Stop, Collaborate and ….

So, I decided that I wanted to go ahead and try to make a digital project before making any commentary about collaboration, because I wanted to have a more personal understanding of how collaborating with people outside of my field might have helped me make my project better. As people may or may not know, I hit the ground running here, I had my idea, I had my concept, I knew what I wanted to do, and I thought it would be easy to take care of. Of course, the practice doesn’t always turn out the way the theory says it should. A broken keyboard, upturned chair, and flipped table later, I have a barebones representation of the idea that I wanted to construct (you can see it here, but remember it’s still a work in progress both conceptually and practically).

After working with Adobe Illustrator on a documentation/conservation project in Bulgaria this past summer, I have to admit that I found Google Maps’ polygon function a bit cumbersome (and more than a little frustrating at times), but I think that it did the job I wanted it to do (if only in a rough fashion). In retrospect, I think that I would try to do the same using Google Earth next time because I like the feel of the software a bit better (whether or not I could import/export the map onto a website is another issue entirely).

The interactive map uses a site map of Ai Khanoum published by Paul Bernard (the original excavator of Ai Khanoum) in Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the Nation Museum, Kabul, and while I finally figured out how to hamfist what I wanted in the text boxes into the text boxes, I had a number of problems with the mapbuilder application. In the first case, I couldn’t insert images per the UI tool because while they would show in the edit box after insertion, they would be lost to the nether upon attempting to save them and preview them. After completing the project and embedding it in my primary site, I decided that I didn’t like the width of the text popup boxes. I went to resize them, and somehow, after doing so, 5 of the 8 images decided to abandon my map and join the images that opted for a place in the nether. I have to say, I’m quite happy that I made the text in a word document before inputting it into the map, because if I hadn’t then hours worth of work would have been lost entirely and would have had to have been completely redone, rather than just having the images and additions readded and the markers resubmitted. Overall I think that the application is usable enough (it’s certainly intuitive), but it absolutely needs an undo (and redo) function added to it, and the problems with the user interface need to be ironed out.

Insofar as aesthetics were concerned, as an art historian I feel as though I am a pretty good judge of such things, so I thought that I would be safe constructing a site that I felt worked. My fiance, an MFA candidate at George Mason, duly informed me of my ignorance and graciously aided me in making something that was aesthetically pleasing to people with better taste than myself.

As of this writing I have only just completed the maps that I have listed (they might be 30 minutes old by now) and I am thinking about adding a gallery page so that I might provide a bit more context for the artifact images that are displayed in the imapbuilder interactive map. In addition to adding context, I am hoping to add more images to present a more accurate depiction of the excavation findings (as seen in Bernard’s chapter). I most certainly still have to add a bibliography page for the writings and I have to admit, it would have been nice if all of the entries were like Rachael Mairs, who has made all of her papers and book chapters (that I know of) available on

Insofar as collaboration is concerned? I definitely know that I’ll never be well-versed enough to do all of this “stuff” alone in any sort of a compelling fashion. I not only lack the competency to deal with complex digital tools without fury rising to an unhealthy level, I don’t really know what will be the most compelling means to approach the problem that I’m trying to get at or which tools are best suited for my needs without serious inquiry. I think if I was left alone, I could have put more effort into researching mapping tools and websites than the history itself and I probably still would have produced something sub-par in comparison to a collaborative effort with a professional.


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Rethink all the methods

I think that the readings for this week were quite interesting, but I’m not really sure how to respond to them. This week feels like that awkward, nebulous space between theory and practice.  The conception that history needs to be taught and approached in new ways doesn’t seem revolutionary to me, it almost seems common-senseical. Similarly, it doesn’t seem groundbreaking to want to have students partake in different types of learning, of expanding the modes of knowledge production. Of course, this is speaking in abstractions, in theoretics, not in practicality. In practice, it’s easiest to use what’s been tried and tested – easier, not necessarily better.

I feel like I have constantly come back to Thomas Kuhn in this class, and perhaps that’s because what he describes as the crisis in Normal Science and the following revolution is exactly what this class is indicative of in the Humanities. If there wasn’t a perceived crisis in the methodological approaches in the Humanities, then we wouldn’t be worried about doing things differently, we would be complacent in our “Normal History” or our “Normal Art History” or our “Normal <insert humanities discipline here>.”

The real question for me is not will things change or how they will change but when they will change. T. Kelly’s, Teaching History in the Digital Age, investigates the hows, the whys, and the potential for change with substantial rigor in chapter 4. Engaging students and having them thoughtfully approach the subject matter at hand is important, but I wonder how long it will take universities and professors to give up the ghost of the last 100 years of history production/teaching methodologies and allow a new paradigm to formulate. Kuhn might say that everyone who’s invested in the current paradigm might have to either die or retire for that to occur, but clearly there are already bastions out there wherein the shift is occurring. In any event, I’ve always found historical eras of transition to be quite interesting, so I find myself fascinated to feel like I’m watching one occur all around me (both inside academia and outside).

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I’ve got 99 problems and an API is one

So, we’ve been talking about some pretty technical stuff this semester, and while I certainly consider myself a denizen of the internet, I acknowledge my lack of technological savvy on a regular basis. If computing doesn’t have something to do with video games, videos, social media, or using an already established application, then I find myself floundering in understanding. This is pretty funny since my first career track as an undergraduate was in Computer Science (followed by Engineering).

It’s been a long, long time since my programming days, and it feels like I’ve easily forgotten more than I ever learned, but in thinking about the projects that we’ve been assigned in this class, it seems to me that a more robust understanding of APIs, how to use them, and how they work would be important for a lot of us. Taking my own conceptual project for instance: I’m sure that an API would integrate the timeline function into the mapping function, and the simultaneously inform the rendering function so that the information could be projected into a video format. Now, I recognize, after reading a bit here and a bit there about APIs, how to program them, how to conceptualize them, and how they should function, that the world of APIs is beyond my minimal ability to comprehend language, and that any foray into that field on my behalf would have to come from hands on learning. Since that’s not really a possibility at this point, I think that instead, I would like to talk about collaboration insofar as APIs are concerned. How do I inform a computer scientist or a programmer what I want, how I want it to work, and make it complex enough to do all the things I want, but simple enough that something doesn’t get lost in the communicative effort (understanding that sometimes it’s hard to even communicate ideas in a succinct format, let alone in a format that’s compatible with programming – I certainly remember that logic and English don’t necessarily mesh well)? If the mystery to me that is API is not as mysterious as I once thought, then how can I go about using these tools myself?

The readings that I did were interesting, but abstract from where I’m sitting, and I feel like this would be a point wherein collaboration would be best, which is fine to me, but I’m still interested in both how to use/build APIs and in how to convey what I want included in an API in a way that’s meaningful to the programmer that I would end up working with.

Readings: HowStuffWorks, Quickstudy

Video: Google Tech Talks (there is a slideshow available for this that is Googleable, but I found that devoid of the context that the speaker provides it was meaningless to me.


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So, I Heard You Liked Algorithms (Or, I Like Big Data and I Cannot Lie)

I find big data to be a fascinating subject.  There are quite a few benefits that it offers scholars in all fields, especially insofar as algorithmically searching large, unwieldy data sources is concerned. Some scholars would approach the interaction and interrogation of big data with some hesitation and would remind of us of the multiple shortcomings that it offers as a research tool. Of course, they still praise its benefits – and rightly so, these scholars aren’t scared to use big data, they just want to feel out the limitations that it presents and to ensure that those limitations are recognized as such. Lev Manovich wrote about some of these problems, and one concern that he noted in particular struck me as being somewhat interesting because it seems to go against a lot of what post-modern scholars would stipulate is a very normal means of interacting with the world.

In particular Manovich cautions the user of big data research to be wary of taking the views and ideas expressed via social media at face value. His concern is that there is potential lack of authenticity at work in a socially constructed environment. I find the assertion to be intriguing, because it almost seems to necessitate that the private sphere is more authentic than the public sphere, disregarding the conception of the multiplicity of Self, or the notion that people might be an amalgamation of varied Selves rather than one consistent Self. In any event, I think that this is an interesting conception that might problematize “deep data” as Manovich calls it (because sometimes it lies to you, or tells a truth that you simply don’t understand in the moment).

Do we attempt to discount these “inauthentic data”? Perhaps we simply let our algorithms gather all the data that they can (and if they gather too much data, maybe we put some algorithms in those algorithms to sort those data) and assume that brute forcing extraordinary amounts of data relegates inauthenticity to the realm of statistical irrelevancy? In that light do we think that the collection of enough “surface data” can lead to “deep data” or that it might simply inform avenues of exploration that we might not have thought of previously?  Are the limitations of big data only limitations until our technological prowess is advanced enough to construct an AI that’s so intelligent that it can become self-aware, ushering in the era of our new computer overlords?


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Project Concept

As I said in my last blog post, I wanted to look into ways to more rigorously deal with time and space with my digital project. There are several good timeline tools out there, timemap perhaps being the closest to what I want, but none of them display the temporal component in a way that I find to be particularly compelling. Similar to timemap, my tool would allow users to input information via datasets in a timeline which would then populate a map, but unlike timemap, which shows the current range of the timeline visibly on the map, my proposed tool would animate the timeline and map together to showcase the timeline in real-time. What this means is that an educator or student looking at the video output would be able to see coterminous events occurring simultaneously, and would not have to see events that span a period of time as though they happened contemporaneously with each other. Unlike traditional analog maps, the time element showcased within this tool’s output would actually follow the time continuum set forth by the user (a year might take a second, a minute, or ten minutes – entirely contingent upon the user’s desire based on what she or he is looking at). It is also imperative that the tool not be limited to having to have longitudinal and latitudinal information, because for scholars/students/educators that are not looking at specific places, but instead at regions and large scale movements (such as cultural transmission, warfare, migration, disease outbreaks, etc.), loci of impact may not be as important as the subsequent zone of impact and in how the movements spread over time (of course, the longitudinal and latitudinal elements would remain available, so those loci could still be charted).

I envision the tool as being either standalone or web based – I’m open to suggestions as both have positives and negatives. In either instance there would be the possibility for uploading findings and maps to a website database. I’m unsure if the best practice for vetting submissions would be through moderating them or in allowing reviews of each map’s relative usefulness. Both come with some problems – it seems impossible to have peer review capability of all fields that might use this tool on hand in house to genuinely moderate incoming submissions, but allowing the denizens of the internet to engage in a review process doesn’t sound too compelling either (we’ve all been privy to comment sections before). A potential answer to reviews is to only allow people logged in with authentic .edu emails to make commentary, but that might alienate people who are not at educational institutions for any of a number of potential reasons. Again, I would be open to suggestions here.

I see a lot of applicability here in what scholars, students, and educators can use the tool for across a wide range of fields but because I’m trying to conceptualize such a big project I’m sure that I’m missing some critical components that might make the project more viable or that might impede it from being viable at all. I’m hoping that everyone will be able to give me some things to look for or advice on implementation.

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Time And Relative Dimension(s) In Space

This week’s readings about Spatial History really resonated with me for a number of reasons. I love maps, not only because I enjoy the conception of cartography and the creative panache that we can find therein, or because I am constantly getting lost both in real life and in readings – I love maps because I find that I can best understand things relationally. For me a map doesn’t have to be a picture that shows geographical locations, it can be an abstract, theoretical conception relating several ideas together. But those aren’t the types of maps that I want to talk about today. Today I want to talk about visual maps, both analog and digital, and how they represent (or fail to represent) both time and space compellingly. The following map is fairly standard insofar as traditional textbook maps are concerned:


Figure 1: The Second Punic War. Map located at

As we can see it deals with the Second Punic War over the period of 218 BCE to 202 BCE. I bring this image up because in “What is Spatial History,” Richard White asserts that, “[h]istorians by definition focus on time.” This clearly rings true considering the nature of the work, but that does not mean that a tool such as the map above does a compelling job of integrating the temporal aspect of a conflict into the spatial aspect of the geography. I don’t know that any analog maps that I’ve ever looked at convey time in a meaningful nature.  They most certainly convey time; the map above absolutely indicates the passage of time over the course of the war. But it seems to me that they remove the temporal element from time, forcing the viewer into an abstract conflict between what the eye sees as something that appears to be happening in an instant, due to the arrows and the battles all inhabiting the same map contemporaneously, and what the mind is articulating happens over some abstract period of time, due to the numbers that it sees accompanying the battles here and there.

Although this map made use of digital tools to add context to each location (as can be seen in the link), it failed to make full use of its digital reality insofar as the temporal aspect is concerned. The underlying idea that informed the product is rooted in traditional analog format and therefore time is not expressed as fully as it could be. For a more compelling treatment of time and space see Figure 9 in White’s “What is Spatial History,” which is perhaps the most compelling map that I think was presented in this week’s readings explicitly for the way it dealt with both the temporal and spatial aspects of the subject matter (that said, the most aesthetically appealing map to me was definitely Dustin Cable’s, “The Racial Dot Map: One Dot Per Person for the Entire United States”).

The conception that I’m speaking to here, a more robust and meaningful integration of relative time in tools that aid in visual representation, is something that I will be exploring in my project proposal, and therefore is a subject that I will be commenting on more in the week to come.


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Don’t Fear the Web

Don't Fear the Web

Found a picture I took of that VHS tape I was talking about in an earlier blog @

Still makes me chuckle a bit

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October 3, 2013 · 6:47 PM