All Roads Lead to Conclusion

I started with two of the interactive fiction pieces from the suggested list before moving on to Shade and in the two I read I noticed one big similarity in the construction. In both Dickinson’s “weird tape in the mail” and Anthropy’s “Hunt for the Gay Planet”, one of the primary methods of navigation is hyperlinks, which carry the reader to the next point of the narrative, but in a lot the initial frames, readers have several choices. In “Hunt for the Gay Planet”, you have the choice among four planets which you investigate, with the last one always being the “correct” one to continue with the story, thus necessitating doubling back from your previous incorrect choice. The same happens when you explore a cave. Walk the four cardinal directions (it’s irrelevant which you choose first, you have to do all of them eventually), and after that exploration of not only the narrative’s world, but also of the different strands in the programs/narratives/games (?), you find the way forward.

This is where you have a moment that differs from the typical process of reading, say, a novel, where you may get the explore each cardinal direction, but of course, you would have to do it in the order it was written (at least not without some effort), and the choice is never offered to you to go in whichever order. It’s usually the character’s choice to make. You follow. For interactive fiction like that of Anthropy or Dickinson’s, doubling back to previous stages seem standard parts of the narrative. Even in “weird tape in the mail,” you are encouraged to explore something else besides just watch the video tape from the get go.

I want to commend the freedom the narratives offer in this respect. It is, to me, an aspect that really marks the affordance of narratives created in Twine as separate from that of printed literature. The ability to navigate different paths is something found previously in the choose-your-own adventure genre, but is not as seamless or intuitive as it is in electronic formats.

This format, however, from what I can see is still subject to the constraints of plot that narratives conform to, and this affects the structure of the narrative in both its ability to double back and to experience the climax or conclusion of the story. In “Gay Planet”, once you discover the Gay Planet, your choices are permanent (the browser’s “back” button is a loophole, of course) and you continue what is a fairly linear narrative with usually only two choices that eventually up with you being confronted by the Queen of the Gay Planet. This moment is unavoidable, much like discovering the Gay Planet itself is inevitable, but there is far less exploration involved in the culmination of this moment, and there is no ability to return to where you came from because you are interacting with other people, not simply exploring a room alone.

The same occurs in “weird tape in the mail.” After interacting with the tape (s), you are blocked from returning to former points in the narrative. The effect of time and social aspects of the narrative are constructed as permanent even in electronic spaces that afford contrary options. It’s even more highlighted in “weird tape” because (spoiler alert) no matter what, you die at the end. Pressing the back button is really the only way to get back and explore other options, but even then it’s fruitless because you still wind up dead (I’m almost certain that’s to get back at the readers who attempt to force their way back).

Thus, while the initial freedom of the stories is promising, and the stories benefit from allowing exploration, it seems that the narratives themselves always end in singular ways. Of course, two narratives is a poor sample size, but certainly shows how a limitation can still exist from medium to another: plot is something that can seemingly defy the medium.

Office Space (And What Fills It)

My spring break was uneventful, as I ended up spending most of my time in a place where I spend the majority of my time when school is in session: the English Undergraduate  Office.

I’ve worked as an undergraduate advisor for English majors since the beginning of my first year at UMD, so the space is familiar to me, and the many other advisors whose offices are housed there. These offices are bit nicer than your typical graduate student offices; they come complete with windows, bookshelves, a desktop like any good office should, but most importantly, they are personal, not shared. This allows for every advisor the chance to characterize their space in a way TAs can only dream of.

For example:

Chateau de Nigel

Or for a different perspective, my colleague Michelle’s (English PhD candidate) office is decidedly better lit and more colorful:

However, as GAs in an office, we are prohibited from doing too much personalizing, especially if that involves paint, glue, hammers, and furniture. The only representation of much physical change that has occurred to this office is a lone hook for hanging pictures. Oh, and Charity’s owl streamer. Thus, much of the way that the spaces change are impermanent. Posters, marker boards, tchotchkes, and books. Lots of books:

Michelle’s bookcase

It is of course natural that books would be plentiful in the offices of English graduate students, but some of the books I have amassed have a sort of lineage to them. When one of my former coworkers decided to leave the advising office and leave graduate school, the books she had stored in her office were moved to mine, bequeathed to me since she figured I could use a set of Henry James novels and early American texts (she was an Americanist).

The strange thing about these books is that I have never actually used them. They have never left the office, and while I suppose I am happy to have them, they have a fine layer dust from never being touched. They are more remnants than books at this point. More of a remnant however, is a copy of Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year that was in the office when I moved in. This book belonged to another coworker who graduated from the MFA program last year, and who inhabited the office before I did in July. Apparently, this particularly book was either forgotten or left for me, but rested on the bookshelf of my office for a year before it was mine, and so it remains there.

As objects, these books represent something about who placed them there. For the set I inherited, they were books important at one time for a dissertation project or for teaching, and for the Coetzee, it might have been assigned for a class, or inspiration for the thesis. I primarily have inferences based on the person who owned them and why I got them, but at least for this period in their existence, the books have been relegated to their lot on the shelf of an office as immovable fixtures as desk it sometimes seems (yes, I suppose I could read them for once).

This place is interesting to me not just because it is my office, but because it is heavily trafficked. During registration time, every English major is required to pass through this office and speak with an advisor. Thus, the way our offices are organized and arranged is affected by this. For example, my tradition for undergraduates is filling in a marker board comic every semester with a little English major humor. The kids love it, I assure you. The expected traffic, however, means that these offices occupy what seems to be a liminal space between a private place and a public one. It should be inviting, but also is locked when I’m away, only accessible via appointment, and a quiet space on weekends for serious academic work. But the anticipation of what undergraduates will think certainly plays a role in setting the mood for the space (and validates the importance of well-stocked, if not ignored bookshelf).

For my QR code, finding a place to put it was easy, but to make it a bit more public than the one sitting above my desk I decided to place it conspicuously on my door: If it should be seen and provoke curiosity, then the door of my office is a perfect place. That is after all the reason everyone tapes posters to their doors, is it not? And with a portion of approximately 700 undergraduates coming through this door, I can ensure its visibility.

A Return to Transcription

Transcribe Bentham was not my first experience with either the transcription process or XML. In Neil Friastaist’s Technoromanticism course, half of us were given pages of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein manuscript to encode and engage with as we tried to sort through her handwriting, Percy Shelley’s handwriting, her curious doodling habits, and the actual textual revisions that Frankenstein underwent during its composition. The easy part of that particular project, however, was that we already had a transcription to work from when we did our own encoding. Transcribe Bentham placed more responsibility on me to play a part in the deciphering, not simply the encoding or double-checking, of a manuscript. So while the XML encoding was not new to me, the transcription process of reading and attempting to accurately represent what Bentham was writing (sloppily) was up to me almost entirely.

My passage of choice was the beginning of a section titled Composition, where Bentham writes on what he believe the duties of the Courts over their procedures. In several cases, context was key to correctly transcribing a word (no shock there), and so was returning after some time away in order to reread and discover whether or not I had any more ideas about what a particular piece of writing was saying. But of more interest to me, was when I found a word that I could not easily discard what I thought I was reading, despite it not making sense. To clarify, this is the image I refer to:

What does that look like to you? To me, it looks like ‘websites’ and that is how I initially read it until a nanosecond later when I realized they didn’t have websites in the 18th and 19th centuries. But this realization started me thinking about time and culture and how that can affect an interpretive process like transcription. While my example is extreme, and was quickly realized and dismissed as impossible, more subtle examples like this could occur with anachronisms and especially slang, idioms, and euphemisms. This is something that affects the transcription process I’m sure, and would be interested in seeing (if I can given my limited knowledge about Jeremy Bentham) whether or not this sort of thing has occurred and is much more difficult to pick up on because of our distance from the time period and (my personal) lack of colloquial knowledge from Bentham’s era.

From Hell’s Heart I Graph At Thee!

The idea of quantifying Moby-Dick is simultaneously exciting and perhaps not altogether surprising given the results of some of the returns from the tools we were instructed to use. The novel is packed with Shakespearean language, is about a very specialized topic (whaling), and formally very odd in places. But that, of course, just means Moby-Dick is an ideal text for these sorts of experiment, right? Let’s see…

First, I ran Moby-Dick Wordle, resulting in this diagram:

Secondly, WordItOut:

The most obvious difference between the two is the choice for the largest word. ‘Whale’ and ‘one’, are unsurprisingly the largest words represented on the image. WordItOut, however, displays ‘all’ as its largest word, with ‘whale’ and ‘one’ the runners-up. The word ‘all’ is not represented on Wordle’s image, meaning it is cast aside in that program as an all-too-common word to be of any use. Now, I do see the logic in this decision in some form; ‘all’ is a common word, and sometimes can be used as a needless intensifier or a purely quantitative word. In this case, however, I contest Wordle’s decision; in Ahab’s final monologue he explicitly describes Moby Dick as “all-destroying” as he speeds, harpoon in hand, towards the beast that is destroying his ship. The ‘all’ in this case is not just a simple word, it’s an intensifier certainly, but it represents Ahab’s life (the whaling trade), and Ahab himself (his soul has been scarred and his body maimed). It is possible to read this word with more than the mere commonality ascribed to it by Wordle’s software.

Secondly, the major characters of the novel are mentioned: Queequeg, Stubb, Starbuck, and Ahab, but there are some missing. Ishmael is gone despite being the narrator, but aside from the opening sentence, his name is barely mentioned if at all (mostly just annotations ever recall to his name). More interesting, though, is the absence of one of Ahab’s right-hand men: Flask. Naturally, this means he is mentioned less, or at least referred to by name fewer times than the other first mates of the Pequod, but perhaps this opens up a line of inquiry to pursue: why are Starbuck and Stubb getting so much attention as to appear quantitatively more visible?

Next, I placed the contents of the word cloud into the Up-Goer Five, receiving the expected list of forbidden words:

Stubb, stub, brush, check, end, point, boats, captain, sperm, sea, ship, thou, nor, boat, Ahab, ye, whales, deck, Queequeg, Starbuck, chapter, whale, among

This list can be divided easily into three categories: Names (Stubb, Ahab, Queequeg, and Starbuck), archaisms (thou, ye, nor), and nautical terms (stub, brush, check, point, boats, sperm, sea, ship, boat, whales, deck, whale). None of these are surprising to see on the list considering the names are odd, the archaisms by definition not going to be common, and our modern society is less reliant on ship-trade as to render the nautical terms more scarce, and I would guess they wouldn’t appear in the top 1000 words in 1851 either.

The interesting remainders are end and among, which, I’ll admit, I am surprised are not within the ten hundred most used words.

Next comes the CLAWS speech tagger. This tool, as Mary and Dan reported, is not only less visually appealing, but less clear to someone not familiar with its format to read. But the tool was surprisingly good at recognizing the propers nouns (Queequeg, Stubb, Starbuck, and Ahab) as such, and not returning some sort of error or even just suggesting them as nouns. Since proper nouns are typically dependent upon context to recognize, CLAWS’ ability to recognize them is impressive. Aside from the names, there are mostly nouns and adjectives represented by list, with a few prepositions (upon, among) and an interjection (oh), but fewer verbs than I expected, with only five by my count: said, cried, go, thought, and know.

Finally, with the TAPoR/Voyant tool, I found myself lucky that the first chapter of Moby-Dick was a default on the website. Unfortunately, the diagnostic returned was not all that interesting, so I went ahead and uploaded the entire text.

The cloud, or ‘cirrus’, for Voyant is prone to including “useless” words, as you can see, like articles, but fortunately, while it does not take the liberty that both Wordle and WordItOut do with automatically removing certain words (and thereby removing some potentially important words, as in the case of ‘all’) it allows you to customize your list and essentially blacklist the words you do not want. Wordle as well provided this feature, but removed words by default. Voyant forces the uploader to think and choose the words represented.

As you can see in the screenshot, the first word I selected that seemed, to me, to be worth scanning was ‘whale’, with a total of 971 uses beginning on the very first page. What is fascinating about Voyant are the multiple ways it will contextualize and build information around a single word. There are two windows dedicated to showing a frequency chart and the context around each mention as well as tabs for the parts of the entire corpus of where your chosen word (or words) appears. This helps to alleviate any suspicion, especially when dealing with an ambiguous word (unlike ‘whale’) that may have multiple uses and contexts.

Looking at the use ‘whale’ throughout the entire book, I would be tempted to explore the periodic lull in its mentions visible in the line graph. When the graph is given 10 and 15 segments, this oscillations are more drastic and shows much more sporadic mentions of the term, though the most interestingly, what can be seen is a steady decline in the use of ‘whale’ until what starts the final chapters of the book, or, the chase sequence, in which case it begins a steep incline. There is seemingly a dramatic tension in the graph recognizable through its usage of the term.

So, when I think about Ramsay’s idea of “estrangement” from textuality, I have to wonder about what it is within the text, or about the text that is primary subject of estrangement. Is it the narrative? For ever instant my initial responses have been grounded within the narrative: why is Flask mentioned less? Why is the word ‘all’ important to the word cloud to be a significant loss? What time frame is represented by the steep incline at the end of the line graph? All of these questions are brought about because of my familiarity with the reading: a product of the close-reading focused education that enforced that I read Moby-Dick because it, singularly, is important and above thousands of anonymous books. But when it comes to the answers of my questions, are they all necessarily going to return to the narrative? Personally, it seems the temporary estrangement is merely a way of refocusing the narrative again and re-reading it, arriving at Ramsay’s purported goal: creating new information and criticism from what the algorithms can show us.

Moby-Dick: The Whiteness of the Page

My book of choice for any bibliographic project will usually be Moby-Dick. Katie and Susie can both attest to this after having to sit through a semester of me geeking out over the textual history of the novel. Of course, by posting later than some of the others, I can only echo what they have said: Project Gutenberg provides the most formats for a given text, including an audio option, which neither HATHITrust nor Google Books gives you (as they only allowed for pdf downloads, and with HATHITrust permission was required, and Google payment), and it was the certainly the easiest to download, because it came with virtually no strings attached. But while I have traditionally always turned to it first for my canonical etext needs, I found it the least transparent of the three versions of Moby-Dick I collected.

For those unfamiliar with Melville scholarship in general one name pretty much reigns as the foremost editor of Melville’s novels, especially Moby-Dick: Hershel Parker. He has edited since the 60s three ‘authoritative’ versions of MD that have formed the foundation of most of Melville scholarship and editing practices since. As someone heavily invested in Melville, Parker’s imprint is typical in any edition I come across, and the lack of it is suspicious. It is not a bad thing, of course, but it raises questions. Project Gutenberg does not note an editor or recognize their copy-text in either of the two full-text editions of MD, but instead does include the note:

Produced by Daniel Lazarus, Jonesey, and David Widger

I do not recognize any of the names personally, and these people are not specifically named as editors, so it is difficult to determine what sort of mark they may have left on the text, and without providing information about the copy-text, the text’s specific origins are unknowable to an outsider. Of course, Project Gutenberg provides a (somewhat reasonable) defense for this:

Creating the works from public domain print editions means that no one owns a United States copyright in these works, so the Foundation (and you!) can copy and distribute it in the United States without permission and without paying copyright royalties.

This is what made Project Gutenberg’s text of MD so easy to acquire, versus HATHITrust and Google, who expressed copyright claims to their digital versions and locked the downloads behind certain obstacles, and while I can appreciate the reverence paid to access, the unclear provenance of the text, other than its recognition as a “public domain text” does not point me to the copy-text being reliable. This perhaps is fine for a general reader, but unsettling for a scholar.

On the other hand, HATHITrust and Google Books both provide some more concrete information because the book is viewed through images of a scanned hard copy. What is unfortunate is that the two public domain editions available on each platform were also very dated. HATHITrust’s edition of MD is from a 1929 Macmillan edition (which is about the time Melville was rediscovered but well before academics began critically editing his work) and Google Books full text edition is from the 1851- the year the book was published. Google’s edition wins, for me at least, because the 1851 edition at least is more reputable than whatever edition served as the copy-text of Project Gutenberg’s edition, and it stands to reason may have served as the copy-text for HATHITrust’s version. Easily accessing the first edition of the book leaves little questions to scholars as to what they are working with, and can actually be very useful not only as a text itself, but as an artifact of the novel’s original form (before critical editing).

Of course, I can’t spend all my time musing on editions and validity. The formatting of the texts is also interesting for one major reason: in the Gutenberg edition, since it does not mimic the page scrolling format Google Books and HATHITrust adhere to, we find awkward moments in the text where the body of the text is interrupted by Melville’s footnotes (which he typically wrote in to clarify any esoteric nautical information). In the page scans from the other two databases, this does not occur, because they reproduce the pages and so the text remains in a more traditional form (with footnotes at the bottom, clearly demarcated as outside of the body).

In response to the Duguid article, where one of the primary critiques of Google Books is the poor scanning of pages and distorted words, Google’s edition of MD looks to be pretty polished. In my sampling of the scanned pages, I did not find cut edges, distortions at the spine, or anything of that sort. That problem, however, was prevalent in the HATHITrust version, where the illustrations of the cover page were cut off near the spine, and some marginalia went over the edge of page (someone made a note on the Table of Contents that spanned the margin between Chapters XIII and XVIII that I think might have said ‘BORING!’ , but I cannot be sure).

Finally, in terms of feedback, HATHITrust made the process the easiest by providing, on the same page as the book was read on, a little button that opened a survey asking about the quality of the book, where any errors could be reported including missing, distorted, curved, and blurry text. Google unfortunately, only allowed users to review the book, which could be more concerned with plot and enjoyment, instead of textual quality. Project Gutenberg did not provide any easily accessed method of evaluation, but does include links on the home page to get in contact with them, and to submit missing pages for texts (which I suppose counts as one form of correction).

I was surprised, especially after reading Duguid, of what I found in Google Books. Their images of the Moby-Dick text looked more professional and refined than the HATHITrust edition, was an 1851 first edition, and posed no issues in the formatting of the text. The same could not be said of the HATHITrust and Project Gutenberg versions, whose scans were less sophisticated, contained marginalia (incomplete and cutoff at that) or posed formatting issues by presenting a text with footnotes incorporated into the body without separating them in any way. As I said, the Duguid article made me fearful of what I would find on Google, and their issues with Tristram Shandy are of course valid concerns, but perhaps it’s possible Google has learned or has improved their process since that article was published in 2007, since while Google Books’ major downside was the lack of a reporting feature, of the three editions I have looked at, it was surprisingly the one that needed it the least.

Digital Positivity and Optimism

To reiterate, I’m Nigel, and I like a lot of things, though Susie below quoted my Twitter bio: “I like really old things and really new things. Everything in between in just filler.” This is accurate enough, and evidences my decision to enroll in any if not just this particular digital humanities course (obviously, DH files under “really new things”). There is, of course, the new car smell that accompanies DH as an academic discipline, but more so than that, what is fascinating about it is watching the excitement it generates and the optimistic vision DH scholars have for their research and pedagogy, which I can only help but think of as a side effect of DH being so young.

You can get this sense of what I talk about from many of the articles we’ve been reading this week, with the uncertainty and cautiousness we can sometimes read in the writing, or the democratic feel of the comments sections, but two pieces thus far have really stood out to me: first, Liu’s article on reading and social computing resonates with me particularly because of how intent he comes across with justifying the new technologies DHers regularly utilize as both new, yet familiar to literary study, and how great that is for all of us. He writes:

“Above all, as a literature professor, I recognize that—viral YouTube videos aside—the vast preponderance of Web 2.0 is an up-close and personal experience of language. Much of that language, most of which is textual, may be demotically raw, even feral, but not all.”


“It is to follow the living language of human thought, hope, love, desire—and hate too—wherever it goes and wherever it has the capacity to be literary, even if the form, style, or grammar of such literariness does not always conform to canonical standards.”

Liu finds the Chaucerian and the Shakespearean in the writings of Facebook, Twitter, and other social tools and readily grasps them, despite their non-monograph form, as useful to educating his students in actual Shakespeare. While the canonical standards are set, and I have no issue with monographs and print culture as a whole, DH poses itself as far more open minded about the new forms writing can take. This is important to me because of my unashamed love of gaming and the desire to see it considered as a new medium worth academic study, just as film is now, as the novel was in the 17th and 18th centuries, and as first written texts were (which begs the question of whether or not the written humanities had to fight for viability among the oral humanities way back in the day). Liu, I think, recognizes the capability of new technologies to produce works comparable to those we traditionally study, the Romeo and Julietsand Canterbury Tales, and that these works’ status is neither reliant upon nor due to their form. Easily enough, I think, we can see the new mediums producing the quality we expect from our current literary pantheon (if we believe it is not already).

The next piece from our readings I believe evidences the hopefulness of the field is the collected Twitter conversation of Koh et al. From such a lengthy discussion of the field’s boundaries, but also it’s current gaps, I see the desire of DH’s practitioners to embody the democratic ideals they uphold in support of open access and community, but also in avoiding the pitfalls of other disciplines in limiting their involvement and stymieing its scope. I am not unfamiliar to the debate of gender, race, and class within DH. Martha Nell Smith (mentioned in the conversation) has been a proud and active supporter of bringing in cultural criticism into DH’s field of vision, preventing any sort of white-washing (and straight-washing and man-washing, I suppose too). This sort of concern, to me, speaks of the DHers’ genuine care for ethical, responsible, and relevant research and to work towards what Liu called “democratizing” the humanities with both cultural and digital means.

Of course, I don’t mean to gloss over or ignore some of the other, and maybe even bigger and serious aspects of DH, particularly the importance of actual “building” Stephen Ramsay discusses, which seems to me at least, the major hallmark of DH. This is important, and undoubtedly one of the most interesting aspects of DH, but I figured several people would key in on this characteristic and many of us were aware of it judging by the many variations of “will we be coding?” on our Post-It Note collection, but I wanted to take this first blog as a chance to identify one of the most fulfilling and smile-inducing aspects of the field, that adds a little bit of sweetness to DH and even in some ways supports the ideologies I have thus far observed. The sense of involvement, but also openness DHers have to their work , their theories, and the humanities is refreshing and inviting to those looking in, and perhaps lends itself to the discipline’s ever-increasing population and interest.