Solipsism and Me

Idle reports from an idle fellow

Wanderings 2012

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In mid November 2012, we abandoned our house in Victoria Road to the builders and set off on an itinerary involving frequent returns to Nottingham, and extended stays in many major European cities with names beginning with B. Suitcases were trundled to and from buses, trains, and planes; hotels and other forms of temporary accomodation were sampled; tooth brushes, slippers, phone chargers and other first world necessities were accidentally mislaid across Europe. This blog entry summarizes the unrolling of this sequence of displacements …

20121113_150519 On November 14 at 14h precisely and accompanied by rumbling suitcases containing a week’s as yet unbesmirched washing we walk down Victoria Road to the bus stop; take the bus into town; walk to the station; train to Paddington; tube to St Pancras; Eurostar to Paris Nord departing 1501; RER to Cite Universitaire; walk around the edge of Parc Monceau to 8 rue Amiral mouchez, arriving at 19h in time to receive the keys from the charming Hari, an AirBNB user who is renting her flat to us.

The flat is warm, has a nice little kitchen, functional wifi, a comfy real bed and a grand piano. Large amounts of book and other personal effects are hidden behind curtains and there is a pleasing air of chaos barely controlled. The next ten days are a kind of experiment to see how we cope with living in Paris together, with me working and Lilette being the angel in the house. I think moderately well : at any rate I got to the office in rue Lhomonde a couple of times, where I mostly agonized over the preparation of a new(ish) TEI training course, but also collected a few personal remnants such as a towel and a coffee pot, on the understanding that a definitive end to my time with the TGE was fast approaching, and Lilette discovered the pleasure of having a real butcher and a real baker within walking distance. We went out for an excellent Mauritian dinner together before L succumbed to a nasty cold and had to stay in bed for a few days, recovering eventually well enough to visit the Bazar d’Hotel de Ville for some desultory christmas shopping,


Shopping at the BHV

and for a walk to the Marais for some interesting Jewish dinner. Monday to Thursday I gave the aforesaid new(ish) TEI Training course for the Cahier consortium at the Institut Linguistique de France, conveniently located down the road from the flat: on which I have reported in another blog.

Saturday 24th November we tidy up the flat, collect some cheese and other goodies from the local shops, and head back to London on the 13h13 Eurostar, arriving eventually to find 111 Victoria Road is dark and cold, eviscerated, and barely habitable. Some degree of panic ensues as we wonder where to spend the weekend, with a phone battery failing, and no room at any local hotel. Fortunately we are invited to dinner at the Rahtzes this evening. They are kind enough to offer us a room in their basement, and access to wifi to sort myself out. Sunday, we check into the Royal Oxford Hotel down by the station, where there is heating, clean towels, wifi, and a comfy bed to be had, and I plot our next move. We have grandparenting duties in the East Midlands at the start of the week, but how better to spend the rest of it than on an impromptu visit to Barcelona? Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I book some accomodation and several train tickets, before going out for a well earned brunch at the Old Jam Factory, whence we trundle our suitcases onto the train for Nottingham.


No stroll through the Jardin des Plantes is complete without a visit to this statue of Bernardin de Saint Pierre

We’re parachuting in to help on the occasion of Little Louis’ visit to hospital on the 27th November for some long overdue maintenance work on his navel. Not much seems to be required other than reassuring noises, cleaning the kitchen floor, etc, and the navel procedure went well. So we repack our bags, and set off bright and early on the morning of the 28th to take the 0936 train from Nottingham to St Pancras, the 1225 Eurostar from there to Paris Nord, the metro to Paris Austerlitz, and the 1857 Elipsos sleeper train from there to Barcelona, in that order, with ample time for a little stroll through le Jardin des Plantes, a cup of tea, and some sandwiches in between. The Elipsos when we got on it was as comfortable as you might suppose, with a proper dinner in a proper dining car and an obsequious cabin attendant.


Exterior of our apartment block in Barcelona

The sun was shining in Barcelona, and the apartment I’d booked turned out to be really rather nice: modern furniture and fittings in an art deco apartment block. We collapsed into its huge comfy bed and snoozed some more, before later sallying forth to find shops and restaurants and enjoy our first genuine Spanish paella in a long time. Ah, Barcelona! A beautiful city, and I have only one little chore to complete before I can really enjoy it: I have promised Laurent a draft of an article for the 1st December and no longer have any excuse for postponing its completion. So I spend the first few mornings and evenings banging away on my keyboard till that is done and we can concentrate exclusively on exploring the entirely delightful markets and museums of this splendid city, with its intriguing architecture, its spectacular hills and monuments, and its confusing metro system. We spent quite a lot of time gawping at the Museum of Catalan Art which is an extraordinary work in itself but also full of gawp-worthy paintings and sculptures; quite a lot padding around the Joan Miro museum which was showing an interesting exhibit on the successors of Jackson Pollock; and not nearly enough at the Parc Guell, where Gaudi lived and played his pianola. We got sore feet, behaving touristically, enjoyed chocolate and churros, and eat several more paellas. See Flickr pages for some more photos.

This inexplicable little chap stands guard outside Olton Station.

This inexplicable little chap stands guard outside Olton Station.

This touristic idyll came to an end on 5 Dec. We took the bus to Barcelona Airport, and then a Ryanair fly, of which the least said the better, to Stansted. From whence, by train to Liverpool Street, across London by tube to Marylebone, to Dorridge — a godforsaken spot whence Chiltern Trains refuse to proceed — and eventually to Olton, where we are to be accomodated by Lila’s other grandparents. An interesting journey, but maybe only if you are interested in the ongoing dire effects of privatisation on British rail services. Never mind, we have arrived in good time for another nice dinner and another comfy bed.

Next day is a day for taking Lila and Sarah out for a bit of shopping, notably to buy Lila a new buggy. We visited Birmingham’s famous German market, thus inaugurating a series of such experiences. gluhwein, scarves, gloves, gingerbread, sweets, wooden toys, health-giving crystals, mechanical toys… get em all here at knock down prices. Lunch was vaguely Mexican, but none the worse for that, and in the evening we treated Richard and June, our fellow grandparents, to dinner at a local curry house, which seemed to go down well.
On the 7th and 8th Dec we are supposed to be babysitting Little Louis again, to facilitate another Aistagusha gig, so off we go on the 1030 departure from Olton, via Moor St, and New St to Nottingham once more. More christmas shopping must have taken place, but we seem unaccountably to have missed the opportunity of visiting the Nottingham German market.

On the 9th December I celebrate my 66th birthday by not celebrating it at all; I’m on a train going from Nottingham to Oxford via Derby for most of it. Back in Oxford, we assess the state of 111 Victoria Rd which is now much more habitable, if you don’t mind the absence of a floor in the kitchen and the lack of space to sit down in the dining room, which is full of all the things taken out of the kitchen. But the heating works, and it’s possible to cook, and wash clothes so we camp out there for a couple of days, doing laundry,  repacking for the next phase, and having discussions with our builder.


Lilette reflects on eponymous resto in Bordeaux

The 12 December we’re on another train, this time headed for Gatwick airport, where we have a plane to catch for Bordeaux. Why? Because I agreed months ago to give a talk at a corpus linguistics conference there (appeals to my ego never fail). The talk’s nearly ready — it’s a slightly updated version of one I gave ages ago, so delivering it is more of a logistical than an intellectual effort. We arrive in time for a nice dinner with the conference organizers and I dutifully spend Friday at the Goethe Institute listening to various varyingly interesting linguisticky presentations. Thomas Schmidt is present and agrees with me that we really ought to be doing something more on the TEI/ISO activity front, real soon now. Things run late at the conference, as they usually do, and I excuse myself (and her) from the formal conference dinner on the grounds that Lilette is not feeling well and I need an early night. Then we go out for a nice quiet rice-based diner à deux down the rue St Catherine which (it transpires) is as significant in Bordeaux as its synonym in Montreal, i.e. it’s full of restaurants and bars. There’s a bar called Lou and a bit further on a cafe featuring art nouveau advertising for Lillet.

The next day (14 December) was a long one. It began with me dutifully taking the tram out to the University Bordeaux III campus, which is of course, miles from anywhere, and almost entirely deserted. It continued more or less as follows:

  • 09-10 : search for conference, try to get projector working, find coffee etc.
  • 10-11 : give talk;
  • 11-12 : sneak out of conference, return to hotel, collect luggage and wife;
  • 12-13 : walk across town with luggage taking in amusing trompe l’oeuil effects;
  • 13-14 : catch tram to station; fail to get lunch but enjoy sunshine;
  • 14-17 : TGV from Bordeaux to Paris Montparnasse;
  • 17-18 : bus from Montparnasse to Gare de Lyon;
  • 18-19 : wait for Thello to get itself organised, following the demise of the only first class sleeper carriage on its night train to Bologna;
  • 19-20 : watch a small drama on board said train occasioned by some of the other would-be first class passengers being accidentally left behind on the platform;
  • 20-21 : dine on dubious lasagne and plenty of wine in largely deserted restaurant car;
  • 21-06 : manage to sleep somehow in a third class couchette, my dear.
This statue of Nettuno is one of the enduring pleasures of Bologna

This statue of Nettuno is one of the enduring pleasures of Bologna

In Bologna, as the day breaks, Daniella drove us to her flat from the station (at 0630!) and let us sleep some more, before taking us up to the Ospedale Maggiore to visit the unfortunate professore Aston, confined to a ward on the 12th floor, with a magnificent view over the railway station which alas he cannot see, since as a result of an accident at the weekend he cannot even roll over in bed; the prognostication is somewhat gloomy but we do our best to cheer him up. It seems he will walk again, though not for many months.  Thanks to Daniella, we also learn how to use the Bolognese bus system, how delicious tortellini in brodo can be, and generally reacquaint ourselves with the charms of that walled city.


Dinner in classy restaurants like this one (Donatello) is another






Why are we in Bologna? aside from the obvious reasons, I am here to sit on the jury before which a thesis on computerization in epigraphy is to be defended, at the request of the candidate. I have managed to read quite a lot of the thesis and also poked experimentally at some of the websites it references, so this shouldn’t be too hard, even in French. The Franco-Italian PhD thesis defence ritual is to take place on Monday 17th in the afternoon, and there will be cake. There is also quite a nice lunch for the jury beforehand; the candidate acquits herself well,  and there is  a splendid dinner for all concerned afterwards, at a classy Bolognese restaurant, paid for by the candidate’s long suffering  but proud parents.

Job done, we are free to do as much more Christmas shopping as our suitcases can bear (tortellini, salame, parmigiano, panforte…) before regretfully taking an Easyjet flight back to Gatwick on the 20th, and thence by train to Oxford, since the house is habitable enough at last for us to offer Elizabeth and Al a bed for the night, as well as ourselves. There is still no proper floor in the kitchen, but at least it’s possible to sit at the dining table and dine, which we do.
On the 22nd we set out for Nottingham through the flooded Midlands and get as far as Derby, at which point it seems that an exceptionally large puddle near Beeston has caused suspension of all train traffic between Nottingham and Derby. This is annoying, though not as annoying as the confusion it causes at Derby station where none of the harassed staff seems to know what is going on for the next hour or two. We join a flock of disgruntled travellers in pursuit of trains that are announced and then cancelled and buses that are promised but do not appear, as the night grows darker and the drizzle continues. Careful attention to announcements pays off, and we are amongst the first members of the flock aboard a replacement bus which does eventually materialise, fill up, and depart.

Special Ruby Red Cake made by Sarah, photographed by Elizabeth, and enjoyed by all

Special Ruby Red Cake made by Sarah, photographed by Elizabeth, and enjoyed by all

We are relieving pressure on space at Belinda’s house by staying at the Westminster Hotel, famous for its huge rooms, comfy beds, hot showers, and bizarre internal architecture featuring too many stairs. Belinda and James, to say nothing of little Louis, cope admirably with the bedlam as the massed Burnard-Walkers and hangers on assemble for yuletide jollity, peaking at 14 people and a dog for Xmas lunch. Foresight has provided us with a rota to decide who is responsible for washing up, cooking, and entertaining on each day, so no-one has any excuse for feeling sad, and no-one does. The 23rd, being our ruby wedding anniversary, Lilette and I are agreeably surprised by a red cake made by Sarah, and a pomegranate tree; see my photos (or Belinda’s, or Elizabeth’s) . And the 27th, after the traditional huge lunch at Walker Seniors, we zip back to Oxford for another couple of days repacking and plotting the next phase: an escape to the west country in the new year.
On the 30th, we set off to Bristol Temple Meads, and from there to Pam and Philip’s elegant and comfortable house in Kingsdown, where we put an end to our wanderings for the year, watching fireworks and Chinese lanterns explode all over the cityscape and drinking lots of prosecco. In 2013, we plan to proceed further West, but that’s unquestionably enough for the present.

Written by Lou

January 6, 2013 at 15:07

Posted in Biographical

Barcelona 2012

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Barcelona 2012, a set on Flickr.

Choice photos from an unpremeditated spot of tourism in Catalunya

Written by Lou

January 2, 2013 at 13:50

Posted in Biographical

Further researches into Molesworthiana

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Encouraged by friendly email from the distinguished author of Bullies, Beaks and Flannelled Fools: An Annotated Bibliography of Boys’ School Fiction 1742-2000, I have been doing a little more investigation of the Molesworthian avant-texte, in particular the first appearances of some of the texts we now regard as canonical. Following the success of the books Down with skool (1953), and How to be topp (1954), it would appear that Willans was requested to contribute to  Young Elizabethan (“The magazine to grow up with”) on a regular basis, starting in January 1955. Like the books, each of his contributions was illustrated by the late great Ronald Searle, who just happened to be married to YE’s editor Kaye Webbe. As far as I can tell almost all of these pieces were subsequently republished in book form, some in Wizz For Attoms (1956), and the rest in the posthumous  collection Back in the Jug Agane (1958).

I spent a happy hour or two this afternoon in the Lower Reading Room of the Bodleian Library looking through Young Elizabethan for 1955 to 1957, in order to prepare the table at the end of this article, and also in the rather forlorn hope of discovering some more lost Molesworthiana. I found some mildly interesting letters from readers of YE either disparaging (“I am sure that quite a number of readers will agree with me about The Curse of St Custards! This month’s report is particularly stupid”, wrote Diana Herbert from Johannesburg in June 1955) or defending the Goriller of 3B (“Nigel is a true representation in a humorous way of an English form of activity which is unknown and hence unappreciated in South Africa” wrote Jill Asquith from Upminster in the next issue). I also found a couple of non-Molesworth-related pieces from Willans, one reporting an interview with the  (unnamed) “head of the Rocket Research Department of a famous aircraft manufacturing firm” confidently predicting that “within fifty years man will move into space”; another a set of book of reviews. But the most enjoyable piece I found was called Molesworth the Inside Story. This appeared in April 1957 and has not, so far as I know, been reprinted. It explains how “the doings, musing, and ‘obiter dicta’ (lat.) of this gifted schoolboy are recorded at Molesworth House in the City.”

“The great boy drives up in his Rolls Royce at ten in the morning, sucking an acid drop. The chauffeur (an ex-master) opens the door of the car; the doorman (M.A. Cantab.) salutes, the liftman (who once taught fr. and P.T.) touches his cap. Molesworth reaches his office. It is a simple place, nor more than a hundred yards long, decorated with the skulls of several headmasters…”

But the most interesting part of this article is the following in which Willans waxes historical:

“Of course I can say with all due modesty, that I am Molesworth’s oldest slave and he might find it difficult to do without me. It was as long ago as 1936 that I was by his side when he first jotted down the note: ‘You have been Warned book on beastly schools’ : I was with him on that famous day in 1939 when his first original diary appeared in ‘Punch’: it was I who was his main support during the production of ‘Down With Skool’ and, whenever we came to a particularly difficult part we would write a caption and leave a large space for Ronald Searle to do a drawing.

After all this time there is nothing much I do not know about Molesworth. Originally the first of his books was to have been produced during the war illustrated by a very brilliant ‘Punch’ artist, called ‘Pont.’ But ‘Pont’ died very young while M. and I were together in a corvette in the Mediterranean — so nothing came of it. I shared his disappointment at that time. But we kept on and many of his diaries were written in my cabin — a very different sort of
place from his luxurious office today. “

It is an interesting speculation as to how we would think of Molesworth today had he been illustrated by Pont, that great observer of the British character. Would he perhaps have resembled the small boy in this famous cartoon?

Willans’ contributions to Young Elizabethan, 1955-1957

1955-01 pp 28-29 Introducing Molesworth (Elizabethan)
1955-02 p 31 Guide to Gurls
1955-03 p 23 Tee Hee for Tee Vee
1955-04 p 9 Boo to tinies
1955-05 p 22 Who will be Wot?
1955-06 pp 16-17 Six-Gun Molesworth
1955-07 pp 24-25 Oeufs are Oafs…
1955-08 pp 14-15 Ho For The Hols!
1955-09 pp 8-9 A Grim Subjekt
1955-10 pp 14-15 Produktivity in Skool
1955-11 pp 11-12 Moon News
1955-11 pp 16-17 More about Masters introducing
Sir Petrovitch and Sir Hickenhopper
1955-12 pp 34-35 A Few Tips from the Coarse
1956-01 pp 38-39 A Teacher’s World (O horor, horor!)
1956-02 pp 31-32 Attoms v Culture
1956-03 pp 12-13 Goodby to Skool (for a bit)
1956-05 pp 16-17 Learning About Life (also
traktors, aggriculture, ect.)
1956-06 pp 22-23 Taking Wings!
1956-07 pp 25-26 The Flying Molesman
1956-09 p 21 here we go agane!
1956-10 p 10 So Far So Good
1956-11 p 25 Secret of Success  [Book reviews]
1957-02 p 11 the karakter kup
1957-03 p 30 the grate master trap
1957-04 p 15 Molesworth — The Inside Story
1957-05 pp 16-17 molesworth cleens up dodge city
1957-06 p 13 kno yore ennemy!
1957-10 pp 16-17 back in the jug agane, (hem hem)
1957-12 pp 12-13 a few rools for xmas

Written by Lou

January 16, 2012 at 22:34

The numbers game, again.

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I see that Mel Terras is collecting stats for something which the young people of today apparently call “an infographic” about Digital Humanities activities. This leads me to excavate  a report I produced back in the day tabulating usage of the Humanist list in its first six months or so between August 1987 and January 1988. I leave it to the reader to determine whether anything much has changed.

What happened on HUMANIST?

This necessarily brief and partisan report attempts to review about six months of strenuous activity within the Humanist discussion group sponsored by the ACH, the ALLC and the University of Toronto’s Centre for Computing in the Humanities. At the time of writing, participants in this electronic discusion group numbered nearly 180 spread across 11 countries (see table 1), largely, but by no means exclusively, in North American academic computing centres. Table 2 shows that less than half of these participants actually create the messages that all, perforce, are assumed to read; out of over 600 messages during the last six months, nearly 500 were sent by just eight people, and out of 180 subscribers, 107 have never sent a message. In this, as in some other respects, HUMANIST resembles quite closely the sort of forum with which most of its members may be presumed to be most familiar: the academic committee. Personality traits familiar from that arena – the aggressive expert, the diffident enquirer, the unsuppressable bore – are equally well suited to this new medium: both young turks and old fogies are also to be found.

Some of the rhetorical tricks and turn-taking rules appropriate to the oral medium find a new lease of life in the electronic one; indeed it is clear that this medium approximates more closely to orature than to literature. Its set phrases and jargon often betray an obsession with informal speech, and a desire to mimic it more *directly*, re-inventing typographic conventions for the purpose. As in conversation too, some topics will be seized upon while others, apparently equally promising, sink like stones at their first appearance; the wise Humanist, like the good conversationalist, learns to spot the right lull into which to launch a new topic. Perhaps because the interactions in an electronic dialogue are necessarily fewer and more spaced out (no pun intended) than those in face to face speech, misunderstanding and subsequent clarifications seem to occur more often than one might expect. However, the detailed functional analysis of electronic speech acts is an interesting but immense task, which I regretfully leave to discourse analysts better qualified than myself. (Needless to say, Humanist itself reported at least two such studies of “electronic paralanguage” during the period under review).

For the purposes of this survey I identified four broad categories of message. In category A (for Administrative) go test messages, apologies for electronic disasters, announcements -but not discussion- of policy and a few related and oversized items such as the Humanist Notes for Beginners and the invaluable “Biographies”. These totalled 57 messages, 18% of all messages, or 25% by bulk.

In category C (for Conference) go announcements of all other kinds – calls for papers, job advertisements, conference reports, publicity for new software or facilities etc. The figures here totalled 39 messages, 12% of all messages, 20% of all lineage. As might be expected, categories A and C are disproportionately lengthy and not particulary frequent. I do not discuss them much further.

In category Q (for query) go requests for information on specified topics, public answers to, and summaries of such responses. These amounted to 20% of all messages but (again unsurprisingly) only 10% of all lines. I have been unable, as yet, to gather any statistics concerning the extent of private discussions occurring outside the main Humanist forum, though it is clear from those cases which are subsequently summarised that such discussions not only occur but are often very fruitful. What proportion of queries fall on stony ground is also hard, as yet, to determine.

In category D (for discussion) I place those messages perhaps most typical of Humanist: general polemic, argument and disputation. Overall, these messages account for nearly 50% of the whole, (44% by line) and thus clearly dominate the network. With the curious exception of November, the proportion of D category messages remains more or less constant within each month. As table 5 shows, the relative proportions of other types of message are by no means constant over time.

Of course, assigning a particular message to some category is not always a clear cut matter. Correspondents occasionally combine a number of topics – or kinds of topic – in a single message. Moreover, the medium itself is still somewhat unreliable. Internal evidence shows that not all messages always get through to all recipients, nor do they always arrive in the order in which they were despatched or (presumably) composed. This report is based only on the messages which actually reached me here in Oxford; concerning the rest I remain (on sound Wittgensteinian principles) silent. I am equally silent on messages in categories A and C above, which are of purely transient interest.

Space precludes anything more than a simple indication of the range of topics on which Humanists have sought (and often obtained) guidance. In category Q over the last six months I found messages asking for information on typesetters with a PostScript interface, on scanners capable of dealing with microform, about all sorts of different machine readable texts and about software for ESL teaching, for library cataloguing, for checking spelling, for browsing foreign language texts, and for word processing in Sanskrit. Humanists asked for electronic mail addresses in Greece and in Australia, for concordance packages for the Macintosh and the Amiga ST, for address lists and bibliographies; they wondered who had used the programming language Icon and whether image processing techniques might be used to analyse corrupt manuscripts; they asked for details of the organisational structure of humanities computing centres and of the standards for cataloguing of computer media.

Above all however, Humanists argue. Back in August 1987 HUMANIST was only a few months old, yet many issues which have since become familiar to its readership were already on the agenda. Where exactly are the humanities as a discipline? what is their relation to science and technology? Correspondents referred to the infamous “Two cultures” debate of the late fifties, somehow now more relevant to the kind of “cross-disciplinary soup we are cooking”, but rather than re-flaying that particular dead horse, moved rapidly to another recurrent worry: did the introduction of computers change humanistic scholarship quantitatively or qualitatively? Does electronic mail differ only in scale and effectiveness from the runner with the cleft stick? Do computers merely provide better tools to do tasks we have always wanted to do? The opinion of one correspondent (“if computers weren’t around, I doubt very much if many of the ways we think about texts would have come to be”) provoked another into demanding (reasonably enough) evidence. Such evidence as was forthcoming however did concede the point that “it could all be done without computers in some theoretical sense, but certainly not as quickly”. Reference was made to a forthcoming collection of essays which might settle whether or not it was chimerical to hope that computers will somehow assist not just in marshalling the evidence but in providing interpretations of it.

A second leitmotiv of Humanist discussions was first heard towards the end of August, when an enquiry about the availability of some texts in machine readable form provoked an assertion of the moral responsibility the preparers of such texts should accept for making their existence well known and preferably for depositing them in a Text Archive for the benefit of all. A note of caution concerning copyright was also first sounded here, and it was suggested that those responsible for new editions should always attempt to retain control over the rights to electronic distribution of their material.

With the start of the new academic year, HUMANIST became more dominated by specific enquiries, and a comparatively low key wrangle about whether or not product announcements, software reviews and the like should be allowed to sully its airspace. Characteristically, this also provided the occasion for some Humanists to engage in an amusing socio-linguistic discussion of the phenomenon known as “flaming”, while others plaintively asked for “less chatter about the computer which is only a tool and more about what we are using it for”. It appeared that some far flung Humanists actually have to pay money proportionate to the size of the mailings they accept, recalling an earlier remark about the uniquely privileged nature of the bulk of those enjoying the delights of this new time-waster, which was (as one European put it) “surely *founded* for chatter”.

In mid October, a fairly pedestrian discussion about the general lack of recognition for computational activities amd publications suddenly took off with the re-emergence of the copyright problems referred to above. If electronic publication was on a par with paper publication, surely the same principles of ownership and due regard for scholarly labours applied to it? But did this not mitigate against the current easy camaraderie with which articles, gossip and notes are transferred from one medium to another? as indeed are those more substantial fruits of electronic labours, such as machine readable texts? For one correspondent such activities, without explicit permission, were “a measure of the anesthetizing effect of the xerox machine on our moral sense”. For another, however “asking concedes the other party’s right to refuse”

In mid-November, after a particularly rebarbative electronic foul up, minimal editorial supervision of all Humanist submissions was initiated. Other than some discussion of the “conversational style” appropriate to the network, this appears to have had little or no inhibitory effect on either the scale or the manner of subsequent contributions.

An enquiry about the availability of some Akkadian texts led to a repeated assertion of the importance to scholarship of reliable machine readable texts. Conventional publishers were widely castigated for their short-sighted unwillingness to make such materials available (being compared on one occasion to mediaeval monks using manuscripts for candles, and on another to renaissance printers throwing away Carolingian manuscripts once they had been set in type). Humanists were exhorted to exert peer pressure on publishers, to pool their expertise in the definition of standards, to work together for the establishment of a consortium of centres which could offer archival facilities and define standards. More realistically perhaps, some humanists remarked that publishers were unlikely to respond to idealistic pressures and that a network of libraries and data archives already existed which could do all of the required tasks and more were it sufficiently motivated and directed. At present, said one, all we have is “a poor man’s archive” dependent on voluntary support. Others were more optimistic about the possibility of founding a “North American text Archive and Service Center” and less optimistic about the wisdom of leaving such affairs to the laws of the marketplace. One intriguing proposal was that a national or international Archive might be managed as a giant distributed database.

Following the highly successful Vassar conference on text encoding standards in mid-November, a long series of contributions addressed the issue of how texts should be encoded for deposit in (or issue from) such an archive. No one seems to have seriously dissented from the view that descriptive rather than procedural markup was desirable, nor to have proposed any method to describe such markup other than SGML, so that it is a little hard to see quite what all the fuss was about – unless it was necessary to combat the apathy of long established practise.

One controversy which did emerge concerned the desirability (or feasibility) of enforcing a minimal encoding system, and the extent to which this was a fit role for an archive to take on. “Trying to save the past is just going to retard development” argued one, while another lone voice asserted a “rage for chaos” and praised “polymorphic encoding” on the grounds that all encoding systems were inherently subjective (“Every decoding is another encoding” to quote Morris Zapp). Anxiety was expressed about the dangers of bureacracy. Both views were, to the middle ground at least, equally misconceived. In the first case, no-one was proposing that past errors should dictate future standards, but only that safeguarding what had been achieved was a different activity from proposing what should be done in the future. In the second case, no-one wished to fetter (or to “Prussianize”) scholarly ingenuity, only to define a common language for its expression.

There was also much support for the common sense view that conversion of an existing text to an adequate level of markup was generally much less work than starting from scratch. Clearly however, a lot depends on what is meant by “generally” and by “adequate”: for one humanist an adequate markup was one from which the “original form of a document” could be re-created, thus rather begging the question of how that “original form” was to be defined. To insist on such a distinction between “objective text” and “subjective commentary” is “to miss the point of literary criticism altogether” as another put it.

One technical problem with SGML which was identified, though not much discussed, was its awkwardness at handling multiply hierarchic structures within a single document; one straw man repeatedly shot down was the apparent verbosity of most current implementations based on it. However, as one correspondent pointed out, the SGML standard existed and was not going to disappear. It was up to Humanists to make the best use of it by proposing tag sets appropriate to their needs, perhaps using some sort of data dictionary to help in this task.

At the end of 1987 it seemed that “text markup and encoding have turned out to be THE issue for humanists to get productively excited about”. Yet the new year saw an entirely new topic sweep all others aside. A discussion on the styles of software most appropriate for humanistic research soon focussed on an energetic debate about the potentials of hypertext sustems. It was clear to some that the text analysis features of most existing software systems were primitive and the tasks they facilitated “critically naive”. Would hypertext systems, in which discrete units of text, graphics etc. are tightly coupled to form an arbitrarily complex network, offer any improvement on sequential searching, database construction, concordancing visible tokens and so forth? Participations in this discussion ranged more widely than usual between the evangelical and the ill-informed, so that rather more heat than light was generated on the topic of what was distinctively new about hypertext, but several useful points and an excellent bibliography did emerge.

A hypertext system, it was agreed, did extend the range of what was possible with a computer (provided you could find one powerful enough to run it), though whether or not its facilities were fundamentally new remained a moot (and familiar) point. It also seemed (to this reader at least) that the fundamental notion of hypertext derived from a somewhat primitive view of the way human reasoning proceeds. The hypertext paradigm does not regard as primitive such mental activities as aggregation or categorisation (this X is a sort of Y) or semantic relationships (all Xs are potentially Yd to that Z), which lie at the root of the way most current database systems are designed. Nevertheless it clearly offers exciting possibilities – certainly more exciting (in one humanist’s memorable phrase) than “the discovery of the dung beetle entering my apartment”.

Considerations about the absence of software for analysing the place of individual texts within a larger cultural context, lead some humanists to ponder the rules determining the existence of software of any particular type. Was there perhaps some necessary connexion between the facilities offered by current software systems and current critical dogma? One respondent favoured a simpler explanation: “Straightforward concordance programs are trivial in comparison to dbms and I think that explains the situation much better than does the theory of predominant literary schools”. It seems as if humanists get not just “the archives they deserve” but the software that’s easiest to write.

-----------Tables for the Humanist Digest------------------------

Table 1 : Humanist Subscribers by Country 

|country     |nsubs        | 
|?           |            2| 
|Belgium     |            3| 
|Canada      |           54| 
|Eire        |            1| 
|France      |            1| 
|Israel      |            4| 
|Italy       |            1| 
|Netherlands |            1| 
|Norway      |            3| 
|UK          |           37| 
|USA         |           73| 
  Total                 180 

Table 1a. Subscribers per node 

|nusers       |nsuch        | 
|            1|           70| 
|            2|           17| 
|            3|           11| 
|            4|            2| 
|            5|            1| 
|            7|            1| 
|            8|            1| 
|           13|            1| 

Table 2. Messages sent per subscriber 

|n_mess_sent  |number_such  |messages     | 
|            0|          107|            0|
|            1|           31|           31| 
|            2|           10|           20| 
|            3|            9|           27| 
|            4|            3|           12| 
|            5|            2|           10| 
|            6|            3|           18| 
|            7|            3|           21| 
|            8|            2|           16| 
|           10|            1|           10| 
|           12|            1|           12| 
|           14|            1|           14| 
|           17|            1|           17| 
|           18|            1|           18| 
|           20|            1|           20| 
|           71|            1|           71| 
Totals                   177|          316|        

Table 3 Messages by origin 

|country     |Total message| 
|?           |            8| 
|Canada      |          130| 
|Israel      |            6| 
|UK          |           40| 
|USA         |          132| 

Table 4: Messages by type 

|tag   |messages     |% messages|linecount    |%lines    | 
|A     |           57|    17.981|         3867|    25.306| 
|C     |           39|    12.303|         3078|    20.143| 
|D     |          156|    49.211|         6707|    43.891| 
|Q     |           64|    20.189|         1616|    10.575| 

Table 5:  Messages by type within each month 

      |type  |messages     |% in month|lines        |% in month| 
AUG87 |A     |           10|    23.256|         1230|    32.031| 
SEP87 |A     |            7|    17.500|          105|     9.722| 
OCT87 |A     |            9|    30.000|          428|    36.992| 
NOV87 |A     |           16|    34.783|          863|    48.840| 
DEC87 |A     |           10|    11.494|         1178|    25.732| 
JAN88 |A     |            2|     4.000|            5|     0.256| 

AUG87 |C     |            3|     6.977|         1712|    44.583| 
SEP87 |C     |            6|    15.000|          208|    19.259| 
OCT87 |C     |            1|     3.333|           93|     8.038| 
NOV87 |C     |           13|    28.261|          526|    29.768| 
DEC87 |C     |            6|     6.897|          218|     4.762| 
JAN88 |C     |            6|    12.000|          112|     5.744| 

AUG87 |D     |           22|    51.163|          694|    18.073| 
SEP87 |D     |           17|    42.500|          577|    53.426| 
OCT87 |D     |           13|    43.333|          518|    44.771| 
NOV87 |D     |            4|     8.696|          131|     7.414| 
DEC87 |D     |           52|    59.770|         2649|    57.864| 
JAN88 |D     |           37|    74.000|         1678|    86.051| 

AUG87 |Q     |            8|    18.605|          204|     5.313| 
SEP87 |Q     |           10|    25.000|          190|    17.593| 
OCT87 |Q     |            7|    23.333|          118|    10.199| 
NOV87 |Q     |           13|    28.261|          247|    13.978| 
DEC87 |Q     |           18|    20.690|          520|    11.359| 
JAN88 |Q     |            5|    10.000|          155|     7.949| 

Written by Lou

December 5, 2011 at 22:52

En avril à Paris

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A gasometer lurks at the unprotected and little-frequented rear flank of St Pancras International

How do you get from Heathrow Airport to St Pancras International, using public transport, but avoiding Paddington? This may not be a question that has ever entered your head, dear reader, but that doesn’t make it entirely uninteresting. My personal answer (thanks to Travelines Southeast) was to take the Heathrow Connect Service from the subterranean vault at Heathrow all the way to Ealing Broadway, take a bus from there to one edge of Acton, a vigorous walk across same to Acton Central station on the fabled London Overground line, and thus skirt the Northern frontiers of the Great Wen by rail as far as Camden Road station, from which it was really quite a nice sunny stroll along the Grand Union canal to Camley Street, enabling me to sneak up on St Pancras from behind. Nice gasometer too.

And so off to Paris, as usual.  Arriving a bit late to get anything nice for dinner, as usual. Checking in to the Hotel Diana, and falling asleep immediately, as usual.  But there were two unexpected letters waiting for me when I rolled into the office at the TGE Adonis next morning: one contained my  Passe Navigo; the other an invitation to something called a vernissage at the Salon des Livres, courtesy of the Bibliotheque Literaire Jacques Doucet.

Inside Le Grand Palais (bigger than Le Petit Palais and even more like a second empire railway station)

Richer, older, and much more serious book buyers than I am frequent the Salon des Livres

No varnish was involved, just large amounts of cheap champagne, lots and lots of very expensive books, manuscripts, and prints. It took place in a bit of Paris I rarely frequent, specifically a rather kitsch building off the Champs Elysees called the Grand Palais. On this occasion it was full of mostly very very rich people engaged in the buying and selling of beautiful old books and manuscripts, plus quite a lot of the latter, and (as afore said) quite a lot of champagne. Then I high tailed it across town to meet up with Guy and Nathalie for a rather late dinner at the Zygotheque.

Forest of Fontainebleau

A walk through what's left of the Forest of Fontainebleau

Next day being Friday, I took the afternoon off for the first of three silvan expeditions. This one, in Guy’s company, necessarily involved a train
from the Gare de Lyon to the RER station at Fontainebleau-Avon, from where we walked for about 20 minutes through the remaining forest of Fontainebleau up to the Palace itself. After a much needed cup of tea by the lake we managed to persuade the man at the desk to give us a personal tour of the Palace’s private rooms, though even he was unable to let us see the Emperor’s library, which was what I had come for. But we saw his (Napoleon’s) toilet, and his bed chamber, and the Empress’s, and the long gallery for impressing visitors, and learned rather more French history than might have been anticipated before returning, with sore feet, to Paris for another nice dinner at le Mauzac.

Next day, being Saturday, I moved out of Paris to Boulogne-Billancourt (thanks Marion) for the weekend. After walking some distance in the wrong direction, I reversed my polarity in order to fulfil a long standing ambition: a visit to the Musee Albert Kahn, bequeathed to the world by an ex-banker who famously was just in time to master-mind the photography of the planet before much of it was radically re-arranged by the first world war.

Video screen showing photo of the Triumphant Arch at Porte St Denis c. 1908

Same arch, as seen during a Velib expedition in October 2009

Same arch, as shown today on Google Street View

At a time when people are already theorizing the “fake antiquity” of some Iphone photo apps, it’s pleasing to be able to include here a photo I took of a modern copy of  one of Kahn’s images of the triumphal arch at the Porte St Denis , juxtaposed with  a  photo I took of the same thing in 2009, and also a Google street view I downloaded last week…

When Kahn’s efforts to photograph the planet collapsed along with his business, he retired to his rather nice house  in Boulogne, and developed its beautiful Japanese style gardens further. The local authorities have subsequently done a good job of making them into a tasteful tourist attraction, as we see below.

Fellow tourists enjoying the calm of Albert Kahn's Japanese Gardens even as they destroy it

I find these charming faux – Japanese grounds  particularly interesting, because they have been carefully reconstructed from the original colour photos taken in the 1920s,  which are also available in postcard form. It would probably be a lovely place to wander through alone or in the company of a few discerning monks ; experiencing it along with a full sunny Saturday afternoon crop of families and tourists is a slightly different experience. No matter, in any circumstances, le jardin (as they say) vaut le detour.

Next day, being Sunday, was also the first of May. A good day to stay in bed, a good day to check out the traditional manif — but I decided it was a good day to go for a bike ride in the vastness of the Bois de Boulogne. As indeed it was. Marion’s bike did not collapse under my weight, and I did not get completely lost. Instead I enjoyed myself bumping along the wide open avenues, and bosky little tracks, some of them full of family outings, some with occasional sprinklings of serious sportifs in lycra, as well as some crusty imposters like me. I dutifully respected the tree in which there are stray bullet holes intended for some martyrs of the Resistance.

Patriotically labelled tree in Bois de Boulogne

I even managed to find the Jardin de Shakespeare — a  cute little enclosed theatrical lawn affair. Not unlike the theatre in the grounds of Dartington College: maybe possession of such a thing was  a sine qua non at some time in the twenties or thirties.  Today, the garden was  unexpectedly and (to me)  implausibly full of jolly ladies in tweeds and gents in kilts, participating (I learned) in the annual outing of the Paris Caledonian society .  I was invited to stay and enjoy some highland reels, but made my excuses and left, thus missing the opportunity to meet up with someone I know only as a facebook friend, who (I later learned) was also there.

Day shift of students queuing up for entry to the Bibliotheque Jacques Doucet

Monday morning sees me dutifully returned to the Hotel Diana, and thence up the hill to the Pantheon to work. Today I am supposed to be discussing progress on the LEC project with  the ladies from the Bibliotheque Jacques Doucet, which turns out to be surprisingly disputatious. I escape to lunch at Perraudin with Richard and some entirely other ladies from a different project entirely; then spend another afternoon catching up with email : voila  la vie parisienne.  Like the man said: “Paris a mon coeur depuis mon enfance. Je ne suis francais que par cette grande cite, grande surtout et incomparable en variete”

Statue of Michel de Montaigne opposite the Sorbonne, rue des Ecoles. Keen readers may wonder why one of his shoes is so much shinier than the other. There is a reason for that.

Written by Lou

May 31, 2011 at 18:18

Posted in Biographical

Quel avenir pour l’édition génétique sans “digital forensics”?

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Ce texte représente une intervention au séminaire général de l’ITEM qui a eu lieu à Paris le 31 janvier 2011. Remerciements à ma collègue Nadine Dardenne qui l’a relu pour en corriger les fautes d’orthographe et de syntaxe répandues dans la version originelle; je revendique cependant toute faute intellectuelle résiduelle.

Je souhaiterais vous proposer une brève présentation d’un champ d’études émergeant qui se nomme “digital forensics”. Ce terme reprend un ensemble de techniques et théories propres aux procédures juridiques, mais probablement également d’une importance incontournable pour l’archivage et l’étude des objets nativement numériques; considéré du point de vue patrimonial. Le besoin de mettre en évidence, d’une manière crédible et certaine, les traces de mots enregistrés sur disque dur ou floppy, même supprimées, et d’associer ces traces avec un écrivain, est un enjeu qui afflige l’éditeur critique autant que l’agent de police, ou les services secrets. À chaque fois on a besoin d’une connaissance des affordances des systèmes de stockage numérique, de ce qu’ils rendent possible, et de ce qu’ils cachent. À chaque fois, il est question de balancer des probabilités, de proposer une vérité vraisemblable basée sur des évidences. On pourrait rester aveugle devant ces possibilités, bien sûr. On pourrait dire que l’histoire d’un texte est réduit à l’histoire de ses incarnations multiples, sur ces feuilles de papier que nous aimons si bien. On pourrait renoncer à l’investigation de la manière par laquelle ces incarnations ont été réalisées. Mais dans ce cas il faudrait également renoncer à la majorité du discours artistique actuel, qui est nénumérique, vit et évolue dans le numérique, et meurt dans les archives numérisées de M Google. Car les objets d’étude des humanités et sciences sociales sont de plus en plus conçus et stockés sous forme numérique; il est donc indispensable de revoir et de transformer l’outillage  avec lequel on espère les archiver et les analyser. L’ordinateur de l’auteur, ses disques, son téléphone portable, ses espaces virtuels sur le réseau internet, remplacent ses cahiers, ses brouillons, et ses manuscrits. Il faut ré-équiper le chercheur avec une compréhension des principes d’enregistrement numériques, pour compléter sa compréhension des principes de l’écriture analogique. Le choix est simple: ou bien il faut redéfinir la diplomatique pour le numérique, ou bien il faut renoncer à l’étude de la genèse textuelle des oeuvres modernes.

Comment constituer cette redéfinition? Je propose un réajustement à deux niveaux: intellectuel, et substantif.

Au niveau intellectuel d’abord, il faut affecter une bonne compréhension de l’informatique aux disciplines des SHS. En dépit de deux décennies (au moins) de “humanities computing”, à present relabelisé comme “digital humanities”, il reste une étonnante ignorance autour de l’ordinateur et de ses capacitàs à faire (ou à ne pas faire). En partie, c’est une des conséquences de l’émergence de l’informatique grand public, comme phénomène de marché de masse. Des impératifs commerciaux restreignent l’usage de l’ordinateur à des plateformes spécifiques, et transforment ce moteur universel en un jouet uni-fonctionnel. Ce n’est guère surprenant alors d’entendre les gens affirmer que cette technologie réductive pervertit l’intelligence humaine en la transformant dans une disposition de bits. Ou, à l’extrême opposé, d’y voir l’éternel attrait du divin se manifestant cette fois dans la tendance à vouloir ‘attribuer une intelligence consciente aux effets d’échelle (par exemple, le crowd sourcing, les réseaux neuronaux, le data mining…) Peut être il y en a-t-il parmi nous qui ont besoin de récalibrer le cadre de leur esprit pour supporter l’ère de l’information, juste comme nos ancêtres ont dû s’ajuster à l’ère de la vapeur… mais un tel ajustement consisterait en une extension de nos perceptions, en aucun cas d’une transformation. Dans la langue française, un ordinateur a pour objectif de mettre de l’ordre dans les choses; le mot “ordinateur” porte même des nuances religieuses en rappelant par exemple l’ordination des prêtres. Dans les langages anglo-saxons par contre, un “computer” n’est qu’une machine pour calculer. Mais les objets auxquels l’ordinateur apporte un ordre ne sont pas que les chiffres: il est la machine par excellence pour organiser n’importe quelle espèce de signe, pour le ré-encodage des systèmes sémiotiques de toute sorte. Voilà pourquoi j’ai toujours insisté pour que l’informatique soit considérée comme une branche des sciences humaines, plutot que de l’ingenierie ou de la mathématique. Au niveau materiel, je propose une élargissement des connaissances attendues pour ceux qui veulent faire des études philologiques. On attend de tels gens une compréhension assez intime des technologies typographiques ou paleographiques. Maintenant, a l’urgence on doit élargir ces compétences pour le numérique.

Je termine avec quelques mots sur quelques elements de ce qu’il faut faire apprendre aux futurs généticiens. Quand j’écris un document sur mon ordinateur, le texte apparaît et disparaît sur l’écran, sous le contrôle d’un logiciel avec lequel j’interagis à travers mon clavier. Les traces propres à mon texte sont de deux sortes: lettres, et ce que l’on pourrait nommer “meta-lettres”: c’est-à-dire des codes qui déterminent la façon d’ afficher ou de traiter les lettres. (Un autre terme possible serait “markup” ou “balisage”). Ma conscience de ces meta-lettres est variable: quelques-unes (la ponctuation par exemple) me semble être un composant de ce système sémiotique que l’on appelle la langue naturelle; d’autres (les retours de chariot, les indications de rature, etc) me semblent moins visibles, et j’attends que la machine s’en occupe seule. De la même façon, les codes insérés par le logiciel de traitement de texte pour générer des effets spéciaux tels que les changements de police ou de couleur appartiennent, de mon point de vue, à un niveau sémiotique tout à fait différent. Cependant, mon texte est composé de signes appartenant à ces trois niveaux. Le texte numérisé que j’ai ainsi composé commence son existence physique comme des changements d’état dans la partie dynamique de la mémoire de mon ordinateur; très rapidement ces changements sont transférés et enregistrés dans un format plus permanent quelque part sur mon disque dur, ou dans une autre mémoire. D’habitude ceci s’effectue automatiquement par l’infrastructure informatique, le OS: à noter que c’est fait sans aucune intervention de ma part. Même au moment ou je me décide consciemment d’enregistrer l’état courant de mon texte, bien que je pense savoir ou je le mets (dans un fichier nommé, sur un médium specifique), la manière dans laquelle sont organisés à cet emplacement les composants de mon texte — par exemple, les adresses des secteurs concernés, leurs tailles, la disposition des caractères et autres signes dans ces secteurs — est entièrement hors de mon contrôle et de ma connaissance.

Quand j’écris un document sur papier, le texte apparaît, mais ne disparaît que rarement. Je dois utiliser un ensemble assez complexe de “meta-markup” pour indiquer que tel ou tel signe n’existe plus dans mon texte, qu’il a été remplacé par un autre etc. Le système sémiotique auquel appartient ce markup sera entièrement le mien (exception faite des signes de correction imposés par une maison d’édition). Plus significativement, chacun de mes bouts d’écriture a sa propre existence physique, qu’il m’est impossible d’ignorer, surtout si j’ai un petit bureau ou déjà bien rempli … Par conséquence, il me faut trouver rapidement des stratégies de stockage (ou de recyclage), qui vont déterminer les possibilités de récupérer à l’avenir mes procédures d’écriture. Ces stratégies seront déterminées, bien naturellement, par ce qui me paraît utile, ou ce qui semble approprié dans le contexte institutionnel dans lequel mon écriture prend place. Elles représentent des jugements de valeurs considerés justes dans ces contextes, et c’est pour cela qu’on dit que l’histoire est toujours écrite par les gagnants, et que les archives de n’importe quelle société ont tendance à ne contenir que ce qui est valorisé par cette société. Avec l’arrivée des média numériques, pourtant, les affordances de nos systèmes de stockage se sont transformés d’une manière fondamentale. En dépit des efforts des artistes modernistes, on ne peut lire un bout de papier que d’une seule manière. Mais l’organisation des fragments d’écriture sur un medium numérique de stockage est indépendant de son écriture; elle peut être lue de plusieurs façons. Les séquences de bits constitutifs de ce document peuvent être lus (comme je le suppose assez naïvement) à travers le système de gestion des fichiers sur mon laptop. Mais ce dernier n’est qu’une espèce d’index, comprenant un ensemble de pointeurs sur des segments de stockage éparpillés sur mon disque dur. Ou bien, dans le cas où on recupère mon texte à travers un logiciel plus complexe comme un blog sur le réseau, les traces de mon texte sont hebergées dans une base de données en Californie sur une machine que j’ignore totalement. Mais il demeure possible de récupérer ces mêmes séquences de bits en adressant n’importe quels systèmes de stockage d’une autre manière, tout à fait différemment du système d’acces prévu, que cela soit le système de fichiers sur mon laptop ou le blog, qui (je croyais) représenterait la seule structuration correcte de mon texte. Au contraire. Pour le texte numérique, la structuration est contingente, protéenne.

Ces morceaux écrits, comme je l’ai déjà souligné, pouvaient ne contenir que des materiels raturés, ou des signes qui ne servent qu’à indiquer la manière ou d’autres signes devraient ou pourraient être affichés ou intégrés dans un texte visible. D’où des problèmes pour l’archiviste, et un défi supplémentaire pour la critique textuelle. En acceptant une boîte de papiers comme dépôt, l’archiviste peut raisonnablement supposer que les parties savent exactement ce qu’elles sont en train d’offrir. Mais, quand l’archiviste accepte en dépôt un disque dur, peut-on envisager que les déposants sachent quelles traces d’activités sur l’internet ou quels fichiers supprimés restent encore à découvrir à l’intérieur, au-delà des materiaux proposés et visibles? Un récent rapport américain du Council on Library and Information Resources s’est interrogé sur ce problème, justement perçu comme un vrai défi pour l’éthique professionelle, qui nécessite une mise à jour des standards de contrats de dépôt. Mais je demande aux critiques textuels ici présents — si vous pouviez accéder à l’histoire de browsing sur internet de disons Joyce ou Flaubert, hésiteriez-vous à y aller, par crainte de la violation de la loi sur la vie privée? Peut être moins chimériquement, si vous pouviez récupérer chaque étape de l’écriture d’une oeuvre de l’importance du Satanic Verses de Rushdie (ce qui sera en effet le cas) — chaque rature, chaque ajout, chaque déplacement de mot — de quels outils auriez-vous besoin pour gérer une telle richesse? Les outils et les méthodes élaborés jusqu’à présent sont tous dans la mesure de ce que nous pouvons comprendre: c’est l’abondance de ces informations dans le monde numérique qui nécessite de repenser ces outils et ces méthodes.

Je termine en soulignant encore que le texte numérique serait une construction, pas seulement au sens qu’il est composé de plusieurs séquences fragmentaires de bits, mais aussi au sens que ces séquences reprennent de l’information à plusieurs niveaux. Les mots seuls ne suffisent pas: les documents numériques contiennent inévitablement un balisage, dont une grande partie est (selon le term du philosophe anglais J.L. Austen, repris notamment par Allen Renear) performative — il détermine la nature du texte. D’où l’importance pour le critique textuel numérique de comprendre le balisage et les technologies qui y sont associées . Mais vous vous attendiez probablement à que je vous dise cela…

Does genetic criticism have a future without digital forensics?

This is the text of a presentation I gave at the ITEM’s general symposium on the future of genetic editing, held in Paris on 31 January 2011. I started writing it in French, switched to English for speed, translated it all into French (with the invaluable assistance of my colleague Nadine Dardenne), and then re-Englished it for this version.

I’d like to introduce you to an emerging field called “digital forensics”. This term covers a set of techniques and theories originating in the domain of criminal justice, but also of major importance for the archiving and study of born digital objects considered from a cultural heritage perspective. The need to plausibly identify traces of words recorded on hard or floppy disk, and to reliably associate them with a specific writer, even after their deletion, is a goal which torments the textual critics as much as the police officer or secret service agent. In both cases, a knowledge of the affordances of digital storage systems is needed, to know what they make possible and what the conceal. In both cases, there is a need to balance probabilities when seeking to establish plausible evidence-based conclusions. Ignoring these possibilities is also an option, of course. We could consider the history of a text to be no more than the history of its various embodiments on those sheets of paper we like so well. We could abandon any attempt to investigate by which those embodiments have been achieved. But in that case, we have to give up on the majority of current artistic discourse, which is born digital, lives and evolves digital, and dies in the digital archives of Mr Google. The objects studied in the human and social sciences are increasingly conceived and stored only in digital form; that is why it is essential to rethink and transform the toolkit we use to archive and analyse them. The author’s computer and its disks, their portable telephone, and the virtual spaces they use on the Internet, are taking over from their notebooks, their drafts and their manuscripts. We must re-equip the researcher with an understanding of the principals of digital storage to complement an understanding analog writing. The choice is simple: either redefine diplomatic studies to include the digital world, or abandon any attempt to study the textual genesis of modern works. What are the components of this redefinition? I propose a readjustment at two levels: the intellectual, and the substantive. At the intellectual level first, we need to re-appropriate a proper understanding of information studies within the humanities disciplines. Despite more than two decades of “humanities computing”, now rebranded as “digital humanities”, there is still an astonishing amount of ignorance about what the computer can and cannot do. Partly this is one of the results of the emergence of computing as a mass market phenomenon. Commercial imperatives restrict usage of the infinitely plastic computer to certain platforms, transforming a universal engine into a mono-functional toy. Unsurprisingly, therefore, we still hear people assert that this reductive technology perverts human intelligence as a transient patterns of bits. Or, at the other extreme, we still see evidence of the eternal desire for the divine, now appearing as a tendency to attribute conscious intelligence to effects of scale (for example crowd sourcing, neural nets, data mining…). Maybe some of us need to adjust our mental framework to deal with the information age, just as our ancestors adjusted theirs to deal with the steam age, but such an adjustment is a matter of expanding our perceptions, not transforming them. In the French language, a computer is something which puts things in order: the word ordinateur even has religious overtones, suggesting “ordination” and consecration. In the English and German languages, it is just a machine that “computes”. But the things that a computer puts in order are not just numbers: it is a machine above all for organizing any kind of sign, for re-encoding semiotic systems of all kinds. This is why I have always maintained that computer science is more a branch of the humanities than it is of engineering or mathematics. At the materiel level, I propose an extension of the knowledge expected from those undertaking philological study. Such people are expected to acquire a detailed understanding of typographic or paleographic technologies. There is an urgent need to expand those skills to embrace the digital medium. I conclude with a brief discussion of a few components of the understanding that future genetic editors needed to acquire. When I write a text on my laptop, the text appears and disappears on the screen under control of some piece of software with which I am interacting via a keyboard. The traces which constitute my text are of two kinds — letters, and what we may call meta-letters; codes which determine how the text should be displayed or processed in some way. (Another word we might use is markup). I may or may not be aware of all of these — some, the punctuation for example, is almost a part of the semiotic system I call “natural language” so I am very aware of it; others — the carriage returns, deletion characters, etc. — seem less salient, I expect the machine to deal with them. In the same way, the codes my word processor inserts to produce special effects such as changes of font or colour seem to belong to some other semiotic level entirely. But signs at all three of these levels are what constitute my text. The digital text I create starts its physical existence as detectable changes of state in the dynamic part of my computer’s memory, but very rapidly is transferred to a more permanent form, somewhere on my hard disk, or on some other store. Usually this will be done automatically by the software environment: critically, this will happen without any knowledge or intervention on my part. Even when I do deliberately request that the state of my text should be stored away in its current form, although I may think I know where I am putting it (in a file with such a name, on a specified physical medium), the way in which the components of my text are organized at that location — the order and number of blocks of characters and other signs represented — is entirely beyond my control or knowledge. When I write a text on a piece of paper, signs appear, but rarely disappear. I have to deploy quite a complex range of meta-markup to indicate that some sign is no longer significant or has been superceded by another, but the semiotic system to which that metamarkup belongs is entirely my own (unless forced on me by a publisher in the shape of proof reading marks, of course). More significantly, each of my scraps of writing has a physical existence which forces itself on my attention, especially if my desk is small, or my office already crowded. Consequently, I will rapidly adopt recycling or storage strategies, which effectively determine the future re-traceability of my writing processes. Those strategies are naturally determined by what is useful or perceived as appropriate by myself or the institutional context in which my writing takes place. They represent value judgments deemed appropriate within that context, and that is why (as they say) history is written by the victors, and why the archives of every society represent and maintain what that society values. With the advent of the digital medium however, the affordances of our storage systems change fundamentally. Despite the best efforts of modernist artists, you can only read a written scrap of paper in one way. But the organization of written fragments on a digital storage medium is independent of its reading, and thus can be read in many ways. The blocks of storage constituting this text may be read, as I naively think they should be, via the file system on my laptop, which contains a number of pointers indicating more or less continguous segments of storage scattered across my hard disk.They might be recovered via a more complex piece of software such as a networked blog, which stores my text as records on some database system in California. But it is also possible to recover the same written fragments by addressing those storage systems in an entirely different way, by-passing the intermediate access systems (the file system, the blog) which represent the “organization” of my text. In the digital text, organization is contingent and protean. Those written fragments, as noted above, may actually contain nothing but material that has been deleted, or signs that serve only to indicate how other signs should be, or might be, displayed or integrated into a visible text. The first case poses problems for the archivist, as well as a challenge for the textual critic. When accepting a box of papers for deposit, the archivist can reasonably assume that both parties know exactly what is being handed over. But when the archivist accepts for deposit a hard disk, is it equally likely that the depositor will know what traces of internet activity or deleted files may remain to be recovered from it, in addition to the intended and apparent materials? A recent American report from the Council on Library and Information Studies agonizes considerably over this problem, which it perceives rightly as a challenge to the maintenance of professional ethics, necessitating a reappraisal of such deposit agreements. But I ask the textual critics here present — if you could have access to (say) Joyce’s or Flaubert’s web browsing history, would you hesitate to examine it on the grounds of a breach of confidence? Less fancifully, if you could (as you will soon be able to) recover every stage of the writing of a great work such as Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, every deletion, insertion, and the movement of every word, what tools would you need to make sense of that richness? The tools and methods so far elaborated have been done so in the measure of what we know how to handle; it is the very abundance of information to the textual critic that necessitates a rethinking of those tools and methods. I close by underlining again the fact that the digitized text is a construction, not only in the sense that it is composed of fragmentary byte sequences, but also in the sense that those byte sequences contain information at many levels. The words alone are not enough: digital documents inevitably contain markup, much of which is (in a term Allen Renear borrows from the English philosopher J L Austen) performative — it determines what the text is. Hence the importance of a proper understanding of markup, and markup technologies to the digital textual critic. But you probably expected me to say that.

Written by Lou

February 2, 2011 at 23:13

Posted in Biographical

A trip to Dublin

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To get to Dublin from here, you can get the airport bus to Heathrow and fly, or the train to Birmingham and fly, or, if like me you think airplanes are to be avoided as far as possible, you can actually take a train to the topmost left hand Corner of Wales, and cross the Irish sea by ferry. So that’s what I did. The Stena Line ferry to Dun Laoghaire leaves at 10 am daily, which means you have to start the night before and spend the night in Holyhead, an experience in itself. Oh yes, indeed. After extensive research with Google Maps (how did we ever manage without Street View?) I selected the “Rockleigh” B&B, over the road from the Ferryport and booked my travel accordingly.

Our journey begins on platform 2 of Oxford Station, at 1306 on Sunday. First stage of the journey is the familiar Oxford to Birmingham run: a bit more than an hour on a good day. The 1306 Cross Country departure from Oxford
Platform 4C for the 1436 from New St to Liverpool via Crewe. At New Street, I discover that there really is a platform 4c tucked away in an obscure corner, from which a little tram shuttles to and forth to Crewe and sometimes even unto Liverpool. It’s raining by the time I find it, but there’s plenty of space, and time to eat a sandwich as we potter off into the unknown.
Through the window, I glimpse this historic signal box, several minutes before we actually roll into Crewe station, which seems to have moved a mile or so further away.
Crewe Station is undergoing renovation and the platforms are thick with scaffolding. Strange stylistic juxtapositions like this will presumably be removed in due course.
It’s a sunny day and the train to Holyhead fills up rapidly with people noisily enjoying the weather and each others’ company — I bury my nose in my laptop occasionally taking peeks out of the window as we leave Chester, and rattle along the North Welsh coast, passing through exotically named resorts like Prestatyn and Colwyn Bay, down to Bangor where everyone gets off and the train takes a sharp right turn over the Menai bridge onto Anglesey. For the last part of the journey the train is suddenly eerily empty, as if we have left civilisation behind and are headed for Injun territory. But stepping out of the station one is confronted by this comfortingly solid monument to the Victorian engineering which brought the railway thus far and thus developed an obscure Welsh creek into the bustling ferry port it now is. (Well, maybe “bustling” is a slight over statement)

Commemorative clock tower between Holyhead railway station and ferry port marking the opening of the new harbour extension by the Prince of Wales in 1880

(See further)

It is a mere five minutes walk from here to “Rockleigh” where I deposit my bag. The sun is still shining as I then set out to savour whatever excitement Holyhead has to offer on a Saturday night, or at least get some dinner.

The gilded youth of Holyhead apparently congregates at the base of this monument overlooking the port to get drunk and shout a lot. It's an exciting place.

The Celtic Gateway bridge is a futuristic stainless steel construction linking the ferry port with the town centre. It's so new there's a website about its construction.

(read all about the bridge)

Downtown, there appears to be only one restaurant open this evening (it gets very busy later, I was told): it’s called Mala’s Bistro, and is noted for its Thai/Welsh fusion cooking. I try out the Mushrooms Napolitana (“sauteed mushrooms with sweet tomato, creamy garlic, and herb cheese, finished with melted cheddar served on a bed of salad”) followed by sea bass in an equally cheesy sauce with my choice of potatos, rice, pasta, or salad. Reassuringly, I learn from their website, they have won a hygiene award even if recognition for their exotic menu remains elusive… I retire to Mrs Bennett’s front parlour and avail myself of her free wifi for an hour or two.

Next morning sees me up and enjoying the first of what turns out to be a series of traditional British breakfasts.

Would you like brown toast or white with that?

View from the back end of the High Speed Ship. There are two small areas open to the sea air on this ferry: one for smokers, and one not. No seats on deck: you're meant to stay indoors.

And thus onto the HSS (High Speed Ship) of the Stena Line, which ferry has definitely gone up in the world since I last used it, back in the 1990s. There is wifi for one thing, and there are loads of comfy places to sit, and the captain has just made a welcome onboard announcement apparently scripted by the same people who script those announcements for airoplanes. He then hands over to a an audio recording for the security briefing rather than a video, which similarly seems to come from the same robot as the one who works for Virgin Trains. In this case the robot gets to talk about exciting things like the ship’s whistle though. On the other hand, the ferry is still full of excited kids rushing around and slightly frayed parents. Last time I took this ferry someone actually fell off it, and it was delayed for hours as a result. No chance of that this time: access to the outside deck is strictly limited.

Some aspects of sea crossings will never change

Is it a ship? is it a disco? No idea, but it's plenty spacious.

Walking off a ferryboat is a lot easier than walking off an airplane, and the DART train to Dublin Connolly is about five minutes walk across the road. I then have to wait for about ten minutes before the next suburban train out to Drumcondra rolls in.

The 1250 train for Maynooth arrives at Dublin Connolly

Nice to know you can win an award for being tidy. It didn't look particularly tidy to me, but then I haven't seen what it was like before.

All the way to Drumcondra I glimpse through the train window people wearing blue football shirts — and when I get out of the station to the street I am immediately set upon by touts with the offer of tickets for the match. I sense somehow that “What match?” would not be the right answer, so protest that I am actually looking for the bus to Ballymun which fortunately draws up at this point. Why am in Drumcondra? Because that is the nearest suburban train station to the hotel where the ISO meeting I am headed for is happening. And it’s not actually very near. And wherefore to Ballymun? Because Google maps is a bit vague about the exact location of this hotel (the Crowne Plaza, Northwood Park) — or rather it offers a number of possible locations, one of which is close to the bus terminal in Ballymun, noted I discover for its tidiness, but not (alas) its hotels. In fact there is only one and it’s not the one I am looking for. Curse you, Ken Google..
In retrospect, there was absolutely no reason for me to get lost: if I’d gone to the right web page I’d have found the right pointer to Google Maps and wouldn’t have wandered round in circles for half an hour before finally finding my way into the wrong end of Northwood Park. But then I wouldn’t have seen the burnt out (but still inhabited) tower blocks down at the untidy end of Ballymun, nor been misdirected twice to the only hotel in the vicinity by the local peasantry, on this implausibly sunny afternoon. Nor would I have had the very long tedious walk through Northwood Park’s nice new Development Zone.

Northwood Park contains a lot of undistinguished modern housing development and office blocks, plus something called 'Santry Demesne' which is all that's left of what must have a huge country house: it boasts a park containing some rather fine old trees, and a walled garden (actually just some walls -- no garden inside them)

Welcoming speech on the ground floor of the office block where the NSAI hangs out. Yes, that is Alan Melby on the right.

The NSAI staff in their nice green t-shirts.

Why am I here? Because ISO TC37/SC4 is meeting here, and Laurent has requested my presence in order to beat the drum for Sebastian’s hard work on making it possible to draft ISO standards documents in TEI rather than boring old Word. The meeting is hosted by the National Standards Agency of Ireland. They give us all a nice bag containing amongst other things a sample copy of one of their publications: the definitive standard defining how anything which professes to be Irish Coffee should be prepared (Irish Standard I.S. 417 (1988) … I suppose this is meant to be serious. Hmmm.

Laurent enthuses TC37/SC4 with the joys of Oxygen.

View from NSAI offices

Kara Warburton welcomes us to take a few drinks at the end of the first day's meeting

Kiyong and friends show that ISO geeks also know how to party

After two days of meetings, at each of which I found myself being volunteered to do more work, I judged it appropriate to make a rapid exit.

The final breakfast at the Hotel posh. There's never enough time to linger over this sort of thing, sadly.

And this time, I managed to identify the right bus-stop for the bus back to Drumcondra.

The return journey was another beautifully sunny day, with plenty of time to make connexions at Drumcondra, Conolly, and Dun Laoghaire as before. I had an hour to kill at Dun Laoghaire, so went for a pleasant stroll along the front, along with the other retirees enjoying the sunshine.

A very cheerful bit of sea wall near Dun Laoghaire's East Pier. Why? No idea.

View from one side of the overgrown gangplank leading on to the HSS ferry back to Wales...

.... and view from the other side of same. Pillar of salt situation avoided.

That's the Irish Sea getting all churned up down there. I recognise it from Sunday afternoon.

And here we are again in the Holyhead train shed, which seems to be awash with disgruntled people wondering where the train to London is. All that's on offer is the 1536 to Cardiff. Which has only three coaches and is already 45 minutes late. Ah well, it's still a nice day.

Nice wall, at Chester railway station

Everyone, including me, abandons the train to Cardiff at Chester. Two more connexions, at Crewe and Birmingham, and I’m back in Oxford by 2230, and ready for bed. Definitely, this is not the quickest way of getting to Dublin and back, but it’s been a relaxed experience: reasonably comfortable, mostly peaceful, and I got lots of low-key work done. And it only cost 30 quid.

Written by Lou

August 21, 2010 at 22:52

Posted in Biographical