Author Archives: Stephen Zweibel

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About Stephen Zweibel

Stephen Zweibel is Digital Scholarship Librarian at The Graduate Center.

Communicating Technical Process

With alpha work on DH Box wrapping up, it’s a good moment to reflect on some technical lessons learned, as well as some lessons about being on the technical side of a team. Up to this point, while I have been keeping my team apprised in general of DH Box’s technical situation as it progressed, most of the details of its implementation, as well as the specific tools I’ve used and their justifications, pros/cons, and possible alternatives, I have kept to myself.

This is, in part, due to the fact that I did not begin with a particular plan. Though we had a well-defined goal for DH Box, I knew that there were myriad ways to reach it. So I experimented with different methods of cloud deployment and server provisioning, that is, different ways of creating each new instance of DH Box and automatically installing all of the necessary software on it.

I started with a BASH script designed to run on the first boot of each new DH Box instance. This worked well enough, but didn’t offer much in the way of sophisticated automation or transparency for debugging. I then tried some of the more well-known server deployment/provisioning tools, like Puppet and Salt. Puppet I found less straightforward than I’d hoped, partially because it requires modules to be written in a homespun variety of Ruby, which I’m not super comfortable with. Salt did more of what I wanted, but I was still reading its documentation when I became distracted by yet another tool, Ansible.

Ansible turned out to be just what I needed: It is written in Python, a language I have more familiarity with, and it allows me to monitor each deployment of a new DH Box in real time. Using Ansible, I’ve been able to create a whole automation workflow in one language, and, even better, I can easily see if and at exactly which point a deployment fails. This is crucial to efficient problem solving and future updates for DH Box, as its installation process necessarily involves many separate moving parts.

With these details of DH Box’s technical framework determined, it’s possible to create a more concrete “blueprint”, and I’m now working with our project planner, Gioia, to incorporate much more specific technical milestones into our overall plan. Going forward, I hope to keep everyone up-to-date and communicate some of what I learn along the way, without getting us too bogged-down in technical minutiae.

Presenting… DH Box

In the interest of spreading the mission of DH Box far and wide, I’ve been working on a brief presentation that might also serve as an online introduction to the project. It’s available hereTake a look!

I’ll be using these slides to give a short talk about DH Box to faculty this Tuesday at Hunter College. It looks like we’ll be making quite a few presentations like this one, because as it turns out, building a community is one of the key factors determining success for DH Box. We will need the help of an invested community to:

  • Determine which tools should be included
  • Identify new platforms to target
  • Contribute to documentation
  • Spread awareness about DH Box

and it seems clear that in-person meetings and discussions are the best way for us to create interest in our work. That’s not to discount social media approaches at all; they allow for broad outreach we couldn’t manage otherwise. But in-person conversation allows us to demonstrate and discuss DH Box in greater depth, thus solidifying each potential user’s understanding and their relationship with us and our project.

Opening DH Box

This is it! The inaugural post of the DH Box blog (the DH stands for Digital Humanities). Here we intend to make the process of planning, creating, and publicizing the DH Box transparent for our readers. Hopefully this provides some inspiration, and even a blueprint, for future collaborative DH projects.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves! First, some questions and answers:

What is DH Box?

Not much, so far. But we intend it to be a portable, customized environment for Digital Humanities learners that can rely on incredibly inexpensive technology. All you really need is a computer (and a monitor and keyboard, of course!) — but the platform that excites us most is the Raspberry Pi, a tiny computer that sells for just $35. Imagine a collection of DH tools, pre-installed and configured, and a set of texts for users to interrogate — all on a portable and inexpensive device.

What inspired the idea of DH Box?

Several ongoing humanities projects have begun to take advantage of the continuing miniaturization of computing technology. One in particular excited my imagination: Library Box, which repurposes a wireless router into a “portable digital file distribution tool…that enables delivery of educational, healthcare, and other vital information to individuals off the grid.” The possibilities for ’embedded’, specialized miniature computers are massive.

What is needed to run DH Box?

Our first major goal is to get DH Box running on the Raspberry Pi. Once that’s done, DH Box will also be runnable on nearly any Linux computer! We are also targeting OS X.

Who do you think will use DH Box?

Anyone and everyone who is interested in learning Digital Humanities inquiry techniques, but especially those who may not have any prior programming experience. We hope that instructors will use our tools to set up almost instant DH labs, and that students will use DH Box to get an edge in their research.

We see DH Box as an example of what is likely to be a robust and interesting future field, ‘humanities hardware’.

Who are we?

We are an interdisciplinary team of learners and do-ers, librarians and developers and digital humanists and more — with an interest in making DH work more accessible. Find us:

More to come as we continue to develop DH Box!

One Prof One Book?

I enjoyed Tom Schienfeldt’s presentation on his One Week One Tool initiative. One thing in particular has stuck with me. After his talk, the question of Project Management as applied to academia came up. Mr. Schienfeldt made the point that corralling humanists into working together is difficult. It’s really a shame this is true.

People can do so much more when they work in a team possessed of complementary skills, and this applies to academic pursuits in the Humanities as well as any others. It’s often said at this point that successful collaboration happens all the time in the sciences. What is so different about the humanistic fields that makes collaboration so hard?

Many say it is because a monograph, apparently the great proof of academic accomplishment, succeeds best as a solo undertaking. It’s the concentrated expression of a single person’s study and thought. Why is this valued? Partially because the subjects of the Humanities are thought of as subjective, or at least contingent. The monograph form also evolved partially as a response to the need to recognize academic accomplishments, designed to make it possible to give credit to one person.

But, the monograph isn’t the inherent form of humanistic expression. Group projects, while they look different from monographs, can still provide unique contributions to knowledge. They might take the form of an archive, or a ‘social edition’, or any number of arrangements not invented yet. And, if expectations change in order to recognize group work, some academics will consider it in their best interests to work together.

Even the monograph form doesn’t exclude group work. It is possible to assign appropriate credit for each author’s contribution to a multi-author monograph, eg, by assigning authors to write individual chapters. Imagine, however, a book written truly collaboratively, with each author’s text intermingling with the others’. Authors could use a version control system like Git, letting them work simultaneously on the same text without interfering with each other’s progress–and allowing judges to assign credit, using Git’s Diff function to see who wrote what.

By the way, I’ve employed just such a collaborative model using Git & Github (see the source code here), working with Alevtina Verbovetskaya, Robin Davis, and Junior Tidal, for a presentation we are making on the topic Life with Pi: Microcomputing in Academia to the CUNY IT Conference this next Friday, December 6th. Come on by if you’re interested!

19th Century Scholarship For the 21st Century

When David Mimno came to class to discuss topic modeling and MALLET, he first showed an image of the Perseus Digital Library, referring to it as ’19th century scholarship’. Now, Professor Mimno had a hand in the creation of that website, so I wouldn’t think he meant that as an insult. But he did go on to say that technology offers ‘more’ for the humanities than what the Perseus Project has done.

This made me wonder about the implicit criticism of ’19th century scholarship’ versus new computational humanities research. My understanding of the value of the humanities has everything to do with enrichment — that is, personal growth engendered by reading, understanding, and discussing the thoughts of other people exploring what it is to be human. Put another way: increasing wisdom through study. I accept that not everyone holds this view.

If we use MALLET to determine the difference in word use by male and female authors, we have certainly learned something about humanity. But it seems like a different project from the one I understand to be that of the humanities. Does the new, computational approach ‘engender personal growth’? I am ready to believe that it can, but not nearly as obviously as, say, studying Shakespeare’s Sonnets would. So far, the current approach seems to be more concerned with studying humans and human texts in a ‘scientific’, fact-oriented manner.

So that may be ’21st century humanities scholarship’, as opposed to that of the 19th century. But it needn’t be ‘either, or’. We can use Digital Humanities tools and methods to enrich the experience of students who are reading humanistic texts, much in the way done by the Perseus Digital Library, for instance. We can, as my colleague Gioia Stevens points out, use topic modeling to improve discovery of digital texts, which would unquestionably help in the individual pursuit of self-improvement.

A Digital Humanist is You

1st definition: Using computers and technology (analysis and exposure) to find new questions and answers in the humanities.

2nd definition: Digital Humanities is whatever someone who considers themselves to be a Digital Humanist happens to be doing.

Bit of a tautology. I came across this field after a few small projects of my own, and found that everyone who was doing work I found interesting and similar to my own was calling it Digital Humanities. In that sense I would say that DH is about methods and practice, rather than theory. I don’t even know that I would call it its own ‘field’. Instead it looks more like established fields of research learning new tricks.