Sunday, November 29, 2009

Google Anti-Spam Policy Hurts Poor / Disabled Most

Google has decided to fight against spam emails by making it much more difficult to sign up for a Gmail account. The idea they came up with was to require a person signing up for an email to give a cell-phone number with texting capabilities. Google would then text you a password which you can use to activate your account. This allows Google to make it much more difficult for automated systems to set up accounts and by limiting the number of accounts per cell-phone number spammers will have trouble staying in business. A rather ingenious solution, but one designed with the western world in mind.

For me - a non-cell phone user - it's annoying. The solution recommended by Google is to ask a friend if I can have the password sent to their phone. I don't want to do it, but if I need to I can get around the problem. After all, I can't complain too loudly considering Gmail is free and offers invaluable services to users.

But, what about those millions of people who do not own cell phones or do not have friends with cell phones either? There are thousands of people whose only access to the internet is on shared computers in public libraries, community centers and job-bank agencies who could benefit immensely from free email service as they search for jobs or to connect with friends and family.

What about people in third-world countries who may have access to a community computer, but may never have seen a cell phone with texting capabilities? One of the greatest things about the internet has been the ability for people from all walks of life all over the world to access information and services that had previously only been available to the rich.

What about my blind grandfather, who is an avid computer user, but obviously has no use for texting? I hate to stereotype, but I'm pretty sure if he were to ask his friends at the retirement home, he'd be hard-pressed to find anyone texting their grandchildren who he could ask for help from to get onto Gmail.

I can appreciate Google wants to cut down on spam and that people in third world countries, on government assistance or the blind probably don't bring in as much revenue as your average upper/middle class Google user, but the whole policy strikes me as anti-social and poorly thought out. Gmail was an opportunity for those unable to pay for expensive services such as cell phone plans. And it's an opportunity that's being denied them by a company that so often takes the lead in making information and services available to the world.

I'll be keeping my eye on this policy and I hope to see changes soon:

You can see the "Help" page to see for yourself just how inaccessible this policy is.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

How to Write a Zotero Translator - Print on Demand

After a suggestion from Tom Scheinfeldt at, I've decided to release my open-content monograph, "How to Write a Zotero Translator" as a print on demand book for those who prefer a paper version. The book was originally released as an open-content website by the Network in Canadian History & Environment and is still available on their website.

As Dr. Scheinfeldt rightly pointed out, sometimes it's nice to have a tangible copy that doesn't compete for screen space with your coding work. The book is available for $11.99 through

The content of the print on demand is the same as what's available on the website, so it's up to you to decide which you prefer.

I'm happy to report that several people in a broad range of countries have used the guide to create translators, including some for foreign language sites. If you have used the guide to help you create a translator, please let me know!

To acquire "How to Write a Zotero Translator" visit the product order form on

Saturday, November 14, 2009

"Discover Canada" Open Editing Call

The Canadian government recently released a new document, "Discover Canada" (pdf) that is the basis of the citizenship test for new Canadians. It contains a fairly significant section on Canadian history and, as you might expect, many Canadian historians who weren't consulted on the project have opinions about shortfalls in the document.

Yesterday, Andrew Smith posted a blog entry that suggested:

"maybe we should investigate using a Wikipedia-type process to write a real guide for new citizens. A more widely distributed process would be the best way of coming up with a statement of consensus values in modern-day Canada."

So, I’ve created a wiki and added the text from the “Canada’s History” section of the document. I encourage anyone interested in Canadian history to feel free to edit it as you see fit. Once everyone has had an opportunity to add their input, I will pass along the result to the Canadian government as a recommendation for improving the guide.

The wiki is located at:

You can add to, subtract from, or make any changes you like.

It’s one thing to disagree with a government policy and another to do something about it, so here’s our chance as historians to have our say.

Friday, November 13, 2009

How to Archive a Conference

Conferences and workshops are great places to network, learn new things or test out research ideas. Unfortunately, they tend to be ephemeral. Even in a best case scenario, most conferences and workshops only result in a white paper or maybe an edited collection. The vast majority of work becomes lines on the CVs of those who presented, without leaving a good record of what transpired.

If you'd like to archive your conference or workshop, but don't want to put together a book, there are a few ways you can achieve this on the web. This isn't a technical guide on setting up a website, but suggestions for what types of material to save that can help provide something tangible to point to of a conference you have been involved with.

Archiving a conference or workshop is a two step process:

1) Collecting

You'll have to put together enough material to make the project worthwhile. If you only have a one paragraph description, you aren't going to draw many lookers.

2) Hosting

If you don't have a website or access to one, you can set one up for free, or look for a research network that may be interested in hosting the project for you. Environmental historians could turn to the Network in Canadian History & Environment (NiCHE) and there may be others for those studying different topics.


What you collect depends on what type of conference or workshop you are hosting. If you are running a traditional podium-based conference, you might consider the following:

1) Conference Description

Don't make the mistake of assuming people will understand from your conference title what the point of the event was or what its goals were. It's always a good idea to provide 3 or 4 paragraphs of information about the event. Who put it on and why? When was it? Where was it? Who supported it? Who attended?

You should probably answer all or most of, who, what, when, where, why and how.

2) Audio recording

For less than $100 you can get an MP3 recorder that you can leave by the podium to record the talks given by presenters. Don't forget to get signed consent forms before recording, as some people may be uncomfortable or unwilling to participate. In my experience, most people are willing if asked politely beforehand and if you explain that you are archiving the proceedings for those who were not able to attend.

You likely won't get thousands of people flocking to listen to the audio files, but as with any archive, the material is there for those who do wish to seek it. As time rolls on, you might be surprised with the number of hits you do receive.

3) Reflections

If your participants are bloggers by nature, use this to your advantage and ask people to blog about the conference and to send you links to any posts they make. You can quickly tie together a list of posts about your conference so that anyone interested can get several different perspectives as to what went on.

It's a good idea to mention this at the start and end of each day of the conference to reinforce it in everyone's mind. If you let the participants know you will be collecting the posts together they will be more likely to participate - everyone likes to think their work is appreciated.

If you're lucky enough to have a group that are active on Twitter, you might consider saving a copy of their tweets and making them available.

If your group aren't bloggers, you might consider asking 3 or 4 graduate students to write a 500 word reflection of what they learned, enjoyed, discussed, etc. Graduate students can always use exposure and this is a perfect opportunity to give it to them while getting content for your conference archive.

4) Photos

Not photos of people sitting around tables giving awkward smiles. Not someone stuffing their face with a donut. Good photos.

You might consider taking a photo of a landmark in the city you're holding the event. If you're in a nice building, take a photo of that. A good photo of someone speaking at a podium can be great, as long as it doesn't catch them with a particularly unflattering expression on their face.

Group shots can work well, but make sure you take down names as soon as possible. By the time you end up putting all the material together you may find you can't remember everyone.

If you don't have any good shots - or don't have a camera, try to find some photos with an open license that you can use. A Creative Commons search should bring up plenty of photos that capture the essence of your event. It's better to use a good photo that represents your event than a bad photo that was taken at your event.

5) Links / More Info

Sometimes people will stumble across your conference archive and want to learn more. Provide them with some links to relevant organizations, or books they might consider reading. Feel free to plug your own work as long as it's germane.


How much material is enough?

Well, you don't want too little or no one will care, and you don't need a book. I'd recommend something comparable to a magazine article. If you have between 1000 and 4000 words (can be from multiple authors writing different pieces), a few photos and a couple audio files, that's probably great.


Though not a standard practice by any means, there are a few good examples of archived conferences assembled by organizers and participants. Here are a couple that might give you some ideas.

A conference archive not only removes the ephemeral nature of an event, it gives you a tangible deliverable to point to when seeking more funding for future work. It can also build your professional online profile and generate some excitement about your work.

If you're hosting an upcoming event, consider archiving it online.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Popular Publishing Writer's Guild formed

Led by Adam Crymble (NiCHE) and Jason Young (York University).

A joint effort between NiCHE and Active History, this group came out of the graduate student workshop, "Publishing for a Wide Audience" held at the University of Western Ontario on October 19, 2009.

The workshop sought to teach young academics how to branch out and reach broader publics. Publishing in the popular press – whether local newspapers or nationally-circulated magazines – is one way to communicate academic research and analysis to a wider audience. The workshop taught students skills that will help them get their messages out to a wider audience. Sessions at the workshop included writing attention-catching op-eds, press releases, and magazine queries.

To continue to foster these new skills, participants have been invited to join the "Popular Publishing Writer's Guild," where every five months, members are asked to draft a submission to an editor of a popular publication. The length, format and subject matter are optional; the goal is to support the dissemination of research by academics to a wider audience. The first round of submissions went underway at the end of October, 2009 and round two will be held in the Spring.

We hope to expand this group in the future, as well as to offer more, similar workshops so that knowledge learned in the academy can be spread to all Canadians.

The Popular Publishing Writer's Guild wishes to thank NiCHE for support to put on the Workshop at UWO.

You can read about the initial workshop on the event website.

Monday, October 26, 2009

#apiworkshop Reflection: free the data

I recently attended Bill Turkel's Workshop on APIs for the Digital Humanities held in Toronto and had the pleasure of coming face to face with many of the people who have created the historical data repositories I have used so enthusiastically.

What I came away with was an even stronger conviction that data in humanities repositories should be completely liberated. By that, I mean given away in their entirety.

The mass digitizations that have occurred recently have provided a great first step for researchers. I no longer need to fly to London and sit in a dark room sifting through boxes to look at much of the material I seek. But, I'm still - generally - unable to do with it what I like.

Many repositories contain scanned documents which have been OCR'd so that they are full text searchable, but that OCR is not shared with the end user, rendering the entire thing useless for those wanting to do a text analysis or mash up the data with another repository's content.

Most databases require the user to trust the site's search mechanisms to query the entire database an return all relevant results. If I'm doing a study, I'd prefer to do so with all the material available. Without access to the entire database on my hard drive, I have no way of verifying that the search has returned what I sought.

Many of those at the workshop who administered repositories were willing and eager to email their data at the drop of a hat, but that is not yet the norm. Most of my past requests for data have been completely ignored. When it comes to scholarly data, possessiveness leads to obscurity.

As humanists become increasingly confident programmers, many will define research projects based on the accessibility of the sources. Those who are giving their data away will end up cited in books and journal articles. Those desperate to maintain control will get passed by. If someone asks you for your data, think of it as a compliment of your work, then say yes.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Publishing for a Wide Audience: Grad Student Workshop

Monday October 19, 2009
London, ON, Canada

Fifty thousand screaming readers rush the newsstand to get a copy of your latest research. Okay, maybe they're not screaming, but the numbers probably aren't that far off. While peer reviewed journals may make the academic world go round, it's through magazines and newspapers that your work can make its way into homes across the country – and you might be surprised to find out how interested Canadians are in what you do. Did we mention that you also get paid, and the amount of work is probably less than you spent on your first undergrad paper?

The Network in Canadian History & Environment (NiCHE) is sponsoring a graduate student workshop on Monday, October 19, 2009 in London, Ontario which will teach participants how to sell an article about their work or experiences to a popular publication. The workshop will be hands-on and by the end of the day all participants should have a proposal finished and ready to submit to an editor.

Accommodation grants are available for out of town participants. Priority will be given to students studying topics on Canada and the environment and those who are registered as NiCHE members. Membership is free and you can sign up at

Participants are also invited to attend an optional public lecture that evening by Harriet Ritvo, president of the American Society of Environmental Historians. Ritvo will be discussing her new book, The Dawn of Green: Manchester, Thirlmere, and Modern Environmentalism (Chicago UP, 2009).

Space is limited, so if you are interested please contact Adam Crymble at as soon as possible. Formal registration to follow. No fee.

See the event poster (PDF).

Photo credit: "Ode to Jack Keruac", Oliver Hammond.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Learning Unix

I was recently given the task of learning Unix on my Mac. Recently, in this case means last week. I make no claims of being a Unix expert, but I am making some good headway. So, I thought I'd compile a post that tells others in a similar situation what resources I found helpful. If you have other suggestions, please add them in the comments.


Hayne, Cameron. "Unix FAQ (for OS X)", Hayne of Tintagel.

It's fairly long, but it provides a great overview of what you're trying to learn. There is plenty of opportunity to practice while reading through the various sections.

As you read, keep the following reference chart handy:

"An A-Z Index of the Apple OS X command line". This basically tells you what all the commands do and shows you the syntax required to use them.

Next, try the following questions, compiled by Bill Turkel to keep me occupied while he did more important work:

  • Open a terminal.

  • What directory are you in?

  • What files are in the directory?

  • Can you list the files in the directory in different ways?

  • How do you go to a different directory?

  • What files are in that directory?

  • How do you see only a few of the files at a time? Say ones that begin with the letter 'a'?

  • How do you see only the .html files?

  • How do you copy a file?

  • How do you move a file to a new filename? Is that the same as renaming it?

  • How do you make a new directory?

  • How do you get rid of a directory?

  • How do you list the contents of a .txt or .html file to the screen?

  • How do you break a text file into screen-sized chunks if it is too big to display on the screen?

  • How do you show the first part of a text file to the screen?

  • How do you show the last part of a text file to the screen?

  • How do you find a file in a different directory if you know (part of) its name?

You should be able to use the reference list posted above to solve all these problems. If you're totally stuck, leave a note in the comments.

Then you can move on to some more Turkel questions. Characters in quotes are commands to type into your Unix terminal. Don't include the quotation marks:

  • What do the "uname", "hostname" and "set" commands do? (minus quotes)

  • Try "ls -l" and "ls -1". Read "man ls"

  • Practice using "touch". Read "man touch"

  • Practice using "grep".

  • Make sure you read about . .. ~ and / .

  • Read "man less"

  • Read about pipes and redirection (|, <, >, >>), sed, split, chmod, curl and lynx

Once you're done that, you can try out some of the free quizzes on the bdv-unix-skills website.

Hope that helps, and since I'm still learning too, more advice is most welcome!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Google's Geographic Bias

If you're sitting in Atlanta, it makes sense that when you Google "Hair Dressers" you are probably most interested in services near to you. It doesn't do you any good to know "Jimmy's Haircut Shop" in Vancouver BC doesn't require an appointment; you need to know who in your area can cut your hair.

Google's searches have several mechanisms in place to help with this. For example, an American will automatically be directed to when they navigate to Google. Here in Canada, you get sent to, and in Jolly Old England, you go to Each is designed to help users find search results most likely relevant to them. Canadians are more likely to see Canadian sites ranked higher.

However, this "helping" can effectively mean people in some countries are blind about what occurs elsewhere in the world. Many people do not look beyond the first page of results when they have performed a Google search. Hence the intensely competitive "Search Engine Optimization" industry that works hard to ensure sites are ranked highest. What this all means for a researcher new to the internet or unaware of the perils is that depending on where you live, Google might not point you to the same resources. This is especially the case if you are trying to research another region.

For example: the Google search for "england history" on the US, UK and Canadian instances of Google all provide 83 000 000 matches.

However, while the page "The History of England" ranks 6th on the UK version of Google, it is ranked 66th on the Canadian and American versions of the search engine, deep enough down that most people wouldn't likely bother to check it out.

If I were interested in the Network in Canadian History & Environment (NiCHE), hosted at, and did a search for "niche", what I found would depend on where I lived: rank: 3rd rank: 15th rank: 420th (that's the 42nd page!)

The .ca attached to the address means that Google has decided that this page is likely irrelevant to Brits. Now, granted, I should probably refine my search to get beyond the fact that a search for a word like "niche" is a bit ambiguous. But, the important thing to take away here is that Google is vetting what knowledge we find, in many cases without us even being aware of it.

What can we do about it? Probably not very much that will get Google to change their ways. But as responsible researchers and internet users, we should be aware of this. When you're doing research, make sure you don't just accept Google's top 10 suggestions at face value. Try another search engine (there's lots!). And if you're doing research on another country, make sure you try out their version of Google as well as your own.

Technology is great, but we've got to know it's limits.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Do You Have a Wiki Yet?

If you're doing research without a personal Wiki, you're livin the hard life. Whether you love or hate Wikipedia, you can't deny it's got appeal and a large part of that is the wiki environment. It's extremely easy to link pages together, edit and keep back ups of previous work all at the same time.

Working on multiple projects? A central wiki can branch off into each project and keep things organized for you.

Don't have a big research budget to spend on software? How's free sound? If you already have webspace you can install the open source MediaWiki, the same package that Wikipedia runs on. If you don't have server space of your own, try Wikispot who will provide free wiki access to anyone working on a collaborative project.

If you're concerned about privacy or having your unfinished research show up on Google Searches, fear not; there are ways to prevent search engines from Indexing your wiki, usually found in the preferences, depending on which wiki you use. If you're running your own wiki, you'll have the option to password protect it.

So, do you have a wiki yet?

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

History: Enough with the Quizzes

I came across the Dominion Institute's newest quiz this morning. The quiz involves identifying famous Canadians based on their photographs. It included everyone from Wayne Gretzky to Sir. Fredrick Banting. The Dominion Institute issues these quizzes knowing full well that most Canadians will do poorly on them. The resultant statistics then make for timely Globe and Mail or National Post articles around Canada Day in which we are shamed for our lack of Canadian history knowledge.

I took the quiz, and got 10 out of 10, but not without a great deal of difficulty. In one case (Nelly McClung), I had to figure out the answer by process of elimination, ruling out Celine Dion and Michelle Jean from the list of choices.

The average Canadian did much poorer than I did. But, who cares? Why is it only history that we have to quiz? How come the Physics institute of Canada doesn't go around polling everyday Canadians with 3rd year physics problems, only to complain we have been neglecting our physics, as a nation?

So, I've created my own 1 question chemistry quiz, of comparable difficulty level:

Identify the following molecule:

Apple Juice, Butter, Mustard, Saturated Fat, Vitamin C, Garlic, Aspartame, Hydro-Chloric Acid, Yeast, Caffeine, Tomato Juice, Folic Acid, Vitamin B12, Chlorinated Salt, Vitric Acid.


If you didn't recognize that as Caffeine, you're either evidence that chemistry isn't given enough funding / emphasis / time in schools, or that's just not something that's ever been important enough to your life to memorize or learn how to interpret.

Enough with the quizzes. People don't like to be shown how stupid they are. Not everyone yearns to play trivial pursuit. And, the inability to recognize a remote historic figure is not a sign that Canadian people are stupid.

If you'd like to take the quiz it is available here (for now):

Monday, June 29, 2009

Digital Humanities: Where to Begin?

I was speaking with someone today with a MA in History, who was interested in getting involved with the digital humanities. She's keen to learn, but didn't know where to start.

My suggestion: take the best essay you think you've ever written and turn it into a webpage.

This will ground you in principles that will be forever useful as you progress to bigger and more complex projects, and it will give you a tangible 'deliverable' that you can be proud of. It is also something that you can teach yourself to do, with little instruction and a lot of experimentation.

Creating a simple website has many advantages. A lot of the advanced work you will do as a digital humanist will require you to work with webpages. This may involve dissecting pages from their source code, to extract content. You'd expect your surgeon to know what was connected to your knee bone; and I'd expect my digital humanist to know what was in my <:head> tag.

Also, markup, which is the language-type simple websites are written in, is much easier to learn than programming languages that use commands, such as JavaScript or Python.

To get started, see my previous post "Putting a History Essay Online".

What about the other digital humanists out there? What's the best first step for an aspiring student?

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Collaboratron: an experiment in physical computing

Today is #hackday. Devon Elliott approached me about using a system called "Trackmate" to create a cool user interaction. At it's most basic level, Trackmate sends a message to your computer when an object is placed on a special platform (made out of a piece of plexiglas bought at the dollar store). We wrote a program in Processing which created a visualization that changed depending on which objects a user had put on our plexiglas platform.

In our case, we decided to use the Network in Canadian History & Environment's (NiCHE) member list as our dataset. When they signed up, each of our members were able to choose up to 45 research interest areas. The idea was that this information could be used to help people find those with like interests. Our system used a physical object to represent each of those 45 research interests. Users can put one or several of the objects on the platform and the program will create a dynamic display which will recommend potential collaborators based on the user's selections.

It's just a prototype at this point, but since today is #hackday, we thought we'd share what we've got so far. You can take a look at a video on the NiCHE website.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Choosing a proper noun for a Project Name

So, you've got a great idea for a project / research group / lab / product. It's going to change your field and soon, everyone will know your name. But, what is your name?

Some people are tempted to choose a name or a acronym that spells out a word in the dictionary. Maybe something that evokes a characteristic they want their project to embody. Maybe you decide to call your new lab "TIGER" because you are developing orange and black striped organisms.


But before you choose the name, consider the downsides of this decision. Until you are more famous than tigers, it will be almost impossible to track yourself on the web. There will already be thousands of people out there using your name as a word, rather than to refer to your activities. Someone who loves Tigers will beat you to the Twitter username "Tiger". The Detroit Tigers will always rank higher than you on Google. Many of your visitors will leave the moment they realize they aren't going to find any photos of Tigers on your site. And your would-be visitors will have to try strange combinations of of search words just to find you.

Using a combination of upper case and lower case letters to write your name often does not help. Many search functions ignore capitalization so your search for "TiGeR" will return the same results as "TIGER" or "tiger".

So when choosing a name, maybe it would be better if you went with something a bit more obscure, like "Omeka".

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Thomson Reuters harassing Zotero community

I, along with presumably 285 other people who are interested in Zotero's development got this email this afternoon:
Dear Zotero Development Community Members,

First off, please allow me to apologize for clogging your inbox with this unsolicited message, but I hope you'll understand that the severity of the situation requires me to contact you. In its ongoing litigation with George Mason University, Thomson Reuters has demanded that the university produce contact information (name, email, and username) associated with all two hundred eighty-six Zotero SVN/Trac accounts.

We can think of no use Thomson Reuters's counsel would have for this information other than to intimidate and harass you, and we made every effort to avoid turning over this information until compelled. We have requested that the contact information be placed under protective order, which in principle means that only the lawyers involved should have access to the information. Nonetheless, we feel it is our obligation to notify you that we are being forced to release this data. Please note that you are in no way required or requested to keep this disclosure confidential. If you are contacted by Thomson Reuters or their attorneys in connection with this lawsuit, please do let us know.

We deeply apologize for this encroachment on your privacy, and we sincerely hope that it does not dissuade you from remaining active members of the Zotero development community.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

How to Rename Files En Masse

Recently, I was confronted with a rather large batch of image files that needed renaming. There were several hundred, and it would have taken far too long to do it manually. So, I wrote a short Python computer program that will do this in a matter of seconds.

If you also ever need to rename many files and don't want to do it manually, you can use this same technique (no experience necessary).

This example is provided as is. Please don't send me your angry email if you accidentally rename all the files on your computer and nothing works anymore. Follow the directions carefully.

Follow these steps.

1) Make a complete copy of all the files that need renamed and save them to a new folder. You can't undo this renaming thing so you don't want to take the chance that all your files get renamed incorrectly. Back them up and be safe. Nothing but the files to be renamed should be in the new folder. Call the folder "rename"

2) Download Python from their website and install it:

3) Download Komodo Edit from their website and install it:

4) Read Chapters 1-3 of Bill Turkel's "Programming Historian" and set up Komodo Edit to have a 'Run Python' feature (it's in the chapter. Read it! It will only take 10 minutes).

5) Open Komodo Edit and create a new file. Save it as .

6) Paste the following code into that file. Indenting is important:


#!/usr/bin/env python
import os
from os import rename

x = os.listdir('C:\\Documents and Settings\\Replace with Path to Folder')
print x
a = 0
b = 0
for file in x:
    if x[a].find(".tif") != -1:
        print a
        os.rename(x[a], 'newName-' + str(b) + '.tif')

#end code

7) Three lines need to be changed.
a) x = os.listdir('C:\\Documents and Settings\\Replace with Path to Folder')
change this to have the path of your folder containing the files to be changed. Make sure you use two slashes between directory layers, not one. The first slash is actually an "escape" character that tells the program to consider the 2nd slash as an alphanumeric character rather than a code character with special meaning.
You can find the path of your folder by right clicking it and selecting properties.

b) if x[a].find(".tif") != -1:
Replace ".tif" with whatever type of file you are changing the name of. This can be any file type you like. .jpg, .txt, .html, etc.

c) os.rename(x[a], 'newName-' + str(b) + '.tif')
Replace "newName" with whatever you want to change the name to, and ".tif" to whatever file format you selected in step (b). This is a pretty simple program - if you go through it line-by-line you can probably figure out what each step does.

8) Resave the file. Place in the same folder as the files that you want renamed. Treat this program like a loaded gun. You don't want to run it in the wrong folder. If you run it will rename everything in that folder whether you want it to or not. As long as you don't double click it you should be ok.

9) Open in Komodo Edit and run the program using the technique described in the Programming Historian's "Hello World" example.

You should now have an entire folder full of renamed files. They will be named "newName1.tif", "newName2.tif", etc. Notice that the old names are now completely gone.

This can save you a lot of time if you're dealing with hundreds of files. But, please be careful. Don't rename any files that are critical to your system.

A little bit of computer programming can go a long way

Friday, April 17, 2009

How Researchers can Effectively use Twitter

I've been getting a lot of questions lately by friends and colleagues who wonder how and why I use Twitter. Most of these people seem to assume that I'm tweeting what I had for breakfast (or hoping to find out what the CHNM staff had for breakfast). To these people social media is a place where you post pictures of your drunk friends from last night, divulge far too much personal information and take tests that tell you which type of car you are.

There are certainly users of both Facebook and Twitter that have propelled these stereotypes along, but there are definitely good, professional and educational uses for Twitter. One of the best examples of this is the digital humanities community.

I've decided to only use Twitter as a professional learning tool. I don't seek out social friends, am not helping Brit reach 1 million followers (even if there might be a pair of concert tickets in it for me) and actively "unfollow" people who send throngs of breakfast related messages. That has left me with a small but active group of people who provide a steady stream of helpful and insightful information to me every day. Here are the types of tweets I find most helpful as a researcher and digital humanist:

1) Conference Streaming
These live, on the go tweets come from people attending a conference or public lecture. They provide an outline of what a person is presenting, along with interesting excerpts from the audience or thoughts the tweeter may have. Often, these tweets include links to the presenter's slides or notes. While not nearly as good as attending a presentation yourself, this is a big first step in reducing the ephemeral nature of the podium speech and disseminating it to those of us who could not attend, or might not think to attend.

2) Interesting & Relevant Links
With so many people writing in so many places, it's impossible to notice everything. Tweets routinely point me to blog posts, journal articles and webpages relevant to my research - as long as you're following the right people.

3) Finding other Digital Humanists
Around last year at this time I was pretty sure Bill Turkel and Dan Cohen were the only two digital humanists on the planet. Through Twitter, I've found a few dozen more and have stumbled upon research that has both amazed me and prompted new avenues for my own study. For those twitterers interested in Digital Humanities, make sure you check out those listed under #digitalhumanities on .

4) Project Updates
Some of the people I follow aren't people at all. Many organizations create twitter accounts for their projects / institutions and send out tweets to let people know of upgrades / upcoming events. It's easy to go overboard with these types of tweets, so I have to say I always appreciate those organizations who exercise discretion and only tweet about significant news.

5) Crowdsourcing
Need a second opinion? Looking for a piece of software that does something obscure? I've found plenty of both by sending out a tweet and waiting for the expertise of my followers to kick in with suggestions.

And the last thing I have found it useful for is getting my own message out. A few weeks ago I posted a message on this blog about my Zotero translator guide and walked away. Within an hour, twitterers has noticed my post and tweeted it across the twittersphere. Over the next couple days I received a few hundred visitors, directly because of the tweets and the internet had been seeded with links (in more than one language) pointing people to the resource I had created. If I had sought traditional, print based forms of publishing, I'd probably still be waiting months for the presses to roll.

Twitter lets me keep up to date with research and developments amongst people with like interests. If done prudently, you can avoid the drunk photos, tests about what car you are and information about what everyone had for breakfast.

Incidentally, I had an apple cinnamon toaster's strudel this morning. And on Mondays, the whole staff of CHNM eats bagels. Ahhh, how I miss those bagels.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

How Best to Approach Academic Journals

Are you a humanist trying to get published in an academic journal? Trying to decide if it's worth the time and effort? Do you know someone who fits this category?

The round table discussion (audio) at the American Society for Environmental History, recorded in Talahassee this past month, offers some excellent tips for grad students and post docs. The round table was made up of editors from several academic journals and offers insights into what they like, what they hate, what to do and what not to do. A must listen for any grad student and a great recommendation for any prof to give to their students. Don't let the environmental history topic scare you away; it doesn't factor into the equation at all. This recording is useful for anyone in the humanities; including profs with poor writing skills.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

How to Write a Zotero Translator

I have put together what I hope is a very comprehensive online guide detailing How to Write a Zotero Translator. This guide is the guide I wished was available for me when I was given the task of writing a Zotero translator for the site The task was part of an internship during my Masters of History at the University of Western Ontario. This internship, during the summer of 2008, was held at the Center for History and New Media — the home of Zotero. When I took on the project, I had no experience with computer programming; when I left, I had created over fifty site-specific translators.

This guide is the product of that brief, yet intensive learning experience.

The goal of this guide is to provide readers enough skills and direction to create a Zotero translator of their own (which I hope they will share). It also gives researchers, libraries, archives and databases a specific resource to make their own translators rather than rely on the overworked Zotero team.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Voting with Twitter

I've started using Twitter to keep up with the wide world of Digital Humanities research which prefers to disseminate itself in 140 character messages 500 times a day, rather than wait 8 months to publish now out of date material in a journal. And whilst Twittering I noticed that one of my followers was also following Federal NDP leader Jack Layton.
I began to wonder how politicians are using Twitter, and how effective it is or how effective they are at using it, so I added the five national party leaders to my list. I've discovered two things. First, most don't Twitter very often or very effectively. At best it's a brief propaganda message once or twice a week preaching to the converted, with very little dialogue to be seen. In fact, one party leader doesn't even pretend they care to engage in a dialogue and doesn't follow his followers.
The second thing I noticed was that the number of followers each leader had did not necessarily represent the percentage of seats that their party received in the last election (Oct 08).

The total number of Twitter followers was 19 545, taken on Mar 27, 2009.

If we attempt to infer meaning from this, we might be tempted to suggest that Elizabeth May's "Green Party" supporters are overrepresented amongst Social Networkers. Perhaps they are young, and they are more likely to be comfortable with a computer.

We might also ponder, Jack Layton's NDP Party has almost twice as many Twitter followers as seats. Maybe the old adage that the NDP has trouble getting the vote out, or that its supporters vote for Ignatieff's Liberal party in an attempt to thwart the Harper's Conservative party is true?

Lastly, it looks like Gille Duceppe's "Bloc Quebecois", the separatist party either isn't in to Twittering (perhaps a language / culture issue), or he's lost a lot of support since October. I'd bet on the former.

However, when we make the same comparison by looking at the popular vote, rather than the number of seats in parliament, an entirely different situation arises.

Now, the only presumption that looks like it was correct is the one about Gilles Duceppe's lack of Twitter support being a cultural issue. The Green Party and NDP (Green & Orange) are much more closely preportional between Twitter followers and Voters.

In fact, with the exception of Gilles Duceppe's Bloc Quebecois, the number of Twitter followers accurately reflects the percentage of the popular vote that a party received in the last election, within 5 percentage points.

What does this mean? Keep in mind that almost 6 months have passed since the election (including a ridiculous power struggle that went no where back in January), so support levels will have changed a little. But I think this proves A) Pie Charts are fun to make. B) You don't need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on researching voter intentions. C) Make sure your data sets reflect reality. In this case, the "Seats" graph gives a skewed view of what really happened.

If you'd like to make lovely pie charts like those in this post, you can do so for free at

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Day in the Digital Humanities Day

Today, March 18, 2009, about 80 scholars from all over the world who somehow fit into the category of "digital humanists" are recording what they do on a series of blogs set up specifically for the task. The idea is not much different than the "Day in a Life" photo books that incorporated photos from many photographers all over a given country, taken on a single day. This project has been set up by the Text Analysis Portal for Research at the University of Alberta. I'm looking forward to checking out the results and playing with the data sets created by the collective blogging!

Of the 80 participants, I've met two. You can see what they were up to today here:

Bill Turkel, University of Western Ontario
Trevor Owens, Center for History & New Media

Or you can check out the main page for the project.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Charles Taylor Prize to Historian

The Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction was given out today in Toronto.

The jurors narrowed down a field of 135 books from all fields of non-fiction to just three. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the three finalists had all written histories.

Tim Cook's Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918, a history of Soldier's letters in WWI, won the grand prize. Tim is also an employee of the Canadian War Museum.

Also on the short list were Elizabeth Abbott's Sugar: A Bittersweet History and Ana Siljak's Angel of Vengeance: The "Girl Assassin," the Governor of St. Petersburg, and Russian's Revolutionary World.

Take that non-historians!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Academic and Public Historians: Working together?

Sean Kheraj, a postdoctoral student at the University of British Columbia recently defended his doctoral thesis on the environmental history of Vancouver's famous Stanley Park. In most people's books, that' makes him an expert on the field.

Sean was recently asked to write a review of the Vancouver Museum's exhibit, "The Unnatural History of Stanley Park." The experience, which Kheraj likened to "witnessing the physical manifestation of my dissertation as a museum display," was a challenge for him. Every detail that the museum had gotten wrong popped out. But, rather than posting a negative review, Kheraj reflected on the role many academic historians could be playing as consultants in instances that they choose not to.

It's something that came up a lot last year in our UWO Public History discussions, but perhaps not something that regularly enters the consciousness of many academic historians.

You can read the review at

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

New Zealand Museums: Good

I spent the Christmas break in northern New Zealand this year and dutifully visited a couple museums. The two museums were the Kaori Museum in Matakohe and the Auckland War Memorial Museum, incidentally in Auckland.

I must say, I was extremely impressed with the two museums. Even better than some of the world's best institutions such as those I visited in Washington DC last summer.

The Kaori Museum

Kaori is a species of tree that grows for thousands of years and is akin to the Redwoods of the North American west coast. The Kaori Museum is essentially a small town museum, entirely funded on ticket revenues and giftshop sales. It does have the good fortune of being able to sell large quantities of Kaori wood products which fetch a pretty penny. Nevertheless, any museum which runs on private funds is impressive. One that does it so well is amazing.

The museum has dozens of 'townspeople.' One for just about every role of 19th century life in New Zealand. These townspeople don't move much. Most mannequin's don't - Today's Special exempt. However, what's intriguing is that each mannequin has the face of someone who actually lives in the town. The tag might read, "This barber is modelled after Jim Smith who still lives in town and whose family ran the original barber shop in Matakohe."

Perhaps I don't get out much, but this was the first time I'd ever seen such community involvement in a museum.

I can't say enough good about this museum.

The walls are packed with old photographs - probably a large percentage of the archival holdings of the museum - each with a caption that viewers can choose to read or to ignore. Dozens of artifacts are on display, including many tools which I was allowed to try out - at least, I did try out and nobody said anything. Sensors in the walls took note of passing visitors and initiated coversations with some of the townspeople.

Needless to say, I was impressed.

The Auckland War Memorial Museum

I actually only got a chance to pop into the Museum, so I really only saw a small, temporary exhibit which I think was called "behind the scenes." It certainly put the muse back into museum. The exhibit was a collection of all the weird stuff the museum had collected over the years, including a baby orangutan which is being kept in a freezer "until they get around to doing something else with it." I must say, it was cute and intriguing, in a morbid kind of way.

Oh, and there was the stuffed deer that "had been in the women's toilet in the storage area longer than anyone could remember."

Apart from the weird and wonderful, the exhibit was also artistically and technologically marvelous. A giant wall of ticking clocks was the perfect - and extremely creepy - setting for peep holes, through which users could find any number of strange things. The atmosphere that wall of clocks created was unreal.

One aspect of the exhibit involved a series of dots spaced on the floor, each infront of a series of artifacts. To my sheer amazement, when you stood exactly on the dot, you could hear a perfectly clear narrative. Move one step to the left and the sound vanished.

If you are in the museum field, these are two museums you should definitely make the effort to see. And if you're doing an internship at a Kiwi museum, you should hop on a plane up to Auckland and check it out.

Kudos to the Kiwis and their museums. They were an absolute delight and an example the world should be following.