Scattered Links – 3/16/2009

I’ve been closely following the history blogging roundtable examining Judith Bennett’s History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. Notorious Ph.D., Girl Scholar kicked things off with Should politics be historical? Should history be political? Then Historiann kept the ball rolling with Who indeed is afraid of the distant past (and who says it’s distant, anyway)? A call to arms. This week Claire Potter at Tenured Radical posted part three, Teach This Book!, with part four appearing soon at Blogenspiel. I’ve found the series instructive, given my embarrassing lack of knowledge of historiography in general, and feminist (not to mention medieval feminist) historiography in particular. A lively comment-debate about generational issues followed Notorious Ph.D.’s posting, which Historiann expounded upon in part two (and included an interesting suggestion of social history’s potential for comparative women’s studies). Tenured Radical delves into why feminist historians might gravitate towards more recent history, while championing queer history as a partial solution to some issues that Bennett raises. The history/academia blogosphere could benefit from more roundtables such as these.

Deviant Art supplies an amusing cartographic comic on the progression of World War II. My favorite part? “We talked about this before, mon ami.”

Lisa Spiro at Digital Scholarship in the Humanities gives a great two-part wrap-up of Digital Humanities developments in 2008. Part One sounds a triumphant note, including “Emergence of Digital Humanities” and “Community and collaboration,” while Part Two is more sobering, discussing continued resistance to open access and other new scholarly models, along with the erroneous and Grinch-like litigation by EndNote against Zotero.

Scientists compiled a clickstream map of “scientific activity” (along with other disciplines) that creates a visualization of how users moved from one academic journal to another. The visualization shows how different disciplines tend to cluster around one another, and I was impressed at the degree of interaction in the humanities and social sciences (although I would have loved to see more fluidity between humanities and more “hard” disciplines).

It reminded me of Sterling Fluharty’s insightful take on using quantitative methods to rank history journals based on citations, which the clickstream map avoided due to inconsistent nature of citations across disciplines.

Finally, the Economist’s Technology Quarterly profiles Brewster Kahle in “The Internet’s Librarian” and his quest to build “Alexandria 2.0,” a free digital archive of human knowledge.

Digging for Treasure

When I embarked on a summer research project in 2006, I was lucky enough to have the chance to tag along with an archaeological team each Friday. The team, led by Lucianne Lavin and Marc Banks, was excavating the property of Venture Smith, whom I was researching. There was red tape galore – the site was on the property of a nuclear power plant that was in the process of being decommissioned. But through Lucianne and Marc’s kindness, I got a real taste for the grittier and messier cousin of history: archaeology.

I learned a lot about the discipline. Chief among these realizations was that I was not very good at it. My first day I learned how to dig a 30cm square by 1 meter deep test pit. Dripping with a potent combination of sweat and bug spray, I gamely attempted to dig straight down in even, 10cm increments, pouring the shovelfuls of dirt and stones onto my excavating partner’s sifter so she could look for artifacts. Needless to say our test pit gradually took on a fun-house mirror appearance, especially in comparison to the other, perfectly dug pits around us.

My partner suggested we switch off so she could fix some of my mistakes. I was relieved, until I realized that I had to sift dirt while looking for any kind of material culture. Easier said than done. She carefully showed me the difference between a piece of fire-baked pottery and a normal pebble. I nodded understandingly, confidently lifted up the sifter, and promptly realized I was at an utter loss to tell the difference between a rock and pottery shard. Over the weeks, I got slightly better – to the point where I was throwing out more rocks than pottery, but only just. They finally learned their lesson and ended up having me map out each boulder, tree, and test pit on the small section of property using a tape measure and a series of graphing sheets.

Despite my incompetence, I managed to gain a deep appreciation for both the immense challenges and rewards of archaeological research. There is something truly thrilling to be standing and digging on the very spot where your subject of historical research lived. Although I get the same thrill from a manuscript or document, they lack the tangible reality of a material artifact you excavate in the field. Marc and Lucianne’s analysis led to a series of insights into my research that I never would have gained – they discovered the remnants of a dry dock that implied extensive river trade and activity, a faded cart path that likely corresponded to one mentioned in a land deed, and the foundation of a two-bay house and at least two other structures on the homestead. All of these were exciting and valuable contributions.

On the other hand, I was met with the frustrations of what I saw as broad speculation. Perhaps it was due to the fact that I couldn’t tell the difference between a rock and a nail, but hearing theoretical conjecture about Venture Smith’s life and activities based on tiny bits of pottery raised up red flags for the careful, source-oriented historian in me. I am guessing it is simply another form of source evaluation, one that I am far less comfortable or adept with. Just as I would judge a historical record based on its author, writing style, and context, I’m sure Marc and Lucianne bring to bear an equally careful evaluation of material artifacts.

Finally, I can’t resist linking to an article from the Economist’s Technology Quarterly – titled “Armchair Archaeology.” The article discusses how archaeologists are using satellite imagery such as GoogleEarth to plan expeditions, identify sites, and do surprisingly complex analysis. One cool example is using imagery to identify the quarrying and transportation routes of pre-Hispanic obsidian stone: “Mapping these routes has helped archaeologists reconstruct production and trade patterns, and hence economic, social and political relations in the region…” And the best part? It’s free.

Souped Up Web Browsing

Last week’s Economist contained the Technology Quarterly, which I always look forward to. Included in this one was an article titled “Rummaging through the internet,” which discussed a variety of new applications and software being developed for browsing the internet. I decided to try out a couple. First up was Hyperwords, which is a browser add-on that allows you to basically turn anything on the screen into a multi-faceted hyperlink. So I could highlight the word “Economist” in the opening sentence of this blog, which would then raise several different menus and sub-menus, including the option to search for the phrase on Google, Wikipedia, a variety of digital media sites (Flickr, Youtube, etc.), a thesaurus, various shopping sites, or a finance page. All of these can be previewed directly from the pop-up menu. In addition, I can translate it (temporarily) into a different language, immediately post it into an email or blog post (along with a link), or see web pages and blog posts that are linked to the page. Finally, I can highlight the word, its occurrence both within the current page or in other open tabs, or only show sentences or paragraphs containing that word. There are a lot of other, smaller features that are pretty neat as well.

All in all, it’s an impressive piece of software. There are quirks and limitations – the Google preview page, for example, is a little barren and the window is often made up mostly of Google’s ads. The number of menus and sub-menus gets overwhelming and a little cluttered, but it can all be customized. Finally, I decided to take out the Hyperwords toolbar because I didn’t like its interface with Google searches. Nevertheless, the entire project is one with some far-reaching implications. While it does go back to the idea of the internet facilitating a horizontal (sometimes at the expensive of a vertical) mode of information gathering, it really has the potential to soup up your browsing experience.

The next application the article mentioned was Cooliris’s Previews and PicLens. I have more mixed feelings about these two. The Previews option for Cooliris is nice, but clunky at times and slow to load. After some experimentation, I finally reached the conclusion that it didn’t really give me a sizeable enough advantage over regular browsing. Meanwhile, PicLens is a truly beautiful design that allows you to view images from certain compatible websites (Flickr, Facebook, Google Images, YouTube, to name a few) in a quasi-3D wall of pictures. In this wall, you feel like you’re in a museum, except with the ability to zoom in and out, scroll through, and play a slideshow with relative ease.

Screenshot of using PicLens to browse the results of a Flickr search for

PicLens to view results of Flickr search term “History”

My only complaint was that pictures took a little while to load, so the wall wasn’t “complete” even after twenty seconds or so. Nevertheless, it’s a really gorgeous design that kind of feels like you are working on a poor man’s version of Tony Stark’s engineering computer in Ironman.

The two applications from Cooliris (Previews and PicLens) are both interesting, but I feel that PicLens and other “3D” browser apps are the only ones that have the potential for substantial impact. As the Economist article notes, 3D browsing allows people to take advantage of their spatial memory and thought-process. I’m not going to unequivocally agree with Edward Bakhash, who is quoted in the article as stating that 3D developers are going to “help usher in the next paradigm”.

I think about applications for history and scholarship, and I think about being to fly through archived primary documents using PicLens. I have to admit, it would be a lot cooler and faster than filling out a special collections retrieval slip and waiting for a librarian to retrieve it. Hyperwords I think has a more practical application for scholarship, as it really enhances the speed with which you can navigate during online research. If you don’t know a word, you can find out its definition and synonyms in less than a second without leaving the page. If you are curious about a historical figure you come across, you can similarly find out who they are on Wikipedia or Google incredibly quickly. And lastly, I think the feature of being able to highlight words, only show certain sentences or paragraphs, or even search for those words in open tabs opens the door to a whole lot of advanced digital searching. It isn’t that these kinds of applications don’t already exist, it’s that it streamlines the process of using them. While it perhaps does not lend itself well to in-depth exploration of a narrow topic, it really expands the power of web browsing.