Good Bluetooth Headphones

Good Bluetooth Headphones
Good Bluetooth Headphones

A while ago (Oct 2014) I purchased a pair of bluetooth headphones.  This review, only a year and a half later, is just to say they’re good headphones.  The sound quality is perfectly sufficient.  The battery life seems excellent.  They’re pretty comfortable.

Second Wave Digital Humanities

Screenshot of the Pleiades Project's entry for Rome, a good example of second wave digital humanities.
Screenshot of the Pleiades Project’s entry for Rome, a good example of second wave digital humanities.

Having finished my PhD and now moving on to the next opportunity, I’m beginning to consider the wider academic world outside of my very small discipline.  Because of my future work on the Database of Religious History, the world of digital humanities has become more important in my thinking about my own work and engagement with the wider scholarly community.

Thanks to a talk I attended on the Pleiades Project and gearing up to work for the DRH project I began to think about the progression of digital humanities from a methodology concerned solely with the digitization of textual material for study, to a generative and collaborative way of working online.  I naively called this “Second Wave Digital Humanities” in my own internal narrative as I mused about what these projects look like and might accomplish.  Eventual googling led me to a significant amount of scholarship on this exact topic:

The first wave of digital humanities work was quantitative, mobilizing the search and retrieval powers of the database, automating corpus linguistics, stacking hypercards into critical arrays. The second wave is qualitative, interpretive, experiential, emotive, generative in character. (The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0)

In the above quote and other literature the term generative stands out to me as a significant part of what makes these types of projects markedly different from earlier work.  The idea that we are no longer merely presenting data in a new form (the digital part) but rather creating new data through collaborative process.  The collaborative project of both the Pleiades and the DRH with their open contribution systems of editors and content creators has profound implications the creation of academically canonical knowledge.  Opening the doors and letting people contribute using the systems already developed in large projects like Wikipedia are a crucial part of this development.  This is of course coupled with advances currently occurring the world of open-access publishing.

While reading about second wave digital humanities I also came across an article encouraging an exploration of what third wave digital humanities could look like.  The author, David Berry, posits a computational turn, i.e. that eventually digital humanities will change how we actually engage with scholarship and knowledge both at the individual as well as institutional and societal level.  He brings up the idea of streams of data which we now regularly interact with as fundamentally new forms of data not accounted for by the digitization efforts of the earlier digital humanities projects.  It’s all very exciting stuff, and something I’m only beginning to touch the surface of.


Even while reading these articles written less than five years ago I found dead links and expired webpages.  This is a persistent problem in all forms of digital media, one that curtails longer meaningful engagement with scholarship.

Accessing meta-textual information

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Tables as meta-textual information

 

One the principal cruxes of my dissertation (and probably most theses) is “so what?”  Dissertations are often a chance to collect and curate a large amount of data in new and hopefully meaningful ways.  It’s this “meaningful” result which often eludes the writer until the end of the process.  I hope that it becomes clearer, or perhaps the true result is often obscured by the lengthy process.

In any case, one of the points I’m narrowing down to in my own work is the process of knowledge transformation as evident in changes in textual format and layout, a meta-textual sort of analysis.  A classic problem of looking for evidence of the process in absence of any record of the process itself.  Much like the sediment after a flood, the cuneiform texts I work with show remarkably different configurations from earlier versions.  The swirling eddies of the editorial process are as ephemeral as the roiling flood waters, but they have left their lasting mark.

But what can we say beyond “See, it happened!”  How do we access the meta-textual process behind the evidence?  Here’s where I struggle, and I’m sure through more detailed study of the texts themselves and their antecedents some form of analysis will come forward.  I’m wary of trying to over complicated the situation by trying to trace all the various threads of textual congruency.  This might be productive if all the texts could be weighted equally and accepted as canonical version of the knowledge they represent.  However, the real evidence is far from this idyllic situation.  In reality, the texts are from many different traditions spanning a huge range of time, written under the influence of different geographical and scribal traditions.

I take some comfort in other scholars work on the para/meta-textual analysis of texts offering up at least evidence of the process and the actors:

” … with this approach we can start seeing the agent behind these bureaucratic devices, the scribes who in such minute ways negotiated their presence and transmitted knowledge.” –C. Tsouparopoulou

Productivity: A List

IMG_20150506_114303

 

I started this blog post with the supposition that our relentless search for productivity was still in full swing.  It seems there is no end to the blog posts, magazine articles, and general advice about how to focus and “get things done.”  I know that I’ve certainly been a consumer of probably a large percentage of what’s been written about staying productive and on-task.  I put a couple of terms into Google to look for the overall popularity of searches and was surprised to find that it was not as I had assumed:

This Google Trend graph shows the slow decline in searches for productivity and the classic book Getting Things Done.  As an aside, it’s interesting to note that there are generally two peaks in each year, once the rises with the new year and generally peaks around March.  The second, rises at the end of the summer and peaks in October.  Are we in a post-productive state.  Or, has everyone found what they’re looking for, or rather things that actually work for them.  One of the classic overall tips for productivity has to do with not blindly following a top ten list, but finding the techniques that work for you and your particular style.  To that end I thought I’d list three things that seem to have improved my productivity:

 

  • The Pomodoro Technique: This is a well-known time-management technique where you work a certain number of minutes on, followed by a shorter number off, in cycles with a longer break after a certain number.  There are a wider range of apps, programs, tools available to help guide you while working.  I use a small plugin for Gnome Shell which sits at the top of the screen and counts down, alerting me when the time has finished on a certain segment.  I use this quite a bit when I’m having troubling concentrating on a particular task.  Interestingly, I often don’t even bother to take the breaks (even though it encourages it), just the act of starting the timer is enough to keep me focused for a couple of hours as long as its running in the background.
  • Standing Desk (picture above): I recently purchased an Upstanding Desk and installed it on my table in the office.  What I like about this particular desk is the modularity of it.  The ability to move the various shelves around allows me to changing work habits over time if something seems to be better for my own posture (I recently move the top shelf higher to allow the laptop and external screen to sit together better).  I often will read articles, books, even sometimes websites sitting on a couch but stand when I have to compose e-mails or write.  Moving between the two is also a nice way to stretch and interrupt the workflow.
  • RememberTheMilk: Most people have some sort of to-do list system, either a piece of paper or a dedicate program.  I struggled to find one that worked well for me for a while.  I read all the comparisons and tested out various different ones, finally settling on one of the oldest sites out there.  Initially, I was a bit disappointed that they still had not added sub-tasks to their system (something I find very useful for larger projects).  I e-mailed to ask, and was invited to try to Beta-version, which I’m very happy with.  I’m not sure what can be shared publicly about how it works, suffice to say it’s a huge improvement.  My only concern is that they work quickly and efficiently to make sure that the external tools, apps, etc… work with the new version as soon as possible.  I find that I often use RTM for tasks that need to get done that day as a way of reminding me of their existence.  On occasion I’ll plot out larger tasks with sub-tasks and due dates to schedule work in the future as well.

These three things are what has arisen from too much time spent reading about how to improve productivity.  It’s kind of fitting that they all function in different ways and on different platforms.  The Pomodoro Technique is independent of a computer and works to manage the time spent doing things.  The standing desk serves as a locale for getting work done.  And finally RTM, organizes and reminds me of tasks which need to happen.  There is no real duplication between the three and they all serve their purpose efficiently.  Which I guess is the end goal for any system of productivity.  I guess that’s the take-away from all of this, you need to find the productivity tips, techniques, and tools, which function best together in the way in which you work best.

Gingko

I wrote the previous post using the webapp Gingko.  It’s a neat web-based composition tool.  You start with three columns and you can add/write/move around anything between the three.  Items are dependent on the column to the left, so it essentially forms a three tiered tree structure.  It’s really easy to sketch out a very general overview in the left column, add important points to consider in the middle column, and then write out the actual text in the right column.  Since the cells are dependent on the parent cell to their left, it becomes really easy to compartmentalize what you’re writing and also move things around.  It uses markdown for formatting, which is fine, and exports as clear text, html, and presentation.  It’s got a few more features as well, but just the ability to organize and write all in one pane of the web-browser is useful enough for me.

Zenbook Prime UX31A

2013-10-24 08.19.58I recently had to replace my laptop somewhat unexpectedly. I wasn’t entirely happy with the previous machine, it certainly had its problems, but for various reason I wanted to wait a bit longer to buy a new computer.  My previous laptop was a Sony VPCSA, I originally bought because it seemed pretty powerful, had good screen resolution, and was relatively slim. It had a quad-core processor and 4 gb of RAM, which seemed like it was going to be plenty for my needs. Before this my work computer was an old Dell netbook, which was not powerful by any stretch of the imagination.

However, with the Sony, I quickly realized that the battery life was not up to par. I would get one and a half to two hours max out of the machine. This, I soon realized was caused by a larger problem.  The fan on this machine is position right in the center of the back edge of the base. The hinge for the laptop lid is right above, when the lid is open the hinge partially obstructs the fan outlet. I hadn’t noticed this at first, but it soon became very apparent that this computer had major issues with heat. I did some research online and found many other owners who complained about fan noise and heat. One owner posted a small bit of advice that they found in the manual for the machine, explaining that the laptop should not be used for extended periods of time with the lid open! Near the end of this laptops life it was having a lot of trouble even doing simple tasks, lots of pausing and lag on input. I suspect the constant heat, and inefficient fans were slowly melting components and decreasing its overall speed.

So in looking for a new laptop I had some simple criteria, larger screen resolution, and long battery life. That’s pretty much it, most laptops today are powerful enough for word processing and there are plenty of small light laptops.  Looking through the options available however shows far too many computers stuck with 1360×768. There seemed to be a rush to that small resolution a few years ago, probably pushed by manufacturers marketing laptops as wide-screen movie watching devices, rather than work machines.  I was also keenly aware of the problem with the previous laptop, so I was looking for a company that has a bit of a better track record for engineering and design.

I ended up getting an ASUS Zenbook-prime UX31A. The screen resolution is: 1920×1080, which is as large as my desktops primary monitor. The battery seems to get at least 4-5 hours on a charge, if not more. And it’s incredibly light.  I found the choice particularly difficult because there was nothing that seemed to match my requirements perfectly. The incoming Haswell chips are going to greatly increase battery life, but the computer currently available with the chip are too expensive. There are a glut of computers with the aforementioned lousy resolution. The chromebooks look good, but only the pixel has decent resolution, and then its battery life is sub-par. Basically, there were many choices and none of them were right. I’m fully expecting a more perfect laptop to come out in the next couple months.

The first thing I did when I got the new laptop is stick Ubuntu on it. I flashed a bootable USB with the Ubuntu image and booted into the Ubuntu install before Windows 8 even had a chance to touch the silicon on the motherboard. It’s a pain paying for the inherent windows tax, but I think that’ll change in the near future.  One issue I was somewhat worried about was the UEFI BIOS and secure boot. For this computer I had to disable secure boot and fast boot, and enable “Load CSM” then boot the usb drive with the UEFI option. I was a bit worried about wiping and installing, and not being able to boot. But by following the above steps it worked just fine.  The good news is everything just works on the UX31A, previous how-to’s and forum posts about this laptop and Ubuntu list a number of work arounds etc… needed to make everything work in Ubuntu, but these seem to have been included in the latest release.

However, I am having issues with Gnome 3.10. I’ve always liked Gnome, and when Gnome Shell came on to the scene with Gnome 3.0. I embraced the changed. I’ve actually gotten very familiar with it and find it very intuitive and efficient. I’m not sure if it’s just Ubuntu packaging gnome 3.10 in a haphazard way, or the most recent release, but there seem to be a number of problems with it. On my desktop, the secondary monitor resets its screen rotation on reboot. The extension Topicons, if enabled, de-activates all of your other extensions on reboot. On my laptop dragging folders or files makes them invisible. There is no graphical setting to control the keyboard layout anymore, specifically the compose key. These are all somewhat minor problems, but they show a lack of polish that is worrying. I know Gnome is trying to simplify and unify the desktop experience, but I feel like they’re leaving things behind as they do.

Editing Zotero Styles

I’ve been trying to use Zotero for a while now to manage my (growing) bibliography.  I first gave Mendeley a try, I think at the time I was attracted by their standalone client (Zotero was still dependent on Firefox running at the same time).  However, in Mendeley you couldn’t insert page numbers into a reference, which seemed crazy at the time, so back to Zotero I went.  I think Mendeley has since added the feature, but I’ve stuck with Zotero (and was quite happy to see the development of a standalone client soon after).  I find Zotero great when writing papers and articles where the established conventions of citation are rigorously codified in a number of styles.  The recent work I’ve been doing on my syllabus present a bit of a problem though.  I wrote a draft with all my assigned readings as normal Chicago style (author-date) citations surrounded by parentheses.  These looked kind of bad, but I didn’t want to go through the trouble of deleting all the parentheses especially if every refresh of the bibliography (an amazing feature of any bibliography manager) would reset all the citations.

Instead I decided to copy the Chicago style style I was using and edit it to take out the parentheses.  This of course was a bit of a rabbit hole, and I could see it coming.  But I started with the Zotero wiki page on editing, did a quick find for parentheses and saw where they were being inserted for citations and removed them (but kept the parentheses for dates, issue number etc…).  Then I foolishly just tried importing my new style file into Zotero, which resulted in an error.  So I visited the wiki page on validation, which is actually not Zotero but the citation-style-language project, an open-source attempt to create shared xml citation style.  This page led me to two validators, only one of which worked, after a few rounds of validating and fixing errors I was good to go.  I re-imported it, changed the syllabus file to use that style, reloaded, and after much crunching and automated moving about the file re-emerged with all the citations missing their parentheses.  I did a few checks to see if the citations still updated if I changed something in my database, and all was well.

This was an interesting exercise in guided diversion.  I had a problem, managed to fix it after a bit of research and work, and now I’ll have an added tool going forward.  Of course having solved this problem I should return to my syllabus instead of writing this blog post…

Tokens and Literacy

Credit: Bex Walton
Credit: Bex Walton

For a few years now I’ve been interested in clay tokens, and specifically how in later periods (1st millennium b.c.e.) they relate to the already existing written tradition.  The traditional literature on tokens mentions they’re early role as an antecedent to writing and then neglects to make any comment on their possible use in later periods.  My work in Turkey at the site of Ziyaret Tepe has shown that tokens were in use in the 1st millennium b.c.e and they seem to be found in contexts associated with written records.

I initially started by writing a short section in our bi-annual co-authored site report.  This kernel then turned into a term paper for a professor here at Brown, which then became a talk at the American Oriental Studies annual conference.  From there I make a poster for a conference in Cambridge, England.  That conference graciously invited me to publish in their post-conference volume, the article I am now preparing.  Finally I was accepted to give another talk at the American Schools of Oriental Research conference this fall.  Each step of the way the ideas have change slightly and become more fleshed out.  Oh and I forgot to mention, along the way I contributed to a co-authored paper with other members of the dig on tokens in general in the 1st milennium.  I’ve certainly received a lot of traction from this one topic, but I think it’s rather important.  Up until now it was a completely neglected field of research, the body of evidence remained unpublished and unstudied.

My own take on the issue is that clay tokens were a concomitant technology with writing.  The evidence from Ziyaret Tepe shows clay tokens spread in large quantities around a courtyard and rooms, two of which seem to the be the tablet storage for an administrative archive.  Also found in this area, were a large weight, and a puzzling clay tag with a written name.  The texts found in this area record large quantities of grain and other staples going in and out of the storerooms.  The way I see tokens used here, is as temporary storage devices for accounts.  The difficulty with clay tablets is that they dry quickly and methods for preserving their surface for writing are spotty at best.  Tokens would serve as a perfect tool to keep accounts over a period of time while the transaction was accruing.  When all was said and done the account could be recorded on a tablet and filed away.  The purpose of the article for the conference volume is to try and explain this method further.  In some ways my task is aided by the fact that we found another tablet last season which recorded a tally of sheep, showing that if the tokens were used for arithmetic and accounting they were independent of a specific semantic association, grain, wool, wood etc…

Finally, the end goal for this project is to make some connections between the use of tokens with writing as an entry form of literacy.  Too often in past discussions of literacy, the ability to comprehend written characters is restricted to a tiny portion of the population.  I’d like to see tokens as a way to breach that divide and start to understand the mental abilities necessary to understand record information and access it at a later point in time.

Ancient History

The Roman god of History, Janus, from Wikipedia
The Roman god of time, Janus, from Wikipedia

 

One of the requirements for my PhD is to write a sample syllabus for a course I could imagine teaching.  It’s a useful exercise which forces you to think about what you want to teach in the long term, and how you want to teach it.  In a sense it’s an exercise in creating an academic “persona”.  What kind of teacher will you be, heavy on lecture and light on readings, little assessment or lots?  There are many ways to present the material and now I’m forced to choose a path and go down it.

I’ve opted to create a syllabus for a course on Hellenistic Babylonia.  I did this partly out of the desire to learn more about that particular time period as my own research focuses on material from Seleucid Uruk and Babylon.  The course was intended to be a survey of Mesopotamian history with a focus on the later half of the 1st millennium B.C.E.  I was keen to include both cuneiform and classical sources and use the class as a way to teach a method of combining the two.  However, as I read more on the classical sources I become interested in the way this course could be used to teach issues around history.  I read Luke Pitcher’s book “Writing Ancient History: An Introduction to Classical Historiography” which I found very engaging and interesting.  While the book entirely focuses on the classical world, I found many of his chapters useful in designing my course.  I’m now working through my initial outline of the syllabus to add more readings and content on the act of reading and writing history.  My tentative title is currently: “Hellenistic Babylonia: Perspectives on the Writing of a History”.

New Blog

I decided to take the plunge and start self-hosting websites.  I started with my wife’s blog/site as a venue for her to put up art and talk about her artistic process.  I wanted another site that I could experiment and write on.  Eventually I’d like to start hosting sites for friends and family.

I went with digitalocean for hosting.  I liked their cheap VPS options, and their website looks pretty professional.  On the backend, the management of droplets (their term for servers) is really slick.  You also only pay for the time you use.  So you can fire up a droplet briefly if need be and then shut it back down.

They also have a host of great tutorials which make setting up various server tasks really easy.  I’m running these sites on nginx (a first for me), and wordpress of course.  Nginx is pretty slick, I’m really enjoying how modular the server configuration files are.  It’s nice that you can keep server configurations around, and activate and deactivate them without changing the files.

The first time I was able to host two websites from one IP address was a mind opening experience.  The way a webserver can interpret the HTTP request and serve up different files depending on the domain requested makes a lot of sense in retrospect.  This server is now hosting hmonroe.com, willismonroe.com, and our domain from our wedding site: hayleyandwillis.com.  I’m using nearlyfreespeach.net, which is ok, not completely sold on them yet.

 

NB: Post prior to this are imported from an old wordpress.com blog.