Friday, October 29, 2010

Weekend Reading

Occasionally during my excursions through the internet, I come across papers, books, manifestos, etc., that I feel should be shared with a larger audience.  As one of the central themes of this blog centers on greater awareness of the current battle over culture and intellectual property enclosures of the 'commons', I want to promote texts I believe bring new light or alternative opinions to these issues.  Thus the introduction of 'Weekend Reading', a weekly Friday post that offers some interesting choices for your (free) perusal.

The first text I want to mention is a research paper by Christopher Newman, professor at the George Mason University School of Law, on 'Transformative Use and Derivative Works in Property and Copyright'.  I mentioned in my post yesterday that the front lines of the current culture battle are presently being manned by a diverse band of lawyers, and this article follows that same vein by attempting to outline a new legal conception on our idea of 'copyright'.  Here is an excerpt from the abstract:
Far from implying “absolutist” authorial rights, an in rem approach to copyright requires that we place clear boundaries around the identity of the “work of authorship.” This means moving away from the notion that disembodied fragments of “protected expression” can be owned separately from the “work of authorship” of which they are a part. I show how this might be done, proposing to define a “work of authorship” in terms of a coherent expressive experience designed by an author. Putative “copies” that are not tailored to facilitate beneficial use of the work as conceived by the author, but rather to communicate second-order information, or to give rise to expressive experiences radically discontinuous from the ones the author designed, therefore fall outside the author’s right to exclude altogether.
 The second text I want to post comes from the 'Institute of Network Cultures Weblog' and is titled The Telekommunist Manifesto by Dmytri Kleiner.  Playing off of the same ideas and themes of Marx and Engels Communist Manifesto, Kleiner's text analyzes current social relations with regards to battles over information sharing and cultural production.  One of its central tennets is that workers must move beyond the motives of the 'free software movement' or 'communization of immaterial property' and, instead, engage in 'self-organization in production'.  Here is an excerpt:
This publication is intended as a summary of the positions that motivate the Telekommunisten project, based on an exploration of class conflict in the age of international telecommunications, global migration, and the emergence of the information economy. The goal of this text is to introduce the political motivations of Telekommunisten, including a sketch of the basic theoretical framework in which it is rooted. Through two interrelated sections, ‘Peer-to-Peer Communism vs. The Client-Server Capitalist State’ and ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Free Culture’, the Manifesto covers the political economy of network topologies and cultural production respectively.‘Peer-to-Peer Communism vs.The Client-Server Capitalist State’ focuses on the commercialization of the internet and the emergence of networked distributed production.  It proposes a new form of organization as a vehicle for class struggle: venture communism.  The section ends with the famous program laid out by Marx and Engels in their Communist Manifesto, adapted into a Manifesto for a networked society.
So there you go, one text that seeks to play within the rules of our legal system and another that seeks to promote an alternative means of production that goes beyond our current legal boundaries in order to critique them.  Enjoy the weekend and take some time to read the above, if only to bring alternative viewpoints into your frame of mind.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Articulating a New Definition

While I never posted a mission statement for this blog, one of the motivations in its creation centered on my desire to explore and articulate the role of the historian in our culture today.  My first post dealt with the idea that teaching philosophies for history have become boilerplate portfolio documents with little regard to the actual practice of the craft their passages describe.  As a result, a number of students take a number of history courses and come away only with knowledge of the 'trivial' that served no greater purpose towards the establishment of foundational skills in document analysis and argumentative writing.  I should have added that the teaching philosophy is only one factor among many that has led to the increasing 'trivialization' of history in American culture, and that what is really needed is a redefinition of the role historians play not only in our education system but also within the larger field of the shared cultural experience.  

I believe I have begun to formulate such a redefinition, and I want to share some introductory thoughts on this idea.

Having read several works dealing with the production of culture and its relationship to a healthy, protected public domain, I was intrigued with use of the 'commons' metaphor by several authors to express the relationship humans possess with culture that has been allowed to be commodified.  The premise that granting temporary 'monopoly rights' to expression of ideas (copyrights and patents) finds counterbalance and justification only in the allowance of unfettered public use once those rights expire, i.e. the creation of the public domain, might best be explored in such a metaphor only, as Lewis Hyde points out in Common as Air, if we first establish operation of the 'commons' in its historical setting. 

For example, Hyde points out that one annual event in the life of the 'commons' involved the surrounding users pacing around the borders and dismantling any fenced off area found within.  He also points out that the 'commons' did not possess unlimited capacity for use and required the enforcement of limitations in order to preserve the longevity of the space for all.  These two elements, the perseverance to dismantle encroachments upon the 'commons' and the foresight to instil limitations on destructive usage, form for Hyde guidelines to be followed in order to maintain a healthy public domain in our current cultural environment.  This got me thinking- if one of the key elements to successful stewardship of our shared cultural 'commons' involves patrolling the 'borders', then the public needs to know the contours of the boundary lines in question.  

This is the first element of my redefinition on the role of the historian; they should act as lamps in the darkness, bringing their light to focus on what belongs in the 'commons' and what is an encroachment.  So far the battle has mainly been carried on by lawyers, a crucial task as the legal question is what most directly threatens the gradual enclosure of the 'commons' for private use.  Yet legal defense will mean nothing if the 'commons' are not utilized.  One significant challenge is getting the public at large to realize the value preservation of such a 'commons' holds for them and this is an area where historians can make their contribution.  We need to expose our knowledge of the past in a format that is accessible to a wide audience, promoting the use of archives and other public collections of sources so that people can begin to reflect on their larger role in the greater humanistic tradition.  History, as a profession, needs to open itself up dramatically and demonstrate to the people the role sampling of the cultural 'commons' plays in our interpretations of the past.  In this way we can begin to move away from the 'trivialization' of history and actively make the public a participant in the practice of our craft.

I know a lot of what I wrote above is high-minded and contains zero stated practical applications.  As I said above, my motivation for writing in this blog is to explore the role historians play in our larger culture and I plan to articulate more of my ideas in the future.  One way I plan to do that is to highlight projects or other ideas I believe will help in my search.  I begin with two ideas that are not only practical, but also fundamental to the redefinition I started sketching out above.

The first is this video on the creation of 'Public Domain Calculators' that I found on the website of COMMUNIA, the european thematic network on the digital public domain, and made by the Open Knowledge Foundation.

This is one great idea that would go a long way to establishing the boundaries, for authors at least, of the public domain in our complex, multi-legal networked world.  Historians could easily suggest works they've come across that might not be easily catalogued as well as help promote the continually growing wealth of the written public domain.  Of course, knowing the contents is one thing but actually finding what you need or an explanation of what is written is another.  This is where the second idea enters: Open Bookmarks.

James Bridle, who began the discussion and formulation of Open Bookmarks on his blog,, summarizes the project:
Open Bookmarks is not a thing, it’s a proposal, a flag in the ground. We need to agree on a way of sharing and storing annotations and bookmarks, reading attention data and everything around the book: that aura.
Open Bookmarks will provide a venue for agreeing on a format for doing that, and will then push for its wider adoption.
Imagine having a text students read during a semester update, over the internet, periodically with new notes or passages enhanced with links to other material.  It would make history much more interactive, with texts coming alive instead of being passively read.  Beyond education, these portable and shareable links could also assist the greater public in becoming more engaged with reading, making foreign translations more comprehensible (I love Solzhenitsyn's In the First Circle, but realize I get more from the text because I've studied Russian history and culture) and easily providing additional information on complex or controversial points in science or political works.  Universal annotation would greatly enhance the role of the historian, if only for the incredible ease it will allow in the sharing of our sources to the larger public.

These are just two practical ideas I see as being instrumental to the public engagement of the 'commons' cause.  They are also useful in their ability to allow the historian to make a more visible contribution to this ongoing 'commons' war.  The models and definitions of this new fully digital intellectual property reality are still in motion and historians have a vital role to play in the shaping of this reality.

Fresh Links from Beulah 28 October 2010

Once again, served hot and fresh, your morning links from Beulahland:

From @pourmecoffee: Love Russia's prime minister, Vladimir Putin, and comic books?  Whamo, Putin Action Comics.

From @NeimenLab: How both the Guardian and the Times went about producing visualizations of the leaked Iraq War Logs.  Very cool stuff- as a Historian, I am super intrigued as to what this new archive will show us about the past seven years of war.  Also waiting for more visualizations, as this is the best way to connect people to the documents and show the real suffering they detail.  We need to connect, share and reflect on this war, and these first steps are how we can do it.

From @giantroboteric: Check out this latest version of the creepy-looking robot woman.  Looks like the world of AI is fast approaching, but I still want a robot like the Jetson's Rosie.

And finally, an infographic on 'the Internet'.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Draft Essay I'm Working on

It's not the complete first half that I promised earlier today, but it does cover the Hapsburgs and their 19th century pursuits of nationalism policy within their multi-ethnic empire.  Usual caveat; it's a draft and I haven't even put in footnotes so please don't use this in any work without first consulting me via email at  I do appreciate comments so take a look and let me know what you think.

Hapsburg Nationalism Policy in the 19th Century

Morning Links from Beulahland: 27 October 2010

Well I almost didn't get a chance to sit down, enjoy my coffee and search for links to bring you this morning as there was a small kitchen fire in Beulahland today.  However, by the time I arrived the fire was doused via extinguisher, allowing me to bring you such fine web pages such as these:

From @parisreview: Interview with Max Frisch from September 1984.  I loved "I'm Not Stiller", and highly suggest reading it if you have not done so already.  Just a fantastic book!  Also, the Paris Review recently made their interview archives available on line for free perusal, a move I think is fantastic.

From @marvin_ammori about article @ForeignAffairs_: Article by Eric Schmidt (Google CEO) and Jared Cohen on how internet connectivity defuses centers of power and how this new relationship might impact global affairs- very cool read.  Marvin Ammori's blog post is here, and the discussed article on Foreign Affairs here.

Last, but certainly not least, a retweet by @doctorow (Cory Doctorow, author and boing boing editor) of @Cap_howdy, who asks that people check out 'Aidan's Monsters!', a website selling the 5-years old work to raise money for his Leukemia treatments.  You can order prints here, and check out Aidan's story here.  Super cute drawings that can help save a super cute child- seems like a win-win here.

That's all today- as Neil Young said, keep on rockin' in the free world.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Boardgames as Complex Cultural Artifacts, part II: Research & Sources

When I first came up with the idea that Twilight Struggle could be examined as a complex cultural artifact, I knew that I would need to review some articles on material culture analysis as well as search for any other works that covered the same questions I wanted to research.  Living in Portland, OR, I had access to the library at Portland State University, although I've also found the county library system to be very good as well, in terms of holdings and databases.  The primary advantage to using a university library is that they often have access to a wider selection of journals and more specific books of historical analysis.  Spending a few hours on the library catalogue, searching for both journal articles and books, yielded me a good start to begin my research. 

I knew right away that I would want to read articles by Jules Prown, who pioneered the field of material culture analysis in the 70's.  One of my first assignments in grad school involved using the techniques elaborated by Prown to analyze a famous landmark on the campus and in basketball history- Allen Field House.  With Twilight Struggle, I wanted to use the same techniques to analyze the physical elements of the board game; the box, the board, materials, as well as art and graphics.  Together, these elements create an impression and help guide the viewer to interpret, or decode, the overall message the object projects.  

Having a starting point for the formulation of my methodological approach, I began searching for historians who used Prown's method in their own research.  My purpose was two-fold: first, I wanted to see the development of the theory across the previous two decades and, second, I wanted to review the breadth of objects studied using this theory.  Among the many works to choose from, I selected The Age of the Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.  Analyzing several individual objects from the 18th-19th centuries, a women's pocketbook being one example, Ulrich probes the relationship these things held with their owners against the larger backdrop of the 'consumer revolution' then occurring in America.  These artifacts, according to Ulrich, help fill out the complex interweaving of daily life against the flow of historical change.  

There were a few reasons why I selected this work, among others, to read.  To begin, it was of recent publication (2001) and dealt with a topic that correlated with my central research concern, that is how does Twilight Struggle inform the interpretation of the Cold War experience?  It was also immediately available for checkout from the PSU library, a quality that ultimately sealed the deal.  I also checked out some books on the Cold War, particularly ones that dealt with impacts upon American culture and identity.  While these other works together did not directly inform my question on board games, they did provide background on a period I was only lightly familiar with.

While I like to pick up few monographs on the subject i'm writing about, I often don't have time to just sit and carefully read every work I come across.  This is where journal articles become very useful; they are usually around 20-30 pages, contain a concise narrative that is easy to follow all the way through and, in the case of current articles, they present up to date research in the field.  I also 'mine' journal articles footnotes for other relevant reading suggestions.  My search yield around ten articles, I felt, would be of assistance in researching my topic.  Of those, I selected three that possessed research and methods I could use in my own analysis.  

Andy Opel and Jason Smith in "Zootycoon: Capitalism, Nature and the Pursuit of Happiness" discuss the Microsoft game Zootycoon and its presentation of nature in a capitalist framework.  Their thesis argued that placing at the player in a position of manager-in-charge running a Zoo park allowed nature narratives to be placed within a market-based setting and become transformed so that success in the park became the primary pursuit with little regard to impacts made upon the larger ecosystem by player decisions.  Their work looked at the physical materials of the pc game in addition to its actual gameplay elements, providing me with a model on which I could base my own study of Twilight Struggle.    

"The Game Theory Narrative and the Myth of the National Security State" by Steven Belletto analyzed film and literature of the 50's and 60's with regards to their use/critique of the game theory narrative (g.t.n.).  Belletto defined g.t.n. as a "cultural narrative that told the story of game theory's potential to prevent nuclear exchange by conceptualizing the cold war as a game, and by playing this game according specific rational strategies." (333) His analysis reveals another layer to films such as Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove as media expressions that exemplified both the fear of such rationality and the absurdity game theory inspired rationalizations can amount to, respectively.  As Twilight Struggle uses the Cold War as a central backdrop for its setting with the potential of nuclear war a very real threat to 'ending the game', Belletto's work helped to help frame my own analysis with regards to the creation of narratives produced by playing the game.  

The last article, which on face held the best connection to my research topic, "Puzzling Empire: Early Puzzles and Dissected Maps as Imperial Heuristics" by Megan Norcia provided a conceptual framework from which I could build a deeper analysis into the workings of Twilight Struggle.  I was particularly intrigued with her idea that puzzles and dissected maps could act as a 'rich text' that could be "carefully read as cultural objects of imperial ideology." (2) Norcia based her work on the analysis of several different puzzles and maps made for British children from the late 18th century entering into the 19th century, depicting the United Kingdom and its overseas colonies.  When playing with these puzzles and maps, Norcia argues that children became engaged with narratives infused by imperial constructions that shaped their nationalist consciousness  and imagination of empire.  Having played many games of Twilight Struggle, I fully believed the same process occurs by which a complete session of play presents both players with a condensed historical narrative on the interplay of global powers that, in part, helps interpret the Cold War periods effect on both US/USSR and the world.

Together, the sources described above helped me conceptualize my research question on Twilight Struggle, providing me with ideas and terminology that I could use in interpreting my analysis.  These works spanned several disciplines and covered diverse topics, yet each, in the end, contributed to my greater understanding of the potential for board games to be read as cultural 'rich texts' in their own right.

I know I said I would cover how my analysis of Twilight Struggle incorporated the works of Gramsci, Foucault and Lefebvre, but this post is already growing long and I dared not dive into waters so deep.  Needless to say, each author contributed to my larger understanding of history and our common, shared culture.  I hope to examine their influence more in-depth with later posts.  

Next time I will cover the actual game materials of Twilight Struggle and how they inform my research inquiry.

Note: Part I of this series can be found here.  And here is Part III.

Morning Links from Beulahland

Once again, time for that daily digest of links, videos, and whatever else interested me from my twitter feed this morning.  

From @bookbench (New Yorker book review twitter account) A brief look at the life and last work of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead in the elevator of her apartment in October 2006.  

A retweet from @ryansara about the combination of text/images in comics.  From the blog post:
Recently we posted an activity which encourages students to push to the limits the distance between image and text, in large part to demonstrate that in fact you can almost always infer some amount of contingency between apparently disparate series of images and texts. In this post I’m going to discuss a few examples of the creative exploitation of this dissonance.
The National Interest has a review of C.J. Chivers new book, 'The Gun', a biography of that ubiquitous machine gun the AK-47.  No other weapon has imprinted itself upon world culture more than the Soviet made assault rifle, and Chivers work delves into the sixty year narrative the weapon produced.

And last but not least, @Torrentfreak has an article on how e-book piracy actually increased sales for at least one author, further strengthening the idea that sharing ones work does have rewards beyond karma points.

Also, side note, almost finished with part II of my series on  board games as complex cultural artifacts- should post later today.   

Monday, October 25, 2010

Mornings at Beulahland

Recently I've begun spending mornings at Beulahland, a divey, cool bar/diner type of place where the morning crowds are non-existent and I can work on my essay drafts in peace.  This is where I get started for my day- I drink my much needed coffee (vice #1 among a few), look over my twitter feed and begin writing, in my trusty Leuchtturm 1917 notebook, whatever I want to work on that day.  Since my laptop keyboard went kaput, i've had to adjust to writing my essays in longhand if I decide to work outside of my house.  I must say, after working this way for three weeks now, I love writing my essays this way.  Not only does the draft get some much needed 'thinking space' where all ideas on construction of argument can be pursued but it also helps me work on my writing as I only strike through what I don't use instead of  opting for wholesale delete, as is common when I type in Microsoft Word.  

In between paragraphs or thoughts, I often take a moment and use the Beulahland wi-fi in order to check out my twitter feed.  Twitter has become, for me, the go to to medium to discover new links and up to date news.  Facebook is more like a laid back conversation between friends; we chat about what we did the past week, share photos of whatever interested us and generally the topics are light followed by breezy.  Twitter can be the same but the people I follow, for the most part, are about sharing interesting pages or links to videos or blog posts.  This is probably because I follow only my friends on Facebook, meaning that the content I receive from them is likely to be already something I like or know about, whereas on Twitter I follow all sorts of people who bring a much wider range of information into my world.  Every morning, when I sit at the Beulahland counter sipping my coffee, my Twitter feed brings me several bits of info I feel like sharing with, well, anyone who is interested.

Thus, in the spirit of several other blogs, I will make a daily posting of my 'Morning Links at Beulahland".  I share some of these on my Twitter feed, even less on my Facebook profile, but I know people consume media in different capacities so I will post some choice links on Peasant Muse for the sake of my two followers. :)

Morning Links at Beulahland- 25 October 2010

Dead Sea Scrolls to be made available for free viewing online.
Games article on Brenda Brathwaite's award-winning emotional board game, Train.
The Myth of the Muse, or, the necessity in spending time each day writing for those seeking tenure.
E-Books begin to merge with Apps, brining a chat room experience to book purchase.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Towards Accessibility of Our Work

In the past year or so, I have become ever more involved in the current debate around intellectual property and the right to copy work for use in a creative manner.  The digital revolution, which is still rolling over history and our heads alike, is radically reshaping our relationship to data and its transmission.  As a historian of the 19th century, I know that my research is kept on paper somewhere in a dank archive, but for future historians of our current era I have to wonder where they will turn for a source base.  And, on another level, I worry about what the current 'land grab' in IP is doing for my larger mission of bringing history to the greater public.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to easily access top-level scholarship on historical subjects if one is not a student at a university or independently wealthy enough to own memberships or afford subscriptions to the best databases and latest journal articles.
Take, for example, this Chronicle article on the increasing inability of libraries to subscribe to academic journals of their choice; due to increasing consolidation of these journals under larger publishing houses, it no longer makes economic sense to pick and choose the journals an institution wants as they must now accept a catch-all bundle that often contains much a trained bibliographer would rather not have.  The result?  Libraries cannot make sensible choices for their needs as these large 'block' offerings leave little room in the budget for individual choices.  Even if a library carries the journal one wants to access, there is little guarantee that a physical copy will exist.  Instead, one can access articles electronically, a marvel of efficiency and ecology so long as one possesses the necessary computer login required, a means not easily acquired by non-students in most university libraries.  While I am not against unnecessary printing of materials, I am alarmed to see increasingly closed access to materials once open to those who walked in and knew how to use the card catalogue.
This is one reason I started this blog- I wanted to provide a venue where I could freely share ideas and my work with anyone who wanted to access it.  As a historian, I feel that my work, which borrows from dozens of previous historians and hundreds of printed/written documents, can no more be sectioned off from the greater public than the Grand Canyon's views be hidden from plain sight.  This is a personal belief and one that I know others do not necessarily share.  That is why it was extremely refreshing to come across Marcus Boon's blog, In Praise of Copying.  Here is an excerpt from a post on why he decided to upload his recent publication, of the same name as the blog, onto AAAAARG.COM:
"I don't think we should rely on Googlebooks making texts available online.  We should do it ourselves, or through our publishers.  The pdf functions more or less the same way as the book sitting in the bookstore or the library, and I'm happy that my writing will be accessable to those who have a somewhat marginal relationship to book buying, as I myself have had at different points in my life.  Making pdfs of all of our work available online is an easy but powerful gesture towards an expanded public domain.  And it may even support the economic needs of writers and publishers: James Boyle believes so.  So do I."
I fully agree.  There is a need in the historical profession to reevaluate our contribution to the public domain.  In the coming months/years there will be defining battles and conversations as to the new establishment of parameters of a fully digital IP existence.  It would be all too easy, using this new IP potential, to wipe out the public domain that took shape and evolved during the physical print era.  This is an issue I am currently grappling with now, both as a human infused with culture and as a historian constantly sampling from culture to create new interpretations of the past.  History, I believe, demands that its practitioners make open and available their use of the past so that all may learn and share and become active members in the preservation of culture for future generations.

Marcus Boon's latest work, In Praise of Copying, is available for purchase at or free pdf download through Harvard University Press here

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Ultimate Time Suck- Writing Essays

So, once again, I meant to put up the second part of my 'Boardgames' piece but became entangled with the writing of my portfolio essay on nationalism in Eastern Europe and Russia/Soviet Union in the 19th-20th centuries.  I needed some more background on Soviet nationality policy and that led to an excursion to the library to print articles/read books, which in turn took most of my free time and kept me from posting new interesting things here.

Well i've decided to post the draft intro to the essay i've been working on.  When I say draft, I mean draft so while I appreciate comments keep in mind I could change my mind anytime.  It has no foot/endnotes and definitely needs better transitions- but it is a draft after all!

Liberalism's Mobility- Draft Intro