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Bamber Gascoigne

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About Bamber Gascoigne

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    http://www.historyworld.net
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  • Interests
    Creating an intelligent network of internet articles and images, each of which can be reached by users at no more than a single click. The network goes by the name of OCEAN (One-Click Edited-Access Network).
  1. HistoryWorld Timelines

    Interesting enough - any ideas how you would use these with a class of Year 9 students? Andy, hello again (3 years since Toulouse!) Our timelines aren't yet adapted specifically for school use. They are of value to both teachers and pupils alike only as a general resource, just like Wikipedia or anything else. However, we are trying to move towards developments of specific use as teaching tools, and want input from teachers as to what they would welcome. I will open a topic in the next few days on my blog (http://bamberontimelines.blogspot.com/) - and post a note here when it is done.
  2. Timelines

    Early this year a magnificent new timeline site went online as xtimeline. http://www.xtimeline.com/ The editing interface makes it incredibly easy to create one’s own timelines, inserting an apparently unlimited amount of text as background information for the event, and easily uploading one image per event (automatically resized as thumbnail and enlargement). And the interface for viewing the timeline is a delight. At the top of the screen the events are displayed in horizontal sequence, with a scrollbar to move one quickly backwards or forwards. When you stop the scrollbar, the four closest events to the new date appear with their thumbnails in a panel on the right. Alternatively you can click on any event and it will appear in the panel on the right on its own, with its thumbnail and more of its accompanying text. A further click brings an enlargement and the full text. At all stages a vertical timeline also remains visible on the screen. As a functioning piece of machinery the site is magnificent. xtimeline also backs up my assertion, in my previous post about Google, that a creator or editor is indispensable in creating a useful timeline. I described there Google’s valiant but ineffective attempt to create a timeline of the life of Adolf Hitler in about 60 events. It happens that the most indefatigable timeline creator in xtimeline has also put online a timeline on precisely that theme, including approximately the same number of events (78). She is Victor (the profile insists that Victor is female, so perhaps the name relates to her triumphs in the timeline field) and she has put online since January no fewer than 25 timelines, consisting together of 1138 events. She is presumably part of the inner team, since she lists xtimeline as her website. I will not go into a blow by blow comparison of the two timelines, except to say that a large proportion of the Google events are completely irrelevant (in 1944, the year of the failed Stauffenberg plot, the only event that the Google software has selected is Germany becoming the first country to impose a total ban on smoking in public). But you can compare for yourself, between the Google timeline and the one on xtimeline. http://www.google.com/views?hl=en&rlz=...amp;btnG=Search http://xtimeline.com/biography/Adolf-Hitle...ator-of-Germany Victor has created the timeline, but not entirely written it. All the very useful background that she gives for her events (judging anyway from those that I have sampled) has been copied and pasted from websites, mainly Wikipedia (but then most of the Google results link to the same source). And this appears to be true of many other xtimelines. But this seems to me entirely acceptable, and one of the ways in which a shared timeline database should grow. We don’t necessarily need people to write history. We need them to select interesting events, and to provide – no matter how - the necessary amount of information to amplify the brief account of the event itself that features on the timeline. There will of course be many who do contribute original material, just as they do in Wikipedia – local historians, enthusiasts for minority pursuits, people with personal knowledge of someone of interest but not widely known, researchers into the history of a particular building or company or shop or sporting team. But on all subjects that have already received national or international attention, the task is one of selection of the significant events for any particular timeline. The selecting itself is enjoyable (though much too time-consuming to be done on a commercial basis) and so also is the selection of suitable images. Victor has done a good job in both respects. I have only two quibbles about xtimelines (it is a beta version, so comments should be welcome). The first is that their programme demands a month, a day and even a time of day. Since this is frequently unknown, a great many events turn out to have happened on January 1 (the first date one can click on). It is useful to have fields for a month and a day, but they need to be optional. The MIT Simile programme seems to have launched this tiresome habit – in some of the examples on their website the default even includes hour, minute and second. My other xtimeline complaint is perhaps only a matter of taste. The vertical timelines start with the most recent event at the top. I have sometimes seen this elsewhere on the web (occasionally in Wikipedia, as in their timeline of Chicago), but it seems to me profoundly counter-intuitive. We are used to the convention that time runs on the page in the manner established in the west for written text – from left to right and from top to bottom. I find it very hard to understand a sequence of events presented upside down. And on a biography timeline I definitely want to see ‘born’ pretty near the top rather than far away at the bottom. But those, as I said, are quibbles. The essential message is a very warm welcome to Victor and her colleagues.
  3. Google Timelines

    Google’s amazing new timeline facility is as yet a rather well kept secret. But it is extremely easy to access. All you have to do, when the results of any Google search come up, is add after your search terms a space and then view:timeline A click brings a miraculous transformation. Selected events relating to your search, all with a date now attached, are suddenly displayed in timeline format. The two lines of text in each result are exactly as usual, but they look much cleaner because of two elegant changes. The often confusing jumble of words in the top line, in blue underlined, is replaced by a year (or by day, month and year – whatever features in the two lines of text). And the lengthy url, in green, in the last line, is replaced by the name of the article and of the website in which it appears. The mind boggles at the complexity of the algorithm that has achieved this change. The normal Google results for “Adolf Hitler” number about 2.8 million. From these the Google programme has selected just 60 events for the timeline. So what has happened? Clearly the first task is to identify those results that include a year. But these must surely still number in tens of thousands. After that there is one obvious and easy step. The first event needs to include the word ‘born’. (Easy? Results for “Adolf Hitler 1889 born - 87,000.) In the interests of accuracy the programme no doubt accepts only those results containing the month and day agreed by the majority. Thereafter a much used source is likely to win the struggle for inclusion (Wikipedia features frequently, as also does Spartacus Educational). That first process doesn’t sound too difficult for a massive computer. But after that? How to select the remaining 59 events? This is where things get problematical, because it appears – as one would expect – to be impossible to do so without editorial input. An example is the two crucial events of 1939 – the invasions of Czechoslavakia and Poland. There is no mention of the former (though a search for ‘Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia 1939’ does bring up 116,000 results, so there was no shortage of opportunities). But the invasion of Poland appears twice, perhaps because one source, BBC History, dates it just September 1939 and the other, American Experience, gives September 1, 1939, thus making it seem like two events. You can judge the problem for yourself if you bring up the final page of Hitler’s timeline, from 1940 to 1945. Whenever I have gone afresh to this url it brings up a slightly different group of events – suggesting that the selection process is somehow done, even more miraculously, in real time. But whatever selection comes up, it has always been a laughable representation of Hitler’s activities during those five years. Admittedly Hitler is an exceptionally difficult challenge to the system, and it works far better with a subject such as an author – where a majority of the dated events will be directly relevant items such as the publication of each book. Google themselves recommend their system mainly for people, companies and places. And it is still only a beta version, which is why it is not much profiled (it is not yet among the thirty or so special Google products that they feature on a link from their home page). So maybe the Google magic will overcome the obvious problems and somehow transform the system? I doubt it. My own view is that even they can’t achieve something as focused as a good timeline by purely mechanical means. Maybe they will prove me wrong. But I do have a passionate belief in the need for editorial input to counter the chaos, albeit highly stimulating chaos, that constitutes the internet. Bring on the humans!
  4. Timelines

    This is the age of the timeline, entirely thanks to the web. Most of us are now familiar with timelines, but we forget how recent they are. Among the four major English dictionaries on sale in 2007 (Chambers, Collins, Oxford, Penguin) only one – Collins – includes timeline as a word. But they all include chronology, in its use as ‘a table or list of events in order of occurrence’. As chronologies they have been around for ages – dead things tucked away at the back of books, and rarely found. I call them dead because each event on this sort of timeline was a lifeless self-contained item, leading nowhere (except of course on to the next event). If you didn’t know what the event meant, or wanted to know more about it, you had a problem. A lot of internet timelines are still like this – plain chronologies. But real living timelines began when digital magic began to be applied to them. It seems to me that these are the elements that have so far brought life and interactivity to timelines, roughly in order of their arrival: * hyperlinks – enabling the user to discover more information at a click * tagging each event as a separate item – making it possible to mix timelines in different combinations * software making it easy for internet users to create their own timelines * horizontal formats, in which two or three different timelines can interrelate (there is no reason why the same shouldn’t be done vertically, where the screen’s width-height ratio would allow space for a greater number of comparative timelines; but experiments so far seem to be mainly horizontal, probably as a result of MIT’s Simile format) * the addition of images and audio and video files * building a search mechanism into each event, thus giving access to much more information than through fixed hyperlinks And in the future, we await the holy grail, the arrival of mashup facilities – so that events entered in one timeline format can be exported for display in any other. My colleagues and I at HistoryWorld and TimeSearch are much involved with timelines. Six years ago we were among the pioneers in letting users mix their own timelines through the selection of areas and themes (in HistoryWorld) And I believe we are the first (in March 2007, in TimeSearch) to have introduced the concept of a timeline incorporating search terms that can be applied to sites of one’s own choice. But in TimeSearch we don’t yet have the facility for users to insert their own material (several of the emails that we got on our launch emphasized a wish for this wiki aspect). And like everyone else we are only dreaming of mashups. I have begun this thread because I would like to find out: what features people find most useful in timelines what facilities you want when creating your own timelines There are already lots of good examples out there. I shall be looking at some of my favourites one by one (and no doubt sometimes my least favourite) to raise the issue of what seems to work best and be most useful.
  5. An Interview with Bamber Gascoigne

    While writing a book of criticism about 20th-century drama, I found myself getting very interested in illustrations of what had happened in the theatres of the time, both on the stage and in the audience. This led to the idea of doing a history of theatrical illustrations from Greek times to the present. I managed to get it commissioned and spent a wonderful three years travelling round theatre museums in Europe and America. By the end I was completely hooked on on the historian's hunt for material as opposed to the critic's browsing among completed works of art. Always largely by accident. My wife became a photographer and we wanted to do a book together. Searching for a subject to tempt a publisher, with the potential for beautiful images and a dramatic story, I was amazed and delighted to discover that no one had done a single-volume account of the amazing Mughal dynasty in India - let alone one illustrated with their extraordinary creations, from an imperial studio producing unparalleled miniatures to the Taj Mahal itself. The result was a glorious nine months driving out to India and back (no country being out of bounds in those days) in a quest for information and images. I don't understand this point, perhaps merely because I have misunderstood the sentence (assuming 'fact' to approximate to 'event'). I would have thought that before-the-fact documents are evidence of only two possible things: the musings of soothsayers; or plans which may or may not have been carried out as intended. As an after-the-fact document an entry in a German diary, dated 10 November 1938 and saying 'hooligangs smashed the windows of our shop last night', would seem to carry considerable weight as evidence. There is, of course, a hierarchy of evidence. But the long established distinctions of primary, secondary, hearsay etc seem to describe it adequately. There are many roles for both a historian and a critic. I believe the most important authors, in each field, are those who - either by the discovery of new evidence, or by a new interpretation of existing evidence - make our perception of the past more accurate. These are of course a minority, and mostly working in an academic context. For the rest of us I believe the central role is to make the past (which includes its literature) more vividly alive and more coherent for the general reader. We need to understand the past to appreciate the present, and helping people to do so is a worthy cause - as well as being an enjoyable one. Both kinds of historian need to deal carefully with uncertainty (which, when passionately opposed views are held, becomes controversy). But the skills required for this are an essential part of the everyday job - an ability to judge and clearly indicate the weight that can be given to the evidence, and a similar assessment, and where appropriate acknowledgement, of the validity of an opposing view. My impression from bookshops is that general history is being read by the public as never before, though I don't know if this has gone hand in hand with a decline in the reading of academic history (and anyway, the distinction is often not clear). As to the young, have they ever read much history? It is a taste that seems to come with middle age, as is a growing interest in the past once we have experienced more of it ourselves. That said, the arrival of the internet (in my view the biggest gear change in human communication since the development of writing, and certain to be larger in its effect on society than printing) does provide us with exciting new ways of making history more interesting to the young. No, in that we don't have children or grandchildren and so I know nothing about what goes on in the classroom. I am certain that it must be better taught now than it was in my school. I gave the subject up with a sigh of relief at fifteen, and didn't discover till ten years later that it was my main interest. The reason was our text book (I seem to remember only one). It was such a dense Christmas pudding of names and dates that even the teacher recognized that we couldn't possibly be expected to read more than three pages for homework.
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