Mark Fortner, an open source web developer who blogs at IdeaFactory, has stumbled upon a potentially useful new analytical construct for historians. In a post entitled “WTF Moments in Java History”, Fortner introduces the concept of the “WTF moment” in which contemporary observers and later analysts of historic events can only exclaim “WTF.” He writes:
History is littered with WTF moments — the last election, the day Al Gore invented the internet, and the day I learned that teen aged dinosaurs had been having sex. The History of Java development is littered with such moments.
Unless you’re a hard-core Java geek, you many not find the rest of Fortner’s post particularly interesting. And I’m sort of joking that the “WTF moment” could really be useful to practicing historians. Nevertheless, I do think Fortner is on to something. At the very least, he has put his finger on one way by which ordinary people remember the past.
Yesterday was supposedly the tenth anniversary of the coining of the word “blog.” These kinds of anniversaries (of terms, practices, social phenomena) make for very easy newspaper copy and very bad history. It’s obviously impossible to date the first time a word was spoken.
But to the extent that these bogus birthdays get history into the papers, I think they’re probably OK. Newspapers and magazines cover events not movements or conventions, and these artificial anniversaries serve to turn complex stories of (often gradual) change over time into something more clearly newsworthy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as writers use the anniversaries as hooks to draw their editors and readers into a larger narrative and don’t claim too much for the events themselves. Most of the time, I think they do a good job. Once you get past the headlines, you can find a lot of decent history in these happy birthday cards.
One of the things I keep stumbling upon are amateur software histories told through series of screenshots. Here are a couple examples. The first is a slideshow from ZDNet—which strictly speaking isn’t an amateur publication at all, although as far as history is concerned I think it’s close enough—that provides a look back at Windows boot screens from 1.01 to Vista. The second is more clearly an amateur effort, which bills itself “A Visual Browser History, from Netscape 4 to Mozilla Firefox”. Presented by Andrew Turnbull, a student at West Virginia University, this second entry is undoubtedly the more ambitious of the two, providing extended commentary on more than fifty screenshots and rare looks at such forgotten Mozilla milestones as the release of Phoenix 0.1, the original Firefox.
In 2012 the lights will go out in Toronto. Well, at least the incandescent lights. According to a new provincial directive, Ontario will ban Edison’s invention within five years, replacing more than 87 million incandescent blubs with compact flourescents, LEDs, and other, more energy efficient electric lights. Ontario follows Nunavut and Australia in banning the venerable bulb. Church historians can rest easy that there are no similar plans for the Venerable Bede! (Bad, I know.)