WW1 Soldiers’ Diaries Now Online

From the Guardian:

First-hand accounts of trench warfare, gas attacks and battles involving horses and machine guns, are contained in nearly 4,000 diaries released online on Thursday to mark the centenary of the 1914-18 world war.

The diaries, digitised by the National Archives in a joint project with the Imperial War Museum, reveal the sheer stoicism and black humour that helped troops – on both sides – survive the slaughter in Belgium and northern France. They include accounts of the battle of Loos in September 1915, a notoriously unsuccessful and bloody offensive in which the British army used poison gas for the first time and suffered more than 60,000 casualties in less than a month.

An intelligence report of the army’s 12th division in northern France, dated 10 July 1915, records: “A brown paper kite was found on night 8/9th in front of the right section of our line … covered with German writing, of which the following is a rough translation: ‘You can fill your trenches with devils – we Germans fear nothing in the world, and we Germans await victory … Englishmen, how badly you shoot! You will be served as the Russians’.”

The message added that while German soldiers had “wine, sausage and meat”, the British were “hungry and thirsty”.

The entry goes on to discuss two cats and a dog that were apparently spying for the Germans (who knew?)

The diaries can be viewed at the First World War 100 Portal.

The best part–if there is a ‘best’ part about one of the bloodiest events of the twentieth century–is that the National Archives need volunteers to scan the contents of these diaries and tag points of interest in each entry. Historical attribution from your home PC sounds like a winning project to me.

To Wiki or Not to Wiki: That is the Question

We all know the phrase, since we’ve all had the talk with our students regarding research, so let’s all say it together: Wikipedia is not a citable source. Fine. Except we came up with that rule a billion years ago when the Wikipedia project was in its infancy. Or at least, its adolescence. Things have changed since then. Haven’t they?

Ultimately we have to re-evaluate the question and ask ourselves how reliable is Wikipedia anyway? I mean, considering that professionals like Trevor Thornton and Christina Pattuelli are using publically edited records for their own work? Does the description of Wikipedia’s contents as nonsense invalidate these models by association? The question did come up during the NYTSL panel, and they felt that for the purposes of their own work, the data standards were high enough to make it a reliable source.

On the one hand, those linked data projects were limited in scope. It’s one thing to crowdsource the conversations and quotes from musicians, or an index of personal names in a historical context. It’s quite another to use the same strategy to, say, devise medical treatments (except they are). And to be fair there is a world of difference between creating a wiki-based general catalog of informative articles and utilizing a distributed data processing model. (Except when there isn’t.)

Additionally, Wikipedia can be improved and if its own metrics are to be believed, is continually being improved by users who actually give a hoot about the quality of their submissions.  Whether or not that improves the whole project or just select bits of it is yet to be seen.

In the meantime, I’m sticking with my advice to students that Wikipedia is still not citable, but it is a decent source of useful references that might be well be worth checking out.

 

English Major Geekery

A bit of disclosure, since a couple of people have asked: I came up with the title to the previous post in a pretentious fit of Shakespearean geekery. It’s a hazard of English majors everywhere. The wording is a play on a line from Henry IV Part 1, Act 2, Scene 4, where Falstaff tell the young Prince Harry “banish plump Jack, banish all the world.”

There’s more to the quote than that. I have always thought that these lines are the finest description of what the bard’s Fat Man stands for as he defends his behavior to those around him. It’s a strangely honest rendition of what goes on inside Falstaff’s head:

But to say I know more harm in him than in myself,
were to say more than I know. That he is old, the
more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but
that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster,
that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault,
God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a
sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if
to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine
are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

Translation: You can’t avoid me, kid. I am the most real human being you will ever meet.

The thing is, he’s right. John Falstaff, for all his failings, is the most real person that the future Henry V will ever meet.The boy has been raised his whole life in the presence of the royal court; his father, the current Henry IV, has no time for anything that isn’t state business. His staff teaches the boy royal manners, rules, and behaviors, but not what it is to be a man, or , really, a king. (Harry comes to grips with his kinghood in Henry V, but that’s another play.)

Anyway, normally, Harry would have to figure out the gritty bits on his own so into this breach (as it were) steps Sir John Falstaff who proceeds to show the boy what a larger-than-life, raucous, boastful failure of a man looks like. This is a lesson that Harry learns well as the audience sees when he tells Sir John to pop off at the end of Henry IV Part 2 (“Old man, I know thee not!”)

Not that I’d compare Alan Moore to John Falstaff: one is a liar, a cheat, a buffoon, a lout; a fat, slovenly, cowardly sot. The other writes comic books. But no matter how crazy, nonsensical, utterly bizarre, or freakish one of Moore’s stories might seem to the new reader, his work is unquestionably real, drawing believable, flawed, heroic, and well-developed characters into terrifying situations, and failing or prevailing as they can. There is much to be learned about story and storytelling within the pages of any of Moore’s writings. Arguably as much as in a Shakespearean play, although probably in a more accessible form.

Thus: banish Alan Moore, banish the world.

Google Docs Research Tool Needs Work

Amanda French wrote a guest post for the Prof. Hacker column in the Chronicle of Higher Education describing her experience with Google Doc's new research tool, subtly and accurately called Research Tool.

I'm not going to rehash what she wrote as the whole thing is very much worth reading in its entirety, but one bit about the tool's apparently schizophrenic treatment of citations caught my eye:

Anything that encourages people to cite their sources properly is inarguably a Good Thing, in my professorial opinion, so I’m a fan of this feature and plan to make sure that all my students know about it. Users of Zotero or other bibliographic software (and every single student or faculty member who writes research papers should be a user of some kind of bibliographic software) will know the insane glee that comes from being able to insert a properly formatted citation with just a click or two instead of having to type the whole thing in, so I do think that having this feature in Google Docs will increase students’ willingness to cite.

However, there are a few equally inarguable limitations on this Good Thing. By far the most worrying such limitation is that what Google calls “Research” is what we professors call “a Google search.” Not the same thing, from our point of view. The search will bring up maps and images, but, if you’ll pardon my French, big freaking deal: many of the results are not good sources for “research” at all. I wish very much that Google had seen fit to allow users to choose to confine their search to Google Scholar and/or Google Books results — so much do I wish it that I asked for this feature on the Google Docs forums. The only ways to “narrow your search” currently available are to “Everything,” “Images,” and “Quotes,” none of which are very useful for academic purposes.

I like citations; we all do. Hell, librarians, writers, and researches need their citations if they expect to be taken seriously. Including a citation feature is therefore (as she notes) A Very Big Deal. It's rather less of one when those citations can't conform to any recognizable style. You'd do just as well to type the whole thing out, a slog that this feature is clearly meant to alleviate the need for. 

I think French's criticism of Google's non-differentiation between scholarly (or at least academic) sources in Google Books and Google Scholar and everything else is a good one. If Google's wizards can't figure out that academics make use of their product and point millions of students all over the world to it, then, sorry, Google, but what is the point of us using you? None.

So, Google's Research Tool has promise, but like all works in progress needs  . . . work.

 

ProQuest Launches Udini

ProQuest has been busy: not only has it paired up with TurnItIn, but now it's launched a service called Udini:

May 7, 2012 (ANN ARBOR, Mich.) — Knowledge powerhouse ProQuest is launching an inventive new research service that provides individuals with access to premium content and cutting edge tools. Instant and on-demand, Udini bundles an extraordinary range of information, including peer-reviewed and trade journal articles, dissertations, international newswires, newspapers, magazines and more from thousands of publishers in a comprehensive cloud-based workflow management tool designed for individual users. For knowledge workers without access to research libraries, Udini™ provides unprecedented ease for finding and using the highest quality information for professional projects. For publishers with already-strong academic distribution, Udini™ opens a trusted and compelling new channel to reach an under-served group of users who want and need their content.

“Research libraries play a critical role in our knowledge economy, but not everyone who needs serious content is connected to a scholarly library. Research for these unaffiliated users is confusing and inefficient unless they know exactly what they’re looking for. Premium information — when it’s accessible at all — is distributed behind many different paywalls all over the Web,” said Rich LaFauci, Senior Vice President and General Manager, ProQuest Research Solutions. “Udini™ curates and licenses high-quality content and makes it incredibly easy to discover, acquire and use. The entire service is crafted from the end-user’s perspective – from the content to the tools to the commerce model. It’s simple, easy and flexible.”

This is interesting news, and the implications for re-thinking the entire process of research are huge. The value of institutional access to high-priced (dare we say, exclusive) database vendors and document available on a aggregators available to individuals? That's insane!

It may also be wrong. Emma Moore, our new Technology Librarian put is this way:

Interesting news (even if the name does sound like a food/a word out of Star Wars.) Especially of note is the bundling of the content and the "cloud-based workflow system" (which I'd like to get a look at). They seem to have identified a possibly undeserved population; the kind of (presumably affluent) user who a) has used this kind of content in the past, but no longer has institutional access to said resources. Question is, will said population be big enough/identifiable enough to make Udini viable?

 That would, of course, depend on whatever pricing model ProQuest chooses to utilize for the service, which the press realse does not mention at all, which leads me to wonder whether mere peons will be allowed access to the crown jewels. Even though, as the release states, Udini is meant to serve "growing ranks of independent researchers, from freelancers, to workers in organizations without their own libraries, to unaffiliated authors." Hey, guys, I'm an independent researcher and unaffiliated author. Where do I sign up?

Kate Adler, our reference Librarian noticed that this announcement "comes in the wake of a rush of press about online-education, but, because of pricing restrictions, is not exactly "open.""

Well, I signed up for an account . . . it's free for the cost of an e-mail address. Here's what I found.

 You get an In Box, a workspace they refer to as Your Udini Library, and access to the Udini store, which is essentially a pay for service site. Some content is free, but most isn't and while they do allow you to save any article you come across on the web as content in your work area, the good stuff–academic journals, news publications, and professional magazines–is on a cash only basis. They start you off with the right to five free articles, but I didn't test what levels that extends to.

Additionally, there is a "flexible" access model in place, which I expect will be modified as time goes on. They are not apparently charging to create or store project on Udini's servers, but that's a long way from being able to scream, "Come and get it!" while ringing the dinner bell, as it were.

So, while I am hoping that this service takes off, I'm not exactly going to be first in line to pay scads of cash it. At least, not until I know more about what the user costs involve.

 

I Am Losing Faith In Capitalism

I am losing faith in capitalism. Some will say I'm late to this realization. Others will say that I'm just plain wrong. But know this as I know it: when things go wrong, they do not automatically right themselves. Many times, things go wronger and wronger until in the end everything is totally fucked up.

We are royally screwed, says Chris Hedges. He makes a great big point and he doesn't mince words. Our civilization is dying because we have lost our souls in a maelstrom of bullshit, petty politics, and consumerism. I haven't always believed that capitalism was necessarily destructive but now I'm barely hanging on to the idea that it had more utility than not. I am losing faith.

While I've always identified with capitalism, I've always had a giant socialist streak, but if you've seen my past May Day posts, you know that. The trouble with socialism or any other ism as a solution to the country's problems is that Americans deep down are not into collective solutions, even when they make sense. Even with 75 years of history proving that they can be beneficial. We just plain suck at this. We hate to trust anyone but ourselves and even then we lack the imagination to come up with alternative scenarios where one can, say, have an economy without jobs, or enacting living wages for people who do have jobs.

We're smart enough to do better, but our hearts aren't in it. We're way too happy with a doomsday that we can see to imagine a paradise that we can't.

In the meantime, there will be actions. Confrontations. Occupations of public grounds and landmarks. Count on some of them to be unruly, and count on the police to act like an invading army in some cases. These things are attempts  by people who care to save our collective soul. That alone is worth praising. If you can, get out and help them. Save yourself. Save all of us.

Happy International Workers' Day, damn it.

 

 

Live From Liberty Park: Democracy in Action

I just found the embed codes for Livestream's Global Revolution channel which is doing a live webcam feed from the goings on in Liberty Park:

Watch live streaming video from globalrevolution at livestream.com

 

The Shoe Room, and What I Learned There: A Visit to the U.S. Holocaust Museum

I was okay until I saw the Shoe Room.

My wife and I spent the weekend in Washington, D.C. She had business to take care of, I had research to do at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. We had plans to leave Monday afternoon so Monday morning we decided to visit the U.S. Holocaust Museum. We're not religious Jews, neither of our families dealt much with the Holocaust directly but we figured for a day, we could afford to put our noses up to the window of history and embrace the horror.

I'm not going to describe the whole thing (I mean, hey, why ruin the ending, right? /sarcasm) but the Power of Nazi  Propaganda exhibit was an awesome display of just how to get ordinary people to consistently behave like madmen. That was our first stop, it took about an hour to go through the whole thing.

We had to wait a while for the permanent exhibit: a grand tour of the most horrific years in twentieth century history.  We joked as we got on line, because, well, you sort of have to. Mel Brooks was absolutely right: you have to laugh or you never stop crying.

The museum was packed: I'm told it generally is. Parents bring their kids, grandparents bring their kids. There's a waiting area near the door and the children, especially the young ones act like themselves. They run, they jump around, they hang on the furniture and get scolded by attentive parents. I must have heard ten different languages and seen folks of every color and creed walk by while we waited for the permanent exhibit to open up, which was strangely comforting. It's one thing to be told that WE MUST NEVER FORGET and another thing entirely to see families with no roots in European Jewry whatsoever making an effort to live up to that advice.

All that stops when they go into the elevator and go up to the fourth floor. Up there it's nothing but hushed whispers and wide eyes.

The first thing you hear is a voice over a speaker in the elevator, ostensibly a bewildered American GI, saying "We've found something here and we're not sure what it is, exactly. Some kind of prison. There are people wandering around, starving, dying." The doors open and you're face to face with a wall-sized photo of those same American GIs standing over a mass grave filled with burnt, mangled corpses, obviously at a loss for understanding.

There are three floors of that sort of thing placed in chronological order. The tour is self-guided, so you proceed ar your own pace. The fourth floor deals with the rise of the Nazis to real power in 1933, and then consolidating that power at the expense of those they considered inferiors. The third floor shows the war itself and the American reaction. The second floor shows the details of the Final Solution and the post war years.

There was little on display that I hadn't encountered before. I was used to it. My father, my brother, and I were all World War II buffs. I had a grand-uncle who parachuted into Normandy with the 82nd Airborne. And we were Jewish, so we had to learn all this other stuff on top of it. Names of concentration camps. The Warsaw Ghetto. The Ghetto uprising. The gas chambers, the crematoria, the rise of Zionism to a fever pitch after the war ended. The fact that the American government had other things on its mind even as the newspapers screamed about what was going on in Europe. Cantor Bydner, who taught me my Bar Mitzvah haftorah, was a Holocaust survivor. Those of us who didn't have a survivor in their family, knew friends who had. It was part of our lives. Walking through the displays caused a lot of stress, but no surprises.

In a grotesque way, all this was old hat: Jewish American kids in the 1970s learned about those events the way we learned about English grammar and chemistry: I before E except after C. Water is H2O. The Germans wiped out six million of us, and the crazy Arabs would finish the job in a minute if they could, so Israel is the center of the world. Got that? Good. Let's eat. The possibility that it wasn't that simple never occurred to us.

 On the second floor as you walk through a glass corridor, several panes etched with the names of scores of towns that were wiped out, you enter a darkened room that is filled with shoes.

That's the display: Shoes. Old shoes. New shoes. Worn shoes. Badly repaired shoes. Some were withered with use. Some were scuffed from extensive use. Black leather shoes. Brown cloth shoes. Men's shoes. Women's shoes. Wide shoes. Narrow shoes.

Baby shoes.

Hundreds of them. Arranged in a heap ten or twelve inches deep covering the two hundred square foot floor except for a narrow path that you walk through to go the next room.

Shoes.

Obviously, there are other artifacts on display, both out in the open and behind plexiglass. Some are necessarily more personal than others: Striped pajamas from the camps. Eating utensils. Bowls, plates, cutlery. Doors. Keys. A massive black iron casting of the front gate of Auschwitz (the original is in Poland). Scale models of the Killing Centers* including a massive crowd of two-inch tall figurines being herded into gas chambers. A preserved gas chamber door. Empty poison gas canisters. Prisoners' wooden bunks. Thousands of photographs, several miles of archival film. The shoe room breaks everyone, even if it's just a little bit.

Shoes.

On reflection, I know why the shoe room works. Shoes are intensely personal items that we use to define ourselves as people. Think about it: is there any item of human manufacture that speaks to civilization and our place in it more than footwear? Even simple ones like sandals, even cut strips of bark wrapped around the foot with vines. Shoes are a mark of  western civilization, evidence of progress, a standard of normal life among cities. Our rules of daily routine require them. Going barefoot is permissible to very young children but that's it. "I cried because I had no shoes …"** The only time we take our shoes off is to sleep. Even when we bury our dead, someone puts a pair of shoes on the deceased before the body is lowered into the grave. We discard shoes only when we've destroyed them. Or, in this case, destroyed the people in them.

Shoes.

 The problem with exhibits like this one–graphic presentations created by curators and the processional historians they work with to try to illustrate and perhaps explain immense, insane things to otherwise well-informed visitors–is that after a certain point, people tend to turn off. It quickly becomes to much to process. Something like the Holocaust is too big to grasp, even if like me and five million other American Jews, we've been steeped in this history most of our lives. Additionally, this is for all intents and purposes, a pretty tame exhibit. The really frightening stuff is living over at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Living beneath that Sword of Damocles is now part of growing up Jewish. We all asked the same question of our teachers in Hebrew School:  Why them? Why us? How did something like this ever happen? There were no answers except for the obvious platitudes: "Because they hate us." "Because they were crazy." "Because that's what people who hate do." The real answer, however, was always the same: the haunted look in our elders' eyes when they told us these things. That look said: we have no idea. We don't know why it happened, but then we don't know why water is H2O, either. It just is. And that terrified them. It didn't do us kids any good, either. 

But anyone can understand a room full of discarded shoes.

This is probably wishful thinking at work but for the first time in my life, I think I have an idea of why Holocaust deniers stick to their stories.*** People who insist that the big event never happened or happened on an infinitely smaller scale aren't like Bob in Accounting who swears up and down that he paid back that five-spot that he borrowed from you last month when he didn't–that guy is just being a putz. You don't loan him money again. Fine.

They also aren't like pundits, politicians, and corporate excs who insist that there's no such thing as man-made global warming, or if there is, it's either not their fault or not as bad as the media says it is. That't mere greed in action: if  it's real, and they caused it, then they're responsible for fixing it which would cost them their jobs. Obnoxious but understandable.

People who deny the facts of the Holocaust are coming from a much darker place. It has less to do with hate and more to do with fear. Raw, unbridled, fear of it having happened, because if it's real, then it really did happen, and if  it happened once to the Jews, then it can happen again, to them.  That's a decidedly sane reaction. It's a good thing to be afraid of for the simple reason that there are always people willing and able to capitalize on fear and hate to gain and maintain power. But instead of dealing with the fear, these folks twist it, turn it into something outside reality, and blame the victims. Perversely ensuring that the next time something like it does happen, they won't see it. Problem solved!

None of the visitors in my group stayed in the Shoe Room for very long. We glanced around and hurried past. That's simple self-preservation at work; anyone with a fragment of imagination who lingered in the Shoe Room walked out in tears. There are giant posters placed throughout the museum, ordering visitors to THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU HAVE SEEN, but compared to the Shoe Room, they fall flat. 

The final rooms cover the aftermath years: 1945-1949, covering the gathering of the survivors, the effort to push Great Britain to release control of Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel. There are flags to denote the countries where sympathizers rescued Jews from the Nazis, and the names of thousands of Jewish resistors. It's heartening to see, if only because no-one likes to think of their people as the ones who went to their doom without a fight. None of it made up for the Shoe Room.  I don't think anything can.

 

* "Killing Center" is the museum's term for it, and that is how it's used in the explanation placards. I find the phrase accurate but sterile. "Death Camp" is the term I was raised to remember. It's not technically correct–there were many more forced labor camps than death camps per se– but it's got a bit more oomph, don't you think?

** " . . . until I met a man who had no feet."

***As opposed to mere anti-semites who are all about the hate.

Weaving the Threads Together

It's impossible to cover absolutely every blog post, article, or story that appears on the Intarwebs because there's just too much worthwhile stuff to read and too few hours in the day to read it.  Having said that, there are a few things I've come across recently that I think deserve a bit of time out of your busy day.

I admit that the news about Swine Flu in Mexico gave me a flashback to working at NYAM, when SARS made the news. Two coworkers canceled conference trips to Canada, and my then boss postponed a trip to China.  Hong Kong effectively shut down for several weeks, according to a few people I know who'd been working there at the time.

Now, it appears to be our turn.

First, take a look at Elaine Meinel Supkis' excellent background briefing on the flu. The current  strain of Swine Flu In Mexico and California may be much ado about nothing (if you can call 60+ deaths "nothing") or it may turn out to become as bad or worse than the 1918 outbreak, or it could–and probably will– turn out to be something in between. Education is key to keeping your balance when listening to the many sources of information on the topic. This is a good place to begin. 

That done, you might want to read James Howard Kunstler's blog post from today (where I nicked the previous link from).  Kunstler's a bit extreme in his analysis but that doesn't mean he's wrong. One point he makes is worth repeating here: public health crisis events have a way of screwing with the daily behind-the-scenes mechanics of life that we depend on, yet ignore when things are working to our satisfaction.  Simple things like public transportation, hospitals, electricity, hot and cold running water, food being trucked to the local supermarket, etc.  The systems that provide all these things get disrupted when germs have their ways with the people who make those systems run.  Some systems bounce back more quickly than others, and some don't bounce back at all. Just something to remember.

Charles Hugh-Smith has another rather more precise analysis of exactly this point, very much worth your time.

In the meantime, wash your hands, Lysol your office phone and computer keyboard, and maybe rely on Netflix and eating in for a few weeks.  Good luck!

George Carlin, RIP

In deference to those of faint heart I’ve put a few links and thoughts about Gorge Carlin under the edit. Enjoy!

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