You are looking at content from Sapping Attention, which was my primary blog from 2010 to 2015; I am republishing all items from there on this page, but for the foreseeable future you should be able to read them in their original form at For current posts, see here.


Jul 15 2011

Starting this month, I’m moving from New Jersey to do a fellowship at the Harvard Cultural Observatory. This should be a very interesting place to spend the next year, and I’m very grateful to JB Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden for the opportunity to work on an ongoing and obviously ambitious digital humanities project. A few thoughts on the shift from Princeton to Cambridge:

1. Although I’ve nurtured some curmudgeonly pride about running my text analysis so far on a laptop, I’m excited to have access to a bit more computing power. In addition to relocating to the Cambridge/Somerville metro area from Princeton, one of the reasons I’ve been largely silent on the blog the last couple months is that I’ve been redoing the back end of my database system to work in Python with larger and more flexible parts of the Open Library/Internet Archive text collection. Hopefully I’ll get that running somewhere at Harvard soon, which should provide a good platform to think through how I think we should be applying somewhat larger amounts of computing power to digital libraries. (I remain a little skeptical that ‘non-consumptive’ reading can be truly effective at the coming Hathi or Google research centers, and this should give me some concrete examples.) I’ve been saying for a while that the choices we make in the next few years might shape our scholarly infrastructure for considerably longer. So it’s very interesting to be at a place where other people are thinking about what we need, and getting to see some of these copyright issues closer up.

2. I offer myself up as more evidence that it can be a good idea for grad students to blog, and in their own names; JB and Erez would never have connected with me if I hadn’t had been throwing stuff onto the Internet.

3. Getting ready to start this position, I read with interest the profile of Erez Lieberman Aiden in Nature, the push-back that generated from Tim Hitchcock on what he sees as fundamental flaws in the culturomics project, and JB and Erez’s responses in the comments on that post. I can see the sources of Hitchcock’s frustration from the Nature profile—as a piece of writing, it seems to work from the presumption that Nature’s readers will only be interested in an article about humanities research if it departs from the position that the humanities are currently a bit of a backwater. It does this by casting people like Dan Cohen and Tony Grafton as conservatives preventing new methods from entering the humanities, when in fact, from different positions, they’re doing the most to advance the discussion. (Although I have to admit, after a long time at Princeton I kind of enjoyed the idea that the readers of Nature will know nothing about Tony Grafton except that he “uses a giant, geared wooden reading wheel to help him manage his oversized, Renaissance texts.” And speaking of authorial intent, I’m starting to convince myself that Eric Hand was going for some kind of subtle Ulysses homage by starting the article with a blessing on a rooftop and writing the profile as a day-in-the-life piece.)

But while the culturomist’s greatest enthusiasm certainly does lie in bringing more scientific tools and methodologies into humanistic content, they have been talking to humanists as well as scientists about what the most exciting research to come will be and what directions might need to be explored. One of the things I think is most exciting about working with this project, aside from proximity to the Widener and Google books, is that unlike the many DH projects that pull in some programmers or scientists to help in humanities divisions, it instead has to pull humanists like me into an engineering school to get the collaboration flowing. Reaching out in that direction gives it an entirely different set of strengths and weaknesses than more traditional (such as it is) DH centers, and to some degree I don’t think we entirely know what those are yet. Having some projects like that should be good for the diversity of work within the digital humanities field as a whole.

And a random thought: I’d add that Hitchcock’s comparative praise for the hypothesis testing of cliometricians, as opposed to the big data pattern-seeking of the culturomists, reminded me a bit of the recent Norvig/Chomsky debate about different statistical paradigms of science. Norvig’s essay is pretty interesting and got a lot of circulation on the periphery of circles I follow, so it might be fun reading if you missed it the first time around. I think it’s worth remembering that some of what can seem like epistemic difficulties of the sciences vs. the humanities can actually reflect very current debates about what passes as evidence or theories within the sciences themselves.

4. I haven’t been blogging as much lately, partly because of moving pains, partly because moving here somewhat challenges my ratio of things I can’t talk to people about in person. We’ll see how that develops—I have a few posts in the works, at least.

5. Finally: if anybody out there living in/visiting Boston wants to get coffee sometime, drop me a line. I’d love to talk to some humanists around here, too.


I don’t like this new font.

Jamie - Jul 0, 2011

I don’t like this new font.

Now so nice!

Jamie - Jul 0, 2011

Now so nice!

I wrote the post in Google Docs for some reason—I …

Ben - Jul 0, 2011

I wrote the post in Google Docs for some reason—I actually don’t even know what my blogger font is off the top of my head—I just check ‘Default’ on whatever template I’m using.

Hey Ben: I’m late to the party, but congrats: …

Dan - Jul 2, 2011

Hey Ben: I’m late to the party, but congrats: that sounds like a great gig for all the reasons you list. I love the mix of folk at the Cultural Observatory. Plus, I just love the name.