It’s a while since I wrote in here — it’s been busy, of late.
So, first thing’s first: since I last wrote, I have successfully completed my mini thesis. Hooray! This means my next Big Deadline is around Christmas next year, by which time I need to have my thesis written… eeek! My supervisor tells me to allow half a year to write up the thesis — that allows for contingency and finishing off bits in the background, of course, but still theoretically means I need to have all my work done in under twelve months. That isn’t long!
Meanwhile, I’m finally at the point in my degree where I’m actually making some kind of research contribution. An important part of the doctoral experience is the act of sharing one’s work with the wider community and getting feedback: as such, I’m just back from a semi-whirlwind of conferences.
I first went to PETRA, on pervasive technologies and assistive environments, where I presented a full paper on the pervasive aspects of my work — multimodal messaging and using it to provide social networking functionality.
Next, I took a poster on the social aspects of the work to the hypertext conference, where I talked about finding methods to understand user experience: it’s no good my re-providing the functionality of social networking websites using novel, pervasive channels unless I can show whether or not the pervasive experience matches the web-based one!
Finally, last week I attended a symposium in Southampton called InterFace, an event to promote learning and sharing between fields of technology and the humanitities.
Each of these represented a rather different experience. PETRA was very solidly in my research area, and a fantastic chance to meet a community which was new to me and give a substantial presentation on my work. Hypertext was more relevant in terms of the adaptive nature of the system I’m designing, and the social aspects of the work; it was a very different community, but no less responsive to what I had to say. Finally, InterFace was a one-of-a-kind event, mainly made up of postgrads from all over the UK, and a few other countries: a diversity of fields were represented, from archeology to sociology to computer science. I always enjoy the challenge of discussing my work with people from different backgrounds, and this provided exactly that opportunity.
I’m now done with conferences for the foreseeable, which may be for the best! I have yet to wade through a big pile of papers to read, contacts to email and to dos to, well… do.
I’d better get to it!
I had the privilege of attending WebSci09, earlier this month. This was the first conference on web science, and a real mishmash of disciplines were represented. Topics included access to scholarly literature, parallels between WebSci and cognitive science, conversing between disciplines (Engineering and Humanities / CompSci and Sociology in particular), and so on.
The conference included some rather inspiring keynotes (particularly those by TimBL and Nosh Contractor), and of course, many networking opportunities. I have made a couple of connections which I hope to follow up
I presented my poster on the second day, and spoke to all manner of people from various disciplines. I was surprised to be interviewed by a journalist from a French IT news company, but it’s all good! As with Cumberland Lodge, it was a great experience to present my work to people who weren’t necessarily CompScis.
A quick sample of papers which struck me:
* perceptions of extremist activity online – the long tail of the online marketplace as applied to religious extremism (lower costs of reaching niches).
* the meaning of URIs – does a URI have a specific, concrete meaning as defined in a dictionary? Or is its meaning what was intended by its owner/originator? What about when meanings change as language shifts?
* Semantic web techs to augment the museum experience in the Netherlands… annotating artefacts in a repository.
* social and tech processes related to the addition of features to wikipedia
* offloading cognition onto the web – devices doing some of the stuff we can do for us, instead of us. This talk discussed a ‘grounding kernel’ of words (you can use a dictionary only if you have a basic set of the language in your possession to start – that’s the kernel), and the relevance of that set of words to the success of Google searches.
All in all, the conference had a real energy to it. Here’s to WebSci’10!
Of course, the biggest news around ECS lately is our very own Professor Wendy Hall becoming a Dame. It’s utterly fantastic news, and a wonderful accolade to an inspirational woman. As well as being a leading scientist, Wendy has contributed to the community in many other ways, including involvement in various diversity initiatives.
Web science is a current focus of Wendy’s. I’ve been following its rise with some interest, not least because my research seems to be sitting somewhere within this domain. I’m really pleased to see concrete things starting to happen: the first WebSci conference is happening next month; our Masters-level taught course began this week; finally (as I mentioned previously), ECS was recently awarded funding for a Centre for Doctoral Training in web science. WebSci is really beginning to crystallise from a set of abstract ideas into something more solid. These are interesting times!
I had the pleasure of attending the above event last week. It examined the careers and ongoing professional life of PhDs, inside and outside academia. It included four plenaries, which each took two successful PhDs from a given area (history; sociology; natural science; drama), one of whom had stayed in academia and one of whom had gone into industry. There was a very broad selection of speakers – and of doctoral students – with great discussions.
It was fascinating to have the chance to talk with people carrying out PhDs in areas like art and drama – how do you examine one of those? (Well, I have more of a clue than I did before.) This was not a CompSci conference: people didn’t use their laptops during sessions!
There were negative and positive themes throughout this event. Points were made about the frustration of imposed processes which stifle creativity and innovation, and the lack of investment here in the UK compared to other countries (e.g. Germany). On the other hand, there were fascinating life stories on hand, and an enormous range of diversity and openness. ‘Serendipity’ was an often-used word, and ‘don’t over-plan your careers’ was said more than once!
The opening keynote was given by Tom Docherty, an English professor at Warwick. He talked about how we have lived through the age of mechanical production and are now in the age of digital production, and ranted at great length about how we value form above content. For example, we have all seen the Mona Lisa, whether we’ve been to Paris or not – we get an aesthetic impression of its form, but don’t see the work right there in front of us, in context as the result of a historical process. Similarly, he talked about how we disconnect from stuff in the news (e.g. a dying child in Gaza) and instead look at situations in terms of how they’ll play out (say, the consequences for countries in a conflict).
Similarly, he ranted about how lecturers are expected to fill in data on the aims, objectives, goals of a taught module – and not just go and teach it. How many PhD students have courses about managing their PhDs, structuring their time? A lot of us. But that stuff is nothing to do with the content of the PhDs!
He ended by saying that we have lost the visceral experience – we experience what we think we ought to experience, not the thing itself – how do we respond to that dying child in Gaza? How do we grieve? (Personally, I’m not convinced about all of this. He says we aren’t free to experience things as they are, but were we ever? And does this not, on some levels, just boil down to over-thinking things and “head vs heart”? He is, after all, a PhD talking to a room of PhD candidates.)
Anyway. Enough on the opening keynote.
Other things which came up were discussions of issues faced by female academics (you know the stuff – bringing up families etc – though also a point about how there is a need for the token woman on committees, which can leave us over-stretched – this resonated!). Also a point was made about inequality, not in terms of promotion and pay, but care-giving: how many husbands might drop a job to care for an ailing mother-in-law? How many wives would do likewise? Hm.
Student presentations were in parallel streams, ten to a group. I heard about visual deception in cinema, the effects of downhill walking in the elderly, implementation of policy… see how broad this conference was? Heard an utterly fantastic talk on the Battle of Mersa El Brega in 1941 – the speaker just came to life and told us a story – I forgot I was in a presentation, I was there with the speaker in 1941. Fab!
I gave my own presentation after a walk around the grounds (which were so “upper class English” it was unbelievable: of course, we were a stone’s throw from Eton and Windsor Castle). I worked really hard when putting it together to make it accessible to non-techies, and I was really pleased that I appear to have succeeded in this. I had loads of questions, and at breakfast the next day an artist from RCA and then a cinematographer separately grabbed me to talk some more. Win!
Of course, the Q&A session following my presentation was very broad, reflecting the audience. I was really surprised to be asked by the historian, “How on earth will you write this up?” He felt it would be incredibly difficult because my work is currently in two halves (which will later, with luck and hard work, mesh together), and thus I can’t write a linear document. This hadn’t struck me as anything of note at all – perhaps a reflection of how different approaches to PhDs can be.
I was delighted to meet a fellow CompSci at the conference – by the strangest coincidence, our research areas overlap. He’s looking at online social networking, what makes some profiles popular and things like this. There was an interesting discussion following his presentation on the ethics of data collection (the data’s grabbed from the ‘net – he isn’t getting consent from the profile holders), what data mining means (clearly not a topic which many in the room were well versed in), how it can be used. Anyway, we two cheated the interdisciplinary nature of affairs by talking CompSci over dinner – CHI, hypertext, coding languages. Tee hee!
The final plenary was given by the drama people, and was very interesting. Topics included the power of the actor to create something which isn’t physically there (think invisible walking sticks), and to bring to life the (perhaps ambiguous) written word. Actors and research: how some love to research a role, others hate it and fear the research will constrain or confine them. Discussion of the obligation to publish in academia, and how that can lead to lots of second rate stuff, rather than rarer but sparkling gems. Great points about how academic research requires a rather introverted state of mind, but teaching and attending conferences demands an extroverted approach. Impostor syndrome as a consequence of always questioning everything.
The penultimate speaker discussed Nietzsche, including a quote which resonated with the opening keynote – “life in things is truer than any theory about things”. But PhDs inherently involve engaging with the theory of things!
Clearly, this conference produced a lot of food for thought. It was really refreshing to go and talk to such a broad set of people, and I found the exercise of explaining my research to such a group very valuable indeed. Good times!
Edit: a summary report by Cumberland Lodge may be found here.
Brief work update thing
How is it 2009 already? What happened to 2008? What happened to this week, for that matter? It doesn’t feel it should be Friday already. Then again, I spent all week focused on rewriting a paper, with a conference deadline tomorrow. At least, it was tomorrow until a few hours ago… they just extended it to 30th January. It’s just like PhD comics, it really is!
Never mind: the paper is done.
This month is paper-tastic. Having finished that one today, I now need to write another for hypertext. Next month, I write my (delayed) mini thesis. Fun times?!
On EngDs changing
I received an interesting email or two back in mid-December about how EngDs are being run. EPSRC have been revising the number and nature of EngD Centres, apparently to extend the model to a broader range of disciplines. (Southampton seems to have always been unusually broad in its implementation of the EngD.) From October this year there’ll be 44 ‘new’ centres for doctoral training (CDTs) – I am sceptical about the ‘new’ part, given that Southampton is one (actually, three) of these, when it can already be described as such a beast.
So there are going to be a bunch of ‘Industrial Doctorate Centres’ (IDCs), which are basically EngD centres, and a bunch of ‘Doctoral Training Centres’ (DTCs), which will offer four-year Masters/PhD courses. Are you loving the acronyms yet? Anyway, the good news for Southampton is that we have successfully bid for an IDC in ‘transport and the environment’, and also for two DTCs in web science and complexity. Winning the IDC is particularly cool, as apparently only a third of the original EngD centres remain – so this reflects rather well on our own EngD programme.
On a personal note, these changes don’t really affect me at all. All current REs (Research Engineers, or EngD students) are funded through to the end of our programmes, and the operation of the current EngD won’t change.
I ended my last post by mentioning an interest in returning to regularly blogging about my work, but also noting I wasn’t sure if it’d happen. Well, here I am!
I used as a prompt a system internal to ECS. On a monthly basis, it bugs postgrads to write a mini activity report for their supervisors to read, and then bugs supervisors to respond to these reports. I think writing about its effectiveness is maybe another blog post in its own right, but I will say that it was useful in reminding me to write this
So what have I been up to lately?
The main thrust of my work in the last while was coding up a prototype messaging system. The purpose was twofold – partly to check my logic was sound, and partly to see whether it really *is* feasible to implement it using IBM’s MicroBroker product. I was really pleased with how quickly I built the prototype, and also that it worked!
I’ve now very nearly finished writing up a document about that prototype: this presents the motivation, a scenario of use, system description, all that sort of thing. Hopefully the document will form a good chunk of my mini thesis.
Speaking of which, that’s coming up rapidly. I have one more chunk of work which may be worth doing before the mini thesis – the issue at the mo is that neither myself nor my supervisor have the knowledge to scope the task out. We have a meeting with an expert tomorrow to try and figure that out, and once we know that, hopefully we can work out the timing of everything, and start booking people for the viva!
All that said, I’ve been doing a few things on the side, too. A few weeks ago, I presented to my 2nd and 3rd line managers at Hursley about EngDs in general, and my research in particular. It went well, I’m pleased to say. I also organised an LSL/ECS seminar, which concerned mobile and pervasive work in LSL. Three of us spoke about our work, before we all moved into a discussion on where these technologies are going, particularly with respect to LSL.
I’ve agreed to a bit of demonstrator work, which is coming up: I’ll be marking half of the courseworks for our second year HCI course over Christmas, and from February I’ll be involved with the 2009 SEG module, where I will mentor two groups and apparently be involved in the demo/presentation assessment at the module’s end. I’m interested in HCI, so I’m happy to do the marking, and I had a really good time mentoring SEG students in 2007 – so I’m looking forward to getting back to that, too.
So I’m living in busy times, but good times. I really like where I am at the moment, in fact: the mini thesis deadline (despite being a bit vague right now) is close enough that I’m motivated to get on with things, but far enough away that I’m not enormously stressed. I should make the most of that!
So the head of my research group has been encouraging us to update blogs and maintain an online presence. I used to update this pretty often, then it all kind of fell over towards the end of last year. On reflection, I suspect that this is due to a sequence of important non-work events, such as getting married…
I last updated nearly a year ago. What’s been going on?
Well, I picked myself up and got back to work, with rather improved health. As I mentioned in my previous post, the viva for my lit review went well. I was particularly pleased that my future research ideas fitted well with IBM – definitely an important goal to meet.
Work-wise, I’ve been looking at two threads in parallel. The first involves pervasive messaging, and considering ways to use existing IBM technologies to ‘translate’ messages between various modalities of communication. The second is to do with examining the functionality offered by social technologies, particularly with an eye to figuring out exactly what’s going on when you browse a site such as Facebook – what is the experience offered? To which (if any) real-life experiences is it analogous? Ideally, it’d be ace to ‘deconstruct’ this experience as Dix does in his paper on Christmas crackers. Long-term, I want to pull these threads together to look at how (if at all) it is possible to ‘transpose’ web-based social experiences to novel, pervasive technologies.
Next up is the mini thesis, the midpoint of my degree. In this report I need to explain where I am, what I’ve achieved and (importantly!) where I’m going.
On the side, I’ve been doing a bit of innovation work with colleagues at IBM – a couple of patents have been filed, now, and some bits and bobs are in the system. Patents are, in some ways, analogous to publications within academia – it’s great that IBM encourage employees to spend some time thinking about unusual and novel things at work.
Less fun is submitting papers to conferences whilst ensuring you meet company rules and regs – IBM are (understandably) very protective of their IP, so I have to ensure any papers I want to submit to a conference are given legal and technical sign-off before I do anything with them… which generally means I need them ready at least a week before any deadlines. That isn’t always terribly convenient! We’ve made it work so far, though
IBM in general
I’m onto my third first-line manager since starting at IBM, but that seems to be relatively normal – people move around a lot. For me, the role of my first line is relatively simple: really it’s about sorting out admin stuff. My industrial supervisor, Andy, hasn’t changed,which is the main thing!
What the heading says. Of course, there’s a difference between making an effort to write a one-off blog entry when prodded by the head of your research group, and regularly updating anything. It’d be cool if I get back into this, if only because (as my supervisor Dave has observed), writing posts can be useful for straightening out thoughts on particular topics. We shall see…
Long time no update. So, a bunch of health problems jumped on me very soon after my previous post on here; I don’t have much to say about the Hopper conference, as I pretty much missed all of it. The good news is that I’ve been back at work for a fortnight now, and all is going well.
I had the viva on my lit review back on 11th. It went really well! The examiner seemed happy with my report, and I think the discussion of where to go next went extremely well: I’m very excited about all the possibilities. It’s funny: I started off looking at assistive tech for learning, particularly for students with issues such as dyslexia. Somewhere along the way, my direction altered. I’m really intrigued by how different generations/cultures approach and use technology, and how we can use techs to help ‘unusual’ (i.e. non-standard, maybe elderly or disabled) users, particularly socially. (Wendy asked me to put my lit review online, so if you’re interested by this stuff, it is here: you’re probably better off just chatting to me, though!)
I read a fantastic paper today, which is here. It’s all about the design of assistive technologies for use by elders, and discusses the importance of aesthetics. I’ve always felt that interfaces are key (I have been known to say that the smartest, most fantastic technology is useless if no one can use it), but the paper explains this far better than I ever did, particularly with regard to assistive technology for the elderly.
It looks at how the perception of your abilities affects those abilities, and how devices can cause feelings of shame and powerlessness. For example, it describes a woman who resisted leaving her home once wheelchair-bound, due to embarrassment about this; she therefore lost social ties, became more isolated, and engaged in far less physical activity. (Compare a wheelchair with the motorised scooters you see the elderly zipping around in. The functionality is pretty similar, but the image is utterly different.)
The paper concludes that you can’t assume elders will use an assistive technology just because they need it: if it makes them feel embarrassed or incapable, they may avoid it even at the expense of independence or social interaction.
I’ve just spent an exceptionally busy four weeks writing, reviewing and improving my literature review. This is the first major deadline in a doctorate, and at the least catalogues your chosen research area, and helps you to work out where to go next; the good ones do some analysis, too. I’m pleased to say I handed mine in yesterday. It was very hard work, and I was very pleased to get rid of it! It isn’t over, though, as I have a viva in just under three weeks. I hope, in the viva, to get in some good discussion about my future direction.
I won’t be thinking about that immediately, though, because I’m off to Florida on Monday. A group of us from ECS are attending the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing – I’m thrilled to have a scholarship! I attended a very useful briefing earlier this week. I have discovered that it isn’t a research conference, and it is very parallel: loads of streams to choose from. It’s all about motivating and inspiring women in computing, and is full of talks from women in industry and research, speaking about what they are doing, and why. (I think!) Another purpose of the conference is, I gather, recruitment of women who are about to graduate: so there’ll be lots of undergrads, and lots of big companies. That said, I hear there are plenty of postgrads there, too. Most of all, I am told, it is a celebration. I am intrigued!
The astute among you may have noted that the conference isn’t actually starting ’til the week after next: this is because myself and a friend are going out a week early, for a well-earned break!