Monday, November 19, 2007

Is it a book? No, it's a Kindle!

Today, Amazon announced the release of the newest portable electronic book reader, Kindle. Kindle weighs only 10 ozs, uses the same network connections as a cell phone to download material, has no monthly fees or subscription for network usage, and projects the book pages in a way that looks amazingly like paper. New releases and best sellers can be downloaded for only $9.99 each, and users can also access a wide variety of magazines. The catch? It'll put you back $400 US if you order it from Amazon today. You could buy a lot of paperbacks for that price...

I'll admit that I'm excited. I mean, I am the girl who read ebooks on her pda for years, without complaint. But this just looks so close to printed text and is so convenient... The Kindle is being called the iPod of the book world; think for a moment about how the introduction of the iPod, iTunes and similar devices have changed the way we acquire and access music. Could Kindle do the same thing?

Does this hail the beginning of the end for books? I doubt it. But it is an interesting new technology with wide-reaching implications for anyone with an investment in the written word.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Berlin Can Handle Another Memorial

Over the last few weeks, the German parliament has been criticized for their approval of an increasing number of memorials to be built in central Berlin (Spiegel Online: “Commemoration Saturation: Can Berlin Handle Any More Memorials?”, November 5, 2007). The latest addition to the growing collection, a memorial to the fall of the Berlin Wall, titled “Memorial to the Freedom and Unity of Germany,” was approved by a majority parliament vote on November 9.

Many claim that the proliferating monuments in central Berlin are a signal that Germany has gotten in over its head in trying to atone for the sins of the 20th century, and that the landscape of Berlin has taken on an air of guilt that is not reflected elsewhere in German culture. However, these monuments also serve as a way of healing and coming to terms with the city’s turbulent history. Berlin is a city that is steeped in its own past; you can’t turn a corner without coming across a physical reminder of the last century. The monuments give both Germans and tourists a place to reflect on what has happened and how Berlin is moving forward. And though some of the memorials, such as Peter Eiseman’s “Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe,” do give off an aura of guilt, they also show that Germany is not willing to forget the darker parts of her history.

The approval of the “Memorial to the Freedom and Unity of Germany” should not be seen as yet another memorial to a victimized people, but as a sign that Germany’s healing process is beginning to come full circle.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

"It'll be fun to be scanned by a Googlebot..."

While procrastinating writing the papers that I really should be working on this week, I started going through old articles on The Onion and came across an article titled Google Announces Plan to Destroy All Information It Can't Index from August 31, 2005. The article, an obvious satire (even more obvious given the source), describes Google's plans to burn any books that they cannot archive on Google Books due to copyright restrictions, delete the hard drives of any user who will not allow their desktop to be indexed on Google Desktop Search, and liquefy the brain of anyone who does not submit to having their DNA cataloged by Google.

The article, written two years ago, is clearly parodying the massive data collection efforts that Google has been undertaking for the past several years. And though the article is clearly written as a parody, it does reflect a particular sense of unease at the increasing loss of privacy for those who choose to use particular online services. The article goes a step further in the debate: in their satire, Google has taken the element of choice from their users. In an "interview", a "Google representative" states, "It'll be fun to be scanned by a Googlebot. But in the event people resist, the robots are programmed to liquify the brain."

I found this satire to be remarkably reminiscent of comments that I've heard in Bill Turkel's Digital History class this week. A number of people have expressed horror at the idea that many of the websites that they regularly visit are tracking their visits through "cookies" and that intelligent programs are building up a collection of information about their users. This is not new. How many of us voluntarily carry around an Airmiles (or similar) card and pull it out at any opportunity to earn some gift in exchange for providing market research groups with information about exactly where we buy our gas and what our favorite brand of beer is? These are benevolent systems: we get something we would not normally get for free, in exchange for information. Google works the same way. I choose to use the Google search engine, Gmail, Google Earth, Google Books, Google Maps, Blogger, Google Documents, etc., because they are free, well-built, useful services. And in exchange for this, I agree to allow Google's system to look at my email, my Word documents, and data on what I'm looking for and using, and to display ads that correspond with my email topics and searches.

I might be in the minority, but I see Google as an overall benevolent company, looking to make information available to their users in useful ways, while furthering their own technological development. However, they also have become extremely wealthy while doing so, and I think that is where the root of all of the suspicion lies.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Website Review: Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race

Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race, online exhibit from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race is a chilling online exhibit that draws on resources from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The website utilizes a generally easy to navigate system that allows a viewer to read about the development of Nazi eugenics programs, as well as analyze artifacts from the museum in minute detail, providing a clear context for each item. The stated purpose of the exhibit is to, “provoke us into thinking about questions today: the relationship between the needs and rights of individuals as weighed against the larger concerns of the society.” Deadly Medicine provides students, teachers, and anyone with an interest in the subject with an accessible and interesting overview of eugenics as it was practiced by the Nazis.

The form of the website deserves special mention, outside of a discussion of content. Deadly Medicine is an extremely attractive website which has made effective use of video and Flash applications in order to present their subject. Even those who are unfamiliar with digital resources should have no problems accessing the interactive areas of the site, due to the easy-to-use Flash interface. Using videos, the curator explains the purpose of the exhibit and narrates each of the artifacts as you explore it. These helpful explanations assure that the viewer is given a kind of context for each artifact, and not left to interpret it on their own. The interactive nature of the website is most effective in the artifact exploration presentation, where users have the opportunity to zoom in and take a good look at artifacts relating to the eugenics program.

The artifacts and documents themselves are a small but interesting selection of pamphlets, propaganda posters, and family trees. These items provide an engaging look at one small area of eugenics. However, the selection of artifacts is too narrow to provide a view of the entire scope of the project; a more diverse selection of artifacts and documents would have greatly enriched the sight and given it more depth. The ‘Exhibition Narrative’ provides text on three subjects: Weimar Eugenics, Nazi Racial Hygiene, and Murderous Racial Hygiene. These areas provide a good broad overview of the eugenics program as a whole, without overloading the reader with too many details on one area. The text on the website is highly accessible, using more complex terminology, but taking the time to explain it. The text portion of the website also contains photographs to make the narrative more interesting and affecting.

This website would be most useful for getting an overview of the entire issue, and a scope for some of the sources and artifacts that are available elsewhere. The narrow range of artifacts and shallow depth of text ensures that the site be considered as an introduction, not a true scholarly source. However, Deadly Medicine does acknowledge its own shortcomings by providing an extensive bibliography of further readings, useful websites, and archival documents. The selection of other websites is particularly impressive, and includes links to other sites within the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, as well as other private and scholarly websites on the subject. When viewed in connection with this bibliography, and the depth of information already available on the subject, Deadly Medicine can be seen as a welcome “collection point,” piquing the interest of the viewer, and then sending them off to do some serious research.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Proposal for a Collecting Experience Project

I propose the creation of a website to document and collect the experiences of Canadian Olympic athletes and other Canadians during the Olympic games. I feel that this is important to document as it is a great source of national pride for Canadians and will provide an interesting and relevant record of Canadians' experiences.

The website would have two major purposes. The first is to collect news articles and interviews relevant to Canada's role in the Olympics. These articles would be collected from major and alternative news media, as well as blogs written about first-hand experiences at the games. The second purpose is to collect Canadian's memories of the games. The site would contain a form that allows Canadians to enter in their own memories, whether this is their feelings about a particular event, congratulations for an athlete, their experience while attending an event in person, or a memory about a past Olympic games.

The site would be organised according to Olympic year and, most importantly, be on-going, allowing these memories to be collected for all subsequent Olympic games, while still storing the old ones.

Friday, October 5, 2007

More Digital, Less History

I'll admit that I have a lot of ideas, and not a lot of real 'cut and solder the wires, and write a new program!' knowledge, when it comes to computers. That's where my significant other, a software engineer for a major online company, comes in. So, I should have known I was in trouble when I started explaining the idea of a "universal emulator" to him over IM today.

Though the idea of an emulator that can read all past file formats and mediums has been kicking around for nearly ten years, nothing has really been done on the subject. There just isn't enough money involved to encourage people to use obsolete file formats. However, the prospect is exciting to anyone who's ever found themselves unable to access vital files because they don't have the proper hardware or software. This can be devastating when the historical documents of a business, institution, or even an individual are trapped in an obsolete medium. Over five hours of gtalk messages, I explained exactly how it should work, while James asked the hard questions as to how it would be implemented. All of our ideas required a foundation of a computer with a dozen or so drives: tape, floppies of various sizes, disks, etc. We came up with two possibilities for the actual software.

The first idea is true firmware emulation. You choose what OS (operating system) you want to use and it boots up. You then have the use of all the programs that would have been included with that operating system. The problems with this would be getting each OS to work on the computer, and also the issue of designing a motherboard that could connect to a dozen or so drives, and still run. You also have the issue of the obsolete program emulator eventually becoming obsolete as new OS's are created.

The second idea is less true emulation, but more feasible. You develop modern viewers for old file types, and create an "open this program properly" program. Properly implemented, you could even have it set up so that if the program doesn't recognize your file type, it sends it to the developers to develop new viewers. Your hardware would be a machine connected to all the drives that simply translates and communicates with a server that actually contains all the viewers.

So is it actually feasible? Probably, with enough money and knowledge. However, I'm not sure we're getting there, at least not this afternoon, but it's a pretty neat idea.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

A National History?

Today I decided to try out The Dominion Institute's Canada Quiz. The first few times through I only made it to question three. On my last attempt, I managed to make it up to question six, before being thwarted by a question on an unsuccessful automobile manufacturer in New Brunswick in the 1970's. According to J.L. Granatstein, I am one of the millions of Canadians that was failed by public school and university history education. And even worse, as a teacher, I am continuing the trend of undereducated Canadians.

I read J.L. Granatstein's Who Killed Canadian History? several years ago as part of an undergraduate Canadian Public History course. At the time, Granatstein's argument struck me as 'not quite right.' After re-reading the introduction and his chapter on historical education this week, I feel even more convinced of the flaws.

Granatstein argues that Canada is in need of a strong, national history in order to foster a sense of "Canadian-ness", and that social history is in effect "killing" Canadian history. He further argues that Canada's universities are at the root of the problem by allowing academics to teach and "study whatever they choose without fear of losing their jobs."(1) Granatstein comments that, "it is somehow considered improper to study a white male prime minister, but the first Jewish dentist in Nova Scotia or an unknown female doctor in northern Alberta is worth a book."(2) I'd invite anyone to test this theory: go into any bookstore and peruse the Canadian history section. Do you find any books written about white male prime ministers? I don't think we're in any danger, yet. Granatstein also suggests that universities should require Canadian students to take a nationalist survey course as part of their degree.(3)

Conversely, according to Roy Rosenweig and David Thelen's study on what kinds of history and historical activities are considered important by the general public, a random sample of Americans identified their own family history as most important.(4) Furthermore, the survey observed general trends: African Americans are interested in the civil rights movement, many people enjoy watching films and reading books about historical events that they lived through or that affected their family, the majority of respondents criticized the school system for teaching a 'distant' national history, and not 'their' history. How do we reconcile this preference for a personal, relevant history with Granatstein's call for a broad national history program? It is because of my identity and ancestry that I am interested in woman's history, labour history, military history, gay and lesbian history - and I don't believe that that focus has made me any less Canadian.

And as a last point, the Dominion Institute, which Granatstein upholds as a bastion of virtue in the rocky sea of Canadian history, stumped me on a question about regional labour history. I don't think social history is going anywhere.

(1) Granatstein, J.L., Who Killed Canadian History? (Toronto: Harper Collins, 1998), pp 53.
(2) Ibid, 63.
(3) Ibid, 54.
(4) Roy Rosenweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), pp 22.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Fountain pens and handwriting

In the flurry of differing opinions on the subject of books vs. computers, saving everything, and the relevance of archiving an entire life, I have something that I need to admit:

About a month ago, I started writing again. And I mean actual writing, with a notebook and a fountain pen. And yes, I am the individual who used to carry around a PDA with dozens of books loaded on to it for light and easy reading on the commute to work. I've never been concerned by technology; it always felt natural to me, but after months of consideration, I decided to go back to the handwritten journal of my childhood.

At the forefront of my mind was my favorite paper that I wrote during my undergraduate career. It wasn't my best paper, or even my most original, but it was the first paper where I ever felt like I was doing "real" research. The topic was on how women were able to influence desertion in the American Civil War through "domestic persuasion" and the bulk of my research came from analysing the language used in letters written by women during the War. Thanks to the American Civil War: Letters and Diaries digital archive at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (unfortunately, it has now become a limited-access archive due to recent 'attacks' on their servers), I was able to read hundreds of letters written by ordinary women during the Civil War. None of them were out of the ordinary: news about the children, news about the farm, 'I miss you,' 'I wish you'd come home'. These women could never have imagined that their letters would one day be important, would one day be read by scholars and anyone with an interest and a modem.

I was thinking about these letters, and then thinking about all of the phone and instant message conversations lost, all the emails deleted. Am I deleting myself when I do it? And I thought of the elegant simplicity of words handwritten on a lined page; if it's important enough that I want to remember it, then it's important enough to take the time to write it down. Somehow, in this age of information overload and talk of the 'Infinite Archive,' I am still placing a disproportionate importance on written records. Will historians in the future see it that way? Will they even bother to look at written records, when digital ones are so freely available?

I've never thought of myself as reactionary, but I have started writing again.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

It's just like driving a stick-shift...

I'll admit that in the last few days my thoughts about this blog have been a lot like my thoughts whenever I got behind the wheel of my last car (RIP 1988 Volkswagen Golf): it'll be fine if only I can figure out how to get it started. So, I guess I'll begin with explaining how I got here.

For better or for worse, I am a teacher. I'm still working at defining what separates the good teachers from the bad teachers, and deciding what category I fit into, but I have that little certificate from the Ontario College of Teachers that says that I am fit to teach history. Now, last year, as a first year, newly-minted teacher, I was given a teaching post at a middle school in South-East England and told, 'you are your own history department.' I had a bookshelf of resources, some excellent and some not worth the paper they were printed on, a vague guide to the History National Curriculum, 300 students, ranging from ages 9-13, and almost no knowledge of English history. But, I gave it my best shot, and by the end, some of those students had learned something about history.

But, it was around January, while sitting in that Volkswagen Golf in an IKEA parking lot, that I began to rant. Not about the students, or the resources, or even the National Curriculum, but about historical interpretation. I could start with my youngest year fives, teach them about primary and secondary sources, how to use them properly, why they're not always reliable, why we have to look at who wrote the source and why, and how we can use even 'wrong' sources to learn about the time period. I had 26 10-year olds in stitches, as I turned a lesson on Henry VIII and Anne of Cleaves into a lesson about portraits and agency. However, by the time they got to year seven and eight and were beginning to write real essays it all fell apart. Even the brightest students faltered and wrote things like, 'I know that the Norman army was stronger than the Anglo-Saxon army because the teacher said so.' And no amount of coaxing could convince them otherwise.

And then I thought about my own time in school, and the short-comings of my History classes. The very ideas that I was trying to teach 10-year olds, were the same ideas that I had trouble grasping until my second year of university. The problem is not the students, it's how history is taught. You can't teach students to question sources in an environment where the teacher and the textbook are considered the ultimate sources of truth, and no amount of digital classrooms, online archives, or SMART boards can ever change that. Meanwhile, I'm churning out hundreds of young students who hate history. They see it as boring, entirely removed from their lives, and mainly teacher-driven.

In my frustration that day in the IKEA parking lot, I turned to my significant other and ranted, 'There has to be a better way of doing this!'

I don't know if there is. I know we have the resources, but I don't know if there is enough will-power to change the way that history is taught in schools. In fact, the way history is taught as a whole; it shouldn't just be the teacher delivering the dates and events, or the museum showing an artefact in some context, but a discourse between the past and the public. History isn't boring; it's an enigma, a good story, a gateway to critical thinking skills.

But, I guess that's why I'm here.