Of academic communication: overload, homeostatsis and nostalgia

open-mailbox-silhouetteRevisiting on an old paper on early email use and reflecting on scholarly communication now.

About 30 years ago, I was at a meeting in London and heard a presentation about a study of early email use in Xerox and the Open University. At Xerox the use of email was already part of their normal culture, but it was still new at OU. I’d thought they had done a before and after study of one of the departments, but remembered clearly their conclusions: email acted in addition to other forms of communication (face to face, phone, paper), but did not substitute.

Gilbert-Cockton-from-IDFIt was one of those pieces of work that I could recall, but didn’t have a reference too. Facebook to the rescue! I posted about it and in no time had a series of helpful suggestions including Gilbert Cockton who nailed it, finding the meeting, the “IEE Colloquium on Human Factors in Electronic Mail and Conferencing Systems” (3 Feb 1989) and the precise paper:

Fung , T. O’Shea , S. Bly. Electronic mail viewed as a communications catalyst. IEE Colloquium on Human Factors in Electronic Mail and Conferencing Systems, , pp.1/1–1/3. INSPEC: 3381096 http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/articleDetails.jsp?arnumber=197821

In some extraordinary investigative journalism, Gilbert also noted that the first author, Pat Fung, went on to fresh territory after retirement, qualifying as a scuba-diving instructor at the age of 75.

The details of the paper were not exactly as I remembered. Rather than a before and after study, it was a comparison of computing departments at Xerox (mature use of email) and OU’s (email less ingrained, but already well used). Maybe I had simply embroidered the memory over the years, or maybe they presented newer work at the colloquium, than was in the 3 page extended abstract.   In those days this was common as researchers did not feel they needed to milk every last result in a formal ‘publication’. However, the conclusions were just as I remembered:

“An exciting finding is its indication that the use of sophisticated electronic communications media is not seen by users as replacing existing methods of communicating. On the contrary, the use of such media is seen as a way of establishing new interactions and collaboration whilst catalysing the role of more traditional methods of communication.”

As part of this process following various leads by other Facebook friends, I spent some time looking at early CSCW conference proceedings, some at Saul Greenburg’s early CSCW bibliography [1] and Ducheneaut and Watts (15 years on) review of email research [2] in the 2005 HCI special issue on ‘reinventing email’ [3] (both notably missing the Fung et al. paper). I downloaded and skimmed several early papers including Wendy McKay’s lovely early (1988) study [4] that exposed the wide variety of ways in which people used email over and above simple ‘communication’. So much to learn from this work when the field was still fresh,

This all led me to reflect both on the Fung et al. paper, the process of finding it, and the lessons for email and other ‘communication’ media today.

Communication for new purposes

A key finding was that “the use of such media is seen as a way of establishing new interactions and collaboration“. Of course, the authors and their subjects could not have envisaged current social media, but the finding if this paper was exactly an example of this. In 1989 if I had been trying to find a paper, I would have scoured my own filing cabinet and bookshelves, those of my colleagues, and perhaps asked people when I met them. Nowadays I pop the question into Facebook and within minutes the advice starts to appear, and not long after I have a scanned copy of the paper I was after.

Communication as a good thing

In the paper abstract, the authors say that an “exciting finding” of the paper is that “the use of sophisticated electronic communications media is not seen by users as replacing existing methods of communicating.” Within paper, this is phrased even more strongly:

“The majority of subjects (nineteen) also saw no likelihood of a decrease in personal interactions due to an increase in sophisticated technological communications support and many felt that such a shift in communication patterns would be undesirable.”

Effectively, email was seen as potentially damaging if it replaced other more human means of communication, and the good outcome of this report was that this did not appear to be happening (or strictly subjects believed it was not happening).

However, by the mid-1990s, papers discussing ’email overload’ started to appear [5].

I recall a morning radio discussion of email overload about ten years ago. The presenter asked someone else in the studio if they thought this was a problem. Quite un-ironically, they answered, “no, I only spend a couple of hours a day”. I have found my own pattern of email change when I switched from highly structured Eudora (with over 2000 email folders), to Gmail (mail is like a Facebook feed, if it isn’t on the first page it doesn’t exist). I was recently talking to another academic who explained that two years ago he had deliberately taken “email as stream” as a policy to control unmanageable volumes.

If only they had known …

Communication as substitute

While Fung et al.’s respondents reported that they did not foresee a reduction in other forms of non-electronic communication, in fact even in the paper the signs of this shift to digital are evident.

Here are the graphs of communication frequency for the Open University (30 people, more recent use of email) and Xerox (36 people, more established use) respectively.

( from Fung et al., 1989)

( from Fung et al., 1989)

( from Fung et al., 1989)

( from Fung et al., 1989)

It is hard to draw exact comparisons as it appears there may have been a higher overall volume of communication at Xerox (because of email?).  Certainly, at that point, face-to-face communication remains strong at Xerox, but it appears that not only the proportion, but total volume of non-digital non-face-to-face communications is lower than at OU.  That is sub substitution has already happened.

Again, this is obvious nowadays, although the volume of electronic communications would have been untenable in paper (I’ve sometimes imagined printing out a day’s email and trying to cram it in a pigeon-hole), the volume of paper communications has diminished markedly. A report in 2013 for Royal Mail recorded 3-6% pa reduction in letters over recent years and projected a further 4% pa for the foreseeable future [6].

academic communication and national meetungs

However, this also made me think about the IEE Colloquium itself. Back in the late 1980s and 1990s it was common to attend small national or local meetings to meet with others and present work, often early stage, for discussion. In other fields this still happens, but in HCI it has all but disappeared. Maybe I have is a little nostalgia, but this does seem a real loss as it was a great way for new PhD students to present their work and meet with the leaders in their field. Of course, this can happen if you get your CHI paper accepted, but the barriers are higher, particularly for those in smaller and less well-resourced departments.

Some of this is because international travel is cheaper and faster, and so national meetings have reduced in importance – everyone goes to the big global (largely US) conferences. Many years ago research on day-to-day time use suggested that we have a travel ‘time budget’ reactively constant across counties and across different kinds of areas within the same country [7]. The same is clearly true of academic travel time; we have a certain budget and if we travel more internationally then we do correspondingly less nationally.

(from Zahavi, 1979)

(from Zahavi, 1979)

However, I wonder if digital communication also had a part to play. I knew about the Fung et al. paper, even though it was not in the large reviews of CSCW and email, because I had been there. Indeed, the reason that the Fung et al.paper was not cited in relevant reviews would have been because it was in a small venue and only available as paper copy, and only if you know it existed. Indeed, it was presumably also below the digital radar until it was, I assume, scanned by IEE archivists and deposited in IEEE digital library.

However, despite the advantages of this easy access to one another and scholarly communication, I wonder if we have also lost something.

In the 1980s, physical presence and co-presence at an event was crucial for academic communication. Proceedings were paper and precious, I would at least skim read all of the proceedings of any event I had been to, even those of large conferences, because they were rare and because they were available. Reference lists at the end of my papers were shorter than now, but possibly more diverse and more in-depth, as compared to more directed ‘search for the relevant terms’ literature reviews of the digital age.

And looking back at some of those early papers, in days when publish-or-perish was not so extreme, when cardiac failure was not an occupational hazard for academics (except maybe due to the Cambridge sherry allowance), at the way this crucial piece of early research was not dressed up with an extra 6000 words of window dressing to make a ‘high impact’ publication, but simply shared. Were things more fun?


[1] Saul Greenberg (1991) “An annotated bibliography of computer supported cooperative work.” ACM SIGCHI Bulletin, 23(3), pp. 29-62. July. Reprinted in Greenberg, S. ed. (1991) “Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Groupware”, pp. 359-413, Academic Press. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/126505.126508

[2] Nicolas Ducheneaut and Leon A. Watts (2005). In search of coherence: a review of e-mail research. Hum.-Comput. Interact. 20, 1 (June 2005), 11-48. DOI= 10.1080/07370024.2005.9667360

[3] Steve Whittaker, Victoria Bellotti, and Paul Moody (2005). Introduction to this special issue on revisiting and reinventing e-mail. Hum.-Comput. Interact. 20, 1 (June 2005), 1-9.

[4] Wendy E. Mackay. 1988. More than just a communication system: diversity in the use of electronic mail. In Proceedings of the 1988 ACM conference on Computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW ’88). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 344-353. DOI=http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/62266.62293

[5] Steve Whittaker and Candace Sidner (1996). Email overload: exploring personal information management of email. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’96), Michael J. Tauber (Ed.). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 276-283. DOI=http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/238386.238530

[6] The outlook for UK mail volumes to 2023. PwC prepared for Royal Mail Group, 15 July 2013
http://www.royalmailgroup.com/sites/default/files/ The%20outlook%20for%20UK%20mail%20volumes%20to%202023.pdf

[7] Yacov Zahavi (1979). The ‘UMOT’ Project. Prepared For U.S. Department Of Transportation Ministry Of Transport and Fed. Rep. Of Germany.

tread lightly — controlling user experience pollution

When thinking about usability or user experience, it is easy to focus on the application in front of us, but the way it impacts its environment may sometimes be far more critical. However, designing applications that are friendly to their environment (digital and physical) may require deep changes to the low-level operating systems.

I’m writing this post effectively ‘offline’ into a word processor for later upload. I sometimes do this as I find it easier to write without the distractions of editing within a web browser, or because I am physically disconnected from the Internet. However, now I am connected, and indeed I can see I am connected as a FTP file upload is progressing, it is just that anything else network-related is stalled.

The reason that the FTP upload is ‘hogging’ the network is, I believe, due to a quirk in the UNIX scheduling system, which was, paradoxically, originally intended to improve interactivity.

UNIX, which sits underneath Mac OS, is a multiprocessing operating system running many programs at once. Each process has a priority, called its ‘niceness‘, which can be set explicitly, but is also tweaked from moment to moment by the operating system. One of the rules for ‘tweaking’ it is that if a process is IO-bound, that is if it is constantly waiting for input or output, then its niceness is decreased, meaning that it is given higher priority.

The reason for this rule is partly to enhance interactive performance in the old days of command line interfaces; an interactive program would spend lots of time waiting for the user to enter something, and so its priority would increase meaning it would respond quickly as soon as the user entered anything. The other reason is that CPU time was seen as the scarce resource, so that processes that were IO bound were effectively being ‘nicer’ to other processes as they let them get a share of the precious CPU.

The FTP program is simply sitting there shunting out data to the network, so is almost permanently blocked waiting for the network as it can read from the disk faster than the network can transmit data. This means UNIX regards it as ‘nice’ and ups its priority. As soon as the network clears sufficiently, the FTP program is rescheduled and it puts more into the network queue, reads the next chunk from disk until the network is again full to capacity. Nothing else gets a chance, no web, no email, not even a network trace utility.

I’ve seen the same before with a database server on one of Fiona’s machines — all my fault. In the MySQL manual it suggested that you disable indices before large bulk updates (e.g. ingesting a file of data) and then re-enable them once the update is finished as indexing is more efficient on lots of data than one at a time. I duly did this and forgot about it until Fiona noticed something was wrong on the server and web traffic had ground to a near halt. When she opened a console on the server, she found that it seemed quiet, very little CPU load at all, and was puzzled until I realised it was my indexing. Indexing requires a lot of reading and writing data to and from disk, so MySQL became IO-bound, was given higher priority, as soon as the disk was free it was rescheduled, hit the disk once more … just as FTP is now hogging the network, MySQL hogged the disk and nothing else could read or write. Of course MySQL’s own performance was fine as it internally interleaved queries with indexing, it is just everything else on the system that failed.

These are hard scenarios to design for. I have written before (“why software need never hang“) about the way application designers do not think sufficiently about potential delays due to slow networks, or broken connections. However, that was about the applications that are suffering. Here the issue is not that the FTP program is badly designed for its delays, it is still responding very happily, just that it has had a knock on effect on the rest of the system. It is like cleaning your sink with industrial bleach — you have a clean house within, but pollute the watercourse without.

These kind of issues are not related solely to network and disk, any kind of resource is limited and profligacy causes damage in the digital world as much as in the physical environment.

Some years ago I had a Symbian smartphone, but it proved unusable as its battery life rarely exceeded 40 minutes from full charge. I thought I had a duff battery, but later realised it was because I was leaving applications on the phone ‘open’. For me I went to the address book, looked up a number, and that was that, I then maybe turned the phone off or switched  to something else without ‘exiting’ the address book. I was treating the phone like every previous phone I had used, but this one was different, it had a ‘real’ operating system, opening the address book launched the address book application, which then kept on running — and using power — until it was explicitly closed, a model that is maybe fine for permanently plugged in computers, but disastrous for a moble phone.

When early iPhones came out iOS was criticised for being single threaded, that is not having lots of things running in the ‘background’. However, this undoubtedly helped its battery life. Now, with newer versions of iOS, it has changed and there are lots of apps running at once, and I have noticed the battery life reducing, is that simply the battery wearing out with age or the effect of all those apps running?

Power is of course not just a problem for smartphones, but for any laptop. I try to closedown applications on my Mac when I am working without power as I know some programs just eat CPU when they are apparently idle (yes, Firefox, it’s you I’m talking about). And from an environmental point of view, lower power consumption when connected would also be good. My hope was that Apple would take the lessons learnt in the early iOS to change the nature of their mainstream OS, but sadly they succumbed to the pressure to make iOS a ‘proper’ OS!

Of course the FTP program could try to be friendly, perhaps when it is not the selected window deliberately throttle its network activity. But then the 4 hour upload would take 8 hours, instead of 20 minutes left at this point, I’d be looking forward to another 4 hours and 20 minutes, and I’d be complaining about that.

The trouble is that there needs to be better communication, more knowledge shared, between application and operating system. I would like FTP to use all the network capacity that it can, except when I am interacting with some other program. Either FTP needs to say to the OS “hey here’s a packet, send it when there’s a gap”1, or the OS needs some way for applications to determine current network state and make decisions based on that. Sometimes this sort of information is easily available, more often it is either very hard to get at or not available at all.

I recall years ago when internet was still mainly through pay-per-minute dial-up connections. You could set your PC to automatically dial when the internet was needed. However, some programs, such as chat, would periodically check with a central server to see if there was activity, this would cause the PC to dial-up the ISP. If you were lucky the PC also had an auto-disconnect after a period of inactivity, if you were not lucky the PC would connect at 2am and by the morning you’d find yourself with a phone bill more than your weeks’ wages.

When we were designing onCue at aQtive, we wanted to be able to connect to the Internet when it was available, but avoid bankrupting our users. Clearly somewhere in the TCP/IP stack, the layers of code over the network, at some level deep down it knew whether we were connected. I recall we found a very helpful function in the Windows API called something like “isConnected”2. Unfortunately, it worked by attempting to send a network packet and returning true if it succeeded and false if it failed. Of course sending the test packet caused the PC to auto-dial …

And now there is just 1 minute and 53 seconds left on the upload, so time to finish this post before I get on to garbage collection.

  1. This form of “send when you can” would also be useful in cellular networks, for example when syncing photos.[back]
  2. I had a quick peek, and fund that Windows CE has a function called InternetGetConnectedState.  I don’t know if this works better now.[back]

book: The Singing Neanderthals, Mithin

One of my birthday presents was Steven Mithin’s “The Singing Neanderthals” and, having been on holiday, I have already read it! I read Mithin’s “The Prehistory of the Mind” some years ago and have referred to it repeatedly over the years1, so was excited to receive this book, and it has not disappointed. I like his broad approach taking evidence from a variety of sources, as well as his own discipline of prehistory; in times when everyone claims to be cross-disciplinary, Mithin truly is.

“The Singing Neanderthal”, as its title suggests, is about the role of music in the evolutionary development of the modern human. We all seem to be born with an element of music in our heart, and Mithin seeks to understand why this is so, and how music is related to, and part of the development of, language. Mithin argues that elements of music developed in various later hominids as a form of primitive communication2, but separated from language in homo sapiens when music became specialised to the communication of emotion and language to more precise actions and concepts.

The book ‘explains’ various known musical facts, including the universality of music across cultures and the fact that most of us do not have perfect pitch … even though young babies do (p77). The hard facts of how things were for humans or related species tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago are sparse, so there is inevitably an element of speculation in Mithin’s theories, but he shows how many, otherwise disparate pieces of evidence from palaeontology, psychology and musicology make sense given the centrality of music.

Whether or not you accept Mithin’s thesis, the first part of the book provides a wide ranging review of current knowledge about the human psychology of music. Coincidentally, while reading the book, there was an article in the Independent reporting on evidence for the importance of music therapy in dealing with depression and aiding the rehabilitation of stroke victims3, reinforcing messages from Mithin’s review.

The topic of “The Singing Neanderthal” is particularly close to my own heart as my first personal forays into evolutionary psychology (long before I knew the term, or discovered Cosmides and Tooby’s work), was in attempting to make sense of human limits to delays and rhythm.

Those who have been to my lectures on time since the mid 1990s will recall being asked to first clap in time and then swing their legs ever faster … sometimes until they fall over! The reason for this is to demonstrate the fact that we cannot keep beats much slower than one per second4, and then explain this in terms of our need for a mental ‘beat keeper’ for walking and running. The leg shaking is to show how our legs, as a simple pendulum, have a natural frequency of around 1Hz, hence determining our slowest walk and hence need for rhythm.

Mithin likewise points to walking and running as crucial in the development of rhythm, in particular the additional demands of bipedal motion (p150). Rhythm, he argues, is not just about music, but also a shared skill needed for turn-taking in conversation (p17), and for emotional bonding.

In just the last few weeks, at the HCI conference in Newcastle, I learnt that entrainment, when we keep time with others, is a rare skill amongst animals, almost uniquely human. Mithin also notes this (p206), with exceptions, in particular one species of frog, where the males gather in groups to sing/croak in synchrony. One suggested reason for this is that the louder sound can attract females from a larger distance. This cooperative behaviour of course acts against each frog’s own interest to ‘get the girl’ so they also seek to out-perform each other when a female frog arrives. Mithin imagines that similar pressures may have sparked early hominid music making. As well as the fact that synchrony makes the frogs louder and so easy to hear, I wonder whether the discerning female frogs also realise that if they go to a frog choir they get to chose amongst them, whereas if they follow a single frog croak they get stuck with the frog they find; a form of frog speed dating?

Mithin also suggests that the human ability to synchronise rhythm is about ‘boundary loss’ seeing oneself less as an individual and more as part of a group, important for early humans about to engage in risky collaborative hunting expeditions. He cites evidence of this from the psychology of music, anthropology, and it is part of many people’s personal experience, for example, in a football crowd, or Last Night at the Proms.

This reminds me of the experiments where a rubber hand is touched in time with touching a person’s real hand; after a while the subject starts to feel as if the rubber hand is his or her own hand. Effectively our brain assumes that this thing that correlates with feeling must be part of oneself5. Maybe a similar thing happens in choral singing, I voluntarily make a sound and simultaneously everyone makes the sound, so it is as if the whole choir is an extension of my own body?

Part of the neurological evidence for the importance of group music making concerns the production of oxytocin. In experiments on female prairie voles that have had oxytocin production inhibited, they engage in sex as freely as normal voles, but fail to pair bond (p217). The implication is that oxytocin’s role in bonding applies equally to social groups. While this explains a mechanism by which collaborative rhythmic activities create ‘boundary loss’, it doesn’t explain why oxytocin is created through rhythmic activity in the first place. I wonder if this is perhaps to do with bipedalism and the need for synchronised movement during face-to-face copulation, which would explain why humans can do synchronised rhythms whereas apes cannot. That is, rhythmic movement and oxytocin production become associated for sexual reasons and then this generalises to the social domain. Think again of that chanting football crowd?

I should note that Mithin also discusses at length the use of music in bonding with infants, as anyone who has sung to a baby knows, so this offers an alternative route to rhythm & bonding … but not one that is particular to humans, so I will stick with my hypothesis 😉

Sexual selection is a strong theme in the book, the kind of runaway selection that leads to the peacock tail. Changing lifestyles of early humans, in particular longer periods looking after immature young, led to a greater degree of female control in the selection of partners. As human size came close to the physical limits of the environment (p185), Mithin suggests that other qualities had to be used by females to choose their mate, notably male singing and dance – prehistoric Saturday Night Fever.

As one evidence for female mate choice, Mithin points to the overly symmetric nature of hand axes and imagines hopeful males demonstrating their dexterity by knapping ever more perfect axes in front of admiring females (p188). However, this brings to mind Calvin’s “Ascent of Mind“, which argues that these symmetric, ovoid axes were used like a discus, thrown into the midst of a herd of prey to bring one down. The two theories for axe shape are not incompatible. Calvin suggests that the complex physical coordination required by axe throwing would have driven general brain development. In fact these forms of coordination, are not so far from those needed for musical movement, and indeed expert flint knapping, so maybe it was this skills that were demonstrated by the shaping of axes beyond that immediately necessary for purpose.

Mithin’s description of the musical nature of mother-child interactions also brought to mind Broomhall’s “Eternal Child“. Broomhall ‘s central thesis is that humans are effectively in a sort of arrested development with many features, not least our near nakedness, characteristic of infants. Although it was not one of the points Broomhall makes, his arguments made sense to me in terms of the mental flexibility that characterises childhood, and the way this is necessary for advanced human innovation; I am always encouraging students to think in a more childlike way. If Broomhall’s theories were correct, then this would help explain how some of the music making more characteristic of mother-infant interactions become generalised to adult social interactions.

I do notice an element of mutual debunking amongst those writing about richer cognitive aspects of early human and hominid development. I guess a common trait in disciplines when evidence is thin, and theories have to fill a lot of blanks. So maybe Mithin, Calvin and Broomhall would not welcome me bringing their respective contributions together! However, as in other areas where data is necessarily scant (such as sub-atomic physics), one does feel a developing level of methodological rigour, and the fact that these quite different theoretical approaches have points of connection, does suggest that a deeper understanding of early human cognition, while not yet definitive, is developing.

In summary, and as part of this wider unfolding story, “The Singing Neanderthal” is an engaging and entertaining book to read whether you are interested in the psychological and social impact of music itself, or the development of the human mind.

… and I have another of Mithin’s books in the birthday pile, so looking forward to that too!

  1. See particularly my essay on the role of imagination in bringing together our different forms of ‘specialised intelligence’. “The Prehistory of the Mind” highlighted the importance of this ‘cognitive fluidity’, linking social, natural and technological thought, but lays this largely in the realm of language. I would suggest that imagination also has this role, creating a sort of ‘virtual world’ on which different specialised cognitive modules can act (see “imagination and rationality“).[back]
  2. He calls this musical communication system Hmmmm in its early form – Holistic, Multiple-Modal, Manipulative and Musical, p138 – and later Hmmmmm – Holistic, Multiple-Modal, Manipulative, Musical and Mimetic, p221.[back]
  3. NHS urged to pay for music therapy to cure depression“, Nina Lakhani, The Independent, Monday, 1 August 2011[back]
  4. Professional conductors say 40 beats per minute is the slowest reliable beat without counting between beats.[back]
  5. See also my previous essay on “driving as a cyborg experience“.[back]

fixing hung iCal

iCal hung on a sync with Google calendars and kept hanging everytime I restarted it, even after restarting the whole machine.

I found some advice on this in a few posts.

One “Fix an iCal ‘application not responding’ occasional hang” was more about occasional long pauses and suggested selecting”Reset Sync History” in  “iSync » Preferences”.  Another  “Fix an iCal hang due to system date reset” suggested resetting the ‘lastHearBeatDate‘ in Library/Preferences/com.apple.iCal.plist. Neither worked, but prompted by the latter I used TimeMachine (yawn yawn how do they make it sooooo sloooow), to restore copies of all the iCal plist files in Library/Preferences/, but again to no avail.

So several good suggestions, but none worked.

Happily I saw a comment lower down on “Fix an iCal hang due to system date reset” which suggested moving the complete ~/Library/Calendars folder out to the desktop and then recopying the calendar files in one by one after restarting iCal. I didn’t do this as such, but instead in ~/Library/Calendars there are a number of ‘Calendar Cache‘ files and also a folder labelled Calendar Sync Changes. I removed these, restarted and … it works 🙂

Hardly easy for the end user though :-/

making part-time work?

Woke early worrying how to make the part-time thing work.

Looking forward through the year and adding up every odd day at home, still less than 18 weeks worth of ‘my time’, not exactly half of 52!  Even adding a couple of weeks of non-essential travel into ‘my’ budget doesn’t make it add up.

More worrying is that the time is all chopped up.  Just three solid months (and one of those is in July/August, maybe when I’d expect some research and holiday time anyway), the rest odd weeks split up with other commitments.  the model I’m aiming for is nearer the US 9 month contract idea with big periods for research, but struggling to keep blocks clear.

Also I’ve noticed myself allocating things that should be ‘university business’ to ‘my time’ as I know they won’t get done otherwise.  Got too used to doing the academic thing and planning time around assumption of 200% commitment averaging 80-90  hours a week.  Now trying to squash that into 50% of my time – no wonder it is difficult!

As the half pay cheques start to mount, I need to start to be ruthless.

not for itself

While writing the last post and searching for a references, I noticed that I’d never made available the notes of a talk I gave at the “Design and Non-Place Workshop” in Edinburgh back in 2005. So I have just put “Not for itself: insider/outsider orientation of place and signage and systolic flows?” online. The talk reflects on some of the events of the exciting non-place network including a meeting at B&Q in Edinburgh and another at Stanstead airport.

I  pick up just a few of the threads from those visits, looking particularly and the way ‘place’ transforms over time, the way signage addresses itself, and the different kinds of flow in populated space.  At B&Q especially I was fascinated by the back of the store, the place that gets ignored and yet which was critical for services and the actual delivery of goods.

I can’t recall why (five years ago now!), but the talk slides only tenuously connect to the text of the notes, I think maybe because I was touching on too many issues in the brief notes.

Total Quality, Total Reward and Total Commitment

I’ve been reading bits of Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman1 off and on for some months. It has had many resonances, and I meant to write a post about it after reading its very first chapter. However, for now it is just part of one of the latter chapters that is fresh. Sennett refers to the work of W. Edwards Deming, the originator of the term ‘total quality control’. I was surprised at some of the quotes “The most important things cannot be measured”, “you can expect what you inspect” — in strong contrast to the metrics-based ‘quality’ that seems to pervade government thinking for many years whether it impacts health, policing or academia, and of course not unfamiliar to many in industry.

Continue reading

  1. Richard Sennett, The Craftsman, Penguin, 2009[back]

now part-time!

Many people already knew this was happening, but for those that don’t — I am now officially a part-time university academic.

Now this does not mean I’m going to be a part-time academic, quite the opposite.  The reason for moving to working part-time at the University is to give me freedom to do the things I’d like to do as an academic, but never have time.  Including writing more, reading, and probably cutting some code!

Reading especially, and I don’t mean novels (although that would be nice), but journal papers and academic books.  Like most academics I know, for years I have only read things that I needed to review, assess, or comment on — or sometimes in a fretful rush, the day before a paper is due, scurried to find additional related literature that I should have known about anyway.  That is I’d like some time for scholarship!

I guess many people would find this odd: working full time for what sounds like doing your job anyway, but most academics will understand perfectly!

Practically, I will work at Lancaster in spurts of a few weeks, travel for meetings and things, sometimes from Lancs and sometimes direct from home, and when I am at home do a day a week on ‘normal’ academic things.

This does NOT mean I have more time to review, work on papers, or other academic things, but actually the opposite — this sort of thing needs to fit in my 50% paid time … so please don’t be offended or surprised if I say ‘no’ a little more.  The 50% of time that is not paid will be for special things I choose to do only — I have another employer — me 🙂

Watch my calendar to see what I am doing, but for periods marked @home, I may only pick up mail once a week on my ‘office day’.

Really doing this and keeping my normal academic things down to a manageable amount is going to be tough.  I have not managed to keep it to 100% of a sensible working week for years (usually more like 200%!).  However, I am hoping that the sight of the first few half pay cheques may strengthen my resolve 😉

In the immediate future, I am travelling or in Lancs for most of February and March with only about 2 weeks at home in between, however, April and first half of May I intend to be in Tiree watching the waves, and mainly writing about Physicality for the new Touch IT book.

the long now … maybe

I was looking at an old posting of Anne Galloway’s @purselipsquarejaw.  The article quotes Stewart Brand1 and in particular:

“How can we invest in a future we know is structurally incapable of keeping faith with its past? The digital industries must shift from being the main source of society’s ever-shortening attention span to becoming a reliable guarantor of long-term perspective.”

The name Stewart Brand (above) is linked to http://www.longnow.org/10klibrary/library.htm.  Now the 10K in “10klibrary” refers to the Long Now Foundation‘s mission to look forward at least ten thousand years, including sub projects to look at long-term file format conversions; similar to some of the aspirations of the Memories for Life UK Computing Grand Challenge.

Unfortunately when you click the link to the 10K library entry …

Looks like the URLs are not going to last till 12000 AD

  1. Whole Earth Catalogue, How Buildings Learn, The Clock of the Long Now, etc.[back]

the more things change …

I’ve been reading Jeni (Tennison)’s Musings about techie web stuff XML, RDF, etc.  Two articles particularly caught my eye.  One was Versioning URIs about URIs for real world and conceptual objects (schools, towns), and in particular how to deal with the fact that these change over time.  The other was Working With Fragmented Overlapping Markup all about managing multiple hierarchies of structure for the same underlying data.

In the past I’ve studied issues both of versioning and of multiple structures on the same data1, and Jeni lays out the issues for both really clearly. However, both topics gave a sense of deja vu, not just because of my own work, but because they reminded me of similar issues that go way back before the web was even thought of.

Versioning URIs and unique identifiers2

In my very first computing job (COBOL programming for Cumbria County Council) many many years ago, I read an article in Computer Weekly about choice of keys (I think for ISAM not even relational DBs). The article argued that keys should NEVER contain anything informational as it is bound to change. The author gave an example of standard maritime identifiers for a ship’s journey (rather like a flight number) that were based on destination port and supposed to never change … except when the ship maybe moved to a different route. There is always an ‘except’, so, the author argued, keys should be non-informational.

Just a short while after reading this I was working on a personnel system for the Education Dept. and was told emphatically that every teacher had a DES code given to them by government and that this code never changed. I believed them … they were my clients. However, sure enough, after several rounds of testing and demoing when they were happy with everything I tried a first mass import from the council’s main payroll file. Validations failed on a number of the DES numbers. It turned out that every teacher had a DES number except for new teachers where the Education Dept. then issued a sort of ‘pretend’ one … and of course the DES number never changed except when the real number came through. Of course, the uniqueness of the key was core to lots of the system … major rewrite :-/

The same issues occurred in many relational DBs where the spirit (rather like RDF triples) was that the record was defined by values, not by identity … but look at most SQL DBs today and everywhere you see unique but arbitrary identifying ids. DOIs, ISBNs, the BBC programme ids – we relearn the old lessons.

Unfortunately, once one leaves the engineered world of databases or SemWeb, neither arbitrary ids nor versioned ones entirely solve things as many real world entities tend to evolve rather than metamorphose, so for many purposes http://persons.org/2009/AlanDix is the same as http://persons.org/1969/AlanDix, but for others different: ‘nearly same as’ only has limited transitivity!

  1. e.g. Modelling Versions in Collaborative Work and Collaboration on different document processing platforms; quite a few years ago now![back]
  2. edited version of comments I left on Jeni’s post[back]