Thursday 29 March 2012

There aint no party like a spam bot partay

Q. What do the following people have in common?

Vaksman Innes, Keown Yabne, Noelia Laun, Carmella Tunney, Tanisha Hendricks, Aaron Faubli, Lee Buffet, Sharron Romanowski, Hudson Swift, Tia Printz, Padilla Roldan, Greg Jeffries, Sillman Harry, Marylou Freas, Buyus Philmen,Defosse Sutton, McMammon Whitney, Shallom McGettigan, Perla Barras, Pretzer Colwyn, Yme Hockstra, Leane McGwin, Castera Drew, Ducci White, Cryssie Amberd, Jamel Gaskin, Hoaglin Little, Runels Stewart, Mei Tobery, Tish Dreith, Gus Cinco, Elke Fayad, Corey Thomen, Elza Edel, and Gemma Batterton.

A. They dont exist. For the past couple of weeks I've noted down the "name" of the spam bots messaging me on twitter. Goodness, spam bots are irritating, yes. But look at these names - aren't they fabulous?

I often have a gentle chuckle to myself at some of the random combinations that are generated by our bot chums. Vaksman Innes, Hoaglin Little, Marylou Freas - surely the names of previously anonymous guests from one of Jay Gatsby's parties? Tanisha Hendricks, Lee Buffet, Tish Dreith - straight from a Jilly Cooper novel? Tia Printz, Cryssie Amberd, Runels Stewart - straight from whatever the cool high school tv series du jour is? And poor old Greg Jeffries, tagging along beside all his more glamorous friends...

What is it about the randomly generated names that make them seem so fascinating, so charismatic? The combination of strings of known characters wont take into account any of our tacit understanding of the cultural norms of naming, nor its traditional sounds, beats, or cadences. It makes them seem other wordly, known but ridiculous, celebrity like. Which means perhaps we will pay them more attention? The names are delibrately set to be at the rare and obscure end of the naming bell curve?

An article from a good few years ago in the New York Times - before Twitter was even imagined - summed up the automatic name generation tools used by spammers - suggesting that online tools such as the Random Name Generator (based on data from the US Census to randomly generate names, with even a setting provided for how obscure you want them to be) are routinely used to generate these never-were spammers.

I'm as irritated as the next person by spam. What a waste of our resources. But in some alternative universe, my people-named-after-spam-bots are dancing late into the night, Vaksman with Marylou, Tanisha with Lee, the growing spam roll-call being the mother of all social-media party invites spiraling out of control.

Friday 23 March 2012

On Making, Use and Reuse in Digital Humanities

Something very exciting happened last week over at Transcribe Bentham, the crowdsourcing transcription project at UCL that I am part of. Buried within the weekly blog post giving an update on the transcription process was an announcement. It was easy to overlook it - given the stats that are now rolling out from TB:
3,057 manuscripts have now been worked on, up 82 on last week’s total; this is the biggest seven-day increase since the week ending 4 January 2011. The 3,000-transcript mark has now been comfortably broken, and congratulations to volunteer Diane Folan for transcribing her 1,000th manuscript, and volunteer JFoxe for having transcribed her 500th manuscript in little over six months. Volunteer Lea Stern isn’t far off the 500-transcript mark either.
In total, we're now over 1,500,000 words of transcription done by volunteer labour over the last 18 months or so. Them's a lot of transcription, and we're really delighted with the pace that is picking up. But no, that's not what I mean to talk about just now. The truly exciting thing is this:

We were delighted to see that the Public Record Office of Victoria in Melbourne have utilised and customised the software developed for Transcribe Bentham by the University of London Computer Centre, for their own pilot transcription project. We heartily recommend that you take a look, and if you wish to use the code for the TB transcription interface, you can find it here.
That's right. The code we made is now in use by another institution, to do their own transcription project. Hurrah!

It was always our aim in Transcribe Bentham to provide the code to others: it was a key part of our project proposal. But you always have to wonder if that is going to happen. Its the kind of thing that everyone writes in project proposals. And whilst lots of people talk about making things in Digital Humanities, and whether or not you have to make things to be a Digital Humanist, we've shied away - as a community - from the spectre of reuse: who takes our code and reappropriates it once we are done? How can we demonstrate impact through the things we've built being utilised beyond just us and - quite frankly - our mates?

So I'm happy as larry that the code we developed, and the system we have built, is both useful to us, but is now useful to others. I'm not sure how much I want to prod the sleeping monster that is general code reuse in Digital Humanities... dont draw attention to our deficiencies!

But I would be delighted if anyone else could point me to examples where code and systems in Digital Humanities were repurposed beyond their original project, just as we would wish?

Remembering Paris

I popped over to Paris a few weeks ago to Keynote at "L’image-document face au numérique : mise en crise ou mise en lumière ?" at the Institut national d'histoire de l'art, 5 mars 201. It was great to meet Parisian Digital Humanities folks - and I did my best to follow the papers given by French Art Historians regarding how their work is being changed by computational method.

The organiser of the conference, Elli Doulkaridou, has storified the tweets from the day - capturing the flavour of the discussion.

What was apparent to me was that there was still some reticence in using Digital methods - are they proper methods, and proper research? I tend to forget how far we've come in the UK, and how supportive the institution I work in is towards Digital Humanities. Very interesting discussions, and to be reminded that scholars are still fighting to be taken seriously in DH - and I hope to visit again soon...

Friday 9 March 2012

Blogging In Munich

Greetings from an hotel room in Munich. I cant not blog from here: I was hear to talk about this very blog at Weblogs in den Geisteswissenschaften at Die Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, today.

It was only a 20 minute paper, plus questions, looking at my personal experience of blogging, how this place has developed over time: for example how I used to post "cool stuff what I had found" online here, and now that stuff gets posted to twitter, and this blog is for more reflective content. I talked about the distinction between personal and professional, and where to draw the line at telling people things about your private life, which can be difficult sometimes. I talked about leaving yourself open to snark, and worse, trolls. I talked about developing confidence in this sphere. I talked about how I've been putting up little stories about my research, and the type of effect this has had on downloads of papers, etc. I talked about how you balance between the public outreach, and public engagement and actually sitting in front of your computer to get some, ya know, "real work" done. I talked about the reader stats of this little blog (about 100 readers a day now, when I havent posted anything new, and anything around 500 readers a day on the days I have posted something new). All backed up with slides of my previous content posted here. Fun, and some interesting discussions followed about whether we should be encouraging students to do this kind of thing, issues of self confidence in the blogosphere, why there arent more women academic bloggers, and so on and so on.

I then got interviewed for 30 minutes for a documentary for Austrian National Radio on blogging (which I wasn't expecting) and for something for someone in Switzerland about Digital Humanities (I have no idea what that is even for, apparently they will email me) and then talked to
Cornelius Puschmann for an hour about my blog, for his research - on the motivations of academic bloggers.

The whole day was very thought provoking: it has strengthened my belief in why I should bother/continue to keep up posting these random musings here, how beneficial it has been to my career (I met lots of people today who actually read my blog - that is why I was invited here!) and... well, it just allowed me to contextualise what I am up to a bit more, in my own head.

Its been a busy ten days. I should have four or five hours tomorrow in Munich before I have to head back to the airport, so I hope to see an exhibition, as a reward. I didnt even get to tell you about going to Paris on Monday, to keynote there. So in the past 10 days or so, I've keynoted in Edinburgh, Paris, and given this talk, as well as been in London for a day 8.30-7pm with meetings back to back, including examining a phd upgrade. Some of that has to wait for another day. Time to recharge, both my computer, and my own batteries. And tomorrow, time to go home. I'm not going anywhere else for three whole weeks!

Tuesday 6 March 2012

The Ratio of Physical versus Website Visitors to Museums

I lately joined the Museum Computer Group which has a very active discussion list, and a question was posed lately about how many physical visitors do museums get, versus website traffic these days. @Mia_out helpfully pointed to the UK's Department for Culture, Media and Sport's "Sponsored Museums: Performance Indicators 2010-11" which included downloadable spreadsheets of performance indicators like physical and web visitors at

Here I've quickly juxtaposed the total physical visits to museums sponsored by DCMS with their corresponding total web visits (there arent any more nuanced stats, before you ask). Although the ratio varies from museum to museum (check out the V+A! 8 times as many online visitors as physical visitors!) it just gives demonstrable proof of how important web presence is to cultural and heritage organisations.
Have a look (below, I'm having bother with blogger and tables...). Fascinating.

Institution Total Physical Visits 2010-2011 Total Unique Web Visits 2010-2011 Ratio
British Museum 5,869,396 21,496,815 3.662526
Geffrye Museum 104,691527,0825.034645
Horniman Museum584,974252,8670.43227
Imperial War Museum2,317,6398,587,0823.705099
Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester638,347330,0000.51696
National Gallery5,084,9294,500,0000.884968
National Maritime Museum2,450,15510,052,3474.102739
National Museums Liverpool2,635,9933,176,2661.20496
National Museum of Science and Industry4,093,46315,020,2063.669315
National Portrait Gallery1,758,48813,724,6267.804788
Natural History Museum4,812,1977,397,8211.537306
Royal Armouries462,753403,3790.871694
Sir John Soane's Museum109,604365,0993.331074
Tate Gallery7,450,00019,427,0002.607651
Tyne and Wear Museums Service2,018,2331,006,2500.49858
Victoria and Albert Museum3,049,00024,976,4008.191669
Wallace Collection357,538305,6090.854759
Total Visits43,797,400131,548,8493.003577

Sunday 4 March 2012

On Academic Juvenelia

The real life tomb of Sennedjem at Deir el Medineh, juxtaposed with my VRML model of the tomb, made back in 1998.You can probably guess which is which?

So, to my final set of paper publications, in my tour of things that I have published, which have been put into UCL's Open Access Repository. This is going back, way back, to my MSc dissertation, in 1998. I was undertaking an MSc in IT in the Department of Computing Science, at the University of Glasgow, and worked for the summer on a dissertation supervised by Dr Seamus Ross (now Prof at Toronto), in the Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute. The dissertation subject matter was chosen by the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, who have various artefacts from the tomb of Sennedjem - could a VR model be built to show more about where they were originally found? They were working with a multimedia company to try and put computing in the gallery space - could I build something for them?

I used the top notch tech du jour, VRML 2.0, to hand script the whole thing, including complex geometry, fly throughs, animated creaky doors and tomb stones, based on published archaeological evidence about the complete tomb complex (not just the room above, which is the famous bit). I remember 3 months of working alone in a lab from 10am til 10pm, up to 7 days a week, so immersed in programming slow, clunky VR that when I got up from the chair to interact with the real world it moved too fast, and I got covered in bruises from walking into walls and doors and chairs. I remember working late into the night and hanging out in internet chat rooms for company. I remember this is when I started to put on weight (its not a dissertation unless you get "the graduate gut", right?). I remember regularly partying at Glasgow School of Art - the cliche of work hard, play hard. I remember doing user testing where people just wanted to drop shoot-em-up avatars into the virtual archaeological complex and said "is that it?" when you showed them the VR model. Yes, thats it. That's all a VR model does. Lets you explore it. I remember the multimedia company employed by the museum being a little bit "meh"and then asking me for all the code which they wanted to own copyright on (it wasnt as if I was being paid for this, you understand). It never made it into the museum, that I know of. I'm not sure that multimedia company actually built anything that went into the museum. But still! I completed the model which really is testament to what online virtual reality could achieve in 1998. How wonderful it looked then. How blocky it looks now!

Throughout this whole summer (it was the best of times! it was the worst of times!) Seamus was a fantastic supervisor who really spurred me on and encouraged and cajoled me to produce something that in the end was worthy of a distinction. I was proud of it then, I'm still proud of it now. I still aspire to be as helpful and constructive and thoughtful and understanding to my MA and PhD students now as he was to me then. I've said it before, and I will probably say it again - do we ever leave our academic supervisors?

I had thought at the end of the process to Never Ever Do Anything Academic Again, and had vague hand-wavy plans to "go travelling" or stick around Glasgow and take the bands I was in then a little more seriously. In the final weeks of my dissertation, Seamus thrust an application form into my hands to do a PhD at Oxford on some tablets from this Roman fort called Vindolanda.

On the last day of my dissertation - which was due in at midday, Seamus called into the lab, and said "How would you like to give a paper about your dissertation?" "Sure," I said "when?". "2pm." said Seamus. "There's a conference on here and someone is sick and has pulled out of their slot." So I bound up my dissertation, handed it in, wrote a powerpoint version, trotted home and put on a suit, and gambolled down the hill to the place where Digital Resources in the Humanities 1998 was being held, and gave my first academic paper. I was a little too honest. I hadnt seen an academic paper before. I then was allowed to take home any food that was left from the buffet lunch - I was on my uppers after a year of self-funded study. Someone stopped me when I was filling my bag with apples, to ask what was I doing - that person was Edward Vanhoutte. And a more-than-a-decade long friendship in Humanities Computing (as was then) was forged.

And here are the papers that emerged from it. The Internet Archaeology paper came about because Seamus suggested I wrote it up, and put me in touch with the journal editors: I wouldnt have done it without this encouragement. I wouldnt have given it the title it has now (you learn, I suppose, how people would find academic papers, and I dont think that this title sums up what it's about, now).
Terras, M (1999) A Virtual Tomb for Kelvingrove: Virtual Reality, Archaeology and Education. Internet Archaeology (7) PDF

And then there's the one paper from my whole back catalogue that I cant find in digital form. The one that got away. It's only 1000 words, so I could type it in again (why? the Internet Archaeology one is better). There is one last hope - somewhere in the eaves of my house is my old laptop from back then, that may have a copy of this on it. One day I will get round to digging it out, but til then, it lives to show that my digital-born archival strategy wasnt quite as good as I wanted it to be (isn't that always the way?):
Terras, M (1999) The Sen-nedjem Project: Archaeology, Virtual Reality and Education. Archaeological Computing Newsletter , 53 4 - 10.
And here endeth my tour of academic papers that I have published. Next up, the verdict: is it worth putting papers up in Open Access?

Update: since posting this, the wonderful Jeremy Huggett at the University of Glasgow has emailed me the .tex file that they have in the archive for ACN, so I now have a version in text of the lost file! will reformat and post to the repository soon... which means my paper archive is complete! Thanks Jeremy! Complete Set!!!!!11111!!!!!1111111!

When Cloud Services Die

For the past few years I've used Brizzly to look at my tweetstream when on my desktop. It has some great features, but dont bother investigating them, as from the end of the month it will be going. The team got bought out by AOL and are now doing other things. Bah. I have to learn new habits. I hate learning new habits.

Along with it will go some of the content that I posted on the twitters. We all know cloud services are ephemeral, right? Right? Well, here's the proof. The "what DH thinks it/actually does" meme that I stuck up a mere 3 weeks ago using Brizzly (why? cant quite remember, it was late on a Sunday night and it seemed the quickest way to do it), which garnered hundreds of RTs, and was viewed here alone 1927 times (and elsewhere on facebook and blogs and google+) will go with it. Of course there are versions of it elsewhere. But the Brizzly address that was shared far and wide was the one the dead links will point to.

Darn. Rookie mistake. Oh well. Like the interwebz sayz, that meme jumped the shark, forever ago. And if you pay nothing...