Wednesday, 4 December 2013

week 12 follow-up

It seemed appropriate to end with some actual salsa, so today's wake-up music was the legendary Tito Puente's song "Oy Como Va." His contributions to music were important enough to earn him not one but several guest appearances on The Simpsons -- which, in my book, counts as direct participation in a social research project.

Both of our topics this week can be found in the same set of lecture slides, where are also available in the usual place on BB as well as below:

A student asked a very good question about submitting the final blog logs: should the logs contain all the posts and comments for the entire term, or just the ones from week 7 onwards? Please do the latter, and only include links to posts and comments that we didn't consider in the earlier evaluation. Hopefully that makes things simpler for you and us.

I discussed the concept of modelling in relation to Euler's map/diagram/model/mental Rubik's Cube of the Bridges of Konigsberg problem. You can read more about that example in the Steve Ramsay reading I assigned (as suggested reading) for this week, and you can view a low-quality facsimile of the original article here: An interesting aside: a couple of years ago I looked up the copy of the original mathematics journal issue from 1735 in the Fisher Library, and it appeared that someone had stolen the page with the Konigsberg images. Whether that was before or after the volume went to the Fisher I couldn't say.

Another project we looked at is HyperCities. If you like maps and history, I suggest avoiding this site until you've submitted your final project for this course... there's a lot to explore, and they keep adding new cities.

Finally, a motif in today's lecture and readings was the William Blake Archive. Here's a link to a version of the image of Blake's character Urizen that I used to lead off the lecture:

Friday, 29 November 2013

week 12 blogging question

For our final blogging question, we'll keep it simple and look back to where we started in September: how has your research question evolved during the course (or longer)? What sub-questions have emerged as you've read and thought about your topic? What new theoretical frameworks, methods, materials, or other context have changed how you approach your question? In what ways are you still wrestling with your research question, and what kinds of feedback could your fellow-bloggers provide that might help?

As Glen and I mentioned in our feedback to the first round of blog posts, we'd like to see more commenting in the final half of the course, and this topic should give you all an excellent opportunity to request and share feedback with each other. As I've been repeating throughout the course, developing persuasive and clear language for your research question is a social process -- no one can do it alone -- so don't hesitate to test language from your research descriptions on your fellow-bloggers.

Friday, 22 November 2013

week 11 blogging questions

This week we didn't spend much class time discussing peer-review in a general sense, including your thoughts about Fitzpatrick's arguments. Your examples of feedback you might have given as peer-reviewers of her chapter were insightful, including the identification of some potentially obscure cultural references, but in retrospect it would have been nice to have an open discussion as well. Let's do that in this week's blogging question. What are your thoughts on peer-review, whether the traditional kind described by Lovejoy and our recommended readings, or the alternate approach championed by Fitzpatrick? Are there other examples or models of peer-review that are worth considering?

An example of a peer-review controversy you might have heard about is the Sokol affair. I won't retell the story here, but it's worth knowing about because it tested many of the principles that underlie peer review. The Wikipedia page for this controversy is reasonably detailed and impartial, and contains links to further reading, including the publications in Social Text and Lingua Franca that ignited it all, and Sokal's subsequent entries in the debate: Interesting to note that the controversy has become known as "the Sokal affair," not "the Social Text affair." To test this, I searched for the latter phrase on Wikipedia and was redirected to the stable url above.

<tangent type="baseball">There were many rubuttals of Sokal's hoax, including one by Derrida, but if you read just one, I suggest making it Stanley Fish's op-ed piece for the New York Times, "Professor Sokal's Bad Joke." Fish, in passing, helps to establish baseball as one of the best proving-grounds for ideas about epistemology -- something I've been trying to do indirectly with music in our course, though Fish does it better. In that spirit, let me recommend an academic prank that embodied many of the qualities missing from Sokal's: William S. Stevens's legendary 1975 article for the University of Pennsylvania Law Review on "The Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule" (originally published anonymously). In addition to making some great legal and sports insights, this piece deftly satirizes the citational excesses of law articles, and at one point on the first page footnotes the use of the word the. As a scholarly prank, this one is intelligent, inclusive, scrupulously researched, and honest in its use of humour to light a candle where Sokal settled for cursing the darkness.</tangent>

In your post, feel free to comment on the Sokal affair, or to explore any other aspect of peer-review, whether the underlying principles, their practical application, or both. As I mentioned in class, these are questions that affect everyone who produces or uses research, no matter the discipline. 

week 10 follow-up

This morning's wake-up music was the song "Tamacun" by the amazing Mexican guitar duo Roderigo y Gabriela. A little closer to actual salsa, and hopefully the kind of energetic music that gets us through the last weeks of term. Like a lot of good information research projects, they combine different elements (Mexican guitar/Cuban music/Metallica) into something greater than the sum of its parts. Hard to know which shelf to look for them in a record store, but good music like good research is sometimes difficult to categorize (as Luker points out repeatedly). Something to remember if you're feeling like your research proposal doesn't fit into a single definitive niche.

This week's slides are posted in the usual place on BB, and can be found here:

Michael Tyworth's blog post from which I quoted in a couple of slides may be found here: (He links to a clip from Good Will Hunting that's worth a chuckle as well, as Matt Damon delivers a withering on-the-spot peer review in one of cinema's more unconventional bar fights.) We spent a fair amount of time considering Kathleen Fitzpatrick's chapter from Planned Obsolescence, but I also recommended checking out some other publications from MediaCommons Press, including a guide for donors, dealers, and archival repositories on the handling of digital materials: Finally, I touched briefly upon the peer-review of unconventional forms of publication, including source code and digital prototypes. An example of a journal that applies peer-review principles to these kinds of digital artifacts, alongside conventional publications, is Digital Humanities Quarterly. See their submission guidelines here, and a published example in their latest issue (scroll down to the entry by Montfort and Strickland; incidentally, students in my Future of the Book course can do some advance reading by checking out Whitney Trettien's article in the same issue).

Friday, 15 November 2013

week 10 blogging question

This week's blogging question has to do with a practical matter raised by our Kirschenbaum reading from week 9: how will you ensure that your research materials, especially digital materials, are preserved? Imagine that someone in the far future (say, the year 2112) wants to understand what research your project was doing, much as we look back to the lab notebooks, letters, records, and other materials left behind by Darwin, Freud, Turing, Banting & Best, and so on. Not long ago I had the exciting experience of paging through Alexander Graham Bell's lab notebooks at the Smithsonian American History Museum and the Library of Congress. These notebooks document the day-to-day activities that led to the invention of the telephone, among other developments. It was a window into the process of scientific research that I couldn't have obtained solely by analyzing its products -- even through the close analysis of artifacts that we discussed this past week. Scientists have a strong tradition of documenting the processes of their work, due largely to the need for valid scientific results to be replicable by others. Researchers in anthropology and ethnography often keep field journals for different reasons, too, but all fields could learn from the tradition of self-documentation for the sake of the future.

However, as Kirschenbaum and other scholars of digital preservation point out, this all gets tricky when our notebooks and other records are digital. What kinds of records (digital and otherwise) will your project generate, and what best practices will you follow to preserve them? Where would you look to find those best practices? In the field(s) where you situate your research, are there professional associations who have issued statements or guidelines on archiving digital research materials? Thinking back to our class on research ethics, does your project involve records or data that must not be preserved, and how will you ensure they are destroyed? (Is it enough to press "delete" and then empty your recycle bin? Kirschenbaum's book Mechanisms suggests otherwise...) Keep in mind that this question isn't just asking how you'll back up your work to save you from, say, a laptop theft or hard drive crash. Rather, the question is about preserving our materials into a technological future that we can't actually see from here. We don't know how technology will change, but what's the best we can do at present to leave behind records that will survive those changes?

Before I came to the iSchool, my own strategy was to encode all my research data into the metadata fields of YouTube kitten videos (click at your peril), since they seem to be the most durable and pervasive digital records that humans have ever made. We can be fairly certain that someone in 2112 will be watching a kitten video when they should be researching their INF 1240 assignment, though the video may be a hologram, and the kittens may be cyborgs or genetically modified to catch mice telepathically or something. However, I expect you all to come up with a more intelligent strategy -- one based on what we actually know about responsible documentation and digital preservation, not idle speculation about kittens.

Incidentally, this isn't an entirely new question in the history of research, technology, and record-keeping. Here's an interesting story to serve as a counter-example to Bell's still-readable notebooks: More details and recordings may be found here:

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

week 9 follow-up

Our music this morning was a synthesis of salsa and jazz, in the form of Tito Puente's reinterpretation of a tricky jazz standard we heard just before reading week: Dave Brubeck's "Take Five." Tito's energy, enthusiasm, and mastery of polyrhythms are a lesson to us all... And, speaking of referential meaning, he was a guest on The Simpsons many years ago.

Lecture slides are available here and in the usual place on BB:

We looked at a few examples that aren't in the lecture slides, including an example of coding from Prof. Hartel's article from earlier in the course: Hartel, J. (2010). Managing documents at home for serious leisure: A case study of the hobby of gourmet cooking. Journal of Documentation, 66(6), 847-874. [].

The anthropological technique of thick description, which Prof. Hartel mentioned in her lecture on ethnography, is generally attributed to Clifford Geertz. See his chapter on the topic in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973).

Here is the James Bond clip we looked at: I also mentioned the Bechdel Test as an example of a very basic quantitative interpretive method. You can find an example of a popular application of this method here: . Try applying it to the next film or tv episode you watch, and let's see what informal results we get in the next class. The Bond canon probably doesn't hold up too well against the Bechdel Test -- though I'm pretty sure there's a scene in From Russia with Love that might pass -- but what's more important is that the test's value derives from the best tradition of quantitative methods: it prompts us to notice the things that might otherwise escape our attention, especially phenomena that try to fly under our cognitive, social, and ideological radar. Some of the most important insights in feminist research have come from simply running the numbers in relation to gender, especially salaries. Quantitative approaches to interpretation may be a blunt instrument, in the sense that they tend to deal poorly with context, nuance, and ambiguity, but sometimes a blunt instrument is the right tool for the job -- especially if there are barriers in the way.

Regarding the peril and promise of quantification in interpretation, I also mentioned The Guardian's questionable application of the Flesch-Kincaid reading-level test to State of the Union addresses. See The Economist's critique (containing links to other critiques) makes some good points about the too-easy reduction of texts to data, as well as the social value that is sometimes uncritically bestowed on certain methods. A more thoughtful application of text analysis to State of the Union addresses may be found here:; and especially here: . In the latter case I recommend reading the essay that accompanies the analysis, which we looked at briefly in class. It's biased, unobjective, and selective in its evidence, but also makes no claims to be otherwise (hence the author's deliberate use of the term essay), and thereby avoids The Guardian's mistake of assuming that data speaks for itself. I also recommend using the text-zoom feature on your browser -- probably ctrl- or command- plus or minus -- to block out the site's bright red background, or just wear sunglasses...

If the study of texts and artifacts from an information perspective interests you, I'd recommend some further reading in the form of the Latour and Winner articles I referenced in this week's blogging question. I'd also recommend two pieces of very recent work (which will almost certainly show up in my Future of the Book course next term). Actually, I just realized that one of them isn't published yet, but should appear in the next issue of the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology (JASIST): Bonnie Mak's "Archaeology of a Digitization," which gives a brilliantly nuanced reading of the digitization project Early English Books Online. Another similar article which has been published is Whitney Anne Trettien's "A Deep History of Electronic Textuality: the Case of English Reprints Jhon Milton Aereopagitica" in the latest issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly. Both of these are great examples of researchers who discover and unfold the stories that artifacts can tell about how they were made. Matt Kirschenbaum has a very interesting article in the same issue of DHQ, and I'd encourage you to explore this issue if you're interested in the topic. I also mentioned my own study of e-book and print versions of a recent Giller Prize novel, The Sentimentalists, which was very much inspired by the kind of work represented here. As I mentioned in class, this topic is an example of traditional information research extending into new frontiers -- not just studying new materials, but also using new methods and theoretical influences -- and the result is that there are a lot of opportunities here for junior researchers, especially those with eclectic iSchool backgrounds.

PS: Last James Bond reference of the course, I promise:

Sunday, 10 November 2013

week 9 blogging question

[Note: after applying a complex multivariate statistical analysis, I've concluded that this is week 9, not week 10, and have emended the title of this post accordingly.]

Given that we're shifting our focus this week to texts and artifacts as objects of study, I'd like to pose a question to get us thinking about some examples. In your other courses you may already have run across some key readings that consider information questions by closely reading a particular artifact, device, designed object, or text. Two canonical examples that you'll almost certainly encounter in other iSchool courses are Bruno Latour's sociology of a door-closer (written under the pseudonym "Jim Johnson") and Langdon Winner's analysis of the Long Island Expressway in "Do Artifacts Have Politics?" -- the latter being a useful reminder that the term artifact can encompass the very small and the very large, even civil infrastructure. In both cases, Latour and Winner did not conduct interviews or surveys, nor did they collect data in the traditional social-science understanding of a research process; rather, they read their objects of study just like we would critically read a text, though their approaches are no less methodical, as we'll see on Wednesday. Latour and Winner nonetheless arrive at conclusions about social questions that would be right at home in Luker's picture of salsa-dancing social science, which reminds us that research methods can be different roads by which we converge upon the same places.

In that spirit, this week's question revisits our very first blogging question, based on Luker, but with a twist. If you could undertake a research project and be assured that you'd have all the resources you'd need to answer your research questions, but you had to focus your study on a particular artifact or text rather than, say, a social group or more abstract information problem, what would you choose to study? It could be a unique artifact, such as the Long Island Expressway, or a type of object such as a door-closer. (In fact, a post from last week by a member of our class identifies a great candidate of the latter kind: the QWERTY keyboard.) Tell us about the artifact you'd study, including why it interests you and what we can learn about information from studying it. Does the nature of the artifact raise any interesting complications for a researcher? (For example, there's a great deal to be learned from studying the website, but how deeply can we get "under the hood" of an artifact like a government website?) What are the potential threads of inquiry that lead outward from your chosen artifact to bigger questions?

Remember, too, that for this week we're considering texts and artifacts interchangeably -- they are both products of human artifice, and can reveal details about their creation and uses -- so you could choose something like the latest federal throne speech or a cultural text like the recent Wikileaks film. Your example might be as specific as these, or you might need to think about how specific to be in your choice -- for example, perhaps Latour can safely generalize about door-closers, but if you took, say,  "the cell phone" as your artifact, would that be too general to be useful? (Hint: probably, given that a cell phone from 1999 isn't the same object as one from 2013, at least in many important respects.)

To put it another way, what can the study of your particular text or artifact reveal that wouldn't otherwise be obvious? As Winner argues, "If our moral and political language for evaluating technology includes only categories having to do with tools or uses, if it does not include attention to the meaning of the designs and arrangements of our artifacts, then we will be blinded to much that is intellectually and practically crucial" (Winner, 1997, p. 125). It's not just a matter, then, of knowing what artifacts to study; it's equally a matter of framing the right questions to ask about them. What might we see in your chosen artifact if we ask it the right questions?