16.650 consumptive humanities

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Thu May 01 2003 - 02:15:51 EDT

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 650.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                         Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

       [1] From: cwulfman <cwulfman@perseus.tufts.edu> (26)
             Subject: Re: 16.646 consumptive humanities [degradation]

       [2] From: Norman Hinton <hinton@springnet1.com> (8)
             Subject: Re: 16.646 consumptive humanities

       [3] From: Wendell Piez <wapiez@mulberrytech.com> (153)
             Subject: Re: 16.646 consumptive humanities

             Date: Thu, 01 May 2003 06:46:35 +0100
             From: cwulfman <cwulfman@perseus.tufts.edu>
             Subject: Re: 16.646 consumptive humanities [degradation]

    I'd like to address Stephen Ramsay's comments---as someone who has
    traversed the technology-humanities "divide" several times (my vita bares
    the traces), I cheerfully confess to having been quite thoroughly degraded.
    Like Stephen, I read encoding as interpretation, and vice versa, and I try
    to impart the same in my teaching: learn to erode disciplinary escarpments
    that impede progressive understanding (a humanistic goal if ever there was

    Perhaps, though, Stephen's metaphor of "going deep into the machine"
    suggests the shifting of knowledge strata required for well-informed
    humanistic study. Mastery of Latin and Greek was once prerequisite to
    serious scholarship, but that requirement has been eroded in most
    sub-disciplines as the objectives of scholarly pursuit have changed. Were
    there world enough and time, one would surely strive to achieve prospective
    knowledge, but in our professional lives we seem to labor in the mines:
    even as we traverse the synclines and anticlines, we look for the most
    productive veins (those yielding the most valuable ore in the current coin
    of the realm) and delve deepest there. Will the most valuable ore for the
    humanities next come from within the machine? If so, what are the best
    tools with which to equip ourselves and our students to pursue it? If one
    had to choose, would one favor the software engineering pick-axe or the
    logic and semiotics astrolabe? (I'll take both, thank you, along with my
    linguistics shovel and my philosophical drill, and a pack-full of good books.)

    Clifford E. Wulfman
    Editor for Literature in English
    Perseus Project
    Tufts University

             Date: Thu, 01 May 2003 06:46:53 +0100
             From: Norman Hinton <hinton@springnet1.com>
             Subject: Re: 16.646 consumptive humanities

    Willard, I spent many years programming materials for various projects,
    teaching and research, and I know the lure of it. It is fun to [program
    and I often did jobs for friends which had little to do with my own classes
    or research, as a favor and because it was so enjoyable.
    I don't think it made me less of a scholar or teacher, through. IT was
    just something else to do that I liked -- I also do photography, stamp
    collecting, book collecting, fishing....all of which are fun and require
    skills of one sort or another. Programming was an ancillary skill, I think.

             Date: Thu, 01 May 2003 06:47:13 +0100
             From: Wendell Piez <wapiez@mulberrytech.com>
             Subject: Re: 16.646 consumptive humanities

    Willard --

    What a collection of deeply thought-provoking postings you have inspired
    with your latest!

    One by one (warning: long)....

    At 01:58 AM 4/30/2003, someone wrote:
    > Date: Wed, 30 Apr 2003 06:49:22 +0100
    > From: Matt Kirschenbaum <mgk3k@jefferson.village.Virginia.EDU>
    > >
    >Perhaps what we need is a catalog or database of homegrown tools that
    >have been developed by members of this community.

    Matt, this is a great job to contemplate; the question being whether
    there's finally enough critical mass amidst all the centrifugal/centripetal
    forces. We should communicate further.

    > Date: Wed, 30 Apr 2003 06:50:44 +0100
    > From: "Liz Walter" <eawalter@email.arizona.edu>
    > Subject: RE: 16.642 consumptive humanities
    >I have to agree that XML is the way to go in humanities computing.

    At least for now! :->

    >Microsoft has two tools which will help the budding XML builder.
    >1)XSD Inference Utility -"By using the Microsoft.XSDInference.Infer class, a
    >developer can easily infer a schema for an instance document. The inferred
    >schema can be refined with related document instances so that it can be used
    >to describe and validate a whole class of XML documents."

    If you can put up with XSD (yet another schema syntax) this may be
    tolerably good for getting started; there are also a range of other tools
    and approaches to deriving schemas (apologies to those who prefer their
    plurals in Greek where possible).

    >2)XML Diff - "By using the XMLDiff class, the programmer is able to
    >determine if the two files are in fact different based on the conditions
    >that are important to their application. The programmer is able to ignore
    >changes that are only superficial (for example, different prefixes for same
    >namespace). XMLPatch then provides the ability to update the original XML by
    >applying only the changes that matter to the original XML."

    XML Diffing is a challenging problem both practically and theoretically, as
    it implicitly asks "what is the diff being run on", namely XML instance or
    (parsed, in-memory) data object. (This is a theoretical topic I hope to
    take up later this year.) It would also be great to have good solutions,
    and for certain kinds of applications this one could well be very good
    (haven't tried it myself).

    In fact, the theoretical question raised by this tool is exactly the kind
    of *humanistic* problem described by Steve Ramsay, below: it's all about
    language and representations.

    Not only that, but we're going to see more about data objects and object
    models as XML matures, not less.

    > Date: Wed, 30 Apr 2003 06:51:45 +0100
    > From: Patrick Sahle <sahle@uni-koeln.de>
    > Subject: Re: 16.642 consumptive humanities

    Excellent points, only responding to one of them:

    >4.: Maybe in the end: Is there something like a comprehensive "logic" which
    >maybe isn't discipline-specific but meta-disciplinary? Is there a
    >meta-discipline? Where do the boderlines begin?

    Perhaps in the blurry boundaries between logic, letters and rhetoric?

    > Date: Wed, 30 Apr 2003 06:53:17 +0100
    > From: Stephen Ramsay <sramsay@uga.edu>
    > Subject: Re: 16.641 the consumptive humanities?

    >I was led into humanities computing because I began to realize that
    >teaching computers to read and manipulate text amounted to the
    >instantiation of a critical reading strategy; that code was the
    >narrative specification of an idea about the text; and that the
    >apparently unhumanistic details of engineering put forth powerful
    >metaphors for rhetoric and the hermeneutical process. As a result,
    >in my own research, building things has become almost inextricable
    >from theorizing abouthem. I am forever encouraging my students to
    >take off their gloves and get deep into the machine.

    I couldn't agree more about how compelling the project is when we remember
    to look at it in this light. (As Willard so often does, in his questioning
    way.) Nonetheless we still wonder, don't we, how far along this path one is
    able to go, and if one goes only so far, what distant problem, what
    trickiness, still lurks unaccounted for in the shadows? ("I'm using Access
    but I haven't mastered relational calculus!") It can be rather
    anxiety-provoking, I think.

    What I find reassuring is your account of how the solidity of the grounding
    you are standing on comes not from any arcane wizardry you have mastered --
    English professor as engineer! -- but rather from the foundations of
    humanistic study itself -- as you say, "rhetoric and the hermeneutical
    process". It is in knowing these, that is, that we face our puzzle -- and
    our engineering (should our toys be so grand as to be dubbed "engineering")
    is merely the device -- again as you say, the metaphor -- by which we
    examine it.

    >I cannot believe that I am an anomaly -- my anecdotal experience
    >from working with others on this list would suggest that the
    >experience is, in fact, quite common.

    I agree. :-)

    >...like most scholarly projects, this is a lifetime (rather than merely a
    >curricular) endeavor for which one surely has world enough and time.

    Again, very well put and worth remembering, I think.

    > Date: Wed, 30 Apr 2003 06:53:54 +0100
    > From: "Aime Morrison" <aimee.morrison@ualberta.ca>
    > Subject: RE: 16.641 the consumptive humanities?

    >but i think you might have begun to answer it with your subsequent musing on
    >'trust.' 'trust,' you suggest, is a key factor in our relationship to our
    >tools, humanistic or computational, and i want to pick up on that.

    Aime <-- name pasted :]

    I found your whole analysis of the problem as one of trust, and your
    comparison of the Oxford Latin Dictionary to the database application, to
    be riveting, and right on. In another month I should be able to say more
    about why, as it directly pertains to what I'll be saying at ACH/ALLC 2003
    in Athens GA next month. <- plug :]

    >the dictionary is a necessary tool to the job at hand, as a hammer to a
    >nail, it is as instrumental as it is vital -- and it is largely invisible
    >as itself.

    Yes, precisely, and remains invisible as long as it is doing the job it was
    designed for. Yet then someone comes along and makes the dictionary itself
    an object of study (as they must if they want to encode it for some
    reason), and we are off and running.

    >surely, to write one's own dictionary in this case would be overkill.

    Yet how many have tried, if not to write the dictionary, to derive a
    running vocabulary from one, for some text under study? -- thus scholarship
    itself becomes instrumental.

    >i've written a text editor of my own, and let me tell you, it didn't get
    >my essays written any faster or better.

    Hee! I bet not. (I'm sure it had its fine points though.)

    On the other hand, you may well also have made yourself an XML tag set that
    rides on top of someone else's editor (as the running vocabulary rides on
    top of the dictionary), and it *might* help you get essays written better
    (at least by doing lots of scut work) or easier to publish, anyhow....
    Personally I almost never use a word processor any more; my XML is just
    better for what I need to do. (Haven't designed any killer db apps though.)

    >so i ask: why are some of our research resources trustworthy and other are

    Indeed. I suggest that *transparency* has much to do with this (and thus
    back to Steve's argument) -- that being a rhetorical problem of how the
    work is *presented* as much as a practical problem of what it actually does.

    In this light, open specifications and public standards are indispensable
    because they provide for the possibility, at least, of transparency.

    (Last week I was taking a course on a high-powered XML database that
    remains nameless here. They were cooing about their powerful proprietary
    query language. I asked, so is this language specified anywhere so I can
    see what it actually does? They answered, "there's a spec, but it's not
    public, since there are possible patents there, so they haven't released
    it". I said "so I'm allowed to use the language, but not learn it?" The
    rest of the class laughed.)

    > another related question: why trust book-tools more than computing
    >tools? is this a matter of some sort of will to technical power? an
    >overcompensation for an inequal geekishness/bookisness balance in our
    >training? a matter of corporate versus academic provenance? *who* and
    >do we trust, and *why*?

    Psychology being one of the best humanistic disciplines (though
    undervalued), when practiced well. :->

    >i'm looking forward to the rest of this conversation.

    Me too.


          "Thus I make my own use of the telegraph, without consulting
           the directors, like the sparrows, which I perceive use it
           extensively for a perch." -- Thoreau

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