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/

Filemaker Prices for Academics

A couple of weeks ago I downloaded a trial copy of the latest version of [Filemaker Pro](http://filemaker.com/) — there is no plain Filemaker version, so I don’t know why they keep the “Pro” distinction — to work with the Project Bamboo scholarly narrative corpus. It came in handy and actually helped me discern a few patterns that I intuited but could not grasp readily. (See my previous post on [One Digital Difference][odd] for more.)

I went on to create two more databases with the app: one to contain my *vita*, which struck me as a better way to build a complex document, and one in which to keep research notes. I built the *vita* database both as a way to build my database skills but also because one gets so many requests for a vita, but often with particular information highlighted or, in some cases, with only certain information provided.

For example, I regularly get asked to participate in grants written for the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, which only wants two-page vitas. I am going up for graduate faculty review this year, and they only want to see the last five years of activity, and they prefer to see peer-reviewed activities highlighted.

Now, I can do that by hand in a document or I can let a database build the document from scratch for me. *Hmmmm … which will I choose?*

But Filemaker is not cheap. I had asked the College to purchase it for me, but as anyone in Louisiana Higher Education knows, there is no money. (And, it turns out, there will be no money for many years to come.) I can cry about it, or I can suck it up and regard Filemaker as an investment not only in saving my time in the future, but also in my intellectual/professional development. (And one with less cognitive overhead, and chances of cognitive overload, than my forays into teaching myself programming — *I will learn how to code one day!*

So, here are prices for Filemaker Pro:

* The [Academic Superstore](http://academicsuperstore.com) has it for $184.95. (I am not sure what the shipping charges, if any, will be.)
* Amazon.com has the full version for $269.99. (I would go for the upgrade version, but I’m not sure that I have a qualifying upgrade product and some of the comments lead me to believe that this is more complicated than I care to explore.)
* The Apple Education Store has it for $179.95 with free shipping, but they will charge me sales tax of $14.37.

Ugh. What I wouldn’t give for my university to have a really cool bookstore that negotiated great prices for faculty, students, and staff. In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be this hard, and this expensive.

[odd]: http://johnlaudun.org/20090716-one-digital-difference/

One Digital Difference

Recently in the [Digital Humanities On-line Seminar][dh], there arose the question of what difference does being digital make? Or, rather, does it many any real difference apart from speeding things up? That is, has the digital only sped up otherwise conventional work?

I have two responses to such a question. The first is the observation that at least one dimension of this question suggests that speeding things up or making more convenient certain facets of work are trivial. I make no claim that any work getting done within a quickened digital regime is any better than work done by hand — one imagines the shuffling of note cards versus a quick search through a database, but the quality of the work is always in what was written on the cards, what was entered in the database. The absurdity of such claims is revealed in the fact that books and the printing press achieved the same, if not greater, speed of dissemination — and probably of composition later — than the previous tradition of copied manuscripts. So it’s not worth bothering about.

The other observation is that such speeding up or making more convenient is not enough, that unless computing radically transforms humanistic study, it has not lived up to its promise nor potential. My response to this dimension of the complaint is that such *tipping points* are rarely perceived during their own time but are usually discerned later. The tipping points are, in fact, sometimes a matter for historical argument.

That’s all fine and good. Let history decide and all that. In the mean time, I *can* report on one digital difference I have enjoyed in the lat few weeks.

I am finishing up work on my analysis of the scholarly narratives collected by Project Bamboo. In the end, I focused on forty or so texts that I first simply collected as text documents stuffed in a directory. I also had a list of the texts I had chosen in a table in a Word file. The two really needed to get together, and so, since my SQL-foo is still incredibly weak, and I didn’t feel like running `sed` or `awk` through my collection of texts, I decided to download and install [Filemaker Pro][fmp] — for the record that’s a link to the Amazon.com page and I would be indebted to anyone who wanted to buy a copy for me: UL is broke and I am on my own fronting the cost. Filemaker is a cross-platform database app that can also act a as a GUI front-end to MySQL databases, and so I am hoping it will help me make the transition.

I had already read and to some degree categorized all the texts I put into my Filemaker database, and I had already learned a fair amount about them using IBM’s [Many Eyes][me] — that link takes directly to the corpus I uploaded there and some of the visualizations I set up. With the FM database I was able to automate a few simple tasks, like determining the size of each text by counting its words. But where I was really able to fly was being able to do searches either on tags or on the texts themselves looking for particular words or usages. Almost instantly, I could pull up the 7 seven texts that mentioned X or the 12 that used the term Y.

All of this would have been perfectly do-able if all these texts existed only on paper, but the work would have gone much more slowly and I would probably have taken far fewer chances. (It may also be true that the slower work may have allowed for more digestion. I don’t know, and I don’t think it’s worth arguing.) What I liked was the ability to “play a hunch.” For me at least, sometimes scholarship is really about discerning patterns. The problem is at what level of cognition the patterns get distinguished. Quite often, for me at least, I know I sense a pattern but I can’t quite put my finger on it. I may even flounder around, scanning texts or flipping through pages hoping something will “catch my eye” or “jog my memory” or put the thought on the “tip of my tongue.”

One difference “the digital” makes in my own scholarship is being able to pursue a lead as soon as it pops into my mind. That may only amount to speed or convenience, but that’s a significant enough difference for me. Please don’t take my bionic memory, and recall, away from me.

[dh]: http://www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
[fmp]: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00079W5TI?ie=UTF8&tag=johnlaudun-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B00079W5TI
[me]: http://manyeyes.alphaworks.ibm.com/manyeyes/users/johnlaudun

NASA Wants Help Archiving Braun’s Notes

From the [Wired article](http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/06/nasadata-2/):

> NASA is taking the rare step of reaching out to the public for help. The space agency is looking for the best way to analyze and electronically catalog a precious collection of notes that chronicle the early history of the human space flight program.

> “We’re looking for creative ways to get it out to the public,” said project manager Jason Crusan. “We don’t always do the best with putting out large sets of data like this.”

> The notes are those of rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, the fist director of NASA’s Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama and are typed with copious hand written notes in the margin. According to the official request for information, NASA needs ideas on what format to use, how to index the notes and how to create a useful database.

Still Wanted After All These Years: A Simple Database App

It’s been years now, and I still haven’t found a simple database application that gives me two things simultaneously: (1) a nice GUI and (2) the ability to get to my data from a number of places.

For a long time I was content with [Filemaker](http://www.filemaker.com/). It allowed me to create my own databases and my own interface. It eventually even grew the ability to create relational databases, which was a good thing despite the fact that I was mostly happy with flat ones. The down side to Filemaker was that you had to run your own web server if you were going to be able to access your database anywhere else, or sync a copy and then sync it back. (What’s the name of the process whereby one can sync two sets of records for the same database and add any new records to both sets simultaneously? I want to call it *reconcile* but that isn’t it, I think.)

Summary: + easy to use, – difficult to access

When I got myself on-line five or more years ago and set up this site, I became much more aware of the power of PHP and MySQL in terms of database creation. Unfortunately for me, PHP and I don’t get along, and working with a webapp is not so good when you don’t have access to the web — as our recent experience with the hotel flubbing the data line at the Project Bamboo third workshop emphasized. One can run an AMP stack locally on a Mac, but then I still didn’t know how to sync the local MySQL database with a remote one — I never even figured out, really, where the local copy of the database was stored to know how to do the syncing by hand.

The same goes for [Ruby](http://rubylang.org/) and [Rails](http://rails.org). Rails makes it easy to get up and running, but syncing the MySQL database remained a mystery to me in the Summer of 2008 when I explored this option. Oh, but the allure of using XCode to develop a front-end for the local version of the app — with a spiffy sync button like Evernote (more on this in a moment) — was deeply appealing.

I’m still thinking about Rails, but along the way I came across an article on [CocoaDevCentral](http://cocoadevcentral.com/) that promised I could [roll my own Core Data Database application](http://cocoadevcentral.com/articles/000085.php#21). Well, that’s too cool to pass up.

It’s a great idea, but it looks like going that route had one big bump: It doesn’t seem like, from reading the questions and answers that followed another [article](http://www.macgeekery.com/gspot/2005-40/core_data_as_a_cheap_database) over at MacGeekery that you can use this method for developing a custom front-end for a MySQL database. CoreData has its own preferred data store format — I forget what it’s called — or it can use XML or SQLite. ***No MySQL for you!*** (I suppose one could write a script that would find the SQLite store and copy it up to a server.)

What I really want, to get back to [Evernote](http://evernote.com/), is something like, well, Evernote that I can store data in. I suppose I could use Evernote, but that would probably mean breaking out the checkbook and setting up more than one notebook, which is all I have with the free account that I am currently still trying.
This doesn’t mean that one can’t use XCode to develop a MySQL front-end, just not go the CD route.