St Andrews + UVic PhD Scholarship on Machine Learning and Visualization

We are advertising a unique cross-continental opportunity to carry out cutting-edge research on Machine Learning and Information Visualization across two continents at two leading institutions, the University of St Andrews (Scotland) and the University of Victoria (Canada).

For administrative details, conditions and an initial description of the research see: the official Scholarship Announcement.

Supervision is collaborative between Dr Juan Ye and Uta Hinrichs (St Andrews) and myself (Miguel Nacenta–University of Victoria). Applications are accepted until June 30th, 2020. Feel free to drop me a line at nacenta at uvic dot ca if you want to discuss your application informally with me.

 

Postgraduate Supervision in the COVID19 Era (for Supervisors and Students)

I moved to the University of Victoria (Canada) in January, so I have since been working with my St Andrews PhD students remotely who, for a number of reasons, preferred not to move continents to Victoria with me. This means that we are quite used at the moment to work remotely.

Remote PGR supervision has its challenges, yet I believe it is important to acknowledge that the new constraints imposed by the virus, quarantines, social distancing etc. add an additional layer of complexity to the whole situation. I also believe that postgraduate students are likely to suffer the extraordinary situation particularly hard because with the additional burden to move to online teaching, supervisor’s energy and time will be in shorter supply. Here are just a few of my thoughts regarding remote supervision (first), and regarding supervising during quarantine (second).

Remote Supervision

I think it is important to acknowledge that remote supervision is harder than in-person supervision. For a number of reasons:

  1. It is harder to read the mood of people through a remote connection, even if there is video (this cuts both ways… I know that my students can sometimes tell that I’m in a bit of a mood). Without the ability to judge mood and attitude accurately it is harder to make the right calls regarding next steps, tone etc.
  2. I find that it is just that bit harder to be compassionate, empathetic and understanding when you are separated by a long distance and, perhaps more importantly, by a few hours in our daily cycle. I meet my students in the morning, since I’m 8 or 9 hours behind. This means that my students are mostly at the end of their days when I’m still full of energy; this has a significant effect.
  3. The serendipitous and opportunistic contacts that one has at work are important for students; if you cross them in the hallway, they know you are here, you know they are here. A quick question or two minute talk, or even a sentence might not only give each other acknowledgement of each other’s needs (“yes, I’ll get to read your chapter soon! I have not forgotten!”), but it might also save a significant amount of time if they don’t have to wait until the next meeting to get a little bit of help.
  4. The opportunistic encounters with other members of staff are also important for the students and for the supervisor in order to support the students. For example, that little bit of awareness of the member of the Systems Support Team who tells you that certain service will have to be down soon, or that a certain machine needs replacement.
  5. It simply is harder to critique, point out issues, discuss ideas that have a graphical substrate when you are connecting over video conference. I cannot count the number of times that I had to sketch something on paper and awkwardly held it in front of the camera, trying to point at different areas of the sketch, or the number of times that I tried to scroll on a document which is really just a shared desktop from the other side. This is a real issue in Computer Supported Collaborative Work that has not really been solved yet in the mainstream, despite the efforts of many in the CSCW community, including my mentors Saul Greenberg and Carl Gutwin.

Supervision in COVID19 times

Everything in the previous section applies to the current quarantine situation, sometimes amplified. And some aspects are new:

  1. Both supervisors and students are anxious, even if they are often not ready to admit it to themselves, much less to others. Being a PhD student is more often than not a difficult thing, with the justifiable stress and anxiety of academia and trying to prove oneself. Now imagine how this feels when you add the uncertainty of not being able to run experiments, have access to your usual materials, or having to go through extra hoops to just be able to do what is expected of you. Anxiety and extra work can be particularly damaging for deep work.
  2. Loneliness can be a real issue. Most people rely on looser or tighter communities for support. Postgrads who work remotely tend to find it much harder to find the motivation and energy to sustain focus and work without a group of peers. Self-isolation and social distancing is much more likely to wipe out these sources of peer-support than many other practices, probably because the value and perception of these networks is easy to underestimate.
  3. Some people’s life circumstances are being affected more than others. Being away from family, having to care for dependents, or even trying to help out the communities one belongs to (e.g., elderly residents in the same apartment building) can take a very significant toll on people’s time and energy.

Strategies and tools worth thinking about (for remote, COVID or both)

I have never been a perfect supervisor, but I try hard to do right by my students. Despite knowing that I can get much better at this, I believe that there are some obvious and not so obvious things that can work:

  1. Remember that we are all, above anything else, people. With our vulnerabilities and needs, good and bad moments. It is surprisingly easy to forget to be human, and caring and compassionate and just adopt a role as the conscientious student or the wise and driven supervisor as we interact with each other. Although it sounds obvious, make sure to start every contact with a sincere effort to relate, connect and care. This applies to both students and supervisors.
  2. I believe that it helps to know that it is normal to not be as productive remotely as you imagine you have been in the past. This is even more important within the current unprecedented circumstances. Procrastination and lack of focus is not just a matter of pure will (no matter how many times we convince ourselves that we can just “power through”) and achieving sufficient progress in research work is a constant challenge that we fight everyday, a problem never definitively solved. Therefore, if you did not have a good day, forgive yourself a bit, practice a bit of self-compassion, and reassure yourself that it will get better tomorrow.
  3. It helps to know that for most institutions, the top allegiance is to their students. Despite many people’s cynicism, I have found this to be consistently true throughout my experience (UVic is my 8th institution, not counting Microsoft Research). As a student you might be feeling very insecure about deadlines, regulations and funding. It is good to have some pressure to make sure that the work keeps moving on but, in my experience, an overwhelming majority of people in academia understand Hofstadter’s law, and institutions tend to know to be flexible when they need to be. You still have to do your best, but you will get some leeway.
  4. Listen extra hard. This applies to both sides of the supervision relationship. It is particularly hard to listen and connect when one is stressed and overloaded, so it is particularly important to remember to listen in these circumstances, and give each other the opportunity to share the challenges, problems and feelings arising.
  5. Communicate to your supervisor. They can help you. One of the harder tasks for a supervisor is to assess the state of mind of many of the students. As a student, it is tempting to try to present a flawless appearance of invulnerability and performance, but it is much better to actually share the challenge and the feelings. This, of course, relies on the trust invested in the relationship, and it flows in both directions. Although difficult to do, I think it pays off to share the challenges and vulnerabilities that we experience as supervisors as well.
  6. For supervisors: It helps to have great colleagues (who can be proxies) and are physically closer to the students. This is more relevant to the more general issue of remote supervision than to the current quarantine situation, but it can help as well. I have been lucky to have good collaborators still in St Andrews (call out tothe  amazing Juan Ye, Ozgur Agkun, Alice Toniolo, Uta Hinrichs and Aaron Quigley) who are good points of contact for the students when they need to. They can also supply a bit of that co-located experience that is so reassuring.
  7. It is helpful for both student and supervisor to acknowledge that working remotely requires additional “meta-work” to work smoothly. That is, it takes time and work to figure out how to work together more efficiently. This can take the form of extra thinking about how to best schedule meetings, figuring out substitutes for support, or even spending some time learning and finding new tools and technology.
  8. Some new tools are actually quite amazing, and can help (and they keep evolving!) Although I personally find some of the new communication trends such as Slack quite overwhelming and difficult to keep up on top of (too many “channels” of information to keep track of, when considered on top of e-mail, which is still king for me), some other tools can be fantastic. Sometimes one has to even remind itself to use these tools, even if we know that they will work better. My two favourite examples right now are miro, a collaborative diagramming tool that works well when used synchronously with a source of audio on the side (typically Skype for me), and opening a shared Google Doc when brainstorming ideas, which I found can be transformative.

Some of you might have different tips and ideas. I’m sure I have missed a lot here, and I can learn a lot more. Even better, some of you might disagree with me. In any of these cases, I’ll be very happy if you let me know through a comment or by e-mail.

Book Light Review: Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything by Graham Harman.

This is a first blog review in a series for books that I finish reading for professional reasons, usually within the context of my research. I call them “light reviews” because they are not meant to be comprehensive and because the book might fall outside my direct domain of expertise (information visualization, Human-Computer Interaction, Infotypography).

[link to publisher’s site]

img_20200308_143838821

Why I got it/read it?

The title looked promising; I’m currently interested in how people model the world, and both ontologies and theories are good examples of forms of knowledge that represent the world for the human mind. Also, I cannot generally resist buying these kind of books at one of my favourite bookstores in St Andrews: Topping and Co. (I’ll miss you!).

What did I learn?

Object-Oriented Ontology belongs to a current trend of philosophical work that calls itself “realist”. It is quite contemporary and seems very influential in other areas such as Architecture and History. OOO relates to Latour’s philosophy (I’m generally a fan), and his Actor-Network Theory. OOO addresses the issues of truth, reality (not the same thing as truth), knowledge, causation, and perception.

A key part of the intent of this theory is to remove the human/mind/cognition as a central actor of any theory of the universe. It tries to create a theory that does not depend on humans or any other thinking being to explain reality and the world. Objects relate to objects, and humans, the mind, etc. are just other types of objects. In OOO if the proverbial tree falls without anyone noticing it, definitely still fell. At the same time, in a direct line from Ortega y Gasset’s philosophy, it denies the possibility of directly knowing real objects, since these are not directly accessible (even by other real objects), and instead only relate to other real objects through other kinds of objects (sensory objects), and their qualities (real qualities and sensory qualities). From the relationships between these four types of things, OOO derives, initially quite unintuitively, but also quite convincingly (at least for me) the concepts of space, time, and a full system that explains how do we actually get to access objects (surprise: through metaphor), what we can learn about them, and also new forms of analysis.

Objects in OOO are a very generic term that includes things that are not material, or even imagined etc. For example, a commercial company is an object, Spain is an object, a dream is an object and, of course, material objects are also objects. Combination of objects are also objects. Objects not being directly accessible is provided as an explanation of why a description, formal description, or collection of properties of a real object is never going to replace the real object itself (this is connected to Ortega’s perspectivism).

I found particularly useful the developed terms of undermining and overmining. This has to do with abstraction and compositability. Other existing theories are undermining if they try to reduce objects to its components, and overminining if they try to explain everything based only on the properties that it has. OOO provides a way of defining objects as a balance between overmining and undermining.

What did I like about the book?

The book is actually quite accessible to non-philosophers, and is a good read. It is also quite good at relating OOO to existing contemporary and non-contemporary theories and philosophies, which makes me feel a bit more confident about my knowledge and gives me a useful context within the realm of theory.

What did I have trouble with?

The mechanisms of “vicarious causation”, in which objects affect other objects through the creation of intermediate objects was difficult for me to digest. I’m not sure if this is a weakness of the theory, the book, or just something that is difficult to grasp.

How it can help (with my research)?

OOO seems like a useful lens to look and understand the role of humans in the larger systems where they inhabit, without having to reduce everything to the mechanistic, reductionistic or materialistic views of contemporary hard sciences. It might be particularly useful to explain interaction and the interface (although I haven’t worked this out yet), and it might enable a nice way to reconcile results and theories from the social and humanities side of the spectrum with more formal views from math, physics, data science and cognitive science.

Open questions and other thoughts.

In some ways, the inescrutability of real objects or “objects in themselves” remind me of the identity functions (self referential) in category theory (from Maths).

Worth reading (1-5)?

For it’s potential to be useful (to me and the field), how it made me think and see things in a different light, and how it helped me learn about OOO and other bits of contemporary philosophy, I think this deserves a 5 (highly recommendable)

Moving to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

It has been a great 9 years in St Andrews, Scotland. Thanks Scotland for having been so welcoming, and thanks to the University of St Andrews for having supported my academic career. I will miss St Andrews and the East Neuk of Fife very much!

Although I keep working with my St Andrews friends/colleagues, and plan to do this for a long time, the University of Victoria (UVic), in the West Coast of Canada is now my new academic (and family) home. The city of Victoria is also a great place to live, with amazing views, nature and art, a growing Tech startup scene.

Aerial view of the University of Victoria

The University of Victoria is laid out around a circle (the Ring) and very close to the water.

If you are student and are interested in my research topics, I am actively searching for students, mostly in the following categories:

  • UVic honours project students
  • UVic independent study projects
  • future PhD students from UVic, Canada and overseas

I will soon refresh the research pages in this website; in the meantime, the most reliable indicator of my current research directions are my most recent papers. If you are interested in exploring possibilities working with me in Visualization, Problem Representation, Infotypography, Visual Language Interfaces or Human-Computer Interaction, just drop me a line at nacenta at uvic dot ca.

iVoLVER system wins Best Demo Jury Award at ACM ISS 2017

The iVoLVER system (iVoLVER.cs.st-andrews.ac.uk), created by Gonzalo Méndez and designed by Gonzalo and myself received on Thursday 19 the ACM ISS Best Demo Jury Award during the conference, which took place at Brighton, UK.

iVoLVER is a web-based visual programming environment that enables anyone to transform visualizations that the find in-the-wild (e.g., in a poster or a newspaper) into new visualizations that are more useful for them.

Because iVoLVER is a fully web-based visual tool you can try it out yourself (works best with Chrome). Just go to http://ivolver.cs.st-andrews.ac.uk and click on “try it”. We are also working on expanding it and we will be releasing an API version shortly.

The ACM Interactive Surfaces and Spaces conference takes place yearly in different locations. Next year it will take place in Tokyo, Japan. The conference is a premier venue for work that studies how people interact in smart spaces and surfaces and how to design and engineering solutions for novel interfaces.

Short-term Research Assistant Position

We are offering a Short-term Research Assistant position at the SACHI group, University of St Andrews.

The work is for the design and implementation of a digital dexterity measurement device.

The School of Medicine (Silvia Paracchini) in collaboration with the Computer-Human Interaction Group (Miguel Nacenta) is offering a short appointment to help design and implement a measuring device for hand dexterity.

Here are the conditions:

  • 3 to 4 month duration, depending of intensity.
  • Flexible between 20h to 36h per week. Please note that some non-UK students might not be legally allowed to work more than 20h/week. Your visa indicates the limit.
  • Starting at the beginning of February at the latest.
  • Students 2nd to 4th year and graduate students welcome (if you can spare the time)
  • Students and non students are welcome to apply, but the work needs to take place in St Andrews, UK.
  • Approx £13/h.

Requirements and Skill.

  • Candidates need to be able to program, preferably in Java.
  • (Preferable but not required) experience with Android device programming.
  • (Preferable but not required) experience with digital modelling, 3D printing or laser cutting.

The work is of a research nature and might result in authorship in subsequent publications in peer-reviewed journals.

To apply send an e-mail to Dr Miguel Nacenta before the end of Jan 22 (mans@st-andrews.ac.uk) indicating:

  • Programming experience.
  • Experience with Android or other mobile platforms (optional).
  • Experience with 3D modelling, 3D printing or laser cutting (optional).
  • Availability.
  • A bit about your academic/professional background.

Send any enquiries to mans@st-andrews.ac.uk.

Opening: Research Fellow @ SACHI on Graphics, Typography/Type Design and Visual Perception

I’m just starting to advertise a fellow position in St Andrews for a project that is a follow up of our FatFonts work. The description is suitably general (see the description here), but if you think this remotely interests you, please take a look and send me an e-mail if you have questions.

We have a great, nurturing and friendly group of students and academics, and we want to make a bit of the future with you… having fun in the meanwhile!