the Man-Machine


Willard posted an interesting note on Humanist 23.167 about human-machine interaction before cybernetics. He mentions how the cyborg argument was in circulation before Wiener and gives as an example from Life Magazine in 1944, “Mechanical Brains: Working in Metal Boxes, Computing Devices Aim Guns and Bombs with Inhuman Accuracy.” While the article isn’t on line there are Alfred Crimi drawings in the Hagley Digital Archives for the article. The images, as Willard says are startling. They show man-machine more than any explanation I can come up with.

Then again there is Randall Jarrell’s poem “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” which is also about just such a Sperry turret,

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Note that for Jarrell the machine is the State of which the bomber is but a belly.

Tofu: text viewer with columns


Christian sent me a link to a Mac application, Tofu which presents text in a view with narrow columns of text so you scroll right rather than down. The application makes an interesting point about reading on the screen – why do we have to scroll down? The author, Amar Sagoo, puts it thus,

Tofu is a novel application to address the common problem that people don’t like reading text on the screen.

Why is that anyway? I believe there are two main reasons: line width and visual instability.

Text is usually very wide on the screen, which makes going from the end of one line to the beginning of the next difficult. That’s why newspapers have narrow columns: It makes them faster to read.

Saving Texts From Oblivion: Oxford U. Press on the Google Book Settlement

Tim Barton, the president of Oxford University Press has written a thoughtful article for the Chronicle on the Google Book Search settlement, “Saving Text From Oblivion: Oxford U. Press on the Google Book Settlement.” Barton makes the point that,

What once seemed at least debatable has now become irrefutable: If it’s not online, it’s invisible. While increasing numbers of long-out-of-date, public-domain books are now fully and freely available to anyone with a browser, the vast majority of the scholarship published in book form over the last 80 years is today largely overlooked by students, who limit their research to what can be discovered on the Internet.

Barton argues for accepting the settlement, even if it is imperfect. This came to me via Twitter from Andrew Logemann.

CAUT/ACPPU: Arbitrator Dismisses Google Grievance

Our CAUT/ACPPU Bulletin has a front-page story about the Lakehead Faculty Association grievance against Lakehead for moving everyone onto gmail. While the arbitrator decided to dismiss the grievance, I doubt this will go far – I suspect all sorts of bodies from Faculty Associations to student unions will start pressuring their univeristies to protect our privacy better. Here is a quote from the story.

In his decision, arbitrator Joseph Carrier acknowledged the university exposed its aca­demic staff to greater danger because “…the likelihood of such incursions by U.S. authority into a private e-mail system (Lakehead’s own former system) was marginal compared to what might occur in the presence of the Google system.”

He also commented favourably on the opinion of Stephen Schulhofer, the faculty association’s expert witness and the Robert B. McKay Professor of Law at New York University.

“I am satisfied Professor Schulhofer’s opinion was valid and more than adequate to confirm that e-mail originating within Canada and coming within the jurisdiction of U.S. authorities would be open to surveillance by agencies of that country and, but for safeguards here, would expose the author to potential consequences of the U.S. antiterrorism legislation,” Carrier’s decision states.

Yet, the collective agreement language does not prevent the employer from endangering the privacy of LUFA members because the agreement does not specify the obligation to ensure “absolute privacy to faculty members,” Carrier argues. (Page A1, “Arbitrator Dismisses Google Grievance”, Vol. 56, No. 6, June 2009)

Writing as Programming as Writing

Stephen Ramsay has created a xtra normal movie of our Untitled #4 (PDF) dialogue on Writing as Programming as Writing. xtr normal lets you create a movie from text using text-to-speech with virtual characters – an interesting variant on visualization and a different way of representing a text. I want it known that I look nothing like the character he chose for me.

Update: The dialogue is now up on YouTube in two parts. See Part I and Part II.

The Lost Museum

Screen shot from inside the Lost Museum

Screen shot from inside the Lost Museum

I just stumbled on the Lost Museum web site which is about the American Museum that Phineas Taylor Barnum opened in New York in 1841. Until 1865 when it burned, it offered everything from stuffed animals, wax figures, voyeuristic exhibits and strange documents.

What is interesting is that they (the American Social History Project) created a 3D model of the museum and you can explore it through an interactive interface that lets you pan, zoom and connect to the archives. It has a somewhat 1990s feel as if created by Voyager in Quicktime VR. There is a very good reflective essay by Joshua Brown, “History and the Web, From the Illustrated Newspaper to Cyberspace: Visual Technologies and Interaction in the Nineteenth and Twenty-First Centuries” where he talks about that period when new media designers were trying to emulate Myst,

Emulating 3-D games such as Myst and Doom, The Lost Museum took users on a seamless, self-contained narrative journey, preserving (as best as we could given the technical limitations of online technology) an illusion of visiting another place in another time. On the other hand, The Lost Museum transcended commercial 3-D explorations’ vapid content while also rejecting the fragmentation of data-bases and the derivative hybridity or scrapbook orientation of most multi-media.

That was our intention. We quickly learned, however, that we had fallen into a pattern that is seemingly intrinsic to the spatial interactive game approach. Instead of expanding the historical imagination of users and promoting their active inquiry, we had actually limited the choices open to them, in particular curtailing their ability to make informational linkages and to draw their own conclusions. In short, the narrative outcomes were preordained, confirming only the predominance of designers over users—as demonstrated by ‘test’ audiences of teachers and students who gleefully clicked on different 3-D exhibits but professed utter bewilderment about the significance of what they found. (On the coercive power of the multi-media designer, see Cubitt 2000, pp. 167–168.)

None the less, I find the virtual space compelling, if only because it too is of its time. Every museum is both about something and an exhibit itself of the concerns of its age. Just as the American Museum was in its eclectic entertainment a work of the 19th century, so the Lost Museum is also one of the best of a particular type of experiment.

centerNet and Google Book Search

centerNet met with a representative from Google Book Search, Jon Orwant, about how Google could support the humanities. I believe there are four levels of collaboration.

  • Content Curation Interface: We could partner to make possible the careful cleaning and encoding of the books scanned. In most cases the quality of the OCRed text is still poor. It would be nice to have a social layer that allowed people to sign out texts voluntarily to clean them out. We could also help with the selection of editions that are scanned.
  • Collections Research Interface: Google could make it possible to build tools that let users create research study collections that are subsets of Google Books that can be studied. For this we need access to an API so research portals can access collections not just individual texts. Google will want assurance that those who have access don’t abuse it.
  • Social Research Tools Interface: We need a way to run tools against texts and collections. We need an API so that tools can be plugged in that can then access texts and collections. Again there is an issue of access. Perhaps Open Social could become a standard for tool plug-ins.
  • Republication Interface: We need a way to be able create study sites for research groups or courses that make some subset of texts and tools available for a specific purpose.

In all these cases it is clear that Google doesn’t want to read applications, correct lost of texts, or build tools. For that matter none of us know what tools should be written. They see themselves doing smart engineering that creates a platform that enables others who might build layers (research tools, collections portals, and so on) which might be used by others.

John spoke to the centerNet meeting at DH 2009. The motto of Google is to organize the world’s information and make it accessible and useful. The crawl, index, and search the web. One can index and search the world’s books, but it is hard to crawl books (or newpapers or movies.)

There are about 120 millions works in the world and 165 million manifestations. They have an agreement in principle with the publishers that has still not been ruled on. (I think I have that right.) If it is approved in court then Google will be able to some cool things:

  • Authors/publishers will be able to opt in or out.
  • If authors/publishers opt in then Google could sell their book if they are still under copyright. They have algorithmic pricing to figure out what to charge.
  • They could give universities access to the full text of collections of out of date works for a license.
  • They could create a terminal at every library that has every book that is out of copyright.
  • They could create a “research corpus” that could be used released for experimentation under a creative commons license. This could be used in contests like T-REX.

John gave some fascinating examples of things his intern has been doing from within the firewall.

Tools for Data-Driven Scholarship » Final Report

I’ve been meaning to blog about the Final Report of the Tools for Data-Driven Scholarship Workshop. This workshop was organized by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason and the Maryland Institute for Technology and the Humanities in October of 2008 and they have put up the final report with a number of sensible recommendations. The report summarizes the issues around tool development, the need for reward systems, and it discussed the idea of an “invisible college” of scholars/tool developers who would exchange ideas and support. They distilled the problems down to:

1. Tools need to work better with other tools.

2. Tools need to connect better with content and use that content in a more robust way.

3. Tools need better mechanisms for being found by the scholars who need them.  They are not currently finding their audience(s).

They acknowledge that “There may be intellectual and even practical value in reinvention-in ‘recreating the wheel.’” This is a tack we need to take seriously since tool development in the humanities has been going on since the 70s (or earlier if you count Busa’s work). Perhaps the reinvention in the humanities is like reinterpretation – a sign of life not a problem.