Author: Dan Cohen

Humane Ingenuity 27: Reopening Time

Sorry that it’s been over a month since I last wrote. I’ve been working overtime with my colleagues to reopen a large library that adheres to Covid safety rules while also providing the community with the resources and services they need. Not easy.

And “reopening” is not the right word. We’ve been open all along, but simply shape- and medium-shifting as needed throughout this dreadful year. But I’m writing to you from within Snell Library at Northeastern University, and it feels pretty good. Onward.

An example of the suzani style of textiles from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, by the gifted Madina Kasimbaeva. Incredible as art and as textile technology.

Green hues are obtained from nutshells; yellow comes from saffron or onion peel; blue shades from indigo. After dying, threads are boiled with quartz and salt to lock in their colors.

Unfortunately, as Carrie Hertz, Curator of Dress and Textiles at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe notes in a blog post, like many other remarkable folk styles from remote parts of the world, as soon as photos of suzani works made their way onto the internet, the style was replicated on craft sites like Etsy, and then, as the conveyor belt of culture inevitably churns, it was quickly cloned, in turn, by mass-produced fashion companies:

Can GPT-3 Pass a Writer’s Turing Test?” is both an exploratory and commonsensical new paper from Katherine Elkins and Jon Chun. Beginning with the earlier GPT-2 engine, they fine-tuned it and trained it on specific authors (from Chekhov to Carrie Bradshaw) to see if literature professors and students could separate the real writing of those authors from the fake text generated by the computer.

At times, it can be challenging to discern exactly when GPT-2 is plagiarizing and when it’s creating entirely new writing because it imitates so well. Moreover, we’ve run experiments in which both experts and students fail to distinguish between GPT-2 generated text and human. Sometimes, as in the case of our experiments with Chekhov, students even argued that the AI seems more human in its exploration of the complexities of the human condition and its focus on human emotion, labor, and genius.

For all of these reasons, one challenge of working with GPTs is determining whether a particular output is error or genius—much in the same way that AlphaGo [an AI engine that plays the game Go] made a never-before-seen move that was first classified as error but later acknowledged as creative and, indeed, pivotal. At its best, GPTs can invent beautiful language that strains the boundaries of our conceptual framework in ways that are either error or genius depending on one’s viewpoint. Trained on John Donne, GPT writes

Or, if being could express nothing, nothing would be more true.
Then would love be infinite, and eternity nothing.

Elkins and Chun’s conclusion seems just about right, and is one of the better summaries I’ve seen about the state of AI and human expression:

Can GPTs pass a writer’s Turing Test? Probably not, if all output is considered. But with a judicious selection of its best writing? Absolutely…Certainly, it’s not better than our very best writers and philosophers at their peak. Are its best moments better than many humans and even perhaps, our best writers at their worst? Quite possibly. But remember, it’s been trained on our own writing. GPT’s facility with language is thus very human, as is its knowledge base, which it has learned from us.

Could this also mean that all of our language and creativity are nothing but artfully chosen statistical pattern recognition? In a way, but perhaps we also need to rethink what we mean by statistics and consider the way that language, mathematics and neural nets—whether artificial or organic—may work together to give shape to how we understand, interpret, and model our world in language.

(For those who have recently subscribed to this newsletter, also see HI9: “GPT-2 and You.”)

A video series on how to add images of plants to books using the technology of the traditional printing press:

In HI23 I speculated about what we might archive from this year that would provide future people with perspective on this difficult year. The Boston Area Research Institute has helpfully saved web posts and other timely data that we can mine for insights:

The COVID in Boston Database [is] a multisource database that comprehensively captures how the dynamics of Boston shifted before, during, and after the shutdown in response to the pandemic.

Their very large data set of posts to Craigslist, for instance, details how people adjusted to working from home through objects discarded and acquired. A raw catalog of COVID needs.

I was curious about early uses of mobile phones in various media, and as an enthusiastic supporter of pop music from 1984, it turns out that “Our We Ourselves?” by the new wave band The Fixx was the first music video with a mobile phone in it. It’s the wonderfully brick-like Motorola KR999, but even in this now-comical early form factor, The Fixx was prescient about what devices like these would mean for our individuality and society. One thing leads to another.

Player piano-like encoded music rolls + saxophone = Playasax, patented at the beginning of the Great Depression:

Stanford acquired a rare surviving version in 2015:

Humane Ingenuity 26: Considerate Over Clever

Next month in Barcelona at the PH21 Gallery there will be an exhibit of photography documenting the aching feeling of being alone in normally crowded urban spaces during this pandemic.

Zoltán Dragon, Passing I.

Georg Worecki, Schauspielhaus Düsseldorf

Georg Worecki, Philharmonie Luxembourg

Sari Fried-Fiori, Urban Walk

If you want to help us transcribe the titles and authors (many of them famous later on) of articles in the Boston Phoenix, Boston’s alternative newspaper, head on over to Zooniverse for some crowdsourcing fun. Northeastern University’s Archives and Special Collections has digitized all of the index cards from our complete Phoenix collection, including a lot of behind-the-scenes gems, and our head of NUASC, Giordana Mecagni, has set up this site to let the public relive the 1970s. You can see so many social, cultural, and political trends begin right there on those cards.

Brent Simmons, the thoughtful software developer behind two of my favorite Mac apps that support an open ecosystem of writing and reading, NetNewsWire and MarsEdit, was laid off during the Covid recession and went looking for a new job. His blog posts about the job search highlighted Silicon Valley’s problematic emphasis on hiring for individual cleverness and efficiency rather than social intelligence and clarity. It is worth reflecting here on Humane Ingenuity about the long-term impact of “clever” coding versus “social” coding.

Brent does not have a CS degree but has decades of experience writing software. In preparation for applying for jobs, he researched what he was likely to be asked during an interview. His heart sank just a bit as his methods, honed since the mid-1990s and guided by experience, collided with contemporary rapid-fire coding preferences. Brent’s summary of his failures to grasp what tech firms want today has especially stuck with me:

My style of coding is to break problems into steps and make it super-obvious to other people — and future-me — what the code is doing. I like to write code so clear that comments aren’t needed.

Google and Facebook seek those with brilliant insights followed by compact code, which is perhaps a measure of aptitude and intelligence but a very narrow lane indeed. Brent has an array of talents, and more importantly they are connected: his thinking about software is related to his thinking about social issues related to that software and to the communities of developers and users that gather virtually around an app. (Brent was eventually hired by Audible, FYI.)

Clever over considerate is, I suppose, the unstated motto of Silicon Valley. Nothing new here. And of course it only gets worse as you examine SV’s business prerogatives, which can be even more anti-social. But it’s revealing to see it so deeply rooted in behind-the-scenes, and critical, hiring processes. Organizations are, ultimately, the people they choose to hire.

Brent Simmons used to work with Dave Winer, whose short imagined computer science course seems right on target for HI, and often unconsciously the one taken by software developers I appreciate:

If I were teaching computer science, I’d start with a working piece of software, probably an HTTP server, and give the students a series of assignments. 

Assumptions: The software is documented, has users, and bugs, avoiding breakage is important. 

  1. Set up and install the software on your own server. Verify and demonstrate that it can handle a request. You can add a new page to the site. Authorize a new user. 
  2. You’ve encountered a problem. Write a great bug report.
  3. You’ve got an itch. You wish the software could do X. Come up with a plan for adding the feature, outlining the steps, and how you’re going to test the new version. (Two versions of this assignment, one with X specified, and another where the student comes up with X.)
  4. Write a doc showing the user how to turn on a feature in the product, with all the configuration options.
  5. Here’s a bug report. Find the problem and fix it, without breakage. How will you verify that there was no breakage. Document the change, and circulate the change note to the users of the product.
  6. One of the features of your product is new and competitors are copying it. It’s time to document the file formats and protocols it uses so your competitors can interop with you. Write the spec in clear language with numerous examples so users won’t get locked-in to their products, or yours for that matter.

Most important, this would all be with an existing working piece of software that real people use. Most student projects are scaled-down versions of real-world projects. They don’t behave like real communities. Esp because the users have expectations about how the software works.

As I ponder where this newsletter is going (maybe a short book?), I keep coming back to a set of values, some of them reflected in these case studies: a long-term rather than presentist view, the critical importance of perspective-taking, and ensuring that you are not doing things in the abstract, but in a real social context. It is also noteworthy how Brent and Dave emphasize writing well — not code, but the text that is often viewed as secondary, but which is to them very much primary: the documentation and communication for and with other people. 

Kent Klaudt, Untitled, from PH21’s Urban exhibit. I really, really miss going out to eat.

Last month JSTOR Daily covered some early nineteenth-century forerunners of virtual reality. Before he created the photographic method that would carry his name, the French inventor Louis Daguerre was an apprentice in the workshop of Pierre Prévost, who created gigantic panoramic paintings that would encircle the viewer, creating a fully immersive experience.

(Pierre Prévost, A Panoramic View of London, from the Tower of St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster, 1815, via the Museum of London. It is nearly 20 feet long.)

Daguerre wanted to make this experience even more realistic by including motion and sound, which he finally succeeded in doing using cave-like dioramas. The musicologist Thomas Grey:

Rather than working with slides, however, the diorama manipulated natural daylight by a complex of screens, shutters, curtains, colored filters, and so forth to illuminate images painted directly on large, scrim-like hangings (averaging about seventy by forty-five feet in area).

John Tresch’s essay “The Prophet and the Pendulum; Sensational Science and Audiovisual Phantasmagoria around 1848” goes into depth on Daguerre’s accomplishment:

More than just a new kind of painting, the diorama was an immersive, hallucinatory experience housed in a specially made building that allowed an audience to gather in a darkened room watching a lighted screen, transparent and opaque at various points, slowly transform itself from night to day, from winter to summer, often accompanied by music and other sound effects. The building itself had moving parts: the viewing platform rotated to bring visitors face to face with two and sometimes three distinct views. The most striking of these were a transformation of a scene in the Alps, complete with yodeling maidens and a live, braying goat, and the midnight mass, in which an empty, day-lit cathedral gradually darkened, grew bright with candles, and filled with worshipers for a mass by Haydn. These uncanny transformations were accomplished through continuous changes in the angle, color, and intensity of lighting, with paint of various degrees of transparency applied to both sides of a silk canvas such that the change in the color and angles of the light brought out different aspects of the image.

This led directly to major advances in opera and ballet sets, perhaps the truest precursors to VR.

Humane Ingenuity 25: Out of Body Experiences

If you need a break, have been at home for a very long time, or are sick of the view out of your window, you can try Window Swap, which shows a video clip of the view out of someone else’s window.

Simone Tengattini’s window in Villongo, Italy

Kinzah Iqbal’s window in Singapore

Lina Blau’s window in Aeschiried, Switzerland

Fernando Mattei’s window in Long Island, New York

Go full screen and put the sound on for minor, but somehow reassuring, sounds of domestic life elsewhere on the planet.

A follow-up to HI24‘s discussion of the feeling of being with other people, online and off: Much of my time at work is now lived within Teams, the omnibus collaboration software from Microsoft. This week they added “Together Mode” to their video conferencing system, which replaces the grid of faces (which will be, along with masks, one of the canonical memories of 2020) with a digitally created lecture hall in which all of the meeting participants are seated.

Evidently this mode comes from digital communication research at Stanford, but as I joked on social media, Together Mode feels like a Borges story about a lecture. Or perhaps a Philip K. Dick story, or any fiction where reality is elusive and replicative. It is true that you are presented a more “natural” view of a collection of people than the grid, and since I work in a university it is even more familiar, and yet since you yourself are in the lecture hall in a strangely out-of-body, disassociated way, as if you are both the lecturer and the student, I’m not sure that the mode provides the warm fuzzies of realistic physical presence that Microsoft imagines.

Also, to show everyone on the videoconference well, the virtual lecture hall seating is very steep, which for some reason—probably the historian of science part of my brain—makes me think of nineteenth-century surgical theaters.

(Surgical theater seating detail from The Agnew Clinic by Thomas Eakins. I have kindly omitted the actual surgery part of the painting.)

The indefatigable historian Mary Dorothy George spent decades studying and describing British satire that was printed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. George’s magisterial, obsessive, multivolume Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum was the result of this scholarship. If you would like to do an exhaustive search for political cartoons of British lords farting, now you know where to look.

Last year, James Baker and Andrew Salway took a half-dozen volumes of George’s Catalogue and turned them into a computationally available text corpus. Now Baker has fed that corpus into a GPT-3 engine, to create simGeorge, an AI bot that magically generates captions for satirical prints that have never existed.

Here’s a sample description of a machine-imagined political cartoon, which seems all-too-plausible:

The Regent, very drunk, sups in the kitchen at the Pavilion, at a table covered with invitations to dinner. He leans back in his chair, pugnacious and insolent, his eye and mouth watering. He holds a glass and a wine-bottle, brandishes a wine-glass to his mouth…His chair is decorated with the Prince’s feathers, oak-leaves, and roses. On the wall behind…is a picture…of Princess Charlotte drinking from a decanter; she leans over the counter holding a fan. She wears a loose high-waisted dress, with a towering feather, a medallion of a crowned head on a halo, and a coronet with a ducal coronet.

SimGeorge presents the intriguiging possibility of a flipped version of The New Yorker‘s caption contest, where the AI writes a caption, and artists imagine and draw the fictional scene.

Through fictional repetition, simGeorge also helpfully reveals the common tropes of political satire, such as the role of status, gender, language, and, yes, bodily functions. As Baker notes, using GPT-3 in this way provides a new pathway into a writer and her subject’s “themes and trends, omissions and constructions.” These include not just the nature of Georgian satire, but of Mary Dorothy George and her era in the early twentieth century, which means that simGeorge is, according to Baker, “lightly fattist and ageist” and also, on occasion and unsurprisingly, not so lightly racist.

With rising sea levels a growing threat to art and architecture, one cultural heritage organization has decided to go ahead and digitize an entire island in Venice at an extremely granular level. They are starting this work as you read this newsletter.

From 6th to 17th July, a team from Factum Foundation will be travelling to Venice to start the recording of the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Working with the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and Iconem, the aim is to record the entire island using several recording methods such as aerial and ground-based photogrammetry and LiDAR recording.

(Albumen print of a stereograph of San Giorgio Maggiore, c. 1850-1880. Gezicht op Venetië, gezien vanaf de klokkentoren van de Basilica di San Giorgio MaggioreRijksmuseum permalink. Public domain, with thanks to the Rijksmuseum.)

Humane Ingenuity 24: Witness and Withness

Over the past month, our library has been discussing ways to address—and more concretely take action to oppose—racism in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. We have some ideas that we will be accelerating work on this summer and that I’ll talk about in future HIs, but we also have many existing projects that we can build upon. A cluster of these projects work to shed light on the long history of systemic racism in the United States, to show how George Floyd’s death is, tragically and outrageously, yet another case in what seems like an endless line of countless cases.

But counting and making sure we have fully documented each case—each one a human being with family and friends, who had their life brutally taken away—is necessary. We recently rebroadcast our podcast episode on Professor Margaret Burham and the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice project, which is doing this hard work with the assistance of our library and archives (and generous funding from the Mellon and Ford Foundations), not only to bear witness to thousands of racially motivated killings, but to bring what they discover back to the cities and towns where the killings happened for communal discussion and memorialization. I encourage you to spend 30 minutes to listen to the show, or visit the CRRJ website.

So many of these cases take the same horrifically familiar course as George Floyd’s murder: a small, often perceived slight, followed by dehumanizing escalation and then deadly violence. Here is the abstract for the CRRJ case file for O’Dee Henderson:

On May 9, 1940, O’Dee Henderson, an employee of the Tennessee Coal and Iron Railroad company (TCI), was killed in Fairfield, Alabama. He allegedly bumped into TCI employee M.M. Hagood, on the street in front of the TCI building. Hagood stopped Officer W.T. Glenn and told him that Henderson knocked him down. Before arresting Henderson, Officer Glenn allowed Hagood to beat Henderson as he was dragged into a police car. The beatings continued at the police station. Officer Thomas Nelson beat Henderson with a black jack. D.M. Flourney, a witness, stated that the officers and Hagood repeatedly beat Henderson with a blackjack, a leather strap, and a rubber hosepipe. Flourney heard Henderson say, “let me explain,” and “have mercy on me.” After beating Henderson, Nelson shot him three times in the chest, killing him. The town coroner labeled the death an “unjustifiable homicide.” The city council determined Nelson could remain on the police force. Nelson was charged with first-degree manslaughter. Officer Nelson testified that he acted in self-defense. The jury returned a not-guilty verdict.

There were no cell phone cameras back then, of course, to document these cases. Often only regional African-American newspapers recorded these killings, aside from deliberately vague official death certificates. Some of those newspapers have now been digitized, leading to the possibility of recovering what happened for diligent students who are given these cases to pursue.

What does it mean to be with other people? And how can we feel together when we are apart? As we think about the near—and maybe more distant—future of work or education or many other aspects of our lives in which we used to congregate, these are important questions, and ones that may not have straightforward answers, or answers that are the same for all people.

You can be physically adjacent to other people and still not feel like you are “with” them, especially if they are looking down at their phones. And most human minds are socially flexible enough to feel the “presence” of others online, if not with the intensity of physical proximity, for some rather decent measure of “withness”—something I’ve called ambient humanity. Remarkably, this can be true even if the method of conveyance is only text; just ask a teen about the profound social reality of private iMessage or WhatsApp groups.

In this pandemic, we have lost social cues online and off that help us feel together. Online, Zoom and similar videoconferencing tools have issues related to sightlines, eye contact, poor audio, and other sources of friction that detract from the feeling of ambient humanity. As Navneet Alang succinctly put it in his newsletter, “Who even remembers what a Zoom call felt like?” Offline, masks block the half of our face that has the most muscles and thus transmits most of our facial expressions. (If this virus forced us to wear sunglasses rather than masks, it would not only be much cooler but it would be much easier to convey happiness, sadness, boredom, etc.)

As Covid drags on, how can we continue to feel ambient humanity, even as offices and classrooms become sparser? While I now work in the same behemoth software as many others (Microsoft Teams Dreams will be my new wave band), I’ve been experimenting with weird little alternative environments to see what some other possibilities might be.

I’ve particularly liked the experiments from a trio of young engineers, Phillip Wang, Kumail Jaffer and Cyrus Tabrizi, who, according to the manifesto of their tiny company, the Siempre Collective, are “determined to help people have better long-term relationships with the people that matter to them, no matter where they are.”

They have tried everything from holographic videochats, audio-only wristbands that autoconnect with friends, and virtual reality environments. Fascinatingly, what has seemed to work best is a seemingly strange combination of low and high tech.

Instead of a grid of video images like on Zoom, Online Town combines the Zoom line of video thumbnails with a cute lo-res 2-D video game environment that looks like it was plucked straight out of 1988. As you move through a map of a town or a campus or an office park, and you encounter other bitmapped avatars of people, you gradually come in and out of audio reach as you would in real life. Move close to someone and you can talk at full volume to them; move away and their voice fades away.

Siempre’s Gather is for larger groups, and is also an interesting combination of a very spatially aware, realistic audio environment married to an almost comical avatar map. I’ve created a Humane Ingenuityprivate park in Gather; maybe we can have a meet up there? It’s currently rather lonely.

Anyway, experiments such as these can help us realize what matters as true indicators of proximity. Online Town and Gather show how hearing (for those who have it) can be an incredibly strong signal for closeness and spatial awareness, and yet it is often secondary to video. Maybe we feel closer as fat pixels with clear voices, and perhaps that’s why I’ve noticed a small trend of returning to plain old telephone calls from fancier videoconferencing.

Our nearby friends at the excellent Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library have a new online exhibit, Bending Lines, on how maps are used to distort the truth and deceive the public. With the recent inundation of Covid maps and data visualizations, it’s timely in ways that probably weren’t expected when it was conceived.

I do have a soft spot in my heart for Professor Orlando Ferguson’s map of the flat Earth, or really more like sombrero Earth?

Nice rhetorical flourish in the bottom right of this nineteenth-century gem:

It Knocks the Globe Theory Clean Out. It will Teach You How to Foretell Eclipses. It is Worth Its Weight in Gold.

(Note to reader: Professor Orlando Ferguson was not actually a professor.)

More accurate and helpful are some Covid maps being produced by Bahare Sanaie-Movahed of our Research Data Services team at the Northeastern University Library in concert with Northeastern’s Sustainability & Data Sciences Laboratory. They are creating a Covid Vulnerability Index and visualization that combines various local factors, like adherence (or lack thereof) to social distancing rules, the scale of health care infrastructure, population density, and the pre-Covid prevalence of chronic respiratory illness, to provide a sense of how dangerous the situation is in each county.

A huge problem right now is how squirrelly all the data is. As the Northeastern team notes, this kind of map is aimed more at municipal decision-makers than the public. (I.e., you should not alter your behavior based on the combined data in your county.) You can also alter the weighting of the variables if you don’t like the initial mix provided, for instance by overweighting mobility data or the number of available ICU beds.

We need some better visualizations, ones with targeted audiences and flexible outputs, like this one. It feels like we are still flying blind.

Humane Ingenuity 23: Reframing Time and Saving Culture

Carrie Ferrin, the first female bicyclist in Nobles County, Minnesota. Photograph by E. F. Buchan, c. 1880. (From the Nobles County Historical Society, via Minnesota Reflections/Digital Public Library of America.)

My life has become a series of meetings on “reopening,” a word I don’t much like. We need to be more precise with our words during this crisis, and open/closed is a poor and false dichotomy, just as “social distancing” is horrible branding for temporary physical separation.

My library is open, it’s just the building that’s closed. The vast majority of what we do, from providing resources for learning and scholarship to helping with the processes of research and analysis, can be done remotely. We’ve been doing it successfully for a while now. In my view, libraries are a fusion of collections and expertise, which can be achieved in multiple ways and in multiple media.

Anyway, we can begin to make out in the misty future a time in which the building may be unlocked, and some on-premises activities will re-commence once again. What will this look like?

To prepare, I have been avidly reading Tales of Libraries in Countries that Have Handled the Virus Better than Us, my imagined title for a compendium of library re-whateverings from IFLA, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. These experiences of remaking the library for the Covid era present a strange alien landscape populated by high tech—presenting your ID/health QR code and a precisely booked time of entry—and low tech—lots of yellow tape and gloves and shields and propped-open doors so the handles aren’t touched. It’s half science fiction, half medieval. It would be more fascinating if it wasn’t also rather stressful.

Newly digitized images from a German manuscript of Latin fables, from the British Library. Above, “The Palm Tree and the Gourd”; below, “The new-born Cloud leaps up from the Earth.” Nearly impossible to believe these were made circa 1430 rather than 1930.

It’s clear at this point that we’re in this new abnormal for many, many months, perhaps years. So I’m looking for ways to recast our normally caffeinated, fast-paced time frames into longer time horizons. (As a runner, this reframing is what you do to distance make a long run more conceivable and palatable.)

One way to lengthen our time frame is to think about how people in the past had to deal with a much slower rate of travel and communication. To wit: According to Orbis, the Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World (a/k/a Ancient Google Maps), I’ve now been at home for the number of days (70) it took to travel by donkey and a series of coastline-hugging civilian boats from London to Constantinople 2,000 years ago, in the springtime. In another month’s time, I could have walked a fairly direct but honestly pretty tiring route from London to Constantinople instead (including a quick raft across the English Channel, of course), which Orbis helpfully notes would have cost fewer denarii. Or I could have taken a swanky river boat through what is now France, stopped in Rome for some nice food, wine, and perhaps a gladiator show at the Colosseum, and still gotten to my destination last week. But oh, the denarii I’d have to spend for that joyous route.

So in September, remember: it took six months to walk from Cordoba to Jerusalem, but you would have seen some beautiful scenery along the way.

In HI22, I discussed the creative reuse of art, encouraged by cultural heritage institutions, and enabled by digitization and open access. A related model for humane ingenuity I would like to cover in this issue is that of a more active partnership between a community seeking the curation, dissemination, and preservation of its culture, and an institution that has the technology, personnel, and means to serve the community in that way.

You already know this, but we don’t reflect on it enough: too much of our current cultural production relies on platforms that are not in the long-run business, nor in the caring-about-local-communities business. They are purely interested in scale and the here-and-now. This is not a radical destroy-Silicon-Valley thing to say; it’s just an objective fact, one with serious implications, however, for our culture. Writers, musicians, artists…almost any form of culture you can think of now primarily uses a big commercial platform as a host and gateway to the world—only to realize, too often and often too late, that they have been co-opted or abandoned for other imperatives.

An alternative model that has been underexplored is the role nonprofit institutions can play as ideal partners to local cultural groups. Take regional music. Ever since Alan Lomax collected folk music during the Great Depression, a collection that has been preserved by the Library of Congress, the opportunity for a symbiotic relationship has existed.

More recently, libraries and archives have partnered with musicians and the music scene near them to ensure that in the long run local artists aren’t lost in the maw of a Spotify, and that in the case of fragile and often ephemeral digital files, their music is saved for future listening. Some good examples:

The Denver Public Library hosts Volume, a local music website that allows Denver Public Library card holders to download and stream music from local bands and musicians, DRM-free.

Music Rising at Tulane preserves and promotes the musical cultures of the Gulf South region, including the states of Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas. Tulane works with other community organizations and institutions, like the Amistad Research Center, to capture related oral histories and store original music files.

There are other good examples outside the United States. In New Zealand, the University of Auckland maintains an archive of Māori and Pacific music.

And DigitalNZ, the national digital library project of New Zealand, catalogs the yearly sets of songwriting winners from across the country, Play It Strange.

Instead of creating your own art during quarantine, maybe you could surf the web for local culture worth saving, and give your nearby cultural heritage institution a ring about partnering. They are in the long-run business.

E. F. Buchan, who took that striking photo of Carrie Ferrin, would have been an in-demand rock photographer a century later. Just look at this shot after an ice storm in Nobles County—nothing less than a nineteenth-century U2 album cover:

Humane Ingenuity 22: More Creative Reuses

Yes, people are re-enacting and re-creating artworks in their homes during the quarantine. No, this is not a new pastime—people have been doing this for years—and while it’s fine for a while, there are more creative ways to reuse art.

The Rijksmuseum—which may have started the art re-enactment craze some years ago—has been especially inventive on this front. Forget duplicating paintings for Instagram—they encourage people to rethink and remix their artworks across multiple media. (And as I noted in HI19, the Rijksmuseum also digitized their artworks relatively early, thus allowing for this kind of wide experimentation.)

One of my favorite Rijksmuseum art reuses is Chiara Bianchini’s spin on Ohara Koson’s incredible peacockas a pop-up book.

Related, and also great: designer Sergii Lysyi’s recasting of Ohara Koson’s heron as a lamp.

HIers, I really want this lamp. The biennial Rijksstudio Awards also gave us the handy/portable Book Bracelet by Lyske Gais and Lia Duinker back in 2015:

Remote education from two millennia ago, in Egypt:

This is a wood and wax tablet (the iPad of the 2nd century CE) on which the teacher has written exercises that the student, at home, has to complete.

The maxim across the top, in Greek, that the student must copy:

Accept advice from someone wise

It is not right to believe every friend of yours

(British Library, Add MS 34186, School Exercises with Menander’s Sententiae, Multiplication Table and List of Words.)

Sign of the times: chilly, slightly melancholy, Kubrick-style photos, videos, and VR of the libraries that currently stand empty.

The University of Cambridge (video):

Harvard (VR):

UNLV (photo):

Depressing to think about when these spaces will see humans again. On the other hand, the library endures; just a temporary phase-change to a more ethereal state.

It is unclear when we will reopen the libraries and the universities, but we do know when the universities were opened in the first place, and when they started teaching certain subjects. Elena Romero-Passerin, a history PhD student at the University of St. Andrews, just created a card game, Studium Scientiae, in which you can hire faculty and technicians, establish labs and buy equipment, and recreate the first stirrings of modern science from scratch.

Very clever, and another good use of digitized museum collections.

(See also: Merplantalism, the only known board game about botany, trade, and navigation in the eighteenth century, by Romero-Passerin and Christin Simons.)

Humane Ingenuity 21: Functional and Eternal

Tomb relief of the official Ptahshepses, also called Impy, Egyptian, Old Kingdom, Dynasty 6, 2323–2150 BCE. Carved limestone. Harvard Art Museums.

During their Covid closure, the Harvard Art Museums have started a weekly video series explaining art that you might not have fully engaged with before. The first video, “How Egyptian Art Works,” is a great introduction to hieroglyphs on a limestone tomb, analyzed by curator Jen Thum.

The Egyptians didn’t have a word for art as we know it…Egyptian art is always functional, and it always shows a perfect ordered world that’s projected for eternity.

Functional and eternal is quite a combination.

“Nature is healing, we are the virus” is a prevalent meme right now, as people discover or imagine flora, fauna, and Daleks taking over outdoor spaces abandoned by homebound humans. Anastasia Leopold, Alex Bondi, and Kalpana Bhandari, students at Northeastern University, envisioned an uncynical version of this process to heal the landscape from climate change and toxic waste. The title of their project alone is wonderfully evocative: “Invasive Infrastructure.”

Their idea is to use an adroit plant, phragmites australis, which is the common reed in many parts of the world, but not native to New England, to repair Massachusetts estuaries by providing structural rigidity to essential waterways while at the same time removing toxins from the water through their roots.

Moreover, Leopold, Bondi, and Bhandari have designed beautiful, minimalist wood frames that two people can assemble and disassemble, IKEA-style, to support and protect parts of the green infrastructure while it grows.

I am not their professor, but I give this an A+ for humane ingenuity. (The project justly won the Excellence in Research award at Northeastern’s RISE expo, which was virtual this year.)

Most college courses had to move rapidly and grudgingly online this semester, but ds106, a digital storytelling course at the University of Mary Washington that was first taught a decade ago, started in person but has been Very Online ever since, an ongoing community known for creativity and fun.

The latest from ds106 is a web-based community cable TV channel. There are even instructions so you can add your own broadcast to the live stream from your home.

Bonus points for the retro Emerson TV interface. Semi-functional and ephemeral.

It snowed in Boston yesterday, but today spring is here.

Illustrations of British grasses and wild flowers by naturalist Richard Waller, c. 1686-1688, via the Royal Society’s “Turning the Pages” exhibit.

Humane Ingenuity 20: Physical Distancing, Social Cohesion

Drawing of the set for John Taverner’s opera Thérèse, designed by Alan Barlow, 1979, via the Victoria and Albert Museum’s opera exhibit.

What would you save from 2020 to inform future generations about what we are going through? A number of formal and informal collecting projects have launched, and are worth tracking.

A Journal of the Plague Year: An Archive of COVID-19 uses the Omeka platform to accession and preserve text, images, audio, and video from the general public. (We are participating in this global effort at Northeastern University.) There are over a thousand highly diverse items in the rapidly growing collection:

Focusing on professional photographers and journalists, the COVID-19 Archive from Public Source already has numerous striking images that capture our current existence.

If you are looking for an impressive indoor craft project with an exceedingly high degree of difficulty, here’s a short video on how to create a 3-D 18th-century mechanical theater. (via the Victoria and Albert opera exhibit)

In HI19 I talked about open access to museum and archival collections, but another nice—albeit temporary—open access initiative right now involves academic journals opening their doors. Since I’m at a university, I generally have access to many of these journals, but I’ve been using this full open access window to sample journals I don’t normally read, and some who subscribe to this newsletter may not have regular access to these journals at all.

The University of California Press has done a particularly good job opening access to, and promoting, their journals, many of which could easily have a much broader audience if they weren’t considered “academic.” I’ve been enjoying the back issues of the Journal of Popular Music Studies, including a wonderful article by Megan Lavengood, “What Makes It Sound ’80s?,” on the strikingly similar sounds found in many 1980s pop hits.

Lavengood’s convincing answer: the default settings on the inexpensive Yamaha DX7 synthesizer, which you can instantly recognize by listening to the short samples she includes in her article. Especially important to the pop music of the 80s was the DX7’s electronic piano preset, called E. PIANO 1.

E. PIANO 1, the DX7’s vaguely Fender-Rhodes-like electric piano sound, was used in many iconic ’80s ballads beginning soon after the DX7’s release, such as “Careless Whisper” by George Michael, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” by Tina Turner, and “Hard Habit to Break” by Chicago, all three of which were released in 1984. If one were to listen to each of the #1 hit singles on the Billboard charts in 1986, the saturation of E. PIANO 1 in the charts in this year in particular would be conspicuous. In 1986, E. PIANO 1 is present in 39% of the Billboard Hot 100 #1 hit singles, 40% of the country #1 singles, and a staggering 61% of the R&B hit singles. Even in 1990, rather late in the life cycle of the DX7, E. PIANO 1 was still heard at the top of the charts in Michael Bolton’s “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You,” which reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January of 1990 and #3 in the UK one month later. There are other presets that an average consumer of 1980s music might be able to recall: BASS 1 mimics a funky slap bass, and frequently opens a track with an aggressive riff, as in “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins (1986); the DX7 flute sounds, such as FLUTE 1, CALIOPE (sic), and VOICE 1 can be heard across Tina Turner’s Private Dancer album. Many DX7 presets quickly became ubiquitous in the music industry, but none more so than E. PIANO 1.

I just love how these famous, lavishly produced records relied at their core on a cheap synth on its default settings. Indeed, once those sounds became part of the fabric of pop music in the 80s, it probably became even harder to use other sounds on the DX7. A nice reminder that with technology, defaults are everything. (And also, that 1984 was the greatest year in the history of pop music.)

(See also: university press books that are currently free to read online.)

If you need some library sounds to help you work from home, the Bodleian Library helpfully provides the dulcet page-turning tones of four of their reading rooms as background noise. (via Katharina Simon and Pete Clarke)

On this week’s What’s New podcast from the Northeastern University Library, I talk with Steve Flynn, the director of the Global Resilience Institute, who studies how societies come back from devastating disasters—man-made or natural. Steve is a long-term optimist, although realistic about what is currently happening. Critically, he noted:

One thing we know about disasters is that they remind us why it’s so important we’re social beings. The only way we are really successful in dealing with risk and hazard is when we come together. If we fail to do that, we put ourselves at far greater risk and far greater jeopardy.

Steve sees some positive social developments to build on. If you need a little reassurance right now, please give “The Road Back to Normal” a listen.

I also wholeheartedly agree with Steve that we all need to stop using the phrase “social distancing,” and use “physical distancing” and “social cohesion” instead.

Time,” IBM Poster, 1981. Image via Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

Humane Ingenuity 19: Credit Where Credit Is Due

Viola Canady, Cathedral Window Quilt, Anacostia Community Museum. CC0 photograph from the Smithsonian Institution’s new open access collection.

In January 2009, I was invited to be one of the “digerati” (cringes at the word) at the Smithsonian 2.0 Conference, which was held to think about what the world’s largest museum conglomeration should do to pull itself into the digital age. We were supposed to provide advice on how the SI could engage the public in new ways with their incredible range of materials, using contemporary tools like social media and podcasts. I blogged about the conference at length, and I think that post is now an interesting historical document itself.

My fairly basic point at the time was that the Smithsonian needed to first dip its toe in the digital waters to get an understanding of new media, and later on go for a moonshot in which they digitized and made freely available for wide use the entirety of the 137 million items they held in 19 museums. Then, a decade went by.

So I was delighted to see the launch a few weeks ago of the Smithsonian’s new open access portal, and how robust it was: not just millions of digital images, but served with an API, IIIF (the international image interoperability framework, which allows developers to pull images on demand, and in multiple sizes and color profiles, from disparate sources, and synthesize them easily), and open data on GitHub. This was all great.

There was some grumpiness out there about the belatedness of SI’s evolution, or about the fact that as a federal institution it simply should give everything away so no big deal, but count me as strongly anti-grump for this reason: It is critical to applaud large institutions for doing right and good things, even if it takes a long time for them to get there. (And with large institutions, it almost always takes a long time to get there.) I know from the inside that there were staffers who fought for this for years, and their work needs to be recognized in no uncertain terms—I’m missing many people here but would like to give kudos to Effie Kapsalis, SI’s Senior Digital Program Officer, and Mike Edson, who was the Director of Web and New Media Strategy at SI a decade ago, who pushed hard for this. Importantly, other institutions need to see widespread applause to encourage them to take similar actions. When the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam digitized its entire collection four years ago and got major praise—and didn’t see attendance at the museum drop—it encouraged other museums to do the same thing, greatly expanding access to art.

One more thing you can do: When you use an image from a digital collection, always credit institutions that make their materials freely available, even if the license they make their collections available under doesn’t require that, such as SI’s CC0, which is a public domain declaration that technically has no credit mandate. I’ve called this combination CC0+BY:

Move the attribution from the legal realm into the social or ethical realm by pairing a permissive license with a strong moral entreaty [to credit individuals or institutions].

Credit where credit is due.

Processed World, a zine from the early 1980s that was decades ahead of its time in taking a critical view of computer technology and especially the labor around that technology, has been digitized. It’s like reading attacks on Uber from a time machine. (via Christa Hartsock)

A micro case study of humane ingenuity: Manton Reece, the proprietor of the microblogging platform (where I host my social media), realized that some of the photos users uploaded included highly specific location information inadvertently, so he did the right thing in the name of privacy:

As a precaution I’ve decided to retroactively strip metadata from existing photos that have been uploaded over the last few years. I wrote some scripts to check these photos, updating both our primary photo storage and the published blogs that were affected.

I also stripped metadata from any profile photos that contained location information.

This is what you can do when your app doesn’t make money by tracking you.

(See also: Brett Simmons invites non-coders to help with his reborn RSS app, NetNewsWire. A good way to get more diverse perspectives and a real-world understanding of how an app is used.)

Something enjoyable to do while social distancing: This month the Beinecke Library has hosted “Paleographical Challenge 2020,” an entertaining and educational daily quiz that teaches you how to interpret and uncover evidence in unusual manuscripts using high-resolution digitized images. My favorite puzzle was about a work by Ralph Rabbards, Inventions of military machines and other devices, which I can only describe as 16th-century steampunk.

This week on the What’s New podcast from the Northeastern University Library, I spoke with a record producer who started out programming drum machines for Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel, did the remixes for Madonna’s Erotica album and singles from Missy Elliot and Mariah Carey, and has won multiple Grammys for his work with Damian and Stephen Marley. If you need some counterprogramming to the coronavirus, tune in.

Or, if you would prefer to hear a scientist who develops vaccines and other medicines for neglected diseases, you can revisit an earlier episode of What’s New.

Humane Ingenuity 18: Closing Time

Metamorphic library table-steps, by Thomas Sheraton, c. 1795. (CC0-licensed image from the Smithsonian Institution’s new open access collection, which I’ll be writing about in the next issue.) A piece of furniture that is both useful and a metaphor.

Friends, it has been a difficult few weeks for me, as I’m sure it’s been for you. This newsletter has been my enjoyable extracurricular outlet for this academic year, but my day job is as an administrator, and both the academic year and my administrative duties have been under considerable stress, as you might imagine. For the past few weeks, I’ve been meeting regularly with the other deans and senior leadership at our university to plan for what to do in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and unfortunately we’ve now had to implement those plans. It’s been hard.

I’ve seen people make lofty references to the activities of Isaac Newton and William Shakespeare and Mary Shelley as this plague has descended upon us. As our world swiftly deteriorated and I had to make management decisions, my mind drifted toward a less lofty figure instead: Captain Kirk, and the Kobayashi Maru test. In the classic, cheesy Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, there is a Starfleet Academy exercise in which every possible outcome is horrible; the objective is to see if you can gracefully manage the decline into tragedy.

That is what this time has felt like. There have been no perfect solutions these past few weeks, or even choices without serious real-world impacts. Balancing staff safety, community services, student needs…these were often at odds, with no way to square the circle.

Captain Kirk, of course, was the only one ever to beat the Kobayashi Maru test, by stepping outside of the simulation and reprogramming the computer. If only. But even if we could step outside of our current, terrible non-simulation, that’s not how leadership works, as far as I’ve come to understand it.

We cannot go rogue in these situations, operating and thinking alone. While advocating strongly for what I thought was the right course of action, constant interaction with, and feedback from, my staff, my leadership team at the library, and others across the university, and the transparent sharing of ideas and practices on several email threads with other library deans, has been incredibly helpful. In real life, Kobayashi Maru situations have no exit. Only through thoughtful collaboration can we hope to find the best of the many bad options.

Our library is now closed, as it should be. Or, I should say, the physical building is closed. We made what I believe was the correct decision to taper off our in-person services last week. My staff moved online to help students, faculty, and the public virtually, and that seems to be going very well, although we know that some community members relied on the library building for other reasons. Many library resources are, of course, already online. The library persists, out there in the ether. It will stay that way for a while.

This is my second experience of a library and a tragedy.

A few days before the launch of the Digital Public Library of America, in April 2013, bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon—right in front of the Boston Public Library (where DPLA’s office would be set up)—and the city went into lock-down. It feels eerily similar to today. Back then, I had to scramble to figure out what to do, which became clear after speaking with colleagues and friends: we would have to postpone the launch festivities. Then I drafted these words and posted them to the DPLA website:

I see the building of a new library as one of the greatest examples of what humans can do together to extend the light against the darkness. In due time, we will let that light shine through.

I believe this to be true, for libraries old and new, physical and digital. I look forward to reopening our library building in due time, and to building a library, virtually, in the meantime.

Polaroid by Andrey Tarkovsky, c. 1979-84 (via Alan Jacobs’s newsletter)

Caspar David Friedrich, Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon, c. 1824

Remember: there are many ways of seeing the very same night. Stay safe out there in these dark times, friends.