Monday, September 25, 2006

Tagging and the Natural History of Art

While going over a couple of readings on the current project to make museum catalogues more searchable by generating non-expert keywords, I was reminded of a book by John Pickstone (Manchester) called "Ways of Knowing".

The book is essentially a history of Science, Technology and Medicine from the Renaissance to the present. Pickstone addresses the limits of local history (local referring to a particular time, place and theme), by experimenting with a novel historiographic approach. This approach is intended to outline the larger features of the history of science, technology and medicine (STM) without limiting his narrative to only one tradition.

So what does WoK have to do with Museum tagging? Pickstone distinguishes between 3 types, or ways of knowing in the history of STM: natural history, analysis, and experimentalism. He includes the way of “technoscinece” to analyze relations between science, technology, industry and policy.

What struck me as very interesting was the similarity between tagging and the tradition of "natural history". Pickstone describes natural history as the tradition which “covers all the things that can be named and collected”, and all forms of “collecting, describing and displaying". Basically, taking a natural history of a thing involves the naming and describing of it. Essentially, one has to "create" a place in their world-system by naming a thing. Although natural hsitory was most prominent in the 17th and 18th centuries in the history of STM, Pickstone suggets that natural history as a way of knowing can be seen in the world wide web: a place where things are categorized by their names, not by an hierarchical categorization.

I just went through my old posts and did some spell-checking, and I also added some titles to the posts. The presentation of the blog seems a bit more coherent for the moment...

Friday, September 22, 2006

Don't try this one if you have a life (if you're like me, then it's okay...)

After an in-class discussion about open-source software, I was reminded of one of my favorite video-games, The Battle for Wesnoth.

Basically, it is a combination Strategy/RPG where you lead an army against your enemies. Not very original, neh? What I believe makes this game quite unique is the fact that- aside from the fact that it is free to download and play!- the source-code is not protected. Basically, people who play the game are free to edit it and to add to it as they please. The programming language used for the editor is not simple, but it is also not impossible to learn (actually, a little experience with Deductive Logic may go a bit farther than computer programming language here). The only expectation of the players is that if they make some change to the maps/scenarios/sprites/etc, they should share it. That is it.

It's encouraging that there are communities like this on the intra-web. My only real wish is that someone would make the Reseau-Lu software open-source...and free!

P.S.: I do not accept any liability for time lost becuase you get addicted to the game.
ANT, Reseau-Lu, and a wish-list

There is a particularly useful lesson on datastructures posted on this online computer science tutorial. The reason that the lesson is particularly useful to me is that it provided some answers concerning some new technologies being in science studies(made up philosophers, historians, anthropologists, and sociologists- mostly the last group.)

Actually, I think that the wiki on science studies provides a pretty useful tool if you want to find out what it is all about. Since the history of medicine oftentimes converges with the history of science, I have had some experience with this sort of literature.

Of my experience, I have found that one of the most interesting (-and dare I say useful?-) tools to come out of this field is the Actor-Network Theory. Once again, the wiki provides a decent over-view of the theory, but it also leaves out the more recent changes and developments.

This theory is particularly useful as the basis for schematizing the spread of scientific knowledge. Recently, some science studies articles have used certain computer programs to create a two-dimensional representation of these scientific networks. The most current co-citation software being used is Reseau-Lu.

The program was used by Alberto Cambrosio (McGill), Peter Keating (UQAM), and A. Mogoutov (Aguidel) in an analysis of antibody reagent workshops (Social Studies of Science 34/3 (2004):325-64). By using Reseau-Lu, the authors were able to create a two-dimensional map of the cluster-designation workshops that was not limited to just the relationships between people: the map included the relationships between workshop groups, molecules, cell markers, and equipment. Interestingly, the methods employed by the authors to analyze the heterogeneous map were similar to those used by the scientists to develop a cluster designation nomenclature. Here is one of the maps used in the analysis:

Now, back to data structures. The lesson that I mentioned at the beginning of this page helped me to visualize just how this sort of software operates. The nodes seen on the map are basically the nodes described in the lesson. It strikes me that the Graphing Data Structure lesson can help one to appreciate how a program like Reseau-Lu operates. This sort of program could be extremely useful to historians who want a way to represent complex interactions between people, places and objects in the past. With a little tweaking, the program could even be used to represent various periods (years, decades, etc) of the network.

The only thing that I can see preventing me from using this sort of software is price. As I understand it, it happens to be pretty expensive, and it does require some training. Then again, it's not as though my weekends are completely booked these days, so that is not much of an excuse. that is certainly holding me back...

Monday, September 18, 2006

Getting Wiki-fied

It's late at night, and I've just finished reading Rosenzweig's article on the history of wikipedia. I'm a little too tired to post all of my thoughts on the article, but one thing that seemed clear to me was that my own opinion of Wikipedia are not really that unique. Another thing that caught my attention was how Rosenzweig compared the current concerns over Wikipedia's "objectivity" to the birth of the AHA, described in Novik's seminal work.

One issue that neither author brings up is the question of just what sort of objectivity is being discussed. For instance, in the beginning of Novik's book, objectivity is used as a yardstick to determine the extent to which an historical work is scientific. That is, connected with the values of late 19th Cent. science. However, those values were not static. More recently, historians like Lorraine Datson, also Peter Gallison have demonstrated that "objectivity" itself has a history, and that its usage by people aspiring to it has varied across historic contexts.

Don't get me wrong, it is not that I feel it takes away from Rosenzweig's article, it is just a thought that popped into my head. Otherwise, the article also impressed on me that there are a lot of issues surrounding wikiality.

Did you just ask what 'wikiality' is? It's a little bit of pop-trivia. I am a pretty big fan of the Colbert Report, and while reading the article, I suddenly remembered one of his monologues from over the summer. Stepehen discusses Wikipedia, and how through it we can create a reality that we can all agree on- the reality we just agreed on.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Thinking Machines, Racing Brains, and conversations with ALICE

I've just finished going over this lesson concerning AI. Now, all joking aside about computers taking over our world, and watching a computer and a brain race away, get awarded trophies and frown over losing...Bah, who am I kidding? I laughed at that animation until milk came out of my nose! It was awesome!

Now, since I am not a scientician (sic) in any real way (does watching star trek count?), when I first came across a lesson on AI, I thought: WOOHOOO! Now I'm going to find out how long it will be before I can buy a computer program that will write a publishable paper for me! Much to my chagrin, it turns out that my dreams do not stand a chance of becoming reality. Boo-urns.

What struck me as particularly interesting about the lesson (aside from the responses by the ALICE program to my very inappropriate questions) was the notion of "expert systems". The potential for new diagnostic technology was particularly intriguing to me. At the same time, the complexity required for such a system to be actualized is daunting. The lesson made it clear to me just how much of our cognitive processes are in fact the sum of several thousand at once. The instances of language and visual recognition were very illustrative. In order for a computer to become an expert diagnostician, it would need to be able to analyze huge amounts of data, reconciled by various tasks. However, at the same time it seems that there are certain factors in play in a clinical encounter that the computer could never really get around. For instance: after testing positive for a form of leukemia, would a computer prescribe a high-toxicity chemotherapy to a patient that is already severely weakened by the course of the disease? What factors influence a physician's decision in such a matter, and can they all be reformatted into a useable computer program?

I suppose such a situation could be handled by a logic tree of some sort, but it strikes me that the clinical encounter requires too many implicit value judgements for a program to be able to handle.

At the same time, it strikes me that historical analysis may be quite far beyond the current theories of AI. After all, where does one's inspiration come from when we choose a particular topic to investigate? I know that this is an old "art" argument, but I am surprised that nothing like it what covered in the articles. It is possible to apply fractal algorithms to Pollock's art, but how does one even begin a program to create such a piece? I guess that I'll have to keep looking for an answer...

Then again, it may be the case that I am just a neo-luddite.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Historical Algorithms?

So I recently found myself doing some readings on algorithms. I found this lesson pretty interesting, if a little rudimentary. I thought that the principle characteristics of a good algorithm were well explained, but the lessons themselves involved a little too much guiding by hand. Luckily, the good ol' intraweb has the resources to help me read more about the topic. One thing that did interest me comes from the page on worst case scenarios. What caught my eye was how the authors skipped doing all of that summation work for the selection and instertion sorts by recognizing the trend seen in the first order of magnitude analyzed. However, how would they have solved the equations: (n-1)+(n-2)+(n-3)+...+1 if they did not have the simple sort to compare with?

After a quick Google search with "math" and "summation" as my principle search terms. The first result returned was for the title "the algebra of summation notation". I found that the site was fascinating.

Although the site did not explain exactly where some of the "well-known" summation rules came from, I could see that the (n*(n-1))/2 shortcut used in the algorithm lesson was based on rule #2, where S(n)(i:n)= (n*(n+1))/2. I could also appreciate that rule #2 could be derived from rule, rule #3 and #4 are a little difficult to appreciate. Where do the 6 and 4 come from?

I guess that I will have to figure that one out on my own...

The sorting algorithm strikes me as an essential tool for anyone doing research that involves collecting pieces of data. However, it is significant as a stochastic tool, as I believe that it will not return sorted data in a way that is meaningful to historians. Of course, this last point is certainly up for debate...
Wikipedia, Phlogiston, and Tradition

When looking at the Wikipedia link about the Phlogiston theory, a couple of things stand out. First, and I think that this is just becuase becuase I am the sort of person who reads the end of a story first, the bibliography only contains one reference, and it is from 1900.

1900? Since it is not a primary source, I find it a little circumspect. Couldn't the author have found the information from a more current source? It is not that I believe that the content of the article is isn''s just that really old sources like that cannot be connected to the current literature in a significant way.

The next thing that stands out about the article, to me, is the way that the description of the theory removes it from its historic context. It is one thing to explain who developed the theory and what it stated. I think that that would be in traditional encyclopaedia form. This article in fact tried to elaborate on the history of the theory by describing its "enduring aspects":

'Phlogiston theory allowed chemists to bring explanation of apparently different phenomena into a coherent structure: combustion, metabolism, and formation of rust. The recognition of the relation between combustion and metabolism was a forerunner of the recognition that the metabolism of living creatures and combustion can be understood in terms of fundamentally related chemical processes.'

This statement reeks of positivism. I have a personal dislike for arguments that try to directly connect the science of the present to what was being done in the past. Earlier I mentioned that the article removed the theory from its historic context. I'll elaborate on that now. From my own reading on the subject, what one has to consider when looking at eighteenth century theories is that people saw the world completely differently from the way that we see it. That seems pretty obvious doesn't it: they were living over two hundred years ago, right?

What the article does not explain about the Phlogiston theory is why the theory appeared when it did. Why did it not appear earlier, or later? Perhaps the latter is easier to answer, in the article the author explains that Lavoisier "discovered" oxygen, leading to the notion of oxygenation.

However, why did Becher come up with the theory when he did (by the way...the article does not give an exact date as to when the theory was developed)? That is, why did it appear then? I beleive that this is important information that the aticle negelects to bring up. Becher's theory should be understand as a philosophical theory as much as it is a "scientific" one. The notion of Phlogiston is akin to earlier notions of "life force" (soul, pneuma, chi). That is, it is an unquantifiable factor at play in everyday life. The theory was postulated as a resistence to the iatromechanism of the day.

This is why I thought that the author missed the point of the theory. It was not a precursor of modern chemistry, specifically because it was not intended to help explain physical phenomena in terms of reducible, quantifiable substances.

The wikipedia article is interesting, as a primer. However, it removes the theory from its historic context, and creates illusory links to modern chemistry.
Phlogiston on the Web

So continuing the elaboration/rant about the phlogiston theory, I suppose that I should explain it. Rather than pull out references to the particular print literature that discusses the history of the theory, I am going to try to use this 'intra-web' thingy to assemble useful information about the history of the Phlogiston theory.

After entering "Phlogiston:" as my basic search term on, the top results were (in descending order):

Infoplease (a personal webpage)
A transcription of Joseph Priestly's 1796 Essay: "Considerations on the Doctrine of Phlogiston and the Decomposition of Water" (transcription by C. Giunta, Dept. of Chemistry, LeMoyne College).
Each of these websites is interesting, and (hopefully soon) I will share some of my thoughts on how useful they are to a historian.
Why not a blogiston?

Some of you may have noticed that the title of my blog is "Phlogiston". I chose it for several reasons:

first, I thought that I might try to use the term "blogiston" as a title, then decided against it since it sounded a little too much like the name of a central asian republic.

Second, one of my historical interests is the history of science. My main field of study is the history of medicine, but the two subjects tend to share alot of the same material. Especially before nineteenth century (*arguably). The "Phlogiston" theory was a particularly interesting philosophical theory during the eighteenth century. Notice that it was a philosophical theory. Simply put, "science" as we practice it today was markedly different from what was done in the past. Before the modern era, alot of the experimental research of the past was categorized as "natural philosophy". I'll post more on the specifics of the phlogiston theory later.

Lastly, I chose the title of my blog because I thought that it sounded cool.
Post the First

For my first post, I am going to offer a disclaimer: this is my first attempt at blogging, so my posts may seem a tad amateur to some. If that is the case, I welcome any comments and criticism concerning my future posts. After all, (constructive) criticism is an excellent tool for learning!

I guess that I will say a couple of things about myself:

I am currently working on my Master's at the University of Western Ontario, in History. I originally hail from Toronto, but I did my undergraduate study at McGill University in Montreal. My main area of historical study is the History of Medicine. I am particularly interested in modern medicine, and the various ways that the social/cultural environment has influenced standards and protocols. In the past, I have been involved in research projects on the history of orthopaedic surgery in Canada, as well as the history of standards and protocols in orthopaedics. I am also interested in the "Scientific Medicine" of the 19th Century, specifically how scientific rhetoric influenced clinical practices.

My 'other' interest of the moment is in the novels of Haruki Murakami. He's a very popular novelist in Japan, who has recently garnered alot of international acclaim. His oftentimes unique narrative structure, as well as the way that the lines between reality/unreality are blurred make for very interesting reading. I've nearly completed my collection of his works, as I am only missing a few (including the most recent...grrr...). If you are interested at all, don't worry about familiarity with Japanese/Japanese culture. His short/concise style translates very smoothly into English, and I have not had any complaints with the translations so far.

I look forward to discussing history (or anything else) this year...