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In memoriam: Rick Peterson

Rick Peterson at Project Bamboo Workshop 4I was deeply saddened to get word that Rick Peterson, CTO of Washington & Lee University, passed away yesterday evening after a long and difficult battle with brain cancer. Rick (right, with Dick Kuettner at Bamboo Workshop 4) was an indefatigable supporter of improving scholarship and teaching through the judicious use of technology, and was one of the strongest representatives of small liberal arts colleges at the Project Bamboo workshops where I met him. Since 2008, I've worked with him and his college friend/German professor Kent Hooper, of the University of Puget Sound, on a bibliographic listing of secondary sources related to Ernst Barlach.

To this day, Kent describes himself as the "worst case scenario faculty member" for digital humanities, though now that's hardly fair, thanks to Rick's influence. Kent knew the basics of word processing software, e-mail, and web browsing (though I had to introduce him to browser tabs), and was planning on publishing his bibliography-- which represents over 20 years of work-- as a set of printed tome. But Rick dissuaded Kent, convincing him that for this resource to last and reach as many people as possible, TEI was the route to take.

Project Bamboo took on Kent's bibliography as a demonstrator project, and I worked with Rick and Kent for over a year to generate XSLT for the bibliographic sub-listings, with the help of Jacob Jett from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Rick always knew when to chime in with helpful technical suggestions or a reality check. But he wouldn't settle for "just good enough"-- we had a pre-generated HTML version of the bibliography posted on-line, but in such a format, all the files would need to be re-created and replaced every time Kent added a new resource to the bibliography. We had talked about dynamically generating the pages using Cocoon's XSLT processing, but development stalled.

The last time I spoke with him over the phone, in September 2010, he asked about "Barlach 2.0" again. It's not quite live yet, but I finished the work this fall and put together a screencast of dynamically-generated Barlach listings running on Ubuntu in mid-December. I'm grateful he had a chance to see it.

Pete and HoopsRick didn't let others' indecision stand in the way of making progress towards a good cause. Between Bamboo workshops 4 and 5 (April - June 2009), he independently hired a developer from San Francisco, brought him out to Virginia, and in three weeks had him do a mockup of the "Bamboo Exchange"-- a "Craigslist" for digital humanities. To me, it was one of the most striking demonstrations in the entire Bamboo process of how much "cyberinfrastructure" a single person can build in a short time if they stop hand-wringing, acknowledge that what they build will change, and just jump in and do something that people can respond to and build on. Even though the "Bamboo Exchange" thread was dropped from the final Bamboo Technology Proposal, the same idea re-emerged as a possible direction for a National Collaboration for Digital Humanities grant put together by small liberal arts colleges. It's a development I'd love to see-- the aspect of Bamboo that Rick so believed in, that he believed (I think rightly) could make such a difference for small liberal arts colleges' abilities to undertake projects that require specialized expertise for a short period of time-- finally coming to fruition.

Nothing I've said here comes close to conveying the essence of Rick Peterson. His friendship with Kent was what college students dream of their relationship being with their closest friends, 30 years down the road, but it's something so few achieve. He had a smile and a sincere kind word for everyone, even those of us with no particular status or influence. He was the kind of person to insist on taking a grad student out to a nice meal, and talking to them as an equal. Rick was passionate about his job, but it was his compassion and enormous heart that really set him apart. He was a force for good, both on the professional and the human level, and I will miss his light.

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"Maybe this time": project déjà vu

The Bamboo Planning Project, which consumed my life from 2008 to 2009, officially concluded on December 31, 2010, allowing me to publish a project I've been working on independently for over a year. You can read the full project description here, but in summary, I've organized the notes from the Bamboo workshops that have been public on the Bamboo wiki for 1.5 - 2.5 years by topic, and written summaries for the data that wasn't covered in the Project Bamboo Scholarly Practice Report; expanded summaries of topics related to scholarly practice are in progress.

After I hit "publish" on it all yesterday, it came to me that I've done this same project before. When I was 14, in the International Baccalaureate Program, I read The Chosen by Chaim Potok and came across a quote that's stuck with me ever since:

"If a person has a contribution to make, he must make it in public. If learning is not made public, it is a waste."

QuinnNotes screenshotTaking this to heart, I built a webpage (using a text editor, and hosted by Geocities) where I posted my class notes every day. It was called QuinnNotes, and it found an audience not only with my classmates, but with IB students in far-flung places. The most extensive material was from history and English; the teachers' reactions were mixed. My own hazy memory suggests that I ran it my entire sophomore year, but when I dug up the old HTML files, my inconsistent metadata raises some doubts. The project started 11/6/99, daily history notes end 2/10/00, but there's pages for novels I'm almost certain we read in the spring. There were a couple jokes and drawings submitted by my classmates; I tried to encourage people to send me their essays (on the grounds that, since nearly everyone typed them anyways, why not submit it to a shared pool of knowledge?) and was disappointed that my classmates were happy to take but disinclined to give.

In retrospect, I was trying to create something like a "scholarly" wiki at a time when the web was still 1.0 and "community" was still manifested through webrings.

As I was finishing my BA/MA in 2006, I set about building a scholarly hub for Slavic linguistics, slowly and painfully, using Drupal 4. My goal was to aggregate resources and events for Slavists (grants, conferences), publish the OCR'd versions of major reference works that I had been painstakingly proofreading, and build a forum where scholars could publish and respond to each other's work. I'd attended a few conferences and was dismayed at how inefficiently they spread knowledge. Certainly, I thought, a website where one could succinctly write up discoveries and theories and receive feedback from one's peers would be a vast improvement.

It's for the best that Drupal 4 was such a hassle to use that the project never got off the ground. I fundamentally misunderstood how promotion and tenure worked and the importance of peer reviewed (printed) publications. Even if advancing human knowledge by building on others' ideas is the goal of scholarship in the biggest picture, upholding the customs and practices that keep scholars employed and in good standing (publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals, publishing a monograph with a respected press, etc.) takes precedence.

It's 2011: five years have passed since my failed Slavic portal, and 11 years have passed since QuinnNotes. Still, I find myself seeing common threads running through my current set of projects. Re-publishing an organized and summarized version of the Bamboo notes is not far removed from QuinnNotes, particularly since I took many of the original scribe notes at the workshops. I don't expect a unanimously positive reaction to the Bamboo notes, either. This semester, Andrea Sims of Ohio State University's Slavic department is running an MA exam prep class, and her students will be publishing article summaries and article content reworked into topical pages on a wiki for Slavic linguistics that I built (more on the wiki project here). It may have failed with essays on QuinnNotes and the entire concept behind the Slavic portal, but people have finally agreed to share their academic work in public. Next week, I'll be attending the National Collaboration for Digital Humanities in the Liberal Arts Grant Planning Session, where we'll be discussing the possibility of developing a hub for tools, resources, and people in digital humanities, based in part on a site mock-up I put together with some like-minded folks I met at the Chicago THATCamp; this picks up on the other goal I hoped to accomplish with the Slavic portal.

Starting a project without institutional support, grant support, or staffing beyond what time I can squeeze in after working a full-time job (as per the usual circumstances of my projects) necessitates wishful thinking. Most grand ideas have been tried before; more often than not, they fall short or fail outright. But I'm a sucker for quixotic good ideas, inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the thorny details of implementation-- if it's worth doing, things will work out. "Go at it boldly, and you'll find unexpected forces closing round you and coming to your aid."1 I've left a trail of unfinished projects, learning more from some than others, but most importantly getting better at deciding when to cut my losses, salvage what I can, apologize if necessary, and move on. Still, my personal philosophy is that if there's a project that's worth doing, and I'm a reasonably qualified person to take it on, I'll give it a shot. In the words of Liza Minnelli,

[The project's] got to happen, happen sometime
Maybe this time I'll win.

1 Basil King, 1921, The Conquest of Fear.

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Trotsky salad recipe

Trotsky salad, ready to be servedI recently decided to make beet salad, but managed to forget to pick up every single ingredient in the recipe, save sliced beets. What I did have on hand was a lot of produce that had previously been bought and forgotten. I threw it all together, in a combination that sounds dodgy at best, and called it "Trotsky Salad" (Russian beets meet Mexican avocado-- and a little nuts!). The result was incredibly delicious-- if you're not opposed to beets-- and we've been eating it ever since. It's vegan, and pretty healthy (save perhaps the sodium in the canned beets.)

All quantities listed below are flexible; I doubt I've made it with the exact same proportion of ingredients twice. The quantity below serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as a side. From start to finish, it probably takes 15 minutes.

Trotsky salad

  • 2 cans sliced beets (or 1 lb sliced beets from the deli)
  • 2 avocados
  • 2 bundles of green onions
  • 2 Roma tomatoes (or 1 container grape tomatoes)
  • 1/2 cup roasted peanuts, lightly salted, pulverized in a food processor
  • ~ 1 Tbsp lemon juice; add a bit more if you plan on keeping it overnight, to minimize the avocados' turning brown
  • 1 Tbsp Harissa*, or more to taste

Coarsely chop up and mix together. the sliced beets, avocados, green onions, and tomatoes. Mix in the lemon juice and harissa. Serve, covering each portion with pulverized peanuts.

* Hot sauce isn't a good substitute for harissa. Unlike most hot sauce, it has no vinegar. The brand I use, Le Cabanon (

Variant: Trotsky Does Thailand

This may simply be substituting one obscure ingredient for another, but if you find your local grocery store is out of harissa, but you have a small can of Thai panang curry paste lying around (actual Thai curry paste, not the "Thai" curry paste made by and for Americans), you can substitute 1/3 to 1/2 can of the curry paste for the harissa. I can vouch for getting a positive result out of panang curry paste, but I can imagine masaman curry also being good.

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Blocking Jimmy Wales

Jimmy Wales has been driving me crazy. I've donated to Wikipedia before, and I've been on board with previous donation solicitation campaigns, but I'm really sick of looking at Jimmy Wales, his urgent appeal, and the bar-of-pity that scrolls through the $11.5M raised but, more importantly, the $4.5M left to go, on every single Wikipedia page. This year, I'm donating as soon as they take down that banner. In the meantime, I've figured out how to hide Jimmy Wales in my two most commonly-used browsers.

Firefox

Click on the Adblock Plus icon in the upper right of your browser, go to Preferences, choose Add filter, and paste in:
wikipedia.org##div[id="siteNotice"]

Chrome

In the URL bar, go to chrome://extensions. Go to the Adblock options, then go to the Blacklist tab, and hit the Edit button next to "Manually edit your filters". Paste into the box:
*wikipedia.org/*##div[id="siteNotice"]

(Thanks to the Adblock Plus forums for the Chrome fix.)

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