Coffee is a Digital Humanist’s Best Friend

I’m going to leave the title speak for itself and ignore it for the rest of the post. One thing that I am going to mention is that the best friends from the university café are usually burnt and sour.

This is a new experience for me as a student of DH, or HuCo, or the more sexy Informática Humanística (I mean, come on, it has two accents). I finished the Masters at University of Alberta, where I graduated with a degree in Humanities Computing. I arrived at UCL with some expectations of how my research was going to be conducted. I have to admit, most of my ideas were about logistics, because my research topic was so new that I was having difficulty even imagining how I was going to pull this off. At UCL, however, I am based in the department of Medical Physics. The people who sit around know a lot more about the internal anatomical structure of the breast than I am confortable with, and, almost incredibly, very little about DH.

Even though the programme at the U of A was specifically dedicated to the study of Humanities Computing, it did not shelter us from the interrogation of outsiders into what the hell is it that we are doing. I suspect every HuCo student has a mother of his own. Every DHer has probably a slug of a few sentences to explain his research, rather than try to define DH as a discipline. It was in the fist course of DH that we read the extensive literature in the definition of DH as a traditional discipline of study. New DHers are not only dealing with the struggle to define their new chosen discipline in their head, but the question of self-identity of the whole community.

In the department of medical physics, where I spend most part of my days – sitting at my desk, programming in Matlab – I look no different from Sam, photoacustic modeling in graphics cards; Ben, developing artificial breast tissue for testing; or Rob, whole-head infrared imaging. I think I am quite confortable with a vague definition of my discipline. In fact, I don’t want it to be specific. I want its concept to be easily grasped by other academics, the media and my grandmother. I will put the effort into developing a speech about my specific research, that might get a bit more involved, and require somebody to listen to me carefully longer than a Coca-Cola comercial. But I would like my discipline to just hint computers and humanities, and that to be enough…

… maybe we need a new logo.

Decode

Stockspace, Marius Watz

Stockspace, Marius Watz

Today I went to see the Decode exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I have been meaning to see this exhibition for a while, but Day of DH is a perfect excuse to skip a day of heavy coding, and increase my culture mojo along the way. Decode exhibits installations and visualisations based on computer code, interactivity and networks. Not all of the pieces are about all three, but a combination of those. Some are more esoteric than other ones, a several are exceptional.  Overall it is a great collection of different methods in which technology can be used to create unique experiences.

House of Cards, James Frost & Aaron Koblin

House of Cards, James Frost & Aaron Koblin

House of Cards is an interactive version of the video for the Radiohead song of the same name. This version featured the music but also a touch-screen that made the face follow your hand whenever you touch it.

Solar, Flight404

Solar, Flight404

Solar was an interactive piece, instead of focusing on touch or movement, it reacts to the sounds captured with a microphone. The solar flares expand to the tune of your melodious voice.

Oasis, Everyware

Oasis, Everyware

I really liked the concept this piece, Oasis. It is a flat screen with black sand scattered on top. Wherever the sand lets light go through there are this little creatures that live and play. Using the sand to separate areas you can create distinct populations of this creatures, which will evolve in their own ways. You can then connect the separate areas by moving the sand, and the creatures’ evolution will converge.

Body Paint, Mehmet, Akten

Body Paint, Mehmet, Akten

Body Paint uses the movement of your body to paint a large virtual canvas. The picture stars Roro, dancing in front of the camera.

Weave Mirror, Daniel Rozin

Weave Mirror, Daniel Rozin

Weave Mirror uses halved plastic pipes as pixels to reproduce whatever is in front of it. Each pipe is painted with a gradient and it rotates the amount it needs to produce a tone. If you cannot tell what that is, try seeing it in a small size:

Weave Mirror, Daniel Rozin

I just posted a few of the pictures I took of the exhibit here. You can see the whole Flickr Set.

Current Work

I like the idea of taking a snapshot of what the community looks like. Day of DH does exactly that. Not only it captures the routine activities of DHers but it also serves as an account of what the current research that is being done, DHers current worries and preoccupations, but also what their ideas are. This ideas will change over time, and after maybe 10 years of day of DHs we will be able to go back and see how the community has changed, how our ideas differ from the past, and maybe give us some perspective. For me, as a student, it will hopefully give me some concrete sense of progress. So I’m going to explain in a few words what is it that I am doing right now.

As some of you know, I started my PhD work at UCL. Though I am officially a research student in the Department of Medical Physics, Melissa Terras is adjunctly supervising my work from the Department of Information Studies. My current one liner for explaining what my project consists of is:

I am using medical imaging methods in order to recover information from damaged ancient documents.

In my first months of work here I have learned a lot. I had to dig up the part of my brain which used to work on maths problems, and administer CPR. Luckily, I found it is like riding a bike… yeah right!. Reading a lot and battling with Matlab I found my way around the statistics required to understand the image processing methods that I am using for my project.

The current main objective is to bring the practice of running phantom tests to DH projects. In medical imaging, it is common to develop new techniques by creating an artificial test subject. This test subject can be a blob of silicone that mimics the characteristics of a human head, for example. The silicone blob can be controlled only to have a limited amount of variables, and therefore the new technique being developed can be polished, tested thoroughly without harming a real human being.

My phantom test is an artificial Archimedes Palimpsest. A document that has two different layers of texts written on it, and we are trying to separate them, in order to be able to read them. In the real Archimedes Palimpsest, one of the layers can be easily distinguished, but the one underneath it is quite faint. The one underneath happens to be seven treatises by Archimedes, a few of them unique.

The advantage of using an virtual test document created by a computer algorithm is that I know before-hand what the exact results would be if we had the perfect image processing techniques to separate them. I have access to the original texts. This allows me to test different techniques on them and quantitatively assess their effectiveness. Once I have determined their value, i can run them across a few real documents.

I fill finish by showing you a picture of the Archimedes Palimpsest, because it is beautiful:

085r_PCA1 by the Archimedes Palimpsest Project

This image is protected by the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 by the Archimedes Palimpsest Project.

Texttiles

I added the feed for Day of DH 2010 to Texttiles. Here are all the posts grouped by author:

Day of DH 2010 Authors in Texttiles