Author Archives: Trevor

Darwin, History, and Visualizations

Two weeks ago our Creating History in New Media class had a great chance to chat with historian David Staley about his book Computers Visualization and History and Scott McCloud‘s book Understanding Comics. New media provides some exciting places to take conversations about visualizations in history, but one of my other take-a-ways from the conversation was that there are a lot of places to talk about historical visualizations in old media.

I know that I said it’s not about pictures, but for those of you interested in pictures there are some neat projects that you can look to. To (quite literally) illustrate the point, here are a few examples of some of some dead tree picture based visualizations.

Children’s Picture Books

Below is a shot from Peter Sis’ The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin. Each page of the book places the primary content of the story in the center circle and frames. The picture below isn’t the best example but it does a good job demonstrating the way the side stories leaf into the center image to express different parts of a related story. Over the last thirty years or so critics and artists have developed several different works that explore how picture books work. Folks interested visually communicating history might do well to borrow from their work.

Science Comics

The Sandwalk Adventures

As I mentioned, alongside Computers Visualization and History our class also read Understanding Comics. It is worth mentioning that comics themselves are becoming a compelling medium for visually communicating history. In my own area of interest, the History of Science, Jim Ottaviani and Jay Hosler have developed some fantastic examples of what you can do with comics. Below is a page from a great book about Darwin’s ear ticks by Hosler. 

Photos of Legos With Currency

Ok it doesn’t really fit, but it’s awesome-ness outweighed its misfit-ness, so here it is.

So, why have I pulled together these images? To demonstrate that there are already communities of comic and picture book artists interested in presenting historical information to young and old alike, many of who are doing a bang up job. There is enough material out there to just focus in on a single figure like darwin and see different examples from these fields. If historians want to think more about developing picture based visualizations they would do well to try folding in insights form these different communities.

Science Grows On Trees: The History of Science and Technology Acording to Video Games

I think historians and sociologists of science might be surprised to learn that video game designers spend a considerable amount of time and energy building playable models of the history of science and technology. In game design circles these systems are commonly referred to as “Technology Trees“. Below is an example of one of these trees from Civilization ll.

The tree provides a guide to the relationships between individual intellectual discoveries. Each box represents a single potential discovery, the other items inside that box are the benefits that technology provides.  The blue and red lines chart out lines for perquisite advances. For example, to discover writing a player needs to first discover an Alphabet. Once the player discovers writing they can start training diplomat units and building libraries in their cities. If they have also already developed a code of laws they can start to research literacy, which would allow them to build the great library world wonder.

Tech trees are a part of a variety of games. For example see Bob Bates book Game Design.

Bob Bates, Game Design, 2004, p.50

In game design tech trees provide a powerful way to create a wide range of player strategies. Scholars might find the sort of technological progressivism at the heart of this mechanic a bit discomforting, but that aside, its an interesting way to play with the history of science and technology. In many cases the trees are quite sophisticated. We can think about them in three parts; the input the system requires for advancement, how the different kinds of knowledge relate to each other, what those different pieces of knowledge contribute to game play. I will pick these apart for the earlier example from Civilization ll.

In Civilization players invest a portion of their Tax income into science and luxuries while holding onto the rest for spending on infrastructure or to weather future financial hard times. Players can also assign representative amounts of citizens in their cities to work as scientists. Both their scientists, and the funding allocated to science generate research points. The player then decides which advancement to study. Each turn the player racks up research points that are then contributed toward the advancement they’re exploring. When the player gets enough points they acquire the advancement and the benefits (new units, new buildings, new forms of government, and world wonders) it provides.

The system in Civilization is quite sophisticated, and there are other similarly sophisticated systems in different games. I think they are worth thinking about more for a few reasons. First, the chart I used in this post did not come from a game company. Civilization has a vibrant user community, one of whom created this document. Scholars working on the public understanding of science frequently bemoan how little the public understands about how science and science policy works. These games are compelling enough to get players working on mapping and thinking about this kind of knowledge. There is a chance for game designers, historians and sociologists could think about these sort of models together, I think each might get something out of it. Scholars could provide interesting ideas for modeling the history of science and technology, and designers might be able to provide gamers demands for more athuentic experiences in their games.

Visualization and History: Hint, It's Not About Pictures

If your into history and computers, and looking for a mildly trippy read, break open a bottle of wine and spend three of four hours reading through David Staley’s Computers Visualization and History. Staley’s central, somewhat provocative, contention is that there is nothing natural or automatic about historians choice to communicate through writing. Like some scientists, historians could assemble evidence and communicate through visualizations. I think he is largely right about the value visualizations offer to historians, but I don’t think the most useful visualizations are going to be pictures or 3D models. In my opinion, the most promising places for visualization is visualizing texts.

[openbook booknumber=”0765610949″]

In the introduction Staley argues that “the impact of the computer has been as a graphics tool more than as a processor of words.” I think the real issue here is not about processing words or creating graphics. As far as I’m concerned the fundamental power of new media, computers first and foremost, is the manipulative leverage provided by databases. I don’t claim to take credit for this notion, at the moment I am thinking primarily of Lev Manovich’s book The Language of New Media.

If you have a chance to read both Manovich and Staley against each other I think you’ll see some interesting parallels in what they are excited about. Where Staley sees the liberating power of visualization,  Manovich sees the liberating potential of the database. Both graphic representation and databases offers a chance to escape the linearity of texts.

You don’t need to go much further than Wordle to see how powerful basic visualizations of texts can be. If your looking for something a bit more juicy and substantive take a look at Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, and Trees. Once you’ve seen Moretti graph the rise and fall of literary genres, and map out locations in stories to demonstrate megatrends in the history of British Literature, I am sure that you’ll be convinced of the largely untapped potential for these sorts of visualizations of texts. If you want to experiemnt yourself try doing some searches through Mark Davies Time Magizine Courpus and make some visualizations of them with Swivel.

Information technology allows us to manipulate linear texts, to search them, to parse them, to count frequency and relationships between words. In short, to take the linearity out of the text and stretch and visualize it for any number of reasons. At least at this point, that search and indexical stuff is something that really only works on texts.  I think Staly is right about visualization, but the funny part is that the most exciting vistas that historical visualization are probably going to be texts.

13 Free Online History Games

This is a quick smattering from the hundreds of different free online history games and interactives I have come across. This slice of the history games web underscores a few key points behind building the Playing History collaborative directory.

First, the list gives a quick sense of the different diversity of groups making history games. Each of these places have their own silos of content, making it nearly impossible for teachers to get a quick sense of what sorts of games are out there on a given topic.

If you get a chance to click through some of the links you will get a clear sense of the other need Playing History can address. The quality of these games and interactives varies widely. By allowing educators to rate and review these games in one central location Playing History can ensure educators can find both topical an high quality games.

If you get a chance to take a look at some of these post your reactions and thoughts about them in the comments.

From NOVA via WGBH Boston

Escape from Antarctica– Students relive Ernest Shackleton’s voyage from Antarctica’a Elephant Island to South Georgia island using a sextant and a chart.
Galileo’s Experiments– Students conduct virtual versions of Galileo’s thought experiments, including those using an inclined plane and a pendulum.
Map of the Maya World– Students explore 15 Mayan cities in an interactive map.

From the National Museum of American History

You Be the Historian– Students examine objects left behind by the Springer family, who lived in Delaware more than 200 years ago.

From Colonial Williamsburg

Williamsburg Coins: Students examine the diverse types of money jingling in the pockets and purses of colonial ancestors.

From the British Broadcasting Service

Viking Quest – Students explore Viking life by building a ship and looting monasteries.
Who Wants to Be a Cotton Millionaire? – Students run a cotton company in Victorian Brittan

From the Discovery Channel

Attack on Pearl Harbor– Students explore the virtual battleground through an interactive map
The Emperor’s Tomb– Students enter the mysterious tomb of the first emperor of China.

From the History Channel

Explore Shermans March– Students trace this historic civil war event

From the National Portrait Gallery

A Brush with History – Students explore famous portraits.

From the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Holocaust era in Croatia- Students explore daily life in holocaust era Croatia

From PBS Kids Go

Day in the life of a Native American Boy (ca.1855) -Students learn about daily life of Native American children in the mid 19th century.

Creating History In New Media

Word cloud for the Creating History With New Media course website

I am excited to taking Jeremy Boggs course “Creating History In New Media” to round out my MA in American History. The syllabus is pretty exciting, if a bit overwhelming, mix of tech skills (HTML, CSS and using WordPress and Omeka) with readings in project management and process for web design. If your into this sort of thing take a look at his syllabus.

Over the course of the semester each class member, ideally working in groups, will work a digital history site from bar napkin sketch to launch. I am lucky to have teamed up with Jim Safley, CHNM’s Web Programmer and Digital Archivist,  to work on putting together a smaller scope version of the Playing History project. (If you don’t feel like clicking the link Playing History will be a collaborative directory for educators to find, review, and post lesson plans relating to freely available history games they can use in their classrooms.) Jim and I will be using Omeka as our CMS.

Blogging is a big part of this course. Most of my classmates will be putting together class specific blogs that assume a considerable amount of shared classroom experience. That’s great.  I plan to take a slightly different tack.

While I will be participating in that community, I also want this blog to continue to serve a more general audience of folks interested in my particular take on digital history/humanities stuff. I have two primary reasons for doing this, the first of which is altruistic, and the second of which is a bit more self serving.

(1) I don’t think many history programs offer this kind of course. So if anyone wants to virtually audit it: grab a copy of the syllabus, and subscribe my RSS feed to follow along as we work through it together. I intend to post general class reactions to projects and readings alongside my own reactions, as well as, general information about how our class sessions worked. I think this, in conjunction with the course site, should also provide fruitful food for thought for educators interested in developing similar kinds of courses.

(2) I really think the Playing History project Jim and I are working on is a valuable endeavor and the more folks we can get to react to our planing documents (sitemaps, wireframes, photoshop mockups, HTML mockups, and final product) the more likely we will be able to launch a compelling first iteration of the Playing History idea.

New Genre: Non-Fiction Video Games

I think our games vocabulary is a bit impoverished. When most people think of games they think of fictional, often fantastic stories. Killing elves, post apocalyptic settings, shooting up all sorts of big bads. But games can also offer interesting ways to engage with the real world. To borrow a word from print I think that non-fiction can provide a compelling way to describe games that create playable environments out of real world data, documents and statistics.
There are other approaches for describing game genres. Terms like educational games, games for change, and serious games try to define genre of games by the intended user experience. Each is a description of the goal of the games, not their content. In my experience this is not the way we describe other media, at least other successful generals of media. Do you want to watch a educational film? Are you interested in reading an exciting new educational book? The idea of serious games is equally problematic. If a military simulation like Americas Army is a serious game are we suggesting that engaging games like Fallout 3 or Bioshock are frivolous?

I think there is a much broader, largely unexplored category for games.

I think we are getting to a point where dividing games into fiction and non-fiction makes sense. Gamers are getting older and there is good reason to believe that as they do they will be looking for other ways to engage with games. If we think about the experiences of watching a documentary, or reading a great work of non-fiction, we can get a taste of what these games could be like. Take those appeals to facts, to real data, and make playable experiences. Below I have three examples of different kinds of games that fit within this genre. Each of these create playable experiences out of real world data.

Science Games:

Example Operation Resilient Planet

In Operation Resilient Planet you recreate the field work of contemporary underwater ecologists. Through a series of mini games built around these scientists’ actual work, players gather data which they then deploy in arguments with other scientists. In practice it is a bit like Phoenix Wright meets a great episode of Nova. The game is built for middle school students, but I found it to be quite engaging. The same basic idea, using real scientific data to make a engaging game space, is in action in the discovery channel’s Sharkrunners game.

Historical Games:

Example Colonial Williamsburg Revolution

Grounded in the historical expertise of folks at Colonial Williamsburg this multi-player Neverwitner Nights mod lets people play through the events around the American Revolution. There are a lot of other examples of games that model a variety of different historical ideas. Commercial games like Civilization, military games like Rome Total War, and the Romance of the Three Kingdom’s series. There are still a lot of less explored ways to build historical games. Things like biographical games, and non-military period piece games are still largely unexplored.

Political Games:

Ayiti: The Cost of Life

Try managing the health, education and finances of a family in Haiti. Don’t let the cartoon-y look of this one fool you, its pretty grim. There are a ton of other examples of these sort of political games, and some lively discussion of these sorts of games as journalism or as games for change. For some other neat examples of these sorts of games see Peacemaker, a Civ style middle east simulator, or the game of non-violent resistance, A Force More Powerful.


To abstract a little bit from these specific examples, the game play in each of these games hinges on real world experience; scientific data, historical documents, economic information, and develops a playable space from those experiences. History, science and politics were the first three sub-genera that came to me. What other sub-categories of non-fiction games should we be thinking about? Or am I just completely wrong headed about this?

Scientists in Action: Front Door Iconography At The National Academy Of Sciences

As I’ve mentioned before I have been looking at the Einstein memorial on the grounds of the National Academy of Sciences as a interesting spot to think about science in public. In working on the project I have been trying to find points of comparison, other statues of scientists or presentations of scientists, ideally in a similar setting like the National Mall. The first point of comparison to consider is the iconography on the National Academy’s building.

Just as the placement, posing and popularity of the Einstein statue suggest interesting points to explore perceptions of science the etchings on the door and reliefs along the side of the building make suggestions about what science is. I’m not entirely sure what to do with them yet but, they are so engaging that I thought I would share them, and some first thoughts.

Each of the panels below tries to distill a scientist’s work and achievements into a few icons and actions. Each panel is stunning, but I’m not sure about how successful they are in representing the scientist and their accomplishments. I suppose there is not much you can do in less then a square foot of space to commemorate a scientist. Below I have tried to extract the gist of what each pane suggests scientists do. What is your take on these? Oh, and does anyone have a clue about what the four little icons surrounding each pane are about?

Galileo Galilei 1564-1642

  • Setting: Outside
  • Action: Pointing
  • Tools: Holding, but not using a telescope

Issac Newton 1643-1727

  • Setting: Unclear
  • Tools: Scroll
  • Action: Unclear, Is he looking at calculations and charting the orbit of the planets? Is he flying a kite?
  • Extra: Science involves awesome capes

James Watt 1736-1819

  • Setting: Sitting by some huge gears
  • Action: Cranking gears and taking notes while other guy looks on
  • Tools: Lever, or some sort of super wrench

Charles Lyell 1797-1875

  • Setting: Pedestal suggests some sort of museum setting
  • Action: Looking at striations in strata
  • Tools: Magnifying glass

Charles Darwin 1809-1882

  • Setting: Museum? Clearly there are mammoth bones, but what is the tower all about?
  • Action: Reading, possibly dosing off, and potentially skull gazing
  • Tools: Book and a skull

Louis Pasteur 1822 – 1895

  • Setting: Labish alterzone with draped statue on a pedestal
  • Action: Looking at a test tube, resting an arm on books,
  • Tools: Testube, might be a Bunsen burner
  • Extra: Only panel to include a table

Euclid and Aristotle are also on the door, but it is a bit tougher to get a good shot of them because they are way up top.

All of these images come courtisy of Flickr user sethgaines

Export from Zotero to Librarything or Goodreads

One of Zotero’s many virtues is that it is a really robust container for bibliographic data. If you want to spend a little time playing with the Citation Style Language that Zotero uses it is actually pretty easy to get some useful data out of Zotero to do all sorts of fun things with. One of the most simple of which is exporting items for services like Librarything and ISBN numbers which each service then either grabs the data from Amazon, the Library of Congress, or just the existing pool of items that they already have available.


  1. Install this CSL into your copy of Zotero.
  2. Create a biblography from all your books using the ISBN Export style
  3. Import the list to Librarything or Goodreads importers

Organize Books Inside Zotero

Before explaining how to export the books you’ll want to get a clean list of books you own. I tag all the items in my library that I own with the “I Own it” tag. From their it is easy to create an advanced search for all your books that have that tag.

Getting ISBN Numbers

Next use my nifty CSL file to export ISBN numbers. Just save this CSL file to your desktop and drag it into a open Firefox window, you should then be prompted to install the CSL. Once installed you will have ISBN Export as a option in the create bibliography menu.

This very simple export style underscores how easy it is to get started playing with CSL. The part of the style that does all the work is really just these few lines.

      <key variable="ISBN"/>
    <layout suffix="">
      <text variable="ISBN" prefix="" suffix="     "/>

The first part of this  <sort> sets list to sort by the ISBN number, and the second part,  <layout> tells Zotero that all we want is the ISBN without any characters as a prefix or a suffix.

Uploading Your File

From there all you need to do is upload your file. Both of Goodreads and Librarything have pages for uploading book information. While each service allows you to upload additional information my understanding is that that other info is only used in cases when the ISBN number for a given work was either missing or malformed.

£very1 c4n |_rn 2 ©ode (Everyone Learn to Code)

How Do We Get The Necessary Self Efficacy To Code

original image from uaeincrediable

original image from Capture Queen

For all the talk of read/write culture and how digital media has blurred the lines between producer and consumer, (or even prosumer if you like making up words) there is much less conversation about learning to write code. In my experience these conversations happen, almost exclusively, about tools that use graphical interfaces and wysiwyg editors for content creation. I think Marc Prensky is right in suggesting that programing itself is a new literacy, or even better yet I would suggest it’s really a deeper conception of digital literacy. In calling something a literacy were making it a fundamental, and I think the database driven programmatic nature of new media requires that folks start to take a proactive approach to making programing a part of our general education approach.

Before we can even really talk about that goal however there is something I think we need to figure out first. Many people don’t think they have it in them to work with code. I have seen people who are masters at manipulating things in complicated programs with graphical interfaces. Folks that can do amazing things in Final Cut, people who have no trouble troubleshooting issues that arise with their operating systems, but who power down when anything from HTML to C++ is mentioned. I frequently hear, “I can’t do that”, “I’m not a coder” or similar statements rooted in idenity, afinity and self-efficacy.

It is important to note that I say this, not as a confident coder but as someone who has gotten over his own fears about working through hunks of code. The things I have done, editing and tweaking Omeka and WordPress themes, hacking CSL‘s to get customized export from Zotero making a minor fix to one of Zotero’s translators, all required no training in JavaScript, or XML. Once I was comfortable with skipping chunks of stuff I did not understand I was generally able to get these things to do what I wanted to do. In these cases at least, the biggest barrier was my own lack of self efficacy with the idea of doing things with code.

There are a lot of great ways learn to code. (For a good list check out Karin Dalziel’s post, its directed at librarians but there are some great resources there.) However, I have not seen much work focusing on how we can get people over the paralysis that comes from the belief that it writing code is outside their grasp. To really break down these barriers, and get more folks to a deeper level of digital literacy, I think we need to know more about where that fear comes from and start developing stratigies for overcomming it.