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]

the economics of misery

It is agreed, by academics and politicians, if the poor are always to be with us, it had better be grinding poverty.

Last week I spotted an interestingly titled “A strong faith ‘can weaken the economy‘” in The Times (22/8/2013, p. 25).  This was reporting on a recent academic article1 in “Social Psychological and Personality Science” (it is ‘science’ so must be true.).  The first sentence of The Times report reads:

“Too much religion can harm a society’s economy by undermining the drive for financial success, according to study.”

(N.B. see coda below for what the academic article actually says.)

I at first thought this must be some sort of study looking at different countries’ rates of growth vs religiosity or something like that, maybe a counter to the ‘protestant work ethic’.  However, it was instead a study of happiness. basically religious people are happier in general, but most critically poor religious people were, in some cases, most happy of all.

Critically for the non-relgious, richer people are a lot happier than poorer people. Yep, surprise, surprise; despite all those worries about which new SUV to buy, or watching the uncertain future of their stock portfolio, rich people’s woes do not compare with wondering where you are going to find the next meal for your children.

From this The Times report’s conclusion follows, that religion is clearly bad for the economy, because poor people have less incentive to become richer.  I guess this is neo-lberal equivalent of Marx’s “religion is the opium of the masses”.  Well, something that Thatcher and Trotsky could have agreed on.

Strangely, given the rich are happy, surely it would be better if they were less happy and therefore more incentivised to be even richer and thus work harder to grow the economy.  Maybe a better headline would be “Happy rich people ‘can weaken the economy'”?  I wonder why the The Times didn’t report that.

On a similar theme, in yesterday’s Times, on the front page, another episode in the long running feckless poor saga, with a headline “Benefits fuel workshy culture, says pensions czar” (27/8/2013, p.1), reporting on a statement from Lord Hutton, who was once part of the Blair government and now a cross-party peer and the coalition’s pension advisor.

Yes, it is official, poverty is not enough, the only route to economic regeneration and growth is grinding poverty and misery to boot.

Coda — what the academic article actually says

I found a copy of the full article on Southampton’s eprints server.  The actual words in the conclusion, from which The Times makes its summary are:

“Consequently, as long as religiosity fosters anti-wealth norms, it may undermine financial strivings and success both at the individual- and culture-level. This may be a mixed blessing: religiosity may curb ever-needed economic growth but may also thwart individuals and cultures from making risky financial decisions.”

Ignoring the implicit assumption that growth is ‘ever-needed’, it is interesting that The Times headline did not read “A strong faith could have prevented financial crisis“.

Furthermore, the phrase in quotes in the headline ‘can weaken the economy‘ does not actually occur anywhere in the pre-print of the paper.

Two other things were interesting to note.

First, despite the paper’s title and abstract that mentions “religiously diverse cultures“, in fact the study is of 11 European countries (not including the UK)), only one of which (Turkey) is not predominantly Christian.  Interestingly Turkey is one of the countries (with Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands) that showed the opposite trend to the norm.  Given this, maybe The Times headline should have been “Muslim faith can ‘strengthen the economy’“.

Second, it was interesting to note the superficial knowledge of actual religious teaching evidenced in the article.  Following the general European-Christian theme, all the quotes in the paper are Judeo-Christian, and quite rightly the paper numerous cites texts that comfort the poor and warn of the danger of riches (e.g. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God”, Mark 10:25).

While this Biblical ‘Bias to the Poor’ (as the late David Shepherd put it), is accurate, the article also cites Moses’ destruction of the Golden Calf in Exodus, which the paper deems to be a parable about gold.  Of course, the point of the story is not about the fact that it is gold but that they are worshiping an idol not the true God, this would have been a problem were it made of gold, clay or Brighton Rock.  Indeed later, the Ark of the Covenant, where the tablets of the law brought down by Moses are stored, incorporates gold and other precious materials (Exodus 25).

Interestingly, given The Times doctored a quote from the article, the article doctors a quote from God, inserting the word ‘golden’ into his command to Moses to go down from the mountain (Exodus 32:7-10).  To be fair, being good academics, the word ‘golden’ is in square brackets, academic speak for “I know it doesn’t really says this, but I’m inventing words to make my point anyway, and hoping you read it without noticing”.

You see, we academics are honest about our deceit. … now I’m sure there is something in the Ten Commandments about that …

  1. J. E. Gebauer, A. D. Nehrlich, C. Sedikides and W. Neberich. The Psychological Benefits of Income are Contingent on Individual-Level and Culture-Level Religiosity. Social Psychological and Personality Science. September 2013, vol. 4 no. 5, pp.569-578.(published online before print December 20, 2012), doi:10.1177/1948550612469819.  abstract at SagePub, full text at Southampton eprints.[back]

the myth of the ‘supermom’ supervisor

On Facebook I’ve seen a number of shares to an article in the Times Higher entitled “10 truths a PhD supervisor will never tell you“.  The author is writing from an Australian perspective, and is now a senior academic in a university there, so has seen, at least the system there, from both sides.  The article includes useful advice.  Some seems obvious, such as “A supervisor who is active in the area of your doctorate can help to turbocharge your work“; of course this may not be so obvious to a young PhD student … but then how many read THES?

However, I was sometimes lost as to whether the author was carping at her own PhD supervision many years ago, or writing satirically as the set of requirements for a PhD supervisor sounded a bit like the mythical supermom juggling nappies, school run in the SUV and voluntary work in the Opera House all in the gaps in her busy schedule as chief executive of a multi-national.

To be honest, as a PhD supervisor, I have sometimes felt like a flailing (and often failing) supermom, but the supermom is an invention of exploitative magazines, ignorant media and the odd misogynist, and the super-supervisor is no more soundly based.

Some of the comments on the THES website do pick up these contradictions, for example (truth 3) never being absent on the weekly meeting slot (the school run), but also (truth 4) powerful enough to protect the student from bureaucracy (the chief executive).

Most of the Facebook shares have been positive and the article reads well if read as hyperbole, however I can’t help feeling that it should be mixed with a little more realism … and maybe someday I should write “10 truths they never tell you about being a PhD supervisor”.

In the UK our PhD system (and indeed whole university system) dates from the time when less than 1 in 20 school-leavers went to University and of those less than 1 in 20 went on to do any sort of post-graduate degree or PhD. While the latter figure has not grown so much, the former is now near 40%.  I guess, in the dim past, with a super-elite of less than 0.25% doing a PhD, a ‘sink or swim’ approach may not have worked so badly; a bit like saying “Hey Usain, run”.

The mix of students has changed, but the attitudes and models have not kept pace, for example, many universities still count PhD supervision as ‘research’ time rather than teaching, a perk rather than a job. In the UK system we still, in practice if not in word, regard the PhD process as independent research rather than as training for independent research.  This puts unrealistic pressure on the student and makes the supervisory task one of all responsibility and little control (pretty much the clinical definition of stress).

To be honest some academics do take the old school approach, seeking research ‘cannon fodder’ rather than students, but for the prospective PhD student this is rarely an issue as they won’t accept you anyway unless you are already an academic Usain Bolt.  However, the vast majority of supervisors put in substantial time and personal energy in what is often, institutionally, a thankless task.

The fees for PhDs also reflect the old model, whether they are paid by the UK government, some sort of external sponsor or in rare occasions the student themselves.  I once calculated that the average PhD fees (higher for overseas student than EU ones) paid for a maximum of 2 hours per month for normal supervisory activities, this to include every email answered, university form filled in and paper/chapter read as well as face-to-face contact.  This is in contrast to a stated minimum contact time of 2 hours per month and in practice at least twice that, not to mention the above average periods.

Maybe we could have supermom supervision, but it would cost an awful lot more.

I have had some wonderful PhD students, but by definition you know them at one of their most vulnerable, but also most self-absorbed times of their lives.  When they are not actually having babies while doing the PhD (I’ve lost count of my PhD ‘grandchildren’), the thesis is like a baby, and every student is going through the emotional and physical trauma that entails!  The job of PhD supervisor is more often about motivating, cajoling, and wiping tears than sharing pearls of academic wisdom.  But, happily, the only homicidal student I have supervised (not PhD!) only threatened other academics and not me.

In my own experience, I bought my first mobile phone so that I could walk back and forth on the beach on a rare family holiday helping a student through an early paper submission, and I have received a complete thesis draft on Christmas Eve knowing I needed to read it by Boxing Day … indeed I cannot recall when I last had a Christmas period without either a PhD thesis to read for a student or one to examine externally.

I was fortunate in that my busiest time as a PhD suorvisor was when my daughters were already starting to grow up (although maybe they did not think so at the time), as they were born just before and while doing my own PhD (yes Colin you too were a PhD grandfather).  A colleague, who had had his first child while he was already a long-standing academic, once told me how he had cut back his working hours. “I don’t come in until 8:30 and I leave by 4:30”, he said – oh my goodness an eight hour day. But then he spoilt it, “and I don’t start work again until after the baby is asleep at 7, and do less at weekends”.

So, if you are a prospective or current PhD student, do read the THES article.  However do also remember that to the extent that your supervisor satisfies any of the ‘supermom’ criteria, it is not that they are ‘doing their job’, but because, out of their own time and effort, they are doing it for you. And, please, don’t forget that they have a life as well.

And if you are a PhD supervisor and read the THES article with despair in your heart, believing you have failed your students, your university and yourself, remember, the ‘supermom’ supervisor is a myth.  At times being a supervisor may be demoralising, depressing and debilitating, but also there are rewards (albeit unlikely to be institutional ones) when you see your students mature.  And, please, don’t forget who your real children are.

Apple’s Model-View-Controller is Seeheim

Just reading the iPhone Cocoa developer docs and its description of Model-View-Controller. However, if you look at the diagram rather than the model component directly notifying the view of changes as in classic MVC, in Cocoa the controller acts as mediator, more like the Dialogue component in the Seeheim architecture1 or the Control component in PAC.

MVC from Mac Cocoa development docs

The docs describing the Cocoa MVC design pattern in more detail in fact do a detailed comparison with the Smalltalk MVC, but do not refer to Seeheim or PAC, I guess because they are less well known now-a-days.  Only a few weeks ago when discussing architecture with my students, I described Seeheim as being more a conceptual architecture and not used in actual implementations now.  I will have to update my lectures – Seeheim lives!

  1. Shocked to find no real web documentation for Seeheim, not even on Wikipedia; looks like CS memory is short.  However, it is described in chapter 8 of the HCI book and in the chapter 8 slides[back]

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]

Royal Mail comes through

The Royal Mail has had a lot of bad press recently with strikes, postal delays and ‘modernisation’. However, it is easy to forget the revolutionary nature of the “Penny Post“: one price and one service to deliver anywhere in the country.  Living  in Tiree, one of the western Scottish islands, this is particularly pertinent.  Many carriers do not deliver here or only do so at a higher rate; those that do are often delayed waiting for the ferries, but so long as the plane comes in so does the post.

Our shower was leaking water and on Friday at around 12:42pm we ordered spare parts from Shower-Warehouse.  I had assumed that they would not arrive before I set off back to Lancaster on Tuesday morning and so it would be Christmas before I could actually do the repair.

But, at 1pm today, they were delivered

So top marks for both the Royal Mail and Shower-Warehouse and may modernisation never change the wonder of universal post.

back to Tiree

I’m on the ferry on my way to Tiree.  I’ve not been back home for nearly 8 weeks and have a long weekend before heading back down to Lancaster until Christmas.  Since I left in mid September I’ve slept in 19 different places and had 23 moves between places; however, my main home has been the camper van, a Ford Transit Auto-Sleeper Duetto, small enough to manoeuvre easily, but with everything on board from cooker and fridge to its own toilet and shower!

I’ve also not blogged since I was last at home. I have a half-written entry from Paris, I was at a lecture by John Searle in Eindhoven and really want to write about that, and I also need to write a retrospective on my sabbatical year, but not had a moment; indeed on my office desk is an iPhone, which has sat waiting to be unpacked for the last 2 months, no time even to play :-/

Perhaps over the next few days I can catch up with the half-written blogs amongst the unanswered email, overdue papers, and pressing admin; and also take some time to appreciate the sea and wild wind.

escape from distraction

Last week I was away in Cornwall and lost (but later found) my phone, so was both without a phone and with no internet connection … and it was amazingly liberating. My life is driven by the never ending stream of incoming mails and while in principle I could ignore them, in fact I find myself constantly breaking off what I do and seeing what has come in.

This reminded me of a Times article Haliyana pointed out to be a couple of weeks ago “Stoooopid …. why the Google generation isn’t as smart as it thinks“. We make a virtue of the never ending stream of interruptions that assail us; “multi-tasking” we call it, but in fact they not only mean we are less focused, but are possibly loosing the ability to concentrate at all.

While reading the article itself I found myself fighting not to want to follow the numerous links to other stories that littered the Times online page … and I would like to tell you more about it, but I never managed to read to the end before succumbing to the next interruption.

Basic Numeracy

When the delayed SATS results eventually arrive, I’m sure there will be the regular navel gazing at the state of basic numeracy and literacy in UK schools. But what about those who were in primary schools 30 years ago?

This morning on BBC News Channel an interviewer was talking to an economist from the City. They were discussing the reduction in bank lending (a fall of 3% during June, with 32% year-on-year drop ) and its implications for the housing market and the economy in general. The interviewer asked if it was accelerating and the economist agreed, mentioning how the year-on-year drop had gone from 10% in one quarter to 20% in the next and now over 30%.

Of course these figures are all based on a year-on-year average that includes the period before the credit crunch began last autumn and in fact are consistent with a steady linear fall of around 3% per month for the 9 months since the Northern Rock collapse. That is an alarming rate of fall, but not evidence of an accelerating fall.

This apparent lack of basic numeracy reminds me of a discussion some years ago with senior financial executives who dismissed any attempt to quantify projected company income as ‘just numbers’. Having lost money in the Northern Rock collapse I wonder whether the executives in Northern Rock and other banks had a similar attitude!

I know it is easy for me as a trained mathematician to hold up my hands in horror, but still these are people who are playing not only with their own livelihoods, but also the lives of their investors, ordinary people and even the state of the entire economy.

We do have a peculiar attitude in the UK where it is acceptable for highly educated people (including many computer scientists) to just ‘not do math’, and furthermore say so with a level of pride, whereas to say the same about reading would be unconscionable. Other European countries seem far more numerate, so this seems to be a cultural phenomena not an intellectual problem.

I have heard that one of the best predictors of educational success is if a child is willing to put off a treat for another day. Mathematics does require doing work at one stage to see benefit maybe many years later, but this to some extent runs counter to the increasingly common expectation of students to want to know fully and completely how something is useful to them now.

Maybe the answer is for schools to have lessons in leaving sweeties until tomorrow … and perhaps remedial lessons for City economists who matured during the Thatcher years.