Two weeks ago I did something* that it had never occurred to me I would ever even consider, let alone actually do. About four times a year, at The Stand Comedy Club Newcastle, they have a special evening called Bright Club. Billed as “the thinking person’s variety night” and described as “researchers become comedians for just one night”, Bright Club started at University College London and has expanded to a dozen cities around the UK.
Here’s the video of my performance. I suggest you watch it before you read the rest of this post , or you could find your viewing enjoyment degraded by spoilers.
It all started with an email from The Graduate School at Northumbria University. (Well, I suppose it really all started with last year’s performance by Pablo Puente, husband of someone who recently got a design PhD at Northumbria.) I had heard it was great fun, and in the spirit of public engagement, getting more involved in the community, and just having a bit of fun I decided to attend the training session to find out more and decide whether I wanted to perform.
The trainers included two organizers and experienced comedians from Public Engagement at Newcastle University’s Life Science Centre, plus a professional comedian. We started off with a go-around about where were from and what our subject area was (most of us were from Northumbria), and then they talked to us about the structure of comedy and how we should formulate our sets. I wasn’t sure I could write one and have it ready to perform in two weeks, so I said I’d come to the first of the three rehearsals and decide then. But an email the next day said they already had four of the eight slots filled, so I went ahead and signed up to do it.
We were required to attend two of the rehearsals, but as a major newbie and OCD suspect I went to all three. The first time all I had was some notes I had made, while most of the others had draft scripts. Even though they had told us we didn’t need to have anything written for the first rehearsal, I felt woefully unprepared. But I got some good feedback, and I went home and started writing. The second rehearsal revealed that my script was too long, and again I got some good feedback about what to cut and how to present some of the material. People really liked the faces I made at the audience. The third rehearsal came in at just the right time. (We were allowed eight minutes, and they suggested we plan it for 7.5 to allow time for laughing.)
I was really worried about not being able to remember it all. I had started with a set of questions that I often get from locals about my experience as an American living in the North East of England, and to help me remember the questions in order, I invented an interviewer who would ask me the questions as she read from her notes. I was also going to read some of the comments on the YouTube meditation videos that I had analyzed in one of my studies, and the advisors said that it could be very effective to pull a list from a pocket and read them that way. So I did.
In the end I forgot only one line, and although it was funny† it wasn’t critical to the gist or the flow. I did go over my time limit by more than three minutes, however. I ad-libbed a little, but I like to think it was mostly because the audience laughed. They laughed a lot.
And afterward, two women over 50 came up to me and told me how important they thought it was that older women are participating in these kinds of events, that our voices are being heard. That was as gratifying as the laughter. Maybe even more so.
* I haven’t blogged about this before now because I was waiting for the video to become available.
† As the last part of the answer to the question about what I like about living in the North East: “I also like all the ancient ruins I find around here. (Don’t anybody take that personally.)”
First I suppose I should make it clear that I am the downstairs neighbor who is singing the blues here. I waited to write this until the problem appeared to be on its way to being resolved. I didn’t want to write it when all I would be doing was grousing, but now that my landlord and I are finally getting some action on it from the property management on the flat upstairs I’m letting y’all in on something that has been a royal pain for me during the last two weeks.
My ceiling has been dripping water.
Directly onto my bed.
Naturally, this started on a Saturday evening. I had come home from an evening out, to find on the duvet a wet spot about a foot by a foot and a half. (I had been hearing occasional drips for a month or two, but nothing I could pinpoint, and until this particular evening I wasn’t even sure that it was dripping into my flat.) A smaller spot had been there the evening before, but it had been raining that day and I thought I had just gotten some water on my day pack and it had drained off onto the bed.
Nope. This time the spot was much larger and I hadn’t placed anything there at all, wet or dry.
When I pulled the sheets back, I saw that the water had soaked through all the way to the mattress. I put a towel over and under my feet (it was late enough that I didn’t feel like making the bed in the guest room) and slept dry enough. I texted my landlord, who said he’d leave a voicemail for the agency responsible for the flat upstairs and would phone them first thing Monday morning.
The next morning (Sunday), the sheets and mattress had all been stained by the dark purple towel. (I don’t have any light-colored towels.)
Sunday night it did it again. But this time I was home and I moved the bed out of the way, and I put a small bin under where most of the drops were coming from. The next morning there was about 3/4 inch of water in that little bin! Some of it splattered onto the sheet, but not in a major way. It’s a good thing I have two lamps, as there is no way I would switch on the overhead light — it might short or (worse) cause a fire! The bed was now jam-up against the chest of drawers, of which I could get into only the top two.
On the Monday, my landlord told me the prop-mgt agency sent their maintenance contractor around. He discovered that a tile had fallen from the wall in the shower area directly above my bedroom. Fortunately, the flat upstairs has a second shower, so they told the students not to use that shower until the wall had been fixed. That would be a while because it needs to dry out. I took some photos of the damage.
On the Wednesday evening it dripped a little, so I found the prop-mgt agency on Twitter and tweeted them about the problem. I figured we were getting nowhere with private entreaties so it was time to escalate by taking the problem public. On the Thursday their Twitter person replied, he or she seemed genuinely concerned, asked for property details and then gave me the number to call. (It was the number my landlord had been calling.)
The following night it started dripping again — about 10:30. (I know the time because of the timestamp on my text to my landlord.) He came over the next morning to look at it and also pointed out a different ceiling stain that was worse than it had been before. I tweeted the prop-mgt agency again and told them the tenants are Chinese students whose English is very poor (I’ve spoken with several of them, or tried to) so they will have to be instructed in Chinese; the agency said they have a Chinese member of staff who could do that.
No drips for more than a week. I was optimistic.
Until last night. I moved the bed out of the way again and put something down to cateh the drips. I texted my landlord, who said he’d phone the agency this morning. We agreed that the only thing to do was disconnect that shower so it couldn’t be used (rather than relying on the tenants to follow the instructions) and I tweeted the prop-mgt agency to say so. When I hadn’t heard from my landlord by 1:30 this afternoon I texted him to ask about the status, and he phoned me back to say he had left several messages for them this morning but they hadn’t gotten back to him. Since I was downtown anyhow, I decided to go to their office and camp out until they took action. That finally got their attention. I explained the situation and they looked it up in their records. I’m not sure that they actually had communicated anything to the tenants in Chinese, but they did tell me that the maintenance person removed several wall tiles and told the tenants not to use that shower until he returned. (Evidently he didn’t tell them why, and they didn’t realize how important it was.)
So I sat in the agency’s office for over an hour this afternoon while they looked in their files and phoned and wrote notes. They did send someone out to remove the shower head. They had a Chinese speaker right there, and he eventually managed to speak with one of the tenants and explain what the problem was and what they needed to do about it. They in turn were upset, he said, because they were told not to use one of their two showers, had not previously been told why, and still were not being told when they would be able to start using it again. I don’t blame them for being upset!
So the property manager and the maintenance contractor and my landlord will have a powwow on Monday early afternoon.
In my opinion, the property management company bears most of the blame for all of this (and I generally dislike talking of “blame”) because they had a responsibility to communicate with their tenants and with the owner of my flat, and they did not do either of those properly (and in some cases not at all).
I do hope that this situation is now about to come to an end. What this has taught me, however, is that if I ever get to the point of being able to buy a dwelling in the UK, it won’t be a ground-floor flat with a student flat (especially one of five or six bedrooms) above it.
I also have to say that throughout all this, my landlord was almost as frustrated as I was. I know that if it had been his flat that was causing the damage he would have had it fixed right away and would have done much better communication with both of the other parties.
And now I’m going to order some new sheets.
I’m coming into the home stretch with the first pass of coding the interviews that I have transcribed (I still have 4-5 left to transcribe), and I’m struck by how different they are. Some interviews yield relatively few codes, with multiple paragraphs going into a single excerpt coded with one tag. Other interviews yield a crapload of codes, with a single paragraph generating several excerpts — even overlapping excerpts — some of them being tagged with two and even three codes.
When I have finished the first pass, I will need to make a second pass. Often, I realize that a code I have applied to a later interview needs to be applied to an earlier one. Or I notice that I have created a new code that’s essentially a duplicate of one I had done earlier, and I have to go back and merge them. Yesterday after the AR-2 meeting I read my list of codes to my primary supervisor and he didn’t notice anything that sounded inappropriate or irrelevant, but he wants me to get the list down to about 40 (I now have something like 70). This can be done partly by grouping the codes and using the group name as the main code while still retaining the detail in case I need it.
Then I will need to do “axial coding”. But first, I need to get my head around what exactly that is. Good thing I have a book or two on Grounded Theory. :-)
I adore my topic. I love how inspiring and moving the interviews are for me. No matter how many times I go over them, I always feel closer to my interviewees and I feel my spirits lifted by what they say. Even when I don’t share their beliefs.
Today I had my Second Annual Review meeting, which involved my two supervisors and two panel members. One of the panel members was new, a replacement for one who is away doing a project in South America, so I had to provide a little background that he had not previously had. The panel offered some very incisive and insightful questions about my work so far and my plans for the next year, and they made some very helpful and useful comments and suggestions. My supervisors said I handled the questions very well, one of them commenting that it was good practice for next year’s viva voce exam of my thesis. I am delighted to say that the panel approved my progression to Third-Year PhD student at Northumbria University. Woo hoo! They did identify some changes that I would need to make going forward, but none of those were show-stoppers at this stage. My secondary supervisor emailed me afterward with some excellent thoughts about how I could frame my contribution to knowledge and define a clear path to finishing within the year. I’m not going to go anto any further detail here, but let me just say that that email was wonderfully welcome and appreciated. I’ll keep you posted as things progress throughout the year.
I’m having a nice glass of dry, full-bodied red wine this evening. Italian, of course. :-)
This year I didn’t go to Whitley Bay for the Guy Fawkes celebration. I just walked over to Newcastle City Stadium and watched the city’s fireworks display. I have to admit that North Tyneside’s festivities are much better (that’s where I discovered the mesmerising Worldbeaters Music “Spark!” show two years ago), but I didn’t feel like taking the time to go out there, as I’m heavy into data analysis right now (almost finished with the first pass of coding my interviews) and feeling the time pressure of that. So walking the 200 yards or so to the city’s display seemed like the thing to do this year. I’m glad I’ve photographed fireworks enough to have a sense of what may come out well and what won’t, so that I can spend my time just watching the “what won’t” without trying to photograph it. I enjoy both the photographing and the watching, and this is a good balance for me.
In case you’re curious, you’ll find my set of fireworks photographs on Flickr. Some of the older ones are not so great and I should probably delete them. But I have more urgent things to do right now. So I’ll end this here and get back to interview data coding. Ciao e a presto!
Today I participated in a day of singing Georgian Christmas music from the North of England, in a workshop of the West Gallery Music Association. Mostly from the 18th and 19th Centuries, the pieces we did today were all unfamiliar to me, and with one exception I liked them very much. Interestingly, I liked the earliest and latest ones best. But neither of those is actually Georgian, the earliest being at least as old as 1611 and the latest having been composed by one of our singers (who is also the organist at Newcastle Unitarian Church and is how I learned of this workshop).
I found it strangely (or maybe not so strangely) moving and inspiring to sing music in Northumberland that was, in part, from old Northumberland. It wasn’t ancient enough to predate the history of European America, and it’s possible I’ve sung American music that’s as old as almost all of these, but it was old and rich nonetheless. I will do this again, given half a chance.
I also couldn’t help thinking that the first of November is awfully early to be having Christmas music events. But the UK has no Thanksgiving to start off the festivities.
I may be jumping the gun slightly, posting this tonight when there’s one more day of NordiCHI to go, but my talk was first thing this morning and a lot has happened since then.
I got up at 4:45 to rehearse a couple of more times for a 9am talk. I made a few mistakes in the talk itself, but nothing earth shattering — and I finished on time. Only one person asked me a question during the session itself, and I was kind of disappointed in that (I figured it indicated relatively little interest), but during the rest of the day at least a dozen people came up to me to say how much they enjoyed it, and most of them asked questions or wanted to talk further. Some of the questions were about imaginary abstracts (which are peripheral to the focus of my research, but useful nonetheless) and some were about techno-spirituality (which is the focus of my research :-). Two people urged Mark* and me to participate in future conferences, one about design for quality of life (in 2015) and the other a science fiction track in a 2016 conference. I said I’d love to (of course :-) and would pass the word along to Mark. (Which I promptly did. And of course he was delighted to hear that. :-) I was also invited to give talks to two groups at Edinburgh University in the new year, and of course I said yes. :-)
Lots of interest, lots of interest. Conferences really do wonders for my mood. I skipped the second session this morning to read the papers that were going to be presented in the session I was chairing during the third session, and while I was sitting there I was approached by a guy with a video camera, who said he was asking people to express their reactions to NordiCHI in one word. Mine came to me right away — “energizing” — and he filmed me saying that. “Energizing!” I suspect they’re going to use the clips in the closing plenary event, which I think is pretty cool.
There’s so much going on in the European academic community. I would dearly love to find a way to remain part of it. Stay tuned.
P.S. I’ll put the slides on SlideShare before long. But before I can do that, we have to indicate the sources of the images we’ve used.
*For new readers of this blog, “Mark” is Mark Blythe, my primary PhD supervisor and coauthor of the three published papers to which I’ve contributed. I’m first author on two of them; Mark is first author on the one I presented this morning.
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.
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.
This 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.
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.