Friday, September 22, 2006

So what is at the Bottom?

The readings this week on databases was indeed deep and wide. Remeniscent of swimming in a lake, realizing you cannot touch the bottom, and wondering what really is down there in the dark green? Scum, sunken ships, debtors in cement overshoes? Exabites indeed give me a cold chill. But I couldn't help wondering-yes it is a lot of information, but how much of it is worth saving? Sure, the IRS needs some of that info and court cases hinge on scraps of evidence. But what about that text message I sent to my husband on August 9? Ironically, as historians, we wish we had access to all those private conversations between Napoleon and Josephine, or just a few more tavern bills from the early fifteenth century. My mentor's research for her doctoral program included searching Tsar Peter Alexivich's account books of his grand embassy through Europe. She loved finding out how much the Russian treasury had to pay out for damages done to castles after particularily riotous parties. Clearly, we must be overtly concerned with databases. Our very livelyhoods depend on the condition of the primary sources currently locked away in archives. One point these articles did not bring up is the rush by certain archives to label important works as "National Treasures" and completely removing them from the hands of researchers. This process is happening at an alarming rate-occasionally before top quality scans of the works get made, whether for lack of funds or fears of harming the work. I was able to view an incanabula from 1483 in the Library of Congress last year, but they would not allow me to photograph the book, nor would they make digital images of it for fear of harming it-even though I was prepared to pay their posted rate. Ironically I was able to find a second copy of this work on the West coast, and had total access to it because someone had put the wrong publishing date in the card cataloge. Their records indicated the book was published in 1960! I wasn't about to dissuade them.
Crane's article "What do you do with a million books?" breifly touched on the problem of how to save the data in formats that allow the researcher the best suitable access to it. Beyond the problem of getting all the archives in developing nations--central Europe, for example, on board this movement. They have more pressing issues to spend their limited funds on. Crane's ideas I want to discuss is the desirability of the most effective levels of granularity and of noise to convert these files to. The outrageous amount of material covered in each book will make it imperative that some sort of mechanical process, much like Dan Cohen's search tools, will be necessary to determine what are the key words for each document. Because of the nature of the English language, with its lack of organized spelling techniques, any book published before the nineteenth century will demand customized solutions for the varieties of spelling. This is a problem, as I understand these words, of both granularity-how many individual bits of information to use to search the book, and of noise--the unique peculiarities of the characters and the computer's ability to read them. Both these issues affect the researcher's ability to browse through and to actually use older books. To say nothing of the complexities of images and of marginalia. Will we see a day when we can access handwritten works via computer-based databases? For now, save up your frequent flier miles so you can go gaze upon the primary sources--and don't forget your white gloves.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Treading on toes

So when you get to visualizing history, you are treading on my toes--because that is something I like to think I know a few things about. Please forgive the lateness of this post, but I am still struggling with a broken computer and no web access at home, so all my posting time has to be taken from my lunch hour at Research 1. I found this week's readings to be both satisfying and maddening. At last, a few names I'm familiar with-Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault- inserted exactly where they would be most at home--in a discussion of the use and structure of language. It is such a great pity they are not here to sort out our digital age. The discussions on hypertext got my brain working. And to think Barthes had presaged it--of course he did. The drift away from the strictly Manechean bilateral structure of the world was started in those countries who had been crushed in two consecutive wars and had been frozen out of their assumed places in the world heirarchy by the Cold War. While Americans stayed with the us/them mentality, the French were constructing elegant multilayered multiuniverses in the form of literary critique. So plod along all you want with linear narrative--the future belongs to those who can navigate in more than two dimensions. Hypertext offers a great way to structure story, but the audience will have to catch up. Janet Murray's chapters gave a glimpse at how that new audience is being trained. The end of the passive observer, the beginning of the active prowler. Will Narrative dry up? Experience shows old technologies stick around for as long as they have a use--I still keep paper and pen handy because it is faster and more convinient to jot down ideas on the bus than to pull out the laptop. And nothing beats written narrative for forming an argument-I will discuss this more below. But to free up the audience to move between ideas as their interests carry them-this presents a magnificent new way to teach. Actually, medieval scholars were very well aquainted with a sort of hypertextual system. The document in question, usually scripture, would be inscribed on the center one-third of the page, while surrounding the text in the very wide margins would be commentary from previous luminaries--St. Augustine, etc. The problems for modern readers with this format is that the scribes frequently failed to properly cite the commentary. They knew many of these arguments from memory, and expected those who later learned the text to memorize it too. One also frequently sees representation of medieval scholars with multiple books open on large desks or special revolving book holders. Hey, when you can't get your hands on a Dell, you do what you must.
Instead, we get computer heads. OK, I want to master my computer, but those who have control of computers currently simply refuse to see that some of the applications they are trying to use the computer for already exist in our world. For example, working with images and video. Early attempts to create computer-based video editing systems frustrated those already working in the broadcast and film fields, because the computer heads who created the software came up with entirely new lexicons and systems while ignoring existing systems that were already in place and worked well! It wasn't until the programmers were forced to admit they didn't know everything and learned from real experts about helpful concepts like trim bins. I realize Guttenberg went broke trying to replicate what the scribes were already doing. However, the early and more successful printers didn't throw out the baby with the bath water--they figured out how to warm the water and get the baby clean. Enter my frustration with Staley. I have yet to find a book I dissagree with more than this one--from the first sentence of the introduction, I was on the defensive. Honestly, I have not finished the book-I will before class. Perhaps he gets better later on in the book. But I find his wholesale trashing of narrative a bit disturbing. How does one create an argument with pictures? Also, from what I have read, he denies that the meaning of images changes over time. With words, we can look them up in a dictionary for definitive meanings, or even use aides like the Oxford Dictionary of Old English to see how writers in the past used words. Hey, we can even form definitions of words from their context. But with pictures-anything goes. Images can be subjective and can change over time and differ between groups. For example, the greek masks of tragedy and comedy. Ask an older adult, and you may get some answer that deals with the theatre. But usually not the original symbol of the duality of the god Dionysius, or that they were part of an ancient religious observation. Ask a person under thirty, and they will immediately give you the answer "laugh now, cry later" which is gang slang for revenge. So how do I ensure my audience understands what I mean when I use a symbol? For that, I need context. And that takes narrative-even in a short form of label. Images are tools, and very helpful ones. But don't tell me I can tell the story I need to tell with just images.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Propaganda Redux

So I started this project-deconstructing a web site-after trying to troubleshoot two computers that a bored eleven year old has played with. Goodness knows what kind of junk has been seen on my computer-it makes a mother shutter. Now that I have one of the computers somewhat running, let us give this HTML stuff a try. I wanted to deconstruct the BBC international page, but all it gave me was one line of jibberish. Figuring that must be html for "back slowly away from the code," I returned to an old familiar--my Alma Mater's site--Cal State Chico. I printed out the source code, so I could look at both at the same time.
The biggest difference I noticed between these text-based constructions and the CAD programs I have worked with is the lack of reference points. An architectually-derived program will always set an absolute reference point, i.e. the Cartesian Coordinate 0,0. A CAD program will let you put that point anywhere, but every other line in the drawing will reference that point. Hey, if it got the pyramids built, I'm for it. But just to start in the upper left corner and make everything relative to that just seems too existential for my taste. I am also curious about the gaps between lines of code--if several spaces are skipped, does that mean the text or images skip the same amount of space? Also, the first few lines of code clearly refer to the headers on top, but the next few lines of code refer to a set of images two-thirds of the way down the page. Does this mean the directions do not have to go in order? An area for searches and e-mail connections in the top right corner-they just send the respondent to different addresses-hey, that looks pretty easy.
Next comes a trickier part- separate categories on the left side with drop down menus. How does the text tell when the mouse has moved over this area? The instructions seem very short for a complex operation. Also, the boxes change color. I can't find any code for changing color or for the ingredients of the drop down boxes. They seem to be included in the .gif portion of the code. I noticed one area near the top that is changed frequently has links to the school's box office and newspaper-that is a very nifty system.
Then the code goes back to the separate pictures near the bottom that send the viewer to various departments--here the addresses are clearly laid out and the instructions talk about swapping images. Then we end with disclaimers and street addresses. Nothing fancy. I realize I have too greatly simplified this, but without a code book, I could not determine what the fiddelty-bits were completely about. However, it is no longer total jiberish-I think I could learn this. If only I could get my systems up and running.

Monday, September 04, 2006

History soon, but first some site reviews

Italian historian Benedetto Croce argued that without narrative, there can be no history. The facts surrounding events are essential, but the narrative gives them contex, viewpoint, and helps the reader understand the author's version of historical events. Conversely, narrative without facts can not be history, either. We saw examples of both these truisms last Tuesday evening in the "Clio Wired" seminar at GMU. The website dedicated to the two counties involved in the Civil War (am I allowed to say that in Virginia?) is a terrific storehouse of information. The layout, formatted like the structure of a three story museum, gave the viewer a clear and readily understandable way to move between types of information and the relevant time periods. We had a roomful of historians, myself included, just itching to work with all that impressive raw data. But that was just the problem-it was raw data, like the cellophane-wrapped trays of meat in the butcher's display case. It will not be "history" until a specialist takes it home, spices it just right, and slaps it on the barbecue. I found the site exemplary for what it was, but one could not expect a novice, without guidance to come away from the site understanding there experiences of the participants. The other site, the National Geographics' web site on Pearl Harbor, I found had some very major problems. First, the film footage and graphics were so close a copy of the US war films of the time, I thought that was what we were watching. I didn't have a problem with the duplication of art style, but with the duplication of WWII era style of writing commentary. I considered the verbiage too inflammatory, and frankly too banal for the work to bear the NatGeo's logo. Tell us the phraseology was from the period, or use the space to give more useful information. On to my main criticism--the area for the general public to record their views and remembrances.
Within the vulgarities and base comments were some rather moving stories. However, these stories were discredited and abused because the space was neither policed nor cleaned up. Shame on the National Geographic for letting someone's cherished memories be defaced and dishonored in such a way. In addition, these eyewitness accounts, just put out to air, suffer the general difficulties shared by oral histories- one person's memories without the ability to truely check the facts. Historians and journalists have methods to deal with these problems, but the authors of the site seemed simply interested in giving their audience a purile experience.