Archive | March 2014

Why I’m a Maphead


A Precursor to Normandy?

A Precursor to Normandy?

Just like Brick Tamland loves lamp, I love map.

This came in part from my grandmother. Whenever she’d visit, we’d usually go to a museum or historic site. Upon arrival, she always said “you got to have a map, Zach, so we know where to go.” Even at places we’d been to before, I would immediately grab a map and navigate around. Still to this day I usually consult a map when entering a museum instead of wandering aimlessly.

Even outside of public history sites, I value maps. On road trips I always get navigating duties, and I never ask for directions–not because I’m embarrassed to do so, but because I always want to figure them out on my own via maps. In addition, I pride myself on my ability to decipher the local transit map in foreign cities that I visit. And that’s no laughing matter as transit maps overseas like London, Madrid and Paris  are much more complex than D.C.’s Metro map.

As a Maphead, I believe spatial history is absolutely vital in Digital History. Besides the very practical uses of maps I outlined above, maps can be great tools of learning. The image at the top of this post comes from a 2012 Guardian piece on strange, yet illuminating, maps. More recently, back in December one website published “40 Maps That Will Help You Make Sense of the World.” Though obviously all these maps are rooted in geography, in addition they teach us about astronomy, politics, geology, demography, ecology, economics, language, sociology, meteorology, transportation and of course history. (Check out a gallery of my favorite maps from those two links below.)

History really can benefit from this approach. As Richard White, the head of Stanford’s Spatial History Project, says, “Space is itself historical.” Quoting French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, White argues that spatial relations are an integral part of human history, as our world constantly affects human interaction. Therefore, I think there is great benefit in using these visual tools as historical research, whether we’re detailing incidents of crime in Harlem, or the rise and fall of Napoleon’s Army in Russia. Historians should not view maps just as representations of their “traditional” research, but instead should be using it as a research tool in the first place. In the words of White, spatial history “generates questions that might otherwise go unasked, it reveals historical relations that might otherwise go unnoticed, and it undermines, or substantiates, stories upon which we build our own versions of the past.”



Hail to the history of the term Redskins

Daniel Snyder, the owner of Washington D.C.’s NFL franchise , is in the news again. On Monday he released a letter announcing the creation of the Original Americans Foundation which will “provide meaningful and measurable resources that provide genuine opportunities for Tribal communities.”

Why is a White owner of a Mid-Atlantic sports franchise creating a foundation dedicated to supporting Native American tribes? The answer lies in the team’s name: the Redskins. Over the last year, the Redskins, and by extension their owner, have come under scrutiny for running a team whose nickname is a derogatory term in other contexts. Though this controversy is not new, the team’s success and return to national prominence during the 2012 season have led to a huge increase in opposition to the name, going as high as President Obama. In response, Snyder has said multiple times that the name is not changing any time to soon. Predictably this has not exactly engendered much sympathy. So this latest announcement is part of his strategy to deflect some of the criticism.

I’m not going to get into the entire controversy here. But what I’m interested in is the use of the actual word “Redskins” over time. Words evolve, and perhaps it means something different today. Luckily Google Ngram Viewer can help. Google Ngram analyzes how often a word or phrase is used in the corpus of about 5 billion books that have been digitized via Google Books. It then graphs the use of the word in the books as a percent for the given year range. Here’s is the “Redskins” Ngram:

RedskinsFirst a caveat. Again, the chart only shows the use of Redskins in printed books; so we can say it did not appear often in print prior to the Civil War, but can’t asses whether it was still a common part of the oral vernacular then (and in subsequent years when it was more commonly published). After 1860, it peaked significantly in the mid 1870s, and around 1890. Custer’s Last Stand was 1876 and the Wounded Knee Massacre occurred in 1890. So it makes sense that a significant amount of print then would focus on Natives, calling them terms like Redskins.

And what about the football team? The team first used the name “Redskins” in 1933, so that partly explains the increase in the word around then. But most importantly, since 1960 there has been a roughly constant increase in the use of the word “Redskins” (outside of a blip in the late 70s) culminating in its highest levels… in 2000! So just looking at this chart, we might conclude that calling Native Americans Redskins is more common now than at the height of the Indian Wars.

In reality, the term used in 1890 was different than the term being used increasingly from the mid 1970s and today. Ngram also allows you to see what books use the given word. Prior to the football team, Redskins appear in such books as “The Redskins, Or, Indian and Injin” or “Redskin and Cowboy–A Tale of the Western Plains.” However, since 1970, the books are predominantly about the football team. In fact, the rise and fall of the word in the last 40 years correlates to the team’s success. The first major peak in 1974 occurred in the midst of a five-year playoff run including the team’s first Super Bowl appearance. The relative valley in the following years correspond to a playoff absence from 1977-1981. Then from 1980 until 1993 there is a rapid increase–during this time the Redskins won three Super Bowls while appearing in another and became one of the most popular and dominant teams in the NFL.

Of course, we shouldn’t overstate Ngram’s findings. These rise and falls only show correlation with military and sports events, and not causation. And again, the term’s frequency only relates to publications. The NFL is the most covered and followed American sport; it makes sense that one of its high-profile teams would receive significant amounts of coverage in today’s 24-7 sports world. So we shouldn’t overlook the term’s non-literary uses. Still, Dan Snyder would be happy to know that the term today is clearly associated with the team, and not just Native Americans.


Thar She Wikis: Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia

jimmy wales

(This is my second look at Truth in Numbers. Click here for the first one).

Apple had Steve Jobs. Facebook has Mark Zuckerberg. And Wikipedia has Jimmy Wales.

And just like The Social Network and Jobs, Wales has a film about him.

However unlike Jobs and Zuckerberg, the film about the Wikipedia co-founder is not a major motion picture starting Hollywood actors. (Though I think Paul Giamatti would be perfect). Instead, Wales appears as the protagonist of the 2010 documentary Truth in Numbers? Everything According to Wikipedia. The documentary, co-directed by Scott Glosserman and Nic Hill interviews dozens of Wikipedians as well as authors, journalists and critics who have mixed views on the site, such as the late historian Howard Zinn, Bob Schieffer of CBS News, and former Central Intelligence Agency Director James Woolsey. But Wales is without question the central character.

Not surprisingly almost everything Wales himself does and says in the film casts Wikipedia in a good light. Indeed, the film starts with him visiting Varanasi, India where he teaches a local how to edit Wikipedia. That transitions into him speaking before an American crowd saying “Imagine a world where everyone on the planet is given free access to the sum of human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.” From this start you get a sense that the documentary will focus on how Wales and Wikipedia is changing the world for the better. And there certainly is some of that. Glosserman and Hill show the international bonding of the Wikipedia community, as Korean, Indonesian, Chinese, Indian, Dutch, Taiwanese, Arabic, South African, English and American Wikipedians of both genders are interviewed. (Compare this to the “critics,” all but one of whom are men, and most of whom are old and white.) In one of the best lines of the film, a Taiwanese Wikipedian who earlier is depicted meeting a Chinese Wikipedian with whom he had collaborated on an article, says “Through Wikipedia it’s unbelievable I could make friends with a communist.” The other interviews with members of the Wikipedia community aren’t as touching, but they all do share a sincere sense of optimism about the site.

Yet, there is balance. As I mentioned in my first post, the documentary mirrors the Wikipedia site’s “Npov” mission to balance all articles. Glossmerman and Hill don’t really build any specific narrative, except that “Wikipedia is good but it also is bad.” The target of a lot of this criticism is Wales himself. About halfway through the movie, internet critic  Andrew Keen says that Wales possesses the Libertarian suspicion of external authority first espoused by Ayn Rand. These comments frame clips of Wales talking about how Rand’s novel The Fountainhead influenced him (“My motivation is not altruism”), clips of Rand expounding her own philosophy (“I say man is entitled to his own happiness, and he must achieve it himself”) and clips of the 1949 movie version of The Fountainhead (“He served no one and served nothing. He lived by himself.”) Taken together, these clips depict Wales not as a man providing access to human knowledge for the benefit of humanity, but for his own ego.

Some of the other criticisms of Wales are less blatant, or even underdeveloped. Just like Facebook, there is controversy over who “founded” Wikipedia. The film describes how Larry Sanger and Wales came up with the idea of an open-source encyclopedia, eventually using Ward Cunningham’s “wiki” technology as a platform, and that the two had a falling out. Unfortunately, this story about the site’s early origins is brushed over. Sanger gets his moment to criticize Wales, stating that  “When [Wales] first started leaving me out the story, it was extremely disappointing to me. It wasn’t something I would have thought Jimmy capable of.” However, instead of actually having to defend actions, Wales gets left off the hook. Right after Sanger’s jab, a nameless journalist interviews Wales, mentions that Sanger, “co-founded” the site, and Wales interrupts saying “he says” with a smile. And that’s it! It’s possible this story isn’t as juicy as the The Social Network. But by not letting Wales discuss his vision of the founding of the site, Glosserman and Hill lose a great opportunity to delve into their central character’s mind and better illuminate the foundation of the site they document.

In the end, I came away from the film feeling sorry for Wales. Keen points out that Wales — who doesn’t make any money directly off of the main Wikipedia site — is like someone who found a winning lottery ticket, but instead of cashing it in, donated it to the world. And clearly his personal life suffered from all this too. About a quarter into the movie Wales is interviewed in his Florida home, with his wife and daughter in surrounding him. It’s a very weird situation where he’s explaining how busy he’s been, and how he’s barely home anymore because he travels so much. Meanwhile, his wife is nervously laughing about this and how great it was to share an apartment in Japan for 30 days recently when Wales was working there (their last “vacation”). It’s clear the Wikipedia efforts are taking a toll on this marriage. Lo and behold, in a postscript at the end of the film, Wales admits that since that previous interview he separated from him wife. (He’s since divorced and remarried).

So while Truth in Numbers ends with all the interviewees reading their own Wikipedia page (Howard Zinn is quite impressed with the accuracy of his), I think a more fitting ending would be Wales staying up late, editing his own Wikipedia page, just like the last scene of The Social Network.

Documentary Review: The Anonymous Truth of Wikipedia

Howard Zinn (1927-2010)

Howard Zinn (1927-2010)

About half way through the 2010 documentary Truth in Numbers? Everything According to Wikipedia, historian Howard Zinn says “All history is a matter of  selecting out of an infinite number of facts, and the selection itself is inevitably biased.” For example, in the traditional accounts of Christopher Columbus, the Progressive Era and the Civil War, historians routinely fail to mention, respectively, Columbus’ slaughter of native populations; the widespread lynching throughout America in the early 20th Century; and the massive amount of Indian land grabbing during the 1860s. All these examples, Zinn argues, show how in historical writing omission can be just as subversive as factual inaccuracies. Zinn believes this inherent bias can lead to a distortion of “the truth,” especially when amateur historians write on Wikipedia. As CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer adds “What’s worse, telling a bold-face lie, or just part of the truth?”

As its title indicates, Truth in Numbers? is concerned with how Wikipedia explores the “truth.”Interviewing dozens of Wikipedians as well as authors, journalists and critics such as Zinn, Schieffer, former CIA Director James Woolsey, Lawrence Lessig (who sadly only appears briefly at the beginning), and Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, the film focuses on the rise of Wikipedia in modern internet culture, and how it is shaping human knowledge.

Unfortunately, directors Scott Glosserman and Nic Hill mirror Wikipedia’s “Npov” policy, as the film itself doesn’t take sides. (To get even more meta, the “reception” section of the film’s Wikipedia page shows that almost all sides have a different interpretation of the film’s message.) Furthermore, there is very little narration, and in fact not much of an overarching narrative to the film. Instead, Glosserman and Hill jump from one interview to another, almost like the “Wikipedia wormhole” I mentioned two weeks ago.

The majority of the interviews revolve around how Wikipedia’s anonymity affects its accuracy and credibility. The first criticism is that it’s too easy to create inaccurate information. (As Stephen Colbert jokes in an interview with Wales, Wikipedia is the “First place I go when I want some knowledge, or want to create some.”) Wales’s brushes these aside, since unlike traditional encyclopedias, Wikipedia can easily change any error.

A lot of the critics also complain that the site lacks credibility since the editors are anonymous; one points out that traditionally people who wrote anonymously wrote things like ransom letters, poison pen letters and graffiti. This line of thought is pretty ridiculous, and in fact the next interviewee immediately points out that much of the early political writing in this country was done anonymously (such as the Federalist Papers). Regardless, Wales also brushes this aside. He thinks that by editing under established pseudonyms, Wikipedians are practicing “pseudonymity” not anonymity, and take pride in their pseudonym just like they would their real name.

The last major attack on Wikipedia’s credibility I think is the most valid: that its current system scorns “experts.” Wales states that his goal is for Wikipedia to be a meritocracy. But for it to be a true meritocracy, wouldn’t professors and experts rise to the top? Instead, as interviewee after interviewee lament, Wikipedians often look down on elitism, and thus there are few so-called experts on the site. Writer Simon Winchester concedes that having just experts is not ideal, since “experts” often include old white men, and that is a problem. (Of note, the actual Wikipedians interviewed are extremely diverse, whereas all but one of the “critics” are men, with most old and white.) Still, as Zinn notes, having some experts would be helpful, since everyone carries biases. So experts are needed to provide the right context.

Overall, I do think some of the interviewee complaints are valid. To avoid the issue of anonymously editing without repercussions, requiring everyone to register makes sense. And possibly it would be helpful to have experts at the top of the food chain to review articles, as Winchester says. Perhaps the best analogy of Wikipedia is one of the last comments. The head of the Biblioteche Alexandria in Egypt says that prior to the emergence of Wikipedia and the internet as a whole, the global fountain of knowledge was a very slow drip, and that most people in the would couldn’t “drink” from it. Now with Wikipedia providing free and open access to everyone in the world, it’s like opening a fire hose. However,  you still can’t drink from that either. So the goal should be finding the perfect middle.

(I have a lot more to say about this documentary, especially about Wales. But it’s not as germane to digital scholarship, so I”ll write a separate post.)

(3/25/14 UPDATE: here’s a second blog post on Truth in Numbers, focusing on Wales.)

Wiki Wiki Wiki

Wikipedia is great since it has millions of articles just a finger click away. On the other hand, one finger click leads to another, which leads to another which leads to another, and next thing you know hours of your life are gone. The brilliant webcomic XKCD perfectly encapsulated this:

A typical Wikipedia experience, plus or minus the mental image of William Howard Taft in a wet t-shirt contest.

But in all seriousness, I do love Wikipedia and use it daily, if not hourly. So I was really frustrated on January 18, 2012 when Wikipedia held a “blackout”  in protest against SOPA. For 24 hours, users couldn’t access English-language Wikipedia articles. Despite knowing about this blackout, I still tried accessing Wikipedia links dozens of times throughout the day just by habit. It was a reminder of how how ever-present the site is, and how much I rely on it to learn about the world.

Roy Rosenzweig analyzes the historical writing on Wikipedia in his 2006 essay “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past.” The article illuminates Wikipedia’s own history and its policies, though as expected from an eight-year old article, some of it could use updating. For example, since Rosenzweig wrote the article: Wikipedia has jumped from the 18th Alexa-ranked website, to sixth (#1 for non social media or search engine sites); 3 million articles overall, with 1 million in English, has exploded to 30 million and 4.5 million; and Wikipedia employees have grown from two to 200. Specific articles have changed too. Back then Woodrow Wilson‘s entry (3,200 words) was smaller than Isaac Asimov’s (3,500); now the former has 13,000 words and the latter 10,000.

Still, Rosenzweig’s main focus is on the historical writing of Wikipedia. He writes that thanks to Wikipedia’s  neutrality policy as well as use of “encyclopedia style” there is no real interpretation on the site. I agree with this assessment, but unlike Rosenzweig, I don’t think this diminishes Wikipedia. The point of the site is to provide information, not expound historical arguments that can be found in historical journals or scholarly monographs. That’s why I agree with him that historians should “Spend more time teaching about the limitations of all information sources, including Wikipedia, and emphasizing the skills of critical analysis of primary and secondary sources.”

I also very much agree with his question “Shouldn’t professional historians join in the massive democratization of access to knowledge reflected by Wikipedia and the Web in general?” His ideas like historians taking one day a year to edit articles of their expertise, or creating an open-sourced collaborative textbook based on Wikipedia (or at least similar to Wikipedia) would help develop historical consciousness and knowledge. After all, as Rosenzweig states  Wikipedia’s  “extraordinary freedom and cooperation make Wikipedia the most important application of the principles of the free and open-source software movement to the world of cultural, rather than software, production.”

Considering my addiction to clicking on Wikipedia links, I couldn’t agree more.

(I plan to review a documentary about Wikipedia later this month. Check for that blog post in about two weeks.)

Zotero Library

Zotero Library

This is a Zotero Library that I created. The library focuses on my Presidential Elections class. I’ve included the books for the course, my notes, journal articles related to key elections, plus a lot of materials related to my book review essay (such as other reviews, and the actual books I’ll be reviewing). Let me know if there are any cool Presidential Elections items I should add!

Ranking the Oscars

Tonight’s the Academy Awards, an I’ll definitely be watching. My parents always host an Oscars Party, and growing up I’d try to stay up as late as possible to watch as much of the broadcast as I could. Unfortunately that meant I usually missed the Best Picture award, since inevitably I had to go to bed first. Of course, I eventually got old enough to stay up that late, and to this day I remain a big fan of the Oscars.

So I naturally was interested when I saw this BuzzFeed article ranking all 85 Best Picture winners. Some of the rankings are not surprising: Crash is 83; the Godfather and Casablanca are top three. Some of them are rather surprising: Forrest Gump is 62; All About Eve is ranked No. 1. Either way, like most ranking lists on the internet, there were strong opinions. (Sample comment: “To the author: You are either insane or extremely brave. Probably both”)

Well here’s more noise. Below you’ll find my top Best Pictures list. Two caveats about this list. First, it’s unclear if the BuzzFeed author, Kate Arthur, has seen all 85 movies herself, but I’m only going to rank the ones I’ve seen. Unfortunately, this is only 37 out of the 85 films, and the majority of those are from the last 35 years. (Probably the four most high-profile films I haven’t seen are American Beauty, Schindler’s List, Annie Hall and Gone with the Wind. I also haven’t seen All About Eve, so I can’t judge if that should be No. 1.) Second, this ranking does not reflect what I think the “best” Best Picture films are. It’s instead an inherently subjective list based on how much I enjoyed the film. So yes, I realize Amadeus and Gladiator are not two of the top three movies of all-time. But they definitely are two of my favorite movies.

See the list after the jump, including Arthur’s ranking, my ranking and some comments.

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