Clarity, I hope

Earlier this week I completed and sent off a submission to the late-breaking work venue of the CHI 2016 conference. (I got it in about an hour later than I had hoped, but a good 45 minutes before the deadline.) I’ll find out in about three weeks whether it’s accepted and I’ll be presenting it as a poster in San Jose, but my supervisor says it’s “brilliant” and “cracking” and I am optimistic. I know it’s good work and provides a contribution to knowledge.

Even if my submission is not accepted, though, writing those six pages has given me a sudden clarity on what my thesis must contain, and I can now see my way clear to moving ahead with that. I still have a little analysis to do, but I’ve finally finished data collection (shortly before Christmas) and now my task is to write it up.

I’ve put “I hope” in the title of this post because there’s always the possibility that the writing-up process will reveal things that I still need to clarify. But I do now, finally, have confidence on what my main contribution will be to knowledge in the human-computer interaction field. That’s a good feeling.

An aside: For a thesis, they call it “writing up”. I find myself wondering what the difference might be between “writing up” and “writing down”. :-)

Christmas in Newcastle

This year I stayed in Newcastle over the Christmas break and didn’t have company or go to anyone’s home. I took advantage of five “Christmas in Newcastle” events in the series sponsored by the students’ unions of Northumbria and Newcastle Universities. Three of these had been on my Newcastle bucket list: the Beamish Museum, a Christmastime pantomime, and the Northumberlandia outdoor sculpture.

Christmas Dinner

A traditional English Christmas dinner is served on Christmas afternoon at a local church. We had turkey, stuffing, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, Christmas pudding — the traditional dishes of Christmas dinner in the UK. Then we watched the Queen’s annual Christmas Day speech to the Commonwealth. I sat with some Chinese students and got validation of my impression of Chinese food in Newcastle — quality costs more than it should. (IOW, the good stuff is expensive and the less expensive stuff is not good.) The Queen spoke for 15 minutes or so, mostly about good will and Christmas. I would have liked to see more personality and feeling in her delivery, but my British friends tell me that the wooden style is how the British monarchy presents itelf. Oh well.

Beamish Museum

On the Sunday after Christmas, a coach (bus) took two dozen students to the Beamish Museum, an outdoor museum that illustrates life in the North East of England in the 1820s, 1900s, and 1940s. They have a 1940s town, a 1900s pit mine village, and an 1820s manor house and church. They also have a working farm, a steam train, a couple of ice rinks, amusement-park rides, cafes, and several gift shops. The staff dress in period costume and explain to visitors how life was in that time and place. Some offer demonstrations of period techniques (see photo for candymaking). This is how I like to learn about history.

Kneading candy
Beamish Museum candymaker kneads sugar concoction while making lemon drops.

Tyneside Cinema

Although I had already seen a few films at our wonderful independent movie house, the Tyneside Cinema, I signed up for the afternoon there, with the film to be determined on the day. The selected movie turned out to be the new Star Wars episode, in 3D. The film didn’t have much of a plot (a couple of surprises near the end), but I enjoyed watching the special effects.


Dick Whittington pantomime screenOn New Year’s Eve I had my first experience of that classic British Christmas tradition, the pantomime (“panto”). I knew it wouldn’t really be my thing, but it was definitely an experience I had to have during my time in the UK. This one was Dick Whittington at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, and it loosely followed the legend of Dick Whittington, whose cat is said to have driven the rats out of London and thereby made Whittington Lord Mayor. This production substituted Newcastle for London (of course), and it contained a lot of in-jokes about Geordie language and culture (some of which I got, to my pleasure). I would describe the panto as, basically, slapstick musical comedy with audience participation and displays of skill (e.g., magic and acrobatics). I enjoyed the comedy and the repartee with the audience. I’ve never gotten into slapstick or musical theater, but I found engaging the overall feeling of joy and fun. I doubt I’ll attend another panto, but I’m glad I discovered what it’s like.


Northumberlandia from the airToday a minibus took a dozen students to visit the Northumberlandia land sculpture, also called the Lady of the North. One cannot get an overview of this sculpture from the ground, but that’s what aerial photography is for. (This image is from the Northumberlandia site).

The face of NorthumberlandiaThe weather wasn’t ideal: I would have liked to see the place on a sunny day, and the ice on parts of the path prevented me from walking the whole thing and ascending to the forehead. At least it wasn’t raining, though, and I managed to get a few decent photos. The one here shows the face (left) and one breast reflected in the pond.

We also had lunch in the pub next to the park. I loved the atmosphere (family pubs are something I’ll miss terribly if I have to leave the UK), which was why I found the food disappointing. However, it’s one of the few pubs I’ve found in the North East that have Aspall cyder on draft.

And in the park I ran into some people I know!

Student visa extended!

The extension to my student visa has come through, so I’m good to stay in the UK until mid-February 2017. The visa support folks at the university told me it could take up to eight weeks, and since that period included Christmas and New Year’s I thought it’d be longer than that. But they had my new visa to me just three weeks from the date I sent in my application. Amazingly enough, that included the time it took for them to notify me that I needed to provide my biometric info (which they sent by snail mail to the university) and then for me to retrieve the letter and then go to South Shields (30 minutes or so on the Metro) and get fingerprinted and photographed after paying £19.20. Since it was near Thanksgiving, the line from “Alice’s Restaurant” about being injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected, and selected kept running through my head and it was all I could do to refrain from reciting it aloud — multiple times — but really, only the “inspected” and “detected” bits were fully applicable at this point.

Now they just need to send me back my passport. Think I’ll check with the visa support folks about when I can expect that to happen.

—- Update —-

Turns out that UKVI sent my passport and other documents back to the university, and they hadn’t let me know because they were expecting to receive my biometric visa card as well. So now I have everything back, and I’m ready to travel again. (Not that I’m going anywhere for Christmas, but it’s nice to be able to go if I want.)

Back to the drawing board, work wise

A few months ago I wrote of my delight in joining a great small company that was willing to sponsor a work visa for me a few months down the road. Now I must let you, gentle reader, know of my disappointment that it didn’t work out. Distance turned out to be a much bigger issue than any of us had realized. It just wasn’t feasible for us to collaborate remotely to the extent that would enable me to get up to speed with their way of doing design, especially because for the first few months I was to work only one day most weeks (occasionally two). I’m focusing on my PhD for the next few months and then will renew my efforts to find work. (If, however, something comes along before I turn my attention in that direction once again, I will of course consider it with pleasure.)

Awe requires feeling small — I don’t buy it

My research involves (among many other things, of course) reading literature on spiritual emotions such as awe. One of the first studies of awe came out a dozen years ago, conducted by psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). These researchers concluded that awe involves two main components: the perception of vastness and the need for accommodation of that vastness into the person’s existing mental model of the world — or of the universe, as the case may be. (They didn’t frame it in terms of mental models, but as a good HCI person I use that highly appropriate term from my field.) I find this a valuable model for my research.

What concerns me about the treatment of awe in most of the literature — at least, in the literature on awe in spiritual experience — is that it tends to associate feelings of awe with feelings of being small and insignificant. Now, Keltner & Haidt themselves didn’t say that feeling awe necessarily involves our feeling ourselves to be small, just that we perceive vastness in whatever evokes awe in us. (NB: They also emphasize that “vastness” isn’t limited to size alone but could also refer to beauty, goodness, or any of several other characteristics.) Other researchers, however, have taken this to mean that a feeling of awe must necessarily involve a feeling of oneself being small.

I disagree!

And so does Neil Tyson, it would seem.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, PhD, directs the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Tyson, a strong promoter of science and an outspoken atheist, describes with passion and eloquence the spiritual feeling that his knowledge of his physical connection with the vast Universe evokes in him. In what has been called his “Greatest Sermon“, Tyson explains his view. “It’s quite literally true”, Tyson says, “that we are star dust, in the highest exalted way one can use that phrase. …I bask in the majesty of the cosmos. I use words, compose sentences that sound like the sentences I hear out of people that had revelation of Jesus, who go on their pilgrimages to Mecca.” He goes on to stress: “Not only are we in the universe, the universe is in us. I don’t know of any deeper spiritual feeling than what that brings upon me.”

Tyson also says in the “sermon” that he had received a communication from a psychologist studying “things that make people feel small”, and he commented what a bummer of a job that must be. (Tyson doesn’t name the psychologist, only the university, but I can’t help wondering if it was someone studying awe and taking the approach that it necessarily involved feelings of being small or inadequate.) Donna Burdzy, in her master’s thesis completed just last year (Burdzy, 2014), created the “Sacred Emotions Scale” to tease out the components of the emotions that people feel when they perceive themselves to be in the presence of the sacred. Basing her scale mainly on Rudolf Otto’s framework of mysterium tremendum and mysterium fascinans (Otto, 1923), Burdzy divides her emotions into those of awe and those of fascination (with which I have no quarrel), and from my first reading of her thesis I’d say her method and statistical analysis seem sound. But here’s the rub: Burdzy defines awe as almost exclusively negative. The factor of “Sacred Awe” in the original SES includes sixteen “I felt” statements, and almost every one of them is unequivocally a statement of negative feeling. Examples include

  • “I felt like I could cease to exist”
  • “I felt worried”
  • “I felt unworthy of being in the presence of something so great”
  • “I felt insignificant”
  • “I felt concerned that I would be found wanting or at fault”
    (Burdzy, 2014, p. 85)

I see in the list of sixteen statements only two that might allow for neutral or perhaps even positive interpretation — “I was filled with awe” and “I felt humble” — but the Awe factor in this instrument is overwhelmingly negative and focused on feelings of smallness.

This aspect of research on awe and other emotions evoked by the sacred distresses me, and I refuse to accept it. I take comfort in Tyson’s comments to Bill Moyers Tyson’s comments to Bill Moyers, who asked him about some people’s concerns that astronomy makes them feel small. “It depends on what your ego is, going into the conversation,” Tyson replied, explaining that the atoms that constitute our bodies came from out there in the Universe. “I look up at the night sky;” he observed; “I don’t feel small, I feel large. I feel connected to the universe.” Contemplating the Universe, urges Tyson, “should not make you feel small; that should make you feel large.”

So. If I were a psychologist, I would consider doing more in-depth study of the emotions involved in spiritual experiences. To be fair, my interviews do support the claim that feeling small or humble can be associated with awe. But I don’t like the declaration of “always” in this context, and my data do not support that extreme position. Nor does my individual experience (or Tyson’s, as best I can tell). For now, all I can say to the claim that awe always involves feeling small and insignificant is this:

Not necessarily!

What about those of us who feel connected to the vastness that evokes our awe? What if we feel inspired by it?

It is not a requirement, I maintain, that to recognize and appreciate the vastness in something else, we ourselves must feel small or inadequate.

Do we really want to take a win-lose approach to spirituality?

Burdzy, D. C. (2014). Sacred emotions scale. Bowling Green State University.

Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition & Emotion, 17 (2), 297–314.

Otto, R. (1923). The Idea of the Holy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

In fairness, I must make this update to point out that during her analysis Burdzy ended up recognizing the positive position of awe in the experience. Not only did she rename her subscales — i.e., “Sacred Awe” and “Sacred Fascination” (initially named à la Rudolf Otto) became “Sacred Dread” and “Sacred Exuberance” because of how the items fell together — but she moved “I was filled with awe” from the negative group where she had initially placed it to the positive group that she ended up calling “Sacred Exuberance”. Kudos to Donna Burdzy for recognizing and honoring the need for this change.

Hi ho, hi ho — it’s back to work I go!

Dearest friends and colleagues,

It is my great pleasure to inform you that you are reading the blog of the new Principal User Experience Consultant at Natural Interaction Ltd.

I will start on 16 October, initially working one to two days a week under my student visa whilst finishing my PhD. Then, some time after the company get themselves registered to sponsor Tier 2 visas we will switch to that and I’ll be a permanent employee. I could not be more delighted about this. Chuffed, even. :-) We are all very excited about the great work we can do together.

Here’s how it came about: A year and a half ago I gave a talk at World Information Architecture Day 2014 in Bristol, about a technique I had learned during my PhD research that I saw as useful for IA practice. One of the attendees came up to me afterwards to ask me questions, saying he thought the technique would be useful on one of his projects. Adam Babajee-Pycroft and I have kept in touch, and prompted by the success he had with it on that project we have developed a workshop to teach the technique. We will give a short version of this workshop at UCD-UK 2015 next month and are preparing a longer version for other venues. Last week we had a Skype call to discuss the first workshop. I had already decided to ask Adam about the possibility of working for his company, and before I could get a chance to mention it he brought it up. He said he knew I was coming to the end of my three years and asked if I had any availability to work. I explained that my student visa does not allow me to work for myself and asked if he would consider sponsoring me for a Tier 2 General visa — and he said yes! We have been working out the particulars in the intervening time (during which time I was trying desperately not to count my chickens); and now, in less than a week, I have a firm offer letter and expect to have a signed employment contract tomorrow. There will, of course, be a probationary period (UK standard of six months), but every time Adam and I talk we discover something else on which we are very much in tune, and I am confident that this collaboration will work out well for all of us.

After I switch to a Tier 2 General visa I will of course be allowed to work more than 20 hours a week. What we plan is two days a week as a base, with more as needed for client projects. I envision continuing to do some research on techno-spirituality, probably on my own time because I doubt my visa would allow me to do sideline work that different from UX consulting. Client work will be done mostly at client sites and internal company work can be done mostly anywhere, so I will have the flexibility to live anywhere in the UK that has adequate access to air and rail transport. I’m open to staying in Newcastle — especially if I end up doing a fair amount of work for clients here and points north — but as much as I love the area during the day I have to confess that it doesn’t have enough Renaissance music to satisfy me and the Toon nightlife is a bit rowdy. Plus, I’ve always fancied living in London. I’ve got lots of decisions to make in the next few months!

When I came to the UK, almost three years ago, I was going to do my PhD and return to Maryland at the end of the three years. After about a year here, I decided I wanted to stay. And now it looks as though I just may be able to do that. And unless I end up in central London, one of the first things I’m going to do when this goes permanent is buy a car.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may have seen my musings about staying in academia or returning to industry, and in particular my decision that I would return to industry. I am still slightly sad that the academic route didn’t turn out to match my dreams, but industry really is where I belong — where I feel most at home and where I can make the biggest contribution. And now that I have an even better grasp of research, I am excited about making even more of a connection between the two than I managed to do before.

So if you have any UX consulting needs or just want to explore and discuss the possibilities, please contact me. I’ll have to start out slowly, but if you have a substantial need we can always consider having Adam take the lead with me supporting him in the time I have available.

Stay tuned!

Not so “leisurely” now!

I named this blog “Leisurely Seeking Doctorate” mainly because I started looking at doing this PhD some two years before I took the plunge and moved across the Pond. (I also wanted to make an allusion to the film “Desperately Seeking Susan”.) But leisure is looking the other way. I don’t have time right now to explain why (except that my one-year extension means I have to do another annual review and I’m preparing for that), but just let me say that I worked for most of the long weekend just past and that I’ll certainly be working as much as free time will allow during my upcoming week-long course.

Back to work!

Guerrilla IA – a workshop at UCD-UK 2015

I’ve just learned that Adam Babajee-Pycroft and I will be giving a workshop at the User-Centred Design UK 2015 conference (London, 24-25 October). Called “Guerrilla IA: Drafting an Information Structure When You Can’t Do a Card Sort”, the workshop builds on a talk I gave at World Information Archicture Day 2014, in Bristol. (Here’s my blog post about that talk.) While analyzing comments for a paper on YouTube meditation videos, I realized that the technique I was using (“inductive content analysis”) was building me an information architecture, and that it was a technique that could be useful to IA practice. So I presented this idea to a group of information architects (duh! :-) and Adam approached me afterwards to ask a few questions. He told me he was about to begin a project that would be a good candidate for trying it out, and I was excited to learn that my goal of bringing research into practice might bear fruit so quickly (if goals can be said to bear fruit). Well, the technique turned out to work very well on his project, and the two of us have teamed up to create a workshop/tutorial to introduce and teach people how to use it. We will be giving this workshop for the first time at UCD-UK, so come join us! And stay tuned for further developments. :-)

An amazing story of loss and recovery

I’ve been in Aberdeen for a couple of days. It had come time for me to use or lose some East Coast (Trains) Rewards points (due to their takeover by Virgin and Stagecoach and their rebranding as Virgin Trains East Coast), so I decided to pay a visit to this city. I had never been here before, and it was the farthest I could go from Newcastle in a northerly direction. I won’t go into detail about what I’ve seen and done — that’s not the point of this blog post, and besides, this isn’t a travel blog. But something happened today that I think is worth recounting because it was so amazing.

East Aquhorthies Stone Circle, near AberdeenI had booked a rental car for yesterday and today, as I knew I’d need one to explore what I wanted to see in the surrounding area. Today I visited the East Aquhorthies Stone Circle first, just outside Inverurie, not far northwest of Aberdeen. (And nicely cared for by Historic Scotland, I might add.) As I was returning to the parking lot, I noticed that a car was having trouble parking, so I told them that my car was just next to the space they were trying to squeeze into and that I’d leave to make more room for them. But when I plopped into the driver’s seat, I realized that it was not, in fact, my rental car (although it was eerily similar). So I jumped out and got into the correct vehicle, and we waved as I left and they parked.

About an hour later, what with meandering and all, I arrived at my next destination, Huntly Castle. As I was gathering my stuff to get out of the car, I was dismayed to discover that I couldn’t find my camera. Oh no! I thought, and realized immediately that I must have left it in the car-that-wasn’t-my-rental-car. So I had a quick run-through of the castle, but I couldn’t enjoy myself because I was worried about how I was going to see about finding my camera. So I spoke with the very nice man who was staffing the shop, and he advised me to call 101, the non-emergency number for the police. I did that, and they took my details and said they’d keep an eye out in case someone turned it in. I decided to stop by the site again just in case — perhaps someone had gone hiking and the car was still there, I thought; or perhaps they had left the camera — and besides, it was only a five-minute detour from the route back to Aberdeen. My head was full of ways in which I was going to try to let the finder know how to contact me. I was, for example, going to tweet some of the photos I had already copied to my laptop but had not yet deleted from the camera. I was going to write a blog post here, describing the incident and begging the finder to contact me. As I arrived back at the stone circle, my head spun with possibilities, both positive and negative. (Did I ever mention how good I am at catastrophizing?)

The car was gone. I looked around for the camera, but nothing was to be seen. (I didn’t really think someone would have taken that approach anyhow.) A couple was walking down the path to the car park, so I stood at the gate, ready to ask them if they had seen anything. All of a sudden I noticed that the rock that was sitting on top of the information board had something white sticking out from beneath it. I went to take a closer look, and lo! it said: “Lost camera found! Call me <mobile number>”. So I rang, and got voicemail. I left a message of effusive thanks — accompanied by my own mobile number, of course — and headed off to a nearby cafe for a well-earned break. I hadn’t gone 50 feet when my phone rang. I pulled over, grabbed it, and answered it eagerly. “I can’t believe you found my note!” the young American woman exclaimed. We arranged to meet in half an hour.

It turned out that Stephanie, the woman who had left me the note — the one who had my camera — was the driver of the car I was trying to help park. The other car was rented by an Australian couple, and since Stephanie and her husband are living in the Aberdeen area for a couple of years, she offered to take care of finding the owner. The Australian woman, she said, was miffed at her husband for not locking the car, but laughed that usually you expect to find something missing from what you had left in it. You don’t expect to find a nice camera added to your things. Stephanie went on to say that she had looked through the pictures, hoping to find one of me that she could use to search Facebook, but she found none; and she commented that I take gorgeous photos and not selfies. (I admitted that I do take the very occasional selfie, but I use my phone to do that because when I do, it’s just something I want to post to Facebook and the photographic quality is not very important.) So she decided she would use Google’s reverse image search — an excellent idea once I had uploaded to Flickr the previous days’ contents of the memory card (which I would have done this evening if we hadn’t found each other this afternoon). We had a good chuckle over all of the high-tech ideas that we had both had for putting ourselves together, when it was good old low-tech pencil and paper that really did the trick.

After I got back to my hotel I phoned 101 again and let the Scottish Police know that I’ve got my camera back. During this process I spoke to three different people at the help center, and all of them were extremely nice and personable. The last one was warmly glad about the positive outcome. Tomorrow I’m going to phone Historic Scotland and ask them to thank the man at Huntly Castle for his help.

In any case, all is well. I have my camera back and my faith in humanity nudged up a notch; and I’ve had glimpses of two Scottish castles that I want to return to visit when I have time to do them justice. All in good time; all in good time.


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