A Month Abroad: Tel Aviv

As some of you may know, I spent all of July living in Tel Aviv, Israel (location chosen because Eugene’s company has a dev office there). A month has passed since I returned, the dust has settled, and I am ready to reflect a bit on the experience from both personal and professional perspectives. Overall, there were almost no drawbacks to taking this trip and I would recommend a month abroad to anybody in a similar position. I certainly am already contemplating options for next summer!

Chatting about my work at Tel Aviv University. Photo courtesy of my wonderful host, Shuli Gilutz.

Chatting about my work at Tel Aviv University. Photo courtesy of my wonderful hostess, Shuli Gilutz.

There were some major research benefits to spending a month abroad. The obvious one, of course, is that I was able to give talks at international universities (in my case, Tel Aviv University and University of Haifa). The other benefits were more process-based. The trip was an easy way to temporarily put aside the minutia that get in the way of getting the big things done (meetings, continuing stream of email, random requests for my time, etc.). I think the 8-hour time difference was particularly helpful with managing email as I was actually able to check and answer email in one sitting instead of having it trickle in throughout the workday. Additionally, the time constraint of the month-long trip led me to plan explicitly which concrete goals I would accomplish: major revisions on a CSCW paper, re-write a journal paper, write and submit a Jacobs Foundation grant with a colleague, read Ways of Knowing in HCI, and take a course on Machine Learning to build some skills I need for a new project. To get those things done in a month, I knew that I would need a schedule that included daily writing and I would need to read one chapter and complete one course lecture set every workday. Finally, the time constraint introduced a great low-risk way for me to try out a new approach to work and really put it into practice. I was very productive in July and most of it was due to being able to change my focus by getting away for a bit.

The impact of my trip on advising was more of a mixed bag. In the summer, I was guiding two Ph.D. students and seven undergraduate students working in my lab in various capacities. Upon returning, I asked them to anonymously share about their view of my leave. While all the students thought I set clear expectations about being gone during July, four of them underestimated the impact of my trip and found themselves being less productive in their research. Students commented that my presence helped motivate them, get them through blocks, and get quicker feedback — this was harder to do while I was away. However, in terms of instrumental help, all but one students felt that they were still able to get through blocks: by getting help via email from me (5 students), by making a greater effort to solve the problem themselves (6 students), and by reaching out to lab mates for help (4 students). I see these as positives of the trip — my absence encouraged the students to be more independent and proactive in their research.

Seen across the street from a cafe where I did much of my writing. Note the napping cat on the roof.

Seen across the street from a cafe where I did much of my writing. Note the napping cat on the roof.

From a personal perspective, the trip was refreshing and restful despite being productive. It was great to be living with Eugene again, instead of being long distance (as we have been for the past year and will be until May). It was great to be able to work in coffee shops, go to the beach in afternoons, explore the country together on weekends. I find that living somewhere for a month is a different (and better, I think) way of traveling than visiting for a few days. It is more relaxed and more immersive and helped me really get a sense of what everyday life is like in Tel Aviv. I came back feeling as if I had been on vacation, even though I was working full time while there.

That being said, I know that the trip was a luxury that not everybody can afford. I don’t teach in the summer. I chose to only take two months of summer salary so that nobody could really object to me being away. For Eugene and me, the logistics were fairly uncomplicated — we don’t have kids (and I was able to talk a friend into watching my cat). My bottom line is that this was incredibly useful for me and I would love to do something like this again next summer. Maybe this is something that others would consider valuable as well — some sort of a more formal junior faculty exchange program would be really cool!

Facebook Post Promote: How It Looks and What It Does

If you are a regular Facebook user, you have probably been noticing the “promote” links at the bottom of each post that let you make your post more prominent in others’ feeds for a few bucks. I was curious how this would work and whether it would be worth it for a blog post, so I conducted a quick N of One experiment.

This is how a promoted post appears. It's fairly easy to see that it's promoted -- just a single text link saying "sponsored." Hovering over the link shows who promoted the post.

This is how a promoted post appears. It’s fairly hard to see that it’s promoted — just a single text link saying “sponsored.” Hovering over the link shows who promoted the post.

Procedure: On March 14th, I posted a blog entry about paper crafts for HCI and as usual added a Facebook post with the link to the entry. After a day, I recorded the initial interest in the post (12 views through the link, fairly low) and clicked the promote link. I then compared two weeks worth of views on this post to two other posts: one on auto-biographical research that had most similar initial interest after posting and another on quick device prototyping that was more similar in topic and also had a fairly close starting view count.

Results: There was definitely an initial bump in views the day that I promoted the Facebook entry, compared to the way view statistics generally look on the second day. However, this effect did not extend to the following days and by day three, both promoted and non-promoted posts look very similar in terms of views.

Number of views (y-axis) plotted against days since the entry was posted (x-axis) for the three blog posts, showing there was an initial bump in views when the blog was promoted, but by the next day the effect was gone.

Number of views (y-axis) plotted against days since the entry was posted (x-axis) for the three blog posts, showing there was an initial bump in views when the blog was promoted, but by the next day the effect was gone

Excluding the influence of the promotion day bump on the paper crafts entry, all three posts got very similar number of views by the end of the 14 days: 26 for quick prototyping, 37 for auto-biographical research, and 47 for paper crafts (if day 2 of paper crafts was more typical, it would have been about 39 views total).

According to Facebook's report, the promoted post was seen by a lot more of my friends.

According to Facebook’s report, the promoted post was seen by a lot more of my friends.

However, though the total number of views was pretty much the same for all posts, I have a sense that different people saw this post than usually would have based on the people who “liked” the post on Facebook. Typically, my Facebook blog links are “liked” by the usual group of suspects (all dearly loved!). However, after the blog was promoted, it received “likes” only from people who had never previously “liked” one of my posts. Perhaps because Facebook (reasonably judging us to be acquaintances rather than close friends) quickly moved links to these posts “below the fold.” Promoting the post caused it to stay above the fold in the feeds of folks who otherwise would not have seen the entry for very long. Indeed, according to Facebook’s own statistics, the promoted post was viewed (but not necessarily clicked on) by 3.8 times as many users as a non-promoted post.

So, is promoting a blog post worth it? In terms of views, I don’t think that it’s worth doing every week. But, I can see periodically (once a year or something) promoting a post that highlights the blog to get new people who might be interested in becoming readers.


Tech Hand-Me-Downs and Repurposing

Grant shared some ways that old technology is repurposed in his home.

A few months ago, I was at Ubicomp 2012 where I saw an interesting paper about what people do with outdated technology. In my experience working with families, I’ve seen many examples of something not mentioned in this paper — families repurposing or handing down technologies to children as a way of giving old technology new life. An example from my own family is using an old laptop as a dedicated Skype terminal, but another researcher in the audience at this paper’s presentation had many examples that were even better. Grant Schindler is a research scientist at Georgia Tech and the founder of Trimensional and I was able to catch up with him at GVU 20 and interview him in more detail about his experience:

Grant: I gave our 2-year-old son my old digital camera after he showed interest in using my current camera. He uses it to take pictures of things, especially when he sees me using my camera which is just a newer version of the one he uses. He often will take a picture of something (sometimes they’re pretty good!) and then look at the LCD screen and say “That’s cute” because he thinks that’s what you say after you take a photo.

I have a 3rd generation iPod from 2003 that still works just fine and we have used it as a white noise machine for both of our children as infants. It stays plugged into the JBL speaker ring that I received as a wedding gift in the same era. The half-hour-long MP3 of ocean surf that we keep on repeat is one that I ripped from a CD that I sometimes listened to in the early 1990s to relax or to fall asleep.

I also remembered that I use an Aiwa all-in-one stereo system from my college years to pipe audio from my Xbox into a pair of headphones. I looked multiple times into getting another device to serve this function, but it seems most people use expensive home theater receivers. There are some $30 mini-amplifiers that I think could do the same thing, but then the question is why get a new device when my current method works?

Lana: What kinds of technologies do you think lend themselves better to this kind of reuse?

Grant: Technologies that are standalone devices work best, so that the input and output mechanisms don’t matter. While we could pull the photos off of my son’s camera via SD card, we have not yet — the important part is that it has a built-in screen on which we can view the photos together right after he takes them. The iPod + speaker/charger is effectively a standalone device that outputs audio. Bear in mind, I have not synced that 2003 iPod in several years — the firewire cable that the iPod came with won’t hook up to any of my current machines, though I’m sure I could use a more recent USB cable if I needed to.

Lana: Have there ever been features of a particular device that prevent it from being reused in a way that you might want?

Grant: In the mid-2000s, I replaced my Sony CRT monitor with an Apple Cinema Display that carried power, USB, and the display signal in a single cable. It served me well for many years, but Apple has changed their display connectors so many times since then that it is too much hassle to continue using it as a second display for a laptop due to the many-tentacled adapters and external power supplies involved.

So really, it’s the fact that it’s not a stand-alone device. The connection interfaces are the issue. We were using my wife’s 1999 HP LaserJet until it stopped functioning in early 2012 via a series of adapters (parallel to serial to USB) along with some open source printer drivers. It was ugly but it worked. But, I realize these last two are less re-use examples and more “continued use as intended” situations.

As ideas like sustainable and cradle-to-cradle design gain more and more momentum, perhaps another approach is to think about how the devices we make could stay useful longer, even if they end up serving new functions. There’s an opportunity in designing for handing-down and repurposing.