Tumblr in the Classroom

I mentioned at the beginning of the semester that we were tumblr blogging our classes, the Serious Gaming seminar, 39B and Archaeology and the Media: Film, 136i.  Tumblr is a simplified, speed-blogging service that provides a place to “tumble” your thoughts. I appreciate it as a sort of visual short-hand while I’m doing research–I tend to tumble what I’m reading about or thinking about, select quotes and photographs. It makes a nice, general record of your research trajectory.  I like that it is an explicit acknowledgement of the marginalia created during the construction of knowledge. Anyway, so we decided to try it out for our classes, with mixed results.


It was great for 136i. The Archaeology and the Media classes tend to be structured discussion sessions, where a lot of examples of movies, television, online video, and other forms of media come up in class. The tumblr blog was a way to track class discussion in a non-intrusive way. It helped that there were two of us–me and Ruth–so one of us could take over while the other typed. If I held the seminar by myself, I might arrange for round-robin of responsibility among the students for tumbling class discussions. Though I have a hard time on occasion with the “multi-tasking” that goes on during class.  Having folks referencing online sources and their own previously typed notes can be handy, but I’ve had to ask for “laptops down” many times this semester.

In any case, I found Tumblr to be not only a great “rapid-repository” for references during class, but also appended clips from movies discussed in the readings for students to reference before class. Most of the students had never seen such movies as Double Indemnity and Stagecoach.  I was also able to provide a small collection of important links to address issues such as copyright, and finding creative commons-licensed music for their movies. I even threw in a few “fun” links to archaeology videos that circulate among academics, but aren’t often seen by students.


The Serious Games and Virtual Worlds for Archaeology Tumblr blog didn’t fare quite as well. Perhaps it was because so much of the class was oriented toward trying to manage awkward CAD systems in Second Life, or that the readings were primarily about Catalhoyuk or other history games. The students also were not quite as engaged, and did not offer as many examples from their own experience for us to reference on the blog. This class was also completely new, and we had to wrangle material about a subject that is not a fully formed field of inquiry quite yet.

In any case, I could recommend using tumblr for both smaller seminar settings, and for larger classes when there is a TA available to follow the discussion with links to examples and salient points.  We are not quite to full immersion–live blogging a lecture so that a powerpoint isn’t necessary, but we’re getting closer. I’m guessing that in the next decade we’ll have it being done for us–word clouds, reference images, and networks of meaning appearing behind us as we lecture.  That might actually get the attention of the students…for a second or two.

Basket Weaving at Çatalhöyük

I uploaded the above test clip for the longer machinima that I posted about a little while ago.  It took an immense amount of work to get this far, and this is only a tiny clip of a somewhat awkward avatar doing a single animation.  I used Jing for the video capture and downloaded Soundflower for the system audio redirect.

I think I’ve complained before about having a hard time finding a variety of avatars on Second Life.  Well, this lady is definitely in a different  mode than my usual avatar.  “Wearing” an identity like this one is deeply uncanny, and the reactions and perceptions of other people you meet in Second Life are absolutely different.  I decided to follow a fairly popular strain of visual interpretation at Çatalhöyük in dressing her as a goddess figurine in the bandeau that I made for a decidedly younger character.

Once again, the exercise of recreating this small scene raised more questions than it answered:

She’s weaving reeds, so it must be summer.  Were there cicadas?  Yes.  Why would she be doing this inside by firelight during the summer?  It would be excruciatingly hot and smoky.  What about her vision?  I’ve put her in a less than optimal situation for weaving, that’s for sure.   Why isn’t there anyone with her?  Could she hear other people?  Maybe sheep! We’ll add some sheep sounds. I think she’d be humming to herself.  But what sounds?

It’s a lot of interpretive responsibility, wearing these second skins.

The Real Technology of Indiana Jones

By Deeveepix on Flickr
By Deeveepix on Flickr

It’s here!  I’m getting ready to go to Austin, TX to speak on a panel at South by Southwest, an annual music conference that has grown to include film and interactive media.  When I lived in Austin I would go check out hundreds of bands that were playing all over town, but this will be my first time to attend the interactive conference.  This is the first panel dealing with digital archaeology to appear at the conference, and I’m excited to be a part of it.  If you happen to be going to the conference, the panel is on Monday, March 16th, at 11:30 in Room B.
Title: The Real Technology of Indiana Jones

Adam Rabinowitz, University of Texas at Austin
Stuart Eve (University College London), Bernard Frischer (Rome Reborn), Colleen Morgan (University of California at Berkeley), Adam Rabinowitz, moderator (University of Texas)
Archaeologists no longer rely on whips and fedoras; they now use a range of sophisticated digital tools to collect information in the field and study it in the lab. Too often, though, this wealth of information meets the same fate as Indy’s discoveries, locked away in digital ‘warehouses’ where no one can see it. The archaeologists on this panel present different projects that use web platforms and open-source approaches to bring digital archaeology out of the warehouse and into the public eye. Learn how archaeologists are using interactive media to open their data and processes to the public; discuss the creation of an online archaeological community in Second Life; and explore ancient cities across space and time using publicly-available online tools.


Fake Dead People


What exactly is the agency of the virtual non-human human? This question hit me when I was in the midst of editing what is shaping up to be my first publication, (Re)Building Çatalhöyük: Changing Virtual Reality in Archaeology, a text refashioned from my more stridently titled paper presented at the World Archaeological Congress, Get Real: A Manifesto for Virtual Reality in Archaeology.  In this paper I establish Second Life as a pretty good venue for changing the way we reconstruct archaeological sites and examine the use of avatars and non-player characters (NPCs) in these reconstructions. My good friend (and professional copy editor!) Lei-Leen had done me the favor of proofing it and she highlighted my use of “person” while I was discussing these NPCs.  Certainly these people-created constructs were not people themselves.

In the paper I argue against the creation and use of NPCs in virtual archaeological reconstructions:

NPCs are “non-player characters,” entities generally created as a kind of set dressing, present to answer scripted questions about the reconstruction, or to provide ambiance. This tends to bring out the worst in reconstructive impulses; in one example, Julius Caesar reclines on his couch, reciting information about his villa to the user. A recent simulation of an African American site in Oakland, California contained prominent members of the community who stood by the side of the road to robotically impart their knowledge when approached by the user’s avatar. Turning people of the past into mere mouthpieces for their architecture diminishes the rich potential of reconstructions to impart information about complex lifeways. Using programmable objects such as the previously mentioned mano and metate allows avatars to act as their own guides to the past, populating the re-created ancient landscape with avatars of people interested in the past, interacting with artifacts and taking on roles suggested by these artifacts. This is simple for archaeologists who are accustomed to telling stories through objects and adds another level of interactivity to the virtual reconstruction.

I still believe this to be true, that fundamentally we are better off wearing Caesar’s crown for ourselves rather than asking a poor simulacrum about the weather in the Republic.  Thinking of Caesar as a non-player character in history is a stretch by any means.  But game developers (and digital archaeologists) will probably not stop populating virtual worlds with fake people.  These NPCs are nonhuman manifestations of a network of agents (polygons, “modern” humans, fiber-optics, and the dead person herself) and the relationships between these agents and as a result should be studied as such.  But does this understanding of an NPC as a network make it ethical to take such liberties with the visages of the dead? What does it mean when Joey Ramone comes back from the dead to sell Doc Martins?

Of course, I could just be reading too much Latour.  Let’s ask Eliza.

* Hello
> How are you today.. What would you like to discuss?
* Latour
> Tell me more…
* Have I been reading too much Latour?
> Can you elaborate on that?
* He’s a modern social theorist.
> What does that suggest to you?
* That I should be reading him for my dissertation.
> Say, do you have any psychological problems?
* Possibly.
> Tell me more…

Telerobotics and Archaeology

While doing some reading for my dissertation, I came across a reference in The Robot and the Garden to the Mercury Project, an art installation based out of USC in 1994-95.  The Mercury Project was co-directed by Ken Goldberg and Michael Mascha, the former now being at UC Berkeley, and with whom I took a class two years ago as part of my designated emphasis in New Media. Telerobotics is controlling robots at a distance, like the Mars rovers or those remote hunting websites that were in the news a few years ago.  As a side note, the main website for remote hunting no longer exists and the Texas legislature passed a ban on such activities in 2005. Lo, marginalia.

Anyway, the installation involved a robotic arm and a pneumatic puffer that WWW users could use to remotely excavate objects in a sand-filled terrarium.  The buried artifacts included a watch, a pipe, a lock, and other objects inspired by Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.  As they state on their webpage, “we viewed the process of discovering artifacts as a metaphor for the Internet itself.  Choosing artifacts with some ‘underlying logic’ presented a challenge for collective interaction which motivated users to return to the site.”  While this all emphasizes archaeology as a rather Victorian, fantastic enterprise, I’m still pretty chuffed that the first example of telerobotics on the web was an archaeologist.

For those with academic access, here’s a link to the article in Computer Networks and ISDN Systems.

ViA – 2008

The Visualisation in Archaeology workshop was easily one of the best and most productive conferences I’ve ever attended.  Most of the attendees were presenting as well, and there was only a single session at any one time.  Megan Price’s paper on the Victorian lantern slides produced by H.M.J. Underhill was particularly fascinating, and I approached her to ask if she’d considered making a small documentary film on the subject.

Aaron Watson’s reconstructions and reimaginings of archaeological sites was also really fascinating–it’s unfortunate that he doesn’t have any of his moving images/videowork online as far as I can tell, because it was my favorite.  He juxtaposed pieces of his final report with more sensorial experiences of the landscape during his ViA presentation.

My paper was well received, despite some online shenanigans attempting to sabotage (!) my career.  I wish I had spent more time working on the slide show, but for some reason this paper took way longer to complete than usual.

I got straight off the plane and went to class, which was a little brutal, but we were having a feedback session on papers, and it was nice to come back to some really insightful and complimentary remarks from people whom I’m convinced are about 20x smarter than I am.

So, now, with a rough draft of a publication due on Nov. 1st, the Asian Art Museum video, and burning down Çatalhöyük…I don’t even have much time to breathe!

…and I’m an Archaeologist.

A short clip from a longer video that we’re making for the San Francisco Asian Art museum. It’s the first time I’ve shot in HD, and it’s producing some problems between Final Cut Pro versions, but I’m struggling along.