[Humanist] 23.243 at the BBQ

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Aug 23 07:47:08 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 243.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>                      (32)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.242 yet another BBQ

  [2]   From:    Wendell Piez <wapiez at mulberrytech.com>                   (102)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.242 yet another BBQ

  [3]   From:    Alan Galey <galey.lists at gmail.com>                       (103)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.242 yet another BBQ

        Date: Fri, 21 Aug 2009 10:02:05 -0400
        From: James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.242 yet another BBQ
        In-Reply-To: <20090821054656.C55A434C3E at woodward.joyent.us>

Williard --

Digital humanities is never about computing.  It's about the product
of computing -- what we can do with these texts, and how accessible we
can make these texts, now that they have been digitized.  In other
words, it's about the dissemination of the text, and what that
dissemination allows us to do with it.  Much more time is involved in
doing word searches in physical books than in digitized ones, so
digitizing a book facilitates, say, word studies.  But if the material
qualities of the work itself are an object of study, as in the case of
William Blake's illuminated books, then digitizing it still does not
provide a substitute for the physical presence of the text.  If a
digitized version of Blake's illuminated books came out that was in
highly detailed and closely rendered 3D, so that I could zoom in and
rotate the image 360 degrees, front to back, to see the depth of
impressions, gouge marks left on the paper, the texture left by the
practice of color printing, etc....that'd really be something.
Otherwise, it's just another flat image of a Blake print -- same thing
I'd get in a reproduction of the print in a book, by the way -- and to
get the rest of it I need to see the originals.

So, no,for most people, why talk about computing at all beyond telling
us about the texts now made more widely available and the
functionality of their presentation?   If I were involved in
digitizing texts at the moment and could learn a few tricks to
increase speed and simplicity, the details would matter then.

Jim R

> Have we reached the point, I wonder, at which the once new is now so
> commonplace that it's no longer interesting? Of course someone who is
> already interested in Panjab literature and culture will want to know
> about this digital library, but failing that interest, and immediate
> evidence that the makers have done something technically and/or formally
> new, is it something you'd like to see?

        Date: Fri, 21 Aug 2009 11:35:12 -0400
        From: Wendell Piez <wapiez at mulberrytech.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.242 yet another BBQ
        In-Reply-To: <20090821054656.C55A434C3E at woodward.joyent.us>

Dear Willard,

At 01:46 AM 8/21/2009, you wrote:
>... I found myself questioning the decision to 
>circulate the former but not the latter. Have we 
>reached the point, I wonder, at which the once 
>new is now so commonplace that it's no longer 
>interesting? Of course someone who is already 
>interested in Panjab literature and culture will 
>want to know about this digital library, but 
>failing that interest, and immediate evidence 
>that the makers have done something technically 
>and/or formally new, is it something you'd like to see?

Subject to your excellent judgement and discretion, yes, by all means.

I don't take technical progress to be the only 
sort of progress worth notice on HUMANIST.

>... Since I think that staying awake is 
>important, I am paying rather alot of attention 
>to this latest jolt. In his paper for the Hixon 
>Symposium (1948), "Why the Mind is in the Head", 
>Warren McCulloch expressed it this way: > When 
>we run to catch a baseball we run not toward it 
>but toward the > place where it will be when we 
>get there to grab it. This requires > 
>prediction.... The earmark of every predictive 
>circuit is that if it > has operated long 
>uniformly it will persist in activity, or > 
>overshoot; otherwise it could not project 
>regularities from the known > past onto the 
>unknown future. That is what, as a scientist, I 
>dread > most, for as our memories become stored, 
>we become creatures of our > yesterdays ­ mere 
>hhas-beens in a changing world. This leaves no 
>room > for learning. We're not running to catch 
>baseballs, but we are developing, quite 
>successfully, habitual behaviours and standard 
>products. While I do take the argument about 
>standards etc., I worry about research in this 
>utilitarian age sunk to its bottom line. I worry 
>about what happens when one reaches a promised 
>land, buys a house in suburbia and settles in. Comments?

What's to worry? Either you want the nice house, 
or you don't. Maybe you think you don't, but then discover you do.

Maybe the idea that settling in should be avoided 
is just a prejudice and a habit, formed in an 
earlier time, and not appropriate to the present.

I am reminded of an observation by the biologist 
Bernd Heinrich in one of his amazing books about 
ravens, namely that young ravens are very curious 
creatures, but old ones are quite the opposite. 
This shift from curiosity to stodginess is the 
result of a fine adaptation in adaptability. It 
is beneficial to young ravens to be curious since 
they discover new things and new opportunities. 
But once a raven has grown into its environment, 
as long as that environment does not change more 
quickly than the raven does, it becomes 
counter-adaptive for it to continue in curiosity, 
since the chances of finding truly new 
opportunities diminish compared to the risks.

(Ravens are interesting creatures because they 
are very smart and very curious, like us, but 
their life span is enough shorter than ours that 
we can observe, in a foreshortened time frame, what may happen to us.)

To be curious when young is good for a species 
that seeks to inhabit new niches. But one can 
subsist very comfortably in an old niche, if the 
niche remains viable. And what's wrong with that?

In view of this, I suggest our question shouldn't 
be how do we avoid stodginess and continue in 
curiosity. We approve of curiosity because we 
enjoy it, and its rewards. But deprive us of 
those rewards and burn us a few times instead, 
and we might rather have that house in suburbia. 
Rather, we should ask how do we fit our curiosity 
to the changeability of our world, to assure the 
rewards of curiosity continue to be worth its 
risks, and reduce the risks of stodginess?

And the world is changing. Maybe there's nothing 
technically "new" in yet another digital library 
initiative. But there may be something remarkably 
new in that fact, even at the same time as you do 
us all a service to alert us to something 
potentially very interesting -- and surely quite 
new -- to its own proper constituency. It might 
even make a few of us more curious about matters Panjabi.

In short, don't fret. I appreciate why you are 
restless. But your curiosity and your 
graciousness -- and not just regarding technical 
matters -- have served you well: please continue in them.

In the meantime, it's when things seem to slow 
into utilitarian age that revolutions start brewing.


Wendell Piez                            mailto:wapiez at mulberrytech.com
Mulberry Technologies, Inc.                http://www.mulberrytech.com
17 West Jefferson Street                    Direct Phone: 301/315-9635
Suite 207                                          Phone: 301/315-9631
Rockville, MD  20850                                 Fax: 301/315-8285
   Mulberry Technologies: A Consultancy Specializing in SGML and XML

        Date: Sat, 22 Aug 2009 16:20:42 -0400
        From: Alan Galey <galey.lists at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.242 yet another BBQ
        In-Reply-To: <20090821054656.C55A434C3E at woodward.joyent.us>

Dear Willard,

Your question seems to be about how we define or categorize the
qualities we value. I agree that we've reached the point of maturity
you describe, though I'd use the less teleological metaphor of
equilibrium (one can lose one's balance again). Perhaps it's a sign of
the field's equilibrium that it's becoming harder, not easier, to do
digital humanities work that stands out somehow. It's no longer
innovative simply to be a humanist with a digital project that meets
defined goals -- there has to be some kind of surplus or surprise in
the research process. Maybe that's been the case all along.
Either way, I've found myself putting it this way in conversations
about future research directions: we shouldn't support digital
humanities research, categorically speaking; rather, we should support
*good* digital humanities research -- or, better still, we should
simply support good research, recognizing that it comes in many forms,
digital and otherwise.

That distinction also involves reclaiming the word "good" from the
admin-speak that's replaced it with "excellent," which is usually
defined tautologically if at all. One still has to define "good," but
putting it this way at least makes the definition contestable.

About categories and innovation: maybe you've heard the apocryphal
story about Duke Ellington being asked by an interviewer how he'd
define jazz -- this was back when jazz was considered the progressive
music of the day. Supposedly Duke's reply was something like "there
are only two kinds of music: good and bad. I play both kinds."


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