Monthly Archives: June 2011

Dude ranchin’ at THATCamp

This year I attended my third THATCamp (at CHNM, anyway – I’ve been to a few others around the country). The first time I went, in 2009, I’d just started working with Matt Gold on the CUNY Academic Commons. I didn’t know many people in the digital humanities community. I was a graduate student in philosophy, accustomed to conferences that were philosophy-ish and graduate-student-esque. THATCamp stood in stark contrast to this background, and as a result was very new and exciting. An event where academics would get together to talk about things that were actually interesting, independently motivated, and new – the very idea of it! I couldn’t help but feel intoxicated by it all.

Fast forward two years. I’m no longer a graduate student. I’m no longer a full-time employee of a university. I’m no longer a stranger to digital humanities and the DH community. And I’m no longer a n00b. Unsurprisingly, this perspective changes the way I experience THATCamp.

For one thing, the “more hack, less yak” theme which prevails at THATCamp does not have revelatory ring it once had. I build stuff for a living. All I ever do is hack. As a result, I actually look forward to the occasional yak. I recognize that the “less yak” mantra arises out of frustration about the futility of “mere” talk, and represents a railing against the tendency of academic activity to consist of little more than such talk. In this sense, I should probably be grateful that I’m no longer in a career where I feel trapped under a pile of words. And, in fact, I do feel pretty happy about it, especially after all these years. But my recent career changes do mean that I don’t get the same gee-whiz-I’m-so-excited-we’re-actually-doing-something rush out of THATCamp that many others (justifiably) do.

On a related note, I’m less excited about geekery these days than I was before I was a professional geek. (I’m being intentionally narrow in my use of the word ‘geek’ to mean ‘someone who codes’. The word isn’t particularly important; swap it out for ‘coder’ if you want.) THATCamp can be like a dude ranch. The city slickers come to the country for the weekend, ride a horse, throw a lasso, eat some beans-n-bacon, and say “Gee, isn’t the country life great?” What the dudes don’t realize is that being a rancher means doing stuff like shoveling a lot of cow shit. In the same way, coming to THATCamp and learning a bit about Greasemonkey scripts or the Google Maps API or WordPress themes can be a rush – after all, those things are all really cool. But it’s also a kind of cartoonish picture of what it’s like to write code all day long, which is really more about shoveling the cow shit of bug tickets than about whizbang jQuery effects and singing campfire tunes.

Of course, I’m under no illusion that THATCamp sessions are meant to be introductions to the Real Cowboy Life, and I’m certain that the attendees of such sessions aren’t under any such illusions either. And I should be clear that I don’t want to be a spoilsport. For the most part, I think it’s genuinely good for people to learn how to write code (where writing code should be understood as standing in for a whole bunch of related phenomena). For one thing, it’s undoubtably good for people to engage critically with the tools that mediate so much of our lives. Moreover, people like Patrick Murray-John have been making some interesting, if tentative, arguments for the ways in which the modes of thinking exemplified by coding might interesect with, and augment, the modes typified by traditional academic work. Plus, learning to code is just plain fun. So it’s great that people who wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to learn something about code have THATCamp as an outlet. I’m just no longer one of those people, I guess.

I also would probably enjoy THATCamp more if I broke outside of my own comfort zone. During this year’s event, I skipped a couple sessions to write Anthologize code with a few members of the One Week | One Tool gang. It was a blast, and a great way to spend time with some friends who are otherwise scattered throughout the country. Yet, I might have gotten more out of the event if I’d attended more sessions, especially sessions whose subjects were a bit outside of my normal area of specialization. But at an event like THATCamp Prime, which has the usual round-up of DH A-listers talking about tried-and-true topics, it becomes increasingly difficult to find those truly new conversations.

I don’t really mean these observations to be wholesale critiques of the THATCamp setup. Many of the reactions that I saw to this year’s event – blog posts, tweets, personal conversations, and the excited looks on people’s faces – suggested that the newcomers felt the same sense of giddiness that characterized my own first THATCamp experience. But I do think it’s interesting how my giddiness (or lack thereof) is so hugely shaped by changes in my own standing over the years. Maybe next year I’ll make more of a concentrated effort to carve out a spot at THATCamp for folks with my particular set of interests and strengths.

Eating barbecue is a good way to spend a vacation

I enjoy eating barbecue. And, through a cosmic blessing of fate that I daren’t question, my wife enjoys eating barbecue as much as I do. Our favorite barbecue is of the North Carolina variety. So when a family friend was getting married in Chapel Hill a few weeks ago, we decided to make a vacation of it. That vacation would be focused on barbecue. REALLY focused. Over the course of seven days (really eight, but that includes a Sunday, when all pits were closed), we ate at twenty-one barbecue joints.

Bum's, Ayden, NC

Bum's, Ayden, NC

I’m going to give a recap of some of this barbecue in just a moment. First, I should address the inevitable question: Why? (Side note: I never would have thought that anyone would need a justification for eating a bunch of barbecue; but people ask all the same.) I’ve circled in on a few explanations for our seemingly-insane vacation plans.

Here are some reasons I went on a barbecue vacation

  1. Barbecue tastes good · Very, very good. It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of this factor.
  2. Midwestern earnestness and work ethic · Maybe it’s just the way I was raised, but I figure that if I’m going to do something, I ought to do it right. Which means doing it [ahem] whole hog [hold for laughter]. To spend a week in a part of the world with great food, yet wasting some of my meals by not eating that food, is to display a sort of transcendental ingratitude toward my good fortune.
  3. Obsessiveness · When I decide that I like something, I generally get really into it. To spend a vacation indulging this tendency is actually pretty fun. Some people go on tours through the Civil War South because they’re history buffs. I go on tours through the Barbecue South because I’m a barbecue buff. I don’t see much of a difference. (I have a theory, which I’ll blog about one day now that I’m free, about optimizing the number of things one is “good at”, with respect to the number of hours one has in a lifetime to devote to such things. This theory dovetails with the “obsessiveness” point to some extent, as North Carolina barbecue has emerged as one of the things I’ve chosen to be good at.)
  4. Flavor · See #1.
  5. Cultural carpetbagging · I grew up in Wisconsin, which has its fair share of indiginous culture. But there’s pleasure to be found in trying on a culture that is not your own, if only for a while. (What do you think powers academic history and the tourism industry?) Barbecue in North Carolina has a history, a dictionary of codewords, a set of conventional practices all its own. By immersing myself in this for a while, I’m certainly not going to pass myself off as a native – but it does enable a kind of empathy and connection with natives that might not otherwise be possible.

Is that reason enough for us to devote our vacation to barbecue?

Talk about the barbecue already

Fine, sheesh. ‘Barbecue’ generally refers to the slow cooking of meat via low, indirect heat, typically using smoke. In North Carolina, ‘barbecue’ almost always means pork, which is almost always chopped/pulled and served with a thin, vinegar-based sauce. In NC, you typically order either a sandwich (a scoop of meat on a cheap supermarket hamburger bun) or a platter, which is a larger helping of meat. Both usually come with cole slaw. Hushpuppies, or some other fried-corn delicacy, are often available.

Kepley's, High Point, NC

Kepley's, High Point, NC

In the eastern part of North Carolina, whole hogs are smoked overnight. The meat is chopped and dressed with a very simple sauce (cider vinegar, Texas Pete hot sauce or red pepper, a bit of sugar and salt). In the better places, the skin is thrown back onto the smoker and dried out, after which it’s chopped into small pieces called cracklings and mixed into the meat itself. The cole slaw in ENC is generally cabbage and carrots, and dressed with mostly vinegar and just a bit of mayo to bring it together.

In western NC, the style of barbecue is called “Lexington”, after the small town containing what must be the highest per-capita number of barbecue joints on God’s green earth. Lexington barbecue is pork shoulder rather than whole hog. This means no cracklins. But the tradeoff is the caramalized “brown” or “bark” that forms as the shoulders smoke. Lexington-style sauce is similar to ENC sauce, though generally with ketchup added and less hot sauce, making for a much sweeter sauce. Most Lexington places serve two different kinds of slaw: one made with mayonnaise, and the other made with the same barbecue sauce that goes on the meat (called “red slaw” or “barbecue slaw”). Hushpuppies are a fixture on this side of the state.

The styles aren’t radically different, though each has its die-hard proponents. Rebecca and I are fairly solidly in the Eastern camp, though there are great places in Lexington too.

I won’t bore you with a blow-by-blow of every place we went. If you’re curious, you can check out my pictures collected throughout the week. But I will give a few recommendations (links go to my pictures):

For better or for worse, the best places in Eastern NC are way off of the beaten track. But they are really, really worth the trip.

If you want learn more about NC barbecue, here are a few resources that we used on this trip, as well as previous NC barbecue trips (yeah, this wasn’t our first, you wanna fight about it?):

As a Social Web Professional, I have some thoughts about starting a more authoritative site for the collection of barbecue knowledge. But I am also a humble Northerner, so I probably won’t do it.

Dropout

I’m a grad school dropout.

A little over a year ago, I left my full-time instructional technolgy gig at Queens College. At the time, I cited my languishing thesis as one of my reasons for leaving. Through the summer and fall of 2010, I put in an honest effort toward my dissertation. It was certainly my most sustained and serious effort since finishing coursework a couple years earier. But I couldn’t figure out a way to enjoy it. I found myself far more productive in other areas of my life, which had the dual effect of taking the joy out of my academic work, and also demonstrating that I no longer had any career-related reasons to finish the PhD.

So, a few months ago, I counted my losses and withdrew from the program. I use the word ‘losses’ with some trepidation, as I don’t feel like I lost much, if anything. In the philosophy program, I learned a lot about philosophy, got some nice teaching experience, and met some good friends. And being in graduate school had a huge number of indirect professional and personal benefits for me. Except for the academic work, I enjoyed being a grad student. If, in quitting, I’m losing anything, I’m losing face. But, to be perfectly honest, if there’s anyone who thinks less of me because I didn’t finish my PhD, that person is more than welcome to kiss my ass.

What excites me most about formally giving up on the PhD is leaving behind the guilt associated with the unfinished dissertation. Many times in the past couple of years (and increasingly so, as time has gone on) I’ve been approached with an offer or an idea about some new project – writing, coding, eating, etc. Time and time again, I have turned down these kinds of projects, because I’d end up feeling overwhelmed by the guilt of working on something other than my dissertation. To tell the truth, I had even stopped reading books for pleasure, because I felt so bad about it. I’m looking forward to feeling more freedom in this respect. (Also, the baby’s coming soon!)

I’m not writing this post because I’m looking for any validation of the decision; I feel good about it already. I’m also not really interested in starting a large discussion about the value of graduate school or a graduate degree; my decisions are specific to my situation. I mainly just want to get it off my chest, so that I don’t have to have the inevitably awkward conversations about it. To wit: I was chatting with some academic friends at THATCamp and I told the group that I’d dropped out, which they took as a cue to rationalize and support my decision. It was, of course, very well-intentioned. But from a certain point of view it suggested pity, which I neither need nor want. I may be a grad school dropout, but I’m a happy one!

BuddyPress and the YOURLS: WordPress to Twitter plugin

A few weeks ago, I wrote about reclaiming short URLs using YOURLS. That post raised some interest among the CUNY Academic Commons team in having a URL shortener just for the Commons, with full integration into BuddyPress. So I emailed Ozh Richard, author of YOURLS, about the possibility of adding BuddyPress support to his official YOURLS WordPress plugin, YOURLS: WordPress to Twitter. He graciously accepted my offer to do the leg work.

Today I’m releasing the fruits of this collaboration: version 1.5 of YOURLS: WordPress to Twitter. YWTT 1.5 automatically detects when you’re running BuddyPress, and adds the following BP-specific features:

  • Member and Group URLs – Generate short URLs for member profiles and for group home pages.
  • A “pretty URL” setting – Instead of generating random URLs (like http://blo.so/54), you can make member and/or group members ‘pretty’ (like http://blo.so/username or http://blo.so/groupname).
  • User customizability – Optionally, you can add new options under groups’ Admin > Group Settings and members’ Settings > Short URL allowing users to request a custom short URL of their choice. (This feature requires that you set YOURLS_UNIQUE_URLS to false in your YOURLS configuration file.)

Down the road, I plan to flesh out BP-YOURLS functionality, with optional short URLs for forum topics, activity items, and so on.

I’ve also slipped full localization support into version 1.5. Send me your mo/po translation files if you’d like them to be distributed with the plugin.

Download YOURLS: WordPress to Twitter 1.5, with BP support.

Standing Desk Setup

Stand for something

Lately it’s been fashionable to talk about the evils of sitting. This particular reporting trend hits especially close to home for me, as I’ve made the transition from peripatetic teacher/grad student to get-me-another-mountain-dew coder over the last year or two. So, on the inspiration of a few blog posts (notably, Gina Trapani’s and Derek Brooks’s), I decided to give the standing desk a shot. I made the switch around five weeks ago. Here’s how I did it, and how it’s going.

Standing Desk Setup

Standing Desk Setup

The setup

You can buy desks that are specifically made for standing. You can even buy desks that convert from a sitting to a standing position. The problem with these is that they cost a lot of money. As evidenced by the fact that my current desk is a piece of crap I found for free on the internet, I don’t want to spend a bunch of money on a desk if I don’t have to. Also, it seems unwise to invest big bucks in a standing desk before knowing whether it’ll be a workable setup. So I set it up on the cheap, using crap that I found around the house. (I may never work up the gumption to spring for the super-expensive standing desk, as my makeshift setup is working just fine.)

People who see my setup are often amazed by how high everything is, especially my screens. (Usually, these people are shorter than I am.) I am a big believer in being able to look at my computer screens without craning my neck downward, so I prop them all the way up to standing eye-level. In fact, this is something I’ve always done, even at a regular sitting desk. For those using a laptop, this means getting a separate keyboard and mouse. But this one change – moving screens to a natural eye-level – has had more positive ergonomic effect than any other adjustment I’ve ever made in the way I work. I definitely recommend it.

I did quite a bit of experimentation with keyboard/mouse heights. At first, I had put them too low – around waist level – which meant bending my wrists backward a lot. Then I overcompensated and moved them too high, but my hands kept getting cold and falling asleep due to decreased circulation. I settled on a height that allows me to keep my forearms roughly parallel to the floor at all times (which means that my elbows are at roughly a right angle, and my wrists are straight). To alleviate arm fatigue, I have a couple little gel-thingies where I rest the heels of my hands when I’m not typing quickly.

The biggest complaint I’d seen about the switch to the standing desk had to do with foot fatigue, which many seem to experience during the switch. For some reason, I have never felt it. The only place I ever get sore is in my upper back, between my shoulder blades. This probably has something to do with the way that I tense up when I type or when I think too hard. (This happens a lot, because, duh, I’m such a deep thinker.) However, I did end up buying a standing mat, as I have hardwood floors that would get somewhat uncomfortable after an entire workday. I went with the Imprint Nantucket Series, which got nice reviews on Amazon. So far, I like it.

How it’s going

To date, the experiment has had mostly positive results. Aside from the shoulder pain mentioned above, I don’t have any physical complaints. Standing seems to keep me more alert, and makes me feel less lethargic. It forces me to take breaks through the day (something I had a tendency not to do before, which probably had a net negative effect on my productivity). Generally I’ll take a half-hour sit around lunchtime, and if I’m lazy in the mid-afternoon, I’ll unplug my laptop and move to the couch for a while. Standing also means that I don’t work into the wee hours – I tend to start work around 8:30am and never work past 6 or 6:30pm. This is a good thing for my mental health. Finally, standing leads to much more dancing, which is, of course, something we all need more of in our lives.

Working on a photoblog theme for WordPress

After seeing that Andrew Spittle is working on a WordPress theme for a mobile photoblog (as discussed here), I thought I’d do the same. I happen to like Autofocus pretty well, so I’ve just made a child theme, with a few Twitter-specific modifications. Follow it on Github: https://github.com/boonebgorges/boones-photoblog. (Keep in mind, you’ll need the parent theme Autofocus installed for the Boone’s Photoblog theme to work.)