Best and Worst

It has been a while since I posted something in the Tops of All Time series, but I noticed two recent articles in PC World that fit the bill. The first is a wistful look back at the 10 Worst PCs of All Time. The second lists the 50 Best Tech Products of All Time, “those amazing products that changed technology—and our lives—forever.” So what, according to PC World, is “The Beatles,” the “Citizen Cane”, the “Muhammad Ali” of tech products?

(Drum roll, please…)

Netscape 1.0, the browser that launched the era.

Place Names / Time

Yesterday software engineer Matthew Gray from Inside Google Book Search posted a mashup/geo-visualization demonstrating how place name frequency changed over the course of 19th century publishing history. Gray’s four maps—one each from the 1800s, 1830s, 1860s, and 1890s—clearly point to a growing publishing industry and broader shifts in center of gravity from Europe to North America and from East Coast to West Coast.

While Gray’s results are convincing and the whole project a good example of how digital tools are creating new avenues for amateur historical inquiry, we should also admit that it reinforces Dan Cohen’s recent point that “too many visualizations … merely use computational methods to reveal the obvious in fancy ways.” The question Dan wants us to ask is whether these visualizations teach us anything new. It’s a good question. Are we surprised that Denver is mentioned more frequently in print in 1890 than in 1830? Probably not. But another question we should ask is whether these visualizations can teach our students and publics anything new. I wonder if the obvious truths told by these maps, charts, and diagrams aren’t so obvious to people who don’t identify themselves as historians. I’m struck by the fact that both this example and the one Dan points to were both produced by and for non-professionals. I suspect the answer to Dan’s concern is that the best place for these things is not in research, but in teaching and public understanding.

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.

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.

Virtual Apple

For those of us who grew up with an Apple II computer in the home, Virtual Apple provides a timesucking trip down memory lane. Dedicated to “preserving a generation of Apple 2 disks,” Virtual Apple emulates old Apple 2 games in your web browser. Ironically, because they’re powered by Active X, the games only work in Internet Explorer for Windows, though the site operators promise Firefox compatible (i.e. Mac) versions soon. For now just boot up in Parallels, and see how rusty your Lode Runner skills have grown.