Mar 24 2010

March 3rd readings…

March 3rd readings 

            We met Tom tonight, and had an enjoyable session talking to him about digital history and creation of sites. I think a lot of what these guys are dealing with is they are creating things that the Old Guard have never seen before, and the Old Guard have no way of gauging what it means in terms of a contribution (or a threat) to their known world. Increasingly, it seems that there is an ever-widening divide between History 1.0 and History 2.0, and much of the divide parallels the age divide between professors.

            The Old Guard seeks to maintain power by asking the question, “Well, is it History, or is it Computer Science?” to which the Young Turks reply, “Yes,” thereby confounding the issue. We see this everyday; I’ve been observing a similar phenomenon in politics for years. A Young Reformer makes a name for himself by attacking the Old Guard, wins an election, then promptly entrenches himself in power and begins the transformation into part of the Old Guard.

             The scary question is, will this happen with Digital History? Will the new guys finally get tenure after the old guys finally die out, and then will they be as entrenched in their mindset that in forty or fifty years when History 3.0 comes into existence (holograms, time travel observational technique (which I should have perfected in another twenty years), mind implants, four dimensional historiographic analytical technique, etc.)? Will the Young Turks remember what it was like to be a Young Turk after finally achieving tenure? Will plain old historical research in hidden archives be viewed as passé? Will Jennifer Aniston ever find happiness? Heady stuff.

             Part of this week’s work also including a reading about archive animation and visiting several digital history sites. Most of the sites I have visited I have enjoyed, although a couple bothered me. I already discussed the ‘History Engine’ site; the one I’m trying to decide if I like or not is the ‘Flickr Commons’ site.

             I get the posting of pictures in groupings. I get the invitation for commentary. I get the sharing aspect of the site. Where I start to get bothered is the absence of a clear and concise breakdown of everything the site has. It seems to me that with each upload of photos there could be a manipulation of an alphabetical listing or table of contents of subject matter, artist, collector, etc., etc. so that there is an instantaneous collating process in operation. Could I do better? Not at this time. Would I like to see it done better? You betcha.

             Furthermore, isn’t anyone checking the comments that are left on these photos? You see a fascinating photo, and then when your cursor glides over it you get the Flickr Commons equivalent of graffiti. Like having the lights come on in the middle of watching a scary movie at night, it breaks the mood. And I want it stopped. Now. Run parallel sites, ‘Flickr Commons’ and ‘Bizarro Flickr Commons;’ each site has the same images, but one allows for scholarly commentary, and the other, for the preadolescent interpretations of cleverness that currently take up space on some of the images.

             My two favorite sites so far are the ‘Transatlantic Slave Trade’ and ‘SmartHistory’ sites. Both are well-thought out and visually appealing sites. I love the organization of both sites, and am blown away by the depth of coverage (especially the “Transatlantic Slave Trade’ site). Granted that both sites benefit from generous grants and lots of labor, I still hold them up as templates for the right way to do something. Viewing these sites, and the others, is giving me a lot to think about as I begin work on my project.

Mar 23 2010

February 24th readings…

February 24th readings

            This week we looked at two websites, Leah’s and the CHNM site, comparing the work of one person over three weeks to the work of a team over a significantly longer period of time.

            Both sites followed the same basic layout, with topics laid out and links going to greater depth. Leah’s was, for the most part, two levels deep, counting the intro; the CHNM site, deeper. Leah’s was static, whereas the CHNM included video and audio components at various depths. Both were well-documented, with further sources suggested. Obviously, the CHNM site was the more attractive of the two because of the amount and diversity of labor put into it, but Leah’s site was well done and was easy to navigate. Certainly at this stage of the class I could not possibly compete with her effort, and any commentary I make is simply for the purposes of comparison, not a criticism. I’ve had Leah in a class, and I find her to be an extremely intelligent and capable historian. If I become half the historian she is, I’ll be pretty good.

            We dipped our toes into the waters of WordPress, breaking down the webpage into banners and bodies and sidebars and footers and comment forms and search forms and pie costs (what’s a pie cost? About eight bucks). We played around with the templates, altering parameters a little bit with the header, which allowed us to feel a little more comfortable with the program.

            Header images are taking up the bulk of my time right now, as I play around with getting regular images scanned in and then uploaded to a test site. I gotta say, altering the pixel size while still maintaining the message of the image that you want is a hell of a lot of work.

            The other part of the readings consisted of a couple of sites dedicated to developing the themes for your website. There is a lot of work involved, but also quite a bit of common sense threaded through it all. In the direct mail business, the design of the envelope has one primary purpose: to get you to open it and see what’s inside. So direct mailers will make the letter look like it’s a bill or from the IRS or make it look like you’ve won the lottery. Email scammers and virus programmers try to disguise their emails in much the same way. In each case, the goal is to get you to open their product.

            Website design is much the same thing- you want a person to move deeper into your site, and they’re not going to do that if you have a crappy image or a poorly designed first page. You want something interesting, intriguing, or attention-grabbing; ideally, something you’re passionate about will interest people a hell of a lot more than something that you feel you are forced to do. So the more I get into this, the more I can relate building a website to just plain old marketing- make it pretty and they will buy it and take it home with them.

          But the flip side is, if it’s a crappy product, they’ll never buy it again. So you have to have a compelling message to get return traffic to your site.

          Good content, good imaging, good times. That’s this week’s lesson.

Mar 18 2010

February 17th readings…

February 17th readings

          I can see now that using the term ‘readings’ was a mistake; more and more our assignment includes visiting websites and listening to podcasts. But I trust you get the drift.

          Continuing along the lines of merging history with the digital medium, this week’s readings had us visit several websites and get a feel for different ways the medium is being used. The ‘History Matters’ is what I would consider to be a resource website designed for history teachers (and students) at the high school and college level, providing ideas and lesson plans, as well as syllabi and even interviews with teachers on the subject. One particular feature that I liked was a review of over one thousand history websites, including JAH reviews of some of them. This is a website that I would consider to be a very valuable tool for new teachers, although veteran teachers could also pull from it.

          ‘Making the History of 1989’ was a narrower topical site, but still provided the tools for lesson plans and in-depth analysis of a pivotal year. Well-documented and easy to navigate, this site ‘felt’ less referency than the ‘History Matters’ site.

          ‘Smart History’ is a gorgeous site that utilizes multimedia to create a digital ‘web-book’ of art history, a site that the creators hope eliminates the need for an expensive textbook. I cannot say enough about the layout, the innovative navigation, and the imagery. Whereas the other sites had a rather formulaic layout, ‘Smart History’ has a design that really makes it stand out.

          As enthusiastic as I am about the ‘Smart History’ site, and I am as equally unenthusiastic about the ‘History Engine’ website. A collaborative effort by instructors and students, the creators’ objective is to allow students to partake in their education by writing little snippets and plugging them into this site, eventually creating a huge mosaic of history. I find it to be more or less a hodge-podge of efforts that give me a headache to navigate. Granted, I may be a little prejudiced because I visited the ‘Smart History’ site first, but I really do not like this site; furthermore, I don’t think I would ever reference anything from it because I can’t judge the academic prowess of the writer. Yes, every article is vetted by a professor, but the site just feels ‘eh.’ It reminds me of those ‘Who’s Who’ compendiums or massive compilations of poetry or short stories that you can be a part of if you pay $75 for your entry and then pay another $75 for a copy of the book (and yes, if you must know, I fell for the spiel in high school and published an entry and bought the book; it currently serves as a support for a broken shelf in a closet). It is not a website that I see myself visiting in the future.       

          The ‘real’ readings dealt with several topics that touched on intelligent website design, arguing that the more accessible and easily navigated a site is, the ease of linkage to primary source material, and the more open-sourced it is, the greater the impact on the user, and the more learning that is achieved. All argue that the traditional educational models are clunky and outmoded, and have been for some time. Hell, even the arguments against the current educational and classroom design are over fifty years old- critics are quoting McLuhan.

          The key in all of this is intelligent design. And collaboration. And open-sourcing. And knowing the purpose of your creation.

Mar 12 2010

February 10th readings…

Class was canceled due to massive snowstorm.

Mar 12 2010

February 3rd readings…

February 3rd readings

             This week’s ‘readings’ included a visit to one of the early examples of digital history, “The Difference Slavery Made,” and listening to the podcast, “Making It Count.” Also included was an article on the thought process and creative collaboration that went into the making of “The Difference Slavery Made,” as well as an online book publishing experiment that tackles the concept of copyright issues in the digital age.

            Right off the bat, I can say I didn’t like the podcast experience; it was too much like listening to National Public Radio. If it were music, I could listen to it in the background while doing something else. But doing that would with this podcast would cause me to lose focus on the discussion. The funny thing is, had it been a video presentation, I would have been able to pay more attention, which I guess means that I am a visual person. But there was a transfer of information, and it is something that I can refer back to at any given time, so it is accomplishing its goal.

            The Fitzpatrick book, Planned Obsolescence, was a fascinating setup; she was putting up her chapters for online peer-review, using a platform that allowed commentators to comment directly at the point of contention, and do so in such a manner that everyone could see it. And then at some point, she cuts off feedback, makes revisions, and sets it up again. This widens the pool of reviewers and speeds up the process of peer-review. Coming from the old way of doing things (writing an article, getting your professor to clean it up, present it at a conference and solicit advice, then rewrite and publish), I am intrigued by this way of doing it because it fits into what my grandfather used to always tell me: “There is wisdom in a multitude of counselors” (this should prove something of a shock to those of you who think that everything I ever needed to know I learned from Star Trek; I don’t think my grandfather ever watched Star Trek).

            But the “The Difference Slavery Made” site and follow-up article was by far the most intriguing part of this week’s assignment. Ayers and Thomas go into great detail about how much work had to be done before they even began writing for the site. They devoted a tremendous amount of time and thought into the structure of the site, the connections between topics, even how the data should be presented. And at each step, they invited peer review to see if their ideas made sense. I was especially taken by the idea that they should treat each data entry as a separate element, therefore allowing an integration of ideas from the ground up. I equate this thought process to breaking down a large integer into its basic prime factors that can be rearranged in any manner but still give you the original integer when multiplied.

            And the cross-topical integration is phenomenal (at first, I was afraid that this was what was expected from us for our final project, but then Jeremy said it took a team of collaborators years to put this together, and I breathed a sigh of relief); you can pick an element and go back and forth and sideways to see its connection with other elements. I was also impressed by a feature that allowed you to see which pages you had visited and which pages you had not, thus letting you know if there were gaps in your research.

            I wish the site would have had a flowchart on one page that showed all of the levels, like a corporate hierarchical chart, which would have allowed me to go directly to a particular element of data, or at least to see in one view the topical breakdown of data, given the depth of the site. But I can only make should a statement because I have something amazing to look at, something that resulted in years of collaboration between great minds. It is not a critical statement; I am too much in awe to criticize. It is a wish based on something that I didn’t even know existed a month ago.

Mar 10 2010

January 27th readings…

January 27th readings

             I am starting to see a theme develop through our readings; it’s not so much a question of, “What do you want to do?” as much as it is a question of, “What are you trying to accomplish, and why?”

            How is what we are doing going to benefit ourselves and those who behold our creations? The obvious short-term answer is: complete the class and get a grade, or successfully complete the class and earn a tool of research- but that’s too instant-gratificationy.

            Ideally, we learn to take our skills as historians and meld them with newly-learned skills (or at least newly-learned techniques) to create something that enhances someone else’s life in some way, regardless of whether it is in terms of knowledge acquisition or entertainment. And a large component of this effort can (and will) be collaborative, far more so than ever before. The biggest difference between what we used to do and what we’re going to do is that what we’re going to do in the future we’re going to do publicly, inviting instantaneous feedback and criticism, with the ultimate hope of creating a better product.

            In the past, I have been somewhat concerned about the amount of crap and misinformation that avails itself so readily on the web, especially when it pertains to history. I used to think that there should be some sort of ‘misinformation police’ that would go out there and somehow delete the bad information and fine/confine/deny internet usage to the offending/ignorant/just plain clueless person. But now I start thinking that for this internet thingy to work, it has to be free and clear and wide open to everyone’s work and opinion, and let the masses decide what to believe and trust. Yes, there can be plagiarisms and outright lies- but we’ve had that since time began (“yea, verily I say unto thee, Moses came down the mount with fifteen commandments from God, written upon three stone tablets.  But Moses stumbled, and one of the tablets was dropped, and broke into a thousand pieces forever.” And, of course, the inevitable follow-up conspiracy-theorist’s rant- “No, man- he was tripped by a Judaic feminist activist from the spacecraft Zebulon-7 because those last five commandments dealt with women being second class citizens and being denied the right to bear arms! I can prove it!”). Going digital isn’t going to change that. And it shouldn’t. Whether a person lets others know he’s nuts one person at a time or a thousand people at a time, he’s still nuts, and people are going to realize it. Besides, with almost a billion people having access to the internet, who would be able to police it one user at a time?

            I think an important aspect to historians expanding their abilities to bring the past to the world in a vibrant, easily accessible format is to get every item of historical import digitized and then invite collaboration, whether it is in the form of historian or non-historian, expert of novice. Make everything open source. Get those libraries and archives to open up those hidden or dusty collections, digitize them, and lose the gatekeeper mentality. To paraphrase Reagan, “Mr. Archivist, tear down these walls.”

            What do I accomplish here? I bring history to those who not have access to it otherwise. Why am I doing it? I believe information is power, and in making information available to everyone, I empower them. And hopefully, they can use this new power to make a better world, or at least a better life for themselves. And create a new warp drive so we can get off this damn planet before the population hits twelve billion.

Mar 9 2010

January 20th readings…

January 20th readings

             This week’s readings included a fascinating article discussing ‘Web 2.0,’ Tim O’Reilly’s term for the next step in interconnectivity between users and data. O’Reilly argues that the evolving capabilities of programmers and the creativity unleashed by open-source coding and collaboration among users and developers is creating something that is changing the way we look at and use computers (and cell phones and PDAs) and the services that they offer.

            O’Reilly lists seven core concepts that form the basis of his Web 2.0: the Web as a platform, harnessing collective intelligence, specialized databases, constant ‘live’ updating, use of lightweight programming models, software that works across a multitude of platforms, and providing a rich user experience. O’Reilly believes that unless a company/developer embraces these concepts, they really don’t fit the model of a successfully evolving internet entity that provides, well, that provides anything of use.

            Also included in the ‘readings’ was a YouTube video making the point that the distinction between the use of digital mediums and being used by the developers of the digital mediums is blurring, which fits nicely into O’Reilly’s thesis. An underlying message in the video also might be that at some point all of this interaction could lead to the development of an evolved artificial intelligence. Already when you start to type something into Google’s search engine, it tries to narrow the field before you finish typing; Microsoft Word has an annoying assistant that deigns to figure out what it is you are trying to do (the condescension of that little paperclip is subtle- but it’s there; I wish there was a Monty Python-esque foot-crashing-down feature that I could utilize to get rid of the assistant); and for me, the most maddening of all, is the T9 function on cell phones that tries to figure out what you are typing, and makes it difficult to type a word ‘it’ has never seen before. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see the HAL 9000 right around the digital corner.

            Real-time dissection and commentary about an academic’s paper at a conference and the uproar some of the commentary caused was the topic of Parry’s article in which the challenge was about the definition of and the course of digital humanities. Parry basically said that if all ‘digital’ did was present the same material in a different format that it really wasn’t anything new. For digital humanities to truly evolve into something new, it needs to be an ongoing collaboration between presenters and those being presented to, with constant modification and interaction. It is something that needs to tear down the ivory towers of mundane academia and become more vibrant, a ‘living history’ if you will. To paraphrase a familiar saying, “That which does not tear down walls only makes them stronger.”

            Amanda French’s article was a positive piece on Twitter, where she was trying to open the eyes of the oldsters in the profession to the fact that historical scholarly discussion is passing them by; no longer is it about writing for quarterly journals- it’s about being able to write and discuss and defend instantaneously with hundreds or thousands of followers.

            A case in point was another reading about a conference keynote speaker, speaking on a dated subject to a web-savvy crowd, and getting tweckled (tweet heckled) to death by listeners who were floored by the guy’s laziness in presentation. Moral of the story: you’re not as smart as you think you are, and we can tell (thousands of) others the moment we find out.

            Finally, an article on teen narcissism colliding with technology spoke to my own heart about twitter and about the issues of entitlement felt by children whose parents evidently dropped the ball during the discussions on ‘putting others first’ and ‘no, you’re not my equal.’ I highly enjoyed it.

Mar 8 2010

January 13th readings…

January 13th readings – Getting Started with Social Media

             This is the first blog posting dealing with the reading assignments for the graduate class, ‘History in the Digital Age,’ and I can safely say I am a little overwhelmed. I had absolutely no idea that there were so many forms of digital communication out there, and of those that I did know about, I did not have a very high opinion.

             However, after a little investigation, I must admit my opinions they are a changin’. Take Twitter for example; I knew of it because of the hype surrounding celebrities (and celebrity wanna-bes) and that these guys would ‘tweet’ whatever they were doing at the moment to legions of followers, no matter how mundane, and their followers would eat it up, feeling like they had a personal connection to the celeb. But now I see Twitter can be utilized in a more productive manner to connect scholars (or freedom activists in a repressive regime, for the matter) with those interested in their topics in a far easier way than say, cell phone texting, because the burden is on the follower rather than the transmitter. The transmitter makes one entry without needing to go through a list of people and deciding to whom to send it.

             But the file-sharing, video-sharing, book-marking programs were programs I had no idea existed, and am intrigued by their possible uses. I have always been fascinated by video as a means of expression and the conveyance of knowledge, and am looking forward to learning how to embed relevant historical clips into digital presentations. And I had no idea that wikis were collaborative writing spaces; I just thought the use of the term wiki was a shortcut to wikipedia.

             So, in essence, this reading assignment exposed my ignorance of the Googlefacetextweb, and has set me on the path of enlightenment.

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