A week in Athens

Last week I visited Athens again to give keynote “Long-Term Engagement” at Usability And Accessibility Days 2014.  The rest of the event was in Greek, so I got excused to wander across to see the exhibition of contemporary icons by Helena Krystalli in the adjoining room.

The talks included vignettes about Walking Wales, Tiree Tech Wave and other technology projects on Tiree, the InConcert musicology data project, and Talis software for learning analytics.  the linking theme was the different time frames for engagement and key properties/heuristics at each level including ‘desire and disaster‘, matching cost–benefit, and ‘Micawber management’.


As well as the talk I got to see old friends in Athens, many of whom I’d not seen for five years since my last visit for the 2009 SIGCHI Greece event when I was talking about ‘Touching Technology‘.  Despite the years it seemed like just yesterday when we’d last talked together.

Although there was some evidence of change (Angela who I stayed with now has two daughters instead of one), much was the same (George’s house is still waiting to get its central, hearing working).

However, when I was in the research office the day after the talk I decided that Athens definitely is in stasis when I am not there.  We were sitting talking and I happened to look up at the board and saw writing there.  It was a little obscure, and intriguing, but as I examined it I realised t was in fact my own handwriting, written there 5 years ago during a discussion in the same office.



To be fair there was some additional evidence of change beside Angela’s child; the new Acropolis Museum has opened, a wonderful building of glass and steel built to display the many treasures found by archaeologists, and most especially the whole of the upper floor laid out to recreate the frieze around the top of the Pantheon.  There are some gaps, but much of the sculpture is either there, or, where the original is elsewhere, in plaster cast.

The plaster cast sections all say where they come from, except the vast majority simply say ‘BM’ … it took a few before this sunk in, the British Museum … the Elgin Marbles – too sore a point even to write the words in full.  Indeed the whole museum is partly a statement to show just how much is in London not Athens, and also that Greece is now quite capable of preserving them.

It is a complex question undoubtedly much more would be missing, eroded or damaged if Elgin had not shipped them to Britain in the 19th century, and clearly not every work originating in a country should be returned … I imagine all the obelisks around Rome being sent back to Egypt!   However, seeing the museum and vast proportion saying ‘BM’ brings home that this is not simply a small amount elsewhere, but a large proportion, and in many ways the ‘best bits’.

There is also something different about the iconic monuments of any nation: it is as if parts of the Tower of Pisa were in Germany or London Bridge in Arizona …

To take our minds off such heady matters Angela and her family took me swimming in a volcano.  Christmas music playing in the background while bathing in water at 22° C.


A month away brain engaged and blood on the floor

Writing at Glasgow airport waiting for flight home after nearly whole month away. I have had a really productive time first at Talis HQ and Lancs (all in the camper van!) and then visits to Southampton (experience design and semantic web), Athens (ontologies and brain-like computation) and Konstanz (visualisation and visual analytics).

Loads of intellectual stimulation, but now really looking forward to some time at home to consolidate a little.

During my time away I managed to fall downstairs, bleed profusely over the hotel floor, and break a tooth. My belonging didn’t fare any better: my glasses fell apart and my sandals and suitcase are now holding together by threads … So maybe safer at home for a bit!

Touching Technology

I’ve given a number of talks over recent months on aspects of physicality, twice during winter schools in Switzerland and India that I blogged about (From Anzere in the Alps to the Taj Bangelore in two weeks) a month or so back, and twice during my visit to Athens and Tripolis a few weeks ago.

I have finished writing up the notes of the talks as “Touching Technology: taking the physical world seriously in digital design“.  The notes  are partly a summary of material presented in previous papers and also some new material.  Here is the abstract:

Although we live in an increasingly digital world, our bodies and minds are designed to interact with the physical. When designing purely physical artefacts we do not need to understand how their physicality makes them work – they simply have it. However, as we design hybrid physical/digital products, we must now understand what we lose or confuse by the added digitality. With two and half millennia of philosophical ponderings since Plato and Aristotle, several hundred years of modern science, and perhaps one hundred and fifty years of near modern engineering – surely we know sufficient about the physical for ordinary product design? While this may be true of the physical properties themselves, it is not the fact for the way people interact with and rely on those properties. It is only when the nature of physicality is perturbed by the unusual and, in particular the digital, that it becomes clear what is and is not central to our understanding of the world. This talk discusses some of the obvious and not so obvious properties that make physical objects different from digital ones. We see how we can model the physical aspects of devices and how these interact with digital functionality.

After finishing typing up the notes I realised I have become worryingly scholarly – 59 references and it is just notes of the talk!

Alan looking scholarly

Alan looking scholarly