Going (Back) to School

There are so many new avenues of exploration opening up right now, and so many ways to pursue them, that I really do wish I could put my career on hold for a mere few months and just spend some time rolling in all the educational opportunities that are now offered and that could give me the kind of education I have always, always wanted. I can’t, of course, put things on hold, but I can take time here and there to teach myself things like:

* **linear algebra** and **statistics** for better understandings of how to transform complex realities, like texts, into numerical descriptions in order either to verify already intuited patterns or to discern new kinds of unanticipated patterns,
* **Python** in particular, and perhaps **R** too, so that I could both do things with the texts themselves or with the numbers into which they have been transformed, and
* **data visualization** concepts and methods both to realize results as well as, possibly, to glimpse new results through the design and development process (plus, I really like pretty pictures — as a sometimes nonverbal thinker, I depend on diagramming quite often as I work).

And part of me is still interested in old-fashioned **database design** because, in the end, you gotta find some way to keep and account for all this stuff, and it really, really helps others if you have done a decent job upfront and not stuffed everything into an idiosyncratic box of your own devising. And that is why I was so happy to discover the Institute for Historical Research’s [Building and using databases for historical research][bud] course. You can sign up for a free module, or you can enroll in the full course for £99.

I’m not quite flush $150 at the moment, and so I will have to make do with reading the book, but I appreciate the resources being there.

For data visualization, see World of Data’s [Going to Data Visualization School][wod].

[bud]: http://www.history.ac.uk/research-training/courses/building-databases/
[wod]: http://worldofdata.org/2013/01/11/going-to-data-visualization-school/

New Age for Universe

Analysis of data from the European Space Agency’s Planck mission has found some new things about our universe, including:

– It’s older than we believed, at about 13.81 billion years.
– It’s expanding more slowly than we expected.
– It’s made up of 4.9 percent normal matter, 26.8 percent dark matter, and 68.3 percent dark energy.
– And finally, our universe is a tiny bit lopsided.

Of all of that, it’s the *lopsided* that catches your attention, right? How can the universe be lopsided? I mean, what could that possibly mean? _Slate_’s Bad Astronomy blog has [some explanations][].

(It turns out, I think, that the lopsidedness reveals, potentially, a possible pre-Big Bang pattern or existence. Yeah, let that sink in.)

And then there’s this incredible visualization:

Timeline of the Universe

Timeline of the Universe

[some explanations]: http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2013/03/21/age_of_the_universe_planck_results_show_universe_is_13_82_billion_years.html

On the Creation of a Documentary Record

Because someone asked to see it, below is the prompt and my response to the question of data security on our local IRB form.

First, here is the prompt:

> g. Describe your procedures and safeguards for insuring confidentiality or anonymity of the research subjects. (See Guidelines, pgs. 5 and 6) Include how data will be secured, reported, and when identifiable raw data will be destroyed.

And then my response:

> There is no confidentiality or anonymity given to research subjects: those not willing to be a part of the research project are not included. Individuals are made fully aware that the research is intended to lead to a book —they are, in fact, promised a copy of the book. (And they are often shown drafts of sections and/or chapters.)

> Digital data is secured by being downloaded from the relevant media onto a computer secured in the researcher’s office as well as backed up to a drive kept in a separate, and secure, location. The goal here is to avoid destruction of data, not guarantee it. No data is secured without the knowledge and consent of the participating individuals. In some cases, especially in the case of photographs and some audio recordings, participating individuals ask for, and receive, copies that they are in turn free to share with others. This mutual creation of a documentary record is an important part of the ethnographic process as practiced by folklorists.

> Informed consent is given orally, and is usually present in an audio recording at the beginning of a recording, but the value of informed consent relies, in folkloristic ethnographic research, in the relationship between the researcher and the individuals involved. Written, legal-like, documents are perhaps significant in one-off research programs in which the researcher never returns to the community, but the goal of folkloristic research in general, and in this project in particular, is to support the local community.

> As the American Folklore Society notes in its Position Statement on Research With Human Subjects: “Folklorists inform their consultants about the aims and methods of research. The nature of the relationships that folklorists build with their consultants, however, is such that a written, signed, legally effective document would be inimical to the relationship upon which folklore research is based. Folklorists cannot go as guests into people’s homes, build trust and friendships, and then present a legal document for signature.” (See http://www.afsnet.org/?page=HumanSubjects for the complete statement.)

It’s not the best possible response or methodology, but it’s the beginning of something that I think is appropriately framed.

Last Night’s Talk: What Is History Good For?

What Is History Good For? (A Talk)

Anne Falgout of LEDA was gracious enough to invite me to speak before the 705 group last night. 705, as I understand it, a networking opportunity for young professionals, and as such it represents a group of self-motivated individuals who may very well prove to be our area’s next leaders.

The group has been considering various kinds of foundations within and for the community at large: economic, social, cultural. I was one of two speakers invited to address the cultural foundations for the Lafayette area. In particular, I was tasked to speak about the past leading to the present. The other speaker, Jennifer Guidry, was asked to speak about the present leading to the future.

As my the notes from my talk make clear, I sort of decided to go a different route. (The unorthodoxy of the notes is to be blamed entirely on Henry Glassie, who once showed me notes for a talk he was giving that looked much like this. It’s a marvelous way to compose a talk — and much of this talk was composed by hand in a notebook and later transcribed into OmniOutliner to make the notes more readable at the time of the talk.)

Without further ado, here are the notes from last night’s talk:

I want to begin with a thought experiment.
If you’re older than forty in this audience, picture your high
school yearbook photo.
If you’re younger than forty, then picture any photo from your
parents or grandparents wedding album or from the early years of
their marriage and childrearing (traditionally, by the way, where
photos are densest — as someone who has spent a lot of time
browsing other people’s photo albums).
How much are you like that person in the photo?
How much do you want to be like them?
And how much are you glad that either you have changed or
times have changed?
Photos are great reminders, markers, of the past.
But they are terrible indicators of the present.
This place we’re in now, Vermilionville, is one giant photo album,
capturing a moment in our potentially collective past.
But that’s all it is. A photo album.
And one not without its problems.
First, it’s not really our collective past, but only one
facet of it.
Vermilionville leaves out the two largest ethnic
immigrant groups in south Louisiana:
Germans
Africans
Second, the photos have been photoshopped, changed to fit
our imagination of what the past may have looked like,
which is not necessarily what it actually looked like.
This is rather like keeping the insert in the photo
frame you buy at Target and saying it’s your family
because, you know, you too have a spouse and two kids.
Why begin with this cautionary tale?
Because this tendency to sacralize the past, especially only one
version of the past is dangerous and keeps us, even those of us
who are really Cajuns and Creoles from seeing ourselves as we
really are
and the value in who we are,
and the value in what we do.
What I want to leave you with today, if I leave you with
nothing else, is just how much you yourselves are part of
history
and that you and your friends and your family are part of
history
And you should treat yourselves and them with the
same seriousness that you treat history
And, because we are in south Louisiana where serious play
matters, that you should treat history as something to be
played with.
This isn’t how I imagined this talk, but I had an interesting
experience last weekend.
I was at the Wooden Boat Festival in St. Martinville.
I had spent the morning in the dappled light of the banks of
the Bayou Teche.
The christening of the wooden pirogue.
Official boat of Louisiana.
Pirogue is not French.
It’s from the Spanish piragua and they probably first
used it to describe dugout canoes they encountered in
Africa.
To be honest, the dugout canoe exists around the
world.
They aren’t special.
At the other end of the park from the newly-christened pirogue,
however, was a twenty-six foot, sleek, aluminum-hulled craft with U.
S. Coast Guard markings.
The thing was magnificent.
Two two-hundred horsepower engines hung off its stern.
The welds along the hull were beautiful.
They have to be, the boat maker, Jimmy Gravois, told me.
The Coast Guard is so finicky about the welds on its
board, he makes sure that each weld line is done by one
man, so that the welds are consistent. If there are two
parallel welds, he puts two men on the hull.
How many do you make? I asked Gravois.
I have to make one a week, he replied.
Wow, you must have a number of people in your shop.
120.
Now, think about that for a minute.
Everyone there was gathered around a wooden pirogue.
Heck, there was a video crew there recording the
christening and there to film the parade of the putt
putts.
No one was paying much if any attention to Gravois.
But he pays 120 people full-time salaries to make
aluminum boats that are shipped all over, it
turns out, all over the world.
Now, let me ask you this:
How many of you own a wooden boat?
How many of you drove here today in a wooden car?
Anybody here wearing wooden shoes?
(By the way, the French name for those are sabots,
and if you want to protest your working conditions,
you throw into the mill gears, making things
literally grind to a halt. When you throw your sabots
like that, you have engaged in sabotage.)
You see where I am going with this?
Why is it we like to valorize useless old things when
we have so many powerful things in our present?
Powerful things that come from us.
That we make.
That we imagined?
Case in point: the crawfish boat.
Or, let me put that another way:
you wanna know what makes Louisiana special?
It’s this.
There is no other place on this planet — on this
planet! — where you can drive down a highway and find
yourself passing a boat, going down the same highway
The boat is not in a nearby canal
The boat is not on a trailer
The boat is on the damned road and
there’s a guy driving it.
And, if you’re patient, you can watch
him turn into a rice field and float.
That is crazy.
That is an example of the kind of wild imaginative thinking
Of problem solving
Of paradigm-shifting
Of any other jargony word about creativity that
you can possibly imagine.
It’s a damn boat that goes on land and water.
It’s like something out of a fairy tale?
(And, in fact, it is.)
If you ask these guys how did they come up with this crazy-ass
idea,
they’ll look at you like you have lost your mind.
Ted Habetz and Maurice Benoit co-invented the hydraulic boat,
though they were preceded by a period of wild experimentation.
Tiller foot.
Gerard Olinger moved the drive unit to the back and added front
wheels.
“Going down the road…”
Kurt Venable made it a business.

Please note that I am not suggesting that everyone here should give
up their professional lives and become farmers and fabricators.
Not at all.
But you can take your inspiration from them, draw from their
wisdom of this place.
It’s what poets do. Why not you?
To return us to the present moment, sitting here in Vermilionville:
Think about it this way.
The Village is maintained at a historical moment of something
like 1870.
But when you hear music played here, the earliest it’s
going to be from is the 1920s,
(when commercial recording began)
The music you here is a magical combination of French words
and melodies set to African rhythms and harmonies.
Indeed, there’s reason to believe that the pentatonic
scale that dominates American music is African in origin.
And the food you eat here, and perhaps in your own home, that
you call Cajun and Creole, is a wonderful mix of a lot of
cultures:
Here along the Teche, most of us enjoy especially the
garlic-orientation given to us by the bayou’s Italian
immigrants
But music and food are but two facets of our lives.
Important ones.
Expressive ones.
But let’s not forget that the French peasants who were first
taught to clear marshes by closing them up with levees were
in fact taught by Dutchmen, brought down for that very
training.
And let’s not forget that the explosion in commercial
ricing agriculture came with the Palatinate Germans at
the end of the nineteenth century,
who were themselves escaping an essentializing of
what it culture,
of what it meant to be German.
Let’s not turn anyone away.
Let’s not turn ourselves away.
What do I mean by that?
I mean spend more time with your parents and grandparents.
I mean let your dad tell that damned favorite story of his
one more time.
I mean let your too large Aunt Betty give you one more too
wet kiss.
I mean make up songs to sing with your kids and spend time
singing with them.
Or make up songs to sing with your partner or spouse.
How the heck do you think culture gets made?
Don’t come here looking for it.
And don’t come to my class hoping I’ll give you instructions on
how to be a proper Cajun.
I ain’t gonna do that.
I am going to tell you to start paying better attention to your
world.
To draw inspiration from it.
To appreciate it for what it is.
To appreciate the people around you for who they are.
Thank you.

Genre Matters

Some of the most interesting debates about literary genres arise among so-called “genre fiction” readers and writers. The four writers who host *Writing Excuses*, for example, regularly make very fine distinctions either among the genres which they author (fantasy, horror, etc.) or about tropes within those genres (e.g., a secret history, a quest, etc.). I listen to the podcast through an iTunes subscription, but they also have a [website][]. Similarly, I have previously linked to various discussions on [Tor.com][], including this [link][] to a post that tries to synthesize a Twitter conversation that then leads into further discussion in the comments, all of which are quite thoughtful.

[website]: http://www.writingexcuses.com
[Tor.com]: http://www.tor.com/
[link]: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2013/02/sleeps-with-monsters-epic-fantasy-is-crushingly-conservative

Ben Marwick has an R script that converts CSV word counts into “bag of words” text files. His response is part of a [larger conversation at Digital Humanities Q & A started by Chris Forster](http://digitalhumanities.org/answers/topic/topic-modeling-mallet-with-jstor-data-for-research).

Admiration (and a bit of Envy) and Anticipation: UPDATED

**UPDATE**: *Brian Lennon has a terrific response to the post below, and which is below the post.*

*And my apologies to Brian and all other posters not wishing to deal with the Facebook commenting system: I confess I turned to Facebook for two reasons: (1) sheer laziness in the face of comment span when maintaining one’s own WordPress installation, and (2) a kind of acquiescence to the pervasiveness of Facebook, even among the digital humanities crowd. Brian’s has inspired me to try to get a “normal” comment system up and working again.*

*Finally, I apologize for the footer appearing in the middle of this post or of the page. I have a CSS error that I am trying to figure out, but in the mean time, my FTP authentication has gotten corrupted and I have to reset the system. That won’t be until this weekend.*

*So, yes, Jason Jackson, you are quite right about the work involved in maintain one’s own infrastructure. (I’m surrounded by people smarter than me. Dammit.)*

One of the reasons I am enjoying this turn towards computational approaches in my own work is I am getting to rub elbows with really smart people who are not only doing interesting work themselves but are also interested in the work I am doing. I recently found myself in a Twitter conversation over a post on the place for mathematics in an expanded version of the humanities, which is currently dubbed the “digital humanities” only because course corrections need a name while the ship shifts to get on the new heading.

I promised more on that, and I will deliver, but when I went to find out more about [Brian Lennon][] and [David Golumbia][], I discovered Lennon has listed a project that is really, really cool: “a philological history of programming languages.” My first response was: wow, just wow. I have been thinking about an examination of *a* programming languages as a language: that is, I have been thinking about joining an open source project and observing it in a similar fashion as I have done in other ethnographic projects. My goal was to attend to how programming languages and natural languages interact in discourse — that is, what would a code shift signify and how would it occur in the flow of discourse? My focus followed my folkloristic and anthropological training, but I admire, and envy a bit, Lennon’s much broader philological impulse. It’s fantastic. I know I couldn’t do it — I don’t have the coding chops to do any analysis personally, and I will be curious to see how he proceeds: I know there is a fair amount of discussion between the makers and users of the various languages about what distinguishes them, about the origins of the languages, etc.

**Brian Lennon’s Response:**

> Several things about that, which to me all come along with the choice of “philology.” First, I conceive it as an encyclopedic project, therefore ideally something that will eventually (I hope organically, rather than instrumentally) come to involve a group of writers. Second, I lack the training to do such very interesting ethnographic work as you mention (or indeed many other things in which I am interested), and so that would be one of the many areas in which co-aggregation would be useful in such a project. Third, for me “philological” learning of and learning about programming languages is really quite (if of course not entirely) distinct from what is involved in acquiring and retaining “coding chops.” We have quite a few histories of programming languages already, produced by PL designers themselves or by others at the technical center of the history of computing, and those are extremely valuable records — but human finitude means that none of them can have been “philological” histories, in the expansive sense that I’m happy to see recognized in your post, just as I myself am never going to acquire all the knowledge necessary to design a PL that would actually be adopted and used.

> In other words, as I see it, there is a place, in chronicling the linguistic history of computing, for philology as a set of practices we associate with historical humanism, which is its *own* place and not the place of computer science and industry — and which represents a set of practices that CS and industry simply don’t have time, will never, ever have the time, to cultivate expertly for themselves. So that’s what I’m after.

> And for that reason, agreed & well said on why we’re using that other silly name for all this!

[Brian Lennon]: http://www.personal.psu.edu/bul5/
[David Golumbia]: http://www.people.vcu.edu/~dgolumbia/

India’s Rice Revolution

Anything with rice in the title is going to catch my attention. Not only is rice is an integral part of the research when I am in the midst of wrapping up — and it saddens me to say goodbye to it (more on this in a moment) — but I love to eat the stuff. And so, given the demands on the world’s agricultural system, it’s good to know that there have been in advances in rice culture in India that have resulted in the [doubling of output][].

[doubling of output]: http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/2013/feb/16/india-rice-farmers-revolution