JSON and the Argonauts

“Who even is Jason?” – was the (sarcastic) question of the hour during this past week’s Interactive Exhibit Design studio. This week we learned about JSON data and how we can use JSON data from websites in our Processing code.

JSON data is based on the JavaScript programming language and it provides a list of what appears on a webpage in a format which is (relatively) easy for a human to understand, and (extremely) easy for computers to understand and use.

In our studio session we used an API key from openweathermap.org to pull weather information from their JSON data. And using Processing we created a text box to present the data we were interested in.

Weather JSON
Current Weather in Halifax, on Sunday March 3.

At first I found the JSON data difficult to parse. But once I started to understand the way in which the data was nested it became a bit easier to understand. It helped that our example was using the weather, so I understood what words were connected with which concepts (“temp” is temperature, “sunrise” is sunrise etc). I think this will be a much steeper learning curve with other data sets, especially when there are more units and more esoteric labelling systems. I’m still not entirely clear how to know when to refer to a piece of data as a float (number with decimal), int (number without a decimal), string (word), or PImage (image), except through educated guesses and trial and error. And since there is no standard  system for API and JSON data, I fear I may have to rely on both more often than not.

JSON data

Once I figured out how to extract the information I was looking for from the JSON data I started thinking about how this type of data could be used in a museum exhibit. There is something powerful about having real-time information on display, but displaying something like the weather, which (generally) takes quite a while to change, isn’t very exciting. And while museum exhibits don’t have to be exciting, the good ones generally are. You want to be able to interact with it, and see some kind of change without having to make a return visit several hours or days later.

How could we make JSON data more interactive?

Because I was already thinking about the weather (and I have a natural maritime history bias) I wonder if we could use the JSON data to talk about maritime history.

If we set things up to answer a simple question we can still give the audience some of that powerful real-time response data.  Here’s my potential scenario:

The audience/visitor is learning about maritime history, the perils of bad weather, and the importance of being aware of the weather when you’re working at sea. They input different dates into the device and using historical weather data they receive a response about whether or not it’s safe to head out on the water. This would allow the visitors to put in whatever date they want – birthdays, anniversaries, etc – and connect them to the data in a way that is potentially more meaningful. The responses could be more than just a safe/not-safe dichotomy as well. There could be different levels of safe (as in life) : calm and sunny – good wind for sailing – rough seas – STAY ON LAND. the different reactions could be based on different data from the weather – including wind speed and wave heights.

It would be interesting to see if this kind of data can be harnessed in other ways as well.



This term I have the pleasure of taking a course on Interactive Exhibit Design. The class is unlike any history class I’ve ever taken. It’s a studio course and we’re using the Arduino starter kit and project book to teach us about basic coding and make us think about how this technology might be applied practically in a museum setting.

An Arduino is a microcontroller. And what that means is that it’s a programmable circuit board, which is paired with coding software which tells it what to do.

Having only completed a few of the projects in the starter kit so far, I’m impressed by how simple it is. I know I don’t fully understand the ins-and-outs of coding, and I don’t have the interest to become an expert, but it’s very satisfying to learn that this is something that – armed with the knowledge of where to look for help and tutorials – I am capable of doing.


So far we have used a variety of components including LEDs, small servo  and DC motors, temperature sensors, momentary switches, and other physical elements.

The physical process of wiring the components on the Arduino’s breadboard is a little strange for me. Before I returned to the welcoming arms of academia, I worked as a construction electrician. Wiring is no stranger to me, but I’m far more comfortable with AC power. When I was working at electrical any electronics and controllers would be installed and calibrated by specialists and I’d just feed them the wires they needed. So while I’m familiar with a lot of the components and electrical theory, it’s not something I actually have a lot of experience with.

The coding, on the other hand is far outside my comfort zone. It’s certainly more complicated than the basic html I’ve been using in blog posts and comments. One of the challenges of coding is having to learn a new language. Coding languages are both easier and harder than spoken/written languages because they’re logic based. So on the one hand there aren’t weird exceptions to the rules, but also there’s no room for error. If I get a tense wrong while I’m learning a language, mostly the sentence is still comprehensible. But making a single typo in your code, even something as simple as using a lowercase character instead of a capital, makes it non-functional.

In our current projects we’re working on a small scale (quite literally, the hardest part of wiring up these projects is being able to see where I’ve connected things on the breadboard, while wearing my glasses), and sometimes it’s difficult to see how these small things can be scaled up to use in a museum setting.

Alex and I are working at the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum this term, and one of our projects is to update the Second World War exhibit in the permanent gallery. Our curator is planning to include an interactive map, and we’ve been discussing how the Arduino system might work for that. Perhaps we could use a series of LEDs and buttons to illustrate significant battles and events in the war. Or to follow the path of the RCR in the Italian campaign.

I’m interested to continue with the starter projects, there are so many other possibilities that I was not previously aware of.

The London Mithraeum!

So this is a very cool thing! Firstly, I have a massive soft spot for this site, since I think that Mithras and Mithraea are very cool ™, and I wrote a paper on small finds at three Mithraea including this one at the Walbrook valley in London.

My favourite thing about finds at Mithraea is the animal remains! They demonstrate evidence of feasts conducted at the temple and what they feasted upon is very interesting! At Walbrook the most common remains came from chickens, but they also had pig, cattle, and sheep/goat – (for those who aren’t familiar with animal remains, sheep and goats are pretty much indistinguishable from one another unless you’ve got a skull). Most of the pig remains were from  immature animals which suggests an early summer slaughter date – and an early summer festival. But the weirdest and most interesting thing is that of the 13 individual chickens which could be identified 11 of them were male (2 couldn’t be sexed). In the Roman period in Britain they bred chickens at between a 1:3 and 1:5 ratio – so they were specifically choosing to eat male chickens! I know that ritual is the favourite catch-all phrase of archaeologists everywhere – but it’s totally RITUAL!!!! And I love it.

This has led to my favourite article title of all time: “The Symbolic Meaning of the Cock” (it’s referring to a different Mithraeum, but the point remains! – This is a theme among Mithraea).

Proof: LentakerAn et al. “The Symbolic Meaning of the Cock: The Animal Remains from the Mithraeum at Tienen (Belgium)” in Roman Mithraism: the Evidence of the Small Finds ed. Marleen Martens and Guy De Boe, 57-80. Brussel: Institute for the Archaeological Heritage, 2004. 

But getting back to the above video – I’m so disappointed that I can’t go and see it in person. The presentation looks super cool! I love the light and mist. I think it’s really interesting that Bloomberg’s wanted to recreate the remains of the temple in as close to its original location as possible. The focus in the video is also on collaboration between archaeologists, designers, and stonemasons among others.

There are a lot of business buzz-words flying around (especially when they’re talking with business people) and I think it’s easy to dismiss them because of that. But damn is this an interesting example of bringing about something cool by working together. I’d love to hear more about the behind the scenes of how this project came about and how they enacted it. It almost sounds too good to be true.

Now – who’s creating the Star Trek-esque teleporter so I can get over there to visit?

In Which Martha Makes a 3D Model of a Chicken

For my final project in the Digital History class I got the opportunity to stretch my wings (pun very much intended) and investigate 3D Modelling using photogrammetry software. The whole process was a lot of fun and even though I was confused by several aspects of the program and certainly didn’t make use of all the features, I was impressed by how easy it was.

For my project I used the 3DF Zephyr Free software to compare models created using two different cameras. I wanted to see if a model created using a DSLR camera was actually superior to a high-end regular camera more accessible to those of us without large bank accounts. So I made three models using two cameras (the first attempt at a model was mostly flailing and failing at the program to learn how it works – and did not produce a good model). The first camera was a mid-to-high end non DSLR borrowed from classmate Alex (Thanks Alex!). The second camera was the department’s DSLR .

Camera 1, Attempt #1: https://sketchfab.com/models/a8e21390197648d08514a620a431f100

Camera 1, Attempt #2: https://sketchfab.com/models/ca4a93f292e5421186a96c1a61011f28

Camera 2: https://sketchfab.com/models/859fb06161474715ac9917e821cf73a0

This was a fun project and I was pleased with the quality of the models I produced even though they weren’t perfect. It seems that with the free program there wasn’t much difference in quality between the cameras. I think it would be interesting to see if you could see a difference between cameras when using a more advanced program, or when using a significantly lower quality camera – like a cell phone camera. But that is an experiment for another day. I think that the Camera 2 model did turn out better than the one made with Camera 1 – but I think those improvements had more to do with me learning how to properly make a data set and use the program than it did with the relative quality of the cameras.


In Which There are Links

What it says on the tin. Any blog post called “In Which There Are Links” will showcase some interesting articles I have found as I go about my business, with or without commentary.

Forensic artist reconstructs face of Scottish ‘witch’ at BBC News

  • Having just attempted to make a much simpler 3D reconstruction using photographs I can’t imagine trying to do this. I am constantly amazed by what people (with more training than me) can do with new technology.

Cats Domesticated Themselves, Ancient DNA Shows by Casey Smith at National Geographic

  • I love cats.

Oldest recorded solar eclipse helps date the Egyptian pharaohs at Popular Archaeology

  • Very cool! On the one hand: interdisciplinary! Which I love – any excuse to chat with some astronomy nerds (my high school self, with the subscription to Sky and Telescope would agree).
  • But also – I love bringing any new sources to the table for figuring out chronology! I don’t think more modern historians (or many ancient historians for that matter) think about how difficult it is to develop a chronology in the ancient world. Keep in mind that the further back you go Carbon dating becomes less accurate. So around the first century BC Carbon Dating is plus or minus about 50 years – so you can figure out the century, but not much more than that. There are different dating systems for the different Mediterranean cultures, and they don’t really match up. Ancient Greece (with which I am most familiar) is dated almost entirely through Corinthian pottery forms – and there is a great debate about what dates those correspond to. So basically – whenever you can bring in more evidence for chronologies I’m excited!

Tech Shows 2,000-Year-Old Mummy of a Little Girl in Amazing Detail by Owen Jarus at Live Science

  • This got me thinking about an article we read for class a few weeks ago about whether or not we should display the dead. This is another example of really cool new technology – and I’m equally glad they weren’t just opening her up and taking apart her pieces – but it feels kinda invasive. This poor young girl just wants to enjoy the afterlife in peace.
  • I’m conflicted, because I also believe strongly in learning from the material and human remains of past cultures – but I think it has to be done with respect. And I don’t think there is a way to completely satisfy both sides of this dilemma.

Secret Chamber? Cosmic Rays Reveal Possible Void Inside Great Pyramid by Stephanie Pappas at Live Science

  • This reads like something you’d see on Ancient Aliens – but it’s real science! I love it!

Underwater search off Naxos island coast yields rich finds at Tornos News

  • Underwater archaeology, late Roman finds, and evidence for anchorages? What more could you ask? Throw in a cute cat video and I’ll be set for the week.

Earliest evidence of winemaking: Team discovers 8,000-year-old wine production in ancient Middle-East at Phys.org

  • The best part about this article (and there are many good parts) is that the team in question is the Gadachrili Gora Regional Archaeological Project Expedition (GRAPE), a joint undertaking between the University of Toronto (U of T) and the Georgian National Museum. That’s right, their acronym is GRAPE. Well done, my friends. Well done.

Lest We Forget

This year I had the honour of attending the Remembrance Day ceremony at the Royal Canadian Regiment at Wolseley Barracks here in London. I’ve been working at the Museum for my Research Assistant position – and I feel like I’ve been learning a lot, since I am by no means a military historian, and it’s interesting to see things from a different perspective.

I’ve always tried to mark Remembrance Day every year in some way, but I’ve never been to a ceremony alongside veterans who I knew personally. Many of the volunteers at the RCR Museum are themselves veterans, and it’s different recognizing the faces in uniform rather than simply seeing strangers in the ceremony.

It got me thinking today about the ways we mark Remembrance Day through the years. When I was in high school we always had an elaborate ceremony – led by the drama classes re-enacting scenes from the two world wars. I always thought it was very effective, because it provided context for what the day really means. And they always ended by reading the names of the alumni who died in the First and Second World Wars. As a student it really brought the reality of the situation into focus – my grandparents were too young to fight in the Second World War so I didn’t find a connection there, but these names were of real people who once walked the same halls I was, running late to class. I know my high school is closing down soon (maybe this – ironically the 225th anniversary of the school – is the last year of the school? I forget precisely when the doors will be shut for good), and I can’t help but wonder if this tradition will continue in the mega-school the city is planning to replace it. Can it be joined with the names from the other schools which are being brought together? Or will this tradition  and those names be forgotten?

In my post-secondary life I haven’t been able to make that same connection with many of the ceremonies I’ve seen. As I mentioned before I don’t know many military people, and while I understand intellectually the importance of the service men and women I have seen at these ceremonies, I haven’t had the same emotional response.

Today though, I thought that the Chaplain of the RCR who spoke during the ceremony made that emotional connection between past and present. One of his duties as Chaplain, he said, was to accompany the CO to make next of kin notifications for servicemen and women who die in service. The Chaplain had to preform this duty a few weeks ago, and he spoke of the primal scream that the mother of the deceased let loose upon hearing the news. A primal scream that would have been heard from every family member of those who did not come back from war.

This connected directly with the virtual exhibit only recently launched by the RCR Museum in partnership with last year’s Western Public History MAs and Virtual Museum Canada called the Topography of Grief which maps the homes of those who died in the First World War from London, ON. Each of the names on the list had a home with a mother, a father, sisters, brothers – and each of those names were part of the community. Seeing the flags on a map shows the ubiquity of the experience of mourning during and after the war. And it makes that emotional connection – even across 100 years of history – that I’ve been missing from some of my Remembrance Day experiences.

I think that emotion is one of the most important aspects of a good Remembrance Day ceremony – but it’s a difficult line to walk. Especially when commemorating the two world wars which are starting to leave the realm of living memory and are in many ways idealized as part of the “forging of a country” (as at Vimy Ridge) or war for a glorious purpose (Freedom!). Neither of which points are inherently wrong, but are certainly an incomplete version of the past. So it’s important to have emotion – but dangerous and inappropriate to manipulate emotion. It’s nearly impossible to fabricate. And I think it’s up to individuals to be open to making the connections which the ceremony (or exhibit) is providing for you.

The Chaplain of the RCR connected his current experience of service with the experiences of those who came before him all the way back to the First World War. And I think in that he brought emotion into the ceremony in a very effective and compelling way, which certainly allowed me to connect with something which has thankfully been far outside my own experience.

I’m not sure where I’ll be next year, but I hope I can find another ceremony or something that can help me make that connection again. And allow me the time to reflect on the wartime experiences of soldiers and their families throughout our history.

Lest We Forget.

The Paleography of Cups

This week in class we were talking about historical editing, and I think that it’s something that we don’t spend enough time thinking about. Primary sources are one of the most important pieces of evidence an historian can use, but most of us don’t work directly from the original documents. As a Classicist most of the primary sources I used were in translation (sometimes multiple translations) and even texts in the original Latin or Greek would be heavily edited for clarity – after all punctuation didn’t exist in the Classical world. And that ignores all the changes that were certainly made through the centuries as the texts were transcribed over and over again.

So I think that it’s important to actually look at the process of how these documents (many of which were originally handwritten) get edited into type-written volumes for wider use. How do we get this information? It’s so easy to just accept it as a primary source and therefore “authentic”, but what actually goes into producing it can greatly skew the information provided.

I found it especially interesting participating in the Smithsonian’s Transcription Center crowd-sourcing project as part of preparing for our class discussion. The project uses high-res scans and a system of volunteer transcribers and reviewers (ultimately  fact-checked by a member of the Smithsonian staff) to transcribe documents they otherwise don’t have the resources to transcribe. Reading handwriting is challenging, especially if it’s handwriting that was not meant for public consumption – and it is often more difficult trying to read off a computer screen.

It reminder me a lot of working at Starbucks and trying to read names written on cups by my coworkers. In their defence, they’re usually writing the names at speed in order to serve as many people as quickly as possible – but there are times I have no idea what’s been written. Sometimes a misplaced letter is all it takes to completely transform a name. And it gets even more difficult with names that are spelled in uncommon ways or from cultures whose spelling and pronunciation practices are different than my own.

This is a small example from my own experience, but I think that it demonstrates some of the same problems that Historical Transcribers face on a grander scale. And remember, please be kind the next time your barista mangles the pronunciation of your name. We’re trying. Honest. – And have you considered that at Starbucks you can be anyone? I personally have had the pleasure of serving Superman, Rumpelstiltskin, Hermione and Bilbo.