Long Tails and Fat Butts

Like Sepoy, I am enraptured with this interactive graphic called The Ebb and Flow of Movies, showing box office receipts from 1986 to 2008. It’s a beautiful example of data visualization that is both pretty and provides a useful illustration of something. (This is not a case of proving that War and Peace is about Russia.) See how spiky the most modern blockbusters are (especially but not exclusively the stinkers), compared with mid-80s fare like Top Gun or Crocodile Dundee. That’s a real shift in the way movies are marketed and profits made. Or look at the very different shape of event movies (aka movies middle-aged people eventually go to see) like Schindler’s List or sleeper hits like My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Also like Sepoy, this gets me thinking about nifty ways to present historical information in visual or interactive formats. I’m putting together two new courses this summer and trying to decide if some kind of graphic syllabus is in order. And couldn’t you do something like this with Web of Science citation indexes to show the changing influence of different historians over time?

Somewhat similar: the highly addictive (for new or expecting parents, anyway) Baby Name Wizard.

Edited to add: This one’s in the “War and Peace is about Russia” category, but still worth the 26 seconds it takes to watch it: the spread of Wal-Mart.


More Matters of Great Historical Import

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria.)

I know this was linked in the last Carnivalesque, but I don’t think a solution has yet been found. The American historical profession must step up to the plate if we are to call ourselves historians: Why are there so many peeing dogs in historical prints of the American Revolution?

The Bowery Boys, a great weblog about Big Apple history, celebrates the arrival of Grand Theft Auto IV: Old People Beware with the history of New York City in video games from Donkey Kong on down.

In “The Paranoid Style is American Politics,” Reason, 24 April, Jesse Walker turns not to Richard Hofstadter but Bernard Bailyn to survey paranoia in American politics from the Jacobin pawns of the Illuminati to the current presidential contest between the lesbian assassin of Vince Foster, a secret Muslim Communist Republican, and a brainwashed puppet of the Viet Cong.

In “Well, it’s very bad history!” TV writer and producer Denis McGrath reviews HBO’s John Adams and makes a sensitive case for emotional truth over strict accuracy in historical film.

And what do you think was “the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would’ve come off the whole enterprise”? According to Clay Shirky, it was the sitcom. The equivalent technology for the previous century? Gin! (Hat tip to Sharon Howard and my non-blogging buddy Sean.)


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?”


Robots Prepare To Torch Harry Houdini

Several people have sent me this link, and that is because they, and it, are awesome: the trailer for a new DVD of Harry Houdini’s film career. Gizmodo declares, based on this evidence, that “Houdini was the first person ever to fight a robot on film.” I think they mean to say, “the first person to fight a robot in a fictional film”–but now I’ve said too much. Click through for hot Houdini on robot action plus a couple of stern looks and many death-defying stunts. Eat your heart out, Gene Autry!