Category Archives: digital history

April 7, 2014, 7:16 pm

Brain Rewires Itself, Panic at Eleven.

Neuroscientists are discovering that online reading rewires the brain in favor of high speed sorting and filtering, rather than deep concentrated reading:

To cognitive neuroscientists, [the rewiring] is the subject of great fascination and growing alarm. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.

This “eye byte culture” (awesome phrase, by the way) becomes, of course, a source of panic. English professors are consulted. The result?

“They cannot read ‘Middlemarch.’ They cannot read William James or Henry James,” [the scientist] said. “I can’t tell you how many people have written to me about this phenomenon. The students no longer will or are perhaps incapable of…

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March 18, 2014, 3:24 pm

The Transfer of Knowledge

Political campaigns are giant startups that flare into existence in campaign season, hire thousands and spend millions, and then mostly wink out of existence. Others have made this point. What’s interesting me at the moment is what happens to those campaign workers when the effort ends? A fair number stay in politics: move on to the next campaign, go to DC, or something similar. But a lot don’t, and it would be fascinating to trace their movement into the American economy. They have a lot of skills and experience, often at a very young age, and those skills are useful. In the same way that the veterans of World War II, often with great experience in logistics and supply movement, came back to the United States and filtered into an economy where those skills were prized, political campaign people may well be having knock-on economic effects. The people in the Obama campaign were…

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March 12, 2014, 3:13 pm

Making Me Think Even More Highly of Steve Jobs

After Glenn Beck made racist comments on his Fox News show, Steve Jobs was not pleased:

When Apple founder Steve Jobs found out what Beck had said, he was furious. On a Saturday, Jobs, who hadn’t known Apple advertised on Fox, fired off an email to a West Coast executive of Omnicom, the giant ad agency that spent hundreds of millions a year on Apple’s behalf. Jobs’s message was simple: I want all Apple ads off all Fox News shows immediately. And no, it couldn’t wait until Monday. After much scrambling, an Omnicom executive and a technician from News Corp. had to drive to a News Corp. facility on Long Island that Sunday and remove the digital file containing the ads.[1]

Roger Ailes must have loved that.

Jonathan Alter’s The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, p. 66.

February 20, 2014, 10:52 pm

The Future Is Unevenly Distributed

This map:


reminded me of this map:


The first is US economic output split 50/50, showing how concentrated much of the US economy is. The second map is the concentration of British population pre- and post-Industrial Revolution. The 1911 part of it, seen on the right, illustrates how concentrated the British people (and as a proxy, their economic activity) became as a result of the revolution. The William Gibson quote applies extremely well: “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

It’s an obvious point, but the economy that those in the northeast megalopolis or southern California or the Miami axis experience is a completely different one than most of the rest of the United States. This is just as true as the point that the economy of those who lived in London or Liverpool/Manchester in 1890 was completely different than that of the rest of Great…

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September 9, 2013, 2:53 pm

You May Not Be Interested In Digital Humanities, But The Digital Humanities Are Interested In You.

(Guest post! Michael Doidge is a historian at the Combat Studies Institute where he created the U.S. Army’s first digitally interactive military history. Here he tells us about how he went about it. With bonus Russian Reversal title!)

VanguardvalorDuring the first days of my MA, my professor asked the incoming classes to go around the room and say something about ourselves. The student sitting next to me casually stated, “I can read and speak several languages.” It was my turn next. I had nothing to follow that act, so I offered a meek and self-deprecating riposte.

“I am also fluent in several languages.”

As expected, the professor asked which ones.

“C, C++, Visual Basic, Java, Pascal…”

The class got a laugh, the nerd in me smiled, and the digital historian working ten years later thinks “And that ain’t bad.”

In March of 2013 the Combat Studies Institute (CSI) released…

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July 24, 2013, 5:52 pm

Annual Deaths in the US Military, 1980-2010

Not all deaths in the military come from combat, or during wars:


Interestingly, in the raw numbers, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had death counts that were actually matched or surpassed by those of the military in the early 1980s, when the US was mostly at peace. When the graph is by deaths as a percentage of the active duty military, that changes:


In this case, the percentage of deaths rises higher during the 2000s than it was during the 1980s.

Some of the differences come simply from size. The military of the 2000s was about two-thirds the size of the military of 1980s and thus, by demographics alone, that larger population would see more deaths. But what is most notable is the way that both accidents and homicides have gone down.

Accidents (average):

1980-85: 1459
2005-2010: 528

Murders (average):
1980-85: 123
2005-2010: 53

Accidents from 2005-2010 averaged…

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May 30, 2013, 9:27 pm

A Quite Recent Obsession: On Constitutional Descriptors

Americans describe things as “constitutional,” and “unconstitutional.” They talk about the “Bill of Rights” and the “Second Amendment.” These descriptors seem like they should be timeless or, at least, in consistent use since the beginning of the USA.

For “constitutional” and “unconstitutional” that seems to be the case:

Constitutional un

Note that both have been used pretty consistently since 1800. There haven’t been great fluctuations. Obviously, this is just one measure, but it seems that Americans have long thought about things as constitutional or unconstitutional.

The Bill of Rights, on the other hand:


Here, the story is different. Starting in the New Deal Era, mentions of the Bill of Rights in American books more than doubled, suggesting that as government grew, Americans became much more concerned about individual rights and their guarantees.

So too with specific amendments. The…

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February 8, 2013, 5:56 pm

Storm of the Century

Been having a lot of those lately:


I note without comment that this parallels the appearance and rise of the Weather Channel. TWC is now naming winter storms, with a range of rather unstaid names. I look forward to Winter Storm Yogi.

December 18, 2012, 8:30 pm

Bill of Rights

Not being a constitutional scholar, I’m not entirely sure what to make of this claim:

“In a nutshell, almost everything ordinary Americans think they know about the Bill of Rights, including the phrase ‘Bill of Rights,’ comes from the Reconstruction period. Not once did the Founders refer to these early amendments as a bill of rights.”



There’s no sign of an uptick post-Civil War, and the phrase “bill of rights” has been used steadily throughout American history since 1800.

“Bill of Rights,” capitalized, shows a different pattern:


Here the jump is in the 1930s, not Reconstruction.

But how about the founders? A search of the Federalist Papers for “Bill of Rights” reveals 19 hits, including several lengthy discussions by Hamilton of the English Bill of Rights, the bills of rights in several states, and whether the nascent Constitution needs a Bill of Rights. …

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December 16, 2012, 5:41 pm

Your Electoral Update for the Day, Turnout Edition

Using the invaluable running tab of votes kept by David Wasserman of the Cook Report, I did a map outlining turnout difference between 2008 and 2012. Blue states are where turnout was higher in 2012, red states are where it was lower. New Hampshire matched its 2008 turnout:


A few comments:

  • The Atlantic seaboard states with large African-American populations (South Carolina to Maryland) increased their turnout
  • Western swing states with large Hispanic populations increased their turnout and brought Utah along with them.
  • The Upper Midwest came out in droves (excepting MI)
  • New York and New Jersey saw substantial drops, likely due to Sandy
  • Florida had nearly $170 million advertising dollars spent in it, which may have driven people to the polls (if only to get away from their TVs)

Notably of the swing states, Ohio turnout was down 2.23% from …

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November 6, 2012, 1:47 pm

Verbiage, Election Edition

The use of words and phrases, associated with presidential elections, over the last century, from the Google Ngram viewer:

More as I think of them.

UPDATE: Per tadlegler’s suggestion in the comments, “flip-flop”:


and, on my own, “vote fraud”:



UPDATE II: per chemstudent’s suggestion, “bipartisan,” and “campaign contribution:”


August 31, 2012, 8:13 pm

Jack Palance

For some reason, I’m reminded of one of the great, surreal moments in Oscar history:

No empty chair, but, later in the show, Billy Crystal said: “Jack Palance just bungee-jumped off the Hollywood sign.”

August 29, 2012, 2:36 pm

Monthly Coalition Fatalities in Afghanistan, 2010-2012

Coalition fatalities in Afghanistan by month, since January 2010 (from here):


Fatalities, season-to-season, have been on a steady downward trend since their peak in 2010. Measuring victory and loss in counterinsurgencies in notoriously difficult (for an earlier discussion of this with respect to Iraq, see here), but by this measure and at the moment, the coalition seems to be winning militarily in Afghanistan. Whether that constitutes “victory” in the larger sense requires a much larger political, social, and diplomatic discussion.

April 10, 2012, 5:17 am

Finding Old Bombs

The past isn’t even past, and it’s still quite explosive:

Luftbilddatenbank, based on the top floor of Carls’ home just outside Würzburg in the southern state of Bavaria, specializes in finding bombs using old aerial photos. In the last five years, the company has digitized hundreds of thousands of images, developing a database of geographical coordinates and archival reference points that let them request photos of specific locations from collections of wartime photos in Washington, DC, and Edinburgh, Scotland.

Followup to this, and h/t to Jonathan Beard.

April 7, 2012, 12:01 pm

Data Tsunami

As a follow-up to this post, I note this:

The Air Force has more drones and more sensors collecting more data than it has humans to interpret what the electronic tea leaves say. The glut of all that video and still imagery is “unsustainable,” says the Air Force’s top civilian — but it’ll be “years” before the Air Force digs its way out of it.

As the article points out, there are various levels of processing needed. There’s a need for an immediate triage of imagery for time-sensitive operations. If an American unit’s under attack, the imagery that might help them can’t go in the normal processing queue. But there’s also the general processing, that might yield information useful over the medium or long term.

More computers, please.