Category Archives: social

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.


Some thoughts on being a “mature” student

Recently I’ve been thinking about some of the advantages of starting a PhD as a “mature” student. (In the UK this means being over the age of 25, but my thoughts are about being well beyond that.) I have a long career in industry backing me up, in which I gained much knowledge and experience that I have found, for the most part, very beneficial in doing my academic work and that I know will help with teaching when I start doing that. I also have a certain level of confidence that I didn’t have 30-35 years ago.

Plus, I get senior discounts and free prescription medications. (This isn’t about being a student, admittedly, but it does help reduce the cost of doing what I’m doing.)

This morning a certain disadvantage was brought home to me. I attended a training session on how to become certified (not “accredited” as I wrote last night) to teach in higher education in the UK, and seated next to me was a very cute guy from Greece. Very cute indeed. Just my type, as well as warm and genuinely friendly; and the small-group activities gave us many opportunities to interact. If I had been half my age, I would have asked him out for coffee. I’m not half my age, though… and he is. So I just enjoyed the experience for its own sake, with a little wistfulness thrown in.

Thoughts on community involvement

Just in case you may not have noticed (haha): I am a foreigner where I live. I’ve lived in the Newcastle area for seven months and a week, and in my flat for six and a half months. But I am not a British national; I am a foreigner. I can get lots of things that are offered to residents: a public library card, a visitor parking permit (I could get a resident’s permit if I had a car), and a pass for local transportation. And, by virtue of my status as a full-time student, I get free medical care from the NHS (which I consider I’m paying for in part with my international student tuition fees, as I’m paying the difference between the “home fees” charged to UK & EU students and the full “international fees” charged to all others). The UK doesn’t even hold my international status against me for prescriptions: I’m over 60, so I get my prescription medications at no charge.

I cannot vote.

Mind you, I’m not complaining about this. I’m not a citizen, and I don’t expect to have a say in how the country is run. This is normal and appropriate.

But how much should I expect to be able to express my opinion?

I’m pondering what seems like a gray area: What are my rights and responsibilities as a non-citizen temporary resident? What is appropriate for me to do as a member of the community? What should I avoid doing?

Herewith my thoughts:

Participating in neighborhood civic activities

About a month ago I participated in the Big Tidy-Up in my neighborhood. Organized by two of the Newcastle City Councillors for my area, it involved residents spending two hours one Sunday morning, picking up litter along the streets and back alleys where we live. I’m a civic-minded person with a pretty good community spirit, so I gave up my Sunday morning at Newcastle Unitarian Church and joined the good folk of Sandyford in this important project. I also figured I’d meet a few people and become more integrated in the community.

Now, I have no doubts whatsoever about the appropriateness of my joining the Big Tidy-Up. Although it was civic more than social, it was a right and good thing for me to do. But it doesn’t involve expressing any sort of opinion about governance.

Talking to political activists

Several times when I’ve been downtown I’ve encountered people promoting one issue or another. First it was women handing out leaflets urging people to help save the Newcastle Public Libraries. I told them I don’t have a voice in city government but I wished them all success in their efforts. Perhaps I could have joined in: I do after all have a library card, and if I were not a full-time student I’d be paying Council Tax. Maybe I will do so if this comes up again. I suppose this isn’t really so gray an issue.

Hope Not Hate musiciansTwice, however, I happened on demonstrations about immigration. The first involved people holding signs that said “Stop Immigration, Start Repatriation”. I wanted to ask them (with all due snark) if they wanted to send me back too, or if they were concerned only about people of color. Instead I took a photo of them and posted it on Facebook, with that comment. The second demonstration was called “Hope not Hate” (see photo at right) and was pro-diversity and apparently opposed to the racism of the other group. These people, I stopped to talk with; I had no disagreement with them (as far as I knew) and wanted to convey my support. After hearing about their goals from one of their reps, I told them I appreciated what they were doing and wished them all the best.

This past weekend the English Defence League (EDL) held a march in downtown Newcastle, and 1500-2000 people attended. The news article said they were opposed by a group of about 400 people from a group called Newcastle Unites. I don’t think I would have wanted to be around for that, but I admit to being curious. It’s one thing to make a big production of going to the National Mall for a huge march on Washington DC, and it’s another when I can get there by walking no farther than the distance from my house in Maryland to the Metro. I can’t see that I have any business participating in any such demonstrations, however; they are about national political issues and I definitely have no voice in those. But to watch from the sidelines might be interesting sometimes.

Expressing opinions on city governance issues

When I was talking to one of the Councillors (who belongs to the Labour Party, and I’m still uncertain what bearing that has on things), I expressed my reservations about expressing opinions about governance issues that affect the neighborhood. He replied that he represents the whole district, not just those who can vote, and said he would be happy to hear my views at any time. So we’ve talked about a few things, most notably the collection of recycling and household waste and the appropriateness of turning a partially vacant office building into 140-bed student housing. But those topics directly affect my quality of life as a resident of his jurisdiction, and I feel perfectly OK in taking him at face value wrt his representing us all.

OK, back to writing my paper. I will have something to blog about with respect to that, in a few days.

There will be music!

Tonight I went to my first rehearsal of the Cappella Novocastriensis (warning: dreadful website!), hoping to join. I had been told that the procedure was to attend a rehearsal and then have an informal audition afterwards. I had never seen any of this music before, and although I do read music I don’t do it quickly, so it usually takes me a few times of going over something before I’ve got it. But I managed to keep up, for the most part — largely by listening to the other woman on my part. I am singing First Alto in this concert because it’s what’s most needed this time, and the range of my assignments goes from low D (below Middle C) to F two octaves above that. Whew!

I asked the director afterward what he needed from me, and he said, “Nothing; I was watching you and you seemed to be keeping up pretty well, so I think you’ll do fine. I’m glad to have you.”

Yay! (Knowing the idiom of that kind of music makes all the difference.)

And then some of us went to a nearby pub. I’m so glad to have some social connections outside the University.

I will have to learn the names of the types of notes. Why in hell do they call a quarter note a “crotchet”? grumble, grumble


Also, I got my phone sorted out today, moving my iPhone to T-Mobile UK. I have unlimited Internet, unlimited phone calls, and unlimited texts, for only £21 a month. I won’t be allowed to call overseas with it for the first three months unless I pay a deposit, but I figure I’ll probably use Skype for that anyhow.