Cool Tools

Okay, I admit to still being impressed by technology. While I don’t think tools are more important than work, I think a good set of tools makes the work easier, better, and more enjoyable.

I’ve just started using
Tinderbox. For a long time, I was trying to convince myself that Endnote was really all I needed (yeah, I know. Need is a relative term. I do have a pencil and a pile of 3x5 cards, so I really don’t need any of this). Endnote, after all, is a killer reference app. You can import from just about everyplace, you can sort in complicated ways and save the searches. Attached to a Word outline, you can sort-of represent the way books and ideas network through, say, a historiography.

But not really.

I resisted Tinderbox for quite a while. The learning curve is very steep, I’ve read. There’s a problem with images in the present version on the Mac. It isn’t clear to me how to create a page that incorporates a timeline with a sort-of “
internet-cloud-diagram” that will allow me to fly through my data, turn on the types of links I want to look at (responses, disagreements, lineages of ideas, etc.)...I’m not saying Tinderbox doesn’t do this. Actually, I suspect it does; but that it will take some time to get there.

In the meantime, I’m really happy with what I
have figured out how to do, so far. I can map the bibliographies (or the parts I’m interested in) of the books I read. I can group the books by topic and put them on a timeline (I hadn’t noticed, from looking at the biblio in the book, for instance, how many of Patricia Limerick’s secondary sources were published in the ‘70s). I can easily find the books that keep popping up on everybody’s biblio, and promote them to my own field reading list.

I'm really impressed so far.  I'm thinking of each of my maps of individual books is like one 2D layer -- when they all get slapped together, I'll have a 3D historiography.

And this is just day three, and the comps reading. The primary’s going to be insane.

Religion or Culture?

Since I’m spending a lot of my time reading, it’s rare that I get to pick up something strictly for fun. But every once in a while, when I have five minutes, I crack open Christopher HitchensGod is Not Great. He seems to be a very conflicted guy, which is half the fun of it. I open it to a random page, and usually there’s something interesting going on.

So I found myself on page 150, beginning a new section that starts “The ‘argument from authority’ is the weakest of all arguments.” I assume he means rhetorically, because as Giordano Bruno found, it can be fairly powerful in real life. Hitchens goes on to say, “Behind the veil of Oz, there is nothing but bluff. Can this really be true?” he asks. “As one who has always been impressed by the weight of history and culture, I do keep asking myself this question,” Hitchens admits. It got me thinking: it must be a whole lot harder being an atheist, if you’re a conservative.

The passage continues in this ambivalent and revealing direction. “It does not matter to me,” Hitchens says, “whether Homer was one person or many, or whether Shakespeare was a secret Catholic or a closet agnostic. I should not feel my own world destroyed if the greatest writer about love and tragedy and comedy and morals was finally revealed to have been the Earl of Oxford all along,” he continues, showing just how easy it is to slip from the discussion of religion to a larger one about the rest of the foundation of western culture. And the "
Edward DeVere was Shakespeare" argument: another apparently world-shaking controversy that shows how tenuous the “facts” that support our culture really are.

“The loss of faith,” Hitchens says, “can be compensated by the newer and finer [scientific] wonders that we have before us, as well as by immersion in the near-miraculous work of Homer and Shakespeare” and others (personally, I think his use of the word miraculous at this point is a misstep). Hitchens continues with a story about how his own secular faith “has been shaken and discarded, not without pain.” The faith he refers to is Marxism, which he insists “was not absolute and...did not have any supernatural element.” This may have been true for his own Leon Trotsky/Rosa Luxemburg flavor of Marxism, but I think it’s more accurate to say that “messianic...historical and dialectical materialism” is absolute and supernatural at its core. Hitchens finally admits, at the chapter’s end, that “Those of us who had sought a rational alternative to religion had reached a terminus that was comparably dogmatic.” It will be interesting to read further, and see how he gets around the objection that if secularism leads to authoritarian dictator ship just as religion does, why switch? Not to mention the problem of insisting on the authority of tradition and culture, but just not religion.

Seriously, though, that’s what makes this book a success. Regardless what you think of Hitchens and his politics, it’s fun trying to figure out what he’s going to say next.

The Final Encyclopedia

I’m doing a lot of my work at school now that it’s getting warmer and the windows are going to be open. The tramp is up in the back yard and the kids are running around having a great time. It’s a lot of fun, but not so conducive to working. So I’m working down at school.

I got a portable hard drive to back up my work onto, and carry it back and forth. It’s a USB drive in an attractive plastic case. Pocket size. 1 terabyte.

I started thinking about that while I was driving the other day. When I started working in the computer business, the biggest drive you could get was an Imprimis Wren VI. It was a 5 1/4 inch full-height drive, which meant it was 3 1/4 inches tall, and close to 8 inches deep. More or less the size and weight of two bricks.

Its capacity was 677MB. Unformatted. OEM cost was just over $2,000.

I know. That makes me seem incredibly old. But it was only 20 years ago. (The big one in the picture is a 5 1/4 full height Maxtor -- it's a little newer than the Wren I'm talking about, but not much. The other one is a 2 1/2 inch 6 gig drive, which was the state of the art about 4 or 5 years ago. You can get that kind of storage now without moving parts)

So anyway, a little quick math. Three of these Wren drives would have cost about $6,000 and given you about 2 gigabytes of storage, in about a foot of vertical space (allowing a little bit for air-flow -- probably not enough!). Five hundred of these foot-high units would add up to a terabyte (1 terabyte = 1,000 gigabytes =1,000,000 megabytes). A terabyte of 1989 data would be five hundred feet high! Or, it would have been 100 five-foot high stacks. It would have filled your house. And heated your house.

But presumably it would have been a nice house, if the heating system cost you $3,000,000!

All this now fits in a package I can hold in my hand, and uses so little power it can run off the current that comes across the USB. Oh, and it costs $150.


So, what about the value of the data. At first, you might think “well, that hasn’t changed in value.” Really? When you can carry the equivalent of a thousand copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica or a tenth of the entire Library of Congress print collection in your back pocket instead of your wallet?

I was thinking about this in the context of the little debate over Wikipedia I was just involved in on
Inside Higher Ed. What struck me was, how spoiled we’ve (I’ve) become. Twenty years ago, Wiki would have been the holy grail, the Final Encyclopedia of Dickson’s Childe Cycle of sci-fi novels. Hypertext, collaborative...evolving. And here we are in 2010, complaining about it!

I stand corrected.

No England trip after all

It turns out I won’t be going to England for the first European Rural History conference in September.

They ran out of space, and had to uninvite one or more of the people whose papers they’d previously accepted. Really.

So I won’t have a chance to go to the Bishopsgate Institute and look at the Bradlaugh files this fall. Well, maybe the following fall, after I’ve sold that project. I can write a proposal without the Bishopsgate material, after all.

As far as Rural History 2010 goes, it looks like there won’t be much North American representation there. I was hoping to get a better idea about how Europeans and members of the British Commonwealth do rural history. But based on the
conference schedule, it looks like they do a lot of stuff that isn’t really that good a fit with what I’m interested in doing. So I can see why they thought my paper might be one they could afford to lose.

Life goes on. The change of plans will give me a chance to get to the Pacific Northwest and finish my research for this Dissertation/book project. Probably a better idea at this point, anyway.

The good news is that the family will be represented in England anyway this fall. Steph's hat has been selected to be in a fashion show and on display at the British hat museum! Story here.

Christopher Clark

I went to UConn yesterday and met Christopher Clark. He let me tell him about my project for over ninety minutes, and even bought me a cup of coffee. I am extremely grateful and his comments and questions were a huge help.

I see my project and the rural history I want to do as being at least partly in the "lineage" of the type of work people like Professor Clark have done. In the introduction to
Social Change in America: From the Revolution through the Civil War, Clark says “Since the emergence of the ‘new social history’ in the 1960s there has been a massive outpouring of scholarship on...the complexities of class, race, and gender...Because these subjects involve studying human interactions in specific contexts, much social history has been conducted at the local level, using particular places, instances, or regions to illustrate broader historical tendencies.” (ix)

Notwithstanding this description and several detailed, nuanced and qualified books I’ve read this semester, many works including some of the new social history place studies seem to follow preexisting theoretical models. It’s always hard to determine whether the scholarship behind them was organized around a preexisting system, or whether the findings led there and the book was just written to seem like it was inevitable. But it’s at least possible to observe that many of these place studies lack human subjects. I think this is due both to the complexity of the demographic and economic material being presented, and maybe also to the historian’s underlying hope to show the outlines of a structure comparable to the grand explanatory schemes of earlier historical subdisciplines. Professor Clark, who had been discussing
Nature’s Metropolis in a seminar just before we met, said that one student’s reaction to the book was initial dismay when Cronon announced in the introduction that there were no people in the book, but ultimately appreciation for the way Cronon managed to tell several fast-paced, conflict-laden stories, even though he didn’t use the particulars of individual characters’ lives (Note to self: It’s probably worth looking closely again at NM as an example of how to do narrative on generic or inanimate subjects). But not all authors manage this as successfully, and the end result is often a set stage waiting for actors.

Professor Clark makes two points at the beginning of
Social Change I thought were relevant to my project. First, he says, “regional social differences are at the heart of...national developments. These differences were not variations or exceptions to general trends; rather, their interactions were the essence of social change.” Second, “the inequalities of status between individuals within households played almost as significant a role in driving social change as conflicts...between social groups.” (xi)

These are both really interesting statements, from my “rural history” point of view. The first one blows away the top-down structure of historical theory I complained about a couple of paragraphs ago. This is a break from the older historical approach of fitting local data into “big” models like central place theory -- and feeling obligated to leave the stories of individuals out because they introduce too many messy, local, contingent irregularities. It elevates the local, particular, contingent stories of actual people. It's not even "history from the bottom up" -- up being where the big theory and credibility presumably lie. He's saying "this is where history really happens."

The second statement seems to imply that the family is a both a microcosm and a model for society in the 18th and 19th centuries. That people experienced conflicts of interest, power relationships, and resistance inside families that colored their understanding of the social landscape. Is he saying class consciousness is based on family and household relationships? Where does he find this? (I put the library copy aside and ordered the book, so when it arrives I’ll find out) Regional particularities could be expected to play a
huge role in these different visions of society. Not only in terms of dependence/unfreedom vs. independence/freedom, but in more subtle shadings of agency, responsibility, scope of social action, etc.

I wonder if doing a national-scope book like
Social Change makes it harder to address these narrower questions? It requires you to spend a lot of (most of? all of?) your time talking about the north-south issue. Slavery is so huge, and the issues so stark, that it might not be possible to get at the more subtle issues that influenced other elements of the different social visions that differentiated the middle west from New England or the arid west from the Ohio Valley. Does examining slavery hide some of these other regional issues? Did it at the time?

I went ahead and ordered a copy of
Social Change, so I can read it more closely (that is, write in it) and include it on my field list. I’ll going to come back to this, once I’ve done that.