A day in Lower Normandy

And so to Caen, whose University campus boasts magnificent if vaguely fascist architecture, at the top of a hill, commanding splendid views over the urban sprawl to the countryside beyond, and liberally decked with graffiti to bewilder future epigraphers

OK Epidoc, encode this.

The University Press of Caen having joined forces with two other departments to offer him a visiting fellowship, my distinguished and white haired Danish colleague Matthew Driscoll is organising a series of seminars over the next few months, and I am here for the kick off session “TEI et encodage des sources”. About a dozen or so TEI fans are gathered in the Belvedere Room which is vast and very cold but still affords delightful prospects (as they say).

First up is Julia Rogers, a local doctorante describing the online edition of Descartes on which she is working under the watchful tutelage of Pierre-Yves Buard inter alia. No manuscript survives of Descartes’ works, and modern editors have played fairly fast and loose with them as a consequence: this impeccable electronic edition returns to the first printed editions as its basis, but uses all the possibilities of digital editing. Text is captured and maintained collaboratively by up to 15 scholarly editors, using a customisation of XML Mind to enforce a simple P5-conformant protocol designed by Pierre-Yves (and built with Roma), allowing for such niceties as the addition of editorial notes, citations, tracking of quotations, mathenmatical formulae (currently done in TeX though this will change) etc. Elsewhere in the University a fairly sophisticated morphologically-aware search engine is being developed, so that the original text can be queried in Modern French. The online edition will also integrate high quality page images supplied by the BNF, compensating for the decision not to encode all features of the layout. Impeccable, as I said. I was also impressed (as usual) by Sourcencyme,  presented by Isabelle Draelants from Nancy and Catherine Jacquemard from Caen. This ongoing project will combine a textual corpus of medieval encylopaedias (about seven so far) with a sophisticated indexing system tracing the chains of reference and citation amongst them, extending in some cases beyond into the 19th century. As a real hand-built hypertext, it is thus increasingly becoming the thing it represents: a complete encyclopaedia of medieval learning, endowed with tools for collaborative editing and annotation, and also with a specialist journal-like addition published by the ubiquitous revues.org. However, unless I misunderstand, a significant number of the texts it treats are owned by Brepols, which may pose access problems. Next before lunch, we were entertained by Vincent Olivet and Frederick Glorieux from the Ecole Nationale des Chartes whose home-grown RelaxNG tools continue to advance in the general direction of TEI conformance. They have been working on a direct conversion from ODT to TEI, using the same principles as Sebastian Rahtz’ stylesheets but aiming at a more specific homegrown RelaxNG schema, now expressed (I think) using an ODD. This was all very satisfactory, as is the fact that the tools in their workshop continue to be readily accessible.

Lunch (a three course affair involving some rather good salmon, and a chocolate mousse) was also highly satisfactory, and we reconvened much restored for an afternoon combining three short project presentations with set pieces from Matthew and from myself. Subhasree Pasupathy, from Caen, first of the three, described her use of the TEI mechanism to represent textual variation in her thesis on the projects of the Abbe de St Pierre. Thomas Lebarbe introduced us to the pleasingly heterodox digital Stendhal project at Grenoble during which I wondered not for the first time how hard could it be to write an ODD corresponding with their home grown DTD. Finally, Jorge Fins from Tours showed us how the Bibliotheque Virtuelle des Humanistes at Tours is now using both XTF and Philologic to search its corpus.

And so to the grand old man of TEI -based editing: not me, but Matthew Driscoll. He spoke in English but (as someone said to me afterwards) with such limpidity of discourse as to pose no problem (which sounds even better in French), Citing WS Greg’s distinction between “substantive” and “accidental” variation he showed how TEI markup enables one to capture both, but display either, by the judicious tweaking of rather cunning stylesheets developed by Eric Haswell. He also talked about gaiji, news of the existence and facilities of which does not seem to have penetrated everyone’s consciousness to the extent that it probably should have by now. And finally, a good half of the material I had prepared for my own talk having been presented by previous speakers, I was able to close the day in a suitably forward-looking way by focussing mainly on the new concepts proposed for handling l’edition genetique (sourceDoc, mod, change etc.) in TEI P5 which all seemed to go down quite well.

Deplacements Septembre – 4 et finale

I wake in yet another extraordinarily overpriced (but architecturally impressive) hotel, this time in London, to find that the sun is already shining brightly and I have

Breakfast in Russell Square
Breakfast in Russell Squaree

ample time to look for a real breakfast — my first for many days — which I enjoy alfresco, in the much to be recommended cafe in Russell Square. For today really is the last stop on this little tour of duty, and I am down to give a closing address at University College London where Juliette Nyhan and Anne Welsh have jointly organised a symposium on “the Hidden Histories of Digital Humanities”. Sitting in the leaf-dappered sunshine, I mentally resolve to try to take seriously the notion of Digital Humanities as something having an identifiable history, and (with slightly less difficulty) the notion that I myself have contributed to it. I also resolve not to get too much ego on my tie, and not to use that joke to open my talk, since I am scheduled to appear at the end of a long day. My talk is a revamped version of one I have now given twice, both times in French, so doing it in English will be entertaining (for me, at any rate)

I arrive at UCL in good time to pay my respects to Jeremy Bentham still sitting in his glass case, and to be issued with my little folder of publicity for UCL’s new Centre for Digital Humanities, a free pen, a completely empty USB key, and some fairly nasty coffee. Ah yes, English coffee. And sugary English biccies in plastic bags. Never mind, we pile into the massive auditorium, and listen to Professor Willard McCarty, for it is he, reading wise words, and dropping names in an appropriately professorial manner. His title was something about how to write a history of Digital Humanities. Amongst topics mentioned I seem to have noted only the following: a wurlitzer book vending machine; Margaret Masterman; I A Richards; N Mccullock; Jasia Reichardt’s cybernetic serendipity and of course Homer’s Odyssey, xix, lines 149-50. Willard somehow manages to appear both encyclopaedic and parochial. While I share his desire that the usual suspects when pontificating on the “discipline” should meet the highest of academic standards, it also seems to me that writing history is largely about taking revenge. But before it all gets too personal, the charming Claudine Moulin from Trier’s DH Zentrum takes to the floor and delivers a lengthy meditation on the concept of “knowledge spaces”, in particular (I think) the way that such spaces can be regarded as “the spatial concretion of knowledge stocks” (I understood that when I wrote it down, but now I am not so sure).

After a pause for more brown liquid and sugary snacks, during which I traded scurrilous gossip with Lorna Hughes, Edward Vanhoutte, attended by not one but two tall and glamorous Flemish ladies, gave what was probably the best researched presentation of the day, concerning how humanities computing mutated into digital humanities, and what the difference between them might be. Like Fred Gibbs and Patrick Svenson’s (whose definitional forays he cites), Vanhoutte seems to think that these terms label ontologically distinct fields of activity, or “disciplines” which can be located independently of any social, historical, or political context, and that there is an inherent circularity in defining either of these terms by means of lists or surveys or (one might say) communities of practice. But then he also seems to think that terms exist independently of their application, so he is at least consistent. I learn with interest that the currently foundational text in the field (Schreibman et al) was titled a Digital Humanities Reader, at the suggestion of John Unsworth because the marketing department of their publisher did not like the originally proposed “Humanities Computing” label ; I immediately tweet the proposition that said publisher (Blackwell) was keen to put deep blue water between this product and the immediately preceding foundational text of the domain, OUP’s “Humanities Computing Yearbook” and “Research in Humanities Computing” series. That’s how historical truth is created, Edward.  Next up is the totally charismatic Melissa Terras, back from maternity leave and showing her dedication to the cause by making this seminar her first return gig, and on a Sunday to boot. She does us the compliment of actually addressing the ostensible topic of the seminar by talking (ostensibly) about the implications of “Crowd sourcing: beyond the traditional boundaries of academic history”. I think the idea was to make connexions between the role of the internet beyond the academy, the need to pay attention to ephemera when constructing history, and how crowd sourcing might help us explicate them. She used as real life example an amusing document from the TEI archives, but Mel has the rare ability to make any document sound fascinating. we resumed for more serious matters. Last before lunch, James Cronin from UC Cork spoke fairly inpenetrably about what is presumably a cause celebre in Irish architectural history : the elision from history of Lehmann James Oppenheimer , a key figure in the Irish Arts and Crafts movement at the end of the 19th century (I learn), but no longer featuring in any discussion of the churches whose interior he designed, presumably on account of his name (I hypothesize).

After lunch, about which I report only that it was not French, Andrew Flinn from UCL spoke entirely over my head about the information theory behind oral history methodologies (I plead total ignorance of this topic). Also from UCL, Vanda Broughton was much more accessible on the social history of what we now know as facetted searching, which she made a plausible case for having been invented by a real-life group of information scientists inspired by Ranganathan long before its reinvention or rediscovery in shopping systems and super cool web search engines (like Isidore). In the absence of the sadly-missed Claire Warwick (she was off sick) the next item on the programme was a “virtual presentation” by Ray Siemens, i.e. (I think) a previously recorded video of Dr Siemens gazing at us and chatting away very much like a late night radio broadcaster. I say that not just because of Ray’s mellifluously smooth mid atlantic phrasing, but also because he sounded unsure that anyone was actually listening to him. He had a number of interesting anecdotes about “pioneers of DH” (the Stanwood brothers, for example), some of which were new to me,but I found it difficult to engage with discourse so carefully inoffensive, and so clearly addressed to no-one in particular. And so, after a brief tea break, to my own presentation  which was (need I say) entirely wonderful, if a bit chaotic. More to the point, I managed to get through it within the time allocated, leaving a bit of time to answer questions before the six o clock deadline for everyone to decamp to the room where several bottles of a really quite drinkable chardonnay awaited us. I got pleasantly drunk, staggered out into the night, hailed a taxi to Paddington, and thus eventually back to Oxford for a well-earned rest.

Willard and me, then and now

Deplacements, sept 2011 – 3

16 septembre  Wherefore to Exelmans? Because it is within walking distance of the CNRS “campus” at Michel-Ange of course, where I am due to attend a day long event hosted by the TGE Adonis. Rather like a JISC town meeting, or an EU pre-proposal briefing, the main purpose was partly to inform people about the latest ANR Call for proposals and also of course to present the services offered by the TGE Adonis for the use of such projects. Not surprisingly it was a well subscribed event : between 150 and 200 people turned up, handed in their identity cards (security is strict at the CNRS campus) and made for the coffee and croissants. I met lots of people I know and recognised, and also some I knew but failed to recognise, embarassingly enough. There were lots of the kind of intense conversations you tend to get in academic contexts when there’s money in the air. Patrice Bordelais assured us that the overall budget of the Institut des SHS would not be too much affected by current financial anxieties, and then apologised for having to rush off to a crisis budget meeting to discuss precisely how much they would be. Jean-Claude Rabier, from the ANR, gave a much longer talk about the thinking behind this “ANR Corpus” call, the first since 2007, what they were looking for, how to get funded, what to do and not to do, how much money was on the table, etc. This was what the punters had come for, and he was listened to very attentively. Laurent Doucet talked about the TGIR Corpus which I found interesting since I have been wondering what it is for for some time. Apparently, it will set up lots of subject-focussed consortia, with small amounts of money for meetings, sharing of expertise, training etc. One or two already exist, and more are planned. Are they like the “centres de ressources numeriques” of the TGE Adonis? You might think so, but they’re not, even though some of the same people and institutions are involved in both. Jean-Luc Pinol, Richard Walter, and Laurence Rageot then each spoke about the services offered by the TGE-ADONIS (grille de service, Isidore, archivage perenne etc) and its guides de bonnes pratiques, with a quick plugf also for next month’s ANGD summer school. Asked to be “ponctuelle” in their questions before lunch, some of the audience (notably Serge Woliakowsky) nevertheless threw some googlies, such as “how does this relate to other european initiatives?” or “is there any procedure for automatically enhancing data capture to meet the recommended norms?” or even “what about the Centres de Ressources Numeriques then?”

And so to an excellent buffet lunch and a reprise of intense conversations as above (I mostly learned about Marie-Luce Demonot’s new proposed consortium called Cahier, focussing on literary texts) followed in the afternoon by a briefing on some technical aspects of the Grille de Service, followed by more questions and discussions from the floor. I noted the following comments: yes, multidisciplinary (i.e. not just SHS) projects would be considered; no, there is no charge for the TGE’s services, unless you want more than we are funded to provide, and no, the ANR does not fund anything except “research”; yes there will be another call; at least one-third of the members of the selection panel are “international” (i.e. non-French) experts; 4% of the ANR overall budget is allocated to infrastructural support (I think this is how one might calculate the level of support that the TGE is “funded to provide”), which is why management costs for individual projects should not be claimed. Finally, Patrice Bourdelais reappeared from his own budgetary meerings, re-assured us that the CNRS had plenty of lawyers to defend its interests and said “pour l’instant y a pas de catastrophe”, which is probably as much as one might hope for in these days of ubqiuitous financial deficiency. So the meeting broke up very agreeably, and I reclaimed my passport and headed for the Eurostar.

Deplacements, sept 2011 – 2

13 September The AFLS conference has another half day to go, but I have to move on. I have foolishly agreed to do both opening and closing plenaries at a week-long CNRS-funded Ecole Thematique on linguistic annotation to be held in (I am told) a chateau in Biarritz : who could resist. So I catch the midday train from Nancy into Paris, traverse the city of light by metro ligne 4 once more, emerging at Montparnasse to find that it is infeasibly hot outside as well as beneath. How well I remember leaving rainy Oxford with a suitcase full of autumnal long sleeved shirts and a raincoat; what folly not to have anticipated the need for cooler clothing. Well, there is time and opportunity to buy a short sleeved shirt from the C&A store underneath the Tour Montparnasse, and doing so makes me feel cooler already. I even have time to eat something fairly horrible and cheesy at a Flams’ fast food joint , before catching the TGV to Biarritz. This splendid train is sans arret for 3.5 hours to Bordeaux, at which point the climate and the scenery suddenly change, and the train starts pottering through the wonderful Camargue for another hour or two, before finally stopping at Biarritz, where I descend and join the other stragglers hopefully waiting at the taxi rank.

Good lord, I realise, as I descend from the taxi, they were not kidding about the chateau. The Domaine de Francon was built for a wealthy English milord in the 1880s, and is (it says here  “une vaste demeure de style anglo-normand ou Old English, au luxueux décor intérieur très éclectique et très raffiné”. Though now owned by a holidays rental outfit, it still retains most of the original decor (huge wooden staircase, stained glass windows, painted ceilings, second empire japanese-style decorations and marble fittings passim) as well as a very fine tree-filled park, and verandahs from which you can see huge atlantic breakers banging away on the beach half a mile away. See further my photos. It has the atmosphere and the style of an Agatha Christie country house, as well as an excellent cuisine, though by the time I arrive, there’s not much left to enjoy except the cheese board. Never mind: I retire up the vast creaky staircase, past the glorious stained glass window, into my huge room and sleep soundly.

Next morning, slightly disappointed to find that some French version of Jeeves has not discreetly laid out a morning suit for me, I slip into one anyway, grab a hasty breakfast, and proceed to the salle de conferences, to receive another little conference pack (wooden USB key, another badge, another bag) and listen dutifully to the organisers explain the modalities of this event, which has been in the planning for almost exactly a year. Coffee and buns on the verandah, and then it’s time to wheel out my talk on Linguistic Annotation for a (hopefully slightly improved) second performance. There is some discussion, mostly positive, and afterwards Anne Dister kindly takes me to one side and corrects numerous typos in the slides, which I perversely read also as a positive response. The rest of the day is devoted to brief presentations about oral, written, and video data, which nicely reinforced my comment that the Tour of Babel is still very much with us, and also demonstrated to my relief, that I had at least chosen relevant topics (variation in transcription practice, mark up of named entities, co-referencing, etc.). I was also struck by the fact that formats tied to particular software (lPraat, Childes, Elan, Transcriber etc.) are seen as de facto standards.

The next day we meet in a custom-built bunker under the lawn where there is a swish conference suite (though the wifi is a bit rubbish). I enjoy listening to two grandes dames d’annotation linguistique — Anne Lacheret and Marie-Paule Pery-Woodley — give their take on the complexities of the field, but it becomes clear that these formal presentations, though each in their way impressive, are not the real business of this event. Instead it is in the extensive and occasionally heated discussions taking place over coffee and during meals and, yes, during early evening excursions to the beach that the intellectual action is taking place. As it should be, at an Ecole, of course. The twenty or so participants are an interesting mix of people at different stages in their careers, including recent doctorates, established scholars, and a scattering of engineers , and they also come from several different parts of the applied linguistics forest despite a shared interest in annotation (for example, video capture, the language of signs, psycholinguistics…). I struggle to keep up and feel obscurely honoured to be involved, though I am also somewhat preoccupied by more mundane matters like getting the next few talks ready, or getting my washing done.

In retrospect, taking a day out in the middle of the Ecole to go back to Paris was somewhat eccentric, if not barking mad, but I did it all the same. On Monday evening, I found my way to Biarritz airport in time to catch the evening Easyjet flight to Roissy : a fairly nasty experience, not improved by the excessively long walk from the arrival gate at Charles de Gaulle airport all the way to its railway station. I spent the night at a slightly shabby hotel near the Gare du Nord, and on Tuesday morning, I met Celine who guided me by RER out to the wilds of Villetaneuse, and the Universite de Paris XIII. Here, as guest of the UMR “Lexiques, Dictionnaires, Informatique” I gave a completely different talk about the TEI  (the third one of this trip) to a vast and heterogenous crowd of students. Then I got a lift on the back of Fabrice’s scooter back to the station, took the first train back to Paris, and across to Montparnasse in good time to make the 1540 train back to Biarritz, arriving at the chateau somewhat out of breath, but just in time for dinner.

All of this meant that I missed entirely the chance to learn more from Antoine Widlocher and Yves Mathet about the standoff XML annotation tools developed at Caen, which is a shame, judging from the copy of their presentation on the Ecole’s wiki. But I did get to see Alexei Lavrentev demonstrating txm in action (and successfully broke it yet again). . I continued to worry about the two talks I still hadn’t written, but also went for a good walk around the grounds of the Domaine. I started to feel at home. Next day, we were assured the weather would improve enough to warrant a picnic, which would be provided at the end of the morning, as indeed it was.

And so to Thursday, which began with a good talk from Sylvain Loiseau , almost but not quite saying “use the TEI”, followed by my final wrap-up talk on why standards might be considered to be a good thing, even in this fragmented field. As requested, I managed to finish this early enough for everyone to go off to the beach with their packed lunches. I however was condemned to sit around finishing my next (and final) talk, before setting off back to the airport. This time I took the Air France flight, which was better in that AF still hand out free drinkies, and don’t quite treat the passengers like refractory parcels, but worse in that when it arrived the Orly bus which comes allegedly every 15 mins, did not, on this occasion, come for an hour, which led to much overcrowding and grumpiness on the short hop across to Denfert-Rocherau . I then sleep-walked my way via metro to Exelmans, checked into another overpriced hotel, and collapsed.

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