Project Overhaul: Pacific Update!

Exhausted, happy, a little anxious about not being prepared for the week ahead, I’ve spent the entire weekend overhauling and updating Digital Archives and Pacific Cultures, and I confess to great fascination and love for this project. I discover that we’re probably better known on our mirror site at obdurodon.org, which is right and proper, since our site was raised in an Australian monotreme’s nest and maintains a home there. I needed to update the site with the results of our course projects from the Digital Humanities course last December: new voyage files, graphs, charts, and maps—adventures with latitude and longitude extraction and conversion from 18th-century records. We’re making a point of sharing resources on the Pacific voyages that are hard to find, and this has sent us to studying the Forsters, father and son, who accompanied Captain Cook on his second circumnavigation voyage and shared an in-depth perspective on their cultural encounters with Pacific islanders.

So, this weekend Georg Forster (the younger Forster) sent me off on an unexpected adventure chasing after, I kid you not, belching seals in ancient Greek with diacritical markings. We autotagged the Forster texts from ancient word processing files sent us by Nicholas Thomas, who’d edited them for print publication–and we’re grateful to have them since they’re the ONLY digital resource we have of their work! But autotagging TEI XML from old word-processing files of gigantic voyage publications is fraught with perils, one of them being that you lose track of ancient Greek text that didn’t manage to be typed in a Unicode font. So, I happened to stumble into a passage of nonsense that, on consulting the printed text, turned out indeed to be the kind of classical Greek with an impressive variety of little accents and circumflexes and suchlike… and after some dedicated research of a few hours on Saturday, I was able to produce this:

We fell in with many herds of sea-bears, and sea-lions, which we did not attack, as another party was sent out upon that errand. We observed however, that these two species, though sometimes encamped on the same beach, always kept at a great distance asunder, and had no communication with each other. A strong rank stench is common to them, as well as to all other seals; a circumstance as well known to the ancients, as their inactivity and drowsiness whilst they lie on shore.

__________Φῶκαι νέποδες__________ 

ἀθρόαι εὕδουσιν, πολιῆς ἁλὸς ἐξαναδὐσαι, 

πικρὸν ἀποπνείουσαι ἁλὸς πολυβενθέος ὀδμήν.

 Webfooted seals forsake the whitening waves,
And sleep in herds, exhaling nauseous stench. 

Rowing along shore, we fell in with a spot where several thousand shags had built their nests, on those elevated tufts which I have mentioned before. Here was an opportunity to provide the whole ship’s company with a fresh meal, which was not neglected. The birds were for the greatest part so tame, as to let our boat’s crew come among them with clubs and staves; by which means several hundreds of them were killed. On this day’s excursion we found a bird of a new genus, which was of the size of a pigeon, and perfectly white. It belonged to the class of wading water-fowl, its toes were half webbed, and its eyes, as well as the base of the bill, surrounded by many little white glands or warts. It had such an horrid offensive smell, that we could not taste the flesh, though at this time we were not easily disgusted. 

It’s a wonderfully stinky passage–redolent of much of what ought to fascinate us about the Pacific voyages if we could only read them in fascinating snippets like this. Forster’s source for the Greek is none other than the Odyssey’s Book 4, as I quickly learned from the Perseus Project.

Meanwhile, the question is whether I’ve mismanaged my time horribly by posting students’ project work from last December rather than concentrating on the steadily aging digital grading piles my students have submitted this semester. I don’t know, but I can say this: I’m glad I had students to help with the Pacific project, and that they’ve had a chance to contribute to some real research resources—their time was not wasted and the Worldwide Web of Ideas is smarter because of their work and my finally getting around to posting it. And the site is actually fun, after all—if you haven’t spun one of our Google Earth KML viewers and read out bits of the voyages, it’s high time to go try that out… Spin Cook’s Second Voyage map over to the Cape of Good Hope and read about the fire-in-the-water from  the wee phosphorescent floating creatures that Cook and company sampled in buckets to study, and be amazed at the sight of strange worlds and the pungent odors of unknown species!

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Our Digital Humanities Course This Fall

Much excitement as we work on the Pacific Project for our Digital Humanities course this fall! Here’s a link to our course site in progress:

http://www.pitt.edu/~ebb8/DHDS/

We’ll be putting together the course schedule in August, when we’re also moving to a new Greensburg campus server.

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Building and Testing Connections: Global Mitford and THATCamp Pittsburgh

This has been quite an exciting, even frabjous week, full of the making and testing of connections! In preparation for our Digital Mitford workshops, to connect with three participants in Reading, England, Los Angeles, and Boston who can’t come to Pitt-Greensburg in person, we’ve been testing Microsoft Lync, because it’s the digital network connection software officially recommended by my university. I’d tested it semi-successfully earlier this month with people on PC-compatible machines, but noted lots of bugs and serious challenges–I doubt I’d be able to efficiently run a workshop and be quite sure of what I’m doing in Lync. (And apparently I’m not alone in my assessment.) It was very easy to break connections in Lync.  Sharing programs online was laggy, and watching someone remotely scrolling through a shared file was a recipe for nausea. I now have two versions of Lync installed, Lync 2013 and Lync 2010, to test the functionality of each–and this week I am relieved to say that we are NOT using it! This is absolutely liberating!

We are not using Lync because it is practically incompatible with Mac users, unless they can afford or have access to Office 365 software and can purchase Lync 2011 for Macs. It seems a shame that Microsoft could not design a more robust and interoperable web interface, particularly since a much better solution exists in Google Hangouts. (Evidently there’s a running feud between Google and Microsoft, and we may begin to see who’s winning…) The only slight drawback is that my project team needs to set up Google Plus accounts for us to hold live meetings and share destkops and programs. Having tested it today with at one point five people, though, we have demonstrated seamless interoperability, with an occasionally laggy connection that can be restored momentarily. People don’t have to restart software, aren’t missing parts of an interface,  and best of all, we can forget the technology and simply meet–and don cartoon pirate hats and funny faces. Compared to the whimsicality and ease of Google Hangouts, Microsoft Lync seems a grim and fragile interface at best.

Our Digital Mitford group  has now experienced its first international meeting–and in the same week I’ve been meeting more colleagues practicing Digital Humanities around me in the Pittsburgh, PA region and discovering wonderful new things to learn and try! A group of faculty, librarians, and students from Chatham, Pitt, Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne, Seton Hill, Washington and Jefferson College, the Mattress Factory archive, and elsewhere met at the Heinz History Center to plot strategies for THATCamp Pittsburgh–the very first THATCamp for our region. Many of us (including this digital Romanticist) are new to THATCamp culture, and discovered the challenge of planning for unscripted spontaneity! I found this a wonderful meeting of minds and was delighted to meet colleagues from Duquesne and Carnegie Mellon who are keen to swap knowledge: In return for my sharing an introduction to TEI XML and autotagging,  I’m delighted to learn from my colleagues more about social network analysis! A most impressive example of this is the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon project at CMU.

Both Digital Archives and Pacific Cultures and our Digital Mitford project would seem to provide excellent bases for social network analysis, and as we develop our personographies for both projects, I look forward to learning how to visualize graphically their connections to each other and to understand more of the statistics involved. My own brief research leads me to want to try Philip Leifeld’s Discourse Network Analyzer (with the compelling acronym DNA): DNA seems especially suited for charting how people are connected, based on shared ideas and frequency of interaction. Of course, we need more coded texts… I’m glad my Mitford project team is as eager to begin work as I am!

Caught by the Dragonfly’s Gaze

Now here is a wonderful example of a challenging digital humanities in action! I’m delighted to follow the adventures recorded by Christof Schöch in The Dragonfly’s Gaze. I’m just beginning some adventures with topic modelling with the Digital Archives and Pacific Cultures project, as I’m assembling large quantities of text, and MALLET is the first (and only) tool I’ve been planning to use…But I learn of other fascinating possibilities through this site, and see some brilliant experiments with distant reading and graphic visualization here, using Gephi. Very impressed! I can’t say I understand it all yet, but I want to watch and maybe I’ll catch up with the statistics one day.

What I love about this: It’s highly technical, yes, but also very encouraging of adventuring forth into quantitative analysis as a humanities scholar. For example, see the very personable yet highly educational post on “Catching up: ‘Statistics: Making Sense of Data’ on Coursera.” And Schöch enthusiastically investigates topics in literature and about humanities–he’s theorizing about what can be happening–how the digital humanities can change our frames of reference for studying literature and culture.  I confess–I greatly admire this!

my first confession

I’m a Romanticist by calling—-an active teaching and researching academic moved to study literary Romanticism and its precursors and ripple effects and aftershocks. I’m working on projects that are exciting, new and strange to me, all launched within the past year. Hence this new blog, documenting my adventures as a Digital Romanticist. Here I’ll meditate aloud to anyone who cares, and I’ll also work with those involved in projects with me to post materials and discuss issues immediately important to us.

I’m caught up in an Adventure that began when I wanted to find a good way to edit the collected works of Mary Russell Mitford a few years ago. In May 2012 I participated in a wonderful manuscript-encoding workshop hosted by the Brown Women Writers Project, and thanks to the efficient tutelage of Julia Flanders and Syd Bauman, I began learning TEI XML, the markup language of the Text Encoding Initiative. Along the way, together with my colleague Sayre Greenfield, I helped to launch a Digital Humanities course at my campus, the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, and I began teaching TEI to my patient and persevering college students. Teaching accelerated my learning, because I confess(!) all along in the Fall of 2012 I was only days or even hours ahead of my students in learning before teaching, and I keenly felt my lack of knowledge. I attended a second workshop at Brown University on transforming TEI with XSLT, where I met a most impressive computational linguist from Pitt’s Oakland campus who generously offered me and two dedicated companions a spot in his Spring 2013 course on Computational Methods in Humanities. In 15 weeks, we ran through a mill of daily rigorous homework exercises in coding: XML, XSLT, CSS, RelaxNG, Schematron, XQuery, SVG, Javascript. I worked together with a small project team of faculty and students from two campuses, to launch a serious, wonderful, and continuing project in textual analysis, mapping, and graphic visualization called Digital Archives and Pacific Cultures. This project site, its research questions, and its range of coding applications serve as the basis of our next iterations of the Digital Humanities course at Pitt-Greensburg.

As my learning accelerated, projects began to cohere, and I am now launching a collaborative digital archive project of the literary works and letters of Mary Russell Mitford–the very project pipe-dream that set me on my path to learning to code in the first place. Anyone reading this blog who doesn’t know who Mary Russell Mitford was might well begin by consulting David Nash Ford’s bio page. Mitford fans should follow a wonderful blog called “Unearthing Our Village”  by Alexandra Drayton, and watch my pages too as the Digital Mitford project unfolds.  I’m fortunate to have found a project team willing and ready to work with me, thanks to the formation of the Mary Russell Mitford Society (MRMS) at the 18th-and-19th-Century British Women Writers Conference in Albuquerque in April 2013. We’re gearing up to meet in early June and begin work on digitizing and coding texts and transcriptions of the prolific Mitford’s works and letters. This is a huge task, and a welcome new adventure.