Ryan Cordell: Programmable Type: the Craft of Printing, the Craft of Code

A line of R code set in movable type

I want situate the kinds of programming typically practiced in digital humanities research and teaching in relation to practices more familiar to book historians and bibliographers, such as the work of compositors and printers working with moveable type.

Ryan Cordell sent me a link to a talk on  Programmable Type: the Craft of Printing, the Craft of Code. The talk looks at the “modes of thought and labor” of composing movable type and programming. He is careful to warns us about the simplistic story that has movable type and the computer as two information technologies that caused revolutions in how we think about knowledge. What is particularly interesting is how he weaves hands-on work into his course Technologies of Text. He asks students to not just read about printing, but to try doing it. Likewise for programming in R. There is a knowing that comes from doing something and attending to the labor of that doing. Replicating the making of texts gives students (and researchers) a sense of the materiality and contexts of media. It is a way of doing media archaeology.

In the essay, Cordell writes about the example of the visual poem “A Dude” and its many iterations composed with different type. I had blogged about “A Dude”, but hadn’t thought about how the poem would have been a way for the compositor to show of their craft much like a twitterbot might be a way for a programmer to show off theirs.

Cordell frames this discussion by considering the controversy around whether digital humanists should need to be able to code. He raises an interesting challenge – whether learning the craft of programming (or letterpress printing) might make it harder to view the craft critically. In committing time and labour to learning a craft does one get implicated or corrupted by the craft? Doesn’t one want end up valuing the craft simply because it is something one can now do, and to critique it would be to critique oneself.


Celebrating Stéfan Sinclair: A Dialogue from 2007

Sadly, last Thursday Stéfan Sinclair passed away. A group of us posted an obituary for CSDH-SCHN here,  Stéfan Sinclair, In Memoriam and boy do I miss him already. While the obituary describes the arc of his career I’ve been trying to think of how to celebrate how he loved to play with ideas and code. The obituary tells the what of his life but doesn’t show the how.

You see, Stéfan loved to toy with ideas of text through the development of software toys. The hermeneuti.ca project started with a one day text analysis vacation/hackathon. We decided to leave all the busy work of being an academic in our offices, and spend a day in the TAPoR lab at McMaster. We decided to mess around and try the analytical equivalent of extreme programming. That included a version of “pair programming” where we alternated one at the keyboard doing the analysis while the other would take notes and direct. We told ourselves we would just devote one day without interruptions to this folly and see if together we could take a project from conception to some sort of finished result in a day.

Little did we know we would still be at play right until a few weeks ago. We failed to finish that day, but we got far enough to know we enjoyed the fooling around enough to do it again and again. Those escapes into what we later called agile hermeneutics, to give it a serious name, eventually led to a monster of a project that reflected back on the play. The project culminated in the jointly authored book Hermeneutica (MIT Press, 2016) and Voyant 2.0, both of which tried to not only think-through some of the potential of the play, but also give others a way of making their own interpretative toys (which we called hermeneutica). But these too are perhaps too serious to commemorate Stéfan’s presence.

Which brings me to the dialogue we wrote and performed on “Reading Tools.” Thanks to Susan I was reminded of this script that we acted out at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in June of 2007. May it honour how Stéfan would want to be remembered. Imagine him smiling at the front of the room as he starts,

Sinclair: Why do we care so much for the opinions of other humanists? Why do we care so much whether they use computing in the humanities?

Rockwell: Let me tell you an old story. There was once a titan who invented an interpretative technology for his colleagues. No, … he wasn’t chained to a rock to have his liver chewed out daily. … Instead he did the smart thing and brought it to his dean, convinced the technology would free his colleagues from having to interpret texts and let them get back to the real work of thinking.

Sinclair: I imagine his dean told him that in the academy those who develop tools are not the best judges of their inventions and that he had to get his technology reviewed as if it were a book.

Rockwell: Exactly, and the dean said, “And in this instance, you who are the father of a text technology, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not study the old ways; they will trust to the external tools and not interpret for themselves. The technology which you have discovered is an aid not to interpretation, but to online publishing.”

Sinclair: Yes, Geoffrey, you can easily tell jokes about the academy, paraphrasing Socrates, but we aren’t outside the city walls of Athens, but in the middle of Urbana at a conference. We have a problem of audience – we are slavishly trying to please the other – that undigitized humanist – why don’t we build just for ourselves? …

Enjoy the full dialogue here: Reading Tools Script (PDF).

The bad things that happen when algorithms run online shops

Smart software controls the prices and products you see when you shop online – and sometimes it can go spectacularly wrong, discovers Chris Baraniuk.

The BBC has a stroy about The bad things that happen when algorithms run online shops. The story describes how e-commerce systems designed to set prices dynamically (in comparison with someone else’s price, for example) can go wrong and end up charging customers much more than they will pay or charging them virtually nothing so the store loses money.

The story links to an instructive blog entry by Michael Eisen about how two algorithms pushed up the price on a book into the millions, Amazon’s $23,698,655.93 book about flies. The blog entry is a perfect little story about about the problems you get when you have algorithms responding iteratively to each other without any sanity checks.

What coding really teaches children

You’ve seen movies where programmers pound out torrents of code? That is nothing like reality. Most of the time, coders don’t type at all; they sit and stare morosely at the screen, running their hands through their hair, trying to spot what they’ve done wrong. It can take hours, days, or even weeks. But once the bug is fixed and the program starts working again, the burst of pleasure has a narcotic effect.

Stéfan pointed me to a nice opinion piece about programming education in the Globe titled, Opinion: What coding really teaches children. Clive Thompson that teaching programming in elementary school will not necessarily teach math but it can teach kids about the digital world and teach them the persistence it takes to get complex things working. He also worries, as I do, about asking elementary teachers to learn enough coding to be able to teach it. This could be a recipe for alienating a lot of students who are taught by teachers who haven’t learned.

The Last One

Whatever happened to The Last One software? The Last One (TLO) was a “program generator” that was supposed to take input from a user who wasn’t a programmer and be able to generate a BASIC program.

TLO was developed by a company called D.J. “AI” Systems Ltd. that was set up by David James who became interested in artificial intelligence when he bought a computer for his business, and apparently got so distracted that he was bankrupted by that interest (and lost his computers). It was funded by an equally colourful character, Scotty Bambury who made his money as a tire dealer in Somerset. (See here and here.)

Personal Computer magazine cover from here

The name (The Last One) refers to the expectation that this would be the last software you would need to buy. As the cover image above shows, they were imagining programmers being put out of work by an AI that could reprogram itself. TLO would be the last software you had to buy and possibly the first AI capable of recursively improving itself. DJ AI could have been spinning up the seed AI that could lead to the singularity! 

Here is some of the text from an ad for TLO. The text ran under the spacey headline at the top of this post.

The first program you should buy. …

THE LAST ONE … The program that writes programs!

Now, for the first time, your computer is truly ‘personal’. Now, simply and easily, you can create software the way you want it. …

Yet another sense of “personal” in “personal computer” – a computer where all your software (except, of course, TLO) is personally developed. Imagine a computer that you trained to do what you needed. This was the situation with early mainframes – programmers had to develop the applications individually for each system, they just didn’t have TLO.

The tech ‘solutions’ for coronavirus take the surveillance state to the next level

Neoliberalism shrinks public budgets; solutionism shrinks public imagination.

Evgeny Morozov has crisp essay in The Guardina on how The tech ‘solutions’ for coronavirus take the surveillance state to the next level. He argues that neoliberalist austerity cut our public services back in ways that now we see are endangering lives, but it is solutionism that constraining our ideas about what we can do to deal with situations. If we look for a technical solution we give up on questioning the underlying defunding of the commons.

There is nice interview between Natasha Dow Shüll Morozov on The Folly of Technological Solutionism: An Interview with Evgeny Morozov in which they talk about his book To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism and gamification.

Back in The Guardian, he ends his essay warning that we should focus on picking between apps – between solutions. We should get beyond solutions like apps to thinking politically.

The feast of solutionism unleashed by Covid-19 reveals the extreme dependence of the actually existing democracies on the undemocratic exercise of private power by technology platforms. Our first order of business should be to chart a post-solutionist path – one that gives the public sovereignty over digital platforms.

Welcome to Dialogica: Thinking-Through Voyant!

Do you need online teaching ideas and materials? Dialogica was supposed to be a text book, but instead we are adapting it for use in online learning and self-study. It is shared here under a CC BY 4.0 license so you can adapt as needed.

Stéfan Sinclair and I have put up a web site with tutorial materials for learning Voyant. See Dialogi.ca: Thinking-Through Voyant!.

Dialogica (http://dialogi.ca) plays with the idea of learning through a dialogue. A dialogue with the text; a dialogue mediated by the tool; and a dialogue with instructors like us.

Dialogica is made up of a set of tutorials that students should be able to alone or with minimal support. These are Word documents that you (instructors) can edit to suit your teaching and we are adding to them. We have added a gloss of teaching notes. Later we plan to add Spyral notebooks that go into greater detail on technical subjects, including how to program in Spyral.

Dialogica is made available with a CC BY 4.0 license so you can do what you want with it as long as you give us some sort of credit.

Show and Tell at CHRIN

Stéphane Pouyllau’s photo of me presenting

Michael Sinatra invited me to a “show and tell” workshop at the new Université de Montréal campus where they have a long data wall. Sinatra is the Director of CRIHN (Centre de recherche interuniversitaire sur les humanitiés numériques) and kindly invited me to show what I am doing with Stéfan Sinclair and to see what others at CRIHN and in France are doing.

Continue reading Show and Tell at CHRIN

The End of Agile

I knew the end of Agile was coming when we started using hockey sticks.

From Slashdot I found my way to a good essay on The End of Agile by Kurt Cagle in Forbes.

The Agile Manifesto, like most such screeds, started out as a really good idea. The core principle was simple – you didn’t really need large groups of people working on software projects to get them done. If anything, beyond a certain point extra people just added to the communication impedance and slowed a project down. Many open source projects that did really cool things were done by small development teams of between a couple and twelve people, with the ideal size being about seven.

Cagle points out that certain types of enterprise projects don’t lend themselves to agile development. In a follow up article he provides links to rebuttals and supporting articles including one on Agile and Toxic Masculinity (it turns out there are a lot of sporting/speed talk in agile.) He proposes the Studio model as an alternative and this model is based on how creative works like movies and games get made. There is an emphasis on creative direction and vision.

I wonder how this critique of agile could be adapted to critique agile-inspired management techniques?



$432 000 painting “by AI” sold at Christie’s

A painting created using GANs (generative adversarial networks) sold for $432 000 at Christies today.

Last year a $432 000 painting “by AI” sold at Christie’s. The painting was created by a collective called Obvious. They used a Generative Adversarial Network. In an essay titled, A naive yet educated perspective on Art and Artificial Intelligence, they talk about how they created the work.

Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs) analyze tens of thousands of images, learn from their features, and are trained with the aim to create new images that are undistinguishable from the original data source.

They also point out that many of the same concerns people have about AI art today were voiced about photography in the 19th century. Photography automated the image making business much as AIs are automating other tasks.

Can we use these GANs for other generative scholarship?