All posts by timothydhill

Digital Classicist Call For Papers

My, how time flies! Already the Digital Classicist Summer Seminar Series is about to celebrate its fifth birthday — and just look how it’s grown!

Don’t miss your chance to celebrate the colloquium’s meteoric rise from young punk upstart to pillar of the digital scene: answer the Call For Papers below!

Digital Classicist Seminars (London, 2011)

(Please circulate widely–we welcome
proposals from students as well as established researchers.)

Call for Presentations

The Digital Classicist will once more be running a series of seminars in
Summer 2011, on the subject of research into the ancient world that has
an innovative digital component. Themes could include, but are by no
means limited to, visualization, information and data linking, digital
textual and linguistic studies, and geographic information and network
analysis; so long as the content is likely to be of interest both to
classicists/ancient historians/archaeologists and information
scientists/digital humanists, and would be considered serious research
in at least one of those fields.

The seminars run on Friday afternoons (16:30 – 19:00) from June to
mid-August in Senate House, London, and are hosted by the Institute of
Classical Studies (University of London). In previous years collected
papers from the DC WiP seminars have been published in an online special
issue of Digital Medievalist, a printed volume from Ashgate Press, a
BICS supplement (in production), and the last three years have been
released as audio podcasts. We have had expressions of interest in
further print volumes from more than one publisher.

We have a budget to assist with travel to London (usually from within
the UK, but we have occasionally been able to assist international
presenters to attend, so please enquire).

Please send a 300-500 word abstract to by April
15th, 2011. We shall announce the full program at the end of April.

(Coörganised by Will Wootton, Charlotte Tupman, Matteo Romanello, Simon
Mahony, Timothy Hill, Alejandro Giacometti, Juan Garcés, Stuart Dunn &
Gabriel Bodard.)

Event-handling bug in IE7/8 with Raphaël

Recently I’ve been using the Raphael Javascript library for creating complex browser-based visualisations. Mostly it’s been a positive experience – but the development cycle conforms to the standard pattern of getting everything looking pretty in the standards-compliant browsers, and then setting aside a couple of days to get the thing working in the IE family of browsers.

Generally speaking, Raphael does an amazing job of porting nice, clean, standards-compliant SVG over to IE 6/7/8’s horrendous native RVML format support. But ironing the kinks out of my viz application did manage to flush out one IE bug that Raphael doesn’t handle: IE does not register events bound to SVG paths when their opacity is set to zero. Rects, circles, and yes, even ellipses, will trigger events when transparent. But paths won’t.

Fortunately the fix is simple: assigning the path an opacity of 0.01 allows it to trigger and has no visible manifestation on-screen.

It’s an ugly hack. And it’s not necessary for IE9, which does offer SVG support. But for the moment it does the job.

Reintegrating the Human(ities): Reflections on Cultural Heritage and the Semantic Web at the British Museum

I spent most of yesterday attending a workday on Cultural Heritage and the Semantic Web at the British Museum. Unfortunately I had to miss the final two papers and the closing panel, so I’m not in a position to offer an overall summary. But certain themes and common notes kept arising in each of the six talks I did manage to catch — and these are worth commenting on in themselves, because they mark, to my mind, a new (and, I think, messier and more interesting) direction for the Semantic Web than that most frequently outlined in the past.

Continue reading Reintegrating the Human(ities): Reflections on Cultural Heritage and the Semantic Web at the British Museum

Magnetic-Storage-Media Natives

A colleague recently forwarded me a light-entertainment link to a blog post and associated video clip showing what happens when a bunch of young children are confronted with old and obsolete technologies (VideoDiscs, 8-track players, an enormous HP rollerball, etc.) and asked to guess what they are.

The footage itself is endearing, funny, and very, very sweet. But what I found most interesting, once my initial don’t-kids-just-say-the-darndest-things reaction had faded, was the apparent mismatch between what is actually shown in the clip, and the editorial slant taken toward what is shown in the clip.

Continue reading Magnetic-Storage-Media Natives


There are a number of events upcoming in January that’ll be of interest to any London-based readers. I wish some of these had crossed my transom earlier: evidently this is what I get for only checking my Twitter feed on holidays.

Anyway, in chronological order:

  • The good folks at the British Museum are hosting a study day on Cultural heritage and the semantic web on Thursday, 13 January. It runs from 09.15 – 15.30, so it should be pretty meaty. Tickets are free, and can be booked through the day’s page at
  • The Royal Opera House (!) is sponsoring a pair of Culture Hack Days the 15th and 16th of January. What exactly is going on here is a bit mysterious—the Google Group hasn’t been updated in ages—but if you click on a bunch of links on their home page, maybe you’ll find out.
  • The weekend after that (January 22nd and 23rd) The Guardian is sponsoring a History Hack Day. This one looks serious—details at—and I literally cannot wait.

Modes of Collaboration in the (Digital) Humanities

This post started off as a comment on Elena Pierazzo’s note drawing attention to a very useful blog entry by Lisa Spiro on collaborative projects in the humanities. But it’s grown a little large for that, and my purpose here isn’t really to respond to that entry — which, as I say, is tremendously useful and thorough — but more to comment on collaboration in the humanities in general. Or rather, how it tends to get talked about — on the rhetoric of collaboration in the humanities.

Because I’m struck by how readily it’s assumed that collaboration in the humanities is an unreservedly Good Thing. And by how seldom it is that, despite this, such collaboration actually occurs. Continue reading Modes of Collaboration in the (Digital) Humanities

What is the object of the Digital Humanities?

By which I mean on one level, what is its purpose?, and on another, what is its field of study?

In an earlier post on this blog I listed what I saw as the major subdivisions of the discipline, such as it is, and opined that at the CCH as presently constituted we mostly focus on realising traditional humanities ends in a digital fashion. That is to say, digital humanities as we practice it tracks the other humanities disciplines pretty closely, and ultimately we’re “about” the same things that they are.

There’s a lot to be said for this approach. There’s no question in my mind that most of the scholarly genres — even those most firmly rooted in natural language as a medium — are better realised in electronically than in print. But if that was all there was to the digital humanities — the humanities, but in a more convenient and useable form — then I don’t think I would have bothered switching out from the thoroughly-traditional Classics track my PhD had prepared me for. Because this seems to me an approach to DH that belongs more properly to scholarly publishing than scholarly research.

For me, what differentiates digital humanities from other humanities disciplines and gives it some kind of distinctive value of its own only arises when it turns reflexive and experimental: when it takes as its objects of study not simply those taken by other disciplines, but starts exploring the effects and potential of digital remediation of these objects. When it starts trying to stretch the affordances of the medium and the data and examining their interaction. In other words, I’m interested in the digital humanities in the same way that Vannevar Bush was interested in hypertext, back in the ’40s. As a way of exploring new ways of thinking and understanding. Of reconceptualising our knowledge of our field of study.

To anyone with a memory that encompasses more than a decade in this field, all this will sound wearyingly familiar: do we remember all those many, many unread articles whose titles promised a radical hypertext revolution in the novel/the essay/narrative-modes-of-thought/whatever with the advent of the web?

But the problem with this entire (now-vanished) genre of research wasn’t, to my mind, that its motivations were incorrect. It’s that it was insufficiently experimental. As far as I could ever tell, they were almost always purely theoretical: based, almost all of the time, of a skimming of a McLuhan (or one of his epigones) mixed in with a soupcon of Foucault, Derrida, or, more often than not, Baudrillard. There was never any engagement with the medium, its message, or the material itself.

But here, at the CCH, we have the opportunity to work up close and intimately with the corpus of humanities knowledge, and the skills  to shape and experiment with it using digital technology. We’re in the right place, in other words, to start exploring. And this, to my mind, is what constitutes the purpose of the digital humanities: to create new tools that allow us to open up new understandings. To think better, and think different.

If, of course, we can ever find the bloody time.

Diigo – useful Cloud-based web annotation tool

I’ve been playing around with Diigo and using it for making annotations online. Not specifically a humanities tool – but intersecting with some of the things we do here.

I’ve yet to play around with any of the community/collaborative features. But I’ve found the basic annotation toolset easy to use and fantastically helpful. V. good in particular for the early stages of research when you’re skimming pages for starting salient points.

A taxonomy of the Digital Humanities?

There is already a non-trivial number of Digital Humanities blogs out there, and I think it’s probably fair to say that many of them blacken a lot of pixels in blogging about what the field actually is, or what it means. But curiously, despite the very large number of answers that have been formulated to these questions, I’ve never seen any that attempt to answer them in the most basic way — that is to say, by simply cataloguing the various things that people who call themselves, or get labelled as, ‘Digital Humanists’, actually do. Which I find curious, as the  activities that get lumped together under this rubric seem to me pretty diverse.

Off the top of my head, I’d say the field is often held to include:

  1. Digital preservationists: people who are interested in making sure digital artefacts aren’t lost in the future, whether out of concern purely for informational integrity (the folks at LOCKSS), or because they’re cultural curators in some sense.
  2. Cultural commentators: people who are interested in the effects or impact of digital technologies on (usually) mainstream culture, dealing with questions ranging from online identity to ethics and privacy concerns.
  3. Scholars with traditional scholarly ends who find that these are best realised by digital technologies. This group is of course in itself very varied.
  4. Philosophers interested in issues such as philosophy of mind, artificial intelligence, singularity theory, or any other of a range of issues that are most readily discussed within a digital/technological frame of reference
  5. Computer scientists and/or developers who take traditional humanities domains as their targets.
  6. Digital artists, exploiting the computer as a medium.

Does this seem like a comprehensive list? Is it, perhaps, too broad? And can these groups all be considered to share sufficiently similar interests to form a community (or, for that matter, even to read a blog such as this?) Is it useful to try to address all of them?

My own feeling is that at the CCH we mostly do (3), with a bit of (5). (1) , (2), and (6) are mostly out of our purview, but I suspect a lot of us forage around in (4) as much as we can. Is this a fair characterisation? Is it a problem?

Mixing and matching SVG and Text

One of the happier side-effects of the recent Apple vs. Adobe fracas is that it has led to the widespread rediscovery of Scalable Vector Graphics as a means of displaying illustrations and animations on the web. Long the poster-child of standards nerds, SVG was a spec I’d heard of before – but only in contexts that suggested its sole raison d’etre was to be yet another standard with which to beat IE6 over the head for not implementing. I’d looked into it, briefly, back in 2003 or so – but the syntax was forbidding (XML isn’t offhand the format you’d think best suited for describing graphics) and the documentation unfriendly to the point of absurdity. I didn’t think of looking at it again until I started thinking a bit about visualisations for humanities data, and needed a cross-platform iDevice-compatible animation medium.

And what a happy rediscovery that was: clearly, I owe the standards nerds an apology. There are now a couple of good Javascript libraries available for SVG (Raphael and a JQuery plug-in) that fix all the x-browser problems for you and help smooth away SVG’s awkward XML-ness – which is, furthermore, nowhere near as difficult as I’d concluded it was all those years ago. The spec is (reasonably) small, supple, and does what you want it to with a bare minimum of muss and fuss. All that and SVG elements exist within the DOM – meaning that, unlike children of the <canvas> element, you can access them using standard JS traversal methods, trigger events affecting the rest of the page with them, etc.

In fact, SVG would be pretty much perfect for creating highly interactive, data-intensive pages – were it not for the way it handles text. There is a text element in the SVG spec – but it doesn’t do what you want it to: i.e., style or wrap like HTML text does. And the workarounds are horrendous.

After a bit of Googling I discovered what seemed like a solution: the svg:foreignObject element can wrap non-SVG objects, and I was assured that in this way I could simply drop HTML content into the middle of my SVG code and all would be well.

Except, of course, that it wasn’t. In place of the lovingly-prepared HTML content I’d been expecting to appear in the middle of my screen, I got nothing. Nada. Nyet. Zip. Zilch. Nothing. And upon tracking the foreignObject examples back to their lair, I saw the reason why: while Raphael and JQuery assume that what you’re trying to do is drop SVG elements into the middle of a standard HTML page, foreignObject code only renders properly in all browsers tested if the page is served with MIME-type svg. Which of course then banjaxes every standard HTML element you’ve got on your page, i.e., most of it.

It seemed, for an embarrassingly long time, like this was a show-stopper, before the key to the solution occurred to me – that there’s absolutely no reason why the HTML elements ‘within’ an SVG graphic need to be children of the SVG element itself. Using Raphael (and presumably JQuery, though I haven’t tested this), your first step is to define the area that will hold your SVG graphic by specifying its coordinates (x and y) and dimensions (width and height). After that, you’re probably going to spend some time positioning graphical objects within this area, using the same metrics. And at that point you’ve got all the information you need simply to append your HTML elements after the SVG outer element and position them absolutely ‘inside’ it.

It’s so ridiculously easy I’ll repeat that again: don’t bother with the workarounds in SVG. Just position your HTML absolutely and on top of it.

This is, admittedly, a kludge – but it works, it’s easy – and it lets you spend all the time you would have wasted trying to get the svg:text and svg:tspan elements working across different data actually working on the visualisation.