Unnatural Winter

Through cloud haze
A snow field
Green and mud-red become
A grey-white sheep-fleece palette of crop and earth
Rectilinear pieces puzzle-fit between ice-flow river-paths.

Below a town.

Bare, ringed toes tread wind-ground rock-ice dust
Lime green and dull gold sari
Sways sharp colour
In monochrome streets.

A charcoal cow etched immobile in the road
Tent-hung fatless flesh no insulation
Hoar-frost fingers clutch
Once blood-traced retina
Behind chill impassive eyes.

(written on a flight from Bangelore to Delhi, 29th Sept 2013)

India and APCHI

I am sitting in the Crowne Plaza hotel in Bangelore looking down over the city spreading seemingly endlessly as far as I can see.  Here, out in the suburbs and in the heart of Electronics City, the Hi-Tech enclave, the view is a mix of green trees, concrete offices and small apartment blocks in a pastel palette of lime greens, mauve tinted blues and burnt umber.  There is an absence of yellow and red apart from the girder work of a partly constructed building and airline-warning red and white mobile antennae tower; maybe these are inauspicious colours.  A major highway and the raised highway cut across the view and the airport is presumably far out of site in the afternoon heat haze, it was a near two hour ride away on Wednesday when I arrived in the midst of rush hour, but hoping it is a shorter journey tomorrow morning when I need to catch 6am flight.

I’ve had a wonderful time here seeing many old faces from previous visits to India a few years ago, and also meeting new people.  It was especially great to see Fariza as I hadn’t realised she was going to be here from Malaysia.  It was also wonderful seeing Dhaval and spending time with his family after the end of the conference yesterday, and today reading some of his recent work at ABB on bug reproduction in software maintenance.

Seeing Dhaval’s work and talking to him about it reminded me of the debugging lectures I did some years ago as part of a first year software engineering module.  For many years I have been meaning to extend these to make a small book on debugging.  It is one of those areas, like creativity, where people often feel you either have it or not, or at bets can pick up the skills one time.  However, I feel there is a lot you can explicitly teach about each.

Yesterday was my closing keynote at APCHI 2013.  I’ve put the slides and abstract online and I am working on full notes of the talk.  It felt odd at times talking about some the the issues of rural connectivity and poverty raise by my walk around Wales given the far greater extremes here in India.  However, if anything, this makes the messages for both public policy and design more important.

As I talked both in the keynote and one-to-one with people during the conference, I was constantly returning to some of the ways that in the UK we seem to be throwing away many of the positive advances of the 20th century: the resurgence of rickets and scurvy amongst poor children, the planned privatisation of the Royal Mail, one of the key enablers of the 19th century commercial revolution, and most sad of all the depraved demonisation of the poor that is rife in politics and the media.

There were many interesting papers and posters.  Two demos particularly caught my eye as they represented different aspects of the link between physical and digital worlds, issues that Steve, Devina, Jo and I have been exploring in TouchIT and the Physicality workshop series.  One was a system that augments paper textbooks with electronic resources using a combination of computer vision (to recognise pages in the book) and semantic extraction (for example getting historical timelines from Wikipedia). The other was  a physical ‘drop box’, where you put papers into a slot and then they were copied as images into your DropBox account.  It made me think of the major scan and bin exercise I did a few years ago drastically reducing my piles of old papers.

However, the high spot of the conference for me was Ravi Poovaiah‘s keynote “Designing for the next billion” on Thursday about design for the ‘middle of the pyramid’, those who are out of abject poverty and therefore have access to basic IT and so the design community can do most about.  This does not reduce the needs of those at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’, for whom basic education and healthcare are the most immediate needs.

In the UK not only are the extremes less, few except the homeless would qualify as ‘bottom of the pyramid’, but also they tend to be more segregated. Here a modern glass fronted international retail chain can sit next to a semi-derilict (to western eyes) motorbike repair shop, with used tyres piled on the pavement.  This said, to my mind, with my aesthetic of decay that is maybe the privilege of those who do not have to live it, the latter is far more engaging.  One of India’s challenges is whether it can move through its economic explosion without the attendant dissolution of local identity, culture and family that is the legacy of the industrial revolution in the UK.


HCI 2013

Yesterday I got back from HCI 2013, the British Human–Computer Interaction conference in Brunel: lovely people, stimulating papers, and ceilidh dancing to boot.

My first ever paper in computing1Abstract models of interactive systems” was in the first British HCI conference, although I didn’t go to the conference and it was presented by my co-author, Colin Runciman.  Since then I have published and presented many of my favourite papers at HCI, including much of my early work on time in the user interface2.  So the conference has many memories for me.

For various reasons I’d not attended much over a number of years. I don’t really know why, some years I’ve been external examining, some years not had money in the right pot at the right time, sometimes simply travelled too much in the year already. Happily for the last three years I have managed it, and, whenever I go, I come away feeling positive, encouraged, wanting to spend longer lingering.

I can’t help comparing this with CHI, which, in HCI, is the place to be.  It similarly has many lovely people, albeit lost in a crowd of 2-3000, including many I would be unlikely to see any other time, and there is some wonderful stuff at CHI, I recall this year a demo by Japanese students wiring up forks to give tiny electrical stimuli as you eat that mimics the effects of saltiness and so helps you reduce salt intake in food, but, despite all this, I still always end up, at some stage of CHI, sitting in my room, feeling depressed, and thinking “I want to be home”.

I have a short attention span and the child’s love of novelty, and so the breadth of British HCI contributions is always so enjoyable … I actually go into paper sessions, and I am stimulated by them.  CHI’s relative narrowness (in the past) of the concept of HCI as a field was one of the reasons I never published there in my early years; at that stage I was working mostly in formal methods in HCI and this simply fell outside the CHI imagination.  To be fair this has changed dramatically, and now CHI has a very broad remit, I think of some of Bill Gaver’s papers over the years on the artistic/design side of HCI, hardly conventional; however, I still cannot imagine David England’s paper on Category Theory at this year’s HCI being accepted even in Alt-CHI.

It is always a little insidious to name high spots, but David’s paper was certainly one, although I am probably a little biased here as I am one of the few people to have actually used Category Theory in HCI3.  I should also mention Janet Read’s description of stroppy teenagers and Juha Leino who made a study of the pedagogical use of five star vs binary recommendation systems fascinating.

I was at HCI primarily with a Talis hat on and so both the HCI education session at the conference (including Leino’s paper) and the HCI educator’s workshop, were particularly important. At HCI educators I was particularly struck by Helen Sharp’s contribution telling us about the cultural differences between both students and educators on the same OU course taught in Botswana and UK.  Also I lead a short discussion on MOOCs partly reporting on my own experiences in delivering HCIcourse.com and partly using that as a means to stimulate discussion of the role of MOOCs vis-a-vis (so to speak) conventional face-to-face teaching.

If you are interested in teaching using materials from HCIcourse.com, or would like to share our own learning materials, do get in touch.  If you want to study the course yourself it is still available at HCIcourse.com and will soon relaunch at interaction-design.org.

Next year’s HCI conference will be in Southport, hosted by the ChiCi group at UCLAN. Submit a paper, run a workshop, or simply come and join HCI at the seaside!

  1. I had previously published in agricultural engineering research when I worked at the National Institute of Agricultural Engineering.[back]
  2. Time papers at HCI: HCI’87 — “The myth of the infinitely fast machine“; HCI’92 — “Pace and interaction“; HCI’94 — “Que sera sera – The problem of the future perfect in open and cooperative systems“.[back]
  3. I worked with Roberta Mancini and Stefano Levialdi in Rome in the late 1990s on undo systems, and Roberta used Category Theory in her thesis to prove uniqueness properties of certain classes of undo systems.  If I recall right, the Category theory itself was only in the thesis, but the machinery leading into it was described in “The cube – extending systems for undo“.[back]