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SCAPE Blog Posts - 21 August 2014 - 7:30am

On September 8 the SCAPE/ APARSEN workshop Digital Preservation Sustainability on the EU Level is held at London City University in connection with the DL2014 conference.

The main objective of the workshop is to provide an overview of solutions to challenges within Digital Preservation Sustainability developed by current and past Digital Preservation research projects. The event brings together various EU projects/initiatives to present their solutions and approaches, and to find synergies between them.

Attached to the workshop Digital Preservation Sustainability on the EU Level SCAPE and APARSEN launch a competition:

 

Which message do YOU want to send to the EU for the future of Digital Preservation projects?

 

You can join the competition on Twitter. Only tweets including the hashtag #DP2EU are contending in the competition. You are allowed to include a link to a text OR one picture with your message. Messages which contain more than 300 characters in total are excluded from the competition, though.

The competition will close September 8th at 16:30 UK time. The workshop panel will then choose one of the tweets as a winner. The winner will receive an e-book reader as a prize.

 

There are only a few places left for the workshop.  Registration for the workshop is FREE and must be completed by filling out the form here http://bit.ly/DPSustainability. Please don’t register for this workshop on the DL2014 registration page, since this workshop  is free of charge!

 

Preservation Topics: SCAPE
Categories: SCAPE

Win an e-book reader!

Open Planets Foundation Blogs - 21 August 2014 - 7:30am

On September 8 the SCAPE/ APARSEN workshop Digital Preservation Sustainability on the EU Level is held at London City University in connection with the DL2014 conference.

The main objective of the workshop is to provide an overview of solutions to challenges within Digital Preservation Sustainability developed by current and past Digital Preservation research projects. The event brings together various EU projects/initiatives to present their solutions and approaches, and to find synergies between them.

Attached to the workshop Digital Preservation Sustainability on the EU Level SCAPE and APARSEN launch a competition:

 

Which message do YOU want to send to the EU for the future of Digital Preservation projects?

 

You can join the competition on Twitter. Only tweets including the hashtag #DP2EU are contending in the competition. You are allowed to include a link to a text OR one picture with your message. Messages which contain more than 300 characters in total are excluded from the competition, though.

The competition will close September 8th at 16:30 UK time. The workshop panel will then choose one of the tweets as a winner. The winner will receive an e-book reader as a prize.

 

There are only a few places left for the workshop.  Registration for the workshop is FREE and must be completed by filling out the form here http://bit.ly/DPSustainability. Please don’t register for this workshop on the DL2014 registration page, since this workshop  is free of charge!

 

Categories: Planet DigiPres

Emulation as a Service (EaaS) at Yale University Library

The Signal: Digital Preservation - 20 August 2014 - 1:35pm

The following is a guest post from Euan Cochrane, ‎Digital Preservation Manager at Yale University Library. This piece continues and extends exploration of the potential of emulation as a service and virtualization platforms.

Increasingly, the intellectual productivity of scholars involves the creation and development of software and software-dependent content. For universities to act as responsible stewards of these materials we need to have a well-formulated approach to how we can make these legacy works of scholarship accessible.

While there have been significant concerns with the practicality of emulation as a mode of access to legacy software, my personal experience (demonstrated via one of my first websites about Amiga emulation) has always been contrary to that view. It is with great pleasure that I can now illustrate the practical utility of Emulation as a Service via three recent case studies from my work at Yale University Library. Consideration of interactive artwork from 1997, interactive Hebrew texts from a 2004 CD-ROM and finance data from 1998 illustrate that it’s no longer really a question of if emulation is a viable option for access and preservation, but of how we can go about scaling up these efforts and removing any remaining obstacles to their successful implementation.

At Yale University Library we are conducting a research pilot of the bwFLA Emulation as a Service software framework.  This framework greatly simplifies the use of emulators and virtualization tools in a wide range of contexts by abstracting all of the emulator configuration (and its associated issues) away from the end-user. As well as simplifying use of emulators it also simplifies access to emulated environments by providing the ability to access and interact with emulated environments from right within your web browser, something that we could only dream of just a few years ago.

At Yale University Library we are evaluating the software against a number of criteria including:

  1. In what use-cases might it be used?
  2. How might it fit in with digital content workflows?
  3. What challenges does it present?

The EaaS software framework shows great promise as a tool for use in many digital content management workflows such as appraisal/selection, preservation and access, but also presents a few unique and particularly challenging issues that we are working to overcome.  The issues are mostly related to copyright and software licensing.  At the bottom of this post I will discuss what these issues are and what we are doing to resolve them, but before I do that let me put this in context by discussing some real-life use-cases for EaaS that have occurred here recently.

It has taken a few months (I started in my position at the Library in September 2013) but recently people throughout the Library system have begun to forward queries to me if they involve anything digital preservation-related. Over the past month or so we have had three requests for access to digital content from the general collections that couldn’t be interacted with using contemporary software.  These requests are all great candidates for resolving using EaaS but, unfortunately (as you will see) we couldn’t do that.

Screenshot of Puppet Motel running in the emulation service using the Basilisk II emulator.

Screenshot of Puppet Motel running in the emulation service using the Basilisk II emulator.

Interactive Artwork, Circa 1997: Use Case One

An Arts PhD student wanted to access an interactive CD-ROM-based artwork (Laurie Anderson’s “Puppet Motel”) from the general collections. The artwork can only be interacted with on old versions of the Apple Mac “classic” operating system.

Fortunately the Digital Humanities Librarian (Peter Leonard) has a collection of old technology and was willing to bring a laptop into the library from his personal collection for the PhD student to use to access it on. This was not an ideal or sustainable solution (what would have happened if Peter’s collection wasn’t available? What happens when that hardware degrades past usability?).

Since responding to this request we have managed to get the Puppet Motel running in the emulation service using the Basilisk II emulator (for research purposes).

This would be a great candidate for accessing via the emulation service. The sound and interaction aspects all work well and it is otherwise very challenging for researchers to access the content.

Screenshot virtual machine used to access CD-ROM that wouldn't play in current OS.

Screenshot virtual machine used to access CD-ROM that wouldn’t play in current OS.

Hebrew Texts, Circa 2004: Use Case Two

One of the Judaica librarians needed to access data for a patron and the data was in a Windows XP CD-ROM (Trope Trainer) from the general collections. The software on the CD would not run on the current Windows 7 operating system that is installed on the desktop PCs here in the library.

The solution we came up with was to create a Windows XP virtual machine for the librarian to have on her desktop. This is a good solution for her as it enables her to print the sections she wants to print and export pdfs for printing elsewhere as needed.

We have since ingested this content into the emulation service for testing purposes. In the EaaS it can run on either the virtualization software from Oracle: VirtualBox (which doesn’t provide full-emulation) or QEMU an emulation and virtualization tool.

It is another great candidate for the service as this version of the content can no longer be accessed on contemporary operating systems and the emulated version enables users to play through the texts and hear them read just as though they were using the CD on their local machine. The ability to easily export content from the emulation service will be added in a future update and will enable this content to become even more useful.

Accessing legacy finance data through a Windows 98 Virtual Machine.

Accessing legacy finance data through a Windows 98 Virtual Machine.

Finance Data, Circa 1998/2003: Use Case Three

A Finance PhD student needed access to data (inter-corporate ownership data) trapped within software within a CD-ROM from the general collection. Unfortunately the software was designed for Windows 98: “As part of my current project I need to use StatCan data saved using some sort of proprietary software on a CD. Unfortunately this software seemed not to be compatible with my version of Windows.” He had been able to get the data out of the disc but couldn’t make any real sense of it without the software: “it was all just random numbers.”

We have recently been developing a collection of old hardware at the Library to support long-term preservation of digital content. Coincidentally, and fortunately, the previous day someone had donated a Windows 98 laptop. Using that laptop we were able to ascertain that the CD hadn’t degraded and the software still worked.  A Windows 98 virtual machine was then created for the student to use to extract the data. Exporting the data to the host system was a challenge. The simplest solution turned out to be having the researcher email the data to himself from within the virtual machine via Gmail using an old web browser (Firefox 2.x).

We were also able to ingest the virtual machine into the emulation service where it can run on either VirtualBox or QEMU.

This is another great candidate for the emulation service. The data is clearly of value but cannot be properly accessed without using the original custom software which only runs on older versions of the Microsoft Windows operating system.

Other uses of the service

In exploring these predictable use-cases for the service, we have also discovered some less-expected scenarios in which the service offers some interesting potential applications. For example, the EaaS framework makes it trivially easy to set up custom environments for patrons. These custom environments take up little space as they are stored as a difference from a base-environment, and they have a unique identifier that can persist over time (or not, as needed).  Such custom environments may be a great way for providing access to sets of restricted data that we are unable to allow patrons to download to their own computers. Being able to quickly configure a Windows 7 virtual machine with some restricted content included in it (and appropriate software for interacting with that content, e.g., an MS Outlook PST archive file with MS Outlook), and provide access to it in this restricted online context, opens entirely new workflows for our archival and special collections staff.

Why we couldn’t use bwFLA’s EaaS

In all three of the use-cases outlined above EaaS was not used as the solution for the end-user. There were two main reasons for this:

  1. We are only in possession of a limited number of physical operating system and application licenses for these older systems. While there is some capacity to use downgrade rights within the University’s volume licensing agreement with Microsoft, with Apple operating systems the situation is much less clear. As a result we are being conservative in our use of the service until we can resolve these issues.
  2. It is not always clear in the license of old software whether this use-case is allowed. Virtualization is rarely (if ever) mentioned in the license agreements. This is likely because it wasn’t very common during the period when much of the software we are dealing with was created. We are working to clarify this point with the General Counsel at Yale and will be discussing it with the software vendors.

Addressing the software licensing challenges

As things stand we are limited in our ability to provide access to EaaS due to licensing agreements (and other legal restrictions) that still apply to the content-supporting operating system and productivity software dependencies. A lot of these dependencies that are necessary for providing access to valuable historic digital content do not have a high economic value themselves.  While this will likely change over time as the value of these dependencies becomes more recognized and the software more rare, it does make for a frustrating situation.  To address this we are beginning to explore options with the software vendors and will be continuing to do this over the following months and years.

We are very interested in the opportunities EaaS offers for opening access to otherwise inaccessible digital assets.  There are many use-cases in which emulation is the only viable approach for preserving access to this content over the long term. Because of this, anything that prevents the use of such services will ultimately lead to the loss of access to valuable and historic digital content, which will effectively mean the loss of that content. Without engagement from software vendors and licensing bodies it may require law change to ensure that this content is not lost forever.

It is our hope that the software vendors will be willing to work with us to save our valuable historic digital assets from becoming permanently inaccessible and lost to future generations. There are definitely good reasons to believe that they will, and so far, those we have contacted have been more than willing to work with us.

Categories: Planet DigiPres

Win an e-book reader

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Digital Preservation Sustainability on the EU Policy Level

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Digital Preservation Sustainability on the EU Policy Level

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Categories: SCAPE

Digital Preservation Sustainability on the EU Policy Level

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Curating Extragalactic Distances: An interview with Karl Nilsen & Robin Dasler

The Signal: Digital Preservation - 18 August 2014 - 4:54pm
EDD Homepage

Screenshot of Extragalactic Distance Database Homepage.

While a fair amount of digital preservation focuses on objects that have clear corollaries to objects from our analog world (still and moving images and documents for example), there are a range of forms that are basically natively digital. Completely native digital forms, like database-driven web applications, introduce a variety of challenges for long-term preservation and access. I’m thrilled to discuss just such a form with Karl Nilsen and Robin Dasler from the University of Maryland, College Park. Karl is the Research Data Librarian, and Robin is the Engineering/Research Data Librarian. Karl and Robin spoke on their work to ensure long-term access to the Extragalactic Distance Database at the Digital Preservation 2014 conference.

Trevor: Could you tell us a bit about the Extragalactic Distance Database? What is it? How does it work? Who does it matter to today and who might make use of it in the long term?

//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmic_distance_ladder#mediaviewer/File:Extragalactic_distance_ladder.JPG">Wikimedia Commons</a>.

Representation of the Extragalactic distance ladder from Wikimedia Commons.

Karl and Robin: The Extragalactic Distance Database contains information that can be used to determine distances between galaxies. For a limited number of nearby galaxies, the distances can be measured directly with a few measurements, but for galaxies beyond these, astronomers have to correlate and calibrate data points obtained from multiple measurements. The procedure is called a distance ladder. From a data curation perspective, the basic task is to collect and organize measurements in such a way that researchers can rapidly collate data points that are relevant to the galaxy or galaxies of interest.

The EDD was constructed by a group of astronomers at various institutions over a period of about a decade and is currently deployed on a server at the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii. It’s a continuously (though irregularly) updated, actively used database. The technology stack is Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP. It also has an associated file system that contains FITS files and miscellaneous data and image files. The total system is approximately 500GB.

EDD Result table

Extragalactic Distance Database Result table.

The literature mentioning extragalactic or cosmic distance runs to thousands of papers in Google Scholar, and over one hundred papers have appeared with 2014 publication dates. Explicit references to the EDD appear in twelve papers with 2014 publication dates and a little more than seventy papers published before 2014. We understand that some astronomers use the EDD for research that is not directly related to distances simply because of the variety of data compiled into the database. Future use is difficult to predict, but we view the EDD as a useful reference resource in an active field. That being said, some of the data in the EDD will likely become obsolete as new instruments and techniques facilitate more accurate distances, so a curation strategy could include a reappraisal and retirement plan.

Our agreement with the astronomers has two parts. In the first part, we’ll create a replica of the EDD at our institution that can serve as a geographically distinct backup for the system in Hawaii. We’re using rsync for transfer. Our copy will also serve as a test case for digital curation and preservation research. In this period, the copy in Hawaii will continue to be the database-of-record. In the second part, our copy may become the database-of-record, with responsibility for long-term stewardship passing more fully to the University of Maryland Libraries. In general, this project gives us an opportunity to develop and fine-tune curation processes, procedures, policies and skills with the goal of expanding the Libraries’ capacity to support complex digital curation and preservation projects.

Trevor: How did you get involved with the database? Did the astronomers come to you or did you all go to them?

Karl and Robin: One of the leaders of the EDD project is a faculty member at the University of Maryland and he contacted us. We’re librarians on the Research Data Services team and we assist faculty and graduate students with all aspects of data management, curation, publishing and preservation. As a new program in the University Libraries, we actively seek and cultivate opportunities to carry out research and development projects that will let us explore different data curation strategies and practices. In early 2013 we included a brief overview of our interests and capabilities in a newsletter for faculty, and that outreach effort lead to an inquiry from the faculty member.

We occasionally hear from other faculty members who have developed or would like to develop databases and web applications as a part of their research, so we expect to encounter similar projects in the future. For that reason, we felt that it was important to initiate a project that involves a database. The opportunities and challenges that arise in the course of this project will inform the development of our services and infrastructure, and ultimately, shape how we support faculty and students on our campus.

Trevor: When you started in on this, were there any other particularly important database preservation projects, reports or papers that you looked at to inform your approach? If so, I’d appreciate hearing what you think the takeaways are from related work in the field and how you see your approach fitting into the existing body of work.

Karl and Robin: Yes, we have been looking at work on database preservation as well as work on curating and preserving complex objects. We’re fortunate that there has been a considerable amount of research and development on database preservation and there is a body of literature available. As a starting point, readers may wish to review:

Some of the database preservation efforts have produced software for digital preservation. For example, readers may wish to look at SIARD (Software Independent Archiving of Relational Databases) or the Database Preservation Toolkit. In general, these tools transform the database content into a non-proprietary format such as XML. However, there are quite a few complexities and trade-offs involved. For example, database management systems provide a wide range of functionality and a high level of performance that may be lost or not easily reconstructed after such transformations. Moreover, these preservation tools may involve dependencies that seem trivial now but could introduce significant challenges in the future. We’re interested in these kinds of tools and we hope to experiment with them, but we recognize that heavily transforming a system for the sake of preservation may not be optimal. So we’re open to experimenting with other strategies for longevity, such as emulation or simply migrating the system to state-of-the-art databases and applications.

Trevor:  Having a fixed thing to preserve makes things a lot easier to manage, but the database you are working with is being continuously updated. How are you approaching that challenge? Are you taking snapshots of it? Managing some kind of version control system? Or something else entirely? I would also be interested in hearing a bit about what options you considered in this area and how you made your decision on your approach.

Karl and Robin: We haven’t made a decision about versioning or version control, but it’s obviously an important policy matter. At this stage, the file system is not a major concern because we expect incremental additions that don’t modify existing files. The MySQL database is another story. If we preserve copies of the database as binary objects, we face the challenge of proliferating versions. That being said, it may not be necessary to preserve a complete history of versions. Readers may be interested to know that we investigated Git for transfer and version control, but discovered that it’s not recommended for large binary files.

Trevor: How has your idea of database preservation changed and evolved by working through this project? Are there any assumptions you had upfront that have been challenged?

Karl and Robin: Working with the EDD has forced us to think more about the relationship between preservation and use. The intellectual value of a data collection such as the EDD is as much in the application–joins, conditions, grouping–as in the discrete tables. Our curation and preservation strategy will have to take this fact into account. We expect that data curators, librarians and archivists will increasingly face the difficult task of preservation planning, policy development and workflow design in cases where sustaining the value of data and the viability of knowledge production depends on sustaining access to data, code and other materials as a system. We’re interested to hear from other librarians, archivists and information scientists who are thinking about this problem.

Trevor: Based on this experience, is there a checklist or key questions for librarians or archivists to think through in devising approaches to ensuring long term access to databases?

Karl and Robin: At the outset, the questions that have to be addressed in database preservation are identical to the questions that have to be addressed in any digital preservation project. These have to do with data value, future uses, project goals, sustainability, ownership and intellectual property, ethical issues, documentation and metadata, data quality, technology issues and so on. A couple of helpful resources to consult are:

Databases may complicate these questions or introduce unexpected issues. For example, if the database was constructed from multiple data sources by multiple researchers, which is not unusual, the relevant documentation and metadata may be difficult to compile and the intellectual property issues may be somewhat complicated.

Trevor: Why are the libraries at UMD the place to do this kind of curation and preservation? In many cases scientists have their own data managers, and I imagine there are contributions to this project from researchers at other universities. So what is it that makes UMD the place to do it and how does doing this kind of activity fit into the mission of the university and the libraries in particular?

Karl and Robin: While there are well-funded research projects that employ data managers or dedicated IT specialists, there are far more scientists and scholars who have little or no data management support. The cost of employing a data manager, even part-time, is too great for most researchers and often too great for most collaborations. In addition, while the IT departments at universities provide data storage services and web servers, they are not usually in the business of providing curatorial expertise, publishing infrastructure and long-term preservation and access. Further, while individual researchers recognize the importance of data management to their productivity and impact, surveys show that they have relatively little time available for data curation and preservation. There is also a deficit of expertise in general, though some researchers possess sophisticated data management skills.

Like many academic libraries, the UMD Libraries recognize the importance of data management and curation to the progress of knowledge production, the growth of open science and the success of our faculty and students. We also believe that library and archival science provide foundational principles and sets of practices that can be applied to support these activities. The Research Data Services program is a strategic priority for the University of Maryland Libraries and is highly aligned with the Libraries’ mission to accelerate and support research, scholarship and creativity. We have a cross-functional, interdisciplinary team in the Libraries–made up of subject specialists and digital curation specialists as needed–and partners across the campus, so we can bring a range of perspectives and skills to bear on a particular data curation project. This diversity is, in our view, essential to solving complex data curation and preservation problems.

We have to acknowledge that our work on the EDD involves a number of people in the Libraries. In particular, Jennie Levine Knies, Trevor Muñoz and Ben Wallberg, as well as University of Maryland iSchool students Marlin Olivier and, formerly, Sarah Hovde, have made important contributions to this project.

Categories: Planet DigiPres

SCAPE Software Projects

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SCAPE Software Projects

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Research is Magic: An Interview with Ethnographers Jason Nguyen & Kurt Baer

The Signal: Digital Preservation - 15 August 2014 - 7:54pm
Jason Nguyen and Kurt Baer, PhD students in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University, drawn in the style of My Little Pony Friendship is Magic

Jason Nguyen and Kurt Baer, PhD students in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University, drawn in the style of “My Little Pony Friendship is Magic”

The following is a guest post from Julia Fernandez, this year’s NDIIPP Junior Fellow. Julia has a background in American studies and working with folklife institutions and worked on a range of projects leading up to CurateCamp Digital Culture in July. This is part of a series of interviews Julia conducted to better understand the kinds of born-digital primary sources folklorists, and others interested in studying digital culture, are making use of for their scholarship.

When Hasbro decided to reboot their 1980s “My Little Pony” franchise, who would have guessed that they would give rise to one of the most surprising and interesting fan subcultures on the web? The 2010 animated television series “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” has garnered an extremely loyal–and as a 2012 documentary put it, “extremely unexpected”–viewership among adult fans. Known colloquially as “bronies” (a portmanteau of “bro” and “ponies”), these fans are largely treated with fascination and confusion by the mainstream media. All of this interest has resulted in a range of scholars in different fields working to understand this cultural phenomena.

In this installment of the NDSA Insights Interview series, I talk with Jason Nguyen and Kurt Baer. Both PhD students at Indiana University in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, Jason and Kurt decided to study this unique subculture. Their website is where they both conduct their field research, blog about their findings and invite feedback from the community.

Julia: Can you tell me a little bit more about bronies (and pegasisters)? How do they define themselves? How long have these movements been occurring and where are they communicating online? Do you have any sense of how large these communities are?

Jason: An important starting premise for us is that bronies attach a wide variety of different values and identity markers to the label of brony, imagining and experiencing their relationships to one another in multiple ways–sometimes even conflicting ones. Nonetheless, there are some shared histories that nearly all bronies will describe as specific to this community. Specifically, bronies as a concept unique from My Little Pony fandom arose out of the relaunch/reboot of the Hasbro franchise as My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic in fall 2010. Lauren Faust, particularly known to this group for her work with her husband Craig McCracken on Powerpuff Girls and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, developed the idea and wrote for the show through its first two seasons, and her gender politics has a lot to do with the complex and often non-normative characterization of the ponies. Because of that, bronies will generally start with the content of the show as reason enough for being a fandom: it is smartly written and portrays a positive, socially-oriented world view. Some bronies will portray this oppositionally to other, more negative media, but at the same time, many are involved in multiple fandoms and are often fans of “darker” work as well.

In any case, the label of “brony” has a pretty specific starting point, arising out of the show’s popularity in 2010 on 4chan, which was to some extent ironic, i.e. “Haha, we’re grown men watching a little girls’ show,” though I think the irony of that moment is always overstated (since irony is a useful footing to allow a grown man to watch a little girls’ show if he so desires). Over the following year, the bronies started to overtake 4chan and were kicked out; 4chan eventually opened /mlp/ for them, but the conflict lasted for a few months and was an impetus to organize elsewhere on the web.

At this point, things get more complicated, because people who like FiM search for other fans online, but the cross-demographic appeal means that reasons for being a fan and even ways of being a fan are not necessarily shared in the way you might expect of a more homogenous group. For example, fans coming from other “geek” fandoms are used to the convention scene and fandom as a sort of genre (keeping in touch with friends online, then getting together a few times a year at a convention), but for many bronies, this is the first time they have participated in this kind of mass-mediated imagined community.

Kurt: As far as numbers go, it is really hard to tell how large the brony community is. This is partly due to the varying definitions of what makes a “brony.” However, the brony community (or communities) is quite large and very active both online and off. For instance, Bronycon, the largest brony convention, brought in over 8,000 people last year, Coder Brony’s 2014 herd census received over 18,000 responses from all around the world, and Equestria Daily is, as of now, rapidly approaching 500 million hits on their website. There are brony communities all over Facebook and Reddit (which even has multiple subreddits devoted to sorting out all of the MLP subreddits). There are very active 4chan, Twitter, SoundCloud and DeviantArt communities; brony groups on other online games ranging from Team Fortress to Minecraft to Clash of Clans; over a dozen 24-hour streaming radio stations for Brony music; and major news sites such as Equestria Daily and Everfree that link bronies to relevant information from all over the web. What’s more is that these “communities” are not discrete from one another. People bounce between platforms all of the time, sometimes between different online personas, making coming up with specific numbers very difficult.

Julia: How is your approach to studying bronies similar or different from approaches to studying other fan cultures, and for that matter, any number of other modes of participatory culture?

Jason: In a lot of ways, I don’t think the work we are doing is all that different than many ethnographic studies insofar as the basic process of participant observation is concerned. As for the field of fan/fandom studies, we have thus far not cast our work in that light, though not because of any strong feelings either way. Fandom studies has a strong thread of reception and media studies coming from a more literary and cultural studies perspective that we enjoy but it’s not our theoretical foundation (I’m thinking of Henry Jenkins’ early work, for example).

That emphasis on broad cultural production that I think is heavily influenced by the legacy of the Frankfurt School is perhaps one difference, since we are strongly ethnographic and thus more granular in our approach. That said, many scholars we might read in a fandom studies class have used ethnographic and anthropological methods as well, such as Bonnie Nardi in her great “My Life as a Night Elf Priest” about the “World of Warcraft” fandom.

Kurt: Ultimately, while we might be one of a few people researching about people and brightly colored ponies on the internet at the moment (that number is always growing), the questions that we are looking to understand and the ways that we are trying to understand them are quite similar to research coming from a long line of ethnographers dating (in the anthropological imagination, at least) all the way back to Bronislaw Malinowski. Perhaps one relatively substantial difference that we have at least been trying for, however, lies in the fact that we are trying to use the blog format to allow for more back-and-forth interaction between us and the people who we are studying/studying with than the traditional ethnographic monograph allows. While many ethnographers (such as Steven Feld in his ethnography “Sound and Sentiment”) are able to get feedback from the people they study with and incorporate that into the writing process (or at least their second editions), we have been trying to find ways to speed up that process of garnering feedback, learning from it, and using that knowledge as a means for further theorization.

Screenshot of the Research is Magic blog, which serves as a space for dialog with research participants.

Screenshot of the Research is Magic blog, which serves as a space for dialog with research participants.

Julia: You’ve stated that your blog “represents an attempt at participant-observation that collapses the boundaries between academic and interlocutor.” Can you expand on this? What are some of your goals with this blog? Why start your own blog as opposed to gathering data and engaging with bronies on their own virtual “turf,” like websites like Equestria Daily?

Kurt: One important bit of background information that I feel is important to bring up here is that Jason and I both come from fields that focus primarily upon ethnographic research, and in fact, the blog itself was started as part of a course in creative ethnography taught by Dr. Susan Lepselter that Jason and I took at Indiana University. In approaching this research ethnographically, we wanted to be able to ask questions and elicit observations from bronies themselves in addition to analyzing the various other types of “texts” such as the show itself, other websites, and pre-existing conversations. We also wanted to be clear and open about the fact that we are researchers conducting research. We figured that starting our own blog would give us the space that we needed to be able to ask questions and make observations while still being clear about our research and research objectives. Through our interactions with people on social media sites and on places such as Equestria Daily, it has been our hope that the blog becomes a space that is part of different bronies’ “turfs,” where they can go to interact with us and each other and discuss different aspects of being a brony.

As far as our attempts to collapse the boundaries between academic and interlocutor goes, one of the things that drew us to the brony community in the first place is that they are already very involved in theorization about themselves and about the show. They talk about what it means to be a brony, provide deep textual analyses of the show and its themes, and grapple with the social implications of liking a show that some people think that they shouldn’t. Rather than us going into the “field,” collecting data about bronies, and then returning to write that information up in an article to be published in an academic journal, we hoped to create a space where we can theorize together and and where all of the observations and ideas would be available in the same space to serve as material for more conversation and theorization.

Jason: Another way to think about this is that there is nothing more brony-like than to start a space of your own online. As Kurt has recounted above, bronies have been quite prolific in their production of cyberspaces for communal interaction, and not all of them are big like Equestria Daily. Of course there are always the YouTube stars and Twitter celebrities of any mass-media fandom, but the more mundane spaces are equally important, and the process of making a website, maintaining a Twitter profile, etc.–in short, creating a presentation of self as brony researchers amongst other people similarly engaged in a presentation of self as bronies–has been invaluable in our experience of the “participant” part of participant-observation. We both have web presences, as most bronies do before they join the fandom, but many choose to create fandom-specific identities, and that means anchoring those identities somewhere; we’ve in part chosen to anchor our brony-related identities on the website.

FiM villain Discord with the intellectual hero Michel Foucault by Jason

Photoshop of the MLP:FiM villain Discord with the intellectual hero Michel Foucault by Jason

With all that said, we do spend a lot of time investigating bronies in other spaces and in less explicitly theoretical ways. We live-tweet (tweeting comments about something as it occurs) new episodes from time to time, which is a really fun experience that lets us interact with both fans and show staff alike. I have drawn fan art and Kurt has made fan music that we have shared via Twitter, Reddit and our site.

So we like to think that we are doing both things at the same time. Of course it is important for anyone doing anthropologically informed ethnography to meet people where they are and explore their lives as they lead them, but at the same time, many fans have shown an interest in a space where they can read about and join in conversations that marry explicit theorization with personal observations of their fandom, and the “Research Is Magic” blog produces a hybrid narrative framing that we found was not previously existing in either academic or brony fandom spaces.

Julia: One of the reasons bronies as a group are so interesting is because they appear to subvert both gender and age norms. But you argue that “an analytical orientation that positions bronies as resisters trivializes their rich social interactions and effaces complicated power dynamics within and peripheral to the fandom.” That’s some dense language! Can you unpack this a bit for us?

Kurt: Essentially, our argument here is one against the tendency to find resistance and subversion and then get carried away insisting on interpreting everything about the group in that light. There is certainly some very interesting subversion of age and gender norms going on in the fandom, but bronies are not only, or even (I would argue) primarily, resisting. Most bronies that we have talked to don’t think of themselves as being oppositional, but instead as simply liking a show that they like. While it is both productive and interesting to look at the ways that bronies are resisting gender norms, it is also very easy for academics to fall into the trap of casting everything in that light, limiting the rich and complex social interactions of bronies to a romanticized narrative about bronies rising up together and resisting the gender stereotypes of larger society.

Jason: Resistance as a concept works because of a binary opposition: X resists Y. However, multiple competing discourses may be at work and are probably not all aligned to one another. For example, earlier this year, a North Carolina school kept a nine year old boy from bringing his Rainbow Dash backpack to school because it was getting him bullied by other students. On one level, the reasoning on all sides is obvious. To the other boys, a boy wearing “girly” paraphernalia is ripe to be bullied. The school counselor wanted to ensure the boy’s safety, so removed what was believed to be the problem. Some parents were concerned that the boy was being punished for simply expressing himself, and that the bullies should have been punished instead. …

So, while each person appears to act in resistance according to a particular discourse of meaning, and each person may have a particular narrative, the entire scenario is complicated by these competing ideas of masculinity that intersect with ideologies of personal freedom and liberty. Rainbow Dash (the character on the backpack), for example, is clearly written as a “tomboy” character–good at sports, adventurous, daring and 20 percent cooler than you. If a boy was going to pick a character to identify with that does not break existing standards of masculinity, she would be the one; thus, insofar as male fans identify with her, they’re also identifying with characteristics that don’t challenge their heteronormativity. But she is also the one covered in rainbows, and that has a particular valence as a form of non-heteronormative imagery (e.g. LGBT rights symbolism). In short, there is a density of meaning attached to Rainbow Dash that complicates people’s responses, though I would argue that it’s that complexity and density of meaning that allows different groups to be drawn to MLP in the first place.

Kurt: The ways in which people are using the show in relation to gender norms further complicate things. While in many ways bronies are challenging gender norms through their liking the show and re-defining ideas about masculinity, in other ways many bronies are super heteronormative. While they like a show that some people think is for girls, their argument is less about the fact that gender norms need dismantling than it is about the fact that the show is written in a way that is appealing to heteronormative men and that men can still be manly while liking MLP. The World’s Manliest Brony, for instance, while going against gender norms in some ways by embracing MLP and re-enforcing the manliness of giving charitably, also reinforces them in others–leaving many ideas of masculinity intact but drawing MLP into the list of things that can be manly.

Julia: Psychologist Marsha Redden, one of the conductors of The Brony Study, stated in an interview that the fandom is a normal response to the anxiety of life in a conflict-driven time, saying “they’re tired of being afraid, tired of angst and animosity. They want to go somewhere a lot more pleasant.” Likewise, a lot of what you talk about on your blog has to do with the positivity of the actual show, how each episode has a positive message and emphasizes the importance of friendship and other values.  It feels very rare that we hear something positive about bronies from the mainstream media. Can you talk a bit about this? What draws adults to the show, and to the community? What do you make of the moral panic surrounding Bronies in the mainstream media?

Jason: At the risk of sounding a little persnickety, I’d like to suggest that we invert the way we think about such causal explanations. Explanations similar to Dr. Redden’s–basically, some version of the idea that the world is a rough and cynical place and that MLP presents an alternative space, no matter how delimited or constrained, that is more trusting and open–are pretty common within the fandom as part of people’s personal narratives for why and how they became bronies (obviously, this is not true for everyone, but it’s clearly a fandom trope). In anthropology itself, scholars like Victor Turner and Max Gluckman have suggested that certain carnivalesque (to borrow Bakhtin’s term) rituals act as a kind of “safety valve” for a society to release its pent up frustrations and conflicts without destroying the order of things, and some version of that idea is laden in Redden’s theory and that of many bronies. There are many bronies who see involvement in fandom and watching the show as that safety valve.

But there are many others who narrate their experience as simply watching a show that they like–just like any other show–and, to their surprise finding outside resistance. Indeed, we don’t expect people to explain their affinity for most elements of popular culture. You need not justify why you watch “Breaking Bad” or “Game of Thrones.”

The fact that causal explanations that answer why you are a brony are central to the narratives of many bronies does not really indicate too much about their truth value, but they are a useful indicator of where society draws its lines and how people who find themselves on the wrong sides of social lines create meaning based on their situations. Here, I’m drawing heavily on Lila Abu-Lughod‘s ideas about resistance as a “diagnostic of power” that points us to the methods and configurations of power (“The Romance of Resistance: Tracing Transformations of Power Through Bedouin Women,” 1990). In this case, bronies (and researchers) find themselves having to produce narratives that can explain why they have crossed norms of gender and age appropriateness, even if they don’t live by those norms themselves. Jacob Clifton in “Geek Love: On the Matter of Bronies” does a great job arguing that, being the first generation raised by feminists, of course these young men don’t see any difference between Twilight Sparkle or Han Solo being their idols.

Kurt: Ultimately the fact that bronies have to justify why they like the show is in many ways coming from the fact that they get such negative press and draw such negative stereotypes. We haven’t done too much to tease out what actually draws people to the show, although we’ve seen many people give many different reasons as we’ve gone about our research–the good writing and production, the positive themes, the large and thriving fan community, having friends and relatives that like the show, that they just somehow liked it, etc. I’m not sure that there is necessarily one, or even a few, things inherent in the show or the fandom that draw people to it any more than there being something inherent in basketball that makes people want to watch it. There are a lot of really complex personal, psychological and socio-cultural things at work in personal preference and the reasons people give usually seem to explain less about why they like something (I couldn’t tell you why I like Carly Rae Jepson or George Clinton) than they give culturally-determined reasons why it might be okay for them to like it.

Julia: Right now you have the benefit of both directly looking for source material on the open web, and having it come to you (through participation on your blog). Given your perspective, what kinds of online content do you think are the most critical for cultural heritage organizations to preserve for anthropologists of the future to study this moment in history?

Kurt: That’s a tough one, as even with our research on bronies I feel like everywhere I look, I see someone joining the Brony research herd with a new and different focus. Although we try to do a lot of our work by talking and collaborating directly with bronies, we’ve dealt with Twitter exchanges, media reports about MLP, message board archives, brony music collections, the show itself and just about anything that we can find where people are exchanging their ideas about the fandom. Others have dealt with collection of fanfics, sites dedicated to discussing MLP and religion, fan art, material culture and cosplay, and just about anything else you can think of. I’m always finding people who focus upon and draw insight from archives (both in the sense of actual archives and in the super-general sense of “stuff people use as the basis of their research”) that I would never have thought to use.

This being said, as someone that primarily studies expressive culture (my degree is from the department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology), I tend to place a lot of importance on it. The amount and quality of the music, art, videos, memes, stories, etc. floating around within the fandom has never ceased to astound me and was one of the primary reasons that I became attracted to the fandom in the first place. I feel like these bodies of creative works–from “My Little Dashie,” “Ponies: The Anthology,” and “Love me Cheerilee” to the Twilicane memes and crude saxophone covers of show tunes –are very important to the fandom and to those that want to understand it as scholars.

Jason: Broadly speaking, anthropologists have taken two approaches to describing the lives of others to their audience. The first is like a wide-angle lens, allowing someone to get a sense of the full scope of a social phenomenon, but it has trouble with the details and the charming little moments of creativity and agency–like fan-created fluffy ponies dancing on rainbows or background ponies portrayed as anthropologists studying humankind. Archival work needs that little-bit-of-everything for context, but it also needs a macro lens that can capture more of those particular and special moments. In anthropology, it might be akin to the difference between Malinowski’s epic “Argonauts of the Western Pacific”–a sprawling work that tried to introduce the entirety of a culture to us–and something like Anthony Seeger’s “Why Suyá Sing,” which performed the humbler, but no less impressive, task of letting us experience the nuances of a single ritual.

Since we can’t archive every little thing to that level of detail … we have to make choices, and that’s where bronies themselves are the best guides. What moments mattered to them, and “where” in cyberspace did they experience those moments? For a concrete example, the moment Twilight Sparkle gained her wings and became an alicorn princess (she was previously just a unicorn…thanks M.A. Larson) was particularly salient in the community, suggesting for some fans Hasbro’s stern hand manipulating the franchise. While there are some other similar instances, the unique expressions through Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, Tumblr, etc. during and immediately following the Season 3 episode “Magical Mystery Cure” (when that transformation occurs) provide a really important look into what holds meaning for this fandom.

On a technical level, I think that means being able to follow links surrounding particular events to multiple levels of depth across multiple media modalities.

Julia: If librarians, archivists and curators wanted to learn more about approaches like yours what examples of other scholars’ work would you suggest? It would be great if you could mention a few other scholars’ work and explain what you think is particularly interesting about their approaches.

Jason: One place to start is to consider what the cultural artifact is and what it is we are analyzing, interpreting, preserving, archiving, etc., because it is not, ethnographically speaking, simply media that we are studying. As Mary Gray has insisted, we should “de-center media as the object of analysis,” instead looking at what that media means and how it is contextualized. For the archivist or curator, I think that means figuring out how people come to understand media and how they attach particular ideologies to it. Ilana Gershon’s “The Breakup 2.0″ and her work on “media ideology” broadly are great examples of shifting our attention so that we can hold both the “text” and “context” in view simultaneously.

Another example is danah boyd’s recent study of young people and their social media use, “It’s Complicated,” in which she inverts older people’s assumptions that teenagers’ social media use is crippling their ability to socialize, instead arguing that the constant texting and messaging indicates a desire to connect with one another that is born out of frustration with the previous generation’s (over-)protectiveness: truancy and loitering law, curfews, school busing, constant organized activity, etc. She arrives at that conclusion not only by studying teens’ messages, but by analyzing the historical conditions that produce the very different concerns of teens and their parents.

Kurt: As far as our approach goes, we’ve also been influenced by scholars working creatively with ethnography as a form or working just outside of its purview. We’ve brought up Kathleen Stewart’s “Ordinary Affects” in our blog and academic papers several times because it has been extremely influential upon both of us through its attempt to understand and express the ordinary moments in people’s lives that, while not unusual, per se, seem to have a weight to them that moves them somewhere in some direction–the little moments that are both ordinary and extraordinary, nondescript and meaningful. Susan M. Schultz’ “Dementia Blog” also comes to mind. While it isn’t necessarily an ethnography, per se, Schultz utilized blogging and its unique structural features (namely, that newer posts come first so that reading the blog in order is actually going backwards in time) as a means of looking into the poetics and tragic beauty of dementia while also expressing and understanding her own feelings as her mother’s mental illness progressed.

Jason: We are not too familiar with scholars who are interacting with fans in precisely the way that we are (or whether there are any), though it is important to be aware of the term “aca-fan” (academic fan) in fandom studies and some of the works being produced under that rubric. Henry Jenkins titles his website “Confessions of an Aca-Fan,” for example, and writes for an audience that includes both scholars and people interested in fandoms in general. The online journal Flow is another example that is somewhat more closely related to our blog, expressly attempting to link scholars with members of the public interested in talking about television. I’m also personally influenced by the work of Michael Wesch and Kembrew McLeod, both scholars who attempt to engage their students and the public in novel ways using media and technology.

Categories: Planet DigiPres

Warlords of Draenor launches November 13, here's how Blizzard is tempting you ... - Geek

Google News Search: "new file format" - 15 August 2014 - 11:40am

Warlords of Draenor launches November 13, here's how Blizzard is tempting you ...
Geek
However, what Blizzard is most excited about is the introduction of a brand new file format called Content Addressable Storage Container (CASC). CASC replaces Mo'PaQ (MPQ). Players should be glad about this switch as it means World of Warcraft can find ...

and more »
Categories: Technology Watch

Canvas fingerprinting, the technical stuff

File Formats Blog - 15 August 2014 - 10:57am

The ability of websites to bypass privacy settings with “canvas fingerprinting” has caused quite a bit of concern, and it’s become a hot topic on the Code4lib mailing list. Let’s take a quick look at it from a technical standpoint. It is genuinely disturbing, but it’s not the unstoppable form of scrutiny some people are hyping it as.

The best article to learn about it from is “Pixel Perfect: Fingerprinting Canvas in HTML5,” by Keaton Mowery and Hovav Shacham at UCSD. It describes the basic technique and some implementation details.

Canvas fingerprinting is based on the <canvas> HTML element. It’s been around for a decade but was standardized for HTML5. In itself, <canvas> does nothing but define a blank drawing area with a specified width and height. It isn’t even like the <div> element, which you can put interesting stuff inside; if all you use is unscripted HTML, all you get is some blank space. To draw anything on it, you have to use JavaScript. There are two APIs available for this: the DOM Canvas API and the WebGL API. The DOM API is part of the HTML5 specification; WebGL relies on hardware acceleration and is less widely supported.

Either API lets you draw objects, not just pixels, to a browser. These include geometric shapes, color gradients, and text. The details of drawing are left to the client, so they will be drawn slightly differently depending on the browser, operating system, and hardware. This wouldn’t be too exciting, except that the API can read the pixels back. The getImageData method of the 2D context returns an ImageData object, which is a pixel map. This can be serialized (e.g., as a PNG image) and sent back to the server from which the page originated. For a given set of drawing commands and hardware and software configuration, the pixels are consistent.

Drawing text is one way to use a canvas fingerprint. Modern browsers use a programmatic description of a font rather than a bitmap, so that characters will scale nicely. The fine details of how edges are smoothed and pixels interpolated will vary, perhaps not enough for any user to notice, but enough so that reading back the pixels will show a difference.

However, the technique isn’t as frightening as the worst hype suggests. First, it doesn’t uniquely identify a computer. Two machines that have the same model and come from the same shipment, if their preinstalled software hasn’t been modified, should have the same fingerprint. It has to be used together with other identifying markers to narrow down to one machine. There are several ways for software to stop it, including blocking JavaScript from offending domains and disabling part or all of the Canvas API. What gets people upset is that neither blocking cookies nor using a proxy will stop it.

Was including getImageData in the spec a mistake? This can be argued both ways. Its obvious use is to draw a complex canvas once and then rubber-stamp it if you want it to appear multiple times; this can be faster than repeatedly drawing from scratch. It’s unlikely, though, that the designers of the spec thought about its privacy implications.


Tagged: DOM, HTML, html5, JavaScript, W3C
Categories: Planet DigiPres

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