The all-seeing and un-seeing eye

That title is far more pretentious than a post about installing a webcam and getting new glasses deserves to be.

Welcome to academia.

I originally signed up to do this digital humanities thing out of some misguided idea that I could stick it to post-modernism through the power of the software. (If you’re imagining a humanities major holding up a motherboard and screaming “The power of computing compels you!” at the dark forces of French philosophy, then you think like me and you might want to get that checked out.) Which is amusing, because my pursuit of digital humanities is what led me to UCSB and two+ years here has actually brought me to terms with most of post-structuralism’s excesses and led me to practically embrace post-modernism (I blame Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves in particular for the latter). So DH has not been what I expected. I somehow assumed it would mostly consist of finding interesting questions by plugging numerical data generated by one incomprehensible piece of software into another equally baffling program and then interpreting the results.

So, here’s a short list of things I was wrong about:

  • You’re expected to understand the software. (I’m beginning to regret spacing out during college when my engineering friends would insist on explaining their homework to me.)
  • If the software doesn’t exist, you’re expected to put it together yourself. Riiiiiiiight.
  • That’s only one very small corner of the DH world. There are so many other approaches that focus on the (im)materiality of new media, the philosophy of hacking or of F/OSS (Free and Open Source Software), the History and Future of the Book, and anything else that had a chapter heading on my exam list.
  • There’s a certain practical element where you may find yourself very quickly learning Applescript while the head of the head of your lab is up among the acoustic tiles attempting to figure out the best place to put our new webcam.

The story of the webcam is fairly simple. We want to record all our events (all the cool labs are doing it!) and, because we are the Digital Humanities lab on campus, we should have an easy setup that requires minimal effort on our part so that the video is simply captured for every event. Think Apple’s “It just works” on a shoestring budget and with the world’s ugliest carpeting.

So that meant we needed a camera in place at all times, preferably cheap (see budget) and mounted on the ceiling because there is no space in the lab at the moment (nor will there be in the foreseeable future). And we needed to set the camera to record automatically so that our capture of a given event would happen whether or not those of us in charge remembered to start recording at the beginning.

Our fearless leader took care of the former part, experimenting with 101 ways of sneakily snaking cables up the walls and across the ceiling to make the camera as unobtrusive as possible. By the end, we achieved a certain NSA-esque, spy-cam-coming-out-of-the-tiling vibe that fits in well with the slightly shady air that DH has in the academy. As my boss said – “If we’re not being a little bit sketchy, we’re not fulfilling our role as the dark other in the department.” (Why yes, I love my job.)

But we still needed the camera to turn on, record and stop without our intervention, which is where I came in. Apparently, most people who want cameras to automatically turn on and off at certain times or intervals are interested in home security. There’s a ton of clunky, over-engineered programs for spying on your house and practically nothing light and simple for what we wanted. That’s how I ended up in Automator, following a set of fairly simple directions online for linking a recording to an iCal event and renaming it as you go. That last explains why I was frantically learning just enough Applescript to automatically name the new recording with the center name, date and time.

And it worked. We had our first event on Tuesday and, apart from one glitch which will be fixed now that I know to use a designated iCal calendar for this sort of thing, it performed exactly as advertised. We now have the seminar captured and have already excerpted out a short clip to post on our website (which won’t exist in a usable form until next Tuesday, but one thing at a time). Our next job is to wrestle with two more pieces of terrible software, Quicktime and iMovie, to turn the raw footage of the whole event into something upload-able. Yay.

So I feel like I accomplished something this week – which is good because this whole “Learn R” thing is not exactly calculated to make me feel as though I am making grand strides in the world of statistical programming. I can generate charts of the relative frequencies of every word in Moby Dick (although, since there are 16,873 unique words in Moby Dick (higher than average, yes), I don’t know why I would WANT to). For those of you wondering why the whale, it’s because the book I’m using uses Moby Dick as its teaching text and its easier to make sure that I’m on the right track if I’m getting results that look like those in the book. So, yes, that’s crawling along and between the Learning of R, the running of my first event and the attending of the inaugural events for “Literature and the Mind” (which were amazing and everyone in charge of planning and running them deserves a high-five or a hug based on their preferred form of interaction), it felt like a productive week.

Which was good because I’ve read nothing this week. Well, other than the assigned readings for today’s colloquium and one or two really interesting things on Twitter. That’s because I left my work-ethic in the month of June my glasses were at the optometrist’s being fitted with new lenses. So my options have been contacts or nothing. Most of you are well aware that I wear my contacts all the time (some of you may never have seen me in glasses). But I’ve been trying to be good about taking them out at night and reading while wearing glasses. This developed into something of a habit, where I would take my lenses out around 10 and then go to bed at 12 after reading (she says optimistically, knowing full well that most nights are spent laughing at gifs on Buzzfeed). When 10 rolled around this week, though, I couldn’t take my lenses out because I can’t see without them and my eyes were tired and annoyed and refused to do something productive like read a book because that required effort. So instead of finishing this book that I’ve been working on for over three weeks, I listened to about 15 episodes of a podcast that I’d been meaning to start. Which was nice, but not…productive.

But now I have my new glasses (same as the old glasses, but with a better prescription). When I put them on at the optometrist, I must have been blinking rather foolishly, because the gentleman assisting me asked “Is everything okay?” and I answered. “Yes, I’m not just not used to being able to see when I wear my glasses.” The absurdity of that remark dawned on me only after I said it. What I meant was that I was not used to being able to see with my glasses as well as I could with my contacts. This is strangely disconcerting when I’m on the computer because the clarity is contact-lens-like and then I look up and see that border of fuzziness in my peripheral vision and am reminded that I’m wearing my glasses, not my contacts.

So, yes, I am pleased with the new lenses. I have valiantly decided to wear them for the rest of the day and give my eyes a break, which will undoubtedly shock a few people who have never seen me in them.

So, in closing, I will do that thing that I do every week and let you know what I’m writing about on my academic blog. This week, I ponder the purpose of blogging within an academic context. Go forth and read.

I Blog Therefore I Am…Doing Something

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