[Humanist] 30.811 hands on

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Mar 7 07:49:07 CET 2017

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 811.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Tim Smithers <tim.smithers at cantab.net>                   (301)
        Subject: Re:  30.805 hands on

  [2]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>          (23)
        Subject: the popularity of 'hands on'

        Date: Mon, 6 Mar 2017 11:46:46 +0100
        From: Tim Smithers <tim.smithers at cantab.net>
        Subject: Re:  30.805 hands on
        In-Reply-To: <20170305064957.57C098588 at digitalhumanities.org>

Dear Willard and other hands on-ers,

I'm going to stick my neck out and walk where perhaps I ought
not to tread ...  which should make me look as strange as this

I didn't define what well-made-ness is.  At least, I didn't
set out to do this.  I don't think we should try.  I don't
think this is needed.  Well-made-ness is to be discovered.

As a designer, engineer, and scientist, I see beauty in the
well-made-ness of the drawings of Rube Goldberg (RG) and Heath
Robinson (HR).  For me, they both display much invention and
craft, in their different styles.

Goldberg started (professional) life as an engineer, but soon
became a cartoonist, and never (as far as I know) built any of
his "machines."  Robinson started as a book illustrator, and
had no formal engineering education.  He too, as far as I
know, never built any of his inventions.

Others have, as we've been hearing, built RG or HR machines,
or likenesses thereof.  Perhaps many of us have.  I passed
lots of happy hours building RG/HR-like "sequential happening
machines" with my kids, when they were younger.  And, like
others, we used what was at hand: toys, in whole or in part;
kitchen utensils; empty tins and boxes; cardboard; string;
straws; paper clips; pencils; whatever we had that could be
made to do the job.

It took plenty of care, patience, experimentation, testing,
skill and practice, and an understanding of how things happen
in the real world, and how mechanisms can be used to do
things, and make other things happen.

But we're told these contraptions weren't "well-made in the
usual engineering sense?"  I disagree.  They were well made
made in the usual engineering sense.  They just weren't what
engineers usually build, except perhaps when their kids are
young, and they don't look like the things engineers usually

Just because something looks jerry-rigged, and is not made to
last, does not necessarily mean it hasn't been made with care,
understanding, and various well applied skills.  Indeed, for
these sequential happening machines to work well enough--which
was decided by my kids, not by me--they had to be built well,
just like anything that must work well-enough.  And, just as
for any usual engineering work, knowing what counted as
working well-enough, and what it took to get this, was key to
success.  In the context, looking a bit mad and lashed-up was
an important needed quality.  Using an old but still working
clock mechanism was not allowed, for example; we built what
was needed from string, cardboard, and cotton reels (anybody
remember these?).

We should not confuse what something looks like, and for what
it was made, with how it was made, and what it took to make
it, except, perhaps, when looking at a good Rube Goldberg or
Heath Robinson cartoon.

I'll stick my neck out further.  I think we don't need to
articulate a concept of beauty here either, be it minimalist,
symmetrical, functional, Baroque, Gothic, or Romantic.

Beauty, in all these traditions and styles, as well as in
Nature, lies, I think, in the well-made-ness of what we look
upon, or listen to, or smell, or touch, or taste.
Appreciating this beauty often requires certain knowledge,
understanding, and expertise in the making involved, or, at
least, is the better for these.

For artists, artisans, and engineers, and others, beauty is
inherent in the well-made-ness of things: Natural things, and
human made things.  We each bring our own, often different,
knowledges, understandings, and experiences of making to our
looking upon things.  We thus see beauty in different things,
in different ways, and sometimes not at all.  As a structural
engineer, for example, I see stunning beauty in things like
the Eiffel Tower, in Paris, and the The Forth Bridge, the
railway bridge over the Firth of Forth just north of
Edinburgh, Scotland: looked at from afar and right up close.
In large part, I would say this is because I understand the
design and construction of structures like these.

The beauty we see is, in my experience, the greater the more
we've had "in our hands" the thing we look upon.  Perhaps the
strongest beauty is in the outcomes of our own explorations
and discoveries, and the knowledge and understanding we gain
from this exploration and discovery.  Which is how I
understand Seymour Papert's teachings.  [A teacher I follow,
including using his Logo programming language to make

I'll now run and take cover.

Best regards,


> On 05 Mar 2017, at 07:49, Humanist Discussion Group <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:
>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 805.
>            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>  [1]   From:    James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>                       (4)
>        Subject: Re:  30.803 hands on
>  [2]   From:    Ken Kahn <toontalk at gmail.com>                            (171)
>        Subject: Re:  30.803 hands on
> --[1]------------------------------------------------------------------------
>        Date: Sat, 4 Mar 2017 06:54:41 -0600
>        From: James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>
>        Subject: Re:  30.803 hands on
>        In-Reply-To: <20170304065014.00AC68ACC at digitalhumanities.org>
> How can we talk about code and beauty until we've articulated a concept of beauty? There isn't just one. Do you mean minimalist, symmetrical, and functional? A Rube Goldberg machine is none of those. At best it is functional, but sometimes I think not even then -- it is too easy to break. But how about Baroque coding? Gothic? Romantic?  
> And so much of the history of the concept of beauty is related to its relationship to nature that we are excluding a lot of this history of beauty from consideration just by applying it to code. 
> Let's consciously articulate an aesthetics of coding first. 
> Jim R
> --[2]------------------------------------------------------------------------
>        Date: Sun, 5 Mar 2017 12:43:23 +0800
>        From: Ken Kahn <toontalk at gmail.com>
>        Subject: Re:  30.803 hands on
>        In-Reply-To: <727940f0-75dd-4f52-8f75-14283ad98304 at HUB03.ad.oak.ox.ac.uk>
> Regarding the discussion of spaghetti code, my first thoughts were on
> Papert and Turtle's paper on Epistemological Pluralism
> http://www.papert.org/articles/EpistemologicalPluralism.html  where they
> argue that a bricolage/tinkering style of programming is undervalued. I
> then thought of the idea that was popular in the 1970s of building software
> twice: once in an exploratory fashion and then again as a "rational
> reconstruction". The problem with spaghetti code is that the program is no
> longer malleable. Fixing bugs or enhancing it becomes increasingly
> difficult. See Winograd (1973) Breaking the complexity barrier again
> http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=951764 . Jaron Lanier in You Are Not a
> Gadget: A Manifesto
> <https://www.amazon.com/You-Are-Not-Gadget-Manifesto/dp/0307389979> describes
> the joy and beauty of creating small programs and how those qualities are
> lost when creating large programs.
> -ken kahn
> On 4 March 2017 at 14:50, Humanist Discussion Group <
> willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:
>>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 803.
>>            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>>                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>>  [1]   From:    David Zeitlyn <david.zeitlyn at anthro.ox.ac.uk>
>> (20)
>>        Subject: Re 30.801 hands on! & Beauty
>>  [2]   From:    Stéfan_Sinclair <sgsinclair at gmail.com>
>> (15)
>>        Subject: Re: 30.799 hands on [Re: Humanist Digest, Vol 102, Issue
>> 3]
>> --[1]-------------------------------------------------------
>>        Date: Fri, 3 Mar 2017 15:04:34 +0000
>>        From: David Zeitlyn <david.zeitlyn at anthro.ox.ac.uk>
>>        Subject: Re 30.801 hands on! & Beauty
>>        In-Reply-To: <7e941812-908d-4173-9c32-
>> 04f04353e9a1 at HUB02.ad.oak.ox.ac.uk>
>> Dear all
>> As a riff on Gabriel Egan's evocation of Rube Goldberg / Heath Robinson
>> let me commend to you the video of two Swiss installation artists:
>> Peter Fischli, and David Weiss, 'Der lauf der dinge' (The life of things
>> 1987) and the role of causality in it. It is a film showing an elaborate
>> causal chain of events. (In 2003 a television advertisement featured a
>> similar chain of events using Honda car parts.) Fischli and Weiss invest
>> domestic artefacts with apparent lives of their own, each object setting in
>> motion the next. The film shows a literal chain reaction. For example, a
>> flame is lit that heats a kettle until it boils; the steam from its spout
>> propels it down a railway track until it meets the next object and sets it
>> moving.
>> [See https://vimeo.com/175928976]
>> A strange and and uncanny beauty, a fabricated one at that
>> best wishes
>> davidz
>> --
>> David Zeitlyn,
>> Professor of Social Anthropology (research). ORCID: 0000-0001-5853-7351
>> Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, School of Anthropology and
>> Museum Ethnography
>> University of Oxford
>> 51 Banbury Road, Oxford, OX2 6PF, UK.
>> http://www.isca.ox.ac.uk/about-us/staff/academic/prof-david-zeitlyn/
>> http://www.mambila.info/ The Virtual Institute of Mambila Studies
>> http://users.ox.ac.uk/~wolf2728/
>> Oct 2015 open access paper 'Looking Forward, Looking Back'
>> http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02757206.2015.1076813
>> Vestiges: Traces of Record http://www.vestiges-journal.info/ Open access
>> journal
>> --[2]-------------------------------------------------------
>>        Date: Fri, 3 Mar 2017 10:56:21 -0500
>>        From: Stéfan_Sinclair <sgsinclair at gmail.com>
>>        Subject: Re: 30.799 hands on [Re: Humanist Digest, Vol 102, Issue
>> 3]
>>        In-Reply-To: <mailman.3.1488538804.2045.humanist at lists.
>> digitalhumanities.org>
>> Dear all,
>> I've been hesitating to write, in part because I'm incorrigible lurker,
>> and in part because this thread has wandered in various directions, though
>> I've never known Willard to object to fruitful wanderings. This has grown
>> to be a bit longer of a post, my apologies in advance, and no hard feelings
>> if you scroll quickly :).
>> I've been especially interested in parts of the discussion that explore
>> code and beauty, in part because I do think that somewhere there is a
>> sometimes useful distinction between some of what happens in, say, CS, and
>> some of the development work that happens in DH (please forgive the awkward
>> attempts to avoid wholesale characterization of either discipline).
>> I'm not a computer scientist (though often enough I seem to be mistaken
>> for one), but my impression based on considerable interactions is that code
>> structure and form do matter a lot in CS pedagogy and research. Principles
>> of code design can be not only about current best practices but can also be
>> about a sense of aesthetics developed over time and that's often partly
>> language-specific. Of course, having code that can achieve its intended
>> purpose is usually important too.
>> But my sense of coding in DH is much closer to what Gabriel Egan
>> describes, which I take to have a much stronger *pragmatic* aspect. The
>> Rube Goldberg is a wonderful example. In DH I often think of how Mark Olsen
>> used to describe the wonderful ARTFL resource: it's awful spaghetti code,
>> but it works! And for the user it most certainly did, it was blindingly
>> fast and powerful and enabled all kinds of new research (past tense because
>> I was more familiar with it in the 90s). Arguably, as a DH project, that's
>> what mattered most. Having said that, I do recognize there are good reasons
>> to write clear, sustainable code in larger projects.
>> However, when I'm teaching coding I tend to ask more "does it do what you
>> wanted" (which is rarely the end of the conversation); it's *not* about
>> clarity, brevity, the use of certain functions, structures, libraries,
>> etc.). I've found that introducing programming theory (or at least my grasp
>> on the relevant parts) is usually counterproductive, at least at first. In
>> fact, I usually don't even structure a programming course on programming
>> concepts (strings, arrays, conditionals, etc.), but around DH tasks
>> (cleaning, tokenizing, counting, etc.), and programming techniques come up
>> on a need to know basis. We haven't fully succeeded in this and it's in
>> need of an update, but if you're interested in a more concrete example of
>> what I mean see http://nbviewer.jupyter.org/github/sgsinclair/alta/blob/
>> master/ipynb/ArtOfLiteraryTextAnalysis.ipynb
>> I find one of the biggest struggles in teaching project-oriented courses
>> that are heavy on programming is to encourage students to first seek out
>> someone else's code that could be used or adapted; the impulse for
>> originality is deeply inculcated in humanities students and even with their
>> familiar citation practices it can be hard for them to learn to reuse code
>> as much as possible. There's also a catch-22: I don't want to teach
>> programming concepts in the abstract, but it can be difficult to look for
>> other code if you don't understand much of what you see. In fact, I usually
>> spend much time working with students to practice and refine search engine
>> queries to find useful tips and solutions - quite possibly the most useful
>> thing students get from the course.
>> I realize I'm already rambling on too much, but one final thing if I may:
>> I do a lot of programming as a DHer and I wouldn't want to undevalorise
>> that coding work. I take great personal pride and satisfaction in my craft,
>> not because I write anything like beautiful code, but because some of what
>> I make is useful to others and contributes in an original and scholarly way
>> what might be called the state of the art of digital resource creation in
>> DH (we're very close here to issues of evaluating digital works for hiring,
>> tenure and promotion, needless to say). Coding for me is both creative and
>> scholarly. Sometimes the ends are very modest: a one-liner to pre-process a
>> text in a way that is incompatible with existing tools (or finding and
>> learning the tools would be more time and hassle than it's worth).
>> Sometimes the payoff is not in utility but in the pleasure of impressing a
>> single colleague. And sometime it really is in the satisfaction in knowing
>> other people have found enough merits in your resource to use it. In my
>> mind it's all DH.
>> Stéfan
>> --
>> Prof. Stéfan Sinclair, Digital Humanities, McGill University
>> Department of Languages, Literatures & Cultures
>> Office 341, 688 Sherbrooke St. W, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3A 3R1
>> Tel. (1) 514-398-4400 x094950
>> @sgsinclair http://stefansinclair.name/
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        Date: Tue, 7 Mar 2017 06:31:23 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: the popularity of 'hands on'
        In-Reply-To: <20170305064957.57C098588 at digitalhumanities.org>

As Editor of Humanist I take particular interest when a topic proves 
quite popular. 'Hands on' has been among the most recently 
comment-provoking topics. One reason for this is likely to be that there 
are a number of people here who have had their hands on making things 
with computers (though the Raspberry Pi et al. haven't been mentioned, 
alas, except by implication in Gabriel Egan's note a while back). 
Another reason could be that having hands on the humanities by means of 
computing has special and wide appeal. A friend recently proposed 
renaming digital humanities "digital semiotics", a term with strong 
appeal, I'd think, though perhaps too much in the head.

How difficult it is to avoid the mind/body dualism, however false and 
pernicious we may think it is. As an undergraduate discovering 
calligraphy (at Reed College) was a revelatory experience because, I 
remember thinking, it provided a way to bring the two together, to work 
out their mutual affinity and allow the rest to take its course. But 
then, by then, I had had many years of experience coding :-).

Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London; Adjunct Professor, Western Sydney
University and North Carolina State University; Editor,
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.tandfonline.com/loi/yisr20)

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