robotnik2004: (Default)
First, I need to apologize to those of you reading this LiveJournal for my wordy and shall we say remedial series of blog posts this week on Playful Historical Thinking. I'm writing those a) to figure out for myself what is worth saying about the topic and b) to find the language to talk about play with an audience whose playing muscles are a little more atrophied. But the people reading this LiveJournal, I'm pretty sure, already get the idea of playing with history without a whole lot of wordy hand holding. Several of you are black belt playful historical thinkers if not world masters.

Which is why I could use your input.

So I know that many of you are familiar with that thing that happens, that pattern recognition / apophenia / confirmation bias thing, when you're doing playful historical research, especially for an RPG you're playing or running or planning to run. You start flipping through books, and Google and Wikipedia, concocting some deranged historical theory, and then suddenly you start finding facts and evidence that are too perfect, that seem to confirm the very goofball theory you just yourself made up! [livejournal.com profile] princeofcairo  has written a bunch of "how to" columns on the subject, Umberto Eco built a whole novel around it, and [livejournal.com profile] mgrasso  seems to have it happen about once every three days.

What I'm trying to do is to concoct some kind of game, activity, or demonstration exercise for a group of, say, 6-12 academics that would in the space of 30 minutes or so let them have this experience themselves. Basically I want to turn sober professional historians into paranoid conspiracy theorists. Temporarily.

I thought about giving them a bunch of interesting and allusive historical sources and asking the group to come up with a theory connecting all of them, but I worry that if I choose the sources in advance it will seem like I'm stacking the deck, and they won't get that uncanny "nobody planned this and yet clearly somebody planned this" feeling. At the other extreme, I thought about hitting the Random Page link on Wikipedia a few times and asking them to connect all the things that come up--but the random pages on Wikipedia can be extremely random and farflung and it's quite possible they could not be connected. I also wonder if it would help to frame the exercise inside a mini-roleplaying game, but that's a level of artificiality that my audience just might not go for. Maybe I should just run a session of InSpectres?

Anyway, that's my current conundrum. And I know your playful historical kung fu is extremely advanced. Any ideas, suggestions, warnings, conjectures?
robotnik2004: (Default)
I'm sorry I'm too busy to give this historic anniversary the long and loving treatment it deserves, but:

It isn't often that the world changes, in a way that's so big and dramatic and unmistakable that everybody in the world sits up and takes notice, that everybody everywhere is conscious they are experiencing History with a big History Channel capital-H. The world itself seems smaller at these moments, as we sense our connection to each other and to history and to all time. And when one of those real, history-pivoting moments happens, 9 times out of 10 the event is something bad--an assassination or a disaster or a sneak attack. How many times in an average life does the whole world change for the better, overnight? Those moments are worth remembering.

I met Lisa ([livejournal.com profile] papersource) ten years ago today. Happy anniversary, baby.

What did you think I was talking about?

(Further reading.)

Top Gear

May. 15th, 2007 08:57 am
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The History News Network, purveyor of quality online history and history-related accessories, has a bi-weekly feature called Top Young Historians, which profiles “interesting scholars who are making their mark on the profession.” I cannot tell a lie: years ago, in my own callow youth, I sometimes raised an eyebrow at HNN’s definition of “young.” Today, however, it is their definition of “top” that seems all too generous: they’ve picked me as their latest “top” “young” historian. Thank you, HNN. I’m pleased, flattered, and not at all sure I belong in such company.

Cross-posted from Old is the New New. Comments welcome.
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I see I’m getting some traffic from people Googling the history of Mothers’ Day, so here’s a link to the post I wrote last year about Anna Jarvis and the tragic story of the Mothers’ Day apostrophe: (Cliopatria readers, note the amusing exchange between Ralph Luker and my Mom, in comments.)

Jarvis and Howe organized Mothers’ Days, in the plural, as vehicles for organized social and political activity by mothers, not the private celebration of a mother’s services within the home. In the migration of the apostrophe one letter to the left–from Mothers’ Day to Mother’s Day–Coontz sees a declension both grammatical and political. After Anna Reeves Jarvis died in 1905, her daughter, also named Anna Jarvis, began lobbying for a special day for mothers. The idea caught on, but not in the way Jarvis had hoped… [read more]

Word seems to be getting out. My wife, daughter, and I just got back from the park, where we saw a Mothers’ Day rally for peace. A quartet of slightly dotty-looking ladies were leading the crowd in a little ditty to the tune of “Frère Jacques”:

What has happened, what has happened
To Mothers’ Day, to Mothers’ Day?
It used to be a protest, it used to be a protest
Change it back, change it back

“We Shall Overcome” it ain’t, but I went to college in the 1990s, so I’m just happy to hear any protest “song” that is more than another variation on, “Hey hey, ho ho, [eight syllable thing we’re opposed to] has got to go.”

Happy Mothers’ Day.

Cross-posted from Old is the New New. Comments welcome.
robotnik2004: (The Professor)

Tags: IM IN UR COLONY GOIN 2 CR0T04N, the Midge of colonial U.S. history, Great Dismal Glister Societies, Lord Fernando Strange.

Cliopatria is hosting a symposium tomorrow on the 400th Anniversary of Jamestown, and the question “Why has the American national narrative characteristically taken New England / Puritans rather than Jamestown / Virginia / Anglicans as its foundation touchstone?” I’ll link to the symposium after it’s up, and this post should be there, bringing down the general level of discussion. But as I may not be around the internets tomorrow I’m jumping the gun and giving you my entry now. [Edit: The symposium is now up. I’m afraid my entry is at the top, but it’s well worth scrolling on down to see the contributions of my colleagues–who actually address the question asked.]

Can you hear the drums, Lord Fernando?

Plymouth or Jamestown! They’re the Betty and Veronica of colonial U.S. history: where does America’s “national narrative” begin? Frankly, I’m not sure we have to choose. If the Pilgrims and Puritans were a pious clutch of religious zealots, Jamestown was a kind of get-rich-slow scheme, a dot-com start-up where half the techies starved before hitting on the colony’s (cough cough) killer app. Surely American history displays a family resemblance to both forebears?

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Cross-posted from Old is the New New. Comments welcome.
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One of several “forgotten” communication and entertainment media lovingly “restored” to working order (there’s even a bunch of movies) at the Museum of Lost Interactions in Dundee:

The Richaphone, ca 1900

The Richophone was a multi-player based game found in prestigious hotels and cafes in and around London in 1900. The game was played from special Richophone booths, where players connected to the game through a system of telephones. The prizes to be won were very generous.

Cross-posted from Old is the New New. Comments welcome.
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It’s not too late to check out the Cliopatria symposium discussing Sam Tanenhaus’ tribute to Arthur Schlesinger. [Edit: And Tanenhaus has just posted a thoughtful reply.] With Schlesinger’s death, Tanenhaus laments, “America lost its last great public historian.” “Why,” he asks, “do current historians seem unable to engage the world as confidently as Mr. Schlesinger did?”

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Cross-posted from Old is the New New. Comments welcome.
robotnik2004: (Default)

Tags: Metadata, show your work, sausages being made.

The Annotated Gipper

One of the most common comments I get when people discover this weblog–after “How do you have the time to do this?” which is a tough question to answer, since patently, I don’t–is some variation on, “I don’t get it.”

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Cross-posted from Old is the New New. Comments welcome.
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Tags: Koschei the Deathless; Dudley Manlove; the Gipper; eat your heart out, Edmund Morris.

We talked about the Reagan years in one of my classes this week. That’s all the excuse I need, really, to recycle this post of mine from the week Reagan died (and I got my PhD): the Ronald Reagan alternate history film festival. (Oh, and speaking of deceased American icons: did you hear about Captain America?)

Ooga Booga!

The Ronald Reagan Alternate History Film Festival

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Cross-posted from Old is the New New. Comments welcome.
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Lincoln Vs. Robot HitlerShown here is a scene (via Chris Sims’ Invincible Super-Blog) from a fine historical adventure comic called Tales From the Bully Pulpit: Abe Lincoln wallops Robot Hitler as Teddy Roosevelt and the ghost of Thomas Edison look on.

But wait, you say! Yes, I know what you’re thinking: As Doris Kearns Goodwin’s uncredited research assistants have clearly undocumented, the ghost of Thomas Edison was not in fact present on this occasion. Which is why this slightly inaccurate picture is a perfect lead in to the 750th 13th Carnival of Bad History!

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Cross-posted from Old is the New New. Comments welcome.
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Jill Lepore, “The Sharpened Quill,” in the New Yorker last October:

Thomas Paine is, at best, a lesser Founder. In the comic-book version of history that serves as our national heritage, where the Founding Fathers are like the Hanna-Barbera Super Friends, Paine is Aquaman to Washington’s Superman and Jefferson’s Batman; we never find out how he got his superpowers, and he only shows up when they need someone who can swim.

Originally posted at (the all new) Old is the New New. Leave a comment there and make me look popular.

Aha

Jan. 3rd, 2007 10:23 pm
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Tags: The best four days in history?

The annual wargame, roleplaying game, and dressing up like an elf convention GenCon (to which I have never been, by the way) bills itself as “the best four days in gaming.” Will the American Historical Association’s annual convention, which starts tomorrow in Atlanta, be the best four days in history? I’ll let you know–I’ll be there. If you’re going to be there too, let’s meet up: drop me a line using the AHA’s weirdly archaic message system, email me (electromail chez robmacdougall dot org, not com), or just look for the guy in the totally bitchin’ elf costume.

Originally posted at (the all new) Old is the New New. Leave a comment there and make me look popular.

King Crank

Sep. 20th, 2006 08:51 pm
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Tags: Useless research. Yes, yes, clever of you to spot the irony.

So what was I up to in the Archives of Useless Research, you ask? Here (below the fold) is the prospectus for a paper I’ll be presenting in November at the University of Virginia, for a conference called “Inventing America: The Interplay of Technology and Democracy in Shaping American Identity,” loosely tied to the Benjamin Franklin tricentennial (I just can’t get away from that guy, can I?) and sponsored by the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. (I wonder if the AUR’s hollow earths, perpetual motion machines, and secrets of the pyramids revealed are the sort of invention and innovation the Lemelsons had in mind…)

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Cross-posted from Old is the New New. Comments welcome.
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I made the mistake this week of trying to upgrade Old is the New New to Movable Type 3.2. I foolishly believed the hype about it being “our easiest upgrade ever!” and only after crippling my website, apparently beyond repair, did I find the 10,000 or so blog entries by other disgruntled MT users saying it might not be so simple. (Memo to myself: When a 200-page users manual is replaced by a 60-second Flash animation, start worrying.) OK, maybe not beyond repair. I'm still working it out.

This sucks because I really want to clean that place up over the holidays and even start posting a little before January, when I’m “hosting” the next History Carnival. (The most recent carnival went up yesterday at Jonathan Dresner's fine Asian history blog Frog In A Well.) ANYWAY, if anyone reading this sees any interesting history-related blogging between now and January 15, please comment here or email a link to me at electromail-way at-way obmacdougall-ray ot-day org-way. It doesn’t have to be academic-style history or the work of a professional historian. Quite the opposite, in fact. I'd love to expand the Carnival beyond the usual suspects. ([livejournal.com profile] princeofcairo's eliptony library will almost certainly get a plug.) So pointers to history-type-blogging at sites not specifically focused on history or just generally off the beaten paths of the academic blogosphere are particularly welcome.
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My requisite Katrina blah blah blah, cross-posted at Cliopatria and Old Is The New New.

What has happened down here, is the wind have changed...

One of those odd synchronicities that accompany natural disasters like spooked horses and whining dogs: the week before Katrina, I happened to be reading up on the Louisiana flood of 1927, in James Cobb’s The Most Southern Place on Earth and John Barry’s Rising Tide. The American Studies course I’ll be teaching this year is built around a series of “places in time.” Each week or two, we’ll examine an event or site or moment where “America” and what it meant was constructed, contested, or otherwise up for grabs: the Boston Tea Party, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Mississippi Freedom Summer, and so on. I wanted to get a little farther off the path beaten by textbooks and survey courses, and I’d thought about including the 1927 flood. But with a historian’s unerring sense of topicality, I decided not to, three days before Katrina hit.

Oh yeah - I forgot about these lj-cut things... )

1998

Jun. 17th, 2005 12:03 pm
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I'd better talk about 1998, because I'm three years into my memories of grad school, and I've managed to say nothing about school itself. Here goes. )

Don't forget: Doyle's, 3484 Washington Street in JP, tomorrow night at 7.

Dick

Jun. 6th, 2005 09:37 pm
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Bernstein and Woodward

There's new content on robmacdougall.org today. I note this because a) I basically always note it, and b) it's the kind of silliness (alternate Deep Throats) that I would normally post over here. But this time it's, like, historical, you know? I also have something new on Cliopatria, part of a group discussion of Barry Gewen's essay “Forget the Founding Fathers” in this Sunday's New York Times.
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So Mark Felt was Deep Throat. It’s like having a magic trick explained, isn’t it? A mystery is never as fun once the answer’s been revealed…

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Cross-posted from Old is the New New. Comments welcome.
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Oy, my aching head. I went to Minneapolis this weekend for a business history conference, the aptly-named Business History Conference, actually. I had one very good day there sandwiched by two disappointments. I was giving two talks on Friday: the first as part of a panel on the history of the Bell System, and the second as one of four nominees for the association's big dissertation prize. The first disappointment was that my flight Thursday night was delayed so much that I missed the last connection to Minneapolis and thus my own talk on Friday morning. The good day came after I gave my other talk. It was a plenary session, so basically everyone attending the conference was there, and my talk was probably the very best short summary of my work and its significance that I've done to date. I rocked it. All that night and all the next day, people were coming up to me to rave about how great my project was—and to whisper that it was, they thought, the best of the talks, and that the prize was mine to lose. Which is exactly what I did, so that was the second disappointment.

Ah well. My profile was nicely raised for a few hours at least, and I saw some excellent talks. Plus I got to catch up with some people I rarely see, meet some very smart new people, and have several awkward little moments with folks who've turned me down for jobs in the last two years. I didn't see a lot of Minneapolis, but what I saw was friendly and green. (And it was about twenty degrees warmer than Boston, omg wtf.) There was a Canadian-themed restaurant across the street from the hotel—mounties, moose head, canoes and float planes—which I enjoyed on all seventeen levels of irony and sincerity. And the big reception took place in a gorgeous old flour mill converted into one of those zinc-y museums of industry, complete with multimedia show and breathless tour guide spiels about the awesome destructive power of, well, flour. "And so it was, on that fateful night in 1882, a single blast reduced the flour milling capacity of the entire city of Minneapolis by one-third!"

Other highlights: Dinner with the telephone history mafia. I do feel for all the other people at that restaurant, though, whose romantic evenings were drowned out by three hours of alternating toasts to AT&T and its demise, interspersed with insanely animated and arcane debate over telecom rate structures and long distance-local separations. And then the cool kids' invitation-only party after the awards banquet, where it is possible we took the names of certain leading business historians in vain. As the fun of that wore off and the night rolled on towards dawn, someone came up with the scheme of watching Sideways as a drinking game, complete with all the appropriate wines for every scene. Hence the headache. But that was Saturday night, or at least Sunday morning. Should my skull still be hurting like this?
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Way back in September, the very second post in this weblog was an account of lunch with Jason Kaufman, a smart young sociologist at Harvard who wanted to talk to me about the comparative history of Canada and the United States. Reading that post, it’s easy to see my respect and envy (as a historian) of Jason’s willingness (as a sociologist) to make big generalizations and bold, contentious claims. I now have another reason to respect and envy Jason: he had an op-ed piece in this Sunday’s New York Times. (If that link expires, try this one.) But the reaction to the piece by other smart people I also respect reminds me of something about big generalizations and bold claims: they can easily be disputed, and they can often be wrong.

The op-ed is a teaser for Jason and his co-author Orlando Patterson’s article in the next American Sociological Review. Their NYT piece is called “Bowling for Democracy,” which is cute because Jason’s first book was an extended take-down of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. But they’re talking about a different kind of bowling here. The question they started with was, “why don’t Canadians play cricket?” Cricket remains popular in almost all the former British colonies; Canada and the U.S. are the two big exceptions. Kaufman and Patterson’s thesis is that in nineteenth-century Canada and the United States, cricket remained the preserve of upper-class elites. Anxious to maintain their class identity in an increasingly egalitarian society, Canadian and American elites clung to upper-class signifiers like cricket and kept the plebes off the pitch. When baseball came along in the late nineteenth century, it was all too easy for promoters like A.G. Spalding to caricature cricket as a sissy, blue-blooded game and position baseball as the manly, populist alternative. In India and the Caribbean, by contrast, British elites had little fear of class assimilation. There were easier ways to tell who was in the club and who wasn’t, so elites encouraged their colonial subjects to play the game.

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Cross-posted from Old is the New New. Comments welcome.

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