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Design research

Six weeks research visit at the CoDesign cluster is coming to an end, and I’m wrapping up and taking leave of the rather wonderful Holmen HQ. Fortunately, it’s not really goodbye, as I have joined the cluster’s mini study-circle on mapping, and will thus be coming back in January to discuss interactions, map-making, (counter) cartography and more in connection with Paya Hauch Fenger’s PhD research into co-design of geo parks.

Of course, this is a little out on a tangent in relation to my own research. But if there’s one thing that’s been very clear from working in this environment, it’s the value of collaborative learning in research. I’ve surely benefited from this when presenting my own project, and from enlisting the group in an Interaction Analysis session around my video material. But I have also learned a lot from engaging in other people’s projects, from discussions over lunch and from simply listening in on the ongoing meetings and weekly round table catch ups. Of course, I have experienced such benefits before, but the way that it’s such an integral part of the work processes here is new to me. The group’s dedication to sharing knowledge, insights and uncertainties, not only in the projects they are collaborating on, but also when in comes to engaging in individual research conundrums, was something that struck me when I first came, and still something that seems to me a unique quality of this cluster. Which is sad, really, that it should be a unique quality and not a more widespread approach to research. I for one would love to see this kind of academic interaction spreading, and will definitely see if I can plant a seed back at my own institution.

CoDesign weekly meeting - clockwise from left: Paya Hauch Fenger, Tuuli Makkelmäti, Mette Agger Eriksen, Eva Brandt, Kelton Minor & Joachim Halse

CoDesign weekly meeting – clockwise from left: Paya Hauch Fenger, Tuuli Mattelmäki, Mette Agger, Eva Brandt, Kelton Minor & Joachim Halse

A couple of weeks ago, for example, the weekly meeting was followed by a group discussion about an early paper draft by Mette Agger, Tuuli Mattelmäki, Kirsikka Vaajakallio and Eva Brandt for next year’s PDC conference. Opening up the process at a stage where the outcome still wasn’t fixed, led to some very interesting discussions about methodology, academic writing, audiences and the many very different forms that this paper could still take; or rather multitude of papers that could be written from this material to share either empirical results, theoretical assertions, how-to applicabilities etc. I believe that the authors were given some useful input to inform their continued writing, and I will be looking forward to reading the finished article. But also for us as participants, considering the value of various contributions to the field, the craft of making an argument and of course the ideas put forth in the paper, was very inspiring.

So it’s this discussive and collaborative approach, along with the new insights into my own project,  that I will be taking with me, and for which I wish to send a great thank you to the whole CoDesign team and their affiliates!

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Looking through the video documentation from my workshops with Designmuseum Denmark, in preparation for today’s collective Interaction Analysis session, has given me a fresh view on the material. And whereas the observations and comments made by the other participants were very useful, as they either inspired me to reconsider or served to back my own interpretations, the real revelation in verbalising what could be seen in the footage, was that showing, and then telling, is obviously the key to explaining how this method worked.

Watching the interaction without sound, accelerated to 4X normal speed, gave a good feel of the flow and of how the cards served as reference points in the discussion. As was my impression when doing the workshop, I could see that they served their purpose well, but I could also observe the downsides – me having perhaps too many cards to keep track of; the set-up not allowing the participants to take control of the cards and introducing new combinations; all the cups and sweets and whatnot getting in the way. Perhaps also that this type of interaction spoke to some participants more than others.

Of course, actually finding the right form for presenting this in my dissertation is still a challenge, and writing through this analysis still quite a task. But at least I’ve got a way in now, with a visual anchor for my readings.

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Post-it comment left on my concept cards during poster session.

This week, I attended the 10th Nodem conference, this year held in Stockholm. And although I must admit that I was a little puzzled by a couple of presentations, I also took away some wonderful talks and some great conversations as well as new contacts and plenty of food for thought.

I myself presented a poster (and had a paper included in the proceedings, which is also available from the digital repository), and although I had not been pinning too high hopes on the outcome of that, it actually turned out to be a great format for generating conversations. As expected, most people just offered a quick glance, if that, but some were intrigued enough to ask for an explanation/demonstration of the probes, journal and concept cards that I had brought along. And some even stuck around for good long chat about design research, museological methodologies, cultural policies or digital mediation, to name a few topics. I had a great long conversation with Richard Sandell, professor of museum studies at Leicester University, following up on the conference there last month, and sharing thoughts about museum trends as well as methods and interests in museum studies. And artist/researcher at Aalto University Maarit Mäkelä also got really engaged with my material, posing some very good questions and suggesting I explore the notion of situated knowledge in order to reflect on my approach. This really struck a chord with me, and I will definitely follow that lead.

As of last week and until the end of the year, I have moved quarters and am now a visiting researcher at the CoDesign research cluster at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, 
Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation, 
School of Design (aka KADK).

Last week was mainly spent acclimatising, but also on attending visiting researcher Tuuli Mattelmäki’s presentation on probes and other research methods for a group of new CoDesign students, and parttaking in the cluster’s weekly meetings, which last week included a visit from TV producer Ane Skak, sharing her experience with user involvement in cross media/ cross institutional projects. The presentations, the meetings and the projects presented or referenced were really inspiring – there’s some interesting things happening in this field and some interesting approaches taken. And one thing that is also clearly emerging is a very collaborative, engaged and openly conversational research environment. People take the time to talk with each other and savour the opportunity to share their questions and knowledge. So on top of drinking in the creative ambience of the design school environment (where all the work-in-progress mess, inspirational material and prototypes cluttering up the studios bring back sweet memories of being a fashion student, now a decade ago), I also enjoy this friendly and curious academic atmosphere and find this attitude to research and professional collaboration very appealing (even though I inevitably still feel like an outsider).

And Wednesday it was my turn to present my project to the group. As it turned out, however, the other PhD students in the group were all working from home (being in the final stages of writing), whilst another researcher was doing an all-day workshop elsewhere, meaning that I ended up presenting to a small group of senior researchers: Eva Brandt and Thomas Binder from the CoDesign group and Tuuli Mattelmäki from Aalto University. Of course it would have been great to get responses also from the other group members, but I also felt very privileged to get this kind of triple ‘master class’ attention on my project. And kick myself for not having recorded their insightful comments, but here’s trying to draw out the essence.

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Although I deliberately went for a flexibly handheld rather than a slick ppt-ey presentation, reasoning that my objective was not to sell my project but to lay out my uncertainties, I had actually really tried to think through my process and problems related to my research-through-design methodology, and to work out what I needed to tell and get feedback on. Honestly, I had. Running through my notes and material, writing up a chronology, pinpointing central ideas and uncertainties. But my presentation was still all over the place. Because now that I finally had the chance to discuss my approach and concerns with someone who could give me critique from within the design research field, I wanted to share everything. And since it’s all interconnected – what I’ve done, why I’ve done it and what I make of it; what I think I know and know I don’t (and think I ought to find out about); inspirations and outcomes – it’s hard to stick to a single narrative. Even when I have actually been following a relatively well-planned process. The mindmap shown above, which I made the day before to try to get an overview and piece together which references and questions belong to which aspect of the research, I guess illustrates my state of mind fairly well (mind you, this is only a representation of the methodological aspects of the project; museology, media and fashion hardly enter into the equation here. So in total it’s even messier. Which I sort of think it should be and sort of think it shouldn’t be at this stage (two years in, one to go), but either way it’s a bit scary).

I’ve come to CoDesign to try to make meaning out of this mess, to find out where to situate my design oriented research within the field, find the right language to describe what I have done and what it means. Because I have been getting a bit lost in considerations about methodology, and how it reflects my own preconceptions and preoccupations, since failing to make a clear case for my approach at the Nordes doctoral consortium  this summer and taking to heart J. Lee’s notions about the necessity of reflexive method making. And I still believe this is both relevant and interesting, and that I must necessarily be able to account for my methodology in my dissertation. But the supposedly-good-but-still-a-little-hard-to-get-my-head-around news coming out of today’s meeting, is that I should stop trying so hard to pin it down, at least for now. Stop trying to work out what my method is – the relevant question is not whether my concept dominos could be described as a form of game, or not, but what this particular approach has shown me. ‘Make the beast talk’ as Thomas BInder put it, and beware that my project does not fall into fragments.

(And yes, I guess that at the end of the day these reflections on a personal process of ‘enlightenment’ are mainly of interest to myself, and should be largely purged from the dissertation. However, as I find it useful to write them out of my system, the blog will still have to stand for a whole heap of confused confessions of this type.)

Referencing Donald Schön’s assertion that ‘one thing is what you do, another is what others make of it’, Thomas addressed the (common?) pitfall in justifying one’s position, and urged me to avoid longwinded meta-level deliberations on method. Rather than speculating about what I’ve done, I should trust it – this notion was seconded by Eva, who acknowledged the designerly takes and sensitivities in my material, and pointed to the richness of the journey taken – and focus instead on understanding how the generated material talks back to me and show what it can say about the world.

It’s still a delicate balance, as my project and process is hermeneutical rather than empirical – again, Thomas emphasised that I should stay true to this outset and consider my material as text rather than data, to look at the readings and writings, and rereadings, a spiralling movement of interactions with the material and the partipants around the designerly material I have written in the process.

(I promptly took out Gadamer’s Truth and Method from the library. Perhaps being in my bag will give it a competitive edge over Foucault’s The Order of Things and Deleuze & Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, not to mention Baumann, Giddens, Latour and all the other seminal works currently sat on my shelf that sadly all to often end up simply collecting dust. So many things I want to read, and so hard, sometimes, to decide what is relevant for the project and what is just an inspiring detour, which I don’t have the time to indulge in. For which aspects will a superficial understanding suffice, and for which is deep knowledge essential?).

So what can I say about the world? I guess I have been hesitant to claim that I can really say anything, given my narrow samples/studies and being conscious of my subjective approach. And perhaps this hesitancy has led me to become too guided by ‘agenda’; my gripe with mobile museum mediation. As Tuuli suggested, I need to consider to what extent I have actually sought to draw out the participants’ viewpoints, and how much I have simply been exploring my own ideas, or mainly been receptive to reflections of my own views. So while it is relevant to reflect on which assumptions about fashion, mobile media and museums I have been working from when designing these tools, I should also be aware of how they have narrowed or skewed my participants’ interpretive space.

Tuuli also commented that while at first she did not see the critical inspiration in the material – which admittedly was not very noir – my description of a process where I retained a strong sense of authorship, rather than staging a truly co-creative process, was indeed indicative of a designer-led approach akin to that taken by critical designers, also working to an agenda as much as exploring the field.

My probes, for instance, combined tasks for self documentation (e.g. mobile photography) with activities that were more akin to prototyping of early designerly guesses (e.g. the Pinterest and Polyvore assignments). Similarly, the dominos were designed to explore later stage guesses. Then again, these tools also served to disprove my guesses – heuristics, hypothesis, if you like – as when the online activities were rejected by the participants. The realisation that even this very digitally literate group were not inclined to engage with museum-related activities via social media sites was thus not so much a confirmation of my scepticism as a source of it. And while my studies are too small to make any results indicative of general patterns, the outcome has definitely informed my thinking. (As well as the other way round, and round, and back into the hermeneutical spiral we go).

One very concrete suggestion coming out of the workshop, from Thomas, was to initiate a collective Interaction Analysis session, and enlist the other researchers here to help me analyse interactions in and outcomes of my workshops from the video material. Until now, I had only kept the videos as documentary backup, whilst transcribing the procedures from the audio recordings. So actually just looking at the videos again feels like a fresh view into my process. And even though the footage is not great (in workshop II the camera shows what goes on on the table, but not the faces, in workshop III the camera is set to show the group, but not the table, and two people have their back to the camera (a result of experimenting with methods I’m not trained in, but at least I’ve got footage, so there)) it will be interesting to see what can be learned from it. Whereas the transcripts have been useful for drawing our central themes and problems regarding (the museum professionals’ perceptions of) mobile mediation, perhaps collective analysis of the visible interactions can uncover perspectives that I have hitherto been blind to.

Jordan & Henderson, in the 1995 article ‘Interaction Analysis: Foundations and Practice’ (in The Journal of the Learning Sciences 4(1), pp. 39-103), imply as much, stating that ‘Collaborative viewing is particularly powerful for neutralizing preconceived notions on the part of researchers and discourages the tendency to see in the interaction what one is conditioned to see or even wants to see’. (44)

I really hope that the researchers here will be able to find a couple of hours to engage in this work, as I am sure I would learn an awful lot from partaking in such a collective session. And even though I intend to turn my attention to the outcome, to what this material tells me about the world, another look at the videos could perhaps also provide some answers as to how to understand my method, and how to describe it, as ‘accounts of methods cannot be separated from accounts of findings and that the best way to talk about method is to show instances of the actual work.’ (ibid. 42).

So it all comes together, getting what I came for, but in a different manner than I could worked out myself.

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Finally got round to actually working with the empirical material from my two workshops at Designmuseum Danmark. What’s more, I think I’ve found my handle on it too, after battling through uncertainties about how, and not least why I should do it.

There’s a back story to that uncertainty. Initially, I set out to explore how mobile museum experiences would tie in with more general pursuits of cultural/fashion interest via mobile and social media; a media ecology kind of thinking. But as I was also very keen on carrying on the design research approach I had developed in my master thesis, I came to realise that there was a mismatch between the questions I wanted to ask and what my methodology would let me answer. Methodology won out, sending me on a route that is more museology and less media oriented, i.e. asking about the implications of mobile museum experiences for the museum. And yet I felt that I still had to do some kind of empirical study, that I had to produce some data I could analyse and learn from and base my assertions on. Being an academic rookie, I lacked the confidence to stick to humanistic analysis with a design twist, thinking that it would not count as real science. So now I’m trying to make it count.

The concept of coding still feels a bit alien, like there’s some part of it I’m not getting because I never trained in social science. I’m a humanist, studied literature before moving on to design and digital culture studies. I have only a vague notion of grounded theory; ‘coding’ is not really my lingo. But it’s an aspect of analysis, right, it’s marking up your data (data is another word that feels wrong, cold somehow) to work out what’s in there, what the themes and discourses are, exposing contradictions and finding patterns, deciding what issues to pursue and how they relate to the material overall. At least that’s how I understand the process I’m going through.

After giving some consideration to coding software for qualitative data, reading about and checking out demo videos for Atlas.ti and Nvivo, I decided that a) spending time learning how to use the software would be a detour, given that my material is not that extensive, and b) the digital format somehow distanced me from the content, whereas an analogue approach gave me a better sense of what was there and what I wanted to do with it, as an iterative process rather than working to a preset design. Fairly grounded theory-esque, I guess. Keeping it handheld was also more consistent with my process so far – designing my probes and the design game for the workshops had been a very touchy-feely affair, and being able to paste the whole thing on my wall gives me a better sense of overview, something I’ve used in various stages of the project.

Concept/inspiration collage for development of workshop and design game

Concept/inspiration wall collage for design development

Coded transcripts from workshop II+III

Coded transcripts from workshop II+III

So through painstakingly adding hundreds of multi-coloured post-its (annotating and marking different strands and marvelling at how pretty it is) I have uncovered some interesting themes that I can unfold in my continued analysis and discuss in relation to other sources and observations and to theoretical positions in museology. These themes include commercial constraints and considerations (and how much the participating curators take these into account in their work); the importance of brand and branding; notions of institutional authority and curatorial ambitions; museological positions and practices; professional positionings; audience/user perspectives including UCG; pros, cons and contradictions re. cross-media communication; fashion as field and fashion as perspective; and more. Despite my recurring uncertainties about what this empirical study was really for, given that it is so limited that I cannot make many claims on this basis alone, it has actually served the purpose of illuminating some of the possibilities and conflicts in my field of study, as per my research design:

Diagram of research design

Diagram of research design

So it’s coming together. But will I also be able to make sense of it, as in valid scientific sense? Still grabbling with (and increasingly fascinated by) what science is, what makes it scientific, especially when pushing the traditional boundaries of science. I expect some would argue that what I do isn’t real science, and I know that making a solid argument for the validity of design research in general and of my study specifically will be one of the prime tasks in my dissertation. Which is why I ramble about it here, even if it also makes me feel exposed, to try to come to grips with what I’ve done and why. Thinking out loud, in print (and keeping my supervisors updated too). In this way, these slap-dash pontifications on the blog serve as rough sketches for the arguments I wish to make in my thesis, or sometimes just to off-load all the preamble, so that in my thesis, I can cut to the chase.

Martin Ludvigsen, in chapter seven: ‘Reflections on Interaction Design Research’ of his 2006 PhD dissertation Designing for Social Interaction does an excellent job of explaining the groundings of interaction design research in HCI and makes a strong argument for its scientific validity, which I will surely build on in my own thesis. (Actually, it’s the kind of writing that I wish I could do.) Conceding that ‘[f]undamentally it is difficult to accept design thinking as valid because of the intrinsic lack of logics and, when we delve deeper into it, the lack of scientific rigor with regards to reproducibility, falsification, objectivity etc.’ (2006:93) he moves on to expound the virtues of aesthetic reasoning as an alternative to logic. Rather than narrowly focusing on functionality and measurable results, ‘thinking aesthetically about an interactive artifact is to be conscious about its entire composition over time and the effect it has on the context and users’ (ibid.), Ludvigsen argues. Building on the German philosopher Baumgarten, as explicated by Kjørup (1999), he thus establishes aesthetics as an analytical discipline, and alternative route to enlightenment, as ‘conceptual discovery or epistemological evolution is a continual shedding light on new concepts’ (Ludvigsen 2006:94). Using our cognitive capacity for creative thinking and innovation as a way to understand ‘wicked problems’ (Buchanan 1995, in Ludvigsen 2006:90, 92), i.e. problems that can only be described in full through attempted solutions, and for aesthetic judgement as conducive for hollistic understandings of problems in context and for (un)covering conceptual grounds, should therefore be regarded as an invaluable supplement to logics-led scientific experimentation. As argued by Ludvigsen ‘The aestetic ‘track’ in the human mind is active. This should be read as a proposal for a foundation to talk about design thinking as equal – not subordinate to – logic and traditional scientific thinking’ (2006:97).

He then goes on to cite Latour’s normative definitions of science, which break with the traditional paradigm of Popperian falsification to build instead on the principles proposed by the Belgian philosophers Stenger and Despret. Without selling short the importance of rigor, the emphasis here is on scientific relevance, suggesting that sticking to tried and tested scientific activities does not in itself secure that a study is scientific, as, according to Stenger and Despret, scientific means interesting and risky (Ludvigsen 2006:100) – breaking new ground and making yourself vulnerable to seeing your hypothesis crumble. The aim of science then, rather than making absolute statements, is  ‘rendering talkative what was until then mute‘ (ibid.:101); to articulate propositions about the world, thus adding to what Latour calls the multiverse. This, obviously, ties in neatly with what I touched upon in my paper for the Nordes doctoral consortiumalso with reference to Latour, about the ability of design to articulate (museological) matters of concern, thus posing a constructive critique which allows for discussion of the current state and possible futures of the museum.

This sort of stuff is right up my alley. I’m really not much of an empiricist, finding theory and creative explorations much more inspiring and hence more productive for my cognitive process. My home brewed, half baked heuristic is that just like learning theory talks about different learning styles, different kinds of science speaks to different kinds of minds. So even though I can appreciate the significance of, say, quantitative data on patterns of mobile use in museums, it doesn’t necessarily push my buttons or satiate my curiosity about why these use patterns are as they are, why people were in the museums in the first place, the existential and social role of museums in society, what it all means and if it could be otherwise? So it’s truly great that other scientist will do the crucial studies that I don’t have the knack for, and that I instead get the chance to apply different methodologies to different types of questions (i.e. watered down versions of the questions above). Which I hold are worth pursuing, and which might speak to others with an interest similar to mine.

Last week, I ran the final workshop with paticipants from Designmuseum Danmark, thus completing my empirical research. Once again, I used my ’concept dominos’ to illustrate the themes in the discussion, but this time the session worked more like a focus group or group interview than an ideation workshop. Still, the workshop produced some interesting ideas as well as some great discussions, answering most, but not all of my questions, as the debate followed other paths worth pursuing instead.

I had transcribed the recordings of the last workshop almost verbatim (however only noting intonations, pregnant pauses, background affirmations etc where significant); a lengthy process but a very informative one, as it forced me to listen closely. I noted, for instance, how digital media was at times discussed in specific terms referencing technologies and services, but also often referenced with vague notions such as ’the digital’, or with the ubiquitous ’app’ standing in for any kind of mobile service. Hardly a revelation, but still it was interesting to capture how open ended our wordings and how fuzzy our concepts of media and technology often are. This is not to imply that the museum communicators did not know what they were talking about, they surely did, but only that it is hard for anyone to navigate this wide, multi-facetted, ever-changing jungle of new media, let alone to ask that museums can leverage its potential for mediation meaningfully and succesfully.

Having reproduced the whole workshop in written form also allowed me to do a first rough ’coding’, identifying some of the themes and ideas, in preparation for the final workshop. While the questions opened were manifold, still I only made minor changes to my original plans, as I mainly wanted to stick to the issues that we had not had the time to address in our first meeting.

Some of the points made inspired me however to extend my deck of dominos with new perpectives such as ’the curator’s glasses’ and the notion of fashion as the ’little sister’ within the fields of design and cultural studies. However, only a few of these came into use in the final workshop, and I actually found that as the deck had grown, I sometimes struggled to find the appropriate cards to support the discussion. Therefore, during the workshop, the tool sometimes became a distraction for me as a facilitator, and perhaps also for the participants at times when the presented images where not quite right for the questions I raised. In this way, I would say that the dominos still served their function, but functioned less well in this second iteration, perhaps surprisingly, as I had already tried them out once before. Still, as I am experimenting with methodology in this project, falibility is part of that package.

And in terms of outcome, the workshop was a success. Even though there were more topics I would ideally have liked to address, still I got what I came for and more. And although at the end of the workshop I could sense that my participants’ engagement was starting to wane, my clear impression was that they too have found our conversations useful and inspiring. Yet as was also a topic in the discussion, turning ideas and ambitions into practice is not easily done, when the day to day workload is already stretching ressources.

Half way status

With the completion of my empirical research process, I am halfway through my project. 19 months in, to be exact. I can say that now, almost without twitching, although it took me a while to embrace the fact that I am no longer ’in the beginning’ or ’a little over one year into’ my project. Half way. And the good news is that I am realising that it is not only in terms of time spent, but also that even if my research so far has been very divergent, and although I still haven’t started writing my thesis proper, I have in fact done and thought and learned a lot.

To get started on the thesis, I have gathered my writing to date into a very raw script, structured around my draft disposition. Actually I started by simply collating all my blogposts and papers into a document, and although it may sound silly, it was really encouraging to realise that in fact it added up to a whooping 70.000+ words. (And that’s not counting all my notes, 50-odd pages of transcription, abtracts submitted to PhD courses and conferences, lecture notes and slideshows, status reports and supervision updates, applications for funding, admin blah blah and all the other stuff I’ve been writing over the past 18 month). I’m making a note of it here to remind myself that I have in fact been productive, something I have a tendency to forget when in bouts of panick induced procrastination.

Of course, only a fragment of all this text might actually be usable in the final thesis, the rest is really just an extended note system, and quantity is no measure for quality of content. But still I have that, rather than 200 blank pages. What’s more, there are actually some interesting thoughts in there, which I look forward to exploring further when transforming sketch ideas into academic arguments. Which of course is where the real hard work lies.

Reading through a recently defended (but not as yet publicised, hence the omitted reference) PhD thesis within my field has also been very informative. Even though I plan to write a monographic thesis rather than an anthology, as this was, it has given me a clearer idea of the scope and level of the genre, and to my great comfort, it seems within reach, provided said hard work.

The theoretical framework used and the insights presented in the thesis and comprised articles were all familiar to me; in fact I found myself worrying whilst reading that the points I was hoping to make were all being made here, making my own contribution obsolete. Most notably, the call for a greater level of technology criticism, or questioning of the default association of digital technology with democratic museological advancements, is also a driving force in my own research. Then again, my project is also so very different in so many ways, that it shouldn’t be a problem; I trust that I can add ye another perspective to this  debate.

And actually, the fact that this thesis so clearly demonstrates the effects of (Danish) cultural policies on (national) digital museology, perhaps means that I can skip lightly over making this connection in my own thesis, referring to this research (and its sources) instead, and moving on to the problem areas that are of special interest to me.