Weighty Historical Matters

There has been some great, chewy stuff over at Cliopatria recently: Miriam Burstein’s essay on the aesthetics of history, Manan Ahmed and Nathaniel Robinson’s conversation about reconciliation and historical memory, and today our newest member, Claire Potter, on the history of everyday rage. I’ve been so derelict in posting there, I wanted to return to the fold with a similarly weighty and scholarly piece of work. And so I give you:

A thriving LiveJournal community, which examines historical figures and asks of each the vital question: Were They Hot? Recent contestants include Lord Byron (surely a no-brainer?), Frida Kahlo, Robespierre (“he’s got a slightly squished face but I reckon he looks good naked”), and the Roman Emperor Philip (“I would ride this man to Damascus and back if I had to”).

Kate Beaton’s History Project and History Project Two, a series of winsome and ridiculous cartoons about history, much of it obscure and/or Canadian. I can’t pick a favorite cartoon, as they always have a cumulative effect on me, but it’s hard to argue with Sandford Fleming’s beard. I wish the CBC would scrap the hokey old Heritage Minute and give my tax dollars directly to Kate.

Sometimes blog posts seem so blatantly written for me and me alone that I feel like a chimp when I link to them. But I suppose the internet is big enough that everybody feels that way from time to time. Anyway, one of our buddy Bill Turkel’s digital history students recently wrote a software ‘bot that impersonates Benjamin Franklin. I must admit it is not the most cunning impersonation one could imagine:

Turkel: So what do you think of Rob MacDougall’s blog?
FranklinBot: Does it have anything to do with reductionism?
Turkel: Why yes it does.
FranklinBot: Yay!

Finally, here is some more of the internet-enabled infomancy I celebrated on my blog last week: Caleb Crain and Paul Collins track the origins of the essential phrase, “Mad, mad, I tell you!”

That’s really all I want for my blogging life: to make a robot Ben Franklin say “yay” and to follow Paul Collins and Caleb Crain around like a dorky third wheel. “What are we doing today, guys? Guys?”



This is the week, it seems, of people reading my posts and making them better. First, Ken Hite revealed the infomantic significance of the Ford’s Theatre index card disaster. Then, Barista‘s David Hiley expanded my link to Jess Nevins’ post on Japanese automata with a fuller biography of Gakutensoku, the golden calligraphy-writing robot.* David also pointed out the secret through-line between the automata and index card stories:

Here he [ie, me] combines two wonderful and pathetic factoids in the one zany flow. Handy, dandy, it has the logical flow of the management of information which leads to proto-robots which takes us ultimately to these machines, which we all share as we prowl the world from our keyboards.

The way I see it, I didn’t combine the Ford’s Theatre and Gakutensoku stories, he did. I just put them next to each other. But I appreciate his kind words and the phrase, “wonderful and pathetic factoids.” That goes on my ever-growing list of alternate taglines for this blog.

This is what I love love love about the 21st century: Barista posted about Gakutensoku three days after Jess Nevin’s original post, two days after my own. Granted, I’m impressed by anyone who writes a post in two days. (I have on my hard drive a half-written response to Seth Shulman’s Telephone Gambit that I started writing when I saw Shulman give a talk at MIT… in 2005.) But the real infomancy is the way these not-necessarily-pathetic factoids carom around the internet. A librarian in Texas (who knows everything, by the way) writes a short piece about a 1920s Japanese robot. It bounces off a Canadian history professor, and is read by an Australian film writer. Who then researches the history of that robot, using an amazing online encyclopedia of more than 2 million user-generated articles, not one of which existed eight years ago. It’s easy to take it all for granted, my friends, but we are living in the future. Where’s my flying car, you ask? You’re driving it right now.

(At least until Big Cable / Bell Canada takes away the keys.)

*Barista says Gakutensoku “ain’t no robot–it is an automaton.” But are the two categories mutually exclusive? Mr. North, Ms McDougal, Mr. Da Vinci, can I get a ruling?