Category: Editors’ Choice

Editors’ Choice: 3D – Dismantling the Mafia, Destabilizing Mechanisms, and Documenting the Historical Memory

Map showing the Mexico-U.S. border from the Torn Apart / Separados website

Reposted from Torn Apart / Separados website. You can find the Spanish version titled, “Triple D: Desmantelando a la mafia, desestabilizando mecanismos y documentando la memoria histórica”, at

Ever since I begin my university studies in 2009, a concern arose in me; it derived from the frustration generated from taking courses related to the border. At first these classes focused on the feminicides–the murder and disappearance of hundreds of young women working at the factories (maquiladoras)–NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), the aftermath of the war against drug trafficking as well as other issues tied to the US-Mexico border (immigration, militarization, violence and more violence). Most of these classes have been very difficult for me because of the negative perspective perpetrated to this geographical space and its communities. Despite the reality of these problems, interpreted in a particular way in these contexts, these classes were framed from a number of generalizations, without going deep into the history that lies behind the continuous crises.

Being a border woman, born and raised in the same place where my parents met while working in the Toshiba factory, my life has always been centered in a transnational environment. Therefore, the abuses, the violence and everything that implies living under a mechanism controlled by the hegemonic interests of an imperialist and capitalist system have been part of my everyday life. So, when I talk about my hometown (la frontera #1), most of the time I feel very sad and frustrated because my birthplace ends up being the representation of the chaotic, the dangerous, and the monstrous zone. It produces a rejection of the border or, in many cases, it provokes a feeling of a division to draw a distinction between the United States and Mexico. By living in this region one perceives and, in one way or another, resists that the problems that emerge, concentrate or impose themselves in this place, are beyond the sensationalist or tragic story and are there for paternalistic reasons. Also, the same mechanisms that control spaces like the US-Mexico border or the Central America region itself have been responsible for building “the official history” of these spaces and perpetuate the omission, invisibility, and alteration of the voices of the communities that inhabit these places.


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Editors’ Choice: Praxis and Scale – On the Virtue of Small

Image of a person holding three seedlings

The following is a version of my talk for DH2018 that will be given as a part of a roundtable on Digital Humanities Pedagogy and Praxis. Participants on the panel responded to a CFP marking five years since we launched the Praxis Network.

I am Brandon Walsh, the Head of Graduate Programs at the Scholars’ Lab in the University of Virginia Library in the United States. Today I want to talk about a tension I see in DH pedagogy between the hands-on, student-driven instruction that we’re discussing here as part of the Praxis Network and the scale at which we can offer it. Can we take what started small and scale it up in an ethical and informed way? In particular, I want to suggest that “small” investments in pedagogy driven by students are worth it, that we should resist uncritical calls to scale up the reach of our praxis, and that we can best measure the growth of our programs by the degree to which our students are empowered to become engaged, generous teachers in their own right.

My own local context for this talk is the Scholars’ Lab’s Praxis Program, which offers a targeted digital humanities injection during the early years of a student’s graduate work. In the Praxis Program each year, staff and faculty work alongside a student cohort to theorize a new digital intervention and to train the students to implement it themselves. We shift from a series of workshops and discussions in the fall semester to a lab model in the spring, from the staff in front of the room to all of us working together to get a thing done. Funding for the program comes from the library in the form of teaching releases for the students, and I’m happy to talk more about these practical details in the Q&A. The program aims to equip graduate students with the skills and ethos necessary to thrive when carrying out collaborative, open work that might happen on or off the tenure track, and, drawing upon the pedagogical theories of Cathy Davidson, Paolo Freire, Bethany Nowviskie, and others, we do this by putting the students in charge, allowing them as much as possible to decide what they work on and how they’ll work on it.


Read the full post here.

Editors’ Choice: Torn Apart / Separados

Torn Apart aggregates and cross-references publicly available data to visualize the geography of Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy in 2018 and immigration incarceration in the USA in general. We also draw attention to the landscapes, families, and communities riven by the massive web of immigrant detention in the United States.

Working nimbly and remotely from four sites in the United States over a six-day period, our small team of researchers set about identifying sources of data on immigrant detention, from ports of entry run by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers, to shelters subcontracted by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to care for children in their custody, to the financial trails left by a network of public, private, and non-profit organizations complicit with the complex infrastructure of immigrant detention in the United States.

Our sources for obtaining the data were varied. Those we worked from included a FOIA-ed list of ICE facilities, publicly available lists of CBP sites, data sets of ICE detainee hearings, state childcare licensing databases, government grant awards lists, and We cross-checked our data through non-governmental sources as well: news reports about immigrant detention, business databases, tax documents for non-profit organizations, job advertisements, Google Maps entries, Facebook Places, and more. All of our data has been verified through a minimum of two sources, at least one directly from the government.

What our data reveals is a shadowy network of government facilities, subcontractors from the prison-industrial complex, “non-profit” administrators paid over half a million dollars a year, and religious organizations across the country that, together, prop up the immigrant detention machine. Immigrant detention is a multi-billion dollar business and it’s happening in our own backyards. The crisis for immigrants in the United States is not only happening at the Mexico-United States border or other ports of entry. Rather, the border is everywhere.

This is not to say that Torn Apart, now in alpha release, paints a complete picture of immigrant detention. Like all maps, ours is a representation of data, reflecting choices we made while designing visualizations. For example, a simple decision to place data points in the foreground rather than in the background offers a very different reading of the locations of ICE detention centers, as the map below demonstrates.


Read more here.

Editors’ Choice: Digitization ≠ Repatriation

Marble relief (Block XLVII) from the North frieze of the Parthenon

This week over at Hyperallergic, I wrote about new exhibits at the British Library and the Victoria & Albert Museum which both engage with the cultural heritage of ancient and medieval Ethiopia. An examination of the Ethiopian cultural heritage held in the libraries and museums of Britain can perhaps demonstrate a seminal point about digitization and the digital humanities more broadly: Digital editions can never fully replace an analog object. No matter how many manuscripts we digitize and make available online or 3D scans we create of the Parthenon frieze, they are not a replacement for repatriation.

One reason for both of the UK exhibits this year is the 150th anniversary of the British army’s Abyssinian Expedition of 1868. The campaign was ostensibly in reaction to the holding of British hostages by Tewodros II (also called Theodore), who was the Coptic Christian ruler of Abyssinia; the core of what is today called Ethiopia. Ethiopia has been a Christian country since the fourth century CE, making copies of the Gospels and the stories of saint a central part of their rich manuscript tradition in later years.

The emperor ultimately committed suicide as 13,000 British military troops descended upon the capital city of Maqdala (or Magdala). The hostages were freed unharmed, but the expedition ultimately became more about treasure than human life. It reportedly took 15 elephants and 300 mules to haul all of the loot from the decimated region. In a manner rather reminiscent of the Siege of Jerusalem (70 CE) and the , priceless cultural objects were pilfered and then sent to London for sale.

Many of the manuscripts, royal crowns, and other precious cultural patrimony were sold at auction to various British cultural institutions: the British Museum, the Royal Library, the Bodleian Library at Oxford, Cambridge University Library, the John Rylands Library, the South Kensington Museum (later renamed the Victoria & Albert), the Museum of Mankind, and the National Army Museum (Ofcansky and Shinn 2004: 48). Although not online, it has been widely reported that at the Bodleian Library there is a penciled notation on a manuscript (MS Aeth. d. 1) that states in English,“taken from a church at Maqdala in 1868.” There is little question where many of these objects originally came from and how they were acquired.


Read the full post here.

Editors’ Choice: Meaning chains with word embeddings

Word embeddings: from word to image

Matthew Lincoln recently put up a Twitter bot that walks through chains of historical artwork by vector space similarity.
The idea comes from a Google project looking at paths that traverse similar paintings.

This reminds that I’d meaning for a while to do something similar with words in an embedding space. Word embeddings and image embeddings are, more or less, equivalent; so the same sorts of methods will work on both. There are–and will continue to be!–lots of interesting ways to bring strategies from convoluational image representations to language models, and vice versa. At first I though I could just drop Lincoln’s code onto a word2vec model, but the paths it finds tend to oscillate around in the high dimensional space more than I’d like. So instead I coded up a new, divide and conquer strategy using the Google News corpus. Here’s how it works.

1. Take any two words. I used “duck” and “soup” for my testing.
2. Find a word that is, in cosine distance, *between* the two words: that is, that is closer to both of them than either is to each other. Select for one as close to the midpoint as possible.* With “duck” and “soup,” that word turns out to be “chicken”: it’s a bird, but it’s also something that frequently shows up in the same context as soup.
3. Repeat the process to find words between “duck” and “chicken.” That, in this corpus, turns out to be “quail.” The vector here seems to be similar to the one above–quail is food relatively more often than duck, but less overwhelmingly than chicken.
4. Continue subdividing each path until no more intermediaries exist. For example, “turkey” works as a point between “quail” and “chicken”; but nothing intermediates between turkey and quail, or between turkey and chicken.

The overall path then sketches out an arc between the two words. (The shape of the arc itself is a component of PCA, but it’s also a useful reminder that the choice of the first pivot is quite important–it sets the entire region for the rest of the search.


Read the original post here.

Editors’ Choice: reconstitute the world

Image of poster for the talk

[The following is the text of a talk I gave (with changes) as “Reconstitute the World: Machine-Reading Archives of Mass Extinction,” in two different contexts last week. First, I opened the summer lecture series at the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School, where I’m privileged to be a faculty member and supporter. Next, I closed the first week of the 2018 Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) at the University of Victoria and opened a Digital Library Federation (DLF) unconference on social justice and digital libraries, DLFxDHSI. I started my UVic talk by noting that we met on the unceded, traditional territory of the Lkwungen-speaking peoples of that part of the Pacific Northwest, and I therefore acknowledged the Songhees and Esquimalt, and also the WSÁNEĆ peoples who are among the First Nations with historical and enduring relationships to that land. I note this here, because the talk I gave is relevant, I think, to the need for humility, respect, and reparation and to the celebration of endurance and renewal (or, better, reclamation) that such statements, still uncommon in the United States, suggest.]

This is a talk on digital stewardship and heritage futures at a strange confluence. Now, I’m more used to saying “cultural heritage”—cultural heritage futures—and I will certainly be addressing those today: possibilities for the strongly future-oriented digital stewardship of human expression as we encounter it in transitory, embodied performances, as intangible culture, and of course in ways that leave more lasting, material traces. But I use the broader phrase “heritage futures” deliberately, because this is a talk that moves me beyond my training and my various cultural comfort zones in two big ways.

First, I’ll step out of the humanities to gesture at projects in preservation, access, and scientific analysis that address our broader, global heritage of biodiversity. That’s a heritage we share with all living things. And where we’ve failed in stewarding living environments, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve only moderately well succeeded in documenting them—which in this case are two radically different things. Our success is particularly mixed—though improving—in documenting them with an eye toward the activist, artistic, or reflective work we may soon wish to do in radically changed ecosystems.


Read the full post here.

Editors’ Choice: Mechanical Kubler – Visual Paths Through Time

Schets van knielend persoon

I finally got the chance to push through a little idea about walking through visual time with a new Twitter bot I’m calling @MechaKubler.

Inspired by Google Cultural Institute’s “X Degrees of Separation”, I was curious to see if it was possible to recreate that app by hand using a more focused collection of works, and constraining the kinds of paths that would get drawn between two given images.
Was it possible to make this path move only forward in time? Or only backwards? To only consider a certain set of objects by type or nationality? The idea had been gnawing at me for some time.

Once an hour, @MechaKubler assembles an 8-image-long path between two objects from the Rijksmuseum, trying to find pictures that are roughly evenly separated across an expanse of visual similarity space. I used the penultimate max pooling layer of the pre-trained VGG-16 convolutional neural network1 to produce this space of multidimensional features (an involved way of saying “a list of 512 numbers per image”) for over 200,000 images of artworks in the Rijksmuseum collections.

Rather than just find the closest object at hand, it will take a chronological path, expressly moving either forwards or backwards in time as it traverses this visual space. Hence the homage to George Kubler, who considered the seriation of visual form through history in his 1962 Shape of Time. One of his core arguments was that there exist “prime objects”: ideal solutions to visual problems that artists then manifest through physical variants. This not unlike how @MechaKubler works. Using a R package I wrote to generate nearest-neighbor paths through numeric matrices, it identifies several ideal points sitting on a line evenly spaced between two randomly-chosen objects. These ideal points in the VGG-18 feature space can’t be directly translated back into images2 – alone, they’re just separate lists of 512 numbers. But it is possible to search through the real objects to find those whose own 512-number long feature vectors are very close to the ideal points.


Read the full post here.

Editors’ Choice: NYMG Review – Considering Digital Feminist Publishing in Practice

Screenshot of NYMG Journal homepage

When I was young I use to play a lot of games. Zelda was my favorite, and I was better at it than all the boys in my family.

When I dreamed, sometimes I would dream I was in the body of Link, the playable lead male in all Zelda games. How weird it was to wake up and realize such a divide: my body a girl’s but in my dreams, fighting monsters to save the world, in a boy’s.

Now, I’m playing fewer games and spending more time writing. Writing in academic genres of course. Those that will eventually fulfil the requirements of a PhD and allow me to continue work as an academic.

When I write, sometimes I still feel like I’m being folded into another body. I understand all too well how the academic world I participate in has been strategically arranged to support the movement of certain bodies, certain ways of living, and and certain ways of being at the expense of others. And because of this, I’ve always felt an uncomfortable disconnect between my body, my experiences, my patterns of thought and the demands and expectations of traditional academic writing. I say this all, of course, while acknowledging the many privileges that come with my white and abled body.

As I’ve adapted to the goals of academia and academic writing, I tell myself the same advice we tell our students: we learn a discourse through participation. We develop identities through this participation. But even with this, I’m often left weary. Weary not only from trying to adapt, but also from how the goals that lead to academic success are often entrenched in institutional patterns that reproduce the same injustices we claim to be fighting against.

I write about these personal divides not just because. But because I hope for these personal anecdotes to make the significance of what follows more clear: this is, after all, a Web-text of the Month. And what I’m really here to talk about is NYMG: Feminist Game Studies, an inspiring new journal that recently published its first issue.

But what I’m really, really here to talk about are what steps that we, as digital rhetoricians, might take to disrupt the normative structures of academic writing and publishing. And how we may do so thoughtfully and ethically, as feminists. But this I will return to later…


Read the original post here.

Editors’ Choice: What does the data tell us? – Representation, Canon, and Music Encoding

Image of sheet music. From Creative Commons by Brandon Giesbrecht CC BY 2.0

*Keynote text delivered at the Music Encoding Conference, University of Maryland, May 24, 2018.

I am thrilled to be here with you today. I would like to begin by thanking the organizers, Raffaele Viglianti and Stephen Henry, for inviting me to give this keynote. I would also like thank the students and staff at the University of Maryland Libraries, MITH, and the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center who were involved in making this conference run smoothly. Thank you.

When Raff and Stephen invited me to give this keynote they told me that the theme of the conference was “encoding and performance.” My original inclination was to talk about the ways in which I have engaged with digital tools and methods to facilitate faculty research and pedagogical initiatives, discuss the affordances that digital editions and encoded music can bring to a music seminar, as well as, ways in which students might interact with these materials. I will talk a bit about these things, but what was really on my mind and the focus of this keynote, is the issue of representation and canon. My hope is that this talk will encourage discussion and reflection.


Between 2010–2015, I was working at the University of Connecticut (UConn) as the Music & Dramatic Arts Librarian and a digital humanities specialist. The music department offered degrees from the undergraduate through the doctoral level. One of my many responsibilities was to teach several sessions of a graduate music research and bibliography course, in which students would be introduced to key resources (both analog and digital) in music bibliography and research. One of the goals of this course was to expose students to the research process and activities, such as finding and accessing resources of primary and secondary materials, creating a bibliography, or writing a literature review.

Archival research was new to most of the graduate students enrolled in this course, therefore one of my goals was to not only discuss and show them the various thematic catalogues, indexes, or bibliographies that could lead them to manuscripts or early editions, but to also demonstrate the process of searching for digitized materials in the numerous digital open access collections that had come online in the 21st century, as well as how to locate interactive or analytical music resources.


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Editors’ Choice: Twitter Conferences – To Do or Not To Do?

Image of a person yelling into a megaphone

In August 2017, I virtually attended and presented at the Beyond 150: Telling Our Stories Twitter Conference ((#Beyond150CA). In collaboration with Unwritten Histories, Canada’s History Society, and the Wilson Institute, this event was the first Twitter conference to focus on Canadian history. This conference seemed like a great opportunity to present my work on “filles du roi” (daughters of the king) in seventeenth-century New France. But, the idea of presenting an entire conference paper in only 12-15 tweets was intimidating. Would I be able to get my points across in this format? Would I be able to delve into meaningful conversations with the “audience”? Would anyone be in the audience? Was I prepared to lay my research bare on the internet for anyone to find while it was still in a nascent state?

Instead of writing a conference paper, I prepared for this event as I have for roundtable sessions. I wrote an outline for my presentation, focusing on the argument that with filles du roi the French crown invested in children twice to build their North American empire between 1663 and 1673. These young girls (most were 19 years old), hailing mainly from urban poor houses, immediately added to New France’s population with their migration. Once they arrived, the young women were exited to marry quickly. Furnished with large dowries from the French crown, 98% of filles du roi married within three months and 75% of those women were pregnant when they married. They then exponentially grew the number of French subjects abroad with their 4,438 offspring. To incentivize large families, the Edict of 1670 provided tax breaks for families with more than 10 children. Although the average fille du roi married twice and birthed six children and inherited another three stepchildren, 20% of filles du roi birthed more than 10 children. This resulted in a much different social topography from continental France. New France had large, blended families. As vessels of reproduction, filles du roi were essential to France’s seventeenth-century imperial growth. Women and children were commodities to be traded and moved as demographic need dictated.

It was truly a challenge to reduce what became a book chapter to fifteen tweets. To aid our presentations, presenters could include visuals or video elements. Many of my tweets included a PowerPoint slide that provided either statistical evidence (graphs in my case) or additional text to round out the context and/or analysis. Some presenters chose to record short 1-2 minute commentaries in their slides. This was particularly engaging and allowed for them to provide additional analysis and explanation. In the future, I’d experiment with working a few video tweets into my twitter presentation.


Read the full post here.