morning newspaper: MPs and Elgin Marbles

I usually only read the newspaper when travelling and either do the ‘free mineral water with newspaper’ deal (usually the Telegraph, maybe the only way they can sell newspapers), or whatever they have in the hotel or plane.

The front-page news today is the Israeli attack on the Gaza aid convoy, which needs no further comment.

of MPs

However, I also got yesterday’s Independent when I arrived at the Holiday Inn near midnight.  One of the main stories then was still the ‘outing’ and resignation of David Laws.  The key issue here (at least in principle) was not that nature of his personal relationships, but that he had not disclosed that the flat on which he was claiming rent belonged to his partner.

I was glad to see Mark Pack’s commentary in today’s Independent take a robust view of this, noting that while Laws may have broken rules (still to be determined), there had been no financial gain involved, and indeed the arrangement had saved the taxpayer money.  Pack’s contempt of the Telegraph was perhaps not unexpected in a column in a rival newspaper, but echoed my own feelings.

I was happily abroad during the height of the MPs expense ‘scandal’ last year, but was appalled at the coverage, not least because my travels take me to countries in Europe which would give anything to have the high standards of public office we take for granted in the UK.  In the end a handful of MPs may (still sub judice) have abused the system, but the vast majority were simply trying to do their job.

A short while ago I happened on the web on a page detailing the expenses of a Cardiff (now ex) MP Julie Morgan, when MPs expenses came under the spotlight, she rechecked her previous claims and indeed, with more careful checking, it turned out that the claims she had made on her mortgage did not match the actual expenditure.  Over the five years of the last parliament she had accidentally over-claimed in two years to the total of £800 … but in the other three years had under-claimed to the tune of £1900.  The rules meant she could not retrospectively be paid for the under-claimed years, but did pay back the £800 for the over-claims.  Despite being £1100 out of pocket, one of the lowest claiming MPs and indeed paying significant amount of her own salary to help maintain her constituency office, on the books she will part of the statistics of the large number of MPs who repaid expenses and so appear to have been doing wrong.  Crazy!

and of Marbles

Back to today’s newspaper and deeper into the Independent a very old story that is entering a new phase: the fight for the return of treasures from around the world displayed in British Museums.  The most well know is of course the Elgin Marbles (maybe Germany may claim them as security for Greece’s Euro-bailout), but others include African treasures taken during punitive raids by British soldiers in the 19th Century.

The issues seem clear-cut for a Liberal-minded Independent reader, but maybe things are more complicated; certainly some of the items, including the bronze ‘Birmingham Buddha’ would not have survived to the present day if they had not been removed – if only the Victorian adventurers had also removed some of the giant Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in the 1990s.

I wonder how far repatriation should go, what is the statute of limitations for national treasure?  Maybe as the Birmingham Buddha travels back to India, several hundred shiploads of railtrack and steam trains will be repatriated to the UK, offloaded at Felixstowe docks and moved overland to form a mountainous sculpture of piled steel in the centre of Birmingham.

Having just been in Italy, I am sure there are many Italian artefacts in British museums, but then in Rome there are a number of Egyptian obelisk’s removed by the Romans 2000 years ago.  However, I would be surprised if, in turn, the Egyptians had not taken artefacts from other parts of the ancient world.  For that matter, what about the work done by the Israelites in Egypt before the Exodus?  If not for the fear it might be taken seriously I might suggest Israel could claim this.

In fact, these treasures are often more symbolic of the greater rape of natural resources and human labour that still continues today in many parts of the world today.  Indeed being brought up in the shadow of the South Wales coal valleys, I am well aware that the benefits of natural resources rarely go to the countries where they are found nor the labourers who mine them.

One of the key arguments against repatriation of ancient artefacts is that the curatorial standards are higher where they are presently.  Indeed the pillage of Iraqi sites after the fall of Saddam could be seen as overwhelming evidence that institutions such as the British Museum do the whole world a service.  Repatriation of artefacts to less secure countries would put at risk our shared global heritage; after all who knows what civilisation the UK and US will decide to decimate next.

Last days in Rome

Five weeks in Rome seemed like a long time, but with a week mainly in Milan and Trento and the coming week in India, in fact just three full weeks and they have flown by.

I had imagined long evenings reading philosophy of the physical world, and weekend afternoons under the shade of a tree on the Palatine Hill, but it didn’t quite work out like that.

Of the ‘work’ books I brought to Rome (and borrowed here), I have only read Gibson’s “The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception“, Goodman’s “Languages of Art” and Noe’s “Action in Perception“; and of the ‘fun’ books only Tamara Pierce’s  The Healing in the Vine. I have flights back and forth to India next week, so may manage a bit more then, but mainly overnight, so I fear most of my bookshelf will return to the UK unread 🙁

One of the reasons is evident on a table in my office. Normally at home when I finish something the paper from it ‘goes away’ somewhere, but here as I have read something or finished with printouts I have been laying them out on an empty table in case I wanted to refer to them again. So the table is now covered, smothered, in the results of three weeks normal academic work. I am amazed, if not aghast, at the volume. The entire table between 50 and 500 sheets thick in paper, I’d guess somewhere between one and two thousand sheets of paper printed, read and to be discarded. I mentioned climate change in last post and, boy, it looks like one academic can wipe out most of the Amazon and drown the South Pacific single-handed.

I have printed out a bit more than I normally would as I knew I couldn’t print things during the evenings at the apartment and so tended to do so ‘just in case’ before heading out of the office.  So normally some of this would have been dealt with purely electronically, but nevertheless, the volume is frightening. And I don’t think this was a particularly unusual three weeks in terms of volume.

So what is here?

On the one side there is input: there is a PhD thesis, twenty of or so papers reviewed or meta-reviewed during the period, several papers given to me by people to read while here, one EPSRC grant proposal I reviewed, and a few piles of papers I was referring to in things I was producing during the period. On the output side during the three weeks two grant proposals have been submitted, one other needed extra work and a STREP is in process of preparation for the autumn, two journal papers, a book chapter, an article for Interfaces, some work on other papers, and a few internal reports for discussions about future work. Other things never saw paper: a couple of long blog posts (5000 words between them), three job references, innumerable emails, and the preparation for 33 hours of masters and PhD teaching and two other talks.

Although I often feel busy seeing all that paper makes it tangible and does shock me somewhat. But I know this is relatively normal; Aaron Quigley‘s twitter feed is exhausting just to read!

So, did I see much of Rome …

Well on one Sunday, with Manuela, Francesco and his daughter I visited the annual open-air art exhibition of the 100 painters in Via Margutta (between Piazza di Spagna and Piazza del Popolo). One of the artists was, Paul Van den Nieuwenhof, a friend of Manuela and Francesco from whom they had recently bought a still life (apples). Paul’s real passion is more avant-garde installations, but the still lives are mainly focused on the Italian market where modern art is not so popular. Looking at his more traditional paintings I was impressed again by the way an expert oil painter creates light from pigment: shapes and solids seem more the medium and the pure light the message.

Another Sunday I took lunch in a pizzeria on the Trastevere (my favourite place for both pizza and bread), and took a meandering path there nearly as far as St Angelo and sauntering along the Tiber … but mainly because I took the wrong road out of Largo di Torre Argentina. In the middle of Argentina is a large exposed ruin, and I was told (but by whom I have forgotten!) that this was where Julius Caesar was assassinated.

Incidentally, while in Milan (which I will write about separately sometime) I learnt that in Julius Caesar’s time it would have been pronounced Kaiser as in German today, the softer ‘c’ came later.

Apart from that I am ashamed to say no art galleries or exhibitions, and my main view of Rome has been the area between Termini station, the Department, and my appartment, ‘Al Colosseo’, a lovely location within sight (just) of the Collosseum (see below).

However, most mornings I have taken a run down past the Colloseum as far as Circo Massimo and one or more laps of that. It is a popular spot for morning runners, although I prefer it best when I get there a little earlier. Not to avoid the others, but because from about 7am when the sun starts to rise it gets so hot. The most interesting end of Circo Massimo is currently boarded off as they do works there and in the last 2 weeks the far end has turned into a mini-stadium for Beach Soccer, I assume to coincide with the UEFA football next week.

Tonight it will be another pizza evening and I am promised it will be at a place that specialises in Roman-style pizzas and those lovely deep fried vegetables. Italy is about sun and ruins, about design and expensive cars and the Vatican and bureaucracy, … but above all it is about food and friends.

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

From Anzere in the Alps to the Taj Bangelore in two weeks

In the last two weeks I have experienced both Swiss snow and skiing and Indian sun and traffic for the first time. The former was in Anzere for the French speaking Swiss Universities’ annual winter school and the latter in Bangalore for meetings (including another winter school) connected with the UK-India Network on Interactive Technologies for the End-User. Both have been exciting both personally because of their novelty as experiences and professionally due to stimulating discussions … happily not dry business meetings. I will blog later in more detail about both.

I guess joy always has its pains: in the case of skiing, blisters on my shins; and in India, the nearly inevitable wobbly tummy!

People have been wonderful in both Switzerland and India, both those in the meetings themselves and those I’ve met along the way.

I knew a few of the Swiss people already Denis and Pascal from a previous visit, but most were new including Micheal, my ski buddy, who had been in Switzerland for a long time, but was his first skiing too. Our ski instructor Rudy from Ecole Suisse de Ski et de Snowboard – Anzère was absolutely wonderful with seeming endless patience as we practised again and again (including the odd tumble) things that to him were so natural … if you want to learn to ski, ask for Rudy! In the village the woman at the ski shop was also wonderful helping find the right boots and equipment for someone who hardly wears shoes normally, and when she realised how bad my shins had become, she Christened me “Brave Shins’ :-/ I struggled to recognise her English accent until she explained she was brought up in Belgravia … it was just posh 🙂 However, the lady at the Anzere tourist information was my hero of the week; insisting on picking up special ‘second skin’ plasters from the pharmacy and bringing them to me at the hotel. Thanks to their ministrations my last day of skiing was blessedly pain free.

In India again so many wonderful people, Rama from HP who organized our demo day, the people on my Bootcamp team Ramprakesh, Dinoop and Ramesh, and many many others , and not forgetting the drivers of ‘autos’, including the one who smiled all the time, but got so embarrassed when accosted by the begging transvestites at the traffic lights.

Bootcamp Team: Ramesh, Dinoop, me, Ramprakash
(photo by Ramprakash)

Bangalore dinner: me, Vijay, Dinesh, Sriram
(photo by Ramprakash)

a Bengaluru auto rickshaw
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