Category Archives: Random Thoughts

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Draft

I am an inveterate Mac user. Some might say I’m a fanboy. Although I like to think that my brand loyalty is due to a cleaner, easier, more pleasing operating experience, there are other factors. Part of my attraction stems from the “Think Different” ad campaign of my youth – flattering for any impulsive iconoclast. Or maybe it’s that soothing chime. I don’t agree with everything Apple has ever done, especially now that they’ve thundered into the mainstream, but I still think that, when all is said and done, they can produce a better quality product than the competition (now if only they could do it humanely). Apple devices are marketed as polished, eloquent, intuitive. A common complaint about Microsoft, on the other hand, is that they have trouble releasing a finished product. Windows is notorious for being incomplete, buggy, awkward, in need of an endless cascade of updates and service packs. Of course, Mac OS X, Linux, Android, and every other decent piece of software does exactly the same thing. OS X has endured at least seven major revisions in the past decade, while Windows has suffered maybe three (it all depends on your definition of “major revision”). This endless turnover used to bother me. Does Firefox really need to release a new version every other day? How much useless bloat can software designers cram into MS Word before it finally explodes? Lately, however, I’ve come to accept and even embrace this radical incompleteness.

The age of static print was defined by permanence. Authors and editors had to work for a long time on multiple drafts, revisions, and proofs. The result was a clay tablet, or a scroll, or a codex book. With the onset of the printing press, it was easier to make corrections. Movable type could be reset and rearranged to create appended, expanded, and revised editions. Still, the emphasis was on stability. The paperback book I have on my desk right now looks pretty much exactly the same as it did when it was first published in 1987. And it will always look that way. A lot of effort went into its publication because it would be extremely difficult to revise it. It is a stable artifact. Digital culture, on the other hand, is a permanent palimpsest. What is here today is gone tomorrow, all that is solid melts into air. Digital publications do not have to be fully polished artifacts because they can be endlessly revised. There are benefits and drawbacks to this state of almost limitless transition. But now that the Encyclopedia Britannica has thrown up its hands and shuttered its print division, perhaps it is worth asking: what do we have to gain from adhering to a culture of permanence?

In the world of static print, errors or inaccuracies are irreversible. Filtration systems, such as line editing or peer review, help to mitigate against this problem, but even the most perfectionist among us are not immune from good faith mistakes. We have all had those moments when we come across a typo or an inelegant phrase that makes us cringe with regret. How wonderful would it be to correct it in an instant? And why stop at typos? Less than a year after I published an article on abolitionist convict George Thompson, I was wandering around in the vast annex where my school’s library dumps all of its old reference books. Here were hoary relics like the National Union Catalog or the Encyclopedia of the Papacy. I picked up a dusty tome and, by dumb luck, found an allusion to Thompson’s long-lost manuscript autobiography. When I wrote the article I had scoured every database known to man over the course of two years, including WorldCat and ArchiveGrid. But the manuscript, which was filed away in some godforsaken corner of the Chicago History Museum, had no corresponding  entry in any online catalog. I had to e-mail the museum staff and wait while a kindly librarian checked an old-school physical card catalog for the entry (so much for the vaunted age of digital research). Although it was too late to include the document in my article, at least I had time to include it in my dissertation. But what if I could include it in the article?

The perfectionist temptation can be disastrous. No doubt this impulse to continually revise is what led George Lucas to update the first three Star Wars films with new scenes and special effects. Many fans thought that the changes ruined the experience of the original artifacts. It may be better in some cases to leave well enough alone. Yet there is something to be said for revision. One of the things I love about the Slavery Portal is that it is constantly evolving. I am always adding new material or tweaking the interface. When I find a mistake, I fix it. When new data makes an older entry obsolete, I update it. Writing History in the Digital Age, a serious work of scholarship that is also technologically sophisticated and experimental, uses Commentpress to enable paragraph-by-paragraph annotation of its content. Thus a peer review process that is usually conducted in private among a small group of people over a long period of time becomes something that is open, immediate, collaborative, and democratic. Projects like this have landmarks, qualitative leaps, or nodal points, just like software that jumps from alpha stage to beta release or version 10.4.11 to 10.5. But they are always in process. For every George Lucas, there is a Leonardo da Vinci. The Florentine Master only completed around fifteen paintings in his lifetime and was a consummate procrastinator. His extensive manuscript collection remained unpublished at the time of his death and largely unavailable for a long time thereafter. What if da Vinci had a blog? (I can just imagine the comment thread on Vitruvian Man: “stevexxx37:  wuz up wit teh hair? get a cut yo hippie lolz!”)

Although I sometimes still agonize about fixes or changes I could make to older work, I have found that dispensing with the whole pretense of permanency can be tremendously therapeutic. Rather than obsess over writing a flawless dissertation, I have come to embrace imperfection. I have come to view my thesis or my scholarly articles not as end products, but as steps in a larger progression. In a sense, they are still drafts. In the sense that we are always revising and refining our understanding of the past, all history is draft. Static books and articles are essential building blocks of our historical consciousness. It is hard to imagine a world where the book I cite today might not be the same book tomorrow. And yet, to a certain extent, we live in that world. When Apple finds a security loophole or a backwards compatibility issue in its software, it releases a patch. If I find a typo or an inaccuracy in this post three days from now, I can fix it immediately. If I come across new information a year later, I can make a revision or post a follow-up. Everything is process. The other day, I updated the firmware on a picture frame.

I will, of course, continue to aim for the most polished, the most perfect work of which I am capable. As much as I would like, I cannot write my dissertation as a blog post. I will edit and revise, edit and revise. Sometimes you do not know what you need to revise until you make it permanent. At the end, maybe, I will have a landmark. And I will welcome its insufficiency. There is something liberating about being incompl…

A Curious Artifact

Christopher Hitchens died last week. He was an arrogant and abrasive man and a souse. He was also a frightful intellect and a dazzling writer, capable of holding forth on any topic from oral sex to the ten commandments. One obituary writer describes him as “an excitingly dangerous orator.” Although I did not always agree with him, in a weird way, I felt sorry for him.

Some years ago, a friend and I organized a debate between Hitch and political scientist Michael Parenti. It was a learning experience. Even with support from a motley coalition of faculty and student groups, we managed to run a debt. A few weeks later, we graduated. My friend ended up in Venezuela, and I ended up in New Zealand.

When I learned that Hitch had died, I dusted off my DVD of the debate. Unfortunately, the quality was not great. There was a gap where the cameraman switched tapes, and the second tape ran out before the end of the event. So I had to do some creative editing. I swapped out the original soundtrack for a more complete audio recording and used Handbrake to encode to mp4. The original DV tapes from which I had authored the DVD were long gone, so I had to transcode from interlaced mpeg2. I think, in retrospect, it would have been better to convert the VOBs to DV using ffmpegX, edit the DV stream in Final Cut or Quicktime, and then export to mp4. If you ever need to extract and remaster a DVD, this is the method I would recommend. By the time I figured this out, however, I had already invested too much in the direct-to-mp4 method.

Surprisingly, uploading to YouTube was the hardest part. YouTube’s transcoding engine did not care for my spliced edits, which introduced several different tracks and bitrates. The mp4 container is wonderfully robust, capable of supporting a range of tracks and even chapter markers, but it took four days of uploads before I found a way to merge everything together in a way that YouTube would accept. The resulting copy is less than spectacular, but it’s better than nothing. The timecode at the very end is still corrupted somehow. Since mp4 is YouTube’s container of choice, I find it frustrating that they insist on running videos through an additional layer of encoding, over which I have no control. Why not provide their specs and allow users to upload directly to the back end with little or no downsampling?

The video is freely available under a Creative Commons license. A curious historical document, like Hitch, it now belongs to the ages (but definitely not to the angels).

Brains!

I am teaching African history this semester, which is always a great opportunity to get students thinking internationally and comparatively (of course, I think U.S. history should do the same, but that’s a post for a different day). One of our core texts is Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa. First published in London in 1799, Park’s narrative is a classic of world literature and the subject of an equally classic book chapter by Mary Pratt. The archetypical solo European explorer in the African wilderness, or what Pratt calls “the sentimental unhero,” Park was part of a group of international entrepreneurs. Mostly men, they tended to share the same fantasies about “penetrating” the virgin soil of the continental interior. More often than not, they were killed in the attempt (and this forms part of their mystique). In April 1796, Park traveled from the Niger River to the Gambia with a group of 73 merchants, servants, and slaves, and his narrative sheds significant light on the tension between slavery and abolition in this part of the world. He describes the tremendous violence that suffused every aspect of the trade: slaves were whipped, roped, chained, and swapped on a whim. He describes the chaotic scene as the entire coffle itself is nearly captured and enslaved by a rival group. He describes slaves running away and returning, refusing to eat or drink, and forced to march until they collapse. These same slaves give Park water and tend to him when he is sick. It is a truly remarkable, and sometimes downright bizarre snapshot of a particular place and moment.

Doing some research on Park for my class, I was intrigued to learn that he was also a zombie. Returning to Africa in 1805, Park mysteriously disappeared, and the lack of a body or any of his personal effects has fueled speculation ever since. According to this (highly credible) website, locals and other travelers reported zombie-like creatures in the area where he was last seen, “including several white men.” I could not substantiate even a small bit of this story, but it is fun to think about. It tickles me to imagine Mungo Park’s reanimated corpse lurching aimlessly across the African countryside, on a relentless march to nowhere.

However bogus this story, there is a kind of poetic verisimilitude to it. The history of slavery, especially, is rife with zombies. Throughout four centuries of the slave trade, just as European explorers assumed Africans were cannibals, Africans assumed Europeans were terrifying barbarians intent on eating them. Park described the “looks of horror” on West Africans’ faces, as they “repeatedly asked” if he was a devourer of human flesh. The idea was deeply rooted, he observed, “that the whites purchase Negroes for the purpose of devouring them.” Although he doesn’t deal with the undead as such, Vincent Brown argues that the experience of death and rituals of remembrance were central to the lives of enslaved Africans across time and space. The Vodou religion – perhaps the most important influence on the modern zombie myth – was developed by enslaved Africans. The word “Zombi” itself is of African origin. By the end of the eighteenth-century, in the slave society of Saint-Domingue (what is now the Republic of Haiti), zombi was a creole word that evoked fear and trembling, whose meaning implied a “spirit, returning.” By 1872, according to one observer, the word was “not unfrequently heard in the Southern [United] States in nurseries and among the servants.” (I’m sure I’m not the only one on the edge of my seat waiting for Professor Brown to write an article or a monograph on Zombies and Slavery – or a film – the material is out there and this one is ripe for the plucking.)

Zombies seem to be in vogue these days – just add the word to your title and you have the makings of an international bestseller. Fashionably late as usual, even academics are jumping on the zombie bandwagon. Does this say something about our society at this particular moment in time? Anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff point to a growing epidemic of the undead in modern South Africa as one symptom of the seemingly arbitrary disruptions and uncertainties of the global economy. “Zombie tales,” they argue, “dramatize the strangeness” of reality in a rapidly changing world. They are a surreal response to the surreal nature of the modern market, in which wealth seems to be conjured out of thin air and the dispossessed are stripped of any semblance of autonomy or stability. The protagonists of George Romero’s iconic 1978 film Dawn of the Dead literally imprison themselves in a shopping mall. Romero’s 2005 sequel Land of the Dead, in which the undead achieve a rudimentary form of consciousness, is an even more explicit parable about the dangers of inequality, consumerism, and greed.

Is there a connection between the Africans who rendered the slave trader’s effort to commodify them as a form of cannibalism, consuming their flesh and transforming them into a disembodied spirit, and the moviegoer who fears being bitten and transformed into a mindless consumer? Is there something about the digital revolution – the constant recycling, repurposing, mashing up, crowd-sourcing, and homogenizing – that helps us identify with the zombie? Is there something zombie-like in the reanimation of static books and newspapers as interactive, digital editions? Are the homicidal hordes of Black Friday shoppers, stampeding into a store to grab the latest Xbox 360, analogous to the zombie “herds” from The Walking Dead?

Interestingly, Mungo Park was among the first historical subjects to be resurrected from the analog to the digital realm. Way back in 1996, Microsoft established MungoPark.com as a site for “virtual expeditions on the World Wide Web.” The project included a modern retracing, and digital mapping, of Park’s journey through West Africa – a sort of  precursor to the much more complex and sophisticated GIS projects of today. The Microsoft explorers did not encounter any reanimated corpses on their quest, but I like to think that Zombie Mungo Park is out there somewhere, relentlessly on the march.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Cory Smoot.