[Humanist] 28.580 a happy outcome at the Solstice

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Dec 21 08:26:19 CET 2014

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 580.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>         (126)
        Subject: solstitial celebrations 2014

  [2]   From:    malgosia askanas <ma at panix.com>                            (8)
        Subject: Return to normalcy

        Date: Sat, 20 Dec 2014 12:37:29 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: solstitial celebrations 2014

As you will know by the time this annual greeting has reached you, and 
as you will read below, Humanist has just recovered from a serious 
mismatch between systems which handle its postings. About a third of 
the membership was locked out from early this month until now as a 
result. Rescue is due to Malgosia Askanas, Humanist's software 
designer, who is also a mathematician, computer scientist, writer and 
theatre artist (www.mind-crafts.com/aboutus.php); to Ian Rifkin, 
Software Systems Manager at Brandeis and Web technologist 
with a background in anthropology (www.ianrifkin.com); and to 
Jan-Christoph Meister, Professor of Modern German literature, 
literary theory and text-analysis at Hamburg (jcmeister.de/).

I drag these colleagues into the virtual limelight both to express my
gratitude, especially to Malgosia, also for her elegant design that has made
my life as editor of Humanist simple, and to illustrate in microcosm what
sort of a community we are. One day, I hope, someone with the time, energy
and the right skill-set will gather together a representative selection of
Humanist's biographical statements from wherever they sleep, study them and
write a demographic account of the people who since 1987 have wandered into
the "big tent" of digital humanities. Humanist's version of this tent may
well be the largest, since being in it requires only the willingness to
endure a bit of initial bureaucracy and then to receive postings. You can
lurk on the periphery as long as you like, tell yourself you are only passing by, 
gradually work your way into the crowd (and here I get a chance to use one 
of my favourite verbal curiosities) -- whatever.

I for one am deeply impressed by this loose collective. It is trivially easy to
find very real examples of intellectual, moral, social and institutional
decay; very real evidence of academies going to hell in a handbasket -- my
spell-checker objected, suggesting "breadbasket" :-) -- and so on and so
forth. I deny none of this. But it's dark enough already at this time of
year at the planetary location from which I am writing, so no more shadows.
Against them stands the abundant evidence, from those biographies, of creative
energy at work, curious, polymorphic, seriously playful. And the more
conventionally serious scholarly "outputs", as we call them, demonstrate it
to the REFs of the world, transparently, impactful, ground-breakingly,
high-riskily/gainfully (add your own adverbials from the ambient

Recently I had reason once again to chase the Renaissance notion of serious
play (serio ludere), which Edgar Wind famously wrote about in Pagan
Mysteries in the Renaissance (1958). The discussion I've found most helpful,
however, is Harry Berger's, e.g. in "Conspicuous exclusion in Vermeer: An
essay in Renaissance pastoral", Yale French Studies 47 (1972): 243-65. There
he describes serious play as the tonality of a imagining mind that keeps it
from "being trapped or paralyzed within the pool of Narcissus" and so
liberated to get beyond itself, to imagine what it does not know.
Berger describes the "measured commitment" to imagined worlds kept in
delicate balance by that tonality and dramatized in these ways:

> first, the imaginary world is both disjunctive and hypothetical. It
> is not real life, but art or artifice; not actuality but fiction,
> hypothesis, or make-believe.... Both its autonomy and its limits are
> indicated by some original framing gesture intended to show that the
> second world is at least initially contrary to established fact; it
> is only after it has been framed as counterfactual that it is allowed
> to hold the mirror up to nature and re-admit into its cleared space
> the elements of actuality. Second, the imaginary world is tonally
> presented in an attitude of serious playing; serio ludere means
> playing seriously with full knowledge, however seriously you play,
> that you are only playing. It is "only a game," but a game which
> (like all games) is to be played or taken with dead seriousness while
> it is going on. Carefully framed within this attitude, the mind may
> abandon itself with intensity to the pleasure or seriousness of its
> second world. Third, the preceding features entail a significant
> tendency toward self-reference, or reflexive awareness. By this I
> mean, first, conspicuous artifice, through which any work points to
> itself as a work; and closely related to this, increased attention to
> and exhibition of the mastery of craft and technique, of medium and
> methodology. In this way, the second world may be offered
> simultaneously as only a work of art and as triumphantly a work of
> art. Artist and observer may give themselves to the second world
> without forgetting that it is second, not first....  (p. 262)

Two things are suggested by Berger's account. One is how essential
serious playfulness is for scholarship -- one could say, it is powerfully
useful to keep us from dogma by ensuring that we don't take ourselves too
seriously (but seriously enough to keep at it); encouraging us to take risks
in order to keep the long conversation going. The second, specific to
digital humanities, comes through that emphasis on artifice as reminder that
we make things "as if" they were true, not in order that they vend true
data. It is a reminder of how important are all efforts designed to get 
scholars making things with code themselves, a reminder that the 
resource built by someone else, however good, is not the point. 
It is a reminder that the playful-hypothetical tonality is
fundamental to computing as an instrument of research. This, I think, is too
little recognized and will become more and more important to recognize as
techniques of immersive simulation develop within the humanities.

This morning I started reading Gerald Edelman's Second Nature: Brain 
Science and Human Knowledge (Yale, 2006), in which he notes the continuing
divorce between the two cultures, then argues for the crucial
importance of drawing from both and working at a reunion rather than
dismissing the problem or dismissing one culture or the other out of fear, 
insecurity or (yes, again!) whatever. "I believe the opposite", he writes, 
"that understanding how we arrive at knowledge, whether by scientific 
inquiry, by reason, or by happenstance, is of major importance. 
Wongheadedness, severe reductionism, or insouciance can each 
have unfortunate long-range consequences for human welfare" (p. 2). I
continue to think that digital humanities can have a role in helping to
figure out "how we arrive at knowledge", or perhaps better, how we arrive at
understanding -- and how we persuade others, as G. E. R. Lloyd has 
emphasized in his magisterial study The Ideals of Inquiry: An Ancient 
History (OUP, 2014). He goes on to say that,

> The capacities to investigate, to question, to try things out, to
> argue with your fellows, are universal across all human populations.
> But their manifestations... have differed and continue to differ."
> (p. 139)

Reason may be innate and common across cultures, but how it is done varies
by culture and develops historically. As we build our modelling devices and
simulations, I think we should be paying *very* close attention to what we
do when we reason with them, how our style of reasoning changes and how
our understanding of that altered reasoning is fed back into new devices.
This is happening now, has been for some time, and not merely in the
humanities. Revolutionary proclamations to the blare of trumpets and waving 
of flags are interesting historically and need to be figured in, but I find far more 
valuable for this question of reasoning to keep an ear cocked for stray 
remarks, often modest, tentative, even apologetic, about how a scholar 
thinks he or she is thinking these days as a result of working e.g. with 
a VR (and so as-if) reconstruction of something long vanished. Gold-dust, 
to me at least. Take a look, for example, at the Virtual Paul's Cross Project, 

Hooray for the return of Humanist to good health! (I am taking a risk here, in 
a firm and, I hope, justified belief that the problem will not recur.) Thanks to 
Malgosia, Ian and Chris for their hard work and good advice. All the best to 
everyone here for the holidays already commenced and about to commence. 
May your darkness be bright.


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Digital Humanities Research
Group, University of Western Sydney

        Date: Sat, 20 Dec 2014 19:06:15 -0500
        From: malgosia askanas <ma at panix.com>
        Subject: Return to normalcy
        In-Reply-To: <20141220093611.3B23A8BA at digitalhumanities.org>

Dear All,

As you know (either because you haven't been receiving Humanist mail or because you have been receiving it), this list has been crippled, for about two weeks, by a problem that prevented hundreds of listmembers from receiving list posts.   We believe that the problem has now been eliminated and that delivery of list posts is back to normal.

For those of you who are interested, I would like to briefly explain what happened.  About two weeks ago, the software framework (which is an instance of a package called Plesk) on which all the ADHO domains and lists are hosted, was upgraded in order to increase email security.   As it turned out, one of the features ushered in by this upgrade were SPF (Sender Policy Framework) checks on all incoming mail.  SPF is a scheme for validating that the incoming mail is not spoofed - i.e. that it comes from an authorized sending host.    As part of the scheme, the mail system adds to every piece of incoming mail an extra header, with the keyword "Received-SPF", that encapsulates the mail system's diagnosis concerning the legitimacy of the sending host.

So: whenever a piece of email is handed to the mail system for delivery, the mail system, before actually starting the delivery proceedings, stamps it with a "Received-SPF" header.  The mail may be coming from an outside server (for delivery to one of the domains hosted on the ADHO server, or for relaying to another external system) or it may be coming from inside the ADHO server (as when somebody uses ADHO's webmail to send out a message, or when - and here we come to our case - the ADHO listserver hands to the mail system a piece of mail for distribution to a list's subscribership).  In either case, the mail, before being processed further, will be endowed with a "Received-SPF" header.

As it turns out, however, when the ADHO listserver and the ADHO mail system are jointly engaged in distributing a post to subscribers of a relatively large list - and Humanist is such a list - something goes wrong.   Our guess is that when the list is large, the listserver, instead of handing to the mail system one copy of the post per subscriber, divides the subscribership into batches of about 500 addresses, and hands to the mail system one copy of the post per batch, together with a list of addresses that compose the batch.  This would be just fine, if it wasn't for the fact that when SPF is enabled, the mail system, when it receives such a copy, apparently stamps that single copy with as many "Recieved-SPF" headers as there are addresses in the batch - and then proceeds to distribute that copy, now endowed with about 500 extra headers, to all the addresses in the batch.   As a result, the post now has a header of about 500 lines, causing it to be rejected by a great many of the intended recipents' mail systems.  And so, hundreds of Humanist subscribers were not receiving any posts from the list. 

It took us some time to figure out exactly what was happening, but once we did, the fix was pretty straighforward.  Hopefully Humanist willl now be fully operative, at least for a while.  ;-)

Malgosia Askanas
Humanist software support

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