Back to Tiree – and being ‘half-time’

I’m on the ferry on the way back to Tiree. It’s been 2 months since I was home and then only one long weekend since the end of August, so it seems both familiar and strange sitting on the Calmac ferry again as it makes its way out of Oban.

Last autumn I had a similar long stay away, then mostly in the camper van near the University as I was still working full time at Lancaster. This year I am working half time at Lancaster, but also half-time for Talis and for the first three months at Talis spending half my time on site at the Talis offices in Birmingham. After that I’ll be doing my Talis job based from home, only going down more occasionally, so after Christmas will get more time at home.

Instead of my camper van I’ve been staying a lot at the ‘Talis house’, a house near Solihull for small off-site meetings and for those like me who live a long way away from Talis’ Birmingham offices (others live in France, Italy, and the USA). It was rather claustrophobic last autumn spending most of my weekends in my office at Lancaster, so having Talis house as a base has been good. However, I do miss that snug feeling in the back of the camper van hunkering under the bedclothes, with a take-away on my knees and watching a DVD, while the van rocked in time to the whistling wind outside.

Working half time for Talis has also imposed a discipline on my time working in my University role. Since last Christmas I have been formally working half time at Lancaster (certainly getting half pay!), but as those who work in the universities know, it is hard to put a limit on things. The idea was that this meant I would get half my time to do ‘my stuff’, research and writing. Of course I knew cutting my old 80-hour weeks down to 20 or even 40 would not happen, but I would at least get a little more time than I have become used to.

One of the half expected and half surprising things about the shift to half-time working for the University last January was the way other people dealt with it.

I guess for years I have implicitly ‘educated’ both fellow academics and students in their expectations; whenever there was something to be done, a report to read or write, I would say things like “ah this weekend I’ve already got this other task to do, but I’ll do it the next weekend” — basically assuming that weekends and evenings, strictly the unpaid times, were the times when things happened. After a bit students would get used to giving me things on Friday in the expectation that I would then have time to do it.

When I shifted to half time people would extend this notion and say “ah now you have more time you can do X”: reviews, reading student work, etc. As I said this was half expected, I had the feeling I would need to re-educate people. However, what surprised me was not that people acted this way, but that they said it, and even wrote it in emails. I would have thought that when they saw it explicitly in front of them they would think, “oh no Alan now has less time for these things”, but no; it is amazing how little we notice of what we say and do.

Anyway now things are different. Instead of it being ‘my time’ that my academic life intruded into, it is now Talis’ time and this is something others can respect more, and I guess I also respect more than my own time.

So how is it working — really being a half-time academic?

In fact of course, I still work most weekends and long days, so I have somewhat more than a full-time week of effort, so I am not yet down to 20 hours of university work, but certainly a lot less time then when I was simply trying to protect my own (unpaid!) time.

In January when I shifted to half-time, I said I’d do a day a week while at home effectively eating nearly half of my ‘half time’, meaning I was expecting to spend about 60 days a year away from home whether on site in Lancaster or travelling. In fact during this Autumn alone, by Christmas I will have spent 53 days either on site in Lancaster or travelling on University business, that is more than 2/3 of the formal 75 working days in the period and nearly all my annual ‘not at home’ Lancs working days! This doesn’t seem to add up given 1/2 time spent in B’ham, but of course the 53 days of Lancaster time includes many weekends away while travelling that I wasn’t used to counting when a ‘full time’ academic.

I clearly need to cut this down further! However, even now, being stricter than I was with ‘my time’, cracks are beginning to show. I can see students getting unhappy as it takes me longer to find time to read things they have written, and colleagues patiently realising that email to me is getting even less reliable. So much of the life of an academic depends on things done in ‘extra time’ whether weekends or evenings, or in my case earlier in the year unpaid time; when you cut back on that things simply do not happen.

From Christmas I will not have the imposed discipline of days at the offices at Talis, so will need to maintain this more for myself. However, the last few months have helped and I will certainly keep careful records to make sure Talis gets its fair share of my time and that the University does not consume so much of my ‘own’ time as rest is also part of working well.

Even though I have effectively ‘used up’ most of my university on-site/travelling days, I will of course not say “no more until next September’ (!), but will at least try to control it more. And I will also try to let some of the more balanced view of work and life I am learning at Talis influence my attitudes at the University.

And no, I won’t be reading email this evening.

book: How Green Was My Valley

After too many years I eventually read Richard Llewellyn’s “How Green Was My Valley“, which tells the story of growing up in a South Wales valley at the end of the 19th century.  I vaguely recall seeing the film of the book on the TV one Sunday afternoon as a small child.

You can read the book as a social commentary of a time past, or as a coming of age novel set around with stories of strikes and singing, madness and joy, requited and unrequited loves.   But above all it is a book of poetry, not in the sense of verse, but that form of prose that raises goosebumps down your back:

“… and I raised my arms and drew tight the muscles of my body, and as the blood within me thudded through my singing veins, a goldness opened wide before me and I knew I had become of Men, a Man.” (Chap. 24)

“My Valley, O my Valley, within me, I will live in you eternally … for part of me is the memory of you in your greens and browns, with everything of life happy in your deeps and shades, when you gave sweet scents to us, and sent for spices for the pot, and flowers, and birds sang out for pleasure to be with you.” (Chap. 18)

A recurrent theme through the novels is the gradual covering of that green, the burying of the valley sides and trees beneath the encroaching blackness of the slag, the coal tips, which as a child I recall still covering the valley sides north of Cardiff.  Indeed the novel is narrated by an old man thinking back over his childhood as he leaves his family home for the last time, a home itself now half buried as the slag spreads ever down the valley.

In the early days of coal mining the slag, the pieces of coal that were too small to burn, was left below the ground, rammed hard into the sides of the tunnels, strengthening and supporting them. But in the time of the book, and on throughout the 20th century, it proved cheaper and quicker to bring everything to the surface and separate there, the remains being spread upon the mountain sides in dark hills of their own, like welts upon a diseased landscape eaten underground by men.

“There is a patience in the Earth to allow us to go into her, and dig, and hurt with tunnels and shafts, and if we put back the flesh we have torn from her and so make good what we have weakened, she is content to let us bleed her. But when we take, and leave her weak where we have taken, she has a soreness, and an anger that we should be so cruel to her and thoughtless of her comfort. So she waits for us, and finding us, bears down, and bearing down, makes us a part of her, flesh of our flesh, with our clay in place of the clap we thoughtlessly have shovelled away.” (Chap. 42)

These are the thoughts of the elderly Huw looking back at the moment when he sat with his father part buried and dying after a roof fall.  Prescient today when we are at last beginning to realise how much we have taken from the earth and how little given back.

But, while the narrator is thinking of the toll taken on the miners underground by the thoughtless drive for profit and cheap coal, those brooding slag heaps remind me more of the dark repayment taken above.

One of the defining moments of my own childhood, was when, a few months after the Aberfan disaster, we drove up to Brecon along the valley road, and looked across the valley to a field of white crosses, like the images of Flanders on Armistice day, only no red poppies among the white graves, just white against green a ghastly mirror of the black upon green of the coal tip that rolled down the valley-side burying the school of Aberfan and taking the lives of  whole generation of children.

Web Art/Science Camp — how web killed the hypertext star and other stories

Had a great day on Saturday at the at the Web Art/Science Camp (twitter: #webartsci , lanyrd: web-art-science-camp). It was the first event that I went to primarily with my Talis hat on and first Web Science event, so very pleased that Clare Hooper told me about it during the DESIRE Summer School.

The event started on Friday night with a lovely meal in the restaurant at the British Museum. The museum was partially closed in the evening, but in the open galleries Rosetta Stone, Elgin Marbles and a couple of enormous totem poles all very impressive. … and I notice the BM’s website when it describes the Parthenon Sculptures does not waste the opportunity to tell us why they should not be returned to Greece!

Treasury of Atreus

I was fascinated too by images of the “Treasury of Atreus” (which is actually a Greek tomb and also known as the Tomb of Agamemnon. The tomb has a corbelled arch (triangular stepped stones, as visible in the photo) in order to relieve load on the lintel. However, whilst the corbelled arch was an important technological innovation, the aesthetics of the time meant they covered up the triangular opening with thin slabs of fascia stone and made it look as though lintel was actually supporting the wall above — rather like modern concrete buildings with decorative classical columns.

how web killed the hypertext star

On Saturday, the camp proper started with Paul de Bra from TU/e giving a sort of retrospective on pre-web hypertext research and whether there is any need for hypertext research anymore. The talk brought out several of the issues that have worried me also for some time; so many of the lessons of the early hypertext lost in the web1.

For me one of the most significant issues is external linkage. HTML embeds links in the document using <a> anchor tags, so that only the links that the author has thought of can be present (and only one link per anchor). In contrast, mature pre-web hypertext systems, such as Microcosm2, specified links eternally to the document, so that third parties could add annotation and links. I had a few great chats about this with one of the Southampton Web Science DTC students; in particular, about whether Google or Wikipedia effectively provide all the external links one needs.

Paul’s brief history of hypertext started, predictably, with Vannevar Bush‘s  “As We May Think” and Memex; however he pointed out that Bush’s vision was based on associative connections (like the human mind) and trails (a form of narrative), not pairwise hypertext links. The latter reminded me of Nick Hammond’s bus tour metaphor for guided educational hypertext in the 1980s — occasionally since I have seen things a little like this, and indeed narrative was an issue that arose in different guises throughout the day.

While Bush’s trails are at least related to the links of later hypertext and the web, the idea of associative connections seem to have been virtually forgotten.  More recently in the web however, IR (information retrieval) based approaches for page suggestions like Alexa and content-based social networking have elements of associative linking as does the use of spreading activation in web contexts3

It was of course Nelson who coined the term hypertext, but Paul reminded us that Ted Nelson’s vision of hypertext in Xanadu is far richer than the current web.  As well as external linkage (and indeed more complex forms in his ZigZag structures, a form of faceted navigation.), Xanadu’s linking was often in the form of transclusions pieces of one document appearing, quoted, in another. Nelson was particularly keen on having only one copy of anything, hence the transclusion is not so much a copy as a reference to a portion. The idea of having exactly one copy seems a bit of computing obsession, and in non-technical writing it is common to have quotations that are in some way edited (elision, emphasis), but the core thing to me seems to be the fact that the target of a link as well as the source need not be the whole document, but some fragment.

Paul de Bra's keynote at Web Art/Science Camp (photo Clare Hooper)

Over a period 30 years hypertext developed and started to mature … until in the early 1990s came the web and so much of hypertext died with its birth … I guess a bit like the way Java all but stiltified programming languages. Paul had a lovely list of bad things about the web compared with (1990s) state of the art hypertext:

Key properties/limitations in the basic Web:

  1. uni-directional links between single nodes
  2. links are not objects (have no properties of their own)
  3. links are hardwired to their source anchor
  4. only pre-authored link destinations are possible
  5. monolithic browser
  6. static content, limited dynamic content through CGI
  7. links can break
  8. no transclusion of text, only of images

Note that 1, 3 and 4 are all connected with the way that HTML embeds links in pages rather than adopting some form of external linkage. However, 2 is also interesting; the fact that links are not ‘first class objects’. This has been preserved in the semantic web where an RDF triple is not itself easily referenced (except by complex ‘reification’) and so it is hard to add information about relationships such as provenance.

Of course, this same simplicity (or even that it was simplistic) that reduced the expressivity of HTML compared with earlier hypertext is also the reasons for its success compared with earlier more heavy weight and usually centralised solutions.

However, Paul went on to describe how many of the features that were lost have re-emerged in plugins, server enhancements (this made me think of systems such as zLinks, which start to add an element of external linkage). I wasn’t totally convinced as these features are still largely in research prototypes and not entered the mainstream, but it made a good end to the story!

demos and documentation

There was a demo session as well as some short demos as part of talks. Lots’s of interesting ideas. One that particularly caught my eye (although not incredibly webby) was Ana Nelson‘s documentation generator “dexy” (not to be confused with doxygen, another documentation generator). Dexy allows you to include code and output, including screen shots, in documentation (LaTeX, HTML, even Word if you work a little) and live updates the documentation as the code updates (at least updates the code and output, you need to change the words!). It seems to be both a test harness and multi-version documentation compiler all in one!

I recall that many years ago, while he was still at York, Harold Thimbleby was doing something a little similar when he was working on his C version of Knuth’s WEB literate programming system. Ana’s system is language neutral and takes advantage of recent developments, in particular the use of VMs to be able to test install scripts and to be sure to run code in a consistent environments. Also it can use browser automation for web docs — very cool 🙂

Relating back to Paul’s keynote this is exactly an example of Nelson’s transclusion — the code and outputs included in the document but still tied to their original source.

And on this same theme I demoed Snip!t as an example of both:

  1. attempting to bookmark parts of web pages, a form of transclusion
  2. using data detectors a form of external linkage

Another talk/demo also showed how Compendium could be used to annotate video (in the talk regarding fashion design) and build rationale around … yet another example of external linkage in action.

… and when looking after the event at some of Weigang Wang‘s work on collaborative hypermedia it was pleasing to see that it uses a theoretical framework for shared understanding in collaboratuve hypermedia that builds upon my own CSCW framework from the early 1990s 🙂

sessions: narrative, creativity and the absurd

Impossible to capture in a few words, but one session included different talks and discussion about the relation of narrative and various forms of web experiences — including a talk on the cognitive psychology of the Kafkaesque. Also discussion of creativity with Nathan live recording in IBIS!

what is web science

I guess inevitably in a new area there was some discussion about “what is web science” and even “is web science a discipline”. I recall similar discussions about the nature of HCI 25 years ago and not entirely resolved today … and, as an artist who was there reminded us, they still struggle with “what is art?”!

Whether or not there is a well defined discipline of ‘web science’, the web definitely throws up new issues for many disciplines including new challenges for computing in terms of scale, and new opportunities for the social sciences in terms of intrinsically documented social interactions. One of the themes that recurred to distinguish web science from simply web technology is the human element — joy to my ears of course as a HCI man, but I think maybe not the whole story.

Certainly the gathering of people from different backgrounds in a sort of disciplinary bohemia is exciting whether or not it has a definition.

  1. see also “Names, URIs and why the web discards 50 years of computing experience“[back]
  2. Wendy Hall, Hugh Davis and Gerard Hutchings, “Rethinking Hypermedia:: The Microcosm Approach, Springer, 1996.[back]
  3. Spreading activation is used by a number of people, some of my own work with others at Athens, Rome and Talis is reported in “Ontologies and the Brain: Using Spreading Activation through Ontologies to Support Personal Interaction” and “Spreading Activation Over Ontology-Based Resources: From Personal Context To Web Scale Reasoning“.[back]