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.