Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Composable Environments

Further to my post last week on composable environments inspired by Ian Dolphins recent Sakai presentation at ANU, Ian's slides are now online.

I'm also putting together a set of material on the possible congruences on Sakai 3 and Project Bamboo.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

No Gerry, it's not just GST ...

I've periodically done a fairly simple analysis of the comparative costs of buying books in Australia from a physical shop versus a virtual store overseas, most recently last August.

Recently here in Australia we've had a political stoush about whether the $1000 limit for GST free transaction is too high.

Now, maybe we're unusual but we don't buy a whole lot of big ticket items. From anyone. Sure we bought ourselves a flat screen TV and a data recorder from a store in Canberra back in January, and I bought a laptop online from an Australian vendor but that's about it.

What we do buy online from overseas are books and gizmos (oh and clothes sometimes). And in most of these transactions freight is a significant part of the cost. And the reasons we do this are:
  1. Choice and availability
  2. Cost
Yes, it can be cheaper to buy from overseas, but I fail to see why a book ordered from a second hand bookseller in the US or UK should routinely be half the price of one from a comparable Australian reseller, and that's including freight costs. Or why a book from Amazon or BookDepository cheaper, sometimes a lot cheaper, than one from the Borders or Dymocks stores in the Canberra Centre.

The same goes for gizmos like kvm switches and sd card players. Basically if I can buy a new usb computer mouse from an electronics shop in Hong Kong for $10 including postage, yet pay $25 in an over the counter transaction in Canberra for the same product that's not just GST that's making the difference in cost.

The sad fact is that a lot of retailers sell a poor range of overpriced items, and that they can't compete.

Retailers might argue about how we're only 22 million people on a continent the size of the continental US, but we're not uniformly distributed, in fact three quarters of us live in the big cities in the South East, which should ease rather than complicate logistics.

So, who's up for a bit of competition?

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

reputation in a digital world

Just watched a stimulating presentation by Allan Rusbridger of the Guardian on the future on media and newspapers in particular (the lecture in full is available on the ABC 702 site and there's a nice summary of what he said about twitter on The Age).

Now what he's saying actually has resonances with what is happening to scholarly communication.

In the age of social media the gates to publication are no longer controlled by a group of older men who are journal publishers and who invite their friends to carry out peer review. That's not to say it didn't work quite well for the past 150 years, but we all know there have been incidences of nepotism and worse.

However, that's not the case anymore. These days are gone. More so in journalism than academia, but they're gone. The genie is out of the bottle.

Anyone can publish anything, and can publish the data and the analysis that they used to back it up.

And if it's interesting it will be picked up and will spread virally. Retweeted, linked to, cited and the rest. Without wanting to seem to be waving parts of my anatomy, a couple of posts of this blog have been picked up by a journalist working for the Wall Street Journal, and I've had follow up questions and comments from a range of reasonably reputable people.

Now if you get an email out of the blue asking for your opinion of X on the basis of something you wrote you do a few checks - such as googling the person concerned to see that they are who they say they are - and if they check out you probably put some effort into a more detailed reply than you otherwise might.

In other words you are assigning an implicit reputational score.

The same with twitter. You (usually) only follow people you find interesting (and/or witty). You assume people follow you for the same reason. Twitter's 'who to follow' suggestions works the same way by suggesting people followed by both those you follow and people who follow you. At best it can be frighteningly good at picking out the twitter personas of people you know professionally. In my experience, while it might suggest people that you don't want to follow for a variety of reasons, it very rarely comes up with oddball suggestions.

And what of course is happening is that you are building a web of trust. Not perfect but no worse than with people you meet at a conference.

So in essence you vouch for people and people vouch for you. A tacit version of ebay's scoring system for sellers and buyers. If 10 people say Fred is a good person to deal with he probably is. You don't know these people but you go on what they say because enough of them say the same thing.

Another such example is Boden a UK clothes website. Selling clothes, primarily to women, online is difficult as users want to know how it fits and hangs on them, not how it hangs on a skinny model at least ten years younger than the average age of the people using the site. Boden encourages users to post anonymous reviews of products. No one reading the review knows the age or shape of the person writing the review, but if there are a number of reviews all saying that the material is too shiny or the cut too tight, it's likely that there is a problem. Again the reviews are anonymous, but you go on what they say because enough of them say the same thing - essentially the same thing that goes on in opinion polling. Not totally accurate but close enough.

Translating this to scholarly publication, what this means is that if we assume that the people who follow or regularly read particular more academic blogs are a self selecting population of interested individuals we can then start to say that if they cite posts, either as links in articles they themselves write or as retweets, it suggests that the article has some worth, just as in the old days one would track citations in the science citations index to decide if a particular paper was worth following up on.

And by examining the cross links, the social graph, one can define the inner community and consequently identify the loonies. Basically they may cite you but no one in the group cites them.

So link analysis allows you to assign weight to posts by people you may not know. And this probably benefits less established scholars, as if they say interesting things it is likely to be picked up on and the set of bidirectional links established. This isn't particularly new - web metrics companies such as Alexa have been using the number of inbound links as a reputational index for a number of years, and Google, as we all know uses links in its page rank algorithm as part of its ranking of a site's likely relevance.

And of course it is possible to establish these reputational scores algorithmically. And we also lose the distorting effects of work that is published in a journal with a generally higher reputational score being ranked higher than work of equal significance being published in less well regarded journal.

For example if the editor of Nature was to ask me to rework this as an article for publication, I'd probably get a note of congratulation from one of the great and the good of the institution I work for. I doubt however if I would get one if the article ended up in the Australian Journal of Research in Information Science. Of course on the whole Nature chooses wisely and chooses articles of significance.

However, if it is the case that I write something that is published in an obscure journal, it is likely the article will be missed and treated as being of little significance, purely due to the journal of publication. Certainly bibliometric systems such as Socrates tend to weight publications on the basis of the journal of publication rather than just an assessment of worth.

And this is equally important with dataset citation. There are no journals. And if the dataset is a result of experimental or observational work the likelihood of its reuse will depend on the reputation of the research group that produced it. The same is true of literary corpus's. We trust the data more if we trust the people who produced it.

Reputational scoring based on the social graph of the author rather than raw citation rates increases the chance of innovative work being picked up on. And that is surely a good thing.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Composable Environments

Interesting seminar from Ian Dolphin of the Sakai Foundation on virtual research environments.

He's promised to make the slides available so I won't provide a blow by blow account that the nub of the problem is that the environments have got to consider reusability and remixability, so that tools can be added and reused easily by individual groups of researchers.

Definitely resonances there with the work I'm involved in on data reuse with ANDS and collections interoperability (which is really dataset reuse) with Project Bamboo.

And the reason is that if people are going to engage in cross institutional and cross disciplinary research they need access to data sets sitting in archives and share datasets generated.

To take a simple example: if one wished to do an analysis of early 19th century squatter settlements, such as the informal one at Ororral Valley, one might want to tie the names of these settlements to a thesaurus of aboriginal place names and a GIS system and show that settlements tended to be on grassy paddocks that were also good kangaroo hunting grounds and therefore possibly providing reason for conflict.

So it's my view is that it is not about composable environment but being able to connect data sources easily to these environments to facilitate reuse not only of tools but data, which of course means standards for both tools and data.

And as we know that quite a bit of academic work has skipped the fence with collaborations taking place on Google Docs and wikidot, and with collections of material being hosted on flickr,
we need integration as well with external tools to harvest and ingest external content.

The advantage about this is that this also provides a way of capturing scholarly output, so that people can not only co-operate on research but deposit the results electronically and make available both pre-prints and datasets for review, as well as generating researcher profiles for other purposes.

Potentially powerful, but I don't think we're there yet

Supplicants of the 802.1x kind

last week I recounted my near total success getting crunchbang and ubuntu 10.10 to not only live happily to but to connect to our campus network.

The executive summary is that Ubuntu works with our secure network and Crunchbang doesn't, because the Crunchbang supplicant, the software that mediates the connection doesnt't support GTC.

So the logical thing would be to upgrade the supplicant on Crunchbang. Well there's an alternative, Xsupplicant, that appears to work. It doesn't - it turns out that the configuration tool is broken under Cruchbang, and possibly other configurations and doesn't let you browse for a certificate.

Now one could get all geeky at this stage and go and edit the raw configuration files to fix it. This is of course stupid as a solution as you've then got to explain to users how to use an editor, edit system configuration files to which they may not have access etc etc.

Not sustainable.

Earlier versions of xsupplicant appear to have the same requirements of virtuoso editing of configuration files under Crunchbang, so are equally unsustainable.

The other solution I guess would be to add the appropriate repository from the Ubuntu 10.10 distribution and force an upgrade and hope one didn't break any dependencies. This at least would have the merit of being scriptable, and would mean users would still be using the network manager tool they know and love to set things up after running the magic script ...

print on demand ....

I have periodically sounded off about the use of print on demand technology to make available out of print books.

I now have another example - I was searching for a copy of Strabo on AbeBooks, and the search threw up some copies available from BookDepository - all print on demand.

Apart from the arguable lunacy of having a print on demand book shipped from the other side of the planet, such a nice example of selling useful low volume texts in paper format.

Of course that begs the question that it should also be available as an e-book, but so far an electronic version is proving elusive ...

Friday, 19 November 2010

Crunchbang and Ubuntu 10.10 on the same machine

Following on from my success installing Ubuntu 10.10 on a physical machine I thought I'd install Crunchbang 9.04 side by side to see if it played nice.

And it almost did. Nine out of ten - not completely free of errors but pretty good.

Installing was fairly straightforward, but the automatic resizing routine had problems mounting the existing ubuntu swap partition /sda5 but if you ignored these installation was fine. My only problem was that the mousepad was skittish and I ended up plugging in a usb mouse.

On restart Crunchbang had of course made itself the default operating system, but Ubuntu started and ran correctly. Rebooting and going into Crunchbang also worked as did various combinations of restart and power down.

In fact my only real gripe was wireless networking. We have two networks on campus - the first one is an older slower network that doesnt require complex end user configuration - basically just like in a lot of hotels and airports, connect to it, open a browser, and in this case, just login.

We also have a second more secure network, that requires a little more finger in the ear stuff. Crunchbang almost worked, detecting the network type and authentication scheme correctly, only to fall at the last hurdle by not providing GTC as an option for inner authentication. (Ubuntu 10.10 provides this and it works well)

This is kind of important as our secure network uses the same security model as Eduroam, meaning that one couldn't easily take Crunchbang to another university campus and expect to connect, and hence reducing Crunchbang's uselfulness as a lightweight environment for checking mail etc ...

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Authenticating in Academia

Back in August I blogged about a UMich blog service that had a number of means to authenticate user comments but not Shibboleth or a local UMich id.

This actually is quite a serious problem, as if agree that there is scholarly communication taking place in the blogosphere, we want comments to be authenticated, if only as a hurdle to prevent the comment system from being gummed up with salacious e-mail invitations from loose moralled East European floozies and invitations to buy various types of performance enhancing drugs which I have no need for.

We probably don't wish t restrict comments to people who can authenticate via shibboleth as there are range of people who can't provide a shib based id.

Valid reasons include:
  • Their university doesn't yet provide an IdP
  • They work for a non .edu institution, eg .gov or .org
  • They're an adjunct or an affiliate and use a non .edu account for correspondance
So how to solve the problem.

Clearly one needs to provide an authentication mechanism that allows people to authenticate by a range of means, but I didn't have a solution until I came across this email from Bob Morgan on one of the Shibboleth lists:

In my recent talk at the Internet2 Member Meeting I showed some examples of sites accepting both SAML-based federated signon and OpenID (eg NIH). In the same session Russ Yount from CMU talked about their plans for a "social network" proxy/gateway for their environment. As an aside, I observe that sites interested in this kind of thing these days tend not to focus on OpenID per se but on whatever protocol is needed to bring in the sites where the users are (OAuth for Twitter, proprietary for Facebook, etc). This protocol standardization failure creates a market opportunity for services like Janrain and Gigya.

If you'd like I could put you in touch with the people at UW who put together this interface:


which supports UW and ProtectNetwork via InCommon, and Google via OpenID.

Which probably would do the job really nicely, except that we still have the problem of knowing who someone is and more importantly weighting their comments.

The (possible) need to weight comments of course comes from the need to provide some evidence of peer review - in the points means prizes world of contemporary academia, if one wants to have one's blogging considered as evidence of professional esteem one needs to show that one is having some sort of meaningful interchange with one's peers.

However it's not just counting .edu's after all there is nothing to stop Professor V. Eminent happening across your work via the facebook Byzantine Prosopography group and using his facebook account to post a comment.

So in a federated world how do we assess weight ? Or should we just not bother?

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

RSS feeds and (re)usability

We all know what an RSS feed is these days - basically it allows the syndication and reuse of content.

And this content can be anything, text, images, data, and as such provides a really easy way of getting the data out from one instrument and into something else. A nice example is the Canberra weather feed which provides a nice set of structured data wich you can periodically poll and extract the data you want to display it in a nice little application.

This is in fact what iPad and Mac weather widgets do. And that's fine for structured data. As it's structured we can interpret and pick.

Then we come to RSS as a substitute for usenet news, or indeed using it for article and document syndication, and then using applications such as Google reader as an aggregator, or newsreader substitute.

And this is where we come to usability, and twitter can teach us a lot here.

One of the virtues of twitter is that it limits you to a 140 characters, so, if you share links on a regular basis it's basically article headline, article source, and a shortened url.

Headlines of course can be misleading, but it does have the virtue of being easy to scan a scad of posts and choose the interesting ones.

RSS aggregators (well now Bloglines has had a near death experience, we basically mean Google Reader) uncritically display the feed content.

Which is fine. Except if one wants to scan a load of aggregated material in a hurry one only really wants the first paragraph or so.

But of course there are these publications (ok the Guardian) who put the full text of every article in the feed - great is you're viewing it a a Guardian reader app, not so great if you are using an aggregator. And this is why the Guardian's feed is less usable than say the SMH's.

This of course doesn't matter if you are using individual custom apps, as they can be configured to work with the individual feed. However generic readers are different, they have to work with all feeds and rely on the individual feed being sensibly formatted.

For example, a number of blogging solutions allow one to configure the feed to only show the first hundred or so words, the idea being to attract eyeballs to content (hey, this post about the Byzantine spice trade looks cool, let's go read some more).

And this works well in aggregators - enough to scan to see if it's worth following up.

Now, one could of course write an aggregator that read a feed and displayed only the the first sentence of an article, or the keywords, or the first hundred words or whatever. But the trouble with rules like these is that they will break something, like the really key update that's a 102 words long that's not worth clicking through to the article itself.

Configuring the rss content at the originator end at least means that the originator knows not to put anything more than a 100 words in the first paragraph, and to make it punchy (The spice trade played an important part in the sex lives of Byzantine Greeks ...)

But then there's a view that RSS is only a distribution mechanism, and certainly newspaper publishers like the idea of locking people into individual applications rather than having them read widely, but if one wants to read widely one needs some sort of aggregator like tool.

Google Reader (it's what I use so that's why I use it as an example) is basically no more sophisticated than the Pan Usenet newsreader.

Perhaps what we need in these presentation centric days is something more like paper.li, a twitter aggregator that aggregates content from twitter feeds.

It of course requires processing time and power and hence is not realtime. The trick would be is to offload processing to the client machine and download all feeds raw, but then we start getting away from the great advantage of web apps - it's always the same be you on mozilla, chrome or ie and if you're on a mac, a pc, or some ten year old recycled machine running linux...

So I'm stuck. Remote and simple is truly platform agnostic, local and sophisticated starts asking questions about os and host restrictions ...

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

storage, storage, storage

The key to the digital archiving game is reliable, replicated persistent storage, ie storage where we can put stuff in and be assured that what comes out the other end at a later date is what we put in.

On small archives this is simple to do of course, you copy the files multiple times, and periodically do md5 checksums to makes sure that they are the same as the original checksum and hope to do this often enough that you don't end up with all the copies going bad.

Statistically this is unlikely, although as David Rosenthal has recently pointed out the bigger your archive and the longer you keep it the greater the chance of spectacular failure. However, for most small academic archives this is less of an issue, principally as the size of the archive and the hardware refresh cycle should mean that the problem of disk reliability decreasing with age is less of a problem.

Basically if you buy replace the hardware every three years you should get twice as much newer and more reliable storage for your dollar. And the size of the archive is such that you can probably even do periodic tape backups as a belt and braces exercise.

Large archives are of course different and have various problems of scale.

However one problem that happens is vendor change. Vendor regularly decide to stop making things. For example we had a student filestore technology solution based on Xserves that did replication and the like and could conceivably have been turned into an archival filesystem.

Apple have of course, end of lifed the Xserves. Which means that the solution will need to be migrated to new hardware. Whether this is an opportunity or a challenge I suppose depends on your view of life. And to be fair we only started with Xserves to provide better AFP support.

Now for student filestore we have a range of options from migrating to Stornext to outsourcing the whole thing.

Archives are different. While student data is as valuable as any other data it is short lived, meaning that as long as we can move the files reliably once we probably don't need to move them again.

Archival filestores are of course different. Even if we only plan to keep the contents for ten years, that's three migrations. If we think about keeping stuff for a lifetime that's twentyfive migrations, each with their attendant problems and risk of corruption.

Now most migrations go smoothly, and of course you (usually) have a usable backup.

Ninety percent of most reasonably large archival stores are never accessed after the first few years, so there is a temptation to save costs by only actively verifying the more commonly accessed data, which of course means we start to risk silent corruption.

Now I have a lot of photos online of my wife and cat. And I'll probably still occasionally want to look at them twenty five years from now. Can I be assured I can access them? Or pdf's, or this blog?

And of course these sit on large commercial providers. For small academic archives the problem is worse as they may hold the only copy and be resource limited to test and verify, leaving them at the mercy of migration anomalies, especially as these migrations tend to be single point in time changes, rather than the evolutionary changes seen in large archives ...

netbooks vs ipads

I've periodically ranted about pad based computers and their (dis)advantages vis a vis netbooks.

Well at last week's eResearch Australasia conference I periodically sneaked a peek at what other delegates were using. Given the sort of conference audience you get at computing events you'd expect them all to be technophiles, but it was quite interesting:
  1. roughly half the delegates in any presentation used pen and paper to take notes
  2. of the remaining half very few had full sized laptops
  3. there was a roughly 50/50 split between netbook users and ipad users
  4. most of the netbook users seemed to be running windows 7 (based on a small sample size generated by shoulder surfing)
items 1 and 2 are easy - just as I found when I went to Providence RI for two and a half days earlier this year, netbooks are lighter and easier to deal with than full size computers, and with pervasive wi-fi, being able to access cloud based services such as windows live and the google ecology frees you from the need for grunt. I was one of the pen and paper brigade, I took my office MacBook with me and found, elegant though it is, it was just too heavy and clunky to balance on my lap - using it in the departure lounge Brisbane airport to do some work left me with cramp in my left leg. After that the laptop stayed in my hotel room -next time I'm definitely taking a netbook.

Item 3 - I guess it's what you would expect given we're over six months into the ipad frenzy. What's interesting is that of this highly computer literate audience not everyone had rolled over - some people clearly preferred being able to have a versatile machine they could type on.

Item 4 was a surprise - I'd have expected more linux users, but then most netbook linux interfaces are dumbed down in an effort not to scare the children and windows 7 is (a) pretty good and (b) has a massive software base - it's windows that has an app for everything - not Apple. And, having installed Ubuntu 10.10 on a computer, it's good, but comparing it to both my windows 7 and OS X machines, not better.

And that's a consequence of Microsoft having put the Vista disaster behind them - Vista was unbelievably clunky and XP was distinctly unslick, which made linux an attarctive option, especially as you could upgrade these XP machines to Linux without having to buy new hardware.

Times have moved on, most of that hardware has been replaced by natural attrition and W7 is the product Vista should have been making it a highly attractive option. And machines running W7 are a lot cheaper than Apple's offerings.

I could imagine a scenario, especially given the current economic climate, where Apple could see MacBook sales cannibalized both by the iPad by people who just want a content access device, and W7 from those who want a general purpose computer ...

Monday, 15 November 2010

eResearch Australasia 2010

I spent last week at the eResearch Australasia conference on the not quite as sunny as expected Gold Coast.

A lot of the value of conferences comes from talking to people but there were a number of presentations I thought were particularly interesting:

Helen Bailey : e-Dance: pioneering e-research in the arts

Those who know me will know I'm not noted for my tolerance of touchy feely waffle and I did start out feeling fairly negative about this presentation but I warmed to it when she began to describe how the methodology they had devised to allow two dancers in separate studios to dance together over the internet had also given them a way of recording dance choreography.

I remember a discussion with Allan Marret one evening in Darwin about recording indigenous dance as part of the NRPIPA. At the time there was no clear solution, but one could see that Helen Bailey's work could be adapted to provide a mechanism for doing this, not just for Australian Aboriginal performance but for indigenous performance worldwide.

Bryan Lawrence: Provenance, metadata and e-infrastructure to support climate science

Very simple, very straight forward but very interesting presentation on the value of provenance, and implied trust when dealing with older datasets

David Carlin, Jane Mullett : Performing data: the Circus Oz Living Archive

Fascinating, and witty paper asking fundamental quiestions about what does one do with this archived stuff in a performing arts context?

René van Horik, Dirk Roorda : Smart migration of file formats: the MIXED framework

Document formats change over time, meaning that we need to store them in a well known format to be able to read them later. Very interesting solution especially in the light of Pete Sefton's work on using ePub as an intermediate storage format for text documents.

It's since struck me that the (manifest+contents) model can be extended to cover things like spreadseet data by saving the columns and then saving a description of the meaning of the document as part of the saved archive - portable metadata

Andrew Wells : Growing virtual research environments in the fine arts: tricks and traps

Interesting presentation on how what started off essentially as building a digital version of an existing print resource turned developed a life of their own

Toby Burrows : Archiving Humanities Data for E-Research: Conceptual and Technical Issues

An interesting presentation from a practicing historian that explained what a medieval historian would want out of a solution, rather than what people taking/extending the scientific model of data sharing might think. Especially enlightening both in the light of my personal dabbling with Sighelm, and with my involvement in project Bamboo

Simon Porter, Lance De Vine, Robyn Rebollo : Building an Australian User Community for Vivo: Profiling Research Data for the Australian National Data Service

Vivo is an interesting product as it allows one to automagically tie together researchers publication data, research projects, and HR information to generate such things as researcher hompages, citation data, and link directly to content, and thus help build a research community, as well as satisfying sunding council reporting obligations.

There were a lot of other papers, some were less fascinating but none of the ones I went to was a complete dud. And as always there are a few presentations one wished in retrospect you'd gone to:

Anna Gerber,Roger Osborne, Jane Hunter : Visualising Australian Literary Networks

Pauline Mak, Kim Finney, Xiao Ming Fu,Nathan Bindoff,Ming Wang : Building the Polar Information Commons Cloud (on a Shoestring)

And I couldn't go without mentioning the ATSIDA poster session - a really good example of archiving cultural artefacts and a project I'm deeply envious of and wish that I'd done when I was with AIATSIS ....

Friday, 5 November 2010

What my Sighelm obsession has taught me

Regular readers will know that I have recently become mildly obsessed with the question as to whether an AngloSaxon cleric went to India in the late ninth century.

Now while undoubtedly geeky, it's also been extremely valuable as a demonstrator of what can be done purely from the desk.

Almost all the research was done with wikipedia, search engines, online texts, and Google Books, often using it to follow up on wikipedia articles to check references.

I did check my paper copy of the AngloSaxon chronicle for the text of the entries of 883 and search my copy of Debby Banham's Food and Drink in AngloSaxon England to check on information on the use of pepper, although using Google Books to search Katherine Beckett's book turned out to be more useful. I also bought myself a copy of the Penguin Classics edition of Asser's biography of Alfred as I couldn't find a decent text online.

Otherwise everything else was done with online search. One interesting thing is that Google doesn't always turn up the best answers when searching for obscure items - Bing and Yahoo are sometimes more useful.

The other thing of course is the use of a wiki page to structure, edit and re-edit the document. Google Docs or indeed any competent word processor would have been able to do the task, but being able to have a lightweight living draft open when searching was useful.

Professionally it's been valuable - it's given me an insight as to how easy desk based research in the humanities are and how powerful and valuable online resources are.

It used to be joke that the cheapest subject to support in a university was Maths, as all they needed was chalk, a blackboard and a supply of coffee.

Well, I think I have demonstrated to myself that some humanities research requires little more than a computer and an internet connection. Less flippantly, it's also given me an insight as to what a digital humanities workspace, such as that envisaged by Project Bamboo will have to deliver, and how it will have to incorporate easy mechanisms to incorporate new and existing resources.

And Sighelm? Do I think he went to India?

I think he probably did, but whether one Sighelm went or two Sighelms went is a different question.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010


Yesterday's discussion of whether an Anglo Saxon bishop went to India or not so piqued my curiosity that I wasted way too much time trying to track down the evidence, or not.

I've put together a wiki page on what I've managed to glean - which is not much more than we started out with.

As an aside I've learned a lot more about using Google Books, in combination with various book search sites, to track down online sources, which is kind of useful ...

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Scholarship in the age of the internet

Tenthmedieval and I have been having a little discussion about my recent post 'Evidence of Connection' and the intriguing idea that Alfred sent one Sighelm to Kerala, and whether he came back with spices, or whether Indea was a copyist's mistranscribing of Iudea. In this evidence as to whether Sighelm actucally came back with pepper seems crucial, given Kerala's role in the spice trade.

Now, I'm a geek, and couldn't resist googling Sighelm to see what I came up with. The earliest online reference I could find was in Robin Kerr's General History of Voyages from the late eighteenth century.

This reads:

Voyage of Sighelm and Athehtan to India, in the reign of Alfred King qf England, in 883 '.

Though containing no important information, it were unpardonable in an English collection of voyages and travels, to omit the scanty notice which remains on record, respecting a voyage by two Englishmen to India, at so early a period. All that is said of this singular incident in the Saxon Chronicle, is *, " In the year 883, Alfred sent Sighelm and Athelstan to Rome, and likewise to the shrine of Saints Thomas and Bartholomew, in India, with the alms which he had vowed." [Bartholomew was the messenger of Christ in India, the extremity of the whole earth.]—The words printed in Italics are added in translating, by the present editor, to complete the obvious sense. Those within brackets, are contained in one MS. Codex of the Saxon Chronicle, in addition to what was considered the most authentic text by Bishop Gibson, and are obviously a note or commentary, afterwards adopted into the text in transcription.

This short, yet clear declaration, of the actual voyage, has been extended by succeeding writers, who attribute the whole merit to Sighelm, omitting all mention of Athelstan, his coadjutor in the holy mission. The first member of the subsequent paraphrase of the Saxon Chronicle, by Harris, though unauthorized, is yet necessarily true, as Alfred could not have sent messengers to a shrine, of which he did not know the existence. For the success of the voyage, the safe return, the promotion of Sighelm, and his bequest, the original record gives no authority, although that is the obvious foundation of the story, to which Aserus has no allusion in his life of Alfred.

" In the year 883, Alfred, King of England, hearing that there existed a Christian church in the Indies, dedicated to the memory of St Thomas and St Bartholomew, dispatched one Sighelm, or Sithelm, a favourite ecclesiastic of his court, to carry his royal alms to that distant shrine. Sighelm successfully executed the honourable commission with which he had been entrusted, and returned in safety into England.

After his return, he was promoted to the bishoprick of Sherburn, or Shirebum, in Dorsetshire; and it is recorded, that he left at his decease, in the treasury of that church, sundry spices and jewels, which he had brought with him from the Indies."

Of this voyage, William of Malmsbury makes twice mention ; once in the fourth chapter of his second book, De Gestis Regum Anglorum ; and secondly, in the second book of his work ; entitled, De Gestis Pontificum Anglorum ; and in the chapter devoted to the Bishops of Shirebum, Salisbury, and Winchester, both of which are here added, although the only authority for the story is contained in what has been already given from the Saxon Chronicle 3.

" King Alfred being addicted to giving of alms, confirmed the privileges which his father had granted to the churches, and sent many gifts beyond seas, to Rome, and to St Thomas in India. His messenger in this business was Sighelm, bishop of Sherburn, who, with great prosperity, which i9 much to be wondered at in this age, penetrated into India ; whence he brought on his return, splendid exotic gems, and aromatic liquors, of which the soil of that region is prolific."

" Sighelm having gone beyond seas, charged with alms from the king, even penetrated, with wonderful prosperity, to Saint Thomas in India, a thing much to be admired in this age; and brought thence, on his return, certain foreign kinds of precious stones which abound in that region ; some of which are yet to be seen in the monuments of his church."

In the foregoing accounts of the voyage of Sighelm, from the first notice in the Saxon Chronicle, through the additions of Malmsbury, and the amplified paraphrase by Harris, we have an instance of the manner in which ingenious men permit themselves to blend their own imaginations with original record, superadding utterly groundless circumstances, and fancied conceptions, to the plain historical facts. Thus a motely rhetorical tissue of real incident and downright fable is imposed upon the world, which each successive author continually improves into deeper falsehood. We have here likewise an instance of the way in which ancient manuscripts, first illustrated by commentaries, became interpolated, by successive transcribers^adopting those illustrations into the text;

and how many fabricators of story, first misled by these additaments, and afterwards misleading the public through a vain desire of producing a morsel of eloquence, although continually quoting original and contemporary authorities, have acquired the undeserved fame of excellent historians, while a multitude of the incidents, which they relate, have no foundations whatever in the truth of record. He only, who has diligently and faithfully laboured through original records, and contemporary writers, honestly endeavouring to compose the authentic history of an interesting period, and has carefully compared, in his progress, the flippant worse than inaccuracies of writers he has been taught to consider as masterly historians, can form an adequate estimate of the enormity and frequency of this tendency to romance. The immediate subject of these observations is slight and trivial; but the evil itself is wide-spread and important, and deserves severe reprehension, as many portions of our national history have been strangely disfigured by such indefensible practice"

So Kerr had doubts, but also gives us clues as to where the enhancements may have came from.

Fascinating though this is, I actually want to make a serious point - I found this out in three minutes with a Google search. It's not scholarship, but is shows how powerful and useful having resources online and instantly searchable is. It also shows that time spent tracking down resources is really no longer part of scholarship, but that knowing, understanding and analysing things (still) is.

So, desk based research is possible, even easy. What is interesting is that while the mechanics of e-research are simpler, the processes of scholarship remain the same.

This presentation from last month's educause gives one view, one in which well regarded blogging and publication online journals are seen as important as print journals, ie one in which we are still talking implicitly about peer review, or more accurately being able to demonstrate that one's work is held in reasonable regard by other scholars working in the field.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Ubuntu 10.10 on a real machine.

Building on my trouble free installation on Ubuntu 10.10 on a VM I though I'd try it on a real machine - a very standard Dell Latitude E3400 laptop which had previously had XP installed on it.

It almost 'just worked' - the automatic partitioner tried to save the XP installation but had difficulty doing so and failed nicely - I suspect the presence of a hidden recovery partition caused it a problem, but it did fail nicely, offer me the chance of a manual partition, or just going and blasting everything and starting over.

Other than that everything just worked, including wireless, and after 20 minutes I had a working Linux laptop - quietly impressive ...

Evidence of connection

Tenthmedieval this morning has a rather wonderful piece on some of the less thinking coverage of the discovery of a rather corroded Chinese coin in East Africa.

I think it's fair to say that the areas that are now Somalia, Kenya and so on have always been connected as long as people have sailed ships - there's evidence of Hellenistic and Roman contacts to say the least. And these trade networks persist across political and religious changes because they are useful. So it's not surprising that the Chinese followed existing trade routes and reached east Africa, just in the same way that Chinese merchants followed the sea cucumber trade and probably ended up in Arnhem land - certainly rock art paintings show their Makassan trading partners from what is now Sulawesi did.

And if we were to find a record of a kangaroo in China it might be surprising, but not inexplicable.

I increasingly find the connections between cultures fascinating. And why certain trade routes developed they way they did, often due to geography - ocean currents, mountain ranges, availability of resources etc.

There is a tendency in western society to think that we discovered them and that they occupied separate little compartments.

They didn't. The Assyrians traded with India via Dubai and Bahrain. The Greeks went to Afghanistan on the back of Alexander's conquest of Persia and carved some rather nice portraits of the Buddha in very Greek looking robes. Chinese traders and merchants expanded over large parts of south east Asia. And of course people met and traded. It's why the Staffordshire hoard contains jewels originating from India. Not that an AngloSaxon warrior went to India (although one might) More likely it was traded via Byzantium and Dubai (or via Somalia and Egypt).

Renaissance Europe 'discovered' South East Asia and Africa due to trying to cut out the middlemen in the spice trade, and in the course of doing that came across a range of societies previously unknown to them. These societies were of course not unknown to each other.

And this is different from the situation in the Americas where the Amerindian civilisations developed independently, or Australia, which while known to Indonesian fishermen, was viewed as being hostile and valueless. If one of these fishermen had known there were opals out there in the desert, history might have been different