Building Epoiesen

Building Epoiesen

The curtain goes up, the first pawn moves, the first shot is fired*—but that’s not the start. The play, the game, the war is just a little window on a ribbon of events that may extend back thousands of years. The point is, there’s always something before. It’s always a case of Now Read On.

Much human ingenuity has gone into finding the ultimate Before.

The current state of knowledge can be summarized thus:

In the beginning, there was nothing, which exploded.

* Probably at the first pawn.

  • Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies 

Epoiesen is now alive, a journal for creative engagement in history and archaeology. But when did Epoiesen begin? What was its genesis?

As I look through my notebooks and emails and miscellaneous files, I can’t find the *exact* beginning (I know that I’ve been interested in new publishing models for a while though). I find in my inbox an email setting up a meeting with George Duimovich and Pat Moore from our Library to talk about Open Journal Systems in March of 2015. I find scribbles of ideas in notebooks going back to about 2014 (not coincidentally, shortly after my tenure and promotion portfolio was shoehorned from its born-digital format into dead pdfs). In October 2015, I find a google doc that I shared with some folks for an idea of something called ‘Paradata: A Journal of Digital Scholarship in Archaeology and Ancient History’. The influence of HeritageJam I think is clear too 😉 I wrote,

“I see this idea as being parallel to things like which publishes ‘data papers’. Paradata would publish the scholarship that goes into making something of that kind of info, while the dead tree versions can be where people duke it out over the interpretations. Moreover, since link rot and website death is a real issue, Paradata would hit a real niche where projects could continue ever after”

But that idea seems to have run out of steam.  I’m not entirely sure why. I find one note that suggests we felt that our idea perhaps was too close to what DHCommons Journal had in mind.

My notes go silent for a while. Then I find scribbles in my notebooks again from around the time of my participation in MSUDAI, the Digital Archaeology Institute at MSU, concomitant with the creation of @tinyarchae my Tracery-powered dysfunctional excavation bot. That was August 2016. Then, sometime in September of last year, I find a website I built:

O what could’ve been, eh? Here, I’m clearly going for a bit of whimsy; not so much just paradata for conventional digital projects, but maybe something more. The core idea still seems to be there – a place to validate digital things.  I rather like that template, and I need to remind myself what I was using to build it. Structurally, there’s a debt here to open research notebooks done in Jekyll, so that’s probably it.  I did show this ‘Miscellaney’ to people, but there were some very strong reactions to the name, to the whimsy, as it were – see below. (I still like ‘Haptic Visions’ as a category though).

The actual email that led to Epoiesen seeing the light of day comes from October 16 2016:

Hi Pat,

As I was saying to George – and I think you and I have talked about this too on occasion – I’ve been interested to explore creating an open access journal for digital archaeology. I’ve seen the open journals platform, and while it is very cool, it’s not quite what I’m thinking of. I’m interested in something a bit more idiosyncratic that would be based on simple text files in the markdown format, and building the site/journal from that with a static site generator.

The idea is to create what amounts to a kind of literary journal, but for creative engagement with the past. I would solicit everything from twitter bots (I’ve created one that tweets out what amounts to a procedurally-generated soap opera, scenes from an excavation) to music, to art, to creative writing, to data viz… I would solicit reviews, but these would also be published alongside the work under the reviewers’ name. The Hypothesis web annotation architecture would also be built in  […] In a way, it would be a place to publish the ‘paradata’ of digital making in archaeology … Does this sound feasible? Is it something we could do? Maybe I could drop by sometime to chat.

Pat said ‘Yes’. Simple word, ‘yes’. Strong word, ‘yes’. Librarians are powerful.

From that initial meeting, many more meetings took place. Research. Emails. Phone calls. I’ll try to summarize… My first port of call was of course those folks who’ve done this kind of thing before. Martin Paul Eve published a series of posts on his blog that offered his advice on starting an open access journal, and I can’t recommend them enough. Indeed, if you’re one of the people who received an email from me about joining the editorial board, you’ll recognize that I adhered rather closely to Eve’s model.

I was still going with the ‘Smith’s’ name until about November of last year, when I find an email I wrote,

I have, on the advice of several people whose situation is far more precarious than my own, gone for a bit of a name change to signal a bit less whimsy….They rightly pointed out to me that as junior folks the perception of their work is everything, and my whimsical ’Smiths’ name would undermine rather than help them…

One of the earliest folks on board was the wonderful Sara Perry.  I find we exchanged several yonks-worth of emails, throwing ideas around about who to contact, who might be persuaded to submit, and so on. The wonderful folks of the editorial board as a group kept me grounded, found potential contributors, suggested Trello as a way of keeping track of who was doing what, and basically helped keep things on track when my enthusiasm threatened to derail things.

While all of this was going on, I continued to play with the design and platform. I eventually settled on Hexo as a static site generator. I’d been using Jekyll with my open research notebook, but Jekyll frankly is just not something I can work with.

Now Hexo is not without its idiosyncracies. I learned how it builds the site out of little snippets of ‘ejs’ code. I learned how to embed (that is, into what ‘partial’ to paste) . I figured out where to place the bits and bobs of Tipuesearch (an open source jquery search engine plugin) into the site. (It generates a full json representation of all the site content, so not only making it searchable, but other folks can use it for remixing, data viz, whatever). You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to work out how to make the list-of-articles page, list alphabetically, rather than by date. There was also a battle where the hexo deploy command for pushing everything to my test site ingested accidentally a bunch of stuff I didn’t want – super huge image files – and so I had to wade deep into the waters of git to fix (and I thank the DHAnswers channel in DH Slack for the help!).  Turns out, if you’re using Hexo and Github, don’t fiddle with anything via the website. Getting DOIs embedded into the page metadata, that was also difficult.

Here’s what the YAML metadata for an article looks like:

title: Destory History
date: 2017-09-01 20:01:04
tags: interactive fiction
cover_index: /imgs/coyne/quinten-de-graaf-258711.jpg
cover_detail: /imgs/coyne/11146352055_64c730a741_o.jpg
author: "Coyne, Lucas"
doi: "10.22215/epoiesen/2017.4"

The partials grab the ‘author’ for alphabetizing posts, and the doi for embedding into the metadata:

<% if (page.doi){ %>
        <meta name="dc:identifier" content="<%= page.doi %>" />
    <% } %>

That might not mean very much to you, or look very impressive, but darnit,  it took several hours of reading stackoverflow and fiddling with things, generating the site over and over again, so I’m pasting it here for posterity…. anyway, I now have a default template for creating articles, that has reminders within it of the kinds of information that I need to include and where they go.

One year later, Epoiesen exists in the world! I announced it with a tweet…

… we will be doing a formal ‘Ta Da!’ during open access week in October. So many people come together at just the right time to make something in this world. Serendipity, and someone says ‘Yes’, and suddenly, there is something that wasn’t before. What else is tenure for, if it isn’t to make space for someone else to do something new? I hope you’ll consider Epoiesen for your own experiments and creative engagements.


I’m grateful to everyone who has sent me a note or tweeted regarding the start of Epoiesen. I look forward to seeing where this adventure will lead! Thank you, all. I’m also grateful to Neville Morley, who writes about Epoiesen’s situation in the broader publishing landscape in ‘Changing the Rules

Moving forward, I’ve very excited to work with Bill Caraher and The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota to publish the Epoiesen Annual, where all of the articles from a given year are gathered together and given (printed) flesh.

Stay tuned! Make wonderful things!


The Minimal Viable Digital History Virtual Machine

The Minimal Viable Digital History Virtual Machine

I have three classes on the go, all of which are heavily digitally inflected. In the past, I’ve always figured it was better to teach students how to use the machines they have to hand, rather than trying to get them all on a single virtual machine; after all, most of the students come to my classes with only the vaguest idea of what their machines can actually do. Being able to click around madly in Word or Powerpoint is not digital literacy. In which case, figure out what this (real) thing is capable of before we complicated matters with another (virtual) thing.

That means a lot of tech support.  I’ve always undertaken to help the windows people put things into their path variables, and mac people to guide them around the terminal (terminal?! path!?) and so on and so on. Normally, not a big deal. But this term, the three courses combined are taxing me pretty heavily.

Have you tried turning it off and on?

I’m thinking that the next time I run these courses, it’d be better to just bow to the inevitable, get everyone working on the same image, and spend time sorting out a virtual machine and then getting on with life. My question then is, what is the minimum viable digital history virtual machine? What are its components? What flavour of linux? Should it have a GUI? etc.

There are some places to start. Turkel, Start, and Milligan have the ‘HistoryCrawler‘ available for use. But the instructions are, well, complex . (EDIT- As Ian points out in the comments, those instructions are for replicating/building from scratch; to use, just download, load into virtualbox, and Go. It’s still 8gb though). One of my undergrads* built a VM last year for me – which was awesome, A+, that man – but it was still too heavy and a touch unstable. Ben Marwick has a VM set up script for archaeological computing (and me futzing with same).

It would have to be extremely straightforward to install. I’m thinking, no more than a handful of commands (that includes setting up all the virtualization framework too). It would have to automatically be configured to communicate with the students ‘my documents’ folder or similar, for getting stuff in and out (that’s a mission critical point, by the way. Configuring that would cause brain melts). It would have to be extremely light. No one has turned up with a chromebook (yet), but people are buying some godawful cheap laptops with next to no RAM.

Anyway, those are just some initial thoughts. What should the minimum viable machine have in it? What are the crucial things? Answers on a postcard.

*He also rewrote one of the exercises in the workbook to use a vanilla linux VM – see

(edited Jan 31, rewritten a bit)

Teaching History in/with/via Video Games

Teaching History in/with/via Video Games

Prompted by Lee, I’m collating here materials that I’ve put out there regarding my teaching/thinking related to video games & history and archaeology. The list below is in no recognizable bibliographic style (mostly because I’m tapping this out and can’t be bothered this AM).

2006 The Year of the Four Emperors – CivIV scenario that started it all

2012 Stranger in These Parts—v01

2009 Kee, Graham, et al. Towards a Theory of Good History Through Gaming. Canadian Historical Review 90.2

2010 My Glorious Failure

2010 Kee, Graham, and Vaughan The Haunted School on Horror Hill: A Case Study of Interactive Fiction in an Elementary Classroom

2014 Kee, Graham Teaching History in an Age of Pervasive Computing: The Case for Games in the High School and Undergraduate Classroom Pastplay–pastplay-teaching-and-learning-history-with-technology?g=dculture;trgt=div2_ch13;view=fulltext;xc=1

2014 Graham Rolling Your Own: On Modding Commercial Games for Educational Goals Pastplay–pastplay-teaching-and-learning-history-with-technology?g=dculture;rgn=div1;subview=detail;type=simple;view=fulltext;q1=Rolling+Your+Own%3A+On+Modding+Commercial+Games+for+Educational+Goals

2015 Pulling Back the Curtain- Writing History through Video Games Web Writing

I think that’s everything.

Syllabi, websites, random presentations etc

Playing Pedagogy: Videogaming as Site and Vehicle for Digital Public Archaeology

An introduction to writing history through videogames (for High School students)

HIST3812a 2014 version, Minecrafted History worlds:

HIST3812a 2014 version, playable syllabus

HIST3812a 2014 version, course blog

HIST3812a 2013 version,

Book Launch: ‘Exploring Big Historical Data: The Historian’s Macroscope’ Nov 17

Book Launch: ‘Exploring Big Historical Data: The Historian’s Macroscope’ Nov 17

We’re launching our book on November 17th, at 11.30 in the History department lounge, 4th floor of Paterson Hall. Drop by if you’re around!

I’m also going to undertake to stream the conversation on youtube. I’ve never set a livestream up (there seems to be an assumption round here that if you’re the digital guy, you’re also totally au-courrant with audio/vidsual tech and the ins and outs of broadcasting. This is not the case) so I’m not guaranteeing this will work. But if it does, it’ll be at:

Finally, what does a book launch entail? I have no real idea. And so, what we’ve done is this – Shawn Anctil, who is one of our PhD students and doing very cool work in digital history himself (he sometimes blogs here) will moderate a round table discussion with myself, Ian Milligan, and Scott Weingart (Scott will be skyping in). We’ll field questions from those assembled and of course via twitter (use #hmbook as a tag).

The round table conversation will last about an hour, and then Ian and I will give a bit of a digital history workshop. Our plan will be to focus on network analysis, so if this interests you, bring a laptop and have Gephi installed. Note that Gephi sometimes has Java issues – this will help. The workshop won’t be streamed, I think. Maybe it will. Really depends on whether I a) can get streaming to work and b) forget to turn it off again.

See you on Tuesday!

Living the Life Electric

I’m addressing the Underhill Graduate Students’ Colloquium tomorrow, here in the history department at Carleton U. Below are my slides for ‘Living the Life Electric: On Becoming a Digital Humanist’

update March 7: here are my speaking notes. These give a rough sense of what I intend to talk about at various points. Bolded titles are the titles of slides. Not every slide is listed, as some speak more or less for themselves.

I wanted to be an archaeologist – I graduated in 2002.

‘Digital Humanities’ wasn’t coined until 2004.

It emerges from ‘humanities computing’, which has been around since the 1940s.

In fact, computing wouldn’t be the way it is today without the Humanities, and the Jesuit, Father Busa.

Eastern Canada’s Only Stamped Brick Specialist -Roman archaeology

Stamped brick

Eastern Canada’s only Stamped Brick Specialist, probably

….things were pretty lean in 2003…

Life from a suitcase

Comin’ Home Again

Youth development grant to study cultural heritage of my home township

Also a small teaching excavation based in Shawville

Which led to a teaching gig at the local high school.

A Year of Living Secondarily

What was it about my academic work that I really enjoyed?


Possibilities of Simulation

Random Chances and the virtues of ‘What the Hell’

Coronation Hall

Meanwhile, I enter business – 3 different startups, one of which has survived (so far!)

Heritage focus

Heritage education – learned how to install my own software, LMS

Trying to monetize the information I uncovered in my cultural heritage study

Coronation Hall Cider Mills

(Shameless Plug).

What are the digital humanities  – think about it: modern computers were developed in order to allow us to map, forecast, the consequences of massive annihilation and death. Simulation is rooted in the desire to predict future death counts. My interest emerged from trying to simulate my own understandings of the past, to understand the unintended consequences of my understandings, to put some sort of order on the necessarily incomplete materials I was looking at. I call it ‘practical necromancy’

Do your work in public blog was originally intended to chronicle my work on simulation, but it has become very much the driver of my online identity, the calling card that others see when they intersect my work – and because it’s been up for so long, with a sustained focus, it creates a very strong signal which our algorithms, Google, pick up. This is how academics can push the public discourse: interfere with the world’s extended mind, their entangled consciousness of cyberspace & meatspace.

Allows you to develop your ideas

Forces you to write in small chunks

Exposes your work to potential audiences

My blog posts have been cited in others’ academic monographs

Has improved the readership of my published work

A quarter million page reads over the last six years.

My book: maybe 40 copies, if I’m lucky.

Basic Word Counts

Top words:

digital 1082 research 650 university 577 experience 499 library 393 humanities 386

History: 177 times

Broadly, not useful or surprising. But consider the structure of word use…

Group 1: gives you a sense of technical skills, but for the most part not the kinds of analyses that one would use that for. That’s an important distinction. The analysis should drive the skill set, not the other way around (a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail)

Group 2: European centres!

Group 3: Canada!

Job adverts – to – topics. Six broad groups based on how the adverts share particular discourses. Gives a sense of where academic departments think this field is going. If I’d done this according to individual researcher’s blogs, or the ‘about’ pages for different centres, you’d get a very different picture – game studies, for instance.


Important point: I wanted to show you how you can begin to approach large masses of material, and extract insights, suss out, underlying structures of ideas. This is going to be big in the future, as more and more data about our every waking moment gets recorded. Google Glass? It’s not about the user: it’s about everything the user sees, which’ll get recorded in the googleplex. Governments. Marketers. University Administrations. Learn to extract signals from this noise, and you’ll never go hungry again.

Keep in mind that in 1994 I wrote that the internet would never be useful for academics. My ability to predict the future is thus suspect.

So how to join this brave new world? Twitter, etc.




HIST3812, Gaming and Simulation for Historians

Finally, with a bit of space to breathe, I am turning to getting my HIST3812 Gaming and Simulation for Historians course put together. In response to student queries about what this course will explore, I’ve put together a wee comic book (to capture the aesthetic of playfulness about history that games & simulations naturally contain). I’m not a particularly good maker of comic books, but it does the trick, more or less.

See it on Issuu here

Getting Started with MALLET and Topic Modeling

UPDATE! September 19th 2012: Scott Weingart, Ian Milligan, and I have written an expanded ‘how to get started with Topic Modeling and MALLET’ for the Programming Historian 2. Please do consult that piece for detailed step-by-step instructions for getting the software installed, getting your data into it, and thinking through what the results might mean.

Original Post that Inspired It All:

I’m very interested in topic modeling at the moment. It has not been easy however to get started – I owe a debt of thanks to Rob Nelson for helping me to get going. In the interests of giving other folks a boost, of paying it forward, I’ll share my recipe. I’m also doing this for the benefit of some of my students. Let’s get cracking!

First, some background reading:

  1. Clay Templeton, “Topic Modeling in the Humanities: An Overview | Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities”, n.d.,
  2. Rob Nelson, Mining the Dispatch
  3. Cameron Blevins, “Topic Modeling Martha Ballard’s Diary” Historying, April 1, 2010,
  4. David J Newman and Sharon Block, “Probabilistic topic decomposition of an eighteenth‐century American newspaper,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 57, no. 6 (April 1, 2006): 753-767.
  5. David Blei, Andrew Ng, and Michael Jordan, “Latent dirichlet allocation,” The Journal of Machine Learning Research 3 (2003),

Now you’ll need the software. Go to the MALLET project page, and download Mallet. (Mallet was developed by Andrew McCallum at U Massachusetts, Amherst).

Then, you’ll need the Java developer’s kit – nb, not the regular Java that’s on every computer, but the one that lets you program things. Install this.

Unzip Mallet into your C:/ directory . This is important; it can’t be anywhere else. You’ll then have a folder called C:/mallet-2.0.6 or similar.

Next, you’ll need to create an environment variable called MALLET_HOME. You do this by clicking on control panel >> system >> advanced system settings (in Windows 7; for XP, see this article), ‘environment variables’. In the pop-up, click ‘new’ and type MALLET_HOME in the variable name box; type c:/mallet-2.0.6 (ie, the exact location where you unzipped Mallet) in variable value.

To run mallet, click on your start menu >> all programs >> accessories >> command prompt. You’ll get the command prompt window, which will have a cursor at c:\user\user> (or similar). type cd .. (two periods; that ain’t a typo) to go up a level; keep doing this until you’re at the C:\ .  Then type cd:\mallet-2.0.6 and you’re in the Mallet directory. You can now type Mallet commands directly. If you type bin\mallet at this point, you should be presented with a list of Mallet commands – congratulations!

At this point, you’ll want some data. Using the regular windows explorer, I create a folder within mallet where I put all of the data I want to study (let’s call it ‘data’). If I were to study someone’s diary, I’d create a unique text file for each entry, naming the text file with the entry’s date. Then, following the topic modeling instructions on the mallet page, I’d import that folder, and see what happens next. I’ve got some work flow for scraping data from websites and other repositories, but I’ll leave that for another day (or skip ahead to The Programming Historian for one way of going about it.)

Once you’ve imported your documents, Mallet creates a single ‘mallet’ file that you then manipulate to determine topics.

bin\mallet import-dir --input \data\johndoediary --output
johndoediary.mallet \ --keep-sequence --remove-stopwords

(modified from the Mallet topic modeling page)

This sequence of commands tells mallet to import a directory located in the subfolder ‘data’ called ‘johndoediary’ (which contains a sequence of txt files). It then outputs that data into a file we’re calling ‘johndoediary.mallet. Removing stopwords strips out ‘and’ ‘of’ ‘the’ etc.

Then we’re ready to find some topics:

bin\mallet train-topics --input johndoediary.mallet \
  --num-topics 100 --output-state topic-state.gz --output-topic-keys
  johndoediary_keys.txt --output-doc-topics johndoediary_composition.txt

(modified from the Mallet topic modeling page)

Now, there are more complicated things you can do with this – take a look at the documentation on the Mallet page. Is there a ‘natural’ number of topics? I do not know. What I have found is that I have to run the train-topics with varying numbers of topics to see how the composition file breaks down. If I end up with the majority of my original texts all in a very limited number of topics, then I need to increase the number of topics; my settings were too coarse.

More on interpreting the output of Mallet to follow.

Again, I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Rob Nelson for talking me through the intricacies of getting Mallet to work, and for the record, I think the work he is doing is tremendously important and fascinating!

A Small Revolution

“It was a small revolution: you could see something infiltrate the room – pride – as this person from the University talked about their history, their story.”

I was speaking with Lisa Mibach, from Deschenes, Quebec, once an independent town, then part of the city of Aylmer, and now part of the larger city of Gatineau. We were talking about her and her group’s efforts to document the heritage of this part of the city. It’s an anglophone sector of the city. If you look on the google map satellite image, you can see one of the most significant pieces of built heritage in the entire city of Gatineau – the former Deschenes Electric Company. When you cross on the Champlain Bridge, you can see this impressive ruin to the west. This plant electrified the town of Deschenes and Aylmer, and provided the power for the Ottawa Electric Railway Company (back when Ottawa had working light rail).

Lisa’s been working hard to document this community’s history; the story she told me was about one of the ‘heritage days’ that they’ve put on. This was where they had someone come in and look at their materials that they’d collected, and re-present them to the community.

Sometimes, the public historian or archaeologist’s most important job is to listen to the community, and tell them what he’s heard. In that way, it somehow becomes more ‘real’, more ‘important’, more worthy of study and serious consideration in the eyes of that self-same community. The act of observation changes that which is observed.

I’m entranced by this small community’s history, and hope to explore there more this summer, ideally as part of

Serious Games for Archeaology & Imagining The Past

Ruth Tringham and her team at Berkeley continue to do extremely interesting work! I’ve just come across this course description for ‘serious games for archaeology‘, a course that asks probably *the* most important question when it comes to the content of historically-themed video games:

[…]We will explore and learn to critically analyze existing games that deal with archaeology, history, and the past. How, for example, does the game “Colonial Williamsburg” that MIT is developing differ from more popular games such as “Civilization”? We’ll discuss why it is that the commercial game producers are not interested in the educational value and content of their games.[…] (emphasis added SG)

That’s the nub, right there. Why does it matter that the Taliban can be swapped out of Medal of Honor without any consequences to game play? These are questions that historians and archaeologists need to address. In a similar vein, that was the motivation behind our paper from this past summer on a theory of good history through good gaming.

Players of history games are interested in the past and in the big questions that drive historical scholarship. In this way, games have the potential to draw players into the discipline if we can discover the best way to express history though simulation. But what research do we draw on as we study how to accomplish this transformation? This essay is the product of a meeting of historians, educators, and gamers who joined previously separate lines of inquiry to identify literature and models that we believe form the foundation for developing a theory of good history through gaming.