Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The very bearable lightness of being

An hour ago, I completed my first year in Santa Barbara and at UCSB. What an inspiring and exciting year it has been! While I keep thinking that the honeymoon should end at some point, the fascination of looking at the Pacific Ocean at breakfast and at the villas on the Riviera at sunset does not seem to diminish. In between these morning and evening pleasures, the days are filled with excitement and the smiles coming from colleagues enjoying and sharing their world class work, administrators encouraging us to excel, students eager to learn, personnel caring about customers, or strangers crossing my path. The only downside of this blissful life is that one may be lulled into forgetting the high expectations and standards that are applied to our work. What a contrast to my previous university, which has been agonizing for more than a year and in three faculty meetings already, over whether it is "morally justifiable" to grant me affiliate status.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Human-Social Interaction

A visit to the US, as the one I am enjoying now, is always good for many things: intellectual challenges, ease of daily life, catching up with how the US version of English evolves. On the latter aspect, I keep being impressed by how an expression can be redefined to mean something new, often something completely different or even opposite of what it used to mean (and still does in other parts of the world). A well-known example is Starbucks calling its smallest coffee size "tall". There are of course many reasons for this tendency, ranging from marketing through politics to a puritan fear of calling a spade a spade.

Last week, I was struck by another case of newspeak that surely has a marketing reason, but also seems to indicate a growing disconnect of technologists from physical reality. An achieved computer scientist gave a talk and started with several slides pointing to his various books. One of these books has "human-computer interaction" in its subtitle. The author said he had been seriously considering to change this to "human-social interaction" in the most recent edition.

This struck me as odd. Somebody famous for influencing user interface design, including user interfaces of social networks, thinks that what is happening at these interfaces should be called human-social interaction. My take on social networks is that they are indeed changing human-social interaction and I love many aspects of them (while not caring much for others). But interaction with friends and colleagues, to me, is still a much broader concept than what can happen in 140 characters on twitter or postings on Facebook. Call me old fashioned, but for me, the interaction between a human being and his or her social circles needs to be primarily physical, at least at some points, to be and remain meaningful. To claim that a book on HCI is about HSI seems, in other words (but not those of Starbucks!), like a "tall" order.

Maybe the author does actually live up to this understanding of human-social interaction. After the talk and the question period, he started talking to somebody from the audience, only to turn his attention to typing on his computer (and stopping to listen) after the first two sentences had been spoken ...

Friday, December 10, 2010

Quality of Conferences and Branding of Universities

Most universities are transforming their traditional self image into one that can cope with the challenges and competition in a global knowledge society. Particularly difficult to grasp (for administrators and researchers alike) is the fact that a university name is a brand which needs to be grown, protected, and used wisely. Our rector is currently (with good reasons, I think) challenging the architects who want to call two new high rise buildings in town "university towers", though the towers have nothing to do with the university. At the same time, her press office routinely agrees to requests for using the university logo at conference web sites, as long as it finds the names of university researchers on the program committee. Not denying the difficulty of making such judgments, shouldn't the step from an individual signing up to serve on a PC to the whole university publicly supporting the conference be bigger? After all, the implications for the reputation of both, the conference and the university, can be substantial and need not be positive. Can you imagine the press office of, say, Lufthansa deciding to let a club of model airplane builders use the Lufthansa logo, just because one of its employees worked a few hours as a volunteer for the club? Today, if it does not cost anything to put the logo on, press officers here and at other universities do not think twice before handing it out. Ironically, it is exactly then when they should wonder who stands to gain and to loose in this game of mutual flattering.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Musik als "Klangkörper"

Vor kurzem hatte ich ein Musikerlebnis völlig neuer Art, gleich in zweierlei Hinsicht: mein erstes Konzert in der Digital Concert Hall der Berliner Philharmoniker und eine tief bewegende, neue Erfahrung der der Matthäuspassion von Bach. Simon Rattle und Peter Sellars zeigten dabei mit ihrer "Ritualisierung", dass Musik mehr sein kann als "Klangrede", nämlich Ausdruck des ganzen Körpers, nicht nur der Stimme, und dass damit auch die Stimme neue Qualitäten gewinnt.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt hatte die barocke Idee der Klangrede ende der 60er Jahre dem romantisierenden Musikbrei vieler damaliger Aufführungen entgegengeschleudert (Auslöser war ebenfalls eine Aufführung der Matthäuspassion, aber damals im überkommenen Klangbild). Er hat sich damit, zusammen mit inzwischen unzähligen weiteren Musikern (von den ernsthafteren Mitteleuropäern bis zu den vergnügteren Engländern) gewaltige Verdienste erworben und der Generation der durch Karajan et al. von klassischer Musik eingelullten oder gar abgeschreckten eine solche von (mehr) Zuhörern folgen lassen.
Die Aufführung in Berlin am 11. April 2010 (der eine ähnliche an den Salzburger Osterfestspielen vorausgegangen war) kommt mir nun aber als neuerliche Revolution in unserem Verständnis "alter" Musik vor. Das Pendel der historischen Musikpraxis hatte in vielen Fällen zu weit in Richtung blutleerer, kopflastiger und manchmal freudloser Musikinterpretationen ausgeschlagen, bei denen Gefühle "klangzerredet" werden konnten. Es gab deshalb schon einige radikale Korrekturversuche, etwa John Neumeier's, aus meiner Sicht eher missglückte, Zertanzung des Weihnachtsoratoriums. Die enorm sinnliche, emotionale, genial inszenierte und gleichzeitig ganz verinnerlichte Ritualisierung der Matthäuspassion durch Sellars weist für mich nun aber auf ein neues Musikverständnis für dieses und vielleicht kommende Jahrzehnte hin. Rattle hat dieses, zusammen mit dem grossartig und fast ganz auswendig singenden Rundfunkchor (der das Werk noch nie zuvor gesungen hatte!) und den fabelhaften Solisten (mich beeindruckten besonders Mark Padmore als Evangelist, Camila Tilling und natürlich Thomas Quasthoff), sowie den kernig musizierenden und mit den Sängern interagierenden Philharmonikern in eine beglückende Aufführung umgesetzt.
Dass deren Grundidee dem "Body in the Mind" Semantik-Verständnis unserer Forschung entspricht (Bedeutung kommt zustande durch physische Erfahrung), ist wohl kein Zufall. Was die alte Musik betrifft sind wir damit in der Entwicklungsspirale der Interpretationen wieder näher bei Richter, ohne dabei die Durchsichtigkeit und Artikulation von Harnoncourt, Leonhardt, Herreweghe, Gardiner und anderen zu verlieren.
Dass mir ausgerechnet mein erster "digitaler Konzertbesuch" eine solch körperliche Interpretation und Erfahrung von Musik vermittelte, ist allerdings etwas paradox. Unser zunehmend digitalisiertes Leben ersetzt immer mehr körperliche Erfahrung durch virtuelle. Gerne wäre ich für die Aufführung in der grossartigen Berliner Philharmonie gesessen. Anderseits haben die wunderbaren Nahaufnahmen und der von Hustern und Programmheftblättern ungestörte Musikgenuss zuhause im Lehnstuhl eben auch sehr viel für sich - besonders im Konzertsaal-entbehrenden Münster. Wärmstens empfohlen sei deshalb der trailer oder auch das Nacherleben der ganzen Aufführung für schlappe 10 Euro.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

State-sponsored bank theft

Germany is somewhat paranoid about protecting its citizens from data abuse. Yet, it also adores authority. Its current finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has shown (while he was interior minister) that the latter character trait easily wins over the former. As his predecessor did with Lichtenstein, he now goes a step further, engaging in state-sponsored bank theft, encouraged by his boss Angela Merkel. Bank clerks obviously have taken note already after the Lichtenstein incident: by dumping some juicy data on a CD, they can easily garnish a few millions. As NZZ points out today, this is much more than if their data helped finding a murderer, for example, and their violation of law and bank codes of ethics can get them behind bars for at most 6 months. Thus, the German government has created yet another bonus option for bankers hard hit by the financial crisis. No wonder it needs to take away 35% of my salary every year. (Disclaimer: my funds in Switzerland are fully declared to the German tax authorities - and the behavior of some Swiss banks in the past and present stinks, of course).

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Usability, after almost 30 years...

This morning, I spent over an hour to make a simple one night single room hotel reservation. The hotel's site, like many others, has a "one strike, then you are out" policy for payments: if you get the security code of your credit card or anything else wrong the first time, you can start the whole reservation process from scratch, including all reservation and address details. This policy, combined with my credit card provider's great idea of sending out a new credit card with a new security code without a clear transition between the two (thus, making the security code ambiguous), led to five attempts with two different credit cards until I was finally allowed to pay. Maybe the current "y2k+10" problem in parts of Europe helped. But such help was not needed, since the same kind of usability problems occur over and over again on web sites. DB, the German Railways, for example, give us two separate username/password combinations for two kinds of logins, transferring to the wrong entry form after failing once, which makes you fail twice and then your access is blocked.

Frustrated, I decided to relax with some scientific matters and went on the web site of "the world's premier venue for informatics" to check the materials I had uploaded for a seminar. I found them misplaced (under the general seminar materials rather than those of a participant), having no idea how this had happened. When I corrected the error, I forgot that one has to save a part of the form separately, despite a single "upload" command at the end of the page. This gave me the opportunity to write the whole abstract of my talk again (back button failed!)... Then, the site told me it would not accept slides as uploads, but accepted them anyway. Before quitting, I decided to read some slides from the general seminar materials - only to find that they crash my slide software (Keynote).

Everybody may have similar stories to tell and we are wasting hours of our lives per week. Here are some more experiences over the past month or so:
- A query was not successful and I have to modify it. Why, in so many cases, am I not given the opportunity to change the first query?
- Many travel and other service web sites offer quick search windows with default assumptions. A "more choices" (or similar) button allows for changes to any defaults. When I type in my data and then switch to more choices, why do I have to re-enter everything?
- Why are tabs so often not used to move between form fields? German Railways had the superb idea of using them for moving to another form!
- Why do the end date fields for date ranges rarely update themselves based on your start date choices? etc., etc., etc.

I know this has all been said, published, investigated, punished, and said again, many times before. Why is progress on usability so damn slow? Do we really have to live with these kinds of annoyances, almost 30 years after the first HCI conference and Xerox Star?!

Write to the web site owners (the management, not the techies) each time you get annoyed! I still hope that more and more companies will eventually realize that usability affects their income, directly!

More usability, and less "customer satisfaction surveys", PLEASE!!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


An important role of the European Union (EU) is to assist disadvantaged regions in their development. One might not have thought of NRW, our state, to be such a region when it comes to GIS. Yet, a recently funded EU project suggests a need for help. Come to think of it, an NRW university department now funded by the project was so poor, a few years ago, that it had to take a report published by us re-publish it with only minimal changes under its own name. At that time, financial support for this effort came from the state. Now it is nice to know that our friends in Salzburg come to the rescue, for goals that are surely more noble.