"Boomers" and History

I can’t tell you how tired I am of reading about baby boomers and their impending retirements. The self-indulgence of aging newspaper, magazine, and television news editors in running story after story about just how interesting and important their generation has been is very nearly unbearable. Newsweek is case in point. Its 50-something editors’ self-congratulatory “Boomer Files” series has me very close to canceling my subscription.

I did, however, notice something in a recent story from the “Boomer Files” that could be of interest to Found History readers. For Celeb Boomers: 3 Things to Do Before Death, Newsweek asked a dozen or so famous boomers for a list of three things they want to do with the rest of their lives. It turns out several of them want to spend their golden years doing something historical. Here’s a sample:

  • P. J. O’Rourke, Satirist, 59 – “It’d be nice to have more time to fool around with old cars.”
  • Mark Morris, Choreographer, 50 – “Visit New York’s Morgan Library.”
  • Camille Paglia, Intellectual, 59 – “I’d like to go on an archaeological dig in North Africa or Turkey.”
  • Cal Ripken Jr., Baseball Player, 46 – “I have a real zest to learn. I’d like to bone up on my history and business reading.”
  • Bill O’Reilly, Fox News Host, 56 – “Build a collection of American historical documents. I have a letter from George Washington. You get to know people from them.”
  • Patti Smith, Musician/Poet, 60 – “Read the Bible, Torah and Qur’an.”
  • Ted Nugent, Musician, 58 – “Make sure every American remembers the Alamo and acts accordingly.”
  • Keith Olbermann, TV Host, 47 – “I want to find the proof version of the 1967 Topps Baseball card, No. 487, Tommie Reynolds, which I did not buy at an auction in 1989 because bidding went to about a tenth of what I’d pay for it now. This seems kind of arcane, but this card has haunted me since I was eight years old—the proof version misspells his name “Tommy,” so the final version of the card reads “Tom” with two spaces after it. This design inconsistency bothered me the day I first saw it. I just blew it at that auction.”

Kind of interesting. But interesting enough to renew what started as a gift subscription? Probably not.


The tech blogs are buzzing about Geni, a new genealogy application launched by former Paypal executive David Sacks (see Valleywag and TechCrunch for example). Billing itself as “a unique approach to solving the problem of genealogy,” Geni “lets you create a family tree through [its] fun simple interface”:

When you add a relative’s email address, he or she will be invited to join your tree. That relative can then add other relatives, and so on. Your tree will continue to grow as relatives invite other relatives … Each family member has a profile which can be viewed by clicking their name in the tree. This helps family members learn more about each other and stay in touch. Family members can also share information and work together to build profiles for common ancestors.

I suppose it was only a matter of time until the web 2.0 crowd realized that genealogists were playing the social networking game long before Rupert Murdoch ever heard of MySpace.

Late Update (3/6/07): Just two months after it first grabbed the headlines, TechCrunch is now reporting that Geni is worth $100 million and boasts more than 100,000 registered users.

O'Reilly on the History of Science

In a post today called Remember the old “Two Cultures” Debate? Tim O’Reilly points to Jon Bosak’s keynote at the XML 2006 Conference to show that C.P. Snow’s two cultures thesis is phooey. He writes that Bosak’s referencing of Kant and Donne “puts to rest the idea that engineers don’t know the humanities.” Maybe, but I wonder if O’Reilly would be so generous to us humanists as we take our own tentative steps across the two cultures divide.

About 100 Women

About.com is one of the most confusing places on the web. It seems to bill itself as one-stop-shopping for reliable “how to” and other information. The fact that it’s owned by the New York Times and written by so-called “expert guides” reinforces this image. Yet when you look closely at the articles themselves, it’s immediately clear that site varies widely in terms of accuracy and trustworthiness, and it’s exceedingly difficult to tease out the wheat from the chaff. I can never tell why certain topics are chosen for inclusion, what kind of editorial control is applied, and how authors are deemed “expert.” At times about.com seems like Wikipedia. At other times it seems like Yahoo Answers. Most often it seems like someone did a cut and paste job of Technorati, including a random assortment of blog posts of varying interest, quality, and subject matter under a single umbrella, and then tacked on an idiosyncratic index. Considering how poorly the site is organized and how haphazard and heterogeneous its articles are, it’s disturbing how often results from about.com come up in Google searches. Obviously people are using it, but I’m not sure how much it’s helping them.

That’s a long way to go to say that a link turned up on Digg yesterday pointing to about.com’s 100 Most Important Women of World History. Like most everything else on about.com, it’s totally subjective and of dubious historical worth, but it’s presented as somehow definitive. Still, it’s a good candidate for the Tops of All Time series, and about.com is a good source for the series in general. This article alone includes links to The Top 100 in Women’s History, the 100 Books that Changed the World by American Women, and other overlapping lists. I won’t grab any more from about.com for this series because I feel like it would be cheating, but there’s certainly plenty more for the taking.

Tags Over Time

There’s a new trend in online amateur history that digital history scholars would do well to notice. A few months ago I pointed to Yahoo’s Taglines, a Flash visualization of the changing use of Flickr tags over a 16 month period from June 2004 to September 2005. More recently Chirag Mehta, an IT manager living in Florida, developed an open source application to do the same thing with any body of machine readable text. According to Mehta’s website, Tagline Generator is “a simple PHP codebase that lets you generate chronological tag clouds from simple text data sources without manually tagging the data entries.” Mehta’s demonstration piece, the US Presidential Speeches Tag Cloud, got a lot of traction on Digg a few weeks ago. Now Todd Bishop, author of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Microsoft Blog, has applied Metha’s code to a body of speeches, articles, and emails written by Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, and other key figures at Microsoft over the past 30 years.

Obviously this technology could be extended to other bodies of digital historical text. For example, I can imagine mapping the frequency of terms such as “victim” “terrorist” “Osama” “sad” and “angry” in personal narratives contributed to CHNM’s September 11 Digital Archive between, say, September 2001 and September 2003 as memories faded and events such as the wars in Afganistan and Iraq intervened. Maybe Dan will find time to give it a go as he did with his awesome map of what American’s did on 9/11.


A quick one tonight from Popular Mechanics: The Top 10 F/X Scenes in Movie History. In fact it’s not a countdown of scenes at all, but rather a list of the most important applications of digital technology to recent filmmaking. Yet it’s ordered chronologically according to the dates of the films in which the techniques were first used, and it’s structured as a “top ten” list, so I guess it fits our bill.