An Unintentional Hiatus

My blog has been on hiatus; in fact quite a lot of my digital life has been in an enforced hibernation. 2012 so far has been utterly rubbish.  Firstly there’s the situation with my gammy clavicle.  I’m slinged up and in pain since the beginning of January.  Doing anything remotely computerised is difficult when you only have one hand for typing, holding, pinch and zooming.  The chorus of politically incorrect terms of endearment that now follow me from my loved ones, friends, and colleagues are numerous and increasing in volume and inappropriateness (mentioning no names… Jane).  That aside, there have also been a series of other unfortunate events that have left me with little time for anything else.

Because of this I am currently living a very slimmed down digital existence.  I still use digital services sporadically day to day, my iPad has become my saviour, allowing me snippets of my digital life (its much easier to use with one hand). Haphazardly checking emails, but not really being able to reply.  Quickly firing up an App to have a sneak peak at interesting links.  Occasional Tweets. But that’s pretty much it.  I thought I would miss Facebook and the iPlayer, but interestingly I don’t at all.  I do miss having the time to peruse my RRS reader, but the ever growing list of interesting things I want to read about is something to look forward to when I have the time.

Now that January has been and gone, and I’m beginning to settle into this digital hiatus.  I do feel guilty for the work that I have had to postpone, delegate and the friends and colleagues emails that remain pending.  I also miss my restraint for holding back the emotional hissy fists, grumbles, feet stomping, and emails sent it haste.  Turns out my usual enthusiastic self, doesn’t cope too well with immense stress. But what I really do miss is this; Blogging.  Over the past two years blogging has become my research space, it is my escape, providing time for me to stop and stare.  So being without it, means I have a brain full of half baked ideas and ponderings that have nowhere to go other than round and round, and then scooting out my ear, never to be seen again.  It has been really frustrating for my PhD research too.  My inability to focus on research ideas is leading any writing I’m doing to be utter tosh.  It is fascinating to think how a series of unfortunate events can change everything.  I always thought I had the ability to focus, no matter what.  Turns out at the moment that isn’t the case at all.   If the things that make me a digital humanist are on hiatus, does this mean I’m losing my research identity? Can I be a digital museumaholic if I can’t reach or have the time to find the gin cupboard?  Is it possible to find a balance between processing real life in the digital life, when real life, doesn’t allow time for the digital?

Which is why I found it really interesting to see Matt Hayler’s ever excellent blog discuss something similar. Matt has had to streamline his digital scholarly life in order to succeed at being an early career teaching fellow and has found a number of digital essentials which he can’t do without.  His blog has been on hibernation mode too.



Hacking for beginners at MCN2011

Yesterday I took Mia Ridge’s workshop on Hacking and mash ups for beginners at MCN11. I’m not very confident in code. I work a lot with some very clever developers, and what they do, may as well be magic.  Because it is so far over my head it’s unbelievable.  But I find it so frustrating that I express my own ideas for digital collections clearly, or quickly make a prototype to show how I imagine something working.  I know basic HTML and I’ve done an intensive PHP course, I’ve even played with processing. But still I’m just a bit naff at code.

So Mia had her work cut out with me.  The procedural dunce, who tries hard but lacks ability.

I really enjoyed the workshop, in fact it would have been great if it was a full day workshop so I could have really got to grips with some of the tools and data sets Mia told us about. something for me to work on at home perhaps.   full of cooking analogies, breaking concepts down into their basics parts as well as making us hungry lead to an open fun workshop environment for tinkering with snippets of code.

Firstly we started with the basics: what an API actually does and how to use one, how web scripting languages work and pseudo-code. It was nice to hear computers described as being pedantic like a Grumpy 6 yr old.
Also the following key points:

  • You won’t break the computer
  • Scripting isn’t rocket science (but it is hard fun)
  • Code is a language if you can learn Spanish you can learn programming

So what is hacking anyway? Basically Building cool stuff, and building it quickly, hense hacking it together, normally with open data and tools.  I have to admit a hack day for a novice still sounds terrifying. A day, which is normally 48hours,in a shared space with lots of other hackers high on sugar, coffee, beer working on themes, challenges, data sets. Scary.  Now on to Mashups – mixing stuff together, applying tools to data, to combine data of one or more sources and then adding extra data and visualisation tools such as maps or timelines.

Before we were let loose on some code Mia explained how to start thinking like a programmer. One thing I never really appreciated is how much patience developers must have.  I’m inpatient, if something isn’t working, I want to press one button and for it to be fixed.  I can’t cope with hours of unbugging. I would throw the computer out of the window.  I don’t know if patience is something I can learn I order to be procedurally literate, perhaps if I can find a Tibetan monk who can teach me the skillz.

  • Learning by tinkering – thinking algorithmically – like writing a recipe for an 8 year old to follow
  • Nice. Disney gets a mention computers are like Fantasia, where the brooms keep splitting, a computer will continue to repeat unless told differently.
  • Thinking like a programmer- half the battle is being able to describe clearly what you want to do
  • Coding is about putting the right instruction in the right place.
  • Logic and branching
  • Cooking In your own browser
  • HTML page provides a basic structure
  •  function is like asking someone to make pastry for you and then give you the pastry to make the pie, a pre set instructions
  • Event handler -triggered when something they’re listening for happens
  • ID is a specific label – labels in HTML that act as hooks for JavaScript
  •  variables- containers that store things
  • Comments – leave messages for other programmers the computer can’t see them
  •  variable – assigning a variable
  • Document.write
  • String is like a sentence – single quotes – gets the computer to write exactly what is in the string. Without completing a function
  •  Plus sign + has lots of different uses
  • + Addition
  • – Subtraction
  • * Multiplication
  • / Division
  • % Modulus (division of remainder)
  • ++ Increment
  • — Decrement
  • Document.write(yourName) is a  variable
  • Document.write(‘yourName’)is a  string – literal thing
  • Debugging tips:
  • The art of being a programmer is making lots of mistakes
  • Make a copy of the exercise file first so you can always compare with one that works
  • If it breaks or doesn’t work:
  • Check the quotes are matched
  • Check that any named thing is spelt consistently
  • Check upper/lower case
  • Use document.write() to show the values you’re working with if you get stuck
  • Google the error message
  • Concatenator ???
 We then went on to undestand how to use visualisation tools and the shape of a dataset.  Working with real data was fun.  NMSI datasets and google fusion tables! Clocks and maps, all by a bit of tinkering. Excellent.  Some of my notes are below:
  • Planning a mashup is like planning to cook.  Do you have all the ingredients? How do they need to be prepared? Who are you serving it to, and what do they like?
  • Decide what you’re making (maps,timelines, images, etc) and where the data is coming from – downloadable or online data sets, google etc provide APIs and data visualisations tools.
  • Start designing, programming,testing – start small and build incrementally
  • The art of the join
  • What other data can you join to you’re dataset? Think about Info from general sites like Wikipedia and freebase, Information from other GLAMs, Other info about the same event, place, person, object.
  • Museum data is messy! manual cleaning to remove rows where vital info is missing, Nasty characters, dates +-, changing between numbers and text will need to be converted and tidying inconsistencies in term lists or spelling.
  • Enhancing data is a good way to check what needs cleaning.
  • Geo coding- making words/addresses into spatial coordinates
  • Entity extraction- recognising names of people, places,events etc within text.
  •  Learning to deal with mess is an important part of working with GLAM data.
  • Re-using existing work-
  • So far all code in the workshop has been on the page but that gets impractical – import scripts or data.
  • Lots of solutions already exist and then you can experiment with different values in existing codes, so you don’t have to start from scratch.
  • Code Libraries as packet mix -useful shortcut if want something common; you can choose the flavour but you can’t choose how it’s made.

I made still be a bit of a procedural illiterate fool, but I think I’m ok with that. I’m happy playing, making a mess, and making

something simple. There are amazing patient developers who make brilliant,gorgeous things.  I wanted to learn code in order to make perfect things, but that isn’t realistic.  Playing with datasets,sounds much more fun.

Podcastic: The Global Lab (featuring me!)

I’ve been gibbering on about digital humanities, museums and digital technology on the brilliant Global Lab podcast.  You can donwload it via RSS, iTunes or download the .mp3.  You can almost hear my over enthusiastic hand gestures!  I even managed to nearly knock over the microphone, but thankfully that has been edited out.  So if you want to hear what I sound like, rather than read me, there you go. I mostly spoke about the QRator project which is a collaboration between CASA and UCLDH.

The Global Lab podcast is about cities, spatial analysis, global connectivity and the impact of technology on society produced by two brilliant chaps from CASA; Steve and Martin.  Its very good listening for train journy’s and to whip out anecdotes in dinner party conversations. Check it out

Cultural QR codes in the Wild

Prompted by a comment by Mable from Aqueducks on an earlier blog post about QR codes I thought the use of QR codes in outside spaces deserved more of a dedicated post.  Mike Ellis’ recent post about QR codes discussed how they are becoming more apparent in the real world; they are in supermarkets, on public transport, in magazines and in museums.  But I haven’t really considered the use of QR codes in the wild, wet and windy real world of outside spaces. Below are three great examples of utilisng QR codes in outside spaces. I’m sure there are many many more.

Mable shared with me work she has been doing at Llangollen Canal in Chirk Bank  with using QR codes and blue tooth transmission direct to phones.  I particularly liked that they have been using Laminated QR codes as tea coasters for the ladies who do teas in the chapel hall for visitors, a brilliant idea to encourage visitors whilst they are enjoying a cup of tea to find out more information.

Mable also discussed the issues using the technology in Outdoor environments.  There is a tendency to have patchy mobile signal coverage to start with, which is the main reason why Aqueducks tried using bluetooth transmissions.

Both are affected by trees in leaf, and particularly wet trees in leaf, so that for example a blue tooth transmitter with a given range of 2 km, will not in practice give more than 100m or so, under damp summer conditions. The positives are that small laminated prints of the QR code are unobstrusive and do not need expensive panels and posts, and can be managed by our small community group with no facilities or much funding!  This sort of interpretation is relatively cheap so available for small groups.  The blue tooth transmitters allow one to target and change for specific events too.

I think Mable highlights very well the positive and negatives to using QR codes outdoors.  To be honest I hadn’t really considered the challenges to utilising QR codes in outdoor environments before.

Manchester Art Gallery have dabbled with a pilot project in 2010 using QR codes outdoors with their Decoding Art walking tour.   20 of the city’s public monuments where the artworks have had QR codes embedded into them.  The pilot project looked to provide information about the artworks instantly to mobile devices as “It’s very easy to walk past many of Manchester’s public monuments without ever spending time thinking about who or what they’re about and why they’re there.”

Once scanned the QR code links to both audio and written information about the monuments. Martin Grimes has written an excellent post about Manchester Art Galleries experiences or using QR codes outside over on the Ukoln blog. One of the issues Martin highlighted was the ongoing concerns around the fixing of the QR labels to the public monuments. Particularly listed monuments, lead to the use of temporary vinyl labels, which may not be as aesthetically pleasing but they convey the message well enough.

Spot the QR code & speech bubble

Another use of QR codes in the wild is how the Comics Grid uses them, in almost a guerrilla style. The Comic Grid wanted people to find their blog (which has a mobile version) through curiosity.  Ernesto Priego stated that he wanted to take the blog outside its comfort zone and viceversa, tagging public spaces, events, and academic conferences with the Comics Grid.  I really like the idea of guerrilla style QR codes, there is a sense of adventure to it.  The concept of taking the Comics Grid’s blog out of its comfort zone is a nice one; a QR code certainly does that by pulling the blog into the real world.

All three examples are utilising an interesting means of conveying virtual information in outside public places.  I particularly like that small community groups like Aqueducks are experimenting with QR codes as a cheap and relatively easy way of communicating information to visitors.

Cultural QR codes in the wild are really great idea in principle, but there does seem to be a lot of problems to overcome particularly with the practical constraints of affixing QR codes outside, as well as dealing with flaky mobile signals.  More experimenting to be done methinks.

Playing Catch up

I have been a neglectful blogger this past month, as I am frantically playing catch up on a lot of work. Here’s some highlights:

I will endeavour to answer, at least partly, my previous blog post question about procedural literacy fully soon, but perhaps as indicated by my busyness I can make a sweeping statement that (so far for me at least) procedural literacy does not a digital humanist make, hard work does.

  • Winging my way to Palo Alto for DH2011 to present a couple of posters; one about QRator and one with the rest of the UCLDH team on our experiences of Big Tent Digital Humanities. I got a bit carried away with black poster design… you can find the abstracts here and here.  I also got to catch up with the fabulous Amy and Dan whilst I was out there.
  • Presenting at the Bloomsbury conference about key social media activities for digital humanities research and early career researchers in the discipline (aka the stuff that I use for research – I tweet therefore I am), and highlighted the development of social media projects at the heart of UCLDH.
  • Doing some visitor observations in the Grant Museum, charting how visitors are interacting with the QRator iPad’s, followed by some content analysis of the comments, with the help of the brilliant Steve creator of all things good.
  • Finishing a book chapter for the nicely named UCL Book of DH (that’s not the official title, but I like it) about academic use of social media and crowdsourcing.
  • Really starting to get to grips with some information behaviour reading for my PhD literature review as well as writing my ethics approval form for my field studies. PhD is becoming scarily real right now.

busy busy busy!

Do you need to be procedural literate to be a great digital humanist?

Rather than being as fresh as a daisy from DHSI, I am brain overloaded and jetlagged.  But that doesn’t stop me.  I’m stepping up to my next challenge.

At a Decoding Digital Humanities meetup last year we were discussing a paper by Michael Mateas’ ‘Procedural Literacy – Educating the New Media Practitioner’ which suggests that procedural literacy is necessary for DH and new media researchers, because without understanding the back end of the programme, researchers will never be able to think critically about digital projects.  Ever since then I have continuously been asking myself the question;

Do you need to be procedural literate to be a great digital humanist?

I thought I was doing ok, with my humanities background, love of digital things, and enthusiasm.  But I have always been aware that I can’t code, I don’t know how to make interesting tools and applications, and the thought of exposing myself to numerous letters (C++, PHP), acronyms (XML, XSLT, HTML)   and snakes (Python) left me in a muddle.

One of the elements arising for the DDH discussion was can you ever be procedural literate if you don’t have any training in computer science?  Well, for the whole of this week I will be attempting to find out.  I will be taking a week long intensive course in Programming with PHP. By the end of the week we will see if I have the brain capacity to be procedurally literate and whether or not it has enhanced my critical thinking about digital humanities.  Or as Mateas’ puts it, will I be illiterate, fundamentally unable to grapple with the essence of computational media and therefore not reach my potential as a digital humanist?

Or does it not matter? Can I be illiterate and still achieve?  We shall see.

Digifun with Historical Bibliography 2

Following on from yesterdays post where I dealt with the Digital Photography aspect of digitising  early printed book facsimile pages.

My Task
Title pages from some early printed books and one entire 19th century book (missing its boards).  The aim is to  digitise the title pages for use in Historical Bibliography module at UCL with students for the quasi facsimile (title page facsimile) practice.

Today I tried flatbed scanning.

I didnt really have to do much to make this happen, after faffing figuring out how to turn the flipping thing on. Insert the image you want to scan. Check the resolution, which I set at 300dpi.  Press Preview, crop to the image and then press Scan.  Job done. I didn’t fiddle with anything else as we were told it is best to capture the image as is, and leave adjustments for later on.  It is wise to always save a high quality copy of the image as a TIFF file so it will meet archival standards (admitidly I forgot to do that for half of them – Sorry Anne! but for the purpose of the digitisation the JPEG should be adequate…i hope).

The resulting image is really sharp, and lost the phantomness from the digital photographs.  But you sort of lose the condition and colour of the paper.  So it shows the pros and cons of the two different methods.  Depending on what you want the digitised image for.

Digifun with Historical Bibliography

As part of the Digitisation Fundamentals and their Application (aka digifun) course at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute I have been learning the basics of the digitisation process for a range or media types. I have very little experience with the fundamentals of digitisation, I have only previously worked with the end product. IT felt that that I was missing so much by not understanding the processes involved. The DHSI course in digitisation is the perfect opportunity for me to learn more.

Thanks to Anne, I have a mini project to practice my new found understanding for the digitisation process.  My task for the week is dealing with early printed book facsimile pages and thinking about the best way to digitise them.

Title pages from some early printed books and one entire 19th century book (missing its boards).  The aim is to  digitise the title pages for use in Historical Bibliography module at UCL with students for the quasi facsimile (title page facsimile) practice.

First thing we were taught to think about is how the images will be used. Images designed for print, for the web or for archival purposes are all very different. For the purpose of my historical bibliography project the images are required for printed teaching materials as well as web images.

  • Imaging for Print – in order to print a digital image, you need to ensure that you have a high resolution image.  The two things to consider are the physical print size and the resolution.
  • Imaging for the web – for easy viewing images files should be in JPG or GIF, which are lossy and compressed. Aim to balance image quality with size.

There are two options for capturing visual media, objects, documents etc: Flatbed scanning and digital Photography.

Today I experimented with digital photography. Using a octopus like contraption which amounts to a camera mount and a bunch of lightbulbs.  Looks evil, but is actually quite easy to use.

Photography techniques may be more useful when you are working with delicate materials, 3D objects or massive materials like maps.  What I liked about the digital photography techniques is that there is an element of trial and error at get the right combination of camera, settings and lighting.

Some points to note:

  • try to control lighting conditions as much as possible
  • experiment with different combinations of cameras, lighting, resolution and file formats until you find one that is adequate.
  • the settings to take a good image of one document might not be right  for a different document.

One thing that was really apparent is depending on lighting you can see a lot of ‘phantom’ text or images from the other side of the page coming through. So my thing to try tomorrow is to use a black poster board to try and diminish the phantomness.

It’s strange digitisation appears to be quite a straight forward process, but its such a steep learning curve when you are starting from scratch.

Going downtown..clean, tidy and full of totem poles

I have been lucky enough to attend the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, up in Victoria, British Columbia. Many thanks go out to the sponsors who gave me a scholarship to attend, as well as the Association of Computers and the Humanities, from whom I received a travel bursary and UCLDH for paying the remaining. Without these I wouldn’t be here.

So I have only been in Canada a day and a half, but already I want to spend a lifetime here. Victoria is wonderful. It is small enough to be understandable, large enough to have variety: a city of contrasts where totem poles and Victorian grandeur go hand in hand with unicycles and speed boats. You can tell that it is a place full of interesting stories. It makes me want to hike, bike and climb until I have unearthed all its secrets.

Before my arrival last week I had only a vague impression of Canada; polite and full of maple syrup. One of my favourite Canadian’s is Amy; who I love because of her honesty, intelligence and ability to make everyone feel at ease. In my mind every Canadian is like Amy or Benton Fraser out of Due South. And so far, I haven’t been proved wrong. When I arrived, my first experience of Canada is the Airport shuttle bus driver, who looks like a plump retired lumberjack, complete with braces and beard. He spots I’m English and starts talking about his love of Coronation Street, this makes me smile after nearly 13hours of travelling and a time change of 8hours. I’m tired, I’m grumpy, I smell bad, my brain thinks its 1am, despite the brilliant sunshine at 4pm, and this wonderful man makes me happy. I ask where he recommends I visit whilst I’m here. Instantly he says the Royal BC Museum, followed by Rogers chocolate shop. I immediately fell in love with this bus driving ex lumberjack man. Not only that, because I was the only one going to UVic on the shuttle bus, which is the last stop, he drops me off first with another driver, who takes me straight there. I have never experienced such kindness and consideration by any bus driver in Britain.

Once I got some sleep and my bearings, I attempted to overcome some Jet Lag, and headed downtown. Victoria is a combination between the Lake District, Loch Tay, and the 1800’s all mixed together. The landscape of trees, seas and mountains is breathtaking. Combine this with the people who look so relaxed, happy and healthy. I feel at ease yet invigorated. I love it here.

So far I have visited the Royal BC Museum; my do they like a diorama, the First Nations gallery is exceptionally beautiful. I am showing my ignorance here, but for some reason I didn’t think there was such a thing as Native Indian Canadians. But there is, and their art work is amazing. It also explains the multitude of totem poles all around the city. I had lunch on the lawn of the Legislative building, which commands attention away from the harbour, and is full of Victorian gothic architecture. Followed by a stroll along the harbour to Laurel point, again totem poles in abundance. What struck me the most is how clean Victoria is. There is no chewing gum on the pavements, there’s no cigarette butts or litter anywhere. No one is rude, or in a rush, the shop assistants look you in the eye, and say thank you when you give them change. London town, you better clean up your act before I get back, or you’ll lose me to Canada.

A day and a Half to fall in love with a place. Is that all it takes? And I haven’t even started the Digital Humanities shenanigans yet.