Electric Mayhem

Bah, I’m beat. Lots of non-DH-y admin duties ate up the second half of my day, and I still have a bunch of student work to look over and a PhD thesis to review. This is pretty cool, though:

The idea for the DHBus started as a joke. Devon Elliot had asked me if I had thought of driving from London to Lincoln, Nebraska for the DH 2013 conference that we were both hoping to attend, in order to save the money that the flights would cost us. Chatting on Gmail, we looked up the distance (1460 km) and the approximate time it would take (13 hours 47 minutes) and decided that, if we could get a couple more people to share the cost of gas and hotels, it would be worth it. As we were thinking about who to invite, I mentioned to Devon that I would love to have a bus to fill up with people along the way to Nebraska, and he (jokingly) encouraged me, saying it would be a good addition to my research project, DiggingDH.

Well, let’s just say I don’t need a lot of encouragement when it comes to crazy ideas. On March 8th, Western held the Technology in Education Symposium, and I spent some of my afternoon chatting to Ryan Hunt and Beth Compton, who enthusiastically agreed that the DHBus needed to happen – and that they were willing to help out. Devon showed up later that day, bemused at my attempts to make the bus a reality, but also willing to help if we could all get to Nebraska. So, Ryan and I started looking into renting a bus – cost of which was about $9000 plus an additional driver for the week. Then Ryan mentioned that buying a bus was actually quite a bit cheaper…

So, we met and thought things through, or at least started to. We thought it would be great to purchase a bus (a 16 seater), find a driver (or get ourselves new licenses), get to Nebraska for DH 2013 and do some hacking/making along the way. As Devon has said to me since, we will be testing the idea that DH really can be ‘placeless’ – that creativity and collaboration can make things happen regardless of space and place. However, the big question was, what were we going to do with a bus, once we returned to London? We contemplated donating the bus to someone (by this point we had worked out that we were going to attempt to crowdsource the funds for this project, more about that later today) and wanted the bus to go ‘to the greater good’ – not simply be a vehicle for getting us to a conference. Then we thought, perhaps we could do something a little more ‘DH-y’, and we came up with the idea of making a mobile maker-space for the London community!

The instigators of this ridiculous, cool idea would appear to be Kim Martin and Devon Elliott, two terrific and tireless grad students here at Western. Actually riding from Ontario to Nebraska in a second-hand bus filled with gizmos and self-fabricating repraps? Well, it’s not for me, but it’s one of the better crazed ideas I’ve heard in a while.

Hard at Play

Head down all morning reviewing grants, then about forty minutes of grad chair related email, mostly assigning reader/examiners for our PhD proposal defences.

But something just happened that seems like what I would make up if I was actively trying to come up with a cool, performative “this is the kind of playful wacky stuff we do in History at Western” type activity to post about today (I’m really not): Bill Turkel came by my office to drop off some LEGO he wants me to play with.

Next month, Bill and I will be at a conference at York University called Materiality: Objects and Idioms in Historical Studies of Science and Technology. We’ll be running a hands-on workshop there with LEGO Technics.

Bill has been calling for digital historians to embrace the physical for several years. Thanks to Bill and others, and a generous grant from our provost, our History Department here at Western has a ridiculously well equipped digital lab and classroom, with 3D printing and fabrication equipment as well as all the software and AV hardware a digital historian could want. In his abstract for the conference, Bill writes:

The idea that “making is thinking,” as Richard Sennett puts it, has always had some place in the humanities. Until recently, however, it was costly and difficult to produce physical objects. Now online maker communities, powerful design software, cloud-based services, desktop fabrication and physical computing make it almost as easy for people to make and share artifacts as information or software.

Our workshop is still coming together but it involves things like the “grammar” of simple machines, the idea of the “adjacent possible” in the history of technology, the Mechanical Alphabet of Christopher Polhem, and my own thoughts on playful historical thinking and the need for history toys. And the point is that there are things we can learn by playing with physical objects that would be difficult or impossible to get across in text. So I guess I have to get playing!

Do Me

Quickest way to summarize what I’ll be up to today: The OCD horror that is my To Do list.


That’s My Life Organized, in Outline and Next Action view. The underlying logic is David Allen’s GTD, as hacked and refactored by me over the years. I know it looks ridiculous, but I would never have survived this past year as chair of our graduate program without some kind of system for tracking all the odds and ends and other people’s problems I have to deal with. I don’t put all those pesky little tasks in the system because I want to think about them; I put them in because I don’t want to think about them.

Actually, my control panel looks relatively quiet this morning. Not too many flashing red exclamation marks or klaxons blaring that something is overdue. So that tells me I can get back to one of the week’s big projects, which happens to be extremely DH-y: I’m in the middle of reviewing applications for a digital humanities grant program. Of course I won’t be able to blog about any of the details here, but it is interesting work.

Hope you’re having a good day.


My daughter told a joke at breakfast. Her delivery was spot on for a six-year-old:

“Two muffins are sitting in the oven. The first muffin says, ‘Are you almost cooked yet?’ The second muffin says, ‘Jumping jillikers, a talking muffin!?!”

OK, it doesn’t have much to do with the digital humanities, but I’m going to be chortling about that all day.