quick wiki blog

April 20, 2007

Wikipedia entry for Punch.

This assignment was more difficult than I expected simply because I was not used to the concise, to-the-point, not overtly argumentative writing used by encyclopedias. I chose to edit the Wikipedia entry for Punch magazine which began publication in the middle of the 18th century. I did not think the original entry really captured the popularity and pervasiveness of Punch in its early years, so my objective was to rectify that record. I don’t think I did a very good job with my entry, but I will let whatever future editors that see what I wrote rectify my attempt as they see fit.

Aside from just feeling inadequate in writing something with a sense of authority behind it, I was surprised at how easy it was for a random individual to create or edit a Wikipedia entry. The site offers several nice tools and features for editing posts and allowing others to view the history and comments for each entry. I still like the concept of the site, but the ease for which some hack like myself can change something troubles me. Seeing as I created my entry this morning, I have not yet had any comments to the post. I am also probably going to spared some ridicule simply because I doubt Punch will be that controversial or invested of an issue for most Wikipedia viewers.

The General Will

April 13, 2007

In video games as with web sites, I am a stickler for good design. I could not stand the design and user interfaces for the Devices of Wonder or the HistoryWired websites. Both provide an essentially useless imagemap that does not transport their viewers to useful or detailed information. Instead, the sites took some potentially interesting objects and transformed them into small and uninteresting pieces of trivia.

The Raid on Deerfield website shows more promise, but here I think issues of conceptual design take precedence over the actual user experience. Perhaps I’m just a web snob, but this site starts out well but loses one’s interest once they explore a story section of the site. The image with the column of text on the right is not inviting, and I very much doubt the average viewer is going to want to click on each of the five cultural icons in order to learn the various parts to the narrative. I think that is where this site fails most, actually. The site presents the beginning of a narrative and invites its audience to figure out why events played out as they did in 1704. The bulk of the site, however, isn’t linear (which is a good thing) but it also isn’t engaging (not a good thing). There are no safeguards to guide or somehow ensure the audience actually goes through various cultural sections in order to learn enough about this whodunit.
Julia Child’s Kitchen uses Flash (which I also generally disapprove of), but does a nice job of giving an audience a visual image of her kitchen layout while not really offering much beyond that. I think the scrollable image should have been larger.

We’ve discussed conveying history on the web in prior sessions, but I guess we focused more on presenting historical arguments than on how to make those arguments more accessible to a general public. On this front, I think site creators must be aware that they are essentially competing with popular and commercial website for the attention (or at least the standards) of their audience. As such, dated technology and poor implementation of presentation can kill a project before it really takes off. In the sites I looked at for today, much of the material just seem very superficial and not very engaging. I do not need (and nor was I expecting) some grand argument with huge stakes to find a historical website to be compelling, but these sites did not even seem to do a good job of getting me to want to learn more about their subject matter. The best site on this list in this regard was the History Channel website which at least offered some interaction with the promise of substance (or access to substance) beyond the surface.

I think that history, in order to engage with a general audience, should probably offer some sort of narrative. This narrative should present the stakes of the inquiry on some level and also have moments of ambiguity where the audience can figure out for themselves what “really” happened. For the most part, I don’t think these sites did a very good job in this regard. Technical and layout issues, superficial content, and a plethora of other quibbles also hurt the effectiveness of these sites. From a technical and ability to dig deeper aspect, the History Channel website best delivers content. From a purely “explore a narrative” standpoint, I think the Deerfield site has a lot of promise. To convey history to a general public, I think we can do better.

Insert 2 Quarters to Continue

April 6, 2007

The concept of an unfolding narrative in a video game is by no means novel. The very genre of role playing games (rpgs) implicitly places players into the midst of a story in which they affect the outcome through the choices and actions they make. Generally, Japanese RPGs want to tell a compelling and epic story, and as such, player choices and world interaction are somewhat limited when compared to American RPGs which often appear less linear and more immersing. When thought about as a genre of narrative which not only relates an author’s (or designer’s) story, but also as one where the audience can see a direct correlation between his or her choices and the outcome of the game, I believe video games can offer a form of learning that would not only be as compelling as a movie, but they can also provide insights into how human agency works in history. Granted, player choices would have to be constructed in such a way that their outcome is not overly teleological , which often is necessary for an enjoyable gaming experience.

When I was younger, one of my favorite video games was Sid Meier’s Civilization. This masterpiece, one of an aspiring genre of “god games”, allowed players to choose a civilization at the dawn of human time and direct the path of that civilization’s advancement and expansion. The player could spend resources on war, culture, or scientific advancement, and the game did a nice job of explaining the consequences of one course of action over another. My friends and I recently decided to play Civilization IV, and basically, this game is a much prettier version of the original. The game provides some very basic understanding of ancient to modern military units and philosophical/scientific achievements (it even has its own encyclopedia for most aspects of the game), but I believe the true genius in its historical teaching lies in the gameplay itself. This is a video game where the player must do whatever he or she can to become the “best” civilization on the planet. This might involve the conquest and destruction of one’s rivals (always a fun thing for which to strive), or instead, you might just garner enough culture and advancement to wow the world into submission. No matter what our stated goals happened to be, my friends and I always would end up going to war with each other. With such design, players can get a feel for how the rights to territory and resources, even resources that were not valuable or even recognized by your culture 1000 years prior, can shape your civilization’s destiny. Here, the alliances and choices you make will have serious repercussions throughout your society’s history. It doesn’t hurt to have an ability to make a violate treaties at will with your friends who naively believe your nation of artists really only sought that ocean view for its picturesque seascapes. Regardless, as a game that not only offers a broad view of the history of humanity and key technologies, peoples, ideas, and cultures, Civilization IV pleasantly lets a narrative unfold that is not teleological and clearly shows players the consequences of their choices and actions. On a last note, Civ IV also sort of tells a history of your civilization when the game is over. You can view a time line of your advancement and failure; a map of spreading cultural influence; a list of scientific achivements; and a chronology of military victories and defeats. The biggest drawback to such a nonlinear game is that it requires a large time investment from its players. I think the payoff is worth it.

Another game with historical elements is the real time strategy game Age of Empires II. There is a more recent Age of Empires III that deals with the colonization and frontier phases of American settlement, but I’ve always enjoyed the medieval battles of Age of Empires II more. AOE is a series where the player takes control of a nation as essentially wages war on another nation (or several nations). Unlike Civilization, which offers avenues for cultural and scientific advancement, this game is all about warfare and conflict. I appreciate this sort of game because one learns about various military units and technologies and can observe how the advent of something like a trebuchet can be key in tearing down those pesky towers your opponent keeps building. Many strategy games take on historic moments or periods (ranging from the ancient Greeks and Romans to modern conflicts in the war on terror), and all of these emphasize the use of military pieces and technology (and obviously some sense of strategy) to achieve victory. While the overarching narrative might be lacking from a story-telling standpoint, these strategy games can offer a vivid understanding of military history. I maintain that most of what I learned about 19th century military tactics, I learned from watching my father play a Civil War strategy game when I was 9-10.

Like movies, video games can convey a sense of what the past looked and felt like. They can transport a gamer to a world of consequence and opportunity most likely unavailable through mediums like books and film. Video games usually involve a lengthy time commitment for any real payoff, but I can fondly recall even simple games like the Oregon Trail (where my wife would die of dysentery while we forded a river) that have held lasting memories and moments for me. These moments, while purely the result of 1s and 0s creating artificial encounters, teach me things game designers wanted me to learn, and for that, I’ll always be grateful.

Video Killed the History Star

March 30, 2007

This week’s assignment asked us to reflect upon how the video medium could be used to teach and conduct historical inquiry. Most obviously, some film and video can be used as primary sources. As witness to many 20th century events, video provides a less mediated account of things as they happened. Technical limitations and artistic decisions (like camera angle, framing, etc.) of course will have a great effect on the information one can glean from a video, but nonetheless, video allows us to see, hear, and better absorb the character, personality, and perhaps even the spirit of more modern events. In similar fashion, video can be used to capture and preserve oral histories in a way that written mediums simply cannot.

Video is useful for historians outside of the 20th century as well. Both in practice and in metaphor, video/film is a useful pedagogical tool. I very much suspect that most members of our society shape their opinions on past peoples and events based on how they are portrayed in films. While the vast majority of movies will sacrifice historical accuracy for dramatic effect, Hollywood does get some things right. It would be useful for historians to grab on to those moments and take advantage of someone else’s special effects budget when we find our own thesauruses lacking. For example, The 300 demonstrates how a Spartan phalanx not only configures itself but how it also works–with each man using a shield to protect the left side of the warrior next to him. Even purely fictional accounts, like The Lord of the Rings trilogy does a nice job with battle scenes where it shows how armies would utilize cavalry to charge into a large mass of infantry soldiers and wreak havoc and chaos upon them. Sometimes history lessons are more explicit yet subtle. For example, Marie Antoinette shows a few scenes where Louis XVI meets with his advisers to discuss the effects of providing economic aid to the American Revolution. I do not think most of Antoinette’s target demographic would have implicitly known that information or the effect it had on France’s looming fiscal woes.

As a metaphor, film allows students to realize that writing history is far more than simply reporting the facts. Material must be read, digested, organized, and then crafted into a persuasive or compelling script for an audience to absorb. I did an exercise with my H105 classes at the beginning of the semester where we collectively wrote the screenplay for a 17th century slave rebellion. We first worked with deciphering the general plot, but then we had to decide what individuals would be figured more prominently, and also how we would portray events like escaped slaves dancing in a field (were they drunk or did this ritual serve a greater purpose?).

Using movies as teaching aids is not overly difficult. One simply finds a scene and queues up a dvd player or digital clip for their presentation. Creating one’s own movies takes more effort. As with writing a history paper, we start off with a blank page (or screen), and have to use our imagination, sense of aesthetics, and the primary sources at hand to craft something viewable. Sometimes, this process can be as simple as panning or zooming across a series of photographs and adding some accompanying narration or music (think Ken Burns or the History Channel). I know this approach better captivates audiences in corporate meetings than simply showing a slide show of the same images. I do not know if the payoff is as worthwhile in an academic setting.

As I wrote earlier, I think the video medium is a way many Americans encounter history — or at least form their opinions of the past. Because of this fact, I think we as historians have got to at least be prepared to challenge and better utilize the information being presented.

March 23, 2007

The “Who Killed William Robinson?” website provides a splendidly innovative way for students to engage in historical inquiry. The primary material on the website is nicely organized and accessible. My biggest complaint about the website (at least upon initial inspection) is that one must browse to the “Historical Contexts” section to gain a little understanding of 19th century British Columbia and even to view a map of the island in question. As a historian, the idea of starting out any sort of inquiry without some sense of context seems bothersome. The site offers hundreds of documents with conflicting interpretations about the events surrounding the murder, and I appreciate how the website encourages users to think critically about how individuals in the past thought and behaved. These documents all appear to be transcribed and not presented in their original form, so context may prove to be an issue for our history detectives. Another added quibble as I peruse the site is that interpretations of the evidence done by other historians is cordoned off in a password protected section of the website. While this feature may allow educators control over what their students may see or not see, it implicitly marginalizes the role of other historians in the process of historical analysis.

The first documents I read reveal a small community on the margins of Canadian society pleading for government investigation and assistance. Evidently the murder caused a significant deal of alarm, and some believe that a reward offered by public authorities would expedite the cause of law and order. While the evidence against Tshuanahusset is plentiful, my usual cynicism and the fact that the constable managed to lose the murder weapon while canoing or, more significantly, because another African-American was murdered after Tshuanahusset’s execution may indicate that the community needed a scapegoat to ensure justice was served. Perhaps the offering of reward may have simply called forth a witness seeking only selfish gain or even a witness with something of his own to hide. While I admit I don’t feel comfortable making a strong claim about Robinson’s murderer, my current hunch is that the man who lost the murder weapon and could conveniently profit from land speculation, John Norton, would be my suspect.

The map exercises were great. Having been an associate instructor for a plague class last semester, I wish I had access to the even the simple John Snow map set for my discussion sections. I believe these exercises (the whodunit and parts yonder) offer students unfamiliar to having to think about information in a nonlinear fashion (i.e. it is not presented to them with interpretations and arguments set forth) valuable learning tools. Perhaps as significantly, these web resources give student an entire archive of material that is available at the press of a button. I have some design suggestions for the sites, but overall, I am pleased with where new media teaching tools are heading.

Viva la Revolution?

March 9, 2007

Briefly on copyright… I have long thought that American copyright laws failed to adapt quickly enough to the pressures and possibilities of Internet content and distribution. The battle over fair use and profit motives usually resonates with me, and I applaud our authors this week for encouraging scholars to aggressively seek easements along intellectual property grounds. I understand the stated needs for copyright, but part of me (maybe I’m becoming a socialist) just thinks that monopolizing ideas is a wasteful if not dangerous activity and that societies can reward the execution of said idea moreso than the thought itself.

I have recently become enamored with 18th century fiction. This interest extends beyond simply discussing the rise of the novel or new modes of poetry and seeks to find a thread of commonality between traditional fictive forms and rhetorical constructions such as the State of Nature and the General Will (historical conjecture). The boundary between what we call “fact” and refer to as “fiction” does not seem so sharply delineated during the half century following the Enlightenment, and I would like to explore how the mediation of knowledge (presumably by market forces) occurred across a spectrum of plausibility, fantasy, the exotic, and the familiar. I do not know if I will find any striking conclusions (or if this is even that original of an inquiry), but this sort of endeavor could nicely take my interest in Enlightenment intellectual history and reveal something about 18th century epistemology and ideas in practice (their cultural manifestations).

With the above in mind, I am proposing a database that would organize research exploring the topics of fact, fiction, and epistemology in the 18th century. I pondered some sort of web site presentation demonstrating how various categories of knowledge after the Enlightenment did not seem so demarcated, but because this project only currently exists as a series of questions, I do not believe I will really have a lot of content to display to any sort of viewing public by the end of the semester. My rarely seen pragmatic side is thus thinking that efforts to structure and organize research material would serve my needs best. Because this project would focus tightly on the issues of genre, medium, audience, and market, I would design my database around forms of knowledge, their content, and how they engaged with a viewing (or reading) public in various tables. In addition to analyzing specific forms of fiction in the 18th century, I will also seek to find and organize specific discussions about fiction and epistemology from the 18th century (with the hope of finding what theorists and critics may have thought about ways of classifying knowledge). I would place such commentary into a different table which would be linked to the tables of my sample literature. I would use modern scholarship on fiction, the role of ideas in art and books, and issues of that sort in a table separate from the other two. My hope is that this database would allow an initial inquiry to be focused yet expansive, and could hopefully grow into a large (i.e. dissertation) project. Other electronic databases (like ECCO) will help shape/craft the beginnings of this project.

Even though I said the practical side of me thinks a database project meets the requirements of the course, I rarely listen to that persona for very long. If someone in class can offer a suggestion or idea that involves the creation of web content or digital media, I’d probably be willing to jump over to that ship and see what happens.

Digital Villages

March 2, 2007

Will Thomas and Edward Ayers’ “The Difference Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities” article begins with the goal of using a digital medium (the web) to connect argument form and analysis. The two authors explicitly state that they seek to not just provide insight into the effect geography has on cultural life in slave-owning and nonslave-owning parts of the country in the nineteenth century, but also to show their readers the trails and contours in the development of their argument. With their digital article, posted as a contained website with various sections and themes, I believe the two authors meet their goal. The Thomas/Ayers piece nicely organizes the information to adapt to a medium that emphasizes navigation over transitions and access to subpages (via links) over footnotes or endnotes. The form of the site is different than what one would find in a published journal article. I don’t think this kind of publishing really takes advantage of the digital medium though.

Thomas and Ayers explore the premise that geography is somehow key to slavery’s influence and effect on a community’s culture. Modern GIS systems coupled with the traditional tools of historical research (census data, market information, election results, etc.) are great tools for quantitatively and perhaps also qualitatively answering such a question. Because most of this information is static and readily available (or at least could be), I wonder why Thomas and Ayers use the medium to display only their research and their findings instead of giving readers the tools to do their own queries and searches, and in essence, find conclusions that agree or disagree with those posited by the website. The article, in its current form, does not require much of a technological backend. The site I propose would require some time spent digitizing maps and compiling a plethora of records, but I suspect many of these types of information (like the census, election results, and even the databases Thomas and Ayers created for their own research) already exist in electronic form. Such an article would marry to its interactive and infinite reach far better than the static example that we’re looking at for class. Both the readers and the authors would be able to present their results through the web, and perhaps even blur the distinction between author and reader (since the readers could also become authors). I know my approach entails a lot more work, but in its current form, the “Difference Slavery Made” article doesn’t really seem to offer much other than a new (perhaps even faddish) way of organizing and presenting information–and this new approach is in no way revolutionary nor that rewarding. Everything posted on the web is inherently open to the idea of community. Scholarly arguments can also exist and construct communities. That’s what I’m hoping our future brings us.

The Army needs a better sales pitch

February 16, 2007

I visited the RLG Cultural Materials site and opted to browse the Social Life and Customs. To my surprise a thousand images showed up on my screen in some daunting and indiscernible manner. Just like walking into a tradition archive, without a guide, stuff is just there. I decided to take advantage of the site’s search feature, and of course, I entered the keyword “pirate”. Another seemingly unorganized collection of images appeared on my screen, but all these had something to do with pirates (or so I assume). I still didn’t find this presentation of materials to be helpful, so I chose the Results Overview display option (which really should be the default display option) and was in business.

I found about 60 musical scores about pirates, posters, photographs, and even a useful broadside from 1704. Most of this material wasn’t germaine to my search for actual pirates, but there was some good material about cultural portrayals of pirates (Gilbert and Sullivan were well represented). As indicated above, I was most intrigued by the broadside because it was an account of pirate executions in Boston in 1704. This scanned image contained speeches I hadn’t seen before from my prior searches in Evans and ECCO and other places. The item entry mentioned that the broadside wasn’t listed on Evans because it was a photostat, so I am assuming that because the image was not keyword searchable, it wasn’t part of the Evans collection. The Results Overview utilizes databases to offer some nice sorting options. I was able to sort by where items were from, who created them, or who they were about, and unlike a traditional archive where pieces might be donated and not yet cataloged, I could discern the limits of this online collection. If something wasn’t indexed or cataloged, it simply did not exist in this archive.

Because my pirate search was producing limited results, I opted to play around with more modern cultural material. I liked the idea of using motion pictures as primary material (something I don’t really get to do in the 17th-18th centuries), so I opted to look at propaganda as a theme. I wanted to look at military recruitment materials (posters, videos, etc.) and see how the US military changed its approach toward getting young men to enlist. My search yielded a plethora of sources, and the first image I found was from 1917:


This poster did not seem very clever nor compelling to me, but it implied that joining the army would cultivate courage and disciplined reason in a young man. It almost seemed that the poster was reaching out to the parents of young men more so than the men themselves. Later posters were more creative and had images of fierce cats and soldiers marching toward adventure. The theme of improving one’s moral character sometimes resurfaced, but more often, the posters and images conveyed notions of toughness.


I was disappointed in finding that RLG did not contain military recruitment posters (at least for the US military) beyond 1918. I guess I could explore various portrayals of war and soldiers during the first World War, but I was more hoping for a visual theme occurring over time. Anyway, it was a fun exercise.

Digital archives offer faster and a more convenient means to find and present information. To look at these images and media, I did not have to leave my living room. I wouldn’t have to travel across the country to find these things. Conversely, what I see is what I get. I won’t ever be able to find a lost treasure in some musty room because for something to be digitized, it must have already been cataloged and indexed. One random thought I had after reading the articles and then looking through the RLG website: granulating objects like the words in a text to be keyword searchable does not seem to be all that far fetched or strange to us. Wouldn’t it be cool if we had the time/energy/ability to do the same for motion pictures? RLG has information like the creator of a film or the people/themes depicted in it, but I’m talking about something beyond that. I would like to see an index of every scene, every second of film and the stuff being captured in the frame. Digital archives are very useful tools, and I believe once more material is scanned, uploaded, indexed, etc., the default approach to doing research (historical or otherwise) will change as well.


February 9, 2007

In playing around with the various census and statistical databank websites, I found some engaging tools which provided a plethora of information pertaining to when, where, and how people lived in the United States. Demographic data is the product of privileging categories such as race, sex, income, marital status, and age. These categories are most likely examined because historians and social scientists use these categories to explain changes in human activity and behavior. Any conclusions drawn from this sort of data probably will share in past assumptions about what drives human activity and agency.

So, once I moved past my initial reflections about what it was I was looking at, I pondered the existential circumstance of maps. Granted, my conclusion was a farilly obvious one, but I had never really thought about what it was I was looking at before. Maps plot change over time and space, and are usually the product of a cartographer or demographer’s data analysis. Maps aren’t the data but are the reports of said data. When I thought about maps in this way, I decided that maps were not all that different than statistics. People are taking raw data and using it to say things. I’ve never taken a statistics class, but I know that some training can be useful in interpreting various findings. Maps work in the same way, and can be used as tools to identify patterns of behavior and shape some of the questions asked by historians.

While maps and statistical data can report observable or quantifiable phenomena, they cannot really explain why people performed certain actions. Maps cannot explain intention, and while polls and statistical findings might report what interviewees reported, historians still have to rely on many theories for intentionality because there always exists a gap between intention and action. So, historians and social scientists develop theories about how socioeconomic, structural, cultural, and whatever other kinds of factors affect human agency, decisions, and even lack of agency.

I know none of my ramblings are groundbreaking (and probably not that interesting), but it was helpful for me to spend some time thinking about data independent of the questions about how to use that data and the questions I can ask about it. Maps are incredibly helpful tools for comprehending social and cultural activity, but they are still only as useful as the map reader lets it be.

Dealing with Data

February 2, 2007

I’ll be honest, while I’ve worked with databases and generally understand ways in which to use them, I really haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about how historians use databases nor how I would use one to organize my own research projects. I do not really have a research project for this semester, so I have chosen to imagine my organizing materials that went unused for a paper from an earlier semester. Basically, I wrote a paper looking at perceived identities and subjectivities of 18th century Atlantic pirates. I did not spend a lot of time looking at the legal history of piracy and its consequences, but part of me wish I had. Hence this project.

As a monographic model, I’m using Markus Rediker’s Villains of All Nations, and his use of statistics, pirate genealogies, and splendid bibliography all indicate that the author made much use out of databases to organize and present his research. Rediker first published an article about piracy that eventually led him to two books in 1981. Villains was published in 2004. In that time, online and new media resources grew and flourished at astonishing rates, and I’m sure the amount of information available to Rediker had to have increased remarkably. I know from my own research utilizing tools such as ECCO and Evans Digital Collection that Rediker’s research and sources, at least when it comes to pirate’s self-identity, was very extensive and sadly, from my perspective, rather complete. Even using more modern tools, I had a very difficult time finding sources that Rediker and others had not already perused. I believe this work could have been completed without using new media tools, but after using the bound paper versions of ECCO and the electronic versions, I would most certainly say that the digital versions of some research tools make searching and citing far more convenient.


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