Coding’s Place in the Digital Humanities

An observer of the 2008 meeting of Museums and the Web noted that:

> More museums should be building these programming skills in internal teams that grow expertise from project to project. Far too many museums small and large rely on outside companies for almost all of their technical development on the web. By and large the most innovation at Museums and the Web came from teams of people who have built expertise into the core operations of their institution.

> I fundamentally believe that at least in the museum world there isn’t much danger of the technology folks unseating the curators of the world from their positions of power. I’m more interested in building skilled teams within museums so that the intelligent content people aren’t beholden to external media companies but rather their internal programmers who feel like they are part of the team and understand the overall mission of the museum as well as how to pull UTF-8 data out of a MySQL database.

About all I can say is that *universities* in general and *humanities* in particular could be inserted wherever *museums* appears above and the statement would be perfect. Ideally, programming would not only be folded into teams but also into individual players. There really is no reason why humanists shouldn’t have at least some exposure to the basics of coding.

To see the quotation above in its original context, you only need to [look here](

Seth Godin on Why Marketing Is Too Important to Leave to Marketers

I don’t know that I would throw marketers out, but perhaps it would be interesting to re-think the nature of marketing. Godin has long been known for preaching the other side of Anderson’s long-tail — think Kelly’s 1000 true fans — and urging businesses to create something remarkable that gives people a reason to talk about it, to build relationships to it, and, through it, to others. This talk is mostly about the latter dimension. At the end, he gives a preview of his next schtick/argument: the importance of developing tribes.

My real question is how can universities take this kind of approach and fold it into what we are already doing, what we do best, and also begin to build a future? I’ll have more to say in a few days.

One Next Book: Coding Creativity

As I begin seriously to write _The Makers of Things_, I am already thinking about where I am next headed. Part of me is interested in trying to think about the nature of creativity in the Cajun-Creole music scene; another part of me is interested in attempting something like an ethnography of a coding project. Towards that end, I am starting to keep a list of books I’d like to read:

* Frederick Brooks, _The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering_ (Addison-Wesly 1995).
* Paul Graham, _Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age_ (O’Reilly, 2004).
* Andy Hunt, _The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master_ (Pragmatic Programmers).
* Scott Rosenberg, _Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software_ (Three Rivers Press, 2008).
* Peter Seibel’s _Coders at Work_ (Apress, 2009).
* And of course Joel Spolsky’s books.

Typography Matters

As what I would like to call, with a great deal of hope, the humanistic revolution rolls forward, there are a wide variety of skills, or competences, with which we need to be at least familiar. Competence would be great, and certainly I regard mastery as something to which most humanists will turn to professionals. Nevertheless, the most effective communication begins with some awareness of its channels. At its root, print communication comes down to design and prose design begins with typography. In our current era, typography actually has two branches: print and screen. Most designers are aware of the differences and the limitations of each — in this particular instance, screen design is actually more limiting because so much of the infrastructure is really beyond the designer’s control.

A few websites that offer some basics of design are:

* [The Grid System](, which offers a very basic principle to guide all design work — I do not necessarily agree with all aspects of the grid, but like the system of thirds taught to beginning photographers it is meant more to be a rule you discard as you gain mastery.

At the same time, there are a number of sites maintained by designers which are not only about design but also demonstrate design in many ways:

* [Swiss Miss]( has a somewhat lurid title, but offers regular insight into the European modern design style — think Helvetica and Ikea.

Knowledge One Click Away

As I continue to think about how IT is changing the game for both major research universities and smaller players, I am continually drawn to the fact that, first, most universities do a terrible job of branding, and, second, that more universities haven’t seized the advent of open access as one of the ways to build their recognition.

Let me begin with a situation that I faced when I was working in Indiana University’s Executive Education unit back in the mid-90s. We were a six million dollar operation looking to grow to eight, but we were stymied by the fact that IU’s brand just couldn’t get us there. Well, yes, you might respond, but if you’re an executive and the company is writing the check, and they offer you a chance to go to Harvard for a week or Indiana for two weeks, which one would you choose? Harvard wins every time, no?

No. Harvard wins when you try to play on their turf, which we’ll call “big ideas” for now. It’s where the VIPs, the Very Important Places, play. You know who they are because they are the same universities from which the political science and economic wonks are drawn when it comes time for one of the major news outlets to cover a story. (Curious that no one blames them for our current political and economic mess, but that’s for another time.) Those names are: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Penn, *et cetera*. Some of the big publics get to play here, too: Michigan, the UCs, *et cetera redux*.

But not everything is about “big ideas,” especially right now when a whole host of folks are beginning to believe that maybe, just maybe it would be a good idea not to depend only on good idea but also to keep around some of those guys with dirt under their fingernails. (One version of this actually comes from a Harvard business faculty member who has come up with the idea of an “industrial commons” — see “Restoring American Competitiveness in the July-August 2009 edition of the _Harvard Business Review_.)

So associating yourself, your brand if you will, with a kind of practical approach to the world may not be a bad way to go at this particular moment in time. Here I’m thinking of a place like Indiana University, where you may just never get credit for all the amazing ideas you do create because you are in the Midwest. (Apparently only Michigan, Chicago, and Northwestern can regularly get credit for big ideas, from what I can tell.)

The same also goes for little Louisiana. While we are chasing the movie industry, like every other city in America, throwing gobs of tax breaks at it, we are surrounded, quite literally, by dozens and dozens of light manufacturing operations who are innovating on something like a daily basis. Not only that, but their children and their workers attend our university. Imagine what would happen if we were to pour our faculty in all those places and let the whole situation simmer for a little while.

Then what could we do? We could make sure that all that knowledge, all those ideas, were a mere click away from our university’s home page and not sequestered away on faculty home pages or entombed in the pages of journals that no one but our faculty can read. (I love you JSTOR, but you get what I’m saying here, yes?)

I like the way Wharton has done it:

But that is one ugly URL. (Which is to an article re-evaluating Chris Anderson’s *Long Tail* idea using Netflix data.)

I have already discussed what I perceive to be IU’s somewhat dispersed appearance on iTunesU. We really need to get more organized. No one is saying we have to organize the way scholars work or organize what they work on — despite my daydream above, I don’t see it happening — but we do need to organize their research results. We want to push them out in front of as many audiences as possible. But the university needs to take this on as a distinct task. The digital library unit is one place to start, but as Harvard’s open access initiative reveals, the word needs to come down from the very top, or as MIT’s Open Courseware suggests, it needs to be part of the culture.

Harvard and MIT, and Stanford, with things like SEE (Stanford Engineering Everywhere), have solidified their digital beachhead. I am sure others are working hard on this, because it has to be clear that those who succeed and survive whatever transformation higher education is going through, or is about to go through is you follow _Business Week_’s argument, universities need to get ahead of the curve if they aren’t going to go flying off the road.

My Mac Life

I get asked this often enough by colleagues, friends, and students that I thought it would be easiest just to compile all the answers into a single post and then point people to it. What’s the question you ask? What apps do I use?

The short answer is that I try out any number of apps because I’m always curious to see how other people imagine problems. I pay for a small percentage of those apps. And I end up depending upon a fraction of that. And, no, I don’t mind paying for apps I don’t use. None of the apps listed below represented a monumental investment — nothing like paying for either Microsoft Office or even the Student and Home edition. In fact, for that same $150 you pay for the latter, you could buy the first three apps listed here. The fact is the Mac software world is filled with really great deals on software that will help you work the way you want to work. You only have to explore the territory a bit.

That said, I know plenty of people who never explore the territory at all and are very productive cranking out novels and essays and all manner of other things using Microsoft Word. More power to them. Because there is also some portion of the population out there that isn’t getting near as much work done because they are always seeking the holy grail of productivity, the perfect solution to whatever they think their problem is. (Their problem being that they think some piece of software will magically make the words come. It won’t.) I spent plenty of time in the first group, and, given the chance, I would gladly spend a lot more time with the latter group — hey, [Merlin Mann]( has made a good living and travels all around the world pretty much talking and writing about what he imagines will be *the* solution to his creativity woes. So much so that *that* is now his topic.

It’s a wacky world.

### The Apps I Use ###

That said, here’s what I use:

#### Writing ####

For long-form writing, I tend to use [Scrivener](, an app actually coded by a novelist and writer. I like it because it does several things well: it let’s me outline and organize writing quickly and in a way that I can “see” and “feel” — hard to qualify this latter dimension, I know. It also let’s me take snapshots of pieces of my outline so if I want to roll-back changes or keep different versions of a section — for different outputs — that’s all taken care of in-app and in a way that’s easily previewed. I can also split the screen and put media with which I am working next to where I am writing. If I am trying to describe a landscape, I can look at it, zoom in and out, pan and tilt. If I am listening to an audio file in order to transcribe it, I can do that within the app. Or I can work with PDFs without having to switch windows or switch apps. None of that. It’s a bit like iTunes for writers.

Scrivener in Action

For short-form writing, if it’s just text or if I am working with a Scrivener output that needs some adjusting before getting mailed or e-mail, then I rely on [Nisus Writer Express]( Its native format is RTF, and it can produce fairly robust documents within that format:

Nisus Writer Express

This screenshot is from the Nisus site. I don’t think I’ve ever made a document that looked like this.

For more complex layouts, I have changed to Apple’s own [Pages]( This was brought about in part when I had to deal with a two-column layout, with illustrations, for an IEEE submission and Word simply couldn’t handle it. Don’t get me wrong: I use Word. I depended upon Word for two decades, but now that Pages offers a superior outlining view and seems to handle layout better than Word, the only reason I still keep a contemporary version of the latter around is because everyone else uses it and I have to be able to work with those documents. It’s no longer for the love.

Three, even four, apps for writing? Seems weird doesn’t it? Well, yes. And, no. Mostly it’s just two, Scrivener and NWE. And there’s really no thinking necessary for which app I am going to use. If it’s short, like a letter, or I am moving quickly, it’s going to be NWE. If it’s going to be anything more than a few sections, I’m going to fire up Scrivener.

#### Organizing ####

For those projects that have not matured into a writing activity yet, or may never be a writing project but maybe a teaching project or simply stuff I like to think about, I have long used [DevonThink]( — I actually own the Pro version. It’s my kitchen sink application. I’ve looked at other apps, like Yojimbo — mostly because it has MobileMe syncing — but in the end I just keep using DevonThink. It does a marvelous job of letting me dump all kinds of information into it and then search for it when I need it. It also keeps track of URLs of web pages I’ve copied, *and* it appears that you will soon be able to tag things. *Yay!*

Most of my planning for teaching is done in [Omnioutliner Pro]( I have used OmniOutliner elsewhere in the past, for collecting notes or for organizing longer projects, but other apps now handle that space. (A number of us have been pressing the OmniGroup for years now to pay some attention to the app that has fathered both OmniFocus and OmniPlan, and perhaps they will at some point. For now, OO has languished, which has meant many of us have moved on.)

That said, I do try to use [OmniFocus]( to keep up with everything I should be doing. I don’t know about anyone else, but one of my problems with GTD is that if I really do capture all the things that I need or want to do, it’s an overwhelming list. And so I end up writing down little tiny one-offs in my notebook, because peering into the great Pandorian box of OmniFocus is scare. I know, I know. A wiser man would move a chunk of things into a *Later* category. But, yes, I do try, and when I do, I use OmniFocus. (It’s nice because it syncs itself through MobileMe not only to both my Macs but also to my iPhone.

It’s for that reason that I recently picked up [MacJournal]( It looks to be able to do the same magical syncing thing, *and* to post materials to this blog. (How cool is that?)

Every digital image I have taken for the last 5 to 6 years is sitting in a [Lightroom]( library.

All these magical apps! I don’t know at what point I went over to the *iTunes way*, but there it is. I was fairly happy, and reasonably productive, using nothing more than a text editor and outputting materials by writing in Markdown or MultiMarkdown and then running things through a series of Perl or PHP or Ruby scripts or some XML transformations. But it take up time. And no one else was doing it.

Yes, I would love it if my fellow humanists would use some version of plain text or at least used applications whose file formats were suitable to checking into modern version control systems like Subversion or Git, but they aren’t. By and large, most humanists are still using word processing applications, mostly Word, as fancy typewriters. And, hey, it works for them. But I’m not going to bang my head against a wall worrying about their data. I got plenty of my own data to worry about, and I’m hoping to produce more of it every day. The apps I use take reasonably good care of my data and do not lock it in a way that, should one of them fail, I will lose a huge amount of work.

Plus, plus, I just got tired of doing everything at the file level. Yeah, Spotlight works, but do I really feel like adding all the metadata by hand? Metadata is where it’s at when you’re in the middle of an information deluge, and these apps handle metadata superbly, making it easy for me to find stuff.

Are there more apps I use? Yes. Keynote, GraphicConverter, OmniGraffle. To name a few. SketchUp when I can. Photoshop and Illustrator when it’s time to go big.

This list is probably too much, too long. But you asked. (No, not you, but the person standing behind you. Oh? You didn’t know someone was standing behind you? Well, never mind. I don’t think they looked too dangerous.)

### The Sites I Visit ###

I also sometimes get asked how I know all the things, about technology, that I know. The answer is I read a lot. Here is a short list of things I read with a promise that I will work on making it longer in the near future:

* [Finer Things in Mac]( is a non-stop stream of “hey, I didn’t know OS X or app X did that, or could do that.” Sometimes there are, usually well-deserved and well-considered, complaints and/or critiques.
* For general news about the Mac world and sometimes insights either into design matters or the politics of it all, I read John Gruber’s [Daring Fireball](
* For trouble-shooting, I turn to my fellow denizens of the [Macintoshian Achaia](, one of many forums at [Ars Technica](, which has recently gone down hill, I’m afraid, so my only recommendation is for the forum itself. For general technical news — because we don’t live in an Apple-branded universe (thank goodness), I read [Wired]( The writing is sharper than AT, more thoughtful. (And there’s less re-blogging.) For re-blogging, there’s always [Slashdot](, and, increasingly it seems all the major news outlets. But then you knew that already, right?

It’s time to slip on the echo-chamber-noise-cancellation headphones and get back to work.

Digital Humanities and Publishing Reading List

I have a bunch of these links stored up, and I need to begin organizing them. They will get moved to a page one day. For now, I’m collecting them in a post. All of these are summative documents in some fashion:

* From the UK, there is the [Communicating knowledge: how and why UK researchers publish and disseminate their findings report](, which explores “how researchers publish and why, including the motivations that lead them to publish in different formats and the increase in collaboration and co-authorship. It also explores how researchers decide what to cite and the influence of research assessment on their behaviours and attitudes.”

Evil Makes for Better Stories

We were still on our street on the way to drop-off this morning when Lily asked me a question about the white witch of *Narnia*. (I should note that Yung has been reading *Narnia* to Lily. I’m ambivalent about it. I haven’t read the books, but there is, from what I can tell from my glimpses of the film, some fairly lofty topics raised in the novel as well as some violent moments.)

Why does Jades do bad things, Daddy?

Does Jades scare you?

No, she replied.

Do you want to know why she does bad things?


And so I tried to explain that Jades is a character in a story. She’s not real. She’s pretend. And because she isn’t real, there’s no way to know why she does what she does unless the story tells us. I was beginning to wind up a long exegesis on the subject, remembering all the times I had tried to communicate the same idea to my undergraduates, when Lily interrupted me to say: “She does bad things to make the story more interesting.”

Well, yes.

A Hundred Hits

So … I think I have only looked at the *statistics* section of cPanel only once or twice before in the entire time I have been blogging, which dates back to somewhere like 2002 or 2003. (That’s right, before personal blogs jumped the shark.) When I first started maintaining a website, the front page hosted a welter of connections to different pieces of my portfolio: essays I had written, projects I had worked on, documents people could download — like a fieldwork log sheet or a guide on how to ask questions — and the blog was off to the side. All that stuff is there, or soon will be back, but it’s now pushed over to the left, and the blog is front and center … er, right. Or, a little off-center and to the right. (The off-center is probably revealing, and I do like to think that I am mostly right about things I write about, but that’s not my decision to make.)

I should be honest and admit that I haven’t really cared about readers. There were several reasons for this. The first reason was somewhat rhetorical: if I worried about audience, I wouldn’t necessarily write about the things that truly mattered to me, and I wanted to give myself time to discover that, to cast a broad net again and again until I knew for myself what it was I wanted to keep. The second reason was that I wasn’t even sure that I wanted any public to care about my blog. That is, and this is still somewhat the case, I rather liked the idea of the blog simply being my own on-line notebook. There are just so many ideas and things that pass through my hands, pass through my mind, that I really liked having a notebook in which I could catch it all and then search for it later.

I am not entirely convinced that I really want to break from either of those desires, but along the way, I found myself with something I had not planned on … *readers*.

That’s right. The *Webalyzer* application built into my [hosting provider’s][aso] version of cPanel revealed to me that I have readers. Now I knew I had the occasional reader, mostly family and friends, and the occasional stray reader, but neither of those account for the fact that this website is now accruing over a hundred unique visitors a day — visitors that are not robots. (I was, to be honest, searching the logs in hopes of discovering that a [certain set of readers][iub] had dropped in.)

Now some of you reading this, or “reading” this, are either robots unknown to Webalyzer or comment spambots — and it really must be frustrating to those of you who are spambots that I have comments turned off — but that still can not account for the over 100 hits a day this site is getting. (As of late summer, early fall of 2009, the number is about 140.)

With readers come responsibility. I’m not in search of a readership. I don’t, at least as yet, have any desire to become an independent blogger. And I certainly don’t want to do it by posting about stuff I *think* readers will want to read about. Rather, I have always wanted to write about stuff that, well, I wanted to write about, and it’s nice to know that there are readers who are interested in reading what I want to write about. That’s not a selfish statement. Rather, it’s a way of foregrounding the idea that I when I write about something I am honestly interested in it and trying to think about it and that you are getting that when you read. If I have posted something, it’s because it matters to me — or is at least interesting to me.

There are more than enough people in this world who are willing to say anything or do anything to curry the favor of an audience. Some began with great integrity and then lost their way, either because they got to be popular and got caught up in the rush or because they are so desperately seeking to be popular, and some never had integrity to begin with. This, by the way, applies to all walks of life and not just bloggers. It applies to the business world and to the academy.

In fact, one of the realizations I have had is that people can be pretty much uncreative everywhere. Which saddens me greatly, but it explains a whole host of phenomena. (I’ll write about this at some point in the future, I promise.)

I hated writing that, but it’s balanced out by what I am about to say: that I am re-focusing this blog a bit. Having blogged now off and on for over six years and maintained this particular version of the site for about a year, I think it’s safe to say that this blog has really been about three things:

* the digital humanities,
* thoughts on things that happen in my daily life, and
* creativity.

I listed creativity last because it has been far less a feature of this blog than I would like — you’ll find it mostly tagged as “making” so far. (Give me a minute to clean up the tagging system and I’ll make that a link to take you to those posts.) I plan to write about these “discovered” foci in upcoming posts.

And thanks for reading.