Searle’s wall, computation and representation

Reading a bit more of Brain Cantwell Smith’s “On the Origin of Objects”  and he refers (p.30-31) to Searle‘s wall that, according to Searle, can be interpreted as implementing a word processor.  This all hinges on predicates introduced by Goodman such as ‘grue’, meaning “green is examined before time t or blue if examined after”:

grue(x) = if ( now() < t ) green(x)
          else blue(x)

The problem is that an emerald apparently changes state from grue to not grue at time t, without any work being done.  Searle’s wall is just an extrapolation of this so that you can interpret the state of the wall at a time to be something arbitrarily complex, but without it ever changing at all.

This issue of the fundamental nature of computation has long seemed to me the ‘black hole’ at the heart of our discipline (I’ve alluded to this before in “What is Computing?“).  Arguably we don’t understand information much either, but at least we can measure it – we have a unit, the bit; but with computation we cannot even measure except without reference to specific implementation architecture whether Turing machine or Intel Core.  Common sense (or at least programmer’s common sense) tells us that any given computational device has only so much computational ‘power’ and that any problem has a minimum amount of computational effort needed to solve it, but we find it hard to quantify precisely.  However,  by Searle’s argument we can do arbitrary amounts of computation with a brick wall.

For me, a defining moment came about 10 years ago, I recall I was in Loughbrough for an examiner’s meeting and clearly looking through MSc scripts had lost it’s thrill as I was daydreaming about computation (as one does).  I was thinking about the relationship between computation and representation and in particular the fast (I think fastest) way to do multiplication of very large numbers, the Schönhage–Strassen algorithm.

If you’ve not come across this, the algorithm hinges on the fact that multiplication is a form of convolution (sum of a[i] * b[n-i]) and a Fourier transform converts convolution into pointwise multiplication  (simply a[i] * b[i]). The algorithm looks something like:

1. represent numbers, a and b, in base B (for suitable B)
2. perform FFT in a and b to give af and bf
3. perform pointwise multiplication on af and bf to give cf
4. perform inverse FFT on cf to give cfi
5. tidy up cfi a but doing carries etc. to give c
6. c is the answer (a*b) in base B

In this the heart of the computation is the pointwise multiplication at step 3, this is what ‘makes it’ multiplication.  However, this is a particularly extreme case where the change of representation (steps 2 and 4) makes the computation easier. What had been a quadratic O(N2) convolution is now a linear O(N) number of pointwise multiplications (strictly O(n) where n = N/log(B) ). This change of representation is in fact so extreme, that now the ‘real work’ of the algorithm in step 3 takes significantly less time (O(n) multiplications) compared to the change in representation at steps 2 and 4 (FFT is O( n log(n) ) multiplications).

Forgetting the mathematics this means the majority of the computational time in doing this multiplication is taken up by the change of representation.

In fact, if the data had been presented for multiplication already in FFT form and result expected in FFT representation, then the computational ‘cost’ of multiplication would have been linear … or to be even more extreme if instead of ‘representing’ two numbers as a and b we instead ‘represent’ them as a*b and a/b, then multiplication is free.  In general, computation lies as much in the complexity of putting something into a representation as it is in the manipulation of it once it is represented.  Computation is change of representation.

In a letter to CACM in 1966 Knuth said1:

When a scientist conducts an experiment in which he is measuring the value of some quantity, we have four things present, each of which is often called “information”: (a) The true value of the quantity being measured; (b) the approximation to this true value that is actually obtained by the measuring device; (c) the representation of the value (b) in some formal language; and (d) the concepts learned by the scientist from his study of the measurements. It would seem that the word “data” would be most appropriately applied to (c), and the word “information” when used in a technical sense should be further qualified by stating what kind of information is meant.

In these terms problems are about information, whereas algorithms are operating on data … but the ‘cost’ of computation has to also include the cost of turning information into data and back again.

Back to Searle’s wall and the Goodman’s emerald.  The emerald ‘changes’ state from grue to not grue with no cost or work, but in order to ask the question “is this emerald grue?” the answer will involve computation (if (now()<t) …).  Similarly if we have rules like this, but so complicated that Searle’s wall ‘implements’ a word processor, that is fine, but in order to work out what is on the word processor ‘screen’ based on the observation of the (unchanging) wall, the computation involved in making that observation would be equivalent to running the word processor.

At a theoretical computation level this reminds us that when we look at the computation in a Turing machine, vs. an Intel processor or lambda calculus, we need to consider the costs of change of representations between them.  And at a practical level, we all know that 90% of the complexity of any program is in the I/O.

  1. Donald Knuth, “Algorithm and Program; Information and Data”, Letters to the editor. Commun. ACM 9, 9, Sep. 1966, 653-654. DOI= [back]

nice quote: Auden on language

Was thumbing through Brain Cantwell Smith’s “On the Origin of Objects1, and came across the following quote:

One notices, if one will trust one’s eyes, the shadow cast by language upon truth.
Auden, “Kairos & Logos

This reminded me of my own ponderings as a school child (I can still hear the clank of china as I was washing cups in the church at the time!) as to whether I would be able to think more freely if I knew more languages and thus had more words and concepts, or whether, on the contrary, my mind would be most clear if I knew no language and was thus free of the conceptual straitjacket of English vocabulary. Of course all shades of Sapir-Whorf (although I didn’t know the term at the time), and now I hold a somewhere in-between view – language shapes thought but does not totally contain it2.  Is that the moderation of maturity, or compromise of age?

  1. Trying to decide whether to start it again, as Luke Church, who I met at the PPIG meeting in September, told me it was worthwhile persevering with even though somewhat oddly written![back]
  2. I discuss this a bit in my transarticulation essay and paths and patches book chapter.[back]

Christmas services

Lots of travelling about to see family and lots of deadlines over Christmas period, but now back on Tiree and it’s New Year’s day, so time for a short breather.

All the travelling about meant we didn’t seem to get to as many carol services and the like before Christmas, so it didn’t really feel as if Christmas Day was near until it was upon us.

Miriam is in the choir at Birmingham Cathedral and was singing at both the midnight service on Christmas Eve and the Christmas Morning service, so we all spent Christmas with her.  To be honest I expected the Cathedral services to be beautiful, but lifeless affairs.  I was very wrong.

The midnight service was full-on bells-and-smells with smoking incense wafted over Bible, congregation and anything else in range.  Poor Fiona, who had a cough anyway, struggled to breath through the rich spicy fumes and one other girl had to step out for air.  As well as the people, but I’ll come to those later, the turning point to me was when the priest, dressed in a white surplus with beautiful and intricate embroidery,  came to the centre of the aisle to read the New Testament lesson, flanked on either side by candle bearers in cassocks …  of course all heavily wafted in incense … and she began to read.   Clearly she too found it hard to breath in the smoke (Miriam told us later that the incense was only occasionally used in the services, so she had little practice reading under adverse conditions), but, as her head moved from side to side reading the lesson, the light caught a sparkle of glitter in her hair and suddenly the solemnity of the occasion, her own humanity and the joy of the celebration all came together.  A sparkle in the hair a parable for the message of incarnation.

To be honest tired after so much driving, thesis reading, etc., I fell asleep through some of the sermon … and yes, sometimes if you notice me in a talk with my eyes closed it is rapt attention, but sometimes …

Christmas services are always times which bring in the once-a-year visitors as well as the weekly faithful, so always difficult for the preacher.  Some primarily address the latter, hoping that the former will absorb the message and the occasion, often appropriate in small communities.  The opposite alternative is to treat it as an ‘opportunity for evangelism’ addressing the newcomer, but risking treating them as gospel cannon fodder and maybe even neglecting to focus on the celebration that is Christmas. This seems particularly difficult in a cathedral, which is both a place of worship, but also part of civic life; there to serve the city, to welcome people in on their own terms and yet offer them more.

Again, being honest, I expected the preacher to ‘play safe; bland words and a Christmas greeting, but instead (between my naps) he seemed to get it just right, not ‘preachy’ but welcoming yet leaving no doubt that we were not gathered just to sing a few nice songs, but there to celebrate the birth of a real baby, who became a real man, offering a rich promise, and making real demands on our lives.

However, what struck me most was not so much the ‘front activity’ of  priests and candles, lectern and Bible, or even bread and wine, but the people in the congregation. So varied: the lady in ‘Sunday best’ everybody’s image of the librarian or old-style school teacher, three men with tightly cropped hair like the Mitchell brothers in Eastenders, a group of young women maybe going to a party later, a girl in a heavy-metal sweat shirt, and a young couple punctuating their devotions with the occasional hug.  I wondered at their stories, some regulars, some who, like us, had come especially for the service, some who maybe wandered in.

On the Sunday after Christmas we were all in Kendal and went to the morning service at Sandylands, our regular church while we’d lived at Kendal.  Being the post-Christmas service, one of the readings was the familiar story of when Mary and Joseph took the new baby Jesus to the temple to make their offering of two doves after the birth.  Simeon is an old man but had been told that he wouldn’t die until he has seen the Messiah … he sees the baby Jesus and recognises him.

As this was read, the mathematician in me woke up and I did some quick sums, probably a few 100,000 in Palestine at that time, birth rate for replacement maybe 3%, so thousands of babies a year brought to the temple, maybe a few dozen babies every day … and out of  all these Simeon spots one.  I was reminded of Ursula le Guin’s book “A Wizard of Earthsea“.  It is set in a world of oceans and islands … not so far different from the Hebrides … all interlaced with magic.  The young wizard Sparrowhawk is on a quest and in a tower in the far north is lead into a deep room where a great treasure is stored.  The room is empty, but amongst the flagstones on the floor, he spots one, a small insignificant stone, worn from depths of ages, but so so old and holding a deep ancient dark power.  Like Sparrowhawk, Simeon spots the one of great value amongst the many; does it take special eyes or a special gift to see, or just willingness to look?

Although the old dark powers in “A Wizard of Earthsea” are just a story, the Christmas celebrations are themselves set at midwinter at the time of many old pre-Christian festivals.  The early Christians saw no problem in embracing pagan places and even names  (even the English word Easter!) so long as they were consistent with the Christian purpose. Indeed,  it is commonly assumed, there being no indication in the Gospels as to the time of year when Jesus was born, that the early Christians chose the Roman feast of Sol Invictus, the official State sun god so as to declare Christ the Son’s place at the heart of formal society; like those in Birmingham today, treading a difficult line between personal devotion and civic religion.

The parties, eating and drinking of Christmas capture some of the spirit of pagan midwinter, celebrating the sun’s return, and not entirely absent from cathederal mass … see the sparkle in the hair amongst the robes and dress coats of formal civic celebration, but both raw humanity and ordered civilisation give way to something greater.   There is a logic that is not the tit-for-tat logic of base human nature, nor the clinical logic of pure reason (although both are part of us), but instead is a logic that takes all the problems and pain of the world and answers them in a tiny wriggling baby.

reading: Computing is a Natural Science

I’ve just been re-reading Peter Denning’s article “Computing is a Natural Science1.    The basic thesis is that computation as broad concept goes way beyond digital computers and many aspects of science and life have a computational flavour; “Computing is the study of natural and artificial information processes“.  As an article this is in some ways not so controversial as computational analogies have been used in cognitive science for almost as long as there have been computers (and before that analogies with steam engines) and readers of popular science magazines can’t have missed the physicists using parallels with information and computation in cosmology.  However, Denning’s paper is to some extent a manifesto, or call to arms: “computing is not just a load of old transistor, but something to be proud of, the roots of understanding the universe”.

Particularly useful are the “principles framework for computing” that Denning has been constructing through a community discussion process.  I mentioned these before when blogging about “what is computing? The article lists the top level categories and gives examples of how each of these can be found in areas that one would not generally think of as ‘computing’.

Computation (meaning and limits of computation)
(reliable data transmission)
(cooperation among networked entities)
(storage and retrieval of information)
(meaning and limits of automation)
(performance prediction and capacity planning)
(building reliable software systems)
categories from “Great Principles of Computing

Occasionally the mappings are stretched … I’m not convinced that natural fractals are about hierarchical aggregation … but they do paint a picture of ubiquitous parallels across the key areas of computation.

Denning is presenting a brief manifesto not a treatise, so examples of very different kinds tend to be presented together.  There seem to be three main kinds:

  • ubiquity of computational devices – from iPods to the internet, computation is part of day-to-day life
  • ubiquity of computation as a tool –  from physical simulations to mathematical proofs and eScience
  • ubiquity of computation as an explanatory framework – modelling physical and biological systems as if they were performing a computational function

It is the last, computation as analogy or theoretical lens that seems most critical to the argument as the others are really about computers in the traditional sense and few would argue that computers (rather than computation) are everywhere.

Rather like weak AI, one can look treat these analogies as simply that, rather like the fact that electrical flow in circuits can be compared with water flow in pipes.  So we may feel that computation may be a good way to understand a phenomena, but with no intention of saying the phenomena is fundamentally computational.

However, some things are closer to a ‘strong’ view of computation as natural science.  One example of this is the “socio-organisational Church-Turing hypothesis”, a term I often use in talks with its origins in a 1998 paper “Redefining Organisational Memory“.  The idea is that organisations are, amongst other things, information processing systems, and therefore it is reasonable to expect to see structural similarities between phenomena in organizations and those in other information processing systems such as digital computers or our brains.  Here computation is not simply an analogy or useful model, the similarity is because there is a deep rooted relationship – an organisation is not just like a computer, it is actually computational.

Apparently absent are examples of where the methods of algorithmics or software engineering are being applied in other domains; what has become known as ‘computational thinking‘. This maybe because there are two sides to computing:

  • computing (as a natural science) understanding how computers (and similar things) behave – related to issues such as emergence, interaction and communication, limits of computability
  • computing (as a design discipline) making computers (and similar things) behave as we want them to – related to issues such as hierarchical decomposition and separation of concerns

The first can be seen as about understanding complexity and the latter controlling it.  Denning is principally addressing the former, whereas computational thinking is about the latter.

Denning’s thesis could be summarised as “computation is about more than computers”.  However, that is perhaps obvious in that the early study of computation by Church and Turing was before the advent of digital computers; indeed Church was primarily addressing what could be computed by mathematicians not machines!  Certainly I was left wondering what exactly was ubiquitous: computation, mathematics, cybernetics?

Denning notes how the pursuit of cybernetics as an all embracing science ran aground as it seemed to claim too much territory (although the practical application of control theory is still live and well) … and one wonders if the same could happen for Denning’s vision.  Certainly embodied mind theorists would find more in common with cybernetics than much of computing and mathematicians are not going to give up the language of God too easily.

Given my interest in all three subjects, computation, mathematics, cybernetics, it prompts me to look for the distinctions, and overlaps, and maybe the way that they are all linked (perhaps all just part of mathematics ;-)).  Furthermore as I am also interested in understanding the nature of computation I wonder whether looking at how natural things are ‘like’ computation may be not only an application of computational understanding, but more a lens or mirror that helps us see computation itself more clearly.

  1. well when I say re-reading I think the first ‘read’ was more of a skim, great thing about being on sabbatical is I actually DO get to read things 🙂 [back]

strength in weakness – Judo design

Steve Gill is visiting so that we can work together on a new book on physicality.  Last night, over dinner, Steve was telling us about a litter-bin lock that he once designed.  The full story linked creative design, the structural qualities of materials, and the social setting in which it was placed … a story well worth hearing, but I’ll leave that to Steve.

One of the critical things about the design was that while earlier designs used steel, his design needed to be made out of plastic.  Steel is an obvious material for a lock: strong unyielding; however the plastic lock worked because the lock and the bin around it were designed to yield, to give a little, and is so doing to absorb the shock if kicked by a drunken passer-by.

This is a sort of Judo principle of design: rather than trying to be the strongest or toughest, instead by  yielding in the right way using the strength of your opponent.

This reminded me of trees that bend in the wind and stand the toughest storms (the wind howling down the chimney maybe helps the image), whereas those that are stiffer may break.  Also old wooden pit-props that would moan and screech when they grew weak and gave slightly under the strain of rock; whereas the stronger steel replacements would stand firm and unbending until the day they catastrophically broke.

Years ago I also read about a programme to strengthen bridges as lorries got heavier.  The old arch bridges had an infill of loose rubble, so the engineers simply replaced this with concrete.  In a short time the bridges began to fall down.  When analysed more deeply  the reason become clear.  When an area of the loose infill looses strength, it gives a little, so the strain on it is relieved and the areas around take the strain instead.  However, the concrete is unyielding and instead the weakest point takes more and more strain until eventually cracks form and the bridge collapses.  Twisted ropes work on the same principle.  Although now an old book, “The New Science of Strong Materials” opened my eyes to the wonderful way many natural materials, such as bone, make use of the relative strengths, and weaknesses, of their constituents, and how this is emulated in many composite materials such as glass fibre or carbon fibre.

In contrast both software and bureaucratic procedures are more like chains – if any link breaks the whole thing fails.

Steve’s lock design shows that it is possible to use the principle of strength in weakness when using modern materials, not only in organic elements like wood, or traditional bridge design.  For software also, one of the things I often try to teach is to design for failure – to make sure things work when they go wrong.  In particular, for intelligent user interfaces the idea of appropriate intelligence – making sure that when intelligent algorithms get things wrong, the user experience does not suffer.  It is easy to want to design the cleverest algotithms, the most complex systems – to design for everything, to make it all perfect. While it is of course right to seek the best, often it is the knowledge that what we produce will not be ‘perfect’ that in fact enables us to make it better.

Comics and happy problem solving

I am in Eindhoven doing CSCW, silly ideas and other things with the USI students here. On the book shelf here is Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” I picked this up last year and couldn’t put it down until I had read it all. There is another book on the shelves this year “Reinventing Comics” and I daren’t pick it up until I’ve done all the work I want to today!

Understanding Comics is both an apologetic for comics as an art form and also an exploration into what makes a comic a comic and how comics manage to captivate and give a sense of narrative and action through what are basically static images. As well as being a good read about comics and about art there seem to be many lessons there for other forms of narrative and animation especially on the web.

As far as I can see (without starting to read it and not being able to stop), Reinventing Comics seems to be about the way online delivery trough the web is giving new opportunities for Comic art … but maybe when I finish everything today I will find out.

Less graphic and less fun, but no less fascinating, I have been dipping into chapters of “The Psychology of Problem Solving“, which was also sitting on the USI shelves. I was particularly enthralled by descriptions of experiments where subjects were asked to accomplish divergent thinking tasks whilst either pushing their palms upwards from under a table, or pushing down from on top. The former a positive, ‘come to me’ gesture elicited more diverse ideas than the latter, negative, ‘go away’ gesture, even though the only difference was the muscle groups in tension. I’ve seen other research that shows how our brains monitor our body state to ‘see how we feel’ (like smiling therapy), but this was one of the most subtle and conclusive.

During the week I have had the USI students work through a design brief starting with silly ideas then moving through  structured analysis to good ideas. Perhaps I should have had them pushing up on tables in the first part and down in the second?

pantoum amongst the lost emails

About to go off to Edinburgh for 2 day meeting of the Branded Meeting Places project in

Doing quick check on my outbox for 1/2 written emails that I need to finish … and then found the following from July 2006

spring flowers in the meadow
gold sunshine glinting
the grass between lies
cool and smooth

gold sunshine glinting
across the rippling waters
cool and smooth
towards the lonely isle

across the rippling waters
birds fly gently
towards the lonely isle
majestic but desolate

birds fly gently
spring long past
majestic but desolate
the snow buried grass

The Making of a PoemI recall the context now. I has been reading “The Making of a Poem” a lovely book, that discusses different poetic forms both history and current use and with loads of examples of each, classic and modern. I was talking to Masitah about the pantoum, a Malay poetic form where the 2nd and 4th line of each verse become the 1st and 3rd line of the next verse. I constructed the above as an example as we chatted! I had typed it into an email to save it and there it has lain, forgotten, ever since.

I think traditional pantoums have a particular rhythm structure within each verse, so my attempt above has the right line structure structure, but not the right metre. However, I did like the way it created an apparent continuity, yet the meaning could shift underneath – in this case from spring to winter.

My favourite in the book was a modern pantoum by J. M. McClatchy. He repeats the sound of the lines … but not necessarily the words … so in the first verse, the second line is “Seem to pee more often, eat” and in the beginning of the second verse this becomes “Sympathy, more often than not“. Or in the middle “The hearth’s easy, embered expense” becomes “The heart’s lazy: remembrance spent“.

Now back to looking for those urgent mails before the train!

Beyond Reason

I thought I had stumbled across the web site of an obscure religious cult or maybe just an extreme evangelical sect.

The signs were there. First the changing banner at the top showing images of The LEADER, sometimes looking meaningfully into the distance, sometimes preaching to his devoted disciples, and sometimes staring you directly in the eye convicting you of … you don’t know what but something. Then there was the sidebar densely packed with adverts for books (mostly by The LEADER) including the quotation from the review (by someone you had never heard of) telling you this book would “change the world”. Not to forget the devotional DVDs featuring The LEADER as narrator, or of him talking with others Of Like Mind … a sure sign of these fundamentalist sites when they only discuss with those Of Like Mind.

You need never be fooled, the signs are always obvious – even the address the “Upper Branch” office in California (I assume novitiates start on the Lower Branch) and the inevitable link to a ‘Foundation’ in this case a Foundation for “Reason and Science” – definite shades of Mary Baker Eddy!

The comments at the ends of articles were a little more unusual – it is only the most open cults (or the most confident in their brainwashing) that allow their members voices – but these were not exactly what I expected certainly unmeasured, but with a tone somewhere between MySpace and British National Party … definitely Mid-West Millenialist. About 1 in 7 were even odder with some words I couldn’t make sense of (a form of net-speak?) and even when the words were English the order seemed random and virtually grammarless .. of course, glossolalia … Pentecostal influences. … but most unsettling of all were the images chosen by the contributors as their icons, some I could not even recognise and wonderd if were even legal,

and the site? … (and I feel I ought to pronounce the name in hushed tones), the self professed “clear thinking oasis” … well no false modesty here.

Amongst the top level tabs on the pages are the ‘Store’ (what else) ‘Donate to RDF’ (the Richard Dawkins Foundation silly, not the semantic web notation!) and ‘Science’ and ‘Reason’. Under ‘Science’, we see everything from Archaeology to Psychiatry, Economics and Law .. yes he really is omniscient. Under ‘Reason’ we find less entries: ‘News’, an FAQ and … out of only five content categories … “Religion as Child Abuse” … note not even “Religion and Child Abuse” but “Religion as Child Abuse”. It is good to know that ‘Reason’ has such a staunch defender.

cover image: when they severed earth form skyRecently I have been reading “When They Severed Earth From Sky“. The authors, Barber and Barber, describe recurrent patterns in myths across the world – not in a Jungian sense of archetypes, but because we all share a common human nature and cognitive make-up (they subtitle the book “How the Human Mind Shapes Myth”). They mention (p.93) the frequent myth of cannibalism ascribed to one’s enemies citing Arens’ “The Man Eating Myth“, in particular are accusations of abuse against children: the Romans accused the early Christians of infanticide and the Medieaval Christians did the same to the Jews. … it seems Myths die hard and ‘Reason’ can always be helped by a bit of mud slinging.

As an academic I am a little taken aback that a fellow academic would lend his name (or should I say His Name) to a site like this, but I guess every wandering preacher needs to earn a buck … and anyway he is an Oxford professor and I was a Cambridge man so never did trust the other place.

More seriously, for some time I have had a half-written entry about the religious issues of evolution. I use evolutionary arguments frequently in my work, but wish to distance myself from the pseudo-religious evolutionists … maybe soon I’ll finish it.

Significantly (yes this is one of those confession moments), after all my life being a solid Darwinist, there was a period in my mid-twenties when I doubted Evolution (brothers pray for me) … and it was exactly writing like this that made me doubt. If the arguments for evolution were made in this way and those who supported it were so unreasoned, could one trust it at all.

Although mentioning Genesis will I am sure instantly condemn me, I was reminded while looking at this site of the tower of Babel and the people who thought that if they built enough of an edifice they would become like God.

chimpThe one redeeming feature on the Dawkins’ site is that amongst the many images of him gazing into the distance, or preaching to the converted is one of a chimpanzee. If you can at least see the funny side of yourself there is some hope.

mirrors and estrangement

One of my PhD students, Fariza, has been extensively studying a single person, a women not so disimilar from herself. In doing so they have become friends and much of Fariza’s thesis (soon to be submitted) concerns the methodological issues surrounding this.

pianoOne issue we have discussed at length is the importance of estrangement, that distancing oneself from the commonplace to make the taken for granted become apparent. We do not see the things closest to us: the dirty toenail, the crumpled sheet, the asymmetric fall of the piano music stand, the things lost because they are in the open.

Artists and comedians often open our eyes to the unseen-because-unnoticed aspects of life, such as Emin’s own crumpled sheets or the poignant woman on the platform in “The Fall and Rise of Reggie Perrin”1. Garfinkel’s breaching experiments attempt to bring this incisive comic eye to social science. Of novelists Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez is the master of this; through his true to life yet surreal accounts, with sometimes tenderness and sometimes almost cruel dispassion, he describes in intricate detail the intimate yet insignificant.

The Last Battle, C.S. LewisBerger talks about the way artists look at their work in a mirror to see it afresh and he himself sees the sunshine of lilacs in the mirror, lilacs that show him only their shadows2. I was reminded of one of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books where the supra-reality of the mirror image is more crystal sharp, more ‘real’ than the ordinary world3.

Mirrors bring to mind reflective practice, just as Fariza has to write herself into her own accounts, the mirror often shows not only the unseen side of an object but also oneself and oneself in relation to the object. The seer and seen are themselves seen and, like Berger’s lilacs, the partiality of one’s seeing becomes more obvious. The mirror is not so much important because it shows the hidden sun-glowed lilacs, but because it says that the shadowed petals are not the whole flower.

Arnolfini Mariage: mirror closeupI am reminded of that Dutch painting by van Eyck where the apparently pregnant woman and her husband stand in their home with their lap dog between them and discarded outdoor shoes untidily dropped4. On the wall behind the couple is a convex mirror capturing the whole scene from behind, and in the reflected doorway where you stand is the tiny image of van Eyck and another. Unlike supposedly ‘good’ scientific writing in incomprehensible passive speech, the artist has not painted himself out of his picture.

Arnolfini Mariage: dog closeupBerger also talks about paintings being painted for the moment of seeing, yet so many portraits do not look towards you, or even the artist, but through you, beyond you, to an unseen landscape. This may be because it is hard to paint eyes, or because it is hard to stare into the eyes of one’s painter. In life it is only with the deepest lovers or friends that we dare to share like this, hence perhaps the growing friendship that Fariza experienced when gazing deeply together into her subject’s life. Also, perhaps why the most intimate paintings have often been of the painter’s wives or lovers. Unusually in van Eyck’s painting, clearly of close friends, the couple do not gaze either aloof or uncaring past the viewer, but instead gaze within the painting demurely to one another … it is only the small dog that stares back.

Mona LisaThis may be part of the Mona Lisa’s allure. I have never seen it ‘in the flesh’, but everyone talks about the eyes that they follow you. However, look again, it is not so much that they follow you, but, unusual amongst paintings, they actually look at you and I suppose at Leonardo himself.

I know Fariza has found this, and I am sure it is universal, that if we look closely and honestly at those around us, we begin more clearly to see ourselves .

  1. This was a popular BBC TV series, but it is the book which I remember as most moving, I laughed out loud and shed tears equally.[back]
  2. John Berger, “and our faces, my heart, brief as photos“, Bloomsbury, 2005[back]
  3. end of Chapter 15 in “The Last Battle“[back]
  4. The page about the Arnolfini Portrait at the National Gallery site allows you to zoom into the image. It also explains that the woman is not actually pregnant, but simply in the full skirt style of the day.[back]

HCI and CSCW – is your usability too small

Recently heard some group feedback on our HCI textbook. Nearly all said that they did NOT want any CSCW. I was appalled as considering any sort of user interaction without its surrounding social and organisational settings seems as fundamentally misbegotten as considering a system without its users.

Has the usability world gone mad or is it just that our conception of HCI has become too narrow?

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