Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Lusitania

On the SubSim forum, I found a link to this story from late last year:
Secret of the Lusitania: Arms find challenges Allied claims it was solely a passenger ship

In 1916, a German submarine sank the passenger liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland, killing almost 1200 people and creating a publicity storm that helped draw the United States into World War I. The Germans claimed the ship was being used to secretly carry munitions, making it a legitimate military target. The British and Americans denied this, portraying the incident as an unjustified attack on noncombatants.

Could people who speak English possibly lie during wartime? Well, the folks who have been diving on the wreck claim they have found a huge stash of rifle bullets in the hold of the ship and they believe there may be heavier munitions yet to find. The Germans may well have been right.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

That crazy Booth family

From the archives listserv:

Letter threatening Jackson's life determined to be written by father of man who killed Lincoln

Dismissed for 175 years as a fake, a letter threatening the assassination of President Andrew Jackson has been found to be authentic. And, says the director of the Andrew Jackson Papers Project at the University of Tennessee, the writer was none other than Junius Brutus Booth, father of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.


The letter, which addressed Old Hickory as "You damn'd old Scoundrel," demanded that Jackson pardon two prisoners named De Ruiz and De Soto who had been sentenced to death for piracy in a high-profile trial of the day.


Pardon the pirates, the letter writer demanded, or "I will cut your throat whilst you are sleeping."

Upon further research, which apparently hadn't been done before, it turns out that the envelope had the return address of the hotel where Booth normally stayed and that Booth had written to his theater director to apologize for writing letters to "authorities of the country." And the handwriting also matches. I'm not surprised that Jackson scholars never took it seriously, but surely someone has done enough research on Junius Brutus Booth to have made these connections? Maybe not.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Changing the culture

Among the sort of writers that I read, there has been great excitement about some of the new President's comments regarding open government, especially the Executive Order which places limits on former Presidents' ability to restrict their records. The National Coalition for History also links me to these two memos which don't have the force of law, but do make promises that are somewhat binding, politically:

Transparency and Open Government
Freedom of Information Act

The key phrase in the latter is:

All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government. The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA.

In the transparency memo, this paragraph caught my eye:
Government should be collaborative. Collaboration actively engages Americans in the work of their Government. Executive departments and agencies should use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector. Executive departments and agencies should solicit public feedback to assess and improve their level of collaboration and to identify new opportunities for cooperation.
Government 2.0! The President with a Blackberry! And to highlight the contrast with the previous Administration, I heard Bush say in one of his farewell interviews, "People wanted Barack Obama in their living rooms explaining policy." That's a very Government 1.0* outlook: for Bush, the role of the people after Election Day was to simply listen to what they were told. Obama is claiming a different approach and, while we have yet to see how he'll really govern, he's making some promises that he'll find it hard to renege on. Unlike Bush & Cheney, his power is his popularity and he stands to take more damage if he's seen as a liar.

This is all very welcome to us liberal, open-society types. Obama was always rather vague and cautious on the campaign trail and didn't always challenge the Bush methods as openly as some of us would have liked. Perhaps this is a sign that he's going to be as aggressive about dismantling the secretive, unitary executive

* Not that I really use these phrases; please don't think I go around talking like this all the time.

Friday, January 23, 2009

University of California Libraries, Springer Strike Open Access Deal

Under the agreement, UC-affiliated authors accepted for publication in a Springer journal will be published using Springer’s Open Choice program, offering “full and immediate open access,” with per-article charges factored into the cost of the overall license. The cost of the license was not released, however, the standard Open Choice author fee is $3000. In addition, “final published articles” will also be deposited in CDL’s eScholarship Repository.

Not mentioned in the article is that Springer's Open Choice allows authors to retain copyright to their article, but requiring them to agree to a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial License. Under traditional publishing, the author signs away all of his rights over to his publisher, most of which are charging ever-growing fortunes for subscriptions to that work. Libraries, as you might guess, are very intrigued by the prospects of open access publishing.

First lunar map

From the archives listserv: The 17th-century drawings that prove a humble Englishman mapped the moon BEFORE Galileo

Thomas Harriot beat Galileo in showing the world what the lunar surface looked like nearly six months before the Italian invited the world to come and see his etchings in December 1609.

Harriot had already drawn and plotted his chart in July that year, dated documents show.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Is metadata part of a document? AZ court says no.

Here's an interesting article picked up by Peter on the archives listserv: the Arizona Court of Appeals has ruled that metadata is not part of a document and therefore not a public record. At issue was whether a Word file's hidden "properties" could be demanded, in order to prove that the creation date was the same as the date printed in the document text; the Court ruling says that it cannot. Only the document as it would appear in a printed version is public.

This strikes me as a wrong decision, or at least the wrong outcome (there may not be any case law on this issue to make a ruling either way technically incorrect). But then archivists have an expansive view of what comprises a document and may not see things the same way that a politician or other public official would. I expect this topic to get revisited, eventually at the federal level, before too many years pass.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Those VP records

This came down a few days ago: Ruling on Records Delivers a Win to Cheney

The judge has lifted an injunction against the OVP handling their records as they see fit because she sees no basis for presuming ill intent. The lawsuit in question was arguing exactly that: that an injunction to preserve all records was necessary because there's such a high suspicion that there will be inappropriate destruction of documents. Given that the judge herself comments on the Justice Department's "constantly shifting arguments" that have been rejected at every turn, it seems her decision could easily have gone the other way, but that's not what happened. As it stands now, the OVP is free to do as they please and be judged after the fact.

Copyright and citizen journalism

Via Stinky Journalism and the Archives Listserv,

MSNBC Misattributes Photo: Wrongly Claimed Twitter User's Photo as its Own

The photo was originally posted on Twitter and apparently many media outlets did a good job of contacting the photographer to request permission before republishing it. MSNBC (through carelessness rather than policy, let us hope) got caught tagging it as their own.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


On the archives listserv, someone asks if anyone is trying to collect "all" the Obama ephemera being hawked at the Inauguration today; another opines that it would require more money than we've spent on the financial bailout. That's probably an exaggeration, but the project is no more workable than if it were accurate.

Here's an example of what you can get:

Barack Obama: keeping America safe in bed since 2009.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The illegal West Virginia

Over at Strange Maps appears this intriguing map, apparently drawn up in spring or summer of 1861:

In this map, West Virginia (still tentatively naming itself for the Kanawha River) and Maryland have slice apart most of Virginia, leaving the Old Dominion a landlocked sliver of its former self. After the war, no rearranging of state boundaries occurred, but WV did secede from Virginia and gain admittance as the 35th state in 1863. Both the proposed partition and the actual emergence of WV are highly unconstitutional, as Article IV, Section 3 reads in part:

"[N]o new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress."

That's pretty plain for a legal document: none of this could be done without the consent of the Virginia legislature, which of course was never offered. If truth is the first casualty of war, law often falls bleeding beside it.

Now, you could argue that Virginia was no longer protected by the Constitution, having seceded, and so the westerners had every right to secede from the country in the same way that the American revolutionaries had seceded from England. But that would make the Civil War an act of aggression against another country and the North never accepted that characterization; the whole premise of the war, from the Union perspective, is that the Southern states were still part of the United States all along and those federal armies were just putting down and insurrection. So the Constitution ought to still apply.

The Southerners found that argument more attractive in 1866 than they had in 1861 and were happy to argue that they were still in the Union, exactly as before. By now, though, the Republicans had also changed their minds. The Southern states were outside the Union, after all, and wouldn't be allowed back in until they had "consented" to a few alterations to that Constitution ....

Friday, January 16, 2009

Still looking for those lost emails

Court Orders Search of White House Computers

Before they leave their offices next week, White House employees must allow their computers to be searched, and they must turn over any devices that may contain some of the possibly millions of e-mail messages that have apparently disappeared, a Federal District Court judge ordered Wednesday.

** snip **
Ms. Hong lamented the additional logistical burdens being imposed on members of the White House staff, who are packing up and making way for the Obama administration.

Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola said that the burden would have been lighter if the White House had taken action last year when he recommended preservation of e-mail.

“You rolled the dice that you’d win,” Judge Facciola told the lawyers, “and you lost.”

Well said.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


As a response to Big Brother, the Public Accountability Initiative has launched a new website called - naturally - LittleSis. LittleSis describes itself as "an involuntary facebook for powerful people." It's a data aggregator which takes lists of public officials, Fortune 1000 companies, lobbyists, and the like, and then traces their connections by noting who has shared membership in a group with other people in the database. As an example Henry Paulson is automatically linked to people who've also worked in the Treasury Department, Goldman Sachs, or the Nature Conservancy (didn't know that!).

LittleSis is intended to be nonpartisan and the automatic linking of names from various lists will go a long way in ensuring that it remains so. The bias they have is their antipathy to the link between economic and political power. So far, no Screen Actors Guild listings, but they particularly like to assemble lists of who a person has donated money to, and from whom they've received donations (of the kind that would show up on public lists, anyway). If SAG is an active enough lobbyer, they'll surely show up.

It's early and incomplete, but this site has great potential for helping investigative types of all stripes. It works more or less automatically, once a name or a list of names has been added to the database; names and lists can be added by any registered user in a wiki-like fashion. Therefore, it's techno-economically* viable. Having just finished reading Gellman's book about Dick Cheney, I'm keenly aware of the power of information and just how difficult it is to maintain control of it. Now the common man can mine data, too. A more transparent world is likely to be a better world.

[PS. Major blogging faux pas - I forgot to link to my source for this. I learned about LittleSis from if:book, a terrific blog where I routinely find postings that are creative, thoughtful, and substantive. Be sure to check it out.]

*Is that a word? Sounds like something Neal Stephenson or William Gibson might already
have used.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Gonzo knows archives - not!

Historians hope Obama will undo records order, in which Alberto Gonzales insults, and displays his ignorance of, the entire archives profession*:

"Let's say a former president dies," said former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who was White House counsel when the order was issued. "Who is in a position then to make the decision with respect to privilege?

"One could say leave it to the (national) archivist. Why is the archivist a better person to make that kind of determination, necessarily?" he said. "You may have a family member who could be totally objective, as objective as an archivist. An archivist might be predisposed to releasing everything, irrespective of impact on (national) security, irrespective of other damage to other kinds of issues and matters."

Actually, archivists routinely deal with matters of privacy and confidentiality, and NARA especially deals routinely with records that touch on national security. Archivists do have a bias toward making information available, but they're not idiots. Some records must be kept confidential and that is part of an archivist's job; here at my library, I had to help scuttle plans for displaying certain gifted items because they contain private medical information. Would have been nice to display the documents, sure, but we can't and I knew it. I was trained to know it - that's how basic it is. Why is the archivist a better person to make that kind of determination? Because it's basic to the archives profession and archivists are professionals, that's why.

[PS. Maarja Krusten, at the archives listserv, also points out the absurdity in imagining that the President's heirs would have any sort of security clearance to be looking at top secret documents, anyway.]

*Granted, I should lighten up; it's not like anyone's really taking Alberto Gonzales seriously these days.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Self-inflicted wounds

From the archives listserv: Reply-all e-mail storm hits State

A cable sent last week to all employees at the department's Washington headquarters and overseas missions warns of unspecified "disciplinary actions" for using the "reply to all" function on e-mail with large distribution lists.

The cable, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, was prompted by a major interruption in departmental e-mail caused by numerous diplomats hitting "reply all" to an errant message inadvertently addressed and copied to several thousand recipients.

Here's my favorite part:
[O]thers used 'reply all' to tell their co-workers, in often less than diplomatic language, to stop responding to the entire group.

Oh, now that's brilliant.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


Just before holiday break*, I came across an interesting-looking book in the library catalog, while I was helping a student locate something else for her research. So I spent part of the break reading Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). And lo and behold, suddenly I come cross a blog entry about the same book at Cognitive Daily, complete with this interesting video of Parisian drivers negotiating the ridiculously unorganized intersection at the Arc de Triomphe.

Paris Traffic from Dave Munger on Vimeo.

David Munger describes the book pretty well, so I won't rehash it all here, but I did want to expand on his discussion of the confusing traffic circle. Vanderbilt describes how a cognitive shift takes place when the traffic engineers start adding or removing safety barriers and curbs, or reducing the width of the right of way. Moving buildings and sidewalks farther from the street, for example, would seem to enhance safety, but there is a countering tendency for drivers to think of the street as a highway** and drive as if the surrounding city weren't there. Or more precisely, they are quite aware that the road has been given priority and they drive on the assumption that everyone else agrees.

But when you start moving things back close to the street, maybe even eliminating curbs and crash barriers, the driver becomes more aware of the city and even a little confused. Who has been given priority, the cars or everyone else? Whose turf is he on? And he slows down and pays much closer attention to what's going on around him. Arguably, this is a safer frame of min for the driver to be in, rather than whizzing down the street assuming that everything off to the side can be ignored.

That same sort of cognitive shift was also at the heart of what I always thought was wrong with traffic in Yellowstone. For us employees, the roads were roads, those strips of asphalt that connect the place where I am with the place I would prefer to be. You drive on them. For tourists, though, it always seemed to be a little different. Sure, you drive on these roads, but you also creep down them at ten miles per hour, or stop, or even park in the lane and leave your vehicle. Things you would never do on any road at home, but in the Park it was just different. In the same way that people don't take lane markings seriously in a parking lot, tourists in Yellowstone took all the familiar signs and markings as vague suggestions. I came to believe, for example, that the real definition of intersection was "a place to stop and read your map."

It's a testimony to the power of categorization. The whole category of behavioral rules that go along with roads suddenly disappeared, because the drivers didn't conceive of the Yellowstone roads as roads in the normal sense. As soon as they left the Park, normal behavior returned; you rarely saw the same type of driving in the National Forest lands surrounding the Park. Those had roads, you know, with highway designations and everything***. Totally different.

* Christmas break, for those who get worked up about such things.

** And the significance should be evident from the fact that we use two different words, street and road, to decribe the same object in different contexts.

***Technically, there are several US highways running through Yellowstone: 191, 287, 89, 20, 14, and 16. You won't see a sign for any of them inside the Park boundaries, though. I wonder what difference it might make in driver behavior if the signs were there?

Friday, January 9, 2009


Because I have such a Very Bad Attitude toward amateur drummers in public places, this story utterly fails to break my heart.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Mock Dragon's Tail

I never took D&D this seriously:

That was a cake.

Sensationalist headline writers

I'm watching for news on the recent earthquake swarm at Yellowstone, so this headline caught my eye:

Scientists: Yellowstone Park volcanic eruption probable

Whoa, I thought, better check that out. Which I did, wondering if there was some one geologist who was going around making such predictions. And it turns out that ... no, no one is predicting anything of the sort. The person writing the article isn't claiming that anyone said anything of the sort. And it appears that some editor isn't paying attention to how much the headline writers are embellishing stories, in this case to the point of actual falsehood.

Here are the relevant quotes:
Scientists studying this most recent movement wonder if last month's swarm of tremors, the most numerous and intense in the area in many years, might be a harbinger of a larger event.

Experts claim a supervolcano eruption in the future is inevitable with 100 percent probability. Eight supervolcano eruptions are known from the geologic record, and there could be even more.

Although nothing, including the recent earthquake swarm, points conclusively to an imminent eruption, the researchers note that Yellowstone erupts about every 600,000 years.

I suppose not everyone knows that when a geologist tells you something is going to be happening, he doesn't necessarily mean in the next 500,000 years.

Reforming the PRA

Maarja, on the archives listserv, points out that the new Congress is already taking some much-needed action:
Presidential Records Reform Act is the First Bill Passed by the New House

On January 7, 2009, the House of Representatives approved H.R. 35, the “Presidential Records Act Amendments of 2009,” by an overwhelmingly bi-partisan vote of 359-58. H.R. 35 was chosen by the House leadership as the first piece of substantive legislation passed in 2009 as a symbol of government transparency.

President-elect Obama has already committed himself to revoking EO 13233. However, the hope is that the Senate will move swiftly to pass the bill in time for the new president to sign it soon after his inauguration.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

How to make a globe

Now you know.

Monday, January 5, 2009

NYT editorial on Bush records

Exit, Stonewalling

Mostly, I just love the line "L'etat c'est Dick." I'm reading Barton Gellman's book on Cheney (Angler) and that statement seems truer than even his critics realized.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

VP records and protecting the historical record

Over on the archives listserv, one of the more intrepid commenters (and a veteran of NARA from the Nixon era) has this to say about the Bush/Cheney records controversy:

In both the NYT and WT articles, historians and public interest officials say they are anxious or disturbed. You see this time and again in such articles. But no one ever offers any nonpartisan, practical advice on how to ease the anxiety (which Cheney's and Browner's statements point to) that officials might feel about their "paper" trails. Nor has anyone taken a hard look at the statutory requirements, what works, what doesn't, and why. As I've mentioned, nowadays, I lean toward sealing Presidential records for longer time periods in part to improve what is created and preserved and to reduce the fear factor.

I totally agree. While many of us (and I include myself when I say "us") would love to grab a bunch of records and indict the miscreants, that merely guarantees that no records will be kept in the first place. Dick Cheney may be an especially paranoid case, but he's not alone. If records are certain to bite you in your lifetime, then you have a strong disincentive to keep them. If you know that they can be kept sealed until after you're gone, or at least until you're long retired, then the fantasy of historical vindication will be a temptation to record your thoughts and actions more thoroughly.

What I'm interested in is learning if there are more surprises of the "Oh, we've been torturing?", "Oh, our phone lines are being tapped?", or "Oh, that data mining program that Congress refused to authorize is actually going on?" variety. You can conceal the discussions that led to certain discussions, but you can't hide the existence of programs and activities like these from the incoming administration. Once you actually start issuing orders to civil servants, records begin to accumulate and people Know Stuff (and once they no longer work for you, they might decide to Say Things).

This is going to get interesting. Even if there are no more revelations, that in itself would be interesting.