AJ Dyrbye

Web Developer and Digital Humanist

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The Circuitous Path

It’s been a long, meandering path to where I now stand. Finding a career job has been difficult, and despite my wishes to the contrary, is still a work in progress.

And yet, though the journey has been challenging and the way unclear, I am still glad for the experience I’ve accrued, and the knowledge I’ve gained along the way.

There’s the bookstore job, which I took on while I was finishing up the last few courses of my undergraduate degree. It made it possible for me to build my independence, and introduced me to people I never would have met otherwise. It also taught me how much I value working with my mind, that I thrive best with new challenges on the horizon, and how hard it is, financially and psychologically, to live on near-minimum wage.

There’s the utility company, where I worked in a variety of administrative positions on a term contract basis. It taught me how to function as part of a team, to be flexible and agile, that the planning and time management I relied on so heavily as an undergraduate is one of my greatest assets. I realized in this time how much I enjoy working with computer systems, and that I wanted to know not only the how but also the why of the systems I relied on daily. My time here made it clear to me that, as I was shuffled internally from one position to another according to need and long-term leaves, that I have a deep need to feel I belong and can make a lasting impact, but that the types of opportunities available to a BA in the utility business were not where I could see myself long-term. Here, I had the living wage, but still could not find the job satisfaction I craved.

And so, between the instability of the economy, the looming end of my contract with the utility company, and the limited opportunities available to me, I returned to higher education. In the final years of my undergraduate degree, the university began offering a Masters in Humanities Computing, and that knowledge had stuck in my mind like burr in the intervening years. It taught me that, by building up my computer skills, I could find a niche for my humanities background in the wider world. I learned basic programming, web markup and stylesheets, how servers work, how to integrate and manage a dataset stored in a database. I learned how to figure things out on the fly, to cope with demands that require specialized knowledge without a clear path to it. I learned to be the person mediating between the people with the ideas and the people who could build it. I learned new strategies for managing stress, and just how far a little communication can go to alleviate a hard situation. It reminded me once again how much I value working in a team environment, and showed me that, as amazing as I am in situations requiring self-motivation, I am even better when I have common goals and a support network.

Post-Masters has been challenging.

I’m fortunate, in that I’ve been able to continue with some paid project work I started as a graduate student. I’m even more fortunate that I was able to pick up a part-time web development contract, which spun out into a new web development contract. It’s reinforced how much I enjoy working with websites and building up the infrastructure that makes others’ work possible. It led me to deepen my knowledge of the WordPress CMS, which I am currently working with most.

However, that permanent long-term job has remained elusive.

It’s maddening, sending resume after resume out into the void and getting only a small number of responses in return. It’s heartbreaking to interview, to fall in love with a team and a role, only to have it go to someone else. It’s frustrating to watch the months accrue, to see no stability in sight, to have my capacity for long-term planning limited.

All I need to do is keep going forward. Send out one more resume. Tweak my web portfolio. Take that WordPress course. Go to that networking event. Spend more time with Photoshop and Illustrator. Fight back the voice that says it’s not enough, I’m not enough.

Do my best to make my own luck.

It will happen eventually. Not many people are permitted the smooth path from education to career. I have no regrets for how I got here, no matter how challenging it is not to see where I am going.

The time in between is the hard part, and what is life but a series of in-betweens?

…And we’re live!

This is a Big Deal moment for me.

You, gracious stranger, are reading the very first post I have ever written from a blog hosted on a domain I own, on a WordPress install I created, with a theme I have customized.

This is a work in progress. I’m still straightening out the kinks, polishing up the CSS and working out the inevitable bugs.

Nevertheless, I’m pretty proud of it.

So, why a domain? Why WordPress? Why now?

The long and short of it is, I have been working on websites for four years now, and I find that I rather like it. I’ve built up a portfolio, one I sincerely hope will continue to grow.

In particular, I have worked on two WordPress sites as web developer in the last year. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the plugin environment, and the flexibility the child themes permit.

I wanted a portfolio site that would let me run with my strengths, and give me one more way to show that I know my stuff. This site is that opportunity.

As for the why now, the great, and terrifying, thing about being web developer on those two sites is that it’s been an exercise in learning what I still have to learn. I’ve had to pick up everything from security to SEO to customizing with child themes. It’s a different beast indeed from hand-coding a site and trying to work out what

I realized pretty quickly that I needed a way to plug the knowledge gaps I didn’t know about. I also realized that the sheer volume of information out there was getting in the way. While I have no regrets whatsoever for taking a Humanities Computing degree, I’m by no means a computer scientist. I’m still learning what many of the components look like and how they fit together, never mind what the abbreviations are, or which ones are programmer in-jokes.

And so, when Skillcrush announced a WordPress developer course, I decided to take the leap. It’s steadily filling in those gaps, including the ones I needed to build this site.

It’s an exciting time. I love having new things to dig into, and it’s thrilling to be able to showcase new skills so directly.

Thanks for reading, and for letting me share my enthusiasm with you.

Thoughts from the Reading Pile: Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason

Over the weekend, I started reading Susan Jacoby’s 2008 book The Age of American Unreason. It identifies and traces the resistance to science-based, rational decision-making in the American public from the perspective of a historian. Thus far it’s an engaging read, though it’s run into a few hiccups reading it from a 2014 perspective. 

I’m still early in the book, but one thing that has jumped out at me is Jacoby’s lament that reading is no longer valued as it once was:

What kind of reading has exploded on the Internet? Certainly not the reading of serious books, whether fiction or nonfiction. The failure of e-books to appeal to more than a niche market is one of the worst kept secrets in publishing, in spite of the reluctance of publishers to issue specific sales figures. Even a popular mass-market novelist like Stephen King has flopped on the Web. In 2001, King attempted to serialize one of his supernatural thrillers online, with the proviso that readers pay $1 for the first three installments and $2 for the subsequent portions. Those who downloaded the installments were to pay on an honor system, and King pledged to continue serialization as long as 75 percent of readers paid for the downloads. By the fourth installment, the proportion of paid-up readers dropped to 46 percent, and King cancelled the series at the end of the year. King’s idea of serialization had of course been tried before, and it was a huge success–in the nineteenth century. London readers used to get up early and wait in lines for the newest installment of a novel by Charles Dickens; in New York, Dickens fans would meet the boats known to be carrying copies of the tantalizing chapters. The Web, however, is all about the quickest possible gratification; it may well be that people most disposed to read online are least disposed to wait any length of time for a new chapter of a work by their favorite writer.

Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (2008): 16-17.

Leaving aside the issue of what counts as a ‘serious book’ (it is at least as old as the first lurid broadsheet off the printing press), this whole line of argument dates the book in fascinating ways. It’s only been six years since this was published, and yet the technological changes in between have opened an enormous gulf.

Our relationship to reading and the internet has shifted in the last few years, in no small part due to improvements in microprocessor technology. It has made smartphones widely affordable, and paved the way for the release of Apple’s iPad in 2010, as the first practical, consumer-level tablet computer. Furthermore, in late 2007 when this book would likely have just wrapped up edits and been in preparation for final publication, Amazon released the first generation Kindle ebook reader.

These three technologies, dedicated ebook readers, smartphones and tablets, have had an enormous impact on ebook sales. While the debate on the comparative merits of print versus ebooks is still going strong, the Pew Research Center’s 2014 report on ereading shows ebooks are growing in popularity in the United States, and have become a significant part of the market. This same report shows that about 76% Americans have read at least one book in any format in the last year, and that ebook reading in particular has increased from 17% to 28% between 2011 and 2014. I contest that, rather than destroying reading by encouraging instant gratification, the internet has become a means of satisfying that desire where reading is concerned. 

I can’t hold Jacoby’s assessment of the internet and ebooks against her, though I’m curious whether she’s revised her view since this was published. I can, however, take issue with her comparison of Charles Dickens and Stephen King. 

Dickens and King come from two entirely different publishing environments. It’s easy to forget, I think, just how revolutionary and important mass printing technology was to culture prior to the advent of radio and moving pictures, never mind television and the internet. At the time Dickens was publishing, magazines and penny dreadfuls (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penny_dreadful) (cheaply produced, sensational fiction publications) were an enormously popular form of mass entertainment. Consider, for example, the public uproar when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle dared to kill off Sherlock Holmes. Serial fiction inspired the kind of passion we now direct at television, movies and video game franchises (see Firefly, Veronica Mars, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Halo, Mass Effect and so forth).

Stephen King is popular, no doubt about it, but it’s hard to see how comparing his 2001 experiment in web serializing, The Plant , is any more than superficially similar. At the time, ebooks were still primarily appealing to a niche market, not an established force in popular culture. The Green Mile, which was published originally as a set of six short mass-market paperbacks spaced a month apart, is the better analogue though it lacked simultaneous ebook editions. In contrast with The Plant, which King abandoned after only six parts due to disappointing sales, The Green Mile was a best seller. It also won the 1996 Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel, received nominations for both the British Fantasy and the Locus Awards in 1997, and was adapted into a successful and critically well-received film a few years later – clear metrics of success.

Rather, I think that King’s web serial was the right idea at the wrong time. The notion has recently been revived to better success, though it remains to be seen what will come of it. In 2012, science fiction and fantasy publisher Tor announced that they would be publishing John Scalzi’s next novel, The Human Division, as an ebook serial on a subscription model. I couldn’t find sales figures in the short time I have to devote to a blog post, but it was a successful experiment in Scalzi’s assessment, and Tor announced a second ‘season’ to continue the story shortly after the final episode was released. 

I’m interested to see where the ebook market goes in the next several years; the shifts in technology typified here formed a cornerstone of my Masters thesis. I am particularly interested to find out what things we ‘know’ now will be proven laughably wrong in hindsight. It’s entirely possible there is something, or several somethings, that I’ve written future readers will find as peculiar as Jacoby’s views on reading in 21st century America.

TAPoR, Historic Tools and Going Out on a High Note

Last week, I had the singular pleasure of seeing a prominent DH scholar comment favourably on an aspect of the TAPoR 2.5 portal I’m particularly proud of. 

Over the last few years, I’ve been getting deep into digital tools used by humanities scholars, both for the purpose of populating the TAPoR site with resources, and as part of the project’s Just What Do They Do? mandate to discover how scholars use and relate to them. About a year and a half ago, it expanded from just contemporary and well-know tools to include a whole range of historic tools stretching back to the 1950s.

The historic tools section of the site quickly became my biggest contribution to the project. It all comes back to a Digital Humanities journal called Computers and the Humanities (often called CHum), which was in publication from 1968 through 2004. Dr. Rockwell, the project lead, pointed me toward it in late 2012; at the time, much of my time was spent building up a corpus for content analysis on computer-based tool use and development, and this journal is a particularly rich source of information.

As these things happen, before long I was not only collecting articles, but adding tool after tool to the TAPoR portal. At this time, the site’s collection was still composed largely of the TAPoRware and Voyant toolsets, plus a growing number of well-known contemporary tools for text analysis, visualization, concordance and so on. With CHum as a resource, we all of a sudden had enough information to include older tools as well. 

Soon, I had added dozens. Not just the famous ones, like TACT, the Oxford Concordance Program, and COCOA, but lesser-known tools like URICA! II. Many were developed in the 1960s or 1970s and passed out of use alongside the mainframes and punched card systems that ran them.

By the summer, I realized I had a chance to do more, one that went beyond just cataloguing tools. When I first started on TAPoR, I was writing tool reviews for the nascent collection, based on direct testing. It was pretty dry, formulaic stuff to write, though I have no doubt it’s helped some visitors decide whether the tools in question were worthwhile pursuing for their own work. For the historic tools, I could do something a bit more interesting. In place of direct testing, I had 40 years of scholars’ commentaries, reviews and development-based papers. As a literary scholar and historian by training, I found the prospect of digging into this trove information exciting and valuable.

Fortunately, Dr. Rockwell agreed. He gave me the go-ahead to start ‘reviewing’ the older tools. 

I’ve completed and posted 34 to date (the full list is available here). In these historic tool overviews, I’ve presented as complete a picture as I can of each tool’s functions, reception and applications, each based on as much direct information I could get from their developers, reviewers and users. Sometimes it wasn’t much, depending on how well-documented the tool was, but my work has brought a wide range of tools back into focus for other scholars to explore.

Even if it had stopped there, I’d still be happy with what I’ve done. I managed to take it a step further, though. Over the winter, I proposed a network analysis of the entire CHum corpus, showing tool interconnections, influences and genealogies, going back to when all scholars had to work with was custom algorithms in programming languages like PL/1 and FORTRAN. It ended up being a major part of TAPoR’s research work up to the spring of 2014, made possible with Dr. Rockwell’s support and a great deal of scraping, statistical analysis and visualization work from my fellow Research Assistant Ryan Chartier. It’s already been presented at this year’s CSDH/SCHN conference, and it will eventually be a paper; exciting stuff for a Masters-level RA.

I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to stay on the project, but it’s a good note to end on. I’m proud to have been able to do as much as I have for it.

I doubt Alan Liu will ever see this, but just in case: Thank you for your kind words. It meant a lot to me that I’ve been able to make a notable contribution, however small, to a field I’ve grown to love.

Reflections on a Digital Conference

Or, The Trials and Tribulations of Live-Tweeting

A few weeks ago, the Contemporary Ukraine Research Forum project wrapped up with a conference. 

The Forum itself is a bit of an experiment, and the conference was no different. It was conceived of and conducted as an international exchange of ideas, with academics participating from several institutions in Alberta, Canada and Ukraine. 

During the course of the project, we met monthly via video conference. These were occasionally challenging to schedule due to the number of conference rooms to coordinate, never mind the time difference between Edmonton and Kyiv, but despite a few glitches, they proved an effective and valuable component of the project. It was a great way to put names to faces, and ensure everyone involved was aware of what their colleagues were doing.

Thus, it was a natural extension of these video conferences to present research papers at the concluding conference the same ways. The project’s coordinating committee collected video from each presenter, and arranged to have the whole proceeding broadcast over LiveStream, interspersed with commentary and introductions from participants at each institution’s video conference centres. 

I was involved in this process in a technical capacity. I updated the website with announcements from the coordinating committee, set up a page indexing the presenters’ abstracts, made blog posts with announcements and further information, and created a presenter gallery cross-referencing portraits to each person’s talk. For the LiveStream, I set up a page with the stream embedded in it alongside social media widgets for discussion. 

On the day of the conference, I attended at the University of Alberta’s conference room to monitor the website for comments, make any necessary last-minute updates, and to live-tweet the event while the Project Coordinator did the same on Facebook.

From my perspective, the conference proceeded smoothly. I was able to devote the vast majority of my time to updating the project’s Twitter account (@EuromaidanForum) with information on and salient points from each speaker. 

It was intense.

Twitter is a great medium for providing capsules of information as events happen. It forces you to distill information down and hone in on the most important parts. This requires the ability to swiftly discern and capture points, and the judgement to pick up on when to give up and move on to the next point.

It was challenging to maintain active listening and simultaneously write out speakers’ points in a form suited for Twitter. I swiftly began copy/pasting the speaker’s name followed by a colon to the beginning of each tweet, so I could save time typing and move on to capturing the topic at hand. It helped immensely, but came with its own problems – in one instance, I didn’t realize until much later that I’d copied a misspelling of one person’s name. The error, which normally would have jumped out at me, was lost in the flurry to write out his points. 

Another challenge was that I couldn’t always pick up on a person’s points or details about them to present it on the Twitter stream. Faced with a barrage of information, I rarely had the opportunity to ask others for clarification, and often simply had to move on or risk losing the thread entirely. As such, some speakers were better represented than others, something I regret particularly as a native English speaker attempting to represent terms and concepts from native Ukrainian speakers presenting in English. Pausing to check my spelling on an unfamiliar Ukrainian term tripped me up more than once, which I feel was a disservice to those speakers and their work.

One thing that particularly helped on this front was input from academic observers. On a few key instances, I was able to re-tweet their observations, which provided a welcome alternate view and enabled me to provide valuable commentary to followers in instances where my own capacity had stumbled. This also required some snap judgements regarding what to include or pass by, but for the most part was a welcome supplement.

However, commentary from others had its drawbacks as well. In one instance, the forum account had an argument tweeted at it when observers disagreed with a speaker’s point, and the account’s notifications were peppered for a while with the exchange. It was at once fascinating, from an academic perspective, and highly distracting.

As a whole, the event was an exercise in integrating social media. Despite the challenges, I received positive feedback from the coordinating committee and others. My impression is that it was overall a valuable addition to the conference, and I’m pleased to have ended my time on the project on such a high note.

For those interested, a recording of the conference is available to watch over LiveStream. I have also collected my live-tweets via Storify.

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