Category: Uncategorized

  • 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.

  • Humane Ingenuity 17: All THAT and More

    A rather nice letterpress QR code from Northeastern University’s traditional print technology lab, Huskiana Press. (Via Ryan Cordell, who is the founder and proprietor of Huskiana. It’s great to have this on our campus.)

    More than THAT

    “Less talk, more grok.” That was one of our early mottos at THATCamp, The Humanities and Technology Camp, which started at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University in 2008. It was a riff on “Less talk, more rock,” the motto of WAAF, the hard rock station in Worcester, Massachusetts.

    And THATCamp did just that: it widely disseminated an understanding of digital media and technology, provided guidance on the ways to apply that tech toward humanistic ends like writing, reading, history, literature, religion, philosophy, libraries, archives, and museums, and provided space and time to dream of new technology that could serve humans and the humanities, to thousands of people in hundreds of camps as the movement spread. (I would semi-joke at the beginning of each THATCamp that it wasn’t an event but a “movement, like the Olympics.”) Not such a bad feat for a modestly funded, decentralized, peer-to-peer initiative.

    THATCamp as an organization has decided to wind down this week after a dozen successful years, and they have asked for reflections. My reflection is that THATCamp was, critically, much more than THAT. Yes, there was a lot of technology, and a lot of humanities. But looking back on its genesis and flourishing, I think there were other ingredients that were just as important. In short, THATCamp was animated by a widespread desire to do academic things in a way that wasn’t very academic.

    As the cheeky motto implied, THATCamp pushed back against the normal academic conference modes of panels and lectures, of “let me tell you how smart I am” pontificating, of questions that are actually overlong statements. Instead, it tried to create a warmer, helpful environment of humble, accessible peer-to-peer teaching and learning. There was no preaching allowed, no emphasis on your own research or projects.

    THATCamp was non-hierarchical. Before the first THATCamp, I had never attended a conference—nor have I been to one since my last THATCamp, alas—that included tenured and non-tenured and non-tenure-track faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, librarians and archivists and museum professionals, software developers and technologists of all kinds, writers and journalists, and even curious people from well beyond academia and the cultural heritage sector—and that truly placed them at the same level when the entered the door. Breakout sessions always included a wide variety of participants, each with something to teach someone else, because after all, who knows everything.

    Finally, as virtually everyone who has written a retrospective has emphasized, THATCamp was fun. By tossing off the seriousness, the self-seriousness, of standard academic behavior, it freed participants to experiment and even feel a bit dumb as they struggled to learn something new. That, in turn, led to a feeling of invigoration, not enervation. The carefree attitude was key.

    Was THATCamp perfect, free of issues? Of course not. Were we naive about the potential of technology and blind to its problems? You bet, especially as social media and big tech expanded in the 2010s. Was it inevitable that digital humanities would revert to the academic mean, to criticism and debates and hierarchical structures? I suppose so.

    Nevertheless, something was there, is there: THATCamp was unapologetically engaging and friendly. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I met and am still friends with many people who attended the early THATCamps. I look at photos from over a decade ago, and I see people that to this day I trust for advice and good humor. I see people collaborating to build things together without much ego.

    Thankfully, more than a bit of the THATCamp spirit lingers. THATCampers (including many in the early THATCamp photo above) went on to collaboratively build great things in libraries and academic departments, to start small technology companies that helped others rather than cashing in, to write books about topics like generosity, to push museums to release their collections digitally to the public. All that and more.

    By cosmic synchronicity, WAAF also went off the air this week. The final song they played was “Black Sabbath,” as the station switched at midnight to a contemporary Christian format. THATCamp was too nice to be that metal, but it can share in the final on-air words from WAAF’s DJ: “Well, we were all part of something special.”

    (Cross-posted from my blog.)

    While I’m reminiscing: The first day of my freshman year of college, I met Waleed Meleis, who lived across the hall. I came to know him as a brilliant engineer with a humanist heart. After graduation, I didn’t see him for 25 years, until I bumped into him on my first day at Northeastern. He created and runs the Enabling Engineering initiative, a student group that designs and builds devices to empower individuals with physical and cognitive disabilities. This is, of course, fully in the spirit of Humane Ingenuity, and I always look forward to new projects from EE.

    I saw Waleed this week and he told me that his students have some great new projects in the pipeline. I’ll be sure to include them here as they develop.

    One of the treasures in the special collections of my library is a mysterious late medieval volume of unknown origin called the Dragon Prayer Book. (I like to think of it as our Voynich Manuscript.) A literature professor, some of her students, and some scientists analyzed it over the last year, and here’s a fun short video about what they found:

    This week on the What’s New podcast from the Northeastern University Library, I talk with Philip Thai, a historian of China, who has a new book out on the role that tariffs, smuggling, and the black market played in the rise of modern China, and how these economic and social elements continue to influence the views of the Chinese government and public. Tune in.

  • Humane Ingenuity 16: Imagining New Museums

    David Fletcher is a video game artist in London who on the side creates hyper-realistic 3D photogrammetry models of cultural heritage sites and works of art, architecture, and archeology. I particularly like how he captures soon-to-be-obsolete aspects of the city he lives in, and our modern life, like the beautiful cab shelters for hackney carriage drivers:

    (Cab Shelter, Russell Square)

    Last week, instead of focusing on a building or piece of material culture, David focused on a person, and the results caught me off guard. He captured one of the few remaining mudlarks in London, Alan Murphy. Mudlarks dig through the shores of the Thames to find historical artifacts, an old and now mostly bygone hobby. David took over 200 high-definition photos of Alan, and processed them in Reality Capture (for Alan’s body and the surrounding landscape) and Metashape (for Alan’s head).

    The model is so realistic and detailed that you can rotate it and even zoom in on what Alan has found in the mud:

    Not sure about you, but I find this simultaneously unsettling—in an uncanny valley sort of way—and also moving—like a Dorothea Lange photograph. And it’s a strange flipside relative of the deep fake—a shallow real.

    When they build a Museum of the Anthropocene, this very well may be one of the dioramas.

    I have long admired the work and cleverness of George Oates, an interaction designer who cares deeply about libraries, archives, and museums, and has thought about how to further their mission through open web technologies. (She was behind Flickr Commons and Open Library, in addition to her stellar design work at Stamen and Good, Form & Spectacle.) So when George contacted me in a few years ago about her latest project, to create a small digital museum device, I was instantly in as a supporter.

    That device is now out in the wild: Museum in a Box. Powered by a Raspberry Pi, each MIAB contains a special collection and stories or evocative audio about that collection, which you activate and hear by “booping” RFIDed items on top of it. Here’s a brief video showing how the Box works:

    The Smithsonian now has 30 MIABs, and globally you can see what people are booping over at the Museum in a Box Boop Log.

    (Side note: really looking forward to OED’s future definition and etymology of “boop,” after the influence of 2010s internet culture, including We Rate Dogs.)

    A little follow-up from HI15 on the recovery of independent bookstores: Book historian Paul Hoftijzer spent decades researching the early book industry in Leiden, and Leiden University’s Centre for Digital Scholarship has now converted Hoftijzer’s paper records into data. Peter Verhaar recently gave a presentation based on this data, and two things struck me. First, look at how densely packed the booksellers were in the relatively small city of Leiden in 1700:

    Second, Leiden also experienced a painfully familiar boom and bust in bookselling that is clear in the data:

    We should enjoy those independent bookstores while we have them.

    In HI1 I mentioned “hard OCR” problems as good examples of the potentially beneficial combination of advanced technology and human knowledge and expertise. Tarin Clanuwat and her colleagues at Japan’s ROIS-DS Center for Open Data in the Humanities have recently made significant advances in converting documents written in Kuzushiji, the Japanese handwritten script used for a millennium starting in the 8th century, into machine-readable text. As Tarin notes, this could potentially open up entire new research areas in history and literature, because even among Japanese humanities professors, fewer than 10 percent can read Kuzushiji. Currently most Kuzushiji documents have not been encoded and are not full-text searchable.

    The technical paper from Clanuwat et al. is worth reading as well for the holistic approach they took to analyzing each Kuzushiji page.

    You may have read “An Algorithm That Grants Freedom, or Takes It Away,” about the software that increasingly guides judges in their criminal sentencing and parole decisions, in the New York Times this weekend. Northeastern University researcher Tina Eliassi-Rad has been working on how to reframe and redesign those kinds of algorithmically determined (and often life-changing) automated processes. (I interviewed her about this on What’s New, episode 18.)

    Some of her main points:

    • Only allow the machine to train on highly vetted, conscientiously assembled data sets that are independently verified for bias reduction.
    • User interfaces for algorithmically driven decisions should always show the mathematical confidence or probability levels of each element. (These are often absent.)
    • Show as much context as possible. All numbers must be framed so as to reduce the overly simplistic power of numerical scores. For sentencing, for instance, the interface should show other stories/cases so the current case is situated in a larger, more complex environment, rather than starkly graded against an invisible background of data.
    • Use ranges rather than points.
    • Add narrative wherever possible.

    No, none of this makes the process anywhere near perfect or free from bias. An argument can and should be made that there are domains where AI/ML simply shouldn’t be used. But nota bene: this may simply revert those domains to more traditional forms of human bias. I find this whole topic disquieting and worthy of considerably more thought.

    (See also: Leigh Dodds of the Open Data Institute has a related, interesting blog post this week: “Can the regulation of hazardous substances help us think about regulation of AI?”)

    This week on What’s NewJoseph Reagle talks about his new book, Hacking Life: Systematized Living and Its Discontents. Joseph crystallized for me the basis for the life hacking movement, from Inbox Zero to Soylent: “Life hackers are the systematized constituency of the creative class.” When work is no longer 9-5 in a large company, but a 24/7 hustle of coding or writing or designing or anything else with little scaffolding, an obsession with productivity is a natural cultural byproduct. Tune in.

  • Humane Ingenuity 15: Close but Not Quite

    The Picture Description Bot, by Elad Alfassa, runs random Wikimedia Commons images through Microsoft’s Computer Vision API, and then posts the best-guess caption that API produces along with the image to the bot’s Tumblr and Twitter feeds. This process was featured in HI3 for archival photographs, although I also included the API’s confidence scores for the caption and associated tags, which is helpful in any overall assessment.

    The Picture Description Bot’s close misses are the most revealing and humorous:

    Via Jen Serventi, Sheila Brennan, and Brett Bobley of the National Endowment for the Humanities, who posted from the Digging Into Data conference, two interesting search tools:

    Dig That Lick lets you play some notes on a virtual keyboard, and then it finds similar melodic patterns in a large database of jazz performances.

    I played the first six notes of “Hey Jude,” and it found dozens of instances of that lick embedded in the middle of jazz solos.

    (Yes, in the Upside Down of contemporary copyright litigation, technology such as this is being used, in the wake of the “Blurred Lines” case, to analyze every new hit song for potential litigation. No, this is not good for pop music.)

    ISEBEL, the Intelligent Search Engine for Belief Legends, is a search engine for folktales from northern Europe:

    The focus of ISEBEL is mainly on orally transmitted legends: traditional stories about ghosts, hauntings, devils, witches, wizards, spells, werewolves, nightmares, giants, trolls, goblins and the like, as well as stories about hidden treasures, famous robbers, underground passages and sunken castles. Queries can be made in English, or in the languages the stories are in.

    The stories are geolocated and visualized on a map. This helped me see that Danes are really into trolls (the hairy mythical kind, not the current online annoyances), and have many local stories about trolls throwing giant rocks around for sport (which of course explains the boulders in the center of some villages).

    Fernando Domínguez Rubio and Glenn Wharton have published a very good article on the future of preserving digital art, “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Fragility.” The article lays out better than I’ve seen elsewhere the entire preservation process for digital art and the serious problems that museums face. One case study is the Museum of Modern Art’s acquisition of an interactive video artwork called I Want You to Want Me, by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar, which drew on live profile information from dating sites:

    Initially, the acquisition of [I Want You to Want Me] followed the standard route museums use to acquire any other artwork. Once the legal paperwork was completed, the museum sent some “preparators”—the museum personnel specialized in moving artworks—to the artists’ studio to collect the custom-made monitor. After the monitor arrived at the museum, it underwent a routine condition assessment to determine whether there was any physical damage in it prior to being sent to its final destination in the museum’s storage facility in Queens.

    This time, however, the routine inspection could not be completed. Despite their best efforts, the museum staff could not get the artwork to run on the monitor. No matter how hard they tried, the hard drive attached to the monitor did not produce any data from dating websites. It was only after several attempts that they finally realized that the problem was in fact not technical—since both the monitor and the hard drive were working perfectly—but, alas, ontological. In other words, the problem was not that the museum had acquired a malfunctioning object but that it had acquired a different kind of object. More specifically, the museum had acquired a “distributed object”…

    Although Kamvar and Harris wrote the source code for the artwork, the music running in the background was produced by a Canadian band; the data filling the balloons was produced by anonymous users in online dating sites; the touch screen was made by a private company; while the operating system and software on which the artwork runs were produced by different companies.

    In addition to these many issues, such preservation raises even larger philosophical questions about today’s art, because most digital art will have to be migrated to new platforms over time, which in a way isn’t preservation, but rather close-but-not-quite replication.

    The Faustian bargain that digital offers to the museum: either we let these artworks die, or we keep them alive, but at the cost of embedding artworks in…an environment in which artworks can exist as both copies and originals, regenerated and authentic, past and present.

    Speaking of authenticity, although I am not a regular (or even occasional) reader of Harvard Business School case studies, I suspect that HI subscribers might be interested in Ryan L. Raffaelli’s “Reinventing Retail: The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores,” in which he outlines factors in the phoenix-like rise from near-death of local booksellers. I don’t think there’s much surprising in Raffaelli’s analysis, but it’s a good summary of the conventional wisdom, backed by some data and many interviews with successful bookstore owners.

    I found this section on human vs. AI recommendations particularly cogent for this newsletter:

    Online shopping platforms present consumers with seemingly unlimited inventory. However, research suggests that consumers can become overwhelmed when presented with too many options and seek guidance on how to narrow their choices.

    Rather than stocking larger inventories, indie booksellers have mastered the art of “handselling” books that are uniquely tailored to specific tastes of the readers who most frequent their stores. The practice of handselling involves an expert bookseller asking the consumer a series of questions about their recent reading habits, then handing them the “perfect” book (often an unexpected hidden gem not found on popular bestseller lists). To accomplish this task, independent bookstores employ talent who are themselves voracious readers and possess deep knowledge and passion for books. Consequently, booksellers serve the role of matchmaker between a customer and each book on the shelves in the store.

    They try to expose readers to up-and-coming authors before anyone else, or steer the reader into genres he or she might not venture into without expert guidance. Booksellers keep an ear to the ground for soon-to-be- bestselling books by monitoring the reading habits of visiting authors, publishers, and their most loyal customers. While artificial intelligence and algorithms are becoming the norm to help retailers anticipate consumer buying behaviors, indie bookstores have been able to counter this trend by offering a unique personal buying experience where the consumer enters into a relationship with a bookseller, often over a series of ongoing conversations about their evolving reading preferences. Artificial intelligence-based algorithms have yet to fully replicate the human experience associated with the art of handselling that successful independent booksellers have mastered.