Should Historians “Mind” What’s Been Said? By mcheesaker

who's word's?

According to Google’s new n-gram tool, when researching history, words count.


By analyzing over 500 billion words from 5.2 million books in Chinese, English, French, German, Russian, and Spanish, the n-gram tool allows users to track the usage of words from 1500AD onwards. The implications of this tool in terms of historical and cultural research are just beginning to come to light. In the article  “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books,” Jean-Baptiste Michel and his fellow researchers suggest that Google’s n-gram can be used to track the emergence of diseases, state censorship and the relative “celebrity” of a given person.

There is no doubt that the n-gram is, and will continue to be, an extremely useful tool in historical inquiry. However, there are some limitations that need to be addressed.

Firstly, the Google n-gram is limited in regards to language. Most of the collected works are written in English. Although this is helpful for me (an Anglophone student from Canada), some of the world’s most spoken languages, like Arabic and Hindi, are not even present in the database.

Furthermore, as Jean-Baptiste Michel notes, the Google n-gram tool simply measures the frequency of words within books, and books alone. Therefore, other publications like newspapers, and academic journal articles are marginalized from each search. The impact of this becomes quite clear when you compare n-gram searches on Google, and an n-gram search that browses through local newspaper clippings like the site, Mining the Dispatch. On Mining the Dispatch, users are able to see the relative frequency of fugitive slave ads that made it into the local Richmond newspaper during the Civil War. Because of its larger scope, and inability to browse through newspapers, this kind of historical deduction cannot be made through Google’s n-gram.

There is no doubt that the n-gram is, and will continue to be, an extremely useful tool in historical inquiry. However, there are some limitations that need to be addressed.

Firstly, the Google n-gram is limited in regards to language. Most of the collected works are written in English. Although this is helpful for me (an Anglophone student from Canada), some of the world’s most spoken languages, like Arabic and Hindi, are not even present in the database

I think it’s also important to note that language, although an important (and often forgotten) indication of culture is certainly not the only one. As historians know, geography, religion and class, all play a critical role in shaping the thoughts, actions and mindsets of a given people. Language is only one small piece of what makes us who we are.

Indeed, Canada, the United States, and the UK, may all be English speaking nations, but we have very different cultures. Just to prove this point, I decided to gauge the relative frequencies of three major sports: baseball, hockey, and football. From 1900-2008, the frequency of hockey was dismal compared to football and baseball. However, this was a search that took into account all English books written during the designated period. I imagine if I were to search a corpus containing only Canadian books, hockey would be mentioned far more frequently..

But more than that, words themselves are limited.

Think about Twitter. Depending on the words we choose to use in our hashtags, our statuses are more searchable. Similarly, if we tweet about a topic that’s trending, what we say is viewed by a larger audience. But what if we don’t use the right words to categorize what we’re saying? What if we type in an extra “s” or add an apostrophe where it doesn’t belong? But more pertinent than that, what if we say one thing, and mean another?

My previous example with sports provides an interesting example. In English, the word “football” can either mean soccer, or American football. In my search, this discrepancy wasn’t accounted for. Therefore, any mention of the word “football,” whether that book was actually talking about soccer or American football, was nonetheless counted. And therein lies another problem with Google’s n-gram: the tool gives us no sense of context.

And for the historian, context is king.

An old Chinese proverb claims that, “If you wish to know the mind of a man, listen to his words.”

After playing around with the Google n-gram, and uncovering its uses, I think this is extremely accurate. However, words are only one investigative tool in the proverbial historical tool-belt that can be used to understand history and culture.

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th - Copy - Copy

Ghost sun half
hidden, where did you go?
There’s always a mother
of some other creature
born to fight for her young.
But crawl out of your hide,
walk upright like a man,
& you may ask if hunger is the only passion
as you again lose yourself
in a white field’s point of view.
In this glacial quiet
nothing moves except—
then a flash of eyes & nerves.
If cornered in your head by cries from a cave
in another season, you can’t forget
in this landscape a pretty horse
translates into a man holding a gun.

Source: Poetry (April 2012).


In his poetry, Yusef Komunyakaa weaves together the elements of his own life in short lines of vernacular to create complex images of life in his native Louisiana and the jungles of Vietnam. From his humble beginnings as the son of a carpenter, Komunyakaa has traveled far to become a scholar, professor, and prize-winning poet. In 1994, he claimed the Pulitzer Prize and the $50,000 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for his Neon . . .

Pix Before Pixels


Original Post From

Altered pictures have been around since photography’s invention. Until now, however, they have mostly been seen as footnotes and oddities in the medium’s history. “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop,” on view from October 11 through January 27, argues that everything digital
photography does has been done before—in portraits, photo-illustrations, pictures for newspapers and magazines, and novelty photos. “The technology has changed several times in the course of photography’s history, and that’s part of the history of the medium, but there’s no break between analog and digital,” Fineman says. “It’s a continuum.”

That continuum exists in part because the motivations for tweaking images haven’t changed much. Chief among those reasons is that all cameras have shortcomings—there are things they cannot record. Early photographers in particular relied on darkroom techniques and postproduction procedures to make their pictures look like what they saw, or would have liked to see, with their eyes. When Édouard Baldus photographed a monastery courtyard for Cloister of Saint-Trophime, Arles, in 1851, he encountered a complicated angle and dim light, problems familiar to any photographer. His solution was to patch together a salt print from multiple negatives. The finished composite has crisp details in even the shadowy areas and has views in both directions around an ornately carved corner. “He couldn’t get everything in sharp focus and in the right exposure, so he made a lot of paper negatives and fit them together like a jigsaw puzzle,” says Fineman. The result is a “perspective that couldn’t really exist. It looks convincing, but you can tell along the seams.”

The sky was a particular challenge for 19th-century photographers. Since emulsions were more sensitive to blue light than to warmer colors, skies had to be overexposed for the foreground to look correct. One solution was simply to paint out the negative to make the sky smooth and white; another was to combine a negative exposed for the sky with one exposed for the rest of the image. But photographers did not limit themselves to negatives from the same time or place. Gustave Le Gray used the same spectacularly evocative sky for three different seascapes, and Carleton E. Watkins inserted towering fluffy clouds above his view of the Columbia River. The blank sky in Watkins’s untouched image, which also appears in the Met show, is “a much more modern-looking picture,” Fineman says, but to 19th-century audiences “clouds looked better—and sold better.”

Salability has often been a powerful motivator for doctoring photos, and the strange and funny have always attracted attention. Fanciful images on cartes de visite and other kinds of prints were wildly popular. Trick-photography postcards showing oversize produce (an ear of corn so huge it requires its own railroad car, or a watermelon as a house) were a big hit in the United States in the first decade of the 20th century. The European equivalents were more romantic. Women appeared in bubbles or clouds. In one, a man raises a bottle to a hand-colored moon with a smiling female face. Portraits were often enlivened by showing the sitter next to her double—or decapitated. Thousands of headless pictures were made from the 1870s through the early 1900s. A poser could be depicted holding (or, in one case, juggling) his own head. “You could go to a photography studio and get a portrait taken with your head on a platter,” Fineman says.

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RSF was established to provide funding to critical on the ground international wildlife conservation programs. RSF receives its financing through The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.) –

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We Added A New Member To Our Family!


We have just adopted a new dog, and his name is Mika. He’s a West Siberian Laika that we got from a farm in Indiana where the couple that lived there rescued animals to help out the county they live in. He’s registered, and his papers trace his bloodline back a hundred years to Russia. He’s a sweet boy that’s gentle, very loving and full of personality. We could not have asked for a better dog, and we already love him so much!


Lobby group targets presidential conventions

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Americans for the Arts is lobbying for the cultural and creative industries at the Democratic and Republican presidential conventions. But even the loudest lobbyists may not be loud enough.

At the Republican convention on 28 August in Tampa, Florida, and at the Democratic convention on 4 September in Charlotte, North Carolina, Americans for the Arts and three other organisations are holding a panel, Arts Speak, at which politicians are expected to talk about the importance of arts education, the positive impact of arts jobs on local economies, and the funding of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Among others, they have booked Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, and Richard Riley, the former education secretary, to speak. They are already arts supporters, however. It is unclear whether the arts lobby will be able to persuade others to become converts. “The appetite to take up a cultural bill is lacking,” says a congressional staffer with knowledge of the arts caucus.

“Obviously it’s not the same as the unemployment rate, which garners attention once a month,” says Narric Rome, the senior lobbyist for Americans for the Arts, “but when the delegates go home and talk about some of the issues that were voiced at the conventions, this is the kind of thing that they remember”. He says that their events are “the only voice for the non-profit arts” at the conventions.

The lobby group is inviting members from the Congressional Arts Caucus and the Senate Cultural Caucus. But while both groups are sizeable, they do not represent cohesive voting blocks. When the lobby group issued report cards in 2010 based on legislators’ pro-arts records, the Senate Cultural Caucus’s Republican co-chairman, Michael Enzi of Wyoming, received a D+. (Six other arts caucus members nearly failed as well.)

The House caucus, on the other hand, includes eight congress members who are also on the Tea Party Caucus, which wants to shut down the NEA. Add in last-minute election priorities, such as a farm bill and extending tax breaks, and it means that the arts caucus is “not currently working on any priorities or initiatives”, says the congressional staffer, and probably won’t until appropriations come up again early next year.

Federal and state arts spending has declined in the past decade. As the Pew Center on the States notes, state arts agencies have reduced funding by 37% since 2001. However, Americans for the Arts has been campaigning based on statistics that say arts-related jobs have a positive impact on local economies, and Pew says that it “is beginning to pay off”. The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies estimates that state arts funding has increased 8.8% this financial year compared with 2011. The group has also produced a study that says the industry generates $135.2bn of economic activity every year. In June, the Republican-controlled House put forward a bill that would cut the NEA’s funding by $14m to $132m. But, according to the congressional staffer, “it’s unofficially known around [Washington] that the bill will never come to the House floor”. The House will probably pass a resolution this autumn extending the NEA’s current funding levels into 2013.

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