Main: Shape Of Things

These notes are about the Shape of Things conference at the University of Virginia. These are being written live so they will not be complete or well edited. If I misrepresent you, my apologies. Write and I will correct it. The twitter hashtag is #uvashape . The format of the conference was that we all had to send in our papers and responses so there was no reading out of papers.

These notes are being rewritten and edited as an appendix to the published papers of the conference.

James Hilton

Hilton, CIO of the University of Virginia opened the proceedings by talking about how timely this conference is. We are at a time when the following are coming together:

Jerome McGann

McGann then welcomed us. "The Shape of Things to Come" comes from a work by H.G. Wells. Like Wells, McGann made some predictions that led to a dream of a world library that all are connected to. He also cautioned us about this dream. We work for the goal of an informed commons.

Allison Muri, The Grub Street Project

Muri showed what she has in mind with the Grub Street Project. She showed how one might visualize the publishing trade of the 18th century. In some ways, as Greg Crane pointed out in his paper, we are learning how to edit beyond the book - how to edit culture and its history. We are not writing about what we always wrote about, but in digital form. We are changing what we think about, what we write about, and the type of writings. We are no longer editing print scholarship but a new form.

One issue that came up is the issue of grants. To some extent digital humanists have survived by getting grants. The getting of grants has become our defacto form of review. How do you get tenure if you don't have a book (as many digital humanists don't) if you don't have a grant?

Robert Darnton was one of the respondents. Sustainability has become a dominant motif. He talked about the Electronic Enlightenment project which has sustainability problems. Darnton quoted McGann to the effect that the issue really is people and institutions. Darnton called for a National Digital Library.

I can't help feeling that the issue is not infrastructure (like a library) but the engagement of people. As Socrates argued in Plato's Phaedrus the technologies of writing do not make us wiser. The argument of the dialogue itself (a written work) is that wisdom comes not from the transmission of scripts but from a tradition of dialogue. That is what we have to preserve.

Laura Mandell drew our attention to the "shape" of things and the interface of the web site. The web site suggests we are grounded in visionary projects and speakers. She ended with the question "Do we serve researchers or perform research?"

This led to an interesting exchange between the idea of scholarship as editing and scholarship as advancing conceptual knowledge. Editing doesn't tell you what to think the way a thesis does. It isn't obvious that editors advance knowledge - they are architects of information that lets others think they are advancing knowledge.

Mandell and Muri talked about the next generation and how they are so ready for the new types of research make possible by a change in scale and the new technologies. Certain digital projects have a much wider audience by virtue of being on the web and how they are designed. Other projects engage issues youth are interested in and can see the importance of. Bethany talked about sustainability as continuity and conversation.

In some ways the issue of engagement goes both way. Trying to get tenure is a matter of engaging scholars untrained in digital practices (but in power.) We are a threshold generation trying to engage up to a non-digital generation and "down" to our students.

Some twitter comments turned the conversation briefly to a discussion of sorrow and whether we were recapitulating old arguments - an interesting effect of twitter.

Some of the words that being subjected to pressure are "research" and "argument". How is our sense of what these are changing? How is the digital thickening these concepts. Has the digital shifted us from logocentric arguments to offering the opportunity for other forms of argument like the visual. What is a diagrammatic or visual argument?

I am reminded of a question that comes up far less often than it should, which is the question of why do we want to keep all this stuff. Accumulating stuff (even information) has never been shown to lead to wisdom. Perhaps we tackle the question through the issue of information overload - when stuff is kept it accumulates and we get anxious about "processing" it. The issue of sustainability should be not how to keep everything, but how to start gracefully losing stuff. How can digitized stuff get stuffed onto a shelf where it can be safely forgotten (only to be rediscovered later?) I suspect that Socrates would say that in our anxieties about preservation and overload we are being distracted by shadow puppets. Heidegger would call us from the busy-ness of digitization (and blogging and writing conference reports) to the difficult path of thinking. Plato and Heidegger resisted just writing what we should think. They viewed the preservation of writing as a danger and yet felt they had to use the medium and experiment with it to find a way to provoke thinking.

Then the question turned to money and strategies for subvention so I raised the issue of crowdsourcing. We are not just changing the scale of data, but the scale of engagement. How do we engage the amateurs. In response a librarian argued against the amateurs like Google and argued that we (the library community) do things once and right. I and others are skeptical about this idea that there is ever a right and proper edition. All editions are in a context and for a community bearing questions. As the questions, context, and community change, we redo the editions - that is the ongoing conversation. A scholarly edition supports different questions, but not the right questions.

A graduate student from UVA asked about pedagogy and teaching at the end.

Greg Nagy, Homer Multi Text? Project

Suarez introduced the second session where the respondents went first and Nagy followed.

Michael Moss went first and talked about how an edition of Homer on Glasgow ran into financial problems. He talked about the relationship between oral and print culture. Have the great epics been replaced by genealogies and the personal history? The biggest user community of UK digital data are genealogists who are tracing their personal histories. They are dictating the shape of things to come. Everyone is making their own editions of their lives using the digitial materials available.

Michael talked about the epistemic communities that form around different materials. We know very little about them, how they organize and what they do with it. We know very little about the encounter with materials? How does a genealogist encounter records they are looking at? Do they miss the smell the paper?

Hans Walter Gabler started with the question of communities and interaction. He argued that the Homer Multitext is an example of editions that are born digital and they become active and interactive. All sorts of stuff is transmitted that was not part of the print edition. He also seemed to suggest that the fear of error need not haunt us the way it did print editors. If an error is found it can be fixed.

I am reminded of Ismail Kadare's response to the whole search for the oral in The File on H where you have two Irish-American scholars using a new technology, the tape-recorder to capture the ellusive oral roots of Homer in Albany. They in turn are being spied on by the living oral tradition of police state human surveillance. The postscript of the translation I read mentions that Kadare met Parry and Lord which got him thinking about the issue.

Greg Nagy of the Homer MultiText Project then talked about how, as the Director of The Center for Hellenic Studies, he has been able to play with others. Both in his paper and in his talk he emphasized the collaborative (multi-generational) aspect of the projects - they are the fruit of many people from donors to graduate students. I get the feeling his is really good at giving others an opportunity and then making sure they get the support and credit for their work.

The first editors (Aristarchus) noticed that as one gathers more variants it doesn't help one find THE original Homeric text, but undermines the idea of a single original. Instead the record suggests the multiformity of the tradition. He then talked about the issue of whether a multitext is "squishy". He has been accused of advocating as many Homers as you please. This kind of edition is an ongoing process that tries to map the tradition of transmission.

Nagy described their process. They would translate lines as a group and share different perspectives. For Nagy philologists rethink things. He then talked about how sustainability is dialogical. When you think about moments of reception of Homer you get Plato's Ion where a superstar performer of Homer reflects is questioned by Socrates about what it is like to bring Homer to life. He ended with quoting the Phaedo where Socrates says that what matters is that word not die with us.

Answering a question Nagy then talked about what we know about oral performance of Homer and Aristarchus. He then reminded us of the importance of studying the visual and linguistic together which led to others commenting on the musical.

In the meantime on Twitter the issue of how the digression, which seems so attractive to humanists, can be sustained. One response argued that nothing is more sustainable than the digression. I would say the digression is one type of dialogic move that sustains. A digression is only a digression if it is a digression from some thread which is thus remembered in trace form. What are the other dialogical moves that sustain?

A member of the audience raised the question of authority and expert knowledge. What can we learn from oral cultures where authority comes from community knowledge. I think we are torn between wanting some professional authority to participate in and knowing that there can't really be any authority. See Authenticity: a red herring?. I think one can read certain philosophers as trying to frustrate those who want to read them as a trusted authority. Where librarians are trying to enhance trust with metadata, Plato tries to frustrate our trust of his words.

Session 3 was introduced by Joe Gilbert

Roger Bagnall who contributed a paper on Integrating Digital Papyrology started. One of the messages is that in all sorts of areas we see projects integrating their resources in different ways. We see federated integration, coalition intergration, API integration and so on. "Our idea of imperialism is to be taken over by the entire world."

Everything they do is open access, but they aren't against commercial exploitation of it. He is also interested in engaging the larger audience through translation.

Roger then raised Jerry's question of what is openness? For Bagnall openness is letting people do stuff with the raw data and not forcing them through your interface.

Roger finally talked about how a sense of entitlement can lead to a community rising up to defend resources - entitlement leading to sustainability not whining (or wine.)

Peter Robinson talked about sustainability and whether that is what we want. He thinks many of us are talking about stability. Not everything needs to be stable to sustainable. Peter talked about the laments and fears of digital humanists. Naturally we look for something to cling to and that is stable funding - we want funding for ever. For Peter this "turn to infrastructure" will not work. We will not settle down and become stable enough to be funded as infrastructure. The turmoil is a sign of life. Nor will we get one big centre or digital library and so on.

There is a paradox if sustainability is dialogue. The tensions between scholars, librarians, and digital humanists are a source of creativity.

Greg Crane talked about the secret of the papyrology as the friendship and love of working together. He said it has never been such a good time to be a digital classicist. He showed a job description for a digital humanist without the word "digital" in it. The key was the request for candidates "who can support contributions to and original research by undergraduates as well as MA students...". Most candidates had no idea of how to help others do research. They seem trained to think there is a laying on of hands to happens before you can do research in Classics. One answer is to ask students to create commented editions. Undergrads love to do things that are useful. He argued we should be thinking of lab culture for learning.

He then moved on to ask "What are new elements of editing?"

He talked about how we can get people interested in the humanities (and classics). He also talked about the missing middle of infrastructure.

Peter argued that we don't have to do impressionistic scholarship any more.

We had an interesting discussion about lab culture and how to get people involved and working in teams. I can't help thinking that the problem is that we are still Cartesians. We still think that thinking is done alone and therefore anything that distracts from time alone to meditate. Labs and collaboratories work if you think that a group of people properly working together can think socially and produce knowledge that is not necessarily in the mind of any one person.

One member of the audience mentioned how we moved to begin to talk of who - extending the who does research to include students. He then asked if we could extend our idea of what we do as research. Could the making of the digital be a form of research and not just writing.

Alan Burdette, Evia Digital Archive Project

Dana Wheels moderated a session on Saturday on the EVIA project. The project archives and documents ethnographic material (video). Much of the video is in formats that have a very short shelf life. EVIA tries to not only preserve the materials but also provides an elaborate annotation system so that documentation can be added and reviewed. EVIA also supports scholarly publishing and preservation of other projects.

They ran a series of summer institutes to train people and to develop the protocols and training.

John Rink was the first respondent. He wanted to know what they did with the 4 million dollars - the 70 hours archived seems little. He also asked about the balance between archiving and annotation/documentation/review. He also asked about meta-annotation. He then showed the Online Chopin Variorum Edition which also gathers for publication Editions of chopin's sheet music with annotation. He talked about the AHRC Research Centre for Musical Performance as Creative Practice and the issue of whether practices are research. He takes a strong position to the effect that a CD of music played is not proof of research. It isn't practice-based research unless the questions and methods are documented. It isn't enough to have only the multimedia record of creative practice. One needs to have the interpretation of the practice.

I find Rink's argument that creative practice is not research unless supplemented by interpretation to be questionable. Why is it only research if it is written in a particular form with questions and method. Much humanities research does not document its method (or practices) - does that make it any less research? Many of the creative disciplines have companion disciplines who do the interpretation (artist - art history, for example). Do we want to force artists to also be art historians in order to fit an idea of the "research-intensive university?" When you get self-interpretation in the form of "artist's statements" do you really get something the demonstrates research? The artist, to my mind, has no particular authority in the interpretation of their work. A welcome voice, but not necessarily the most trusted. The problem is not gathering the interpretation, but making it normative for creative work to be called "research". I believe there is a logo-centrism to this - we need to move beyond the identification of research as writing.

This may appear as a matter of definition. Perhaps we should just agree that what creatives do is not research and call it something else and value that. The problem is that the modern university is deeply committed to rewarding research over other practices. Any artist at a university has to fit into the university system of rewards. They are forced to either explain how what they do is research or propose alternative metrics and maintaining alternative metrics is hard work. It is just not enough to say I was hired to a different type of work - the burden is always on the faculty member who doesn't publish to prove that what they do is equivalent to publishing.

Here is a passage from Rink's paper, "One of the main obstacles within this field has been the reluctance or inability of potential practice-led researchers to produce documentation that appropriately and effectively demonstrates the research content of their creative activity." Perhaps they are resisting a different form of mission creep where an organization tells them to do more to be called researchers.

Talking to Rink during lunch I found that he was not prescribing what should be, but describing what was being argued by the AHRC. He was quite sympathetic and has thought about how and when creative practicioners can document their work. We agreed that for some such documentation is appropriate (and actually creative) to their practice while it might not be for others. He also commented on how we all are called on to explain what we do to non specialists in, for example, our teaching, so this can't be said to be an entirely new demand.

John Unsworth then talked about how important it is to report and discuss failures. He thanked Alan for an honest report that brings out some of the difficulties of mission creep from preservation to annotation. He believes that preservation should be put first. The way this happened is something like this:

Both Johns suggested that they should not review annotations, but use crowdsourcing. EVIA shouldn't feel they have to review all materials. Crowdsourcing would also bring attention, which leads to sustainability. Sustainability turns on constituency - you need to have people that depend on your materials to have choices in business plan.

Burdette responded to the responses and talked about how sustainability has never been affordable. It has always depended on passion and patrons. It depends on a leap of faith that something might be of value in the future. He also talked about the EVIA project had all sorts of other outcomes (beneficial mission creep.) His line of reasoning suggests that,

Mission creep is engaged research

One member of the audience pointed out that ethnographic work is slow and in many cases can't be done quickly. I would add that we need to recognize the ongoing need for experimentation. We don't have a wheel hiding here that need not be reinvented.

Project Structure and Project Sustainability

Bethany Nowviskie moderated this session. Paolo D'Iorio wasn't here so Christine Madsen presented his ideas. He argues that scholarly communities on the web don't exist. To support them we need:

I can't help feeling that this is a conservative view of what a scholarly community is. For example he argues for a distinction between primary and secondary literature. This doesn't hold in fields like philosophy where every work is both. D'Iorio seems to recognize that which then begs the question of why we need the distinction. D'Iorio seems to be developing the dream of the great library, but working it out in terms of ontologies, information architecture and so on.

I would argue that:

  1. There is no such thing as a "only" Web scholarly society. Communities aren't forced to use only one medium. They now (and will continue to) use what is at hand from conferences, mail, print, newletters, phone calls, email, web sites and so on. Why force communities to artificially limit themselves.
  2. A community needs stories about its formation that it can share - these can take the form of a canon or collection of stories about practices
  3. A community need ways of bringing people in, training them, and organizing us to
  4. Sometimes communities will develop forms of discipline and rules about who is in or out. These can take the form of bylaws or tacit rules (I'm not sure they need these, but they do create them)
  5. Communities usually need hearth-keepers and other types of people who take responsibility for
  6. Communities need ways of interfacing with other communities
  7. And, above all, communities need ways to negotiate a commons with agendas, communications, shared resources, and so on

To be fair D'Iorio is trying to identify the requirements for stable virtual infrastructure to support scholarship (hence the importance of quoting and citations mechanisms.) But ... his is a logical argument - what evidence does he have that citation and quotation is a necessary "requirement"?

At lunch I had an interesting conversation with Christine Madsen about D'Iorio's ideas and how his requirements are partly to ease the transition of scholarship onto the Web. The citation may be the product of a particular idea/history of scholarship (see Grafton on the footnote), but that doesn't change the fact that we need to support the online citation if we want to help colleagues make the switch from what is familliar.

Bethany turned us towards interface and the degree to which design choices make a difference.

Susan Schreibman turned to McGann's paper and the issue of sustainability in Europe. She talked about the Digital Humanities Observatory of Ireland and other structures in Ireland. Europe has started a national library the Europeana. The DHO is a centre and a node in other networks. This model has worked in the sciences.

Jennifer Edmond also talked about the Irish situation. She talked about the elephants in the Irish room:

Madsen made an interesting point about the supposed conservativeness of humanists. Why, for example, did they not shift to online catalogues? Madsen's research showed that they didn't move until the online catalogs were really useful.

There was interesting discussion about the model of depending on centres when they can disappear. The AHDS was killed in one vote as Edmond and Schreibman pointed out in their paper. Susan described the struggle of centre's to survive on soft funding and keep a core mission.

A speaker who identified himself as the "anti-christ" asked about the values of forgetting. Certain silos should be blown up. We should, following Nietche (D'Iorio led a Nietche project) remember the wisdom of Silenus - that life is pain and it is best to not be born. Digital projects might think about that. Bethany jokingly responded that her philosophy is that "love will find a way."

Ian Lancashire asked what we should tell the faculty member who is about to retire and with him/her her work retire. How do we treat databases that are about to retire (or die)? One answer is for libraries to archive them even if in a dark archive.

Todd Presner, Hypercities Project: Berlin and Los Angeles

Presner started by discussing his Hypercities project. It started from a meditation on Benjamin's Arcades project. What would Benjamin have done with the web? With Google Maps and GPS enabled cellphones we can do all sorts of interesting things. Hypercities builds layers on top of Google, including temporal information. This is not a repository - it is a way of thinking about geotemporal information. Much of the materials are not on their servers, but on other places. Hypercities is a platform for facilitating (curating) other materials. Further, many of the materials have also been curated by others with different levels of vetting. Presner showed us how people are making academic arguments when they build a layer. They aren't just adding neutral data, but trying to make a rich argument.

Stephen Plog talked about archaeological practices and how much records get gathered in the course of a dig. Archaeologists were very early adopters of technology. They have had databases on punch cards that needed preservation for some time. He pointed to IATH as an example of a centre whose projects have been, by and large, sustained.

Matt Kirschenbaum talked about the separation of preservation from the creation. One of his points is that there are large communities engaged in thinking through preservation and they aren't being heard from. He talked about the Emory project to archive Rushdie's laptops. They have develops an emulation of Rushdie's first Performa. Kirschenbaum reminded us of his work on computer forensics. He set about thinking of Hypercities as a preservation problem. There is the preservation of the application layer. There is the preservation of the interface. There is the preservation of all the distributed content. Kirschenbaum is part of a neat project that is looking at how to preserve virtual game worlds. How do you preserve computer games and virtual worlds? Take Doom. It draws on all sorts of system resources to run. To preserve it you need to package the game with all sorts of contextual information. Then there are the permissions issues. To archive a Second Life island you need to ask permission from hundreds of contributors, few of whom answer, and some of whom refuse.

I asked about the flaneur. Presner had a fascinating answer about how in Benjamin the flaneur descends into deep time and that they have been trying to think of that as a story of what the user will do with Hypercities. I began to understand why time is so important to Plog in what looks like a mapping project. (I want to connect this to Drucker's meditations on time and its representation in the Temporal Modeling project.) Returning to the flaneur, I wonder if there is a way in which the flaneur sustains through idle observation. The flaneur is a member of a crowd that makes the street. They are the idle who we try to motivate when crowdsourcing.

Edmunds raised the issue of who is a digital humanist (because some have been saying they were or not D Hers?). She argued the last non-digital humanist was a colleague who refused to use a computer. Can we include people without their agreement this way?

Kenneth M. Price, Civil War Washington Project and The Walt Whitman Archive

Stephen Railton moderated the last session of the day. Ken Price started off by reflecting on the difference between his Whitman archive and the Civil War Washington project which are very different. He warns us from romaticizing scarcity. He asked us to think of terms like "boutique," "network scale" and "silo". A silo could turn out to be a gold mine. He is interested in information is manuscripts that are unlikely to be served by network scale solutions. He also argues that we will probably continue to need mixed (analogue and digital) solutions.

Dan Cohen agreed about the need for silos despite what he wrote on his contribution. He read from Jef Raskin's Design Considerations for an Anthropophilic Computer which assumes that there is an end user who doesn't want to see the guts. Dan feels that this can be a good thing, but sometimes these projects try to control too much. Is access to the guts a problem? There is a tension between control of the creator and that of the user. He advanced a principle that scholars have found uses for editions that were not anticipated by the creators. What would happen if projects freed their content for reuse without interfaces. Then he suggested a second principle - that the more confident and experienced a community is then the less of an interface it needs.

Dan argued that for Ken the idea of the Civil War Washington being a project of love is important.

Timothy B. Powell, the Director of Native American Projects at the American Philosophical society came last. He asked about the "idol of the tribe". He wanted to talk about the "who", the communities. He talked about the sustainability of friends when people help our. Sustainability by barn-raising, beyond grants and money.

Penny Kaiserlian, Rotunda

Worthy Martin moderated the first session of Sunday. Kaiserlian talked about the Rotunda one of the first digital imprints that publishes born-digital work. They are an important model for sustainable publishing of digital work. She mentioned some of the lessons from a publishing community. Publishers don't like perpetual beta projects. They want things done or at least staged. Publishers also worry about impact and ask reviewers to think about this.

Paul Courant talked about rotunda and the topics of the conference. Rotunda takes a print model and adds to it new things, but that adds to the difficulty of long-term sustainability. He mentioned how libraries are not used to the cost of licensing books rather than buying them once, and yet books actually cost something to maintain but the budget is somewhere else so we don't notice them. He drew attention to the artificial difference between digital and print from a cost point of view. He then argued that the job is not to sustain departments but scholarship. He calls for collaboration which brings together expertise from many places. This problem has been solved to some extent in the sciences, but is now challenging the humanities. One thing we have to do is figure out how to recognize and credit the breadth of contributions. We have to recognize methodological contributions. He ended by asking about sustainability and reminded us that the best sustainability can be is a plan for how to keep stuff going until the world changes. We cannot promise eternity, just reliability in an anticipated context.

Michael Keller talked about the ratio of information to noise. We have to think about the very long run and how to keep down the noise. We need faculty to start demanding long term preservation and access. He asked what are the new questions that will take advantage of the large scale text databases. Where is the big humanities? Where is the work on the global? He then talked about the iPad and how it has been in the hands of the publishers and they are excited about what they can do. He closed by talking about the value of Google. Their indexing dramatically increased traffic to their digital publication. Google Books was a great way for Stanford to make more from the investments they had made in books. Keller hoped that they would get a fair use suit that would help rather than what actually is happening. He hoped that Google Books would give readers all over access to an unbelievable collection. One of the greatest effects of the controversy is as a stimulus. It has provoked others (like France) to propose alternatives. The Google folk really got into this to do good.

There was a sharp exchange about whether we really want big science and the custodial nature of the humanities. Do we want to do big, do science? Perhaps in something like Plato studies we have big humanities - centuries of studies have built up a massive literature that is as big as any science project. These are big hair balls of ideas because we sustain the discussion over time. I hope these big ideas will be sustained by new questions that include questions about scale and questions thought through computing.

I was in the last session and therefore didn't have time to record all the conversation. I prepared the following as my remarks.

Jerry Mc Gann? ends his opening paper with a question directed to all of us: "What are you prepared to do?" As I am at the end of this challenging conference I am going to organize my remarks around it.

In the paper I submitted I discussed what I call the infrastructure turn. Peter Robinson stole my thunder by describing how, when a research project runs low on funding it is tempted to refashion itself as infrastructure as a way of arguing for perpetual funding. In my paper I warn about the dangers of turning things into infrastructure that we still want to keep alive as research. In response to the "stop reinventing wheels" argument for expanding definitions of infrastructure I suggested that reinventing wheels is exactly what we do in the humanities - it is the ongoing conversation that sustains thinking in community. What distinguishes the humanities from more progressive disciplines is that we keep on re-editing and deforming our traditions so that they can continue to provoke afresh. Michael Oakeshott in the The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind, says that, "we are the inheritors, neither of an enquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and made more articulate in the course of centuries."

But ... but it is easier to call for sustained dialogue than to do it. Sustaining dialogue is like a good Thanksgiving dinner - it happens because someone, usually the unthanked hearth keeper of the family, did a lot to prepare the feast. Paul Courant called us to start thinking about exactly how we are going to do that work of preparing the feast. How will we build and people the barricades, or at least the dining table. So let me share then what I have learned from you about how to prepare dialogue?

The list could go on.

In short, I am in awe of the variety and ingenuity of preparations to do. I'm tempted to ask if sustainability is really a question and for whom, but I think I know what the answer should be and that is that the question of sustainability concerns us all - it is one of the questions that sustains the larger conversation so that we have something to inherit. Posing the question brings new partners to the dialogue from librarians, archivists, publishers and funders. We, and by this I mean us pedants, are not the sole sustainers of this dialogue. This question of sustainability is important because it is intimately tied to questions about what we value, how we structure the valuing (especially in times of restraint) and what we are prepared to do about what we care for. Like many difficult questions there is no solution, no single project that is the final answer. There are reinventions, returns, reflections and rethinking. And that matters.

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