Hi everyone,

I have finished the basic skeleton of the site.  I’ve decided to just post it, despite lacking most of it’s content.  Due to some photo licensing issues in Abbott, I have been forced to change topics on the fly.  So it may take me a little while to post all the content for the site.  I have decided to continue along with my Indonesian graffiti website developed last semester in HIST 696 and shown as part of my design assignment.  This will be a fairly large site (possibly 200 pages), so I won;t be able to complete it by next week, but I should have the important parts up.  Tell me what you think.

Also I will be updating pages all day today, so some pages might not load at particular times.

http://historysandbox.com/jaredk/home

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All these articles on video games the past couple weeks have really made me nostalgic for my gamer days.  Not necessarily as a desire to return to those self-conscious teenage years, but rather to reassess the productivity of all those hours I spent “playing around.”  While my problem-solving abilities were definitely tested, I can’t claim to have learned anything else of historical value from games such as Tomb Raider or Resident Evil.  What if more educational games were available on the market?  Would I have even chosen to play them?  I think I definitely would have so long as they provided a world worth exploring.

As Gee notes, it is precisely this ability to live in an alternate world that first gravitated me towards games.  We have all imagined at some point what it would be like to live as a sports hero, historical figure, mythological creature does.  While many games today are easily equated with escapist literature, we could easily create some historical environments almost as interesting as the mythological worlds provided in games today.

Take for example the countless American westerners made in the middle part of the 20th Century.  These films based their plots on character morals and motivations that I’m not sure existed during the late 1800’s American frontier.  Yet these films still have quite a following as they portrayed contemporary perspectives on historical events.  Thus they comfort the viewer and reinforce the current moral paradigm.  However, people also enjoy the unknown and the foreign.  We like entering dangerous worlds so long as we know that nothing can actually happen to us.  Look at HBO’s recent series Deadwood as an example that takes the “Wild West” that many have come to understand through westerners and attempts to approach it historically.  The viewer’s current moral compass is irrelevant to the characters living in Deadwood.  It is now up to the viewer to make sense of this new world, and as a byproduct creates intense interest as we try to find something familiar.  So as we can see there can be real audiences for games based on historically accurate environments

We gravitate towards the unknown, and video games give us the ability to live in fantasy/historical worlds unharmed.  We simply need to take our own knowledge about a specific historical period or event and apply the same principles.  Despite what we may hear at times, most people enjoy history.  However we should clarify that by history they really mean personal memories.  The great thing about video games is that we can help create historical memories, which in turn are easier to remember.  I must admit I still remember the day I defeated Mike Tyson in his Punch Out game.  The celebration I threw might disturb some people as excessive given the actual achievement, but that is the power video games can have.  Rather than ignore or fight this trend we should embrace it.

It may appear sleazy or manipulative, but the video game’s ability to appeal to the individual’s vanity is what makes them so successful.  Can we really argue that in some fashion each of our pursuits in our respective academic fields isn’t selfish either?  Why not embrace this reality and use it to teach something meaningful.

Here is the link to my design assignment:

http://historysandbox.com/jaredk/design/

This has been a most frustrating assignment.  Some of my images aren’t showing up in either IE6, IE7 or Firefox.  The page works fine in Safari however.  I thought I used the same processes in photoshop as for my image assignment, but maybe not.  Has anyone had similiar issues, and have some quick advice? 

Joshua Brown’s forum discussion From the Illustrated Newspaper to Cyberspace: Visual Technologies & Interaction in the Nineteenth & Twenty-First Centuries touches on the immensely interesting topic of how to effectively synthesize narrative, navigation and content in digital projects (whether those be CD-ROMs or websites). During the formation of the Lost Museum website, Brown outlines the construction process along with important discoveries found during user testing. Brown summarizes a major problem programmers faced during the construction phase on page 271 when he asks, “How could we maintain a visual narrative and yet also allow users to intervene in that narrative, to create their own pedagogical pathways and intellectual connections?”

More than likely a single answer to the question Brown poses doesn’t exist. As we have learned this semester while building our own websites, content drives the design to a much larger extent than the other way around. I have been brainstorming this weekend about my site and how to incorporate video game technologies and flash animations into my own website focusing on W.L. Abbott. Currently I simply don’t have the technical capability to actually create this proposed site, so this idea is still in the theoretical stages. But I wanted to ask your opinions on whether or not this idea is even worth pursuing. What aspects of this idea seem plausible and educationally beneficial? What aspects seem unrealistic and forced? Where do I seem to be “trying to hard” in the sense that I am making the site cuter than it needs to be when really a more traditional approach would get the information across just as well?

Just to remind everyone, my websites main function is a digital space where the Smithsonian’ National Museum of Natural History can publish the hundreds of letters written by William Louis Abbott during the late 19th & early 20th centuries. I believe the Abbott letters lend themselves perfectly to a video game format, as the narrative has already been constructed for me. Scholars at Natural History have already assorted Abbott’s letters into a relatively smooth narrative that proceeds in a mostly chronological fashion. Thus I could conceivably create a “video game” that would actually function more like a documentary chronicling Abbott’s adventures. Rather than create a potentially corny, low-budget video using an Arizona landscape to represent the East African deserts (which in turn may alienate younger users), Abbott’s world will be completely digitally constructed. Following the narrative Abbott himself wrote the user could journey through late 19th Century East Africa (from a Western affluent male perspective of course).

Seems straightforward enough so far right? But how should I deal with the high probability that Abbott exaggerated or outright lied about certain events in his letters. As historians, corroborating stories and searching for the most likely narrative of any particular event is a basic duty we perform during research. One of the reasons these letters have taken so long to finally be published is the immense research that went into finding alternate versions of the events and socio-political context Abbott describes. If we publish Abbott’s letters in the traditional analog text-based format, we would simply add a footnote explaining the existence of other possible interpretations of an event to incorporate alternate interpretations. Online publications, and specifically three-dimensional virtual worlds, give us many more exciting methods for presenting these dissenting opinions.

Stealing my inspiration from a weekend viewing of Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1950 film Rashomon, I have decided that these alternate interpretations can easily be incorporated into the general narrative (movie). There are many ways I could display a notice that will alert the viewer/user that a possible alternative interpretation exists for the events currently being described. The user will then have the option of viewing that alternate narrative, or simply continuing along with Abbott’s interpretation. One example that comes to mind is the writings of Thomas Stevens. Stevens traveled with Abbott for about 3 months in 1889. He eventually published a book chronicling his travels entitled Scouting for Stanley in East Africa. Stevens’ book gives the historian numerous accounts that differ from Abbott’s, that would work well in my website. I will also need to alert the user whom the audiences are for Stevens and Abbott. While Stevens was writing to the American public, Abbott was almost exclusively writing to his mother and sister. Thus we can reasonably assume that the different audiences influenced what information was included, altered or left out in each account.

I envision this video narrative as being a supplemental section to the actual letters which will entail the essential portion of the website. Hopefully I could provide links in the movie to the specific letter that we are referencing at any given moment in time. This process may simply be the display of the date of the letter currently being narrated somewhere on a time scroll. But I would also break up the movie into sections so that I could place a link on the letter’s pages corresponding with the date as well. Thus a user would have the ability to progress through the website in a chronological or sporadic fashion, hopefully accommodating different learning styles and research purposes when entering the site. While I like this idea, I feel there must be some way to make it more interactive. What I am basically talking about so far is an online movie with limited user-website interaction. I will need to think I lot more about this before I completely commit to it.

After reading Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think naturally I have a couple of thoughts.  I was especially taken by his discussions on the loss of size, place and linear time in the digital world.  I was thinking about how the loss of these dimensions affects all of us in History 697.  I am especially interested in the preliminary factors we internally consider before starting a reading assignment.  Specifically I am curious on the temporal considerations that go into this initial process.  We don’t have the same luxuries of planning out how long an online reading will take us since the flexibility of the web increases potential distracters for our initial assessment.  While many times we can guess how large a site actually is by examining the website’s topic or even the amount of content on the homepage, in the back of our minds we realize that (a) not everything relevant to the site is on the homepage and (b) we have no idea how many links are on a given page. 

Take for example our weekly reading assignments for History 697.  Professor Petrik usually provides us with readings both online and in hard copy form.  By this point in our education, we as grad students have become pretty good at surveying our assignments for a particular week and projecting how long we will need to complete each one.  This process is especially easy with printed books.  I would guess that we all know our reading speeds and thus simply calculate how long a particular book will take to read.  The online assignments aren’t as straightforward however.  At least in my case, my first step after clicking the link for a reading from the syllabus is to check how small the scroll bar becomes on the right edge of the page.  This process isn’t meant to indicate that I am enthusiastically counting down the pixels to when I will finish the assignment (in most cases), but rather a “web version” of the same surveying technique described for printed books. 

Yet this initial step frankly isn’t an accurate indicator as only a portion of the screen is visible, and I have no idea how many links to other essential articles are embedded in the text.  Even worse those links may have more links.  I’m sure we have all accidentally fallen off our original “path” while surfing the web.  But as most of us have probably known for a long time, the term path can be an absurd notion in websites.  Yes we can spend loads of time planning for every possible user tendency or performing usability tests, but as Krug notes every user is unique in their approach to a site.  So it’s important not to spend our time during the planning and development stages of our sites thinking in terms of what a user’s path may be.  Instead we should simply focus on the content, and how we want the content to relate to one another.  This was the most important point I took away from Krug’s book. 

I imagine the following discussion will continue next week as we explore the impact videos games will have on our sites, yet Steve Krug’s book Don’t Make Me Think makes some important points as well as some “head-slappers” moments regarding the evolving human perspective on temporal issues.  I realized some time ago that for me personally a 25 year-old grad student, the metaphysical rules of the web simply make sense.  I have noticed that those of an even slightly older generation many times don’t possess the same comfort I have navigating around on computer programs and websites.  Why is this?  I was actually a late bloomer compared to my classmates during middle and high school.  In fact up until my junior year in High School, when a teacher asked for a paper to be typed, I assumed that she meant on a typewriter.

 

Yet once I bought my first computer my freshman year in college, I was able to explore all the features I was scared to try on publicly shared systems in high school, and found the usability was shockingly intuitive.  Does this intuitiveness derive from Bill Gates and Steve Job’s remarkably lucid user interfaces?  Possibly, but I think I have identified another source: video games.  The video game revolution was just kicking into high gear during my youth, and in fact interesting (or sad) as this may sound, I can’t remember a time previous to video games.  I should clarify that by video games I don’t mean arcade games, but rather home systems such as the Atari or Nintendo systems.  A crucial distinction I make between public and home-owned systems is the glorious (at least to me) power of the reset button. 

I remember quite vividly spending hours trying to beat “the computer” in Atari’s Football (so creative).  After years of playing the game you begin to learn the computer’s tendencies and patterns, and exploit them to your advantage.  After all the computer isn’t a thinking being (as opposed to what some might think) but instead a series of equations involving “what if” situations.  So let’s say you are in the midst of a particularly important game and you are winning quite handily.  Suddenly the computer seems to receive some unnatural breaks.  It starts out with an interception during a simple pass or a fumble during a run where you are positive no one has touched you.  Must be a weird quirk in the game, you think, someone didn’t program correctly before released from the manufacturer.  Slowly it dawns on you after your fifth fumble in as many possessions that the game is absolutely with out a doubt cheating!  How can this be?  It’s just a piece of junk with a bunch of math on it.  But nonetheless the cheating is real.  Gamers know all about what I am talking about, as we have all shared our traumatic stories, all because Football’s programmers simply wished to have a little fun in production.

Luckily as that child grows older, he or she begins to comprehend the power of the “reset” button, a line of thinking which I believe fully prepared me for the non-linear online world.  Think about it, the power to start all over again.  The power to go back.  It has actually been several years since I have spent significant time playing video games, but I can remember how liberating it was to know I could use the reset button whenever I sensed I was about to be cheated.  Let’s tie this into Krug’s book and web surfing.  As Krug noted, the “back” button accounts for 30-40% of clicks on the web.  That is a lot of restarting.  As designers and historians we must completely change our organizational outlook when creating an original piece of scholarship on the web.  Linear narratives can be incorporated in a site, but they can’t define the site.  As each user’s navigational habits appear to be unique, it would be foolish to cater to only certain types of thinking and searching.  Take a chance.  Give the user many paths to get to a link, or many options for finding information.  Luckily if she (or he) starts on a path that simply doesn’t make sense to her, rather than curse the website’s creator (programmer) she can retrace her steps to a point she is comfortable with.

Please take a look at my image assignment a tell me what you think.

I didn’t change the design too much besides the head banner and border (rug free). I am wondering if anyone knows how to turn of the blue borders around my images in IE6 I would really appreciate it. I made them links and did the following in CSS

a:link {

color: same as background color ;

}

and

a:visited {

color: same as background ;

}

This works in Safari and Firefox, but not IE. Does anyone have any suggestions?

Another issue in IE is that a huge distance is created between my first h3 (Restored Photo) and my first paragraph. I honestly have no idea where to begin in fixing this.

I wanted to respond to Kristin’s March 5th blog post concerning the ownership of ideas in websites. Some classmates from last semester’s Clio-Wired course probably remember the uproar caused over the website arxiv.org.  Recall this site was a forum that housed unpublished articles in Physics, Mathematics and other hard sciences as a means of publication, albeit not peer-reviewed.  Dr. Cohen argued that this method of posting new articles benefits a historian more than the traditional form of peer-reviewed submission, as reputation and dissemination are more important factors in finding a job than publication number.  It is more important to get your name out there in academic circles quickly, which the net allows you to do, than wait for the slow review process. However an arxiv.org equivalent has yet to surface for the humanities.  Why is that?  Both disciplines rely on submission, collaboration, critique and re-submission.  So what is the difference.

I believe the answer is two-fold.  Primarily, in what might seem intuitive to most digitally inclined historians by now, the major establishments (such as universities and journals) don’t fully comprehend the importance of the web.  We believe that since we study the past, we are allowed to live in it.  Thus websites and blog posts are not taken seriously by many historians.  One reason may deal with the idea we have of the written word as seemingly more final than spoken language.  We should use the web as a forum for collaboration and revision similar to what we currently do, on a much smaller scale with our mentors and professors.  The scary part now is that everyone has access to our ideas and can pilfer them at will if we give too much.

I personally believe that arxiv.org could work for the humanities, but we are more reluctant to adopt this as the major players in the field have yet to embrace digital technology as legitimate.  Maybe this means that we create sites that are not completely open-access, similar to online databases accessible only through academic institutions that can be monitored.  If we did this I don’t think we would actually have as big a problem with stealing ideas as we think, since we will have records (including dates) of who posted an idea first. 

I found the discussion in Visual Displays surrounding the comparative case studies to be extremely interesting.  As historians we have hopefully become adept at forming arguments in a convincing and lucid manner.  The discussion on verbal parallelism was a perfect example.  Years of writing and reading have ingrained these techniques in our minds so deep that we usually don’t realize when we actually use them.  Our challenge is first to breakdown the devices we use while constructing papers in order to fully understand what exactly we are doing.  Once we have a firm command over this knowledge we can apply it to an entirely new field (for many of us at least) – that of two & three-dimensional design.  How can we incorporate parallelism into our head banner for instance?  Or how can we create a relationship both in terms of content and design?

One difficulty that currently gives me personally the most trouble is the use of color.  As I have said before, I love contrast.  I will admit it right now – I enjoyed the recently released movie 300, not for its dialogue (please), plot (there was a plot?), or historical accuracy (do I even need to comment on this?), but for the visual experience.  I thought the synthesis of the visual and audio aspects of this film was superb.  Yet this type of film would not work well in a romantic comedy.  But how can we as infant designers create a synthesis between our content and design that is both appropriate and engaging.  If I had an answer I wouldn’t continue to ask this question in my posts.  Unfortunately for me, my site would look foolish if it were highly contrasted.  This doesn’t mean that my color scheme can’t have colors that contrast, but whatever bright color (orange is currently favored) I decide upon must be used sparingly as highlighters not backgrounds.

Credit for this revelation is all due to this week’s reading Visual Displays.  The concept of muted and homogenized secondary elements seems so obvious as to not even needing mention.  However this goes back to breaking down techniques that are used so frequently that we are unable to understand why and how they work.  If you refer to my typography site () you will notice that the majority of my colors are subdued or faded.  While contrast exists between the brown type and yellowish-green background, there wasn’t any tension.  The elements work well together, but almost too well in that they blend with one another.  Since I didn’t have a large graphic or picture near the top, there wasn’t a clear path or at least points of interest that the eye automatically follows.  This was why I placed thin, but bright, orange lines periodically near points on the page wanted the visitor to understand were important; the most obvious example being the line separating the nav menu and the main content.

As always please let me know if you think I’m full of it, or if my explanation makes sense.  I probably speak for most people when I say that I cringe when I hear artists or designers speak about their own work.  The work should stand alone, able to communicate clearly whatever argument or commentary the artist wishes to make without verbal aid.  This is exactly what Visual Displays was addressing.  However here statistical analysis and graphs take the place of a piece of art, or in our case a finely written work.  As we have seen so far this semester, everything is ripe for redesign and improvement, even the most basic text.  To date I feel this is the most important concept I have discovered in this course.  I just hope I can master this skill by some point in the near future.

How often do web-based historians become so caught up in the intricacies of the structure and design that they neglect to fully examine the role of text on a page. As we well know, most historians are just becoming introduced to the world of New Media. We are forced to think of terms of audio, video, layout, and beauty. I don’t believe I am alone when I say that part of the allure of historical scholarship was the straightforward approach to material. There are books, you read them and then construct criticisms & arguments from them. At which point, others read your work and do the same. It is simple not only in the specific audience you tailor your writing style to, but also in format.

The paper format simply looks awful when you put it on screen (blogs excluding of course). It looks even worse to the modern scholar who knows all the possibilities that could occur on a webpage that are not being utilized. However the historian cannot create a page that resembles the History Channels, or CNN’s, which employs seemingly hundreds of colors and multiple focus points. The online publication is meant to be taken seriously as a legitimate piece of original scholarship. Thus historians are in somewhat of a bind. How to take advantage of the web while presenting the material in a serious manner? Simple steps can obviously be taken such as spell-checking and grammatical review. More importantly however I feel that the site must have a mostly minimalist presentation. Why? I argue for prevention against distraction.

First the minimalist design doesn’t distract from the content. Despite our leap into the digital world, these sites are for educational purposes. Obviously subject matter should be presented in an enjoyable way, as learning and brain function appears to be linked to happiness (see Donald Norman, Attractive Things Work Better. Look at week one). And perhaps those site directed towards K-12 should be a little more colorful and exciting. Yet at the same time there is a reason why advertisements, cell phones, and classmate gossip are all outlawed in classrooms. They are distracting. As adolescent riddling bottles continue fill, the ability to focus on one topic for an extended period of time becomes evermore crucial to academic development.

Now I am becoming distracted. Back to the sites. The benefits of a minimalist design for historical sites directed at adults and scholars are even more highlighted. Like it or not, academic work is presented in a particular format, and if digital publications wish to receive academic critique and praise they must conform to the analog style. The online historian has a fine line to tread in terms of design, which is why I believe simplicity is best. Stop worrying about design! Our goal should be first and foremost functionality. Historians are long practiced in the tedious process of flipping through sources while searching resources. Imagine (or remember) the joy felt by the scholar during the first encounter with the online keyword, title, author search function. Our job should be to aid the search. If the content is good and helpful, the publication will be able to stand on its own.

Now our only job is to make sure that our designs aren’t so bad that they ruin the content. To be continued…