The success of mining large scale digital collections – whether they be one million books or many more audio, video and image files seems to depend on two things: the organization of the analog-to-digital conversion of the collection and the robustness of the search engine used for the mining.  Google’s goal of digitizing the entire world library – if it even comes close to succeeding – will end up just as inaccessible as the Library of Babel if it is not done with considerable forethought and not accompanied by a very powerful and adaptable search engine.  This week’s readings about syllabus finders and search techniques provide a good overview of search engine logic, and the syllabus finder obviously works well for fairly narrow search criteria, but I wonder what the product looks like.  The syllabus searcher still has to sort through a plethora of “hits” since just about every undergraduate course in every decent university has a website or at least the syllabus online.  What sort of care was put into digitizing the information?  As syllabi are typically posted directly on the site, my guess is that the results of a syllabus search are generally clear.  What about shelves of library books that are simply scanned into a series of incunabula files?
Recently I worked on an ongoing information fusion project in support of Homeland Security.  The goal was to provide response agencies with access to the vast amounts of information that are already being collected regarding marine commercial and recreational traffic – millions of vessels every day.  One of the primary risks to the success of that project is that it will be too successful – that the amount of information available to security agencies will simply overwhelm them and actually hinder their responsiveness.
I’m not a luddite by any stretch, but I am in favor of a controlled evolution from analog to digital.

 Janet Murray’s first chapters of Hamlet on the Holodeck provide an interesting if sometimes disquieting glimpse into the potential of cyberspace.  The readings are interesting because she enthusiastically describes the educational potential to reach more resources in the blink of an eye.  She paints a picture of the computer as a portal (window?) or passage into information space.  Her descriptions of the four categories of digital environments (procedural, participatory, spatial, and encyclopedic) are clear and concise.

The rest of the material is disquieting and maybe even a little irritating because of the inordinate focus on games and other escapist entertainment.  The talent and technology behind the generations of games she describes in so much detail seem wasted doing the heavy mental work that game players should be doing themselves if they want to really expand their minds.  In the digital game environment there isn’t any need for imagination – the game takes the players to exotic locations, endows them with super powers, allows them to kill and be killed without consequences, and transcends time as well.  If the player is happy with their game environment but isn’t satisfied with their own appearance, shape, gender, race or age, there’s no need to lose weight, change your personality or undergo costly surgery – the digital environment handles all of this by allowing the players to invent and re-invent themselves.  The restrictions and realities of the real world don’t matter in cyber play-space.  The only problem is what happens when the power goes off.

Murray states in her description of the encyclopedic nature of digital environments that “…stories can twine around and through the nonfictional documents of real life and make the borders of the fictional universe seem limitless. (p87).  The borders of the fictional universe have always been limitless, even before the portals to cyberspace were opened.  The fictional universe just took more imagination to explore then.

Notice that when you look through my postings there are some differences in the appearance of each.  In the latest case, the post is double-spaced Times New Roman.  In earlier cases, the font type and font size changes.  My guess is that this is some artifact of my habit of composing a post in MS Word, then copying it into the post editor.  I have looked into the FAQs and other help sources, but I don’t find any mention of how to adjust this beyond getting into the source code.  In the meantime, I guess I’ll just have to stay within the confines of the post editor, unless someone out there has any ideas? 


The corporate web page for Whitney, Bradley & Brown (WB&B) Inc. is a site intended to showcase the skill sets of a local consulting firm.  It is a static set of pages displayed in a basic theme accessed through CSS.  There are a number of classic, businesslike styles used, for example:


.style15 {

            text-decoration: none;
            color: #FFFFFF;
            font-family: Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;
            font-size: 9px;
            font-style: normal;
            line-height: normal;
            font-weight: normal;


Images on the company masthead switch periodically, animated through Flash.  There is also a map with company locations displayed on an expanding map that is also powered by Flash.  Links to descriptions and addresses of these locations are accessed through the map.  Company product area and example product descriptions are accessed via pull-down menus from the home page.  These work well, and the site map shows an orderly and logical grouping of subjects.  On a site of this type the presence of a database backend would be indicated by a search box, but there is none on the WB&B site.  The link to the site is in my Blogroll.


The US Navy Between the Wars

September 3, 2006

Now that I’ve had a few days to read about the use of blogs in the historian’s profession and about blogs in general, my next task is to give this site some direction by declaring a subject.  Most of my Master’s level papers covered military history, and most of those covered US naval history between WWI and WWII.  This is a period that I find fascinating, because one sees a fighting organization that fights a war in the 10s, contracts profoundly in the 20s, expands greatly in the 30’s, and fightes another war in the 40s.  The contraction and expansion is accompanied by retrenchment in some areas of doctrine and tactics, and by revolutionary changes in others.  This era of profound change bookended by major wars still provides object lessons in strategy, planning, tactics and doctrine.

So, I’m going to attempt to provide access through this site to papers I’ve written on the following subjects:

  • The unintended consequences of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty
  • How FDR leveraged the changing political climate in the 30s to encourage the passage of the Vinson-Trammel Act on Naval Expansion
  • Why the Joint Board reversed strategic doctrine at the 11th hour and decided to mount an active defense of the Phillipines in 1941 (master’s thesis)
  • Why the prewar battleships were not used in combat in the first year of the war in the Pacific, though they were available.

 More coming – watch this space…

Historical Website Review

September 1, 2006

Our first assignment in the Clio class is to review the five websites listed on the class schedule.  The websites are all of a historical nature, but were set up with different audiences in mind.  They all have benefits and drawbacks depending on the viewers perspective.  Here’s a brief rundown of both the content and technical aspects.

The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War is the leading vote-getter for both criteria.  From a scholastic point of view, it features rich resources and great detail on a fairly narrow perspective of the war – that of a Union community in PA and a southern one in VA.  Unit histories, letters, maps and photographs are all included and cross-referenced – a real plus. Technically, the site has a very usable Site Map which is spatially displayed like the floor plan of a museum.  This little touch makes navigating through the site a breeze.

History Wired: A Few of Our Favorite Things is a site developed by the Museum of American History, which features a semi-permanent exhibit called Our Nation’s Attic.  The site is very much reflective of the museum in that it displays a random collection of artifacts in a very loose, broad categorization.  It isn’t scholarly – the text explaining each artifact is very brief and somewhat superficial.  About what you would expect on a museum placard.  Technically, the site has a very interesting organization based on a stock market site, but much of the functionality of the format (size and color of each block to indicate market share and price trend) is wasted on a historical subject.  Aslo, there’s an annoying amount of “persistance” of blocks and lines, and the site hangs up frequently.  This deficiency unfortunately overshadows the functionality of the site organization.

One would think that The Diary of Samuel Pepys site would be a more scholarly one, but many of the postings are cryptic and of unknown value.  The banner page of the site doesn’t give much of a clue as to what it’s all about.  It’s kind of a Catch-22 site – you have to have already been there to understand it.

Remembering Pearl Harbor is a National Geographic site clearly intended for a juvenile audience.  It’s graphics, audio (complete with 1941-era static) and displays are first rate despite having to compete with a number of advertisements, but its content is pretty shallow.  There is some good content in the eyewitness accounts, but the backdrop of the attack details is thin.  The subjects are ships – the US Navy ships in the harbor and the Japanese carriers that launched the attack.  There’s barely a mention of the attacks on the other installations on Oahu.

Images of the French Revolution has a somewhat misleading title.  One expects to see a pictorial essay, but what one finds is a discussion site about different images – paintings, etchings, etc.  It is most definitely a scholarly site, but it is hampered by very limited participation (possibly due to limited appeal?).  The few academic posters are also the commenters, so the site has a feel of what is sometimes called a “self-licking ice cream cone” – an entity that sustains and serves itself in a self-contained cycle.