Technology & Culture Update 4/5/13

Image from the Book of KellsTrinity College Dublin recently posted individual hi-def images of every page (all 667 of ’em) of the justly famous illuminated manuscript known as the Book of KellsWhat a wondrous orgy of color, calligraphy and ornamental design! The circa eighth-century masterpiece recently served as the inspiration for the highly acclaimed animated film, The Secret of Kells, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2010. This is an outstanding example of what can be accomplished when technology influences culture in a good way.

Like the country itself, our language is seasoned with the polyglot contributions of an array of cultures. And that doesn’t even include the home-grown slang that is uniquely American. So how do you find the perfect word when you’re nowhere near your reference shelf or computer? Thesaurus Rex for the iOS to the rescue! More than a static e-book, T-Rex is an iPhone app that engages the power of digital technology to help you refine your searches. According to its developers’ marketing hyperbole, “Thesaurus Rex has revolutionized that ‘list of synonyms’ into a dynamic experience that sorts and filters words by their senses, relevance, complexity, and length.” I plan to give it a test drive; I welcome every tool that helps me write better.

As the academy struggles with the changing definitions of scholarly publishing in a digital world, Nature magazine offers a special issue devoted exclusively to the subject. Not surprisingly, the Open Access movement is an overarching theme: from OA’s influence on publishing costs and copyright issues to the explosion of shady operators usuing bogus journals to fleece unwitting scholars. There’s also a piece about the awesome Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) initiative — about which more below.

The DPLA is envisioned to be “an open, distributed network of comprehensive online resources that would draw on the nation’s living heritage from libraries, universities, archives, and museums in order to educate, inform, and empower everyone in the current and future generations.” Think of it as the great Library of Alexandria rising Phoenix-like from its own ashes. You can read an excellent backgrounder on the project here.

And I’ll take this opportunity to note that my friend and colleague Dan Cohen has been tapped to take the helm as the inaugural executive director of the DPLA, so the program’s in very good hands. Dan was instrumental in the development of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University, which serves as a polestar of the digital humanities movement. There’s already lots of interesting stuff at the DPLA website (so go have a look!), but the official launch is scheduled for April 18. This is history in the making, kidz — the DPLA will be the virtual house that we built.

Hands-free books? Publishing pundit Nathan Bransford philosophizes about how Google’s “Project Glass” might affect our reading habits. However, the cutting-edge specs are already being cloned in China, and an American firm (Vergence Labs) is offering its own iteration of the technology under the moniker of “Epiphany Eyewear.” Vergence claims its geeky-looking frames are a match for Google’s “smart glasses.” And the beat goes on…

book spine poetryIn celebration of National Poetry Month — you knew it was National Poetry Month, right? — we’d like to draw your attention to a couple of unique genres of that literary medium. The first involves creating poetry by stacking up books (the physical, dead-tree kind) and reading the titles as verse. It’s all the rage on Pinterest and Tumblr. Go ahead, give it a try! In a somewhat higher-tech (though equally arbitrary) approach, techno-geeksters Sampsa Nuotio and Raisa Omaheimo harness the autocomplete feature in Google search to generate “Google Poetics.” You can see the results posted on their Tumblr page. Yes, you can join in the fun, and fear naught, the Mighty Google won’t pull the plug on this project.

The embarrassment of riches offered by the mass of information easily accessed on teh webz offers the temptation to indulge in sloppy scholarship and cut ‘n paste research methods. But beware: failure to attribute sources can ruin your weekend. Benjamin A. Neil, a legal affairs prof (truth!) at Towson University, was busted for serial plagiarism and felt obliged to resign his position as head of the local school system’s ethics panel as a result. Wise move, Ben. A master of understatement, Neil defended his cadged scholarship saying, “I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong. The issue seems to be that I didn’t put things in quotes.” D’oh! Consider this a cautionary tale, boys and girls. Purloin, publish and perish.

And while we’re on the subject: Mark Liberman (contributor at Language Log) commented on a blog post by John McIntyre, who was riffing on Roy Peter Clark’s blog post, who in turn cites Richard Posner’s Little Book of Plagiarism about a particularly abstruse aspect of literary replication Posner calls “self-plagiarism.” Whew! Now you can add the Digital Warrior-Poet to that list of breadcrumbs. And if you’re not seeing tracers yet (gotta love those psychedelics), note that there is a “National Summit on Plagiarism and Fabrication” going on at the American Copy Editor’s Society conference in St. Louis as I upload this post. Is it just me, or does the blog format tend to produce things that resemble the cover of Pink Floyd’s classicUmmagumma album, “Ummagumma”?

Finally, I’d like to note that the humanities lost a staunch evangelist this week with the passing of Roger Ebert. His fearlessness and accessible style brought film criticism out of the realm of literary snootiness and into our everyday lives. He taught us how to appreciate the intricacies of the cinematic medium and he did it with grace, humor and goodwill. In a time when we could really use a few more heroes, we are all the more conscious of our profound loss. Roger has taken a “leave of presence,” as he put it, and we will miss his wit and humanity. His passing stands as a gentle reminder to us all to embrace this day, this moment.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

John Keegan, RIP

As a historian, a student of warfare and warriors, and a former soldier, I am deeply saddened by the passing of John Keegan, the preeminent military historian of our time.

Keegan was a soldier’s chronicler; rather than obsessing over the mind-numbing facts and figures that typify conventional campaign histories or producing outsized profiles of near-mythical leaders, John Keegan gave us The Face of Battle, warts and all. And he did it with grace and aplomb. He was capable of producing prose that bordered on the poetic—consider his reflections on the desk-bound scribe: “… the military historian, on whom, as he recounts the extinction of this brave effort or that, falls an awful lethargy, his typewriter keys tapping leadenly on the paper to drive the lines of print, like the waves of a Kitchener battalion failing to take its objective, more and more slowly toward the foot of the page.”

Though Keegan never experienced the sheer terror/pure exaltation of combat, he wrote compellingly and prolifically at the “pointy end of the spear”—he grappled with the nature of the beast, he understood the warrior’s heart. He kenned that technology will never trump the cultural imperative to test ourselves in the crucible of armed conflict: We are as insatiably drawn to it as we are revulsed by it. And today’s assault rifle is still equipped with a bayonet…

Keegan’s legacy extends far beyond his impressive corpus of nearly two dozen superlative treatises on why (and how) men make war; he has inspired a generation of historians to dig deeper and tell the human side of the story.

John Keegan was truly a scholar, a gentleman, and a gentle man.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Wikipedia & the Democratization of Knowledge

When Timothy Messer-Kruse, a labor historian, found a factual glitch in a Wikipedia article on the Haymarket riot, he dutifully posted a correction—backed up by substantial primary evidence to support his case. His correction was quickly rescinded. Since his data were the result of a decade of scholarly research he tried again, convinced he could “win simply through sheer tenacity.” And again, his scholarship was rejected, accompanied by a stern warning from the Wikipedia gatekeepers.

So what gives? How can one ever expect to correct an error in a Wikipedia entry, if the veracity of the article is predicated on the “majority” view as represented by accepted secondary sources (Wikipedia’s stated policy)? On first blush, this sounds like a Catch 22 enigma enforced by the heavy-handed intervention of an undereducated, overzealous—and anonymous—volunteer Wikipedia editor. One wields great power when shielded by the anonymity of the internet.

But that blade cuts both ways. In the Wild Wild West that is the World Wide Web, it is difficult to ascertain a poster’s bona fides; in the virtual world, perverted middle-aged men pose as nasty little girls and pencil-necked geeks become uber-warriors. Perhaps the gatekeeper in question didn’t know who Timothy Messer-Kruse was—an esteemed academician. Or someone in cyberspace posing as that person.

Messer-Kruse complained about the situation in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog, noting that the Wikipedia folks advised him that he was welcome to pursue his discourse on the “talk” page associated with the article—that’s what it’s provided for. But that didn’t mollify the professor, and after he had published his own book on the subject two years later, he tried again—and again was rebuffed. This time, the “Wiki-cop” (his term) responded, “I hope you will familiarize yourself with some of Wikipedia’s policies, such as verifiability and undue weight. If all historians save one say that the sky was green in 1888, our policies require that we write ‘Most historians write that the sky was green, but one says the sky was blue.’ … As individual editors, we’re not in the business of weighing claims, just reporting what reliable sources write.”

Actually, that sounds perfectly reasonable to me. There can be no doubt that specious history should be challenged, but that conversation should result in an open discourse that yields fresh interpretations. Citing primary documentation is not the end-all; over the course of four decades of studying Civil War history, I have seen many examples of such primary citations being taken out of context by highly-regarded academic historians to bolster their pet thesis. And historians are not without bias. Indeed, a female labor historian on my thesis committee took me to task for not including any references to female saddlers in pre-industrial America. I’ll grant you, that’s an area of research that has been sorely neglected. It had no legitimate place in my thesis, but it had everything to do with her personal bias, and she was a tenured professor whom I had to satisfy to secure my degree. If any of you are old enough to remember Elliott Gould in the 1970 film, Getting Straight, you’ll know what I mean…

Since the promo blurb on the dust jacket of Messer-Kruse’s The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists: Terrorism and Justice in the Gilded Age calls the work “controversial” and suggests that the author “rewrites the history” of the Haymarket affair, it seems only reasonable that his interpretations should withstand some critical assessment before being taken at face value. You can’t have it both ways, professor. The dust-up managed to land Messer-Kruse a spot on National Public Radio today—that ought to sell some books.

If Messer-Kruse feels that Wikipedia’s policies and methodology are flawed, he is free not to consult that source. His tantrum only serves to illuminate his inability to adapt to the changes we are all faced with. Wikipedia isn’t infallible; it is by definition a work in progress—an ongoing conversation rather than a proclamation. The “wiki” movement is an amazing example of the democratization of knowledge, and that can only be a good thing.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.