Cyborg Scholars

Posted May 29, 2010 by Laszlo
Categories: #hackacad

After reading Dan Cohen’s post on Hacking the Academy a week ago, one of his questions has been on my mind: can an algorithm edit a journal? For me, the answer is of course it can. Microsoft Word’s grammar-checker is a good example. It dutifully checks an entire document and offers several options for the author. It is easy to imagine a grammar-checker correcting an article on its own, and that would be a case of an algorithm on its own editing a journal.

Even more interesting to me, however, is one of the deeper issues Dr. Cohen’s question suggests: computers are encroaching on the production of scholarship. Online translators, such as Google Translate, are everyday examples of computers constructing meaningful statements. I know nothing about artificial intelligence, but I imagine scientists have created, or are near to creating, impressive programs that can produce entire documents that look like scholarship. Incidentally, I use the phrase “looks like scholarship,” because I am not exactly sure what a computer’s scholarship would be, except that it might resemble human scholarship. For this post, however, I will avoid tricky issues associated with computers being able to think and use language. Philosophers have devoted so many books to those topics that my humble blog post would not do justice to the academic debate.

Regardless, the fundamental issue I am tackling here remains. Are computers encroaching on scholarship? Yes, they are. More importantly, most scholars probably do not have a sense of just how much processing is going on in their computer. This is especially ironic for those who argue that computers — or new media, if you prefer that term — have had a negative influence on scholarship. As they write their journal articles and book manuscripts, probably hundreds of algorithms are directing their computers to translate what they type on a keyboard into a document.

I offer an example to remind everyone of just how much is going on behind the scenes. A few months ago when I was archiving digital images at the Smithsonian, I stumbled across an interesting file type. It is called “camera raw.” According to what I remember (and the Wikipedia page I used for reference), images in “raw” format are digitally unprocessed and do not look like normal photographs. A digital camera must process the “raw” file data, from which it produces the kinds of digital images with which all of us are familiar.

What surprised me about raw images is that I never thought about how much processing a digital camera does. When I was working with the Smithsonian’s digital photos, I was only paying attention to the images themselves: how clear its subject is, if the image needs to be cropped, if the photo has the right angle, and so forth. If I did think about the processing in the background, either I was impatient about the computer being too slow or I was trying to minimize file sizes. Had I thought more about it, I would have remembered just how strange, for lack of a better word, the information a computer uses to produce images is. In a sense, ultimately, each digital photo is a unique combination of ones and zeroes.

What does my experience with digital images teach me about the influence of computers on scholarship? It makes me question the distinction between people and computers. Even though it may seem obvious that Dr. Cohen created a blog post, upon reflection authorship in new media is complex. No doubt, the medium he used to communicate his words influences the way he writes. Blog posts tend to have a certain style, and this is partly because of technology. It is easy to change blog posts once one has published them. Writing for blogs tends to be more informal than writing for academic journals. I would not argue that Dr. Cohen’s post is as informal as other blogs, which, say, go into the minutiae of their authors’ day to day lives. Still, as I scan through his previous posts, I notice personal details, such as posts about his TED Conference presentation, which separate Dr. Cohen’s blog writing from more formal academic prose.

I am not arguing that it is incoherent to say that people author digital documents. Human beings are obviously part of the process. Instead, I am arguing that we need to reconsider our assumptions about authorship in new media and look for the underlying story, which is probably missing from many debates about the value of new media. We need to think about how the experience and output of scholars changes simply by using a computer.

Keeping with the proper style of blog, I am going to end this post at this point. One of the benefits of publishing something online is that one can revisit and leave open the issues one has raised.


Final Exit

Posted May 11, 2010 by Laszlo
Categories: Code, Design, Final Project, Helpful Tricks, Magyar Stories

At long last, I am writing my final post for this class. It has been challenging and fun. The best parts of the class for me were interacting with my classmates and learning to write code in the context of history and scholarship. Everyone in class has such great ideas, and it is great to see those ideas form and change as things progressed. Great job, everyone.

I cannot help making a final comparison between the two classes I took this semester: our class and the history of books. I liked the history of books. Intellectual history is a great topic, and I love learning about old books. Reading about the way the production of books influenced history is endlessly interesting. I wish, however, that history of books would have had a class blog, not so we could post our weekly papers there, which is a great paper-saving option. I would have liked to have continued some conversations in class further into the blog. It would be great to have posted an extra comment or two on something I found on the web or in everyday life that is relevant to the class. This means, I suppose, I now perfer class blogs to writing paper papers. Of course, I think what students post on blogs need to have the same level of quality as what they print out.

The biggest surprise about this class was that it rekindled, to an extent, my old love of coding. Back in highschool, I used to do some programming, about which I was planning to post in this class but missed my chance. There is something satisfying about looking at a complicated mess of code, such as the jumble I had to deal with in Omeka, and slowly work through it and build something on a screen. To be honest, I did not get as far as I would have liked, and my programming skills are pretty bad at the moment, but at least this class sparked my interest. I will be continuing with my project into the summer and hopefully past that, so I will have plenty of more time to add to and improve what I have already started.

I do have one comment about Omeka and programming in general I want to make before coming to the end of this post. My experience with Omeka in the last few weeks (months?!) has been difficult and rewarding. I would not recommend it for the faint of heart. I feel like each step I took took a great deal of effort. For example, after a few days of work, I thought I had figured out how to change the area between the header and the footer. Then, I discovered what I had done is just extend the header further down, so it took a few more days to figure out how to modify what was actually under the footer. I believe that was just over two weeks ago. How far I have come! Regardless of my difficulties, I learned so much with Omeka — even more, I believe, than when I built the portfolio site.

On reflection, I believe Omeka is a good example of one of the drawbacks of coding and webdesign that our readings did not address. As much as I agree with Steve Krug’s suggestions in Don’t Make Me Think, sometimes coding makes creating the kind of typography we want difficult. I would love to arrange the interface of my site so that users would not have to stop and think about how to use the site at any point. Unfortunately, code does not always behave. There are plenty of distracting glitches left on my final project, but, with most of them, I only have a general idea of where to go to fix them. Moreover, once I try to fix those, new glitches will appear most likely.

I can imagine someone commenting or thinking that my menu on the Revolutionary Stories site, with its left-right orientation, was a poor choice with respect to typography. I would answer that I am not completely sure how to change it. With time, I suppose I could, but for the moment, I am not sure. I suppose the conclusion to draw is that the books we read about usability need to be considered carefully and adopted as best as they can be adopted.

What conclusions do I draw about this class? It was fun, difficult, and I learned a great deal about what I did not expect. I am more interested in new media and am looking forward to more classes in it, especially the cartography class in fall. Even though we will be learning new things, I hope Dr. Petrik will continue to let me continue with what I started this spring.

Goulash is Ready

Posted May 3, 2010 by Laszlo
Categories: Eastern Europe, Yummy

I went to work later than usual today, so I had a chance to whip up a gigantic batch of goulash for tomorrow’s class. There’s so much, in fact, that I can easily split it between my family and you guys. I used beef and potatoes again.

I’m asking my parents to warm up a large batch for tomorrow, and I’ll pick it up on my way to class. I might be a few minutes late. I’ll also bring some bowls and spoons I will “borrow” from work. I’m bringing sour cream, as well, as that’s usual to serve with goulash and a little bit goes a long way.

See you all tomorrow, and bring your appetites.

Final Project

Posted April 27, 2010 by Laszlo
Categories: Code, Design, Final Project, Magyar Stories

Well, I’m nowhere near where I planned to be when I volunteered last week. Still, I had an “aha!” moment last night about how the site should look, so I know the next steps I need to take.

It’s not at all clear, simply from how my site looks at the moment, what I am going to do. I am going to make it look like a newspaper. I realized this last night, as I was looking at images of Pravda, which I saved on my computer. I plan to break the part between the header and footer into two columns, with the image on the left with a description and the introductory comments on the right. When I start to load up video, I might make them look like photographs one sees at the top of news articles. From now on, online newspapers will be my models for how the site will look.

I would love to work more on the site right now, but I need to close up at work and get to class. Plus, I think my brain needs a rest. Please be gentle with me tonight, and consider what I’ve done so far as barely a first draft.

Blog replies

Posted April 27, 2010 by Laszlo
Categories: Blog replies

Today, I replied to Lynn and Dan. Needless to say, I’m jealous that he finished his project already. It looks good. I’m a fan of the header.

Goulash postponed again

Posted April 20, 2010 by Laszlo
Categories: Uncategorized

Today was a crazy mess, so I’ll be bringing goulash next week. Again, I apologize, but I spent all day waiting to take a blood test, so I can keep my insurance at my job. If I could have waited until tomorrow, I would have gone then and cooked today. Thanks for your patience.

Blog replies

Posted April 20, 2010 by Laszlo
Categories: Blog replies

This week, I replied to Curtis and Dave.

Simulating History

Posted April 20, 2010 by Laszlo
Categories: Design

I’m writing this post as a distraction from trying to modify Omeka code for my design/final project. Also since the beginning of this course, I have wanted to write a post about video games and history, so here is my chance. Specifically, my inspiration has been an audio book to which I’ve been listening the last week or so. It is Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. One of the books I read last semester mentioned his book, so I grabbed my father’s audio version to check it out.

Incidentally, Guns, Germs, and Steel is interesting, but I feel like it is more a reflection of Diamond’s personal thoughts about the history of civilization than a thorough study. His explanation, for instance, of the history of invention is, I’m guessing, only about ten or fifteen pages, which is far too short for me.

Regardless of its drawbacks, Diamond’s book reminds me of my favorite genre of video games, simulations. The simulation that keeps coming to mind, when I hear lists of plants and animals in Diamond’s book, is SimEarth, which by now is probably too obscure for anyone to remember. The premise of the game is the player controls the earth (Mars and Venus in alternative scenarios) and can direct the evolution of life and civilization. Lest you think spending time playing a simulation of earth history is a waste of time, my oldest friend once told me that he would have never passed high school biology without SimEarth. He spent hours playing that game, and thereby learned about different species of plants and animals. Certainly, that is an easier way to learn than staring at lists of plants and animals in a textbook.

Hypothetically speaking, what if Guns, Germs, and Steel would be made into a fun videogame? Think of how much players would absorb without much conscious effort. Think about making more traditional historical subjects, like the history of the French Revolution, into a fun video game. My bet is that players would absorb more than if their teachers forced them to memorize details from textbooks.

After rereading the last paragraph, I realize that what I wrote is nothing new. I think we all agree that making learning fun is a good thing. Maybe what is new for me is connecting games from my childhood with what we are studying now.

More Replies

Posted April 13, 2010 by Laszlo
Categories: Blog replies

This week, I replied to Lynn, Rwany, Rachel, and Dave.

Goulash Day postponed

Posted April 11, 2010 by Laszlo
Categories: Yummy

I’m sorry, everyone, but I will have to postpone Goulash Day by one week.  My coworker surprised me on Friday that I need to be at work all day next Tuesday. She promised that the following Tuesday I will be able to leave work at noon. If something comes up again, I’ll just prepare the goulash the day before and heat it up before class.