Scattered Links – 8/21/2008

Lisa Spiro has posted a great recap of her presentation “Doing Digital Scholarship” at the Digital Humanities 2008 conference. The presentation “focuses on a project to practice digital scholarship by relying on electronic resources, experimenting with tools for analyzing and organizing digital information, and representing ideas through multimedia.” All in all, I think the blog post is a wonderful introduction to digital scholarship, both as an overview and a jumping off point for further ideas. Spiro really displays that crucial trait necessary for a digital humanist: a seemingly unlimited willingness to try new approaches.

Errol Morris has yet another interesting post about interpreting photography and identifying fakes, inspired by the faked photographs of Iran’s missile launch several weeks ago. Also, if you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend his three-part series “Which Came First,” which details his attempt to uncover the truth behind Robert Fenton’s famous “Valley of the Shadow of Death” photograph of the infamous Light Brigade skirmish. What I liked most about it was his microscopic attention to detail and an open willingness to crowdsource, as over a thousand people responded and lent advice, tips, and clues. He even did a recap of these comments, which shows a real embrace of the power of collective intelligence and digital media.

GOOD Magazine has put up an extremely sleek and user-friendly interactive graphic titled “Wanderlust: GOOD traces the most famous trips in history.” Included among these are not only the standard fare of Lewis and Clark, Charles Lindbergh, and Marco Polo, but also fictional accounts such as Pequod from Moby Dick, along with Journey to the Center of the Earth. Although I will point out that it’s phenomenally Euro/American-centric, I do applaud its interface and design. This rivals some of the NYTimes’ recent gold standard information graphics as far as usability, style, and depth.

Finally, if you’d like to get worked up and indignant, read Edward Luttwak’s “A Truman for our times.” His thesis is almost comical: “While anti-terrorist operations have been successful here and there in a patchy way, and the fate of Afghanistan remains in doubt, the far more important ideological war has ended with a spectacular global victory for President Bush.” But what makes me downright irate is his complete hijacking of history. In a characterization that smacks of imperialism, ignorance, and borderline racism, he breezily describes eight hundred years of Chinese history in this pithy statement:

“That describes everything that the Chinese are not, and have never been. The Chinese empire was aggressive and expansionist under the Yuan dynasty and again under the Qing. But one dynasty was established by horseriding Mongols, the other by horseriding Manchus, both the products of foreign warrior cultures. The Han Chinese prefer other pursuits. Perhaps they will change, as cultures sometimes do.

Historical determinism and unprofessionalism at its worst. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if he then pulled a Lawrence of Arabia and ended with “A little people, a silly people – greedy, barbarous, and cruel.”

2 thoughts on “Scattered Links – 8/21/2008

  1. Thank you for your comments on my little piece on Bush/Truman in Prospect.
    I write the odd article in between books (e.g, Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire)
    Are you arguing that the Islamist movement is not defeated ? Have you seen key data such as the election results in the supposedly hyper-Islamist North-West Provinces of Pakistan ? The Islamist parties did not jointly reach 10% (they had won by a landslide last time).
    You ridicule any cultural characterization as deterministic, and cite a film script’s ““A little people, a silly people – greedy, barbarous, and cruel.” ex Lawrence of Arabia about you-know-who.
    So are there no valid patterns , no continuities, no characterizations, no plausible anticipations ? Are competence & coherence evenly distributed , or combat valor, or honesty ? Is your wallet as safe in Bucarest as in Tokyo ?
    I

  2. Thank you for taking the time to respond to my post, I appreciate it. To answer your questions:

    Yes, I would argue that “the Islamist movement” is not defeated. First, how do you define “the Islamist movement”? While Islamic radicals in the “hyper-Islamist North-West Provinces of Pakistan” might share some surface similarities with Islamic radicals in Eastern Africa, Indonesia, or Western Europe, their particular decline in regional influence doesn’t necessarily signal the “defeat” of an incredibly varied, trans-national, and constantly shifting ideology. Second, I’m not sure how you can say the global war on terror has ended, much less in a “spectacular global victory.” Outside of an improving situation in Iraq, I don’t see how events in the rest of the region have resulted in victory over terrorism – Afghanistan casualties are rising, while terrorist attacks continue to erupt in Pakistan (look at the suicide bombs that killed 70 people a couple of days ago).

    No, I don’t ridicule any cultural characterizations as deterministic. I do ridicule cultural characterizations that use history as a crutch to make sweeping generalizations. You casually characterize over a billion people, spread across a massive geographic region, with hundreds of different regional histories, cultures, and languages, as being inherently non-militaristic. To support this, you point in passing to historical precedent. Sorry, but that is a shining example of historical determinism.
    In answer to your final questions, I believe there is always going to be a place for anticipations and characterizations, but they need to be firmly grounded with rigorous analysis, research, and explanation. I don’t have a problem if you assert that your wallet is safer in Tokyo than it is in Bucarest, provided you support this assertion with, for example, a modern examination of the two cities and their respective crime rates. But if you reach that conclusion by pointing to some vague notion of historical Japanese honesty or traditional Romanian criminality, then I see a problem. Making over-generalizations bothers me, and using history to prop them up bothers me even more.

    Thanks again for your comment.

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