’t as good now as it was then) — and I stopped in at the Expo Residence, the place where we stayed during the two weeks we were in town. At that time our food allowance was only $27 a day, so we had to have most meals in, and a residence was the perfect solution.

I took 82 photos. Many of these will appear in the next few days in my Torino album on Flickr. My favorite, though, is still the one I took sometime in the early- to mid-1990s of a lantern in an archway leading to a courtyard. I’ve seen that scene several times since then (including yesterday), but it doesn’t have the punch that it had then. Maybe something about the scene itself has changed; or maybe the light quality has always been different. But that first one is just special.

In my ambles and my reminiscing, I tried to look at the city with the same kind of wonder that I experienced when it was new to me. Although practical reasons make that somewhat difficult — the Christmas decorations that adorned the city on my first visit then made it much sparklier and more magical than it is in ordinary old mid-September — I paid attention to noticing things I had not noticed before and to seeing known things with new eyes. I feel good when I consciously invite wonder into my life.

All in all, I walked eleven miles around the city. That’s the second longest walk I’ve ever done, and the longest since I was in my twenties. I love this city.

*Not to be confused with Alitalia, the airline.

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 turn out not to 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.


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