The Index Thomisticus as Project

This is a story from early in the technological revolution, when the application was out searching for the hardware, from a time before the Internet, a time before the PC, before the chip, before the mainframe. From a time even before programming itself. (Winter 1999, 3)

Introduction

Father Busa is rightly honoured as one of the first humanists to use computing for a humanities research task. He is considered the founder of humanities computing for his innovative application of information technology and for the considerable influence of his project and methods, not to mention his generosity to others. He did not only work out how use the information technology of the late 1940s and 1950s, but he pioneered a relationship with IBM around language engineering and with their support generously shared his knowledge widely. Ironically, while we have all heard his name and the origin story of his research into presence in Aquinas, we know relatively little about what actually occupied his time – the planning and implementation of what was for its time one of the major research computing projects, the Index Thomsticus.

This blog essay is an attempt to outline some of the features of the Index Thomisticus as a large-scale information technology project as a way of opening a discussion on the historiography of computing in the humanities. This essay follows from a two-day visit to the Busa Archives at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore. This visit was made possible by Marco Carlo Passarotti who directs the “Index Thomisticus” Treebank project in CIRCSE (Centro Interdisciplinare di Ricerche per la Computerizzazione dei Segni dell’Espressione – Interdisciplinary Centre for Research into the Computerization of Expressive Signs) which evolved out of GIRCSE (Gruppo not Centro – or Group not Centre), the group that Father Busa helped form in the 1980s. Passarotti not only introduced me to the archives, he also helped correct this blog as he is himself an archive of stories and details. Growing up in Gallarate, his family knew Busa, he studied under Busa, he took over the project, and he is one of the few who can read Busa’s handwriting.

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Original GIRCSE Plaque kept by Passarotti

Continue reading The Index Thomisticus as Project

Where Probability Meets Literature and Language: Markov Models for Text Analysis

3quarksdaily, one of my favourite sites to read just posted a very nice essay by Sanjukta Paul on Where Probability Meets Literature and Language: Markov Models for Text Analysis. The essay starts with Markov, who in the 19th century was doing linguistic analysis by hand and goes to authorship attribution by people like Fiona Tweedie (the image above is from a study she co-authored). It also explains markov models on the way.

The Digital Humanist

Fiormonte_DH_Cover_Front_CP_WEB

On Thursday I was part of a conference here in Verona (see my conference notes) that celebrated the seminar I led at the University of Verona and the English publication of The Digital Humanist by Domenico Fiormonte, Francesca Tomasi, and Teresa Numerico (with a Preface by me). This is the English adaptation/translation of their 2010 Italian book which has finally come out in English. Here is the edited text of my presentation. (Thanks to Domenico for helping me with the Italian!)


Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Today we are here to celebrate the end of a laboratory on digital humanities and a beginning with the publication of the The Digital Humanist: A Critical Inquiry by Domenico Fiormonte, Teresa Numerico and Francesca Tomasi.

Oggi si celebra la fine questa laboratorio che abbiamo creato insieme e una la publicazione in Inglese del libro L’umanista digitale che è stato pubblicato per la prima volta in Italiano nel 2010 e poi aggiornato e tradotto in inglese da Desmond Schmidt e Christopher Ferguson.

The English publication of this book is important to the book because part of what makes it “A Critical Inquiry” is that it questions the universality of English. I use the word universality in two senses, both of which are to be questioned:

First, that there is an assumption that we need a universal language or metalanguage – a dream of philosophers, a dream that can be said to have led to the idea of a universal machine or computer,

E secondo, uso la parola universale per il modo in cui l’Inglese invade l’informatica, dai motori di recerca ai linguaggi di programmazione, come abbiamo sentito oggi nelle presentazioni degli studenti.

Il filosofo della scienza e della tecnologia, Langdon Winner, ha scritto un bel testo dal titolo: “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” In questo articolo Winner cerca di navigare tra due posizioni opposte – quella del determinismo tecnologico che sostiene che ogni messaggio è determinato dal tecnologia–

And, he argues that neither can technologies be said to be neutral – the argument of so many technologists that relieves them of the need to take responsibility for what they develop.

Instead Winner argues that we have to attend to the artefacts themselves – some bring baggage or structure experience and some less so.

One of the great contributions of this book is just such a critical attending to the digital artefacts themselves – especially those like search engines or electronic texts that are important to us in the humanities.

Questo libro, invece di parlare dell’informatica in generale – parla delle tecnologie che usiamo come umanisti e ci aiuta a capire l’importanza del nostro lavoro – infatti direi che ci aiuta capire come dobbiamo assumerci la responsabilità per le nostre technologie.

As Heidegger and others point out, sometimes the hardest thing to do is to notice technologies that we use every day like the glasses on the end of our nose. We need to find ways back to noticing the systems of ready-to-hand in which we navigate our desires and dreams. That includes for Heidegger also noticing the way language itself structures our thinking.

But how can we do that? How can we attend? What practices can we draw on from the humanities?

Lev Manovich in an online essay talks about the comedy of breakdowns as an interruption that forces us to notice technology – something that was normal in Russia, but isn’t normal in the West.

Siegfried Zielinski – in Deep Time of the Media proposes an archaeology that pays attention to the failed technologies – the branches that have been left out of the origin myths.

This book provides, I think, three other, uniquely humanities ways into thinking again about technology:

First, it is written from the margins – at least the linguistic margins of an Anglophone discourse of technology (and digital humanities.) It was first written in Italian and draws on an Italian humanities computing tradition. The book reminds us to pay attention to language, so important to the humanities and technology too.

Second, it historicizes the technologies we take for granted – looking, for example, at key figures who imagined our cybernetic future.

Terzo, questo libro non soltanto guarda agli artefatti e ai sistemi in un modo critico, ma guarda anche ai modi in cui noi organizziamo il discorso accademico sull’informatica umanistica – direi che tratta le digital humanities come artefatto umano che deve anche essere criticato, specialmente perché siamo ciechi ai modi nei quali l’organizzazione della disciplina segue la cultura anglo-sassone. The digital humanist ci chiede di criticare come siamo e potremmo essere dei digital humanists. Questa è un questione di ethos – come viviamo con la tecnologia, come ci organizziamo per porre attenzione alla tecnologia

E’ per questo che raccomando questo libro specialmente a voi dotorandi.

For those of you just discovering the digital as a subject for humanities attention I recommend this book – it is a way in for humanists.

Voglio concludere con un commento sulla presentazione dei libri – se un libro e come una neonato – un natio come ne parlava Vico –è anche importante come il libro viene educato insegnato e interpretato.

Remember the lesson of Frankenstein. The tragedy is not that he was made of parts, but that he was abandoned at birth. The same can be said of the digital humanities – a field made of parts.

Questa e la seconda volta che aiuto a presentare questo libro. La prima volta è stata la settimana scorsa a Roma. Direi che addesso sono diventato un presentatore con esperienza nell’ allevamento. Posso annuciare il tour?

As I was just saying in Italian, this is the second time I present this book – and I’ve chosen to do it in two tongues – English and Italian. In this I’m drawing on a Canadian political tradition of bilingual presentations which I have always admired. Such bilingual talks weave two languages to make something that is not a universal language but is free of the particular blindness of a particular language.

My reason for switching is that if we are to avoid the universalizing tendency of technologies of thinking like language we have to habituate ourselves to travel back and forth translating and thinking across. That used to be obvious to the humanities, but we seem to have forgotten that discipline.

Attraversare le lingue è qualcosa che voi Italiani dovete fare per forza – per noi anglo-sassoni è una nuova esperienza – troppo volte aspettiamo che l’atro venga da noi invece di incontrarci a metà strada.

Nel frattempo, The Digital Humanist è un importante tentativo che attraversa Italiano e Inglese per invitarci tutti a dialogare.

 

Passage: a Gamma256 video game by Jason Rohrer

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I had reason to revisit Passage the game of life and death by Jason Rohrer. Along with the game he provided a Creator’s Statement describes the game.

Passage is meant to be a memento mori game. It presents an entire life, from young adulthood through old age and death, in the span of five minutes. Of course, it’s a game, not a painting or a film, so the choices that you make as the player are crucial. There’s no “right” way to play Passage, just as there’s no right way to interpret it.

What could be more emotional than one’s own death? For more on the game and Rohrer see The Video-Game Programmer Saving Our 21st-Century Souls from Esquire.

Prius: Impossible Girls

moeprius

From a story in The Asahi Shimbun on Toyota goes manga for ‘Prius! Impossible Girls’ campaign I learned today that Toyota has developed a set of IMPOSSIBLE GIRLS for the different components of the Prius. Check out the site. They have something like 40 manga girl characters for the components of the latest Prius. I must say I find this anthropomorphicization rather tacky. The characters are all young girls that have nothing really to do with cars. What does it say about the Prius that they are pitching it though infantilized manga babes?

Paolo Sordi: I blog therefore I am

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On the ethos of digital presence: I participated today in a panel launching the Italian version of Paolo Sordi’s book I Am: Remix Your Web Identity. (The Italian title is Bloggo Con WordPress Dunque Sono.) The panel included people like Domenico Fiormonte, Luisa Capelli, Daniela Guardamangna, Raul Mordenti, and, of course, Paolo Sordi.

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Which Words Are Used To Describe White And Black NFL Prospects?

Graphic with words

I’ve been meaning to blog this 2014 use of Voyant Tools for some time. Which Words Are Used To Describe White And Black NFL Prospects?. Deadspin did a neat project where they gathered pre-drafting scout reports on black and white football players and then analyzed them with Voyant showing how some words are used more for white or black players.

Continue reading Which Words Are Used To Describe White And Black NFL Prospects?

The Malware Museum

There are a number of stories about The Malware Museum on the Internet Archive. This archive gathers a number of 1980s and 1990s viruses (just the animated parts) with emulators so you can run them and see their visual effects. The Toronto Star story has a quote from Hyponnen on the art of the early viruses,

“You could call it an art form,” he said in an interview. “These early virus-writers were expressing themselves with animations and sounds.”

It wasn’t until later that viruses started encrypting things and blackmailing you to decrypt them or doing other things to make money.

There is an extended talk (50 minutes) by Mikko Hypponen, the security specialist who gave this collection, on The History and the Evolution of Computer Viruses. The talk starts with the first PC virus BRAIN that he traced back to two brothers in Packistan to Stuxnet. (For a good book on Stuxnet see Kim Zetter’s Countdown to Zero Day.)

Big computers, big hair: the women of Bell Labs in the 1960s

Picture of Bea

The Guardian has posted a set of pictures by Larry Luckham who took a camera into work in 1967 to take pictures of life at Bell Labs, see Big computers, big hair: the women of Bell Labs in the 1960s. That the collection is entirely of women raises some questions. As the Slashdot article post that pointed me to this collection puts it:

What’s noticeable about the pictures, is that they are of woman. I don’t think this is a result of the photographer just photographing “eye candy”. I think it’s because he was surrounded by women, whom from his comments he very much respected and hence photographed.

In those times, wrangling with a computer was very much seen as “clerical work” and therefore the domain of woman. This can be seen as far back as Bletchley Park and before that Ada Lovelace.

Yet 50 years later, the IT industry has turned full-circle. Look at any IT company and the percentage of women doing software development or similar is woeful. Why and how has this happened? Discuss.

Papers, Please

Papers, Please: Screen Shot

Just finished playing Papers, Please. Very depressing game that tries to give you a sense of what it is like to be a border guard checking things and being watched. It isn’t “fun” but it uses anxiety well. I found myself stressing out as I tried to process enough people to pay for my family and save some money. With discussions in Europe about bringing border controls back to the Schengen Area this sort of control is back “on the map.”

The screen shot shows the simple 8-bit interface. The game has a retro interface to go with the feeling of an Eastern-block country border.