Category Archives: Conferences and Workshops

Regional THATCamps: A Movement

During this year’s Winter Games in Vancouver, I joked that like the Olympics, THATCamp was a movement, not an event. Well, only semi-joked. I did think there was something to trying to spread widely a new participatory and inclusive academic meeting, one that would spread the digital humanities, encourage collaboration and sharing, and disseminate knowledge better than the standard panels-and-lectures scholarly society annual conference. I’m incredibly delighted that the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has now generously provided funding to support a network of THATCamps worldwide so that the unconference can serve many more people than we can here at the mothership.

THATCamp: The Humanities and Technology Camp was founded in 2008 by the Center for History and New Media’s Dave Lester, Jeremy Boggs, and Tom Scheinfeldt. (Dave is now the assistant director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.) A strange and wonderful thing happened over the last year: THATCamps started to spring up across the country and beyond, many of them hosted and run by those who participated in the yearly event in Fairfax, VA.

I strongly recommend that readers of this blog read Tom’s full post on the grant and regional THATCamps to get a sense of what’s involved (you can also read my prior posts on THATCamp), and hope that you consider hosting your own THATCamp. You don’t have to wait four years to light the torch.

The Last Digit of Pi

[This is a rough transcript of my TEDxNYED talk, delivered on March 6, 2010, in New York City at the Collegiate School. TEDxNYED was an all-day conference “examining the role of new media and technology in shaping the future of education.” For a meta-post about the experience of giving a TED(x) talk, please read “Academic Theater (Reflections on TED & TEDxNYED).” What I actually said and did at TEDxNYED deviated from this transcript; I engaged the audience directly a couple of times, once for fun and once to get their ideas about the subject. I’ll post the video when it’s available.]

I want to tell you a story about a forgotten realm of education and knowledge. It is a cautionary tale, a parable of what happens when the world changes, when tradition is challenged.

Until relatively recently in human history, pi was the much sought-after solution to what was long called the “rectification” or “quadrature” of the circle, fancy words more easily symbolized by the diagram in this slide. How can you transform that circle into the overlaid square? One side of the square would be one-quarter of pi if the diameter of the circle is 1.

Pi was a coveted number for thousands of years, imbued with magical properties. Generations of scholars pursued it doggedly, often considering it the be-all and end-all of geometry.

This is a different pi—pi as we moderns know it:

Well, not all of it, as I’m sure you know. It’s just the first 200 or so digits. The number stretches on forever. I hope you weren’t expecting me to reveal the actual last digit of pi. Because there isn’t one. Strange, no?

Pi wasn’t always this strange. The ancient Egyptians knew better, pegging the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle at 4 over 3 to the 4th power. That’s considerably more definite, and thus much more sensible.

Archimedes knew better, homing in on the value of pi between a couple of very close fractions.

If you are a biblical literalist, pi would seem to be 3, since the Bible clearly describes 30 cubits as encompassing a circle of 10 cubit diameter.

And the solutions kept coming. From ancient mathematicians and philosophers, to medieval scholars, to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Everyone seemed capable of finding—with enough effort—the exact value for pi. Squaring the circle was an effort of genius in an ancient science perfectly described centuries ago by Euclid.

But something changed radically in the eighteenth century, just after that book on the right by Joubert de la Rue. A few mathematicians started to take more seriously the nagging feeling that pi didn’t have a perfect solution as a magical fraction. It might not have a last digit after all. This critical number at the center of mathematics might, in fact, be irrational. One mathematician began to reconceptualize pi.

And there he is: the dapper Swiss German mathematician Johann Heinrich Lambert:

He was the son of a tailor, obviously, and was mostly self-taught in mathematics. His brilliant work in the 1760s showed that π/4 could not be a rational number—you could never exactly figure out the value of one side of that square—and thus that pi too was irrational. After Lambert, math textbooks declared the matter solved.

That’s right, problem solved…

Except….circle-squaring kept on going. The world of mathematics had changed with the discoveries of the eighteenth century but somehow the message didn’t get through to many people. John Parker, on the left, came up with my personal favorite solution: pi is precisely 20612/6561. Some circle-squarers, like James Smith on the right, mocked Lambert’s proof as the work of a dilettante.

Things then got testy between the new mathematicians and those who clung to the prior vision of pi. The record of this warfare is as informative as it is humorous. In the 1860s and 70s, James Smith took on Augustus De Morgan, a math professor in London, in a series of short pamphlets, which were the Victorian equivalent of Twitter.

But unsurprisingly, the castigations of professors of mathematics didn’t stop the circle-squarers. Their solutions kept on coming, even in the face of criticism, even after pi had been shown to be transcendental, meaning it couldn’t even be the root of some other number or equation. My favorite book from the turn of the twentieth century had this subtitle on the cover: “The great problem which has baffled the greatest philosophers and the brightest minds of ancient and modern times has now been solved by a humble American citizen of the city of Brooklyn.”

Now, it’s easy to laugh at these misguided circle squarers, especially when they’re from Brooklyn. But if you read circle-squarers seriously, and stop to think about it, they are not so different from you or me. Even in our knowing times, we all persist in doing things that others have long since abandoned as absurd or passé.

History tells us that people are, alas, not very good at seeing the new, and instead are very good at maintaining the past at all costs. This is particularly true in education: Euclid’s Elements, written over 2,000 years ago, was still a standard math textbook well into the 19th century, despite major mathematical advances.

So it’s worth pausing to think about the last digit of pi. Why did so many continue to pursue pi as it was traditionally conceived, and why did they resist the new math?

Think for a moment about the distinction between the old and the new pi. The old was perfect, simple, ordered, divine; the new, seemingly imprecise, prosaic, chaotic, human. So the story of pi is the story, and the psychology, of what happens when the complex and new tries to overtake the simple and traditional.

It’s happening all around us in the digital age. We’re replacing what has been perceived as perfect and ordered with the seemingly imprecise and chaotic.

Look at what has happened, for instance, in the last decade with Wikipedia and the angst about the fate of the traditional Encyclopedia.

Or newspapers in the face of new forms of journalism, such as blogging. A former baseball statistician, Nate Silver of, can brazenly decide to analyze elections and economy better than most newspapers? Yes indeed.

Now this audience, hip to the right side of these screens, may want to be as mean as Augustus De Morgan to those still on the left. We may want to leave modern circle-squarers behind, and undoubtedly some of them will be left behind. But for the majority who are unsettled and are caught between the old and the new, we need other methods to convince them and to change the status quo. History tells us it’s not enough to say that people are blind to the future. We have to show precisely what the weaknesses of the old are…

…and we have to show how the new works better than the old.

Knowing pi correctly to the 10th digit is enormously helpful when accurately predicting the movements of heavenly bodies; try using James Smith’s 3 1/8 when tracing the arc of a planet or moon. For some physics, knowing pi accurately to the 40th digit is critical.

Moreover, this modern pi may be strange, but its very strangeness opened up new avenues of research and thought that were just as intellectually challenging and rewarding as squaring the circle. The transcendental nature of pi led mathematicians to ponder infinite sequences of fractions and had an impact on chaos theory. In computer science, coming up with algorithms to reach a billion or trillion digits of pi as quickly as possible advanced the field. And, if you still want an unsolved problem to crack, see if you can figure out if pi is what is called a “normal number,” where the distribution of the digits 0-9 is uniform…

…or is there instead a preponderance of eights. Now that’s a tough problem, related to real issues in modern math. So there are still problems to be solved, more advanced problems. Math didn’t end with the end of the old pi—it just moved in new, more interesting directions.

But to get to that point, mathematicians had to show in a comprehensible way how the new pi created a new order.

Academic Theater (Reflections on TED & TEDxNYED)

This past weekend’s TEDxNYED event in New York took place in the theater of a school just off Broadway. I couldn’t help thinking about the symbolism of that location during the day’s proceedings. TEDx, a spinoff regional program of the billionaires-and-brains edutainment summit in California, TED, pushes speakers like me towards theatrics.

TEDxNYED was enjoyable and I greatly appreciated the opportunity to rub elbows with some digital luminaries and some very smart educators who are doing all the hard work in the trenches while I sit here in the ivory tower blogging. Whatever criticisms may be leveled, TEDxNYED was incredibly well-run and engaging. Before you read my thoughts below, you should first read the wrap-up from Dave Bill, the TEDxNYED “curator,” who gets it exactly right. I’m enormously appreciative of Dave’s hard work and the hard work of his TEDxNYED colleagues.

Back to Broadway: among other things, TEDxNYED gave me a chance to think more about the academic lecture as theater. (It also gave me a welcome chance to summon the vaudevillian genes of my New York Jewish heritage, the effectiveness of which you will be able to assess when the video is posted to the TEDx channel on YouTube in a couple of weeks.)

Take Larry Lessig, the de facto headliner of TEDxNYED. He’s clearly a first-rate legal scholar and influential activist. But after viewing him live, I realized more than ever that he’s also a rather talented performance artist, with crack comedic timing. (Here’s his talk; judge for yourself.)

We professors don’t like to admit it, but comedy and performance are important ingredients in most successful academic lectures, and can spur the pursuit of knowledge and action far better than serious monograph or article. When I was in college nearly everyone interested in history—from any era or place—took Stephen Cohen’s class on Soviet history, mostly because he was entertaining. He even had one lecture consisting entirely of jokes. Sure, it was gimmicky. But I also know several of my classmates who went into careers in diplomacy and history because of the inspiration.

Of course, academic theater can also lead to problems. TED talks are limited to 18 minutes, inevitably leading to reductionism. As I quipped in my talk on the 6,000 year history of π, “Portions have been condensed.” The humanities particularly suffer from this condensation. For instance, as hugely entertaining as Lessig’s talk was, if you watch it I’m sure you’ll pick up that it conflates, quite problematically, two kinds of conservatism: religious conservatism and libertarianism. Just because the Cato Institute can imagine a role for remixes doesn’t mean that those who attend free church potlucks can. Modern conservatism is an extraordinarily complex mix; one need only look at the tension between libertarian and evangelical views of homosexuality. Gina Bianchini, the CEO of Ning, a network of social networks, presented her work as “the joy of connecting optimists from around the world,” leaving out the fact that the history of Ning is far more interesting: it started out as an engine for making web apps, only later turning toward social networking. That’s actually a fascinating, complex business history that I would have liked to hear more about.

TED’s tagline is the catchy “Ideas Worth Spreading.” I’m an intellectual historian and appreciate the emphasis on ideas; as an educator I’m in favor of spreading knowledge. But in my later years I’ve also come to realize that while ideas are important, execution is probably more important. Lessig and Bianchini also know this—Lessig is now working on methods of more effective lobbying and Bianchini is obviously a talented CEO—and it would have helped TEDxNYED if they had explained to the audience the nitty-gritty details of making real change and progress. It doesn’t come from clever sound bites.

The TED spotlight-on-the-stage format also encourages the audience to perceive the speakers as isolated geniuses, coming out to impart wisdom. The host who introduced me credited me as being the solitary creator of several projects and works, all of which were actually broad collaborations. Again, collaboration is more complex than the format allows. Jeff Jarvis decided to blow up the format by getting up on stage with the lights on and ranting about the insanities and inanities of modern education. This was effective in a Lenny Bruce sort of way, but like Bruce, it was the exception that proved the rule that we speakers were bound to a certain form of academic theater. Inspired by Jarvis, I broke the fourth wall and interacted with the audience a couple of times during my talk, but it was perhaps a little superficial.

Regardless of these criticisms—which I give, again, entirely in recognition of the success of the event and with an eye toward improvement for next year—I enjoyed the challenge of doing a TED talk. I’m working on a much more formal Big Lecture at Cambridge University, and TEDxNYED helpfully made me think about the problems with that format as well. Indeed, I’m not blaming TED for the problems of academic theater. I actually believe the fault lies with academics themselves, who have ceded the ground of public intellectualism in the past generation or two, leaving a vacuum that TED and TEDx are happy to fill.

Hopefully—and judging by the tweets and blog posts this is true—the attendees took away more of the advantages than the disadvantages of the format, and will go on from thought to action.

[photo credit: Kevin Jarrett]


This weekend I’ll be one of the speakers at TEDxNYED, a conference examining the role of new media and technology in shaping the future of education. Other speakers include Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard legal scholar who has written on—and more importantly, acted on—the impact of digital technology on copyright; Jay Rosen, NYU journalism professor who is a powerful critic of traditional “savvy” journalism and advocate for decentralized citizen journalism (and who, in my opinion, is the academic currently using Twitter most effectively);  Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do? and professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism; Gina Bianchini, CEO of the social network app Ning; USC media scholar Henry Jenkins; KSU cultural anthropologist Michael Wesch, who is well-known for making new media comprehensible through sharp videos; and others working in digital education I’ve wanted to meet.

You can watch the proceedings live on the conference website from 10a-6p EST on Saturday, March 6, 2010. I’ll be on at 4:30p. The title of my talk is “The Last Digit of Pi.” (No, there is no last digit of pi. It’s what they call a “teaser.”)

Digital Humanities Sessions at the 2010 AHA Meeting

Out of hundreds of sessions at the 2010 American Historical Association annual meeting, nine are on digital matters. Nine. I’m on one-third of the sessions. It’s 2010, and academic historians seem to feel that digital media and technology are not worth discussing, and that we can just go on doing what we’ve done, how we’ve done it, for another hundred years. For comparison, the 2009 MLA has three times as many digital humanities panels.

Anyway, the digital sessions (hope to see you there):

Is Google Good for History?

Crossing the Electronic Rubicon: Navigating the Challenges and Opportunities Presented by Archival Records Created and Stored Exclusively in Digital Format

Teaching Sourcing by Bridging Digital Libraries and Electronic Student Assignments

Humanities in the Digital Age, Part 1: Humanities in the Digital Age, Part 1: Digital Poster Session

Humanities in the Digital Age, Part 2: A Hands-On Workshop

Scholarly Publishing and e-Journals

What Becomes of Print in the Digital Age?

Assessing Resources: Analysis and Comment on EDSITEment Lessons in the High School and Undergraduate Classrooms

American Religious Historians Online

THATCamp 2009


What was both the most enjoyable and the most productive conference I went to last year? THATCamp: The Humanities and Technology Camp. OK, I’m slightly biased because THATCamp takes place at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, but you can get confirmation from last year’s other attendees. THATCamp is the brainchild of CHNM’s Dave Lester, Jeremy Boggs, and Tom Scheinfeldt.

For those new to the concept, THATCamp is an unconference, which means that there are no stodgy panels or fussy exchanges. Instead, the attendees self-organize on the first morning into sessions of interest, and then plunge right into learning from each other. Everyone is a participant, and subgroups often break off to try out new things. It is a very casual but fairly intense two days of conversation, coding, and comraderie. And it’s free. (We do pass around a trucker’s hat for donations to provide coffee and snacks.)

THATCamp 2009 will take place on June 27–28, right after Digital Humanities 2009 at the University of Maryland. You need to apply if you would like to come, and slots are limited, so unfortunately the organizers will have to be selective. We have a larger number of slots this year, but still expect to be oversubscribed, so please put on your application what you would be willing to share with the other attendees.

Also, there are a limited number of sponsorships available to organizations, institutions, and companies. It’s a great way to get the word out about your program or product, so if you’re interested in sponsoring THATCamp, send an email soon to

Smithsonian 1.1 and 2.9

si_logoI was lucky enough to be invited to the Smithsonian 2.0 meeting this past weekend as one of the “digerati” who were there to prod the institution out of its analog complacency into the digital future. Long-time readers of this blog will probably sense my amusement at the “digerati” designation; not only am I a history professor, which seems like an instant disqualification for any noun that ends in -ati, but I’ve always tempered the Vision Thing with the Pragmatic Thing. Having done a lot of big digital projects, my feeling is that using mod_rewrite well is as important to success as modifying ideals. Edison’s dictum about “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” remains true for the digital realm.

Anyway, the real digerati showed up at Smithsonian 2.0 too, and they did indeed provide inspiration: hip representatives of Facebook and MySpace, people with “seriously, that’s your title?” titles like Chief Gaming Officer, and bestselling authors like Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine and Long Tail theorist, and Clay Shirky of Here Comes Everybody fame. (Long-time readers of this blog will probably sense my envy at not having a cool, bestselling book like these ones.) It was an incredibly well-run meeting; several of the attendees joked that the Smithsonian could get to 2.0 just by placing the people who deftly managed the coat racks in charge of the web servers.

If you really want to get a full feeling for the meeting, the best way to do it (in true 2.0 style) is to read in chronological order the Twitter stream of it. I jotted a lot of notes and ideas there, as did many other attendees. (You can follow me on Twitter @dancohen.) In addition, via the power of Twitter, we captured many excellent points and responses from people around the globe. You should also be sure to read the discussion page on the main Smithsonian 2.0 site, and initial crowdsourced recommendations I gathered before the meeting.

Let me summarize my post-meeting sense of where the Smithsonian should go for those who don’t have time to read a hundred tweets. Given my background in mathematics, I began to think of Smithsonian 2.0 as existing between Smithsonian 1.1 and Smithsonian 2.9. That is, implicit in “Smithsonian 2.0” were some incremental moves forward that could be done cheaply and quickly—Smithsonian 1.1—and a very large, expensive, complex project that would lead Smithsonian into Web 2.0 and beyond—Smithsonian 2.9. I believe both of these models can be instructive to institutions beyond the Smithsonian, whether large or small.

Smithsonian 1.1 would involve a much more aggressive use of social media and technology that’s already out there, to begin to take many small steps and make many small experiments using what is currently available. The Smithsonian has already done some of this, of course: the National Museum of American History has a blog, SI has a small presence on Flickr Commons, and museums have begun to tweet.

But these are relatively scattered, uncoordinated attempts, frequently done by younger, tech-savvy SI staffers in their spare time. The Smithsonian should be doing much, much more of this. For instance, given their expertise and excitement about SI’s holdings, it seemed clear to the digerati that every curator should have a blog, even if infrequently used, to recount tales of objects. While visiting the Museum of American History’s vaults, it was clear that a huge audience would subscribe to a weekly or daily video podcast that covered incredible treasures that rarely see the light of day, such as Abraham Lincoln’s handball, or what the Smithsonian just collected and is preserving from the inauguration of Barack Obama.



Undoubtedly there will be resistance among some curators to doing Web 2.0-y things like podcasts or crowdsourced tagging of their items. These curators believe that such efforts belittle (or “anti-intellectualize,” as one put it) the holdings of the Smithsonian. (As Chris Anderson tweeted: “Response from curators to my Smithonian 2.0 talk suggesting radical things like adding comments to stamp website: we’ll be out of a job!”) Moreover, it’s still harder than it should be for SI staffers to engage in common, modern digital activities. This institutional friction was embodied in the tale of Sarah Taylor, a National Zoo public affairs staffer, who couldn’t get the equipment or accounts she needed to upload video of the zoo’s famous pandas to sharing sites that reach millions.

If Smithsonian 1.1 requires overcoming institutional conservatism, Smithsonian 2.9 will require a moon shot mentality. Digitizing 137 million objects will be enormously expensive, and that’s just the beginning. Service layers will have to be added on top of that digital collection. The young, brilliant David Recordon of Six Apart summarized what the 2.9 project should result in (I’m paraphrasing here from memory):

Before I visit Washington, I want to be able to go to the web and select items I’m really interested in from the entire Smithsonian collection. When I wake up the next morning, I want in my inbox a PDF of my personalized tour to see these objects. When I’m standing in front of an object in a museum, I want to see or hear more information about it on my cell phone. When an event happens related to an object I’m interested in, I want a text message about it. I want to know when it’s feeding time for the pandas, or when Lincoln’s handball will be on public display. And I want to easily share this information with my classmates, my friends, my family.

This is the Smithsonian not as a network of museums but as a platform for lifelong learning and cultural engagement. A tall order, to be sure. But everything in that vision is possible right now, with existing technology. It’s just going to take tremendous will, and the funds to get there. Everyone felt that the new Secretary of the Smithsonian, G. Wayne Clough, was going to put a lot of energy and resources into the 2.0 initiative, and I suspect much will come of this meeting. The Smithsonian might not get to 2.9 for a while, but as I was writing this blog post, Sarah Taylor emailed me to say that she was able to get her video online.

Smithsonian 2.0

For the next two days (Friday-Saturday, 23-24 January 2009) I’ll be at the Smithsonian 2.0 meeting in Washington, D.C. From the description:

Smithsonian 2.0 is a two-day interactive gathering exploring how the Smithsonian can better and more effectively reach the younger generation (teenage through college students) with its collections, materials, and expertise through the web and web/new media-based interactive strategies. The focus is on SI resources—and how to make them accessible, engaging, useful, and valuable to the younger generation who will largely experience them digitally. The gathering brings over 30 active creative people—digerati—from the web/digital/new media world to the Smithsonian. Chosen because of their engagement of large audiences, including youth, and the thoughtfulness and educational consequences of their work, they will join 30 Smithsonian staff at the forefront of efforts to digitally expand the Institution’s reach and impact.

Together the group will explore the Smithsonian’s current work through discussions, electronic and actual visits behind the scenes with collections and staff. The gathering will generate an initial, but informed vision of what the new, digital Smithsonian—”Smithsonian 2.0″—might look like in the years ahead. The results of the gathering will be integrated into the Smithsonian’s Strategic Planning process and forthcoming National Campaign.

Unfortunately the meeting is closed to the public, but I will try to provide a live feed of some of what’s going on via Twitter (follow me @dancohen, where I’ll also be gathering questions and comments), and I’ll blog my standard wrap-up afterwards.

For the record, a month ago I asked my very helpful followers on Twitter to envision what Smithsonian 2.0 would emphasize. The top five answers:

  • Mobile. The Smithsonian needs to think beyond the desktop/laptop computer and onto the mobile platforms that are becoming central to online interaction.
  • High-Density, Image-Focused Design. When I asked which websites the Smithsonian should emulate, a lot of respondents mentioned sites like Etsy and technologies like Seadragon, which pack a lot of images onto the page (without seeming overstuffed) in a way that encourages browsing and exploration.
  • Back-end Standardization. Not as sexy as the first two, but many responses mentioned that the first two can only be enabled by standardizing and making interoperable (and web serviceable) all of the many (often creaky) legacy databases that the Smithsonian undoubtedly runs.
  • APIs. Don’t think that the Smithsonian can do it all. Provide application programming interfaces to those databases so that others can reuse, remix, and reenvision the riches of the Smithsonian.
  • Social Media. Make it easy to share and connect Smithsonian holdings with social media like Twitter and Facebook.

Frontiers in Digital History Conference

From the announcement from the American Association for History and Computing (AAHC):

Frontiers in Digital History
2009 Annual Conference
April 3–5, 2009
George Mason University

What frontiers in digital history are we only beginning to explore, or have yet to explore? What promising but under-utilized tools, techniques, and ideas exist in digital media that can help us do better history? Join the American Association for History and Computing for a lively discussion about the frontiers in doing history with digital media. This conference will be of interest to anyone charting new territory in digital history—both online and in the academic and public worlds—including museum professionals, archivists, librarians, historic preservationists, IT professionals, filmmakers, and academic historians.

Suggested topics for proposals include (but are not limited to):

* Museums and exhibits
* Aggregating history
* Web 2.0 exhibits and archives
* Designing and developing digital history
* Teaching digital history
* Visualizing the past
* Networked Research

The conference committee encourages participants to go beyond theory and into the realm of practice through a variety of presentation formats, including:

* Project Demonstrations and prototypes
* Paper Presentations
* Roundtable Discussions
* Workshops

More information is on the AAHC website. The president of the AAHC is the Center for History and New Media‘s Creative Lead, Jeremy Boggs. I’m sure this will be a great conference, so be sure to put in a proposal if you’re interested.

THATCamp 2009

THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp), which brings together scholars, librarians, curators, technologists, and developers for a two-day “unconference” that interactively explores the cutting edge of the digital humanities, was such a success this year that we’re bringing it back in 2009. Better yet, we are pairing it with the Digital Humanities 2009 conference being run by our friends on the other side of the Washington beltway, the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. THATCamp 2009 will immediately follow DH2009 on June 27-28, 2008. Stay tuned to the THATCamp site for a more formal announcement and application guidelines.