A Short Collection of Updates

In no particular order:

My parents rock! Last week, they participated in the Alyn “Wheels of Love” bike ride to raise money for Jerusalem’s Alyn Children’s Hospital. (My dad, I should note, broke his wrist two weeks before the ride and did it anyway!) If you want to see the archive of their adventures, my mom’s blog can be found at Climb Every Mountain and my dad’s at A Wristed Development.

And this marks the second week in a row that I’m cheating by linking content from another blog (not even my own this time!) to take up space.

I’m developing a system for working on my dissertation project that seems to consist primarily of meeting with people so that I can attempt, once again, to explain my ideas. With each explanation and subsequent questions, I somehow manage to come away both with a slightly better yet different idea of what I want to do AND with significantly more work and reading on my plate. If you would like to volunteer your time to my education–either because you are actually interested in my work OR because I’m entertaining when I’m speaking so quickly that I lose track of my sentences–you know how to contact me.

Recent forays into critical literature can be summarized by the statement “everything new is old again”. The history of books and media is rife with people discussing linked texts, tagged note-taking, the weird way that global news both does and does not transmit emotions, how many wars were called the Great War and so on. Oh, and the discovery of weather forecasting, although that was a rather odd chapter. I kinda want to build a note closet,* paint it green and then paint the Evernote logo on top of that. Performative scholarship at its finest.

Speaking of note closets, I caved and bought more bookcases last week. The current two are no longer sufficient for the quantity of books I have bought, borrowed and occasionally outright adopted. I also have a bad Inter-Library Loan habit and a tendency to assume that the number of books I could read in a week is equal to the number of books I will read.**

On the bright side, the books themselves have been really interesting and, now that I’ve started taking baby steps in the direction of thinking about myself as a future author of a book-length monstrosity, I’ve been paying attention to writing styles and organizational structures as well as content. What kind of a writer do I want to sound like?

And, finally, my excuse for the disorganization and haphazardness of this blog post. I think I’ve caught a cold. Bah! It’s not even COLD in Santa Barbara. I feel like I should be spared the indignity of sniffles when the temperature is 70 degrees and sunny.

Tune in next week for something with, I hope, more structural integrity.

*http://bookhistory.harvard.edu/takenote/node/83, the second image on the left sidebar.

**Between three social networks, the absence of takeout dinners, the absence of a dishwasher and the fact that one of my professors(!!!) pointed me to a site that hosts old gameboy games for you to play online (and several hours of my life disappeared into the abyss that is Pokémon…I will send you the link, but only if you ask for it), I have read less this week than I meant to.

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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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I Went to the Library to Get a Book

And I left with six. This was after I went to the University library the day before to get a book and left with three. What constantly baffles me, though, is not that this happens all the time, but that it doesn’t. Sometimes I walk into the library and leave without any books at all. Those are sad days. Sometimes I only walk out with the thing I went in for. And sometimes the book monsters sneak into my bag and insist that I take them home with me. It’s not that I object per se. I just want some warning so that I can bring a spare bag for them.

Anyway, one of the books I picked up is Avivah Gottleib Zornberg’s Genesis: The Beginning of Desire. It was sitting near another book about Genesis by an author whose last name starts with Z (the one I had actually gone in for) and the name sounded vaguely familiar so I checked her bio. Hmm, Ph.D. from Cambridge, taught at a place I’ve never heard of, taught at Midreshet Lindenbaum–at which point I stopped reading and just grabbed the book because I had heard enough to know how I knew her name and why I wanted to read the book. Also, while I don’t have any serious objections to trying to finish at least one novel every weekend, having this around would hopefully provide some incentive to read something religiously valuable as well. And, since it’s conveniently about Genesis and we were about to read Lech L’cha when I picked up the book, it was perfect.

What I didn’t check was what the book was actually about. (This is  the second time this has happened to me this quarter. The first time was when I picked up the real life version of the Monster Book of Monsters. It’s a book about historical methods of managing too much data that is, in itself, an attempt to manage too much data and entitled “Too Much to Know.” No kidding.) Zornberg is writing as an academic–which I had guessed–so I was hoping for Biblical exegesis in the style of literary criticism. Which her book is, in a way, but Zornberg’s readings don’t draw primarily from the Biblical text itself, but from the Midrashim that have grown up around it. Rather than using her academic training to understand Torah, she uses it to read Midrashim as literature.

Once I figured out what was going on, I got really excited. Why hadn’t anyone thought about doing this before? Because Zornberg breaks the literal/metaphorical dichotomy that dominates any conversation about Midrash–the tension between the idea that Midrash was (and, in some cases, is) understood as what really happened versus the approach that all Midrashim are parables meant to teach a particular lesson and cannot be understood literally. By moving it into the realm of literary criticism, Zornberg successfully borrows all the unspoken rules of literary interpretation along with it, most importantly that weird kind of bracketing of what-the-book-REALLY-means that is necessary to making literary claims.* Which is just to say that literary criticism doesn’t rise or fall based on whether you accurately decode the author’s intention, but on whether you find something interesting to say about the text. Which, realistically, puts Zornberg closer to the “metaphorical” end of the spectrum (if we’re still on it), but without the pressure to decode the Midrashim accurately. As with literature, the emphasis is less on what the Midrash was originally written to do and more on what it does for her and, hopefully, for her readers.

Or, as one of my teachers in Lindenbaum was wont to say “This is true, regardless of whether or not it actually happened.”

The problem with Zornberg, though, is that she’s writing as an academic and in academicese. She speaks it well, to be sure, but…well, if you enjoy reading the Rav, you will find her a breeze. But I find myself wondering what the impetus is behind Zornberg’s situating of her critique within this discourse.** (For one thing, it’s contagious.) Do you need to put on the trappings of academic criticism in order to discuss the parallel texts of Torah and Midrash without addressing things like “truth-claims” or “reality” (though she comes down pretty solidly on the side of creation not being a factual account. Then again, so do most of the Medieval commentaries)?

There are two sides to that question and I will leave you with both of them.

  1. What’s at stake in this conversation? When we skip automatically into the realm of the academic, we are spared any real dialogue about which things we believe are true (in the actually happened sense) and which are meant to be interpreted. The lit-crit approach allows us not to talk about it – to put everything in the category of interpretable without undermining its claims to truth, merely bracketing it. And, with fiction–which is fictional by definition–this is fine. But is there anything keeping us from beginning a discussion about Biblical and Mirashic text with an explicit statement that “For now, it doesn’t matter whether this happened”?  What do we save by refraining from having that conversation? And, just as importantly, what do we lose?
  2. There’s also the very literal interpretation of my question. Can we have this conversation without scholarly language? Do we have the words and means to discuss these ideas without drifting into academicese? And, if we don’t, should we?

If you have no interest in any of that, may I direct you to my other blog, which, despite technically being my academic blog, is way more comprehensible this week. If you’re interested in 19th Century Literature, Topic Modeling, what Digital Humanities can do for you or, like Gaston, you prefer reading things with pictures, it’s the way to go. And, yes, I will probably continue to link to that blog at the end of all my posts because this is the cool stuff! (And, um, watching the number of views increase is nice.)

MALLET Redux.

(Also, there’s a JAWS reference in that post).

~~~

*Husserl uses the term epoché to describe the phenomenological act of setting aside what you know “is” in order to accurately describe what you see. Literary criticism is kinda like that: you put aside what the book “is” in order to describe certain effects it can have.

**Because this is published by an academic press as an academic text, so writing it in academic language is necessary? But let’s bracket that proximate cause because, like most practical answers, it’s not very interesting.

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A Link to the Present

A new year, a new set of responsibilities, a new feeling of guilt for ignoring the blog…

Though last year’s problems with regular posting have mostly disappeared (Exams are over and I am no longer logging in to my other WordPress account for my course blogs), I am not yet sure about this year. Interesting things that other people would like to read about need to happen first. More than anything else, this is  the “The Blog Lives!” post and an invitation.

See, I have another blog. Well, I share another blog. I’ve cross-posted from in before and will continue to do so (with impunity I might add). So a fair number of this year’s posts, I warn you in advance, will be short snippets like this and a link to Ludic Analytics where I’m documenting my ongoing forays into different kinds of digital work. If you’re interested in what I’m doing academically (OR what I think I’m doing OR what I’m doing wrong OR the book that I’m doing it to), feel free to drop in.

This week, we’re going to back to Daniel Deronda and experimenting with a tool called MALLET.* Yes, everyone else in DH got to the hammer jokes before I did. No that didn’t stop me either. So if you want to see what I did to Daniel this time or just want to find out why I was asking about turning large text files into smaller text files (for fun and profit), the link is below.

http://ludicanalytics.wordpress.com/2013/10/03/hammering-at-daniel-deronda/

The puns continue next week (I hope) with a pirate’s favorite statistical programming language. R!!!!

*”I’ll turn it into a .txt. A harmless little .txt. And then I’ll turn that .txt into smaller files. And then I’ll turn those files into smaller files and then I’ll email those files to me and I’LL SMASH IT WITH A MALLET! It’s brilliant, brilliant, brilliant I tell you, genius I say!”

In entirely unrelated news, The Emperor’s New Groove is now on Netflix and my sister and I have already rewatched it.

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This Is Your Mission

Should you choose to accept it…

Most of you are absolved from reading this post. But some of you may be wondering what the social network graph of a William Faulkner novel looks like and some others of you might just be interested in what I am up to.

If you find yourself intrigued, feel free to look at the entire post. I needed to think through the results from my experimental graphing and I liked the idea of keeping a blog-record of my visualizations, so I revived our mostly defunct blog from last spring and posted some of my more interesting visualizations there, along with my thoughts on them. I’ve copied the majority of that post to this blog, so you can either read about the social network graph of William Faulkner’s Light in August  there or here.

Enjoy!

Continue reading

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Stream of Consciousness

This weekend marks the end of week 8 of the quarter, which means several things.

  1. If I finish both The Portrait of Dorian Gray and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde before I go to sleep tomorrow, I will be on track for two of my three reading lists. (I’m halfway through the former and relishing the opportunity to reread Wilde.)
  2. Which is really a corollary to 1, I am going to spend most of Passover/Spring Break catching up on my literature and the mind list, which I cannot seem to get through at a reasonable speed. I’m suffering from a surfeit of incomprehensible French philosophers.
  3. My students’ papers are due in 10 days. I’m looking forward to quite a few of them.
  4. My final paper is due in two weeks and I just started working on it. The nice thing about a fair amount of digital work is that there isn’t much research that needs to be done because you’re interested in developing new techniques for analysis and then, maybe, comparing it with old results. The downside is that you begin with several hours of work in Excel spreadsheets. I suppose I could have chosen something a little less busy-work intensive, but  I just…really like social network graphs. So I’m making one for William Faulkner’s Light in August. I’ve already needed to think up rules for people talking about conversations they overheard from other people, which might actually be a stylistic choice to look into. How much of this novel is told from these embedded perspectives?

On a mostly unrelated note, I just finished reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton and really enjoyed it. It was not, in my oh so humble opinion, as good as North and South, which is her masterpiece, but it was good. It’s Gaskell’s first book and it shows especially in her inability, as narrator, not to interrupt the story and defend her poor characters (who she sets in opposition to her presumed-rich readers). And, having read both North and South and Wives and Daughters, I can’t help but notice that Gaskell has this thing for jealous mothers of men. Many of her parents resent marriage and losing their children, but the mothers of men in particular are loathe to let their sons go and, though they often couch it in terms of their belief that the man’s intended is not good enough, the occasional insight in the characters’ minds makes it seem deeper than that.

I have no idea where I was going with this, it just struck me as something interesting about Gaskell. If you’ve read her work (or not), feel free to chime in. Now I’m going to go back to recording character interactions in Light in August while watching the BBC adaptation of North and South starring Thorin Dreamboatshield.

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Somebody Underlined My Library Book

If this blog was actually about my life, then this post would address the reasons why I should not be allowed to travel while exhausted. But since it’s not, we’re not going to discuss that and just hope that the nice Lost and Found people at either JFK or LAX find my glasses.

No, this post is about books.

Copy Of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ Can’t Believe The Notes High Schooler Writing In Margins brought to you by the Onion.

And then there was this, which, I should note, I don’t expect you to read because it’s an open access book-length book: Debates in the Digital Humanities

But the latter’s approach towards marking readerly interest, in conjunction with the former and a burgeoning interest in marginal notes (especially after I, umm, wrote rather extensive ones in the library’s copy of Discourse Networks because that book was unfollow-able otherwise), got me thinking about one of the big lies of omission we tell in DH.

The digital turn and the ebook have given us unprecedented access to collaborative authorship. We can write books together in wikis and Google Docs, we can comment on works-in-progress and have our thoughts incorporated into the text, we can be a part of books in a way that was never possible before.

And all this is true. But the other thing that the digital book, especially the professionally produced book app, affords is the ability to systematically erase the presence of other people from the book. Or, to put it another way, the real innovation in Amazon’s annotation app is not that you can turn on most commonly highlighted phrases, but that you can turn them off.

For example, I bought a used copy of the Norton Guide to English Literature (the 6th edition, in case enquiring minds want to know) and it belonged to someone named Lauren who had apparently done some of the romantic poets and didn’t like underlining the actual poem, but would write the occasional observation in the margins about symbolism. Which is convenient, because I underline like crazy and only really take marginal notes on things when I’m teaching them. Or when I feel a sudden onset of sarcasm. There’s nothing like taking out your anger on a man who has been dead for nearly two-hundred years by calling him a hack in the margins of his own poems. (Don’t be too sympathetic, it’s not like Lord woe-is-me Byron needs more pity)

And yes, to a certain degree these marginal notes are more private; I’m certainly not reselling my copy of the Norton. But my notes are materially bonded to the text. You can see not-so-faint pink lines on the reverse of certain pages when I forget to use a ball-point pen. Whatever ends up happening to this particular book–this particular paper and ink and glue version of the text–my notes will be happening with it.

On the other hand, there’s the Kindle. Most of the time, I turn off popular highlights, because it disconcerts me. Even before I read the passage, I can see that other people had highlighted it and I find myself wondering whether it’s really that important. Even before I look at the actual words, I’m treating the sentence differently. And, if I decide it’s important, am I highlighting out of peer pressure or because I’m relying on the wisdom of crowds. Or would I have highlighted it anyway? I mean, the second most-highlighted passage of all (kindle) time is…

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

If you don’t know where that’s from you should go and look it up right now (especially if it’s still January 28th for you).*

But my point, wherever it went, is that unless I have a very good reason to do so, I will not look at the Kindle highlights.** And, if you think about it, that’s really weird. I can actually erase the presence of every other reader of the book with the push of a button. It’s like every book is a brand new hardcover whose covers have never been opened and whose spine has never been disturbed, much less made that satisfying crack that new hardcovers make (Half of you will agree with me about the crack, the other half will cringe). Except it lacks the tactile feeling of “new book,” the sense of anticipation that comes from being the first. Actual newness has a presence of its own, but this…this is just absence. Neither material newness nor the tracks of previous readers.

And the Kindle/iBook apps are actually the best of the proprietary/professional bunch. You can at least highlight and take personal notes in the book. Some of the book apps currently out don’t even allow you to do that. Oh, they invite engagement on social media and let you post what page you’re reading to your Facebook status or tweet your reaction to a line, but the book itself remains intangible. You cannot write in your book. You’d have better luck with a sharpie on the iPad screen.***

Take the Artscroll iPad app, for example. They’ve finally invented a version of the Gemara where you can’t write in the margins. The history of the Talmud is the history of marginal notations and taking advantage of every little space on the page, of trying to cram translations in between the lines of the text and writing out the arguments of the Tosafists because you know there’s no way you’ll be able to decipher it a second time. Given what digital technology is capable of, Artscroll could have allowed their users to completely personalize their Talmuds so that the text reflected not only what they learned, but how they learned. Instead, they lock it down entirely. You can’t even highlight the text. What you can do is turn on colors, so Artscroll highlights the different topics in the text for you.

This isn’t a full-fledged idea yet, but it’s something that’s been kicking around in my thoughts and that I will, hopefully, continue to poke at. What happens when we can no longer deface our books?

~~~

*For those of you wondering, the most highlighted passage is “Because sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them.” It’s from Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. 13 of the 15 top highlights are from the Hunger Games trilogy. The other two are from Pride and Prejudice. Make of that what you will. (First conclusion: I’m not sure if this data is a representative sample…unless its a representative sample of Kindle readers who highlight things.)

**I have been known to turn them back on to crowdsource important sentences from critical texts because trying to remember which paragraph best encapsulates X’s theory and where it is in the book is an exercise in futility.

***The management takes no responsibility for anyone empty-headed enough to do this. Unless you do it as a work of new media art, in which case I want 10% of the profits.

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