PHP Tango

Oh PHP. How you vex me.

Our assignment this week was to play with PHP, specifically to create a working data entry form using HTML, PHP and MySQL. I can report that, with very generous help from my Clio class, I did all of that.

My simple, but working form is here.
My simple, but functional PHP code is here.

I’m still not sure I totally understand WHY it works. I am told this is natural and to be expected. That with time and increased familiarity, my comprehension will improve. I look forward to that day. I will continue to plug away at it if you promise me you won’t judge or mock me for doing a happy dance every time I can actually make something work.


Managing the Uglier Side of Historic Research

Immersing yourself in 19th century crime, death, autopsies, forensics, and executions can make you forget that you’re actually studying people. Who died. Violently. Often painfully. And before they were “supposed” to.

I often liken it to the gallows humor that homicide detectives, FBI agents, medical examiners, and first responders all tend to develop. When you witness the worst of human nature, I’m told you come up with ways to cope. I readily admit, I am neither homicide detective nor medical examiner; I am a historian. And all historians are supposed to keep a healthy distance from our subjects. If we can remain objective, can we also keep the human element? (With all due respect to Peter Novick, I don’t think  objectivity is entirely dead.) Can we empathize enough to find the heart–the humans–in the narrative? Can we disassociate ourselves from the nastier side of human history to find a broader meaning in how we got here?

This semester, I’m working on a database project for one of my classes. That database happens to contain all (well, a majority) of the sanctioned executions in the United States. I really just started and until today, the “data” had been a series of meaningless numbers attached to names and dates. Today, I undertook a massive “normalization” project wherein I took those numbers that had no meanings and applied meanings to them. For example, using the data dictionary (the handy document that usually accompanies large data sets,) I changed all the 1’s in the “crime” column to “murder,” as that is the crime that that particular integer represents. I changed all the 1’s in the “method” column to “hanging,” and so on and so forth. My database has all the typical columns one might find in a collection of historic information–names, ages, places, dates, race, sex. It also contains the type of crimes committed by the executees and how they met their demise. And this is where I paused.

I expected to see murder, rape, kidnapping, witchcraft, piracy, even horse thieving. I wasn’t prepared for the other crimes in the database, such as “aiding a runaway slave,” “concealing birth,” or “slave revolt.” I’m not naive. I know these things happened and I know that people were punished for doing them. It’s one thing to know they were punished, it’s quite another to know that the state sanctioned execution for these crimes. When you put these crimes next to someone’s name and realize that helping another human being find freedom cost a man his life. With one click of the mouse, the reality of the sacrifices made by some in the name of others hit me. And I wasn’t prepared for it.

The methods of execution were just as troubling. Integrated among the hangings, lethal injections, and electrocutions were pressing, gibbetting, burning, death by firing squad, and breaking on a wheel. Breaking on a wheel is a particularly horrific brand of torture from the Middle Ages. In this case, between 1712 and 1754, in French-controlled Louisiana and New York, eight African-Americans and four white men were “broken” on the wheel.

History is messy. And often gut-wrenching.

I was told by several of my advisers that undertaking this type of project would be emotionally difficult at times. One told me of a colleague and friend who studies historical cases of suicide and how she manages during those times when she has to record and analyze particularly explicit primary sources. As I dive deeper and deeper into the line of inquiry that I’ve chosen, I’ll have to come up with my own methods to cope with the messiness.

I can only hope that my studies of crime, particularly by women and children, and their resulting acquittals or punishments will help shed some light on our past, on our shifting concepts of “reasonable doubt,” and hopefully, how these concepts affect the issues we face today. That’s my goal. Until then, I’ll endeavor to find that healthy balance of objectivity AND humanity that seems to coexist effortlessly in the professionals I hope to emulate.


Adventures in Programming

My third year as a PhD student began this week and I’m excited to be taking both Feminist Philosophy & Theory and Programming for Historians. (There’s something ironic and fun about reading The Second Sex in the same week that I’m learning how to create my own databases from scratch.)

As part of our assignment for Clio 3, as we’re affectionately calling our programming class, we’ll be creating technical tutorials for There’ll be a wide variety of topics from my classmates including, creating databases, PHP, web scraping and theory modeling, among others. I’m on the hook for mapping and data visualization, so I’ll be sure to post links to those when they go up. In the meantime, I’ll be putting my development successes and failures in Sandbox.. for all to see. God help me.

Commenting Week of March 1

Turns out Zayna and I are in the same boat with color – red to be precise, which is a fabulous color, but difficult to use correctly. I also commented on Clay’s discussion of color, which in my mind sparked a “what’s better” debate: good content on a non-designed site or gorgeous design and so-so content? I think even online, content has to remain “king.” The “history” has to remain. It should be well-researched, well-thought out and well-argued. But I also think a site needs to present the content in a compelling way. Since I tend to lean towards clean sites with a lot white, honing my eye for design is something I will have to work on.

I also gave Lisa some feedback on her text assignment and commented on Jon’s post on visual explanations.

Data Visualization & The Historian

I was looking forward to revisiting Edward Tufte this week. In 2000, I scammed a free trip to one of Tufte’s day-long seminars in Crystal City. At the time, I was working for Sallie Mae as one of their web content writers and often, my work required drilling down complicated loan details into digestible webby bits. One of the ways we were hoping to make that easier was by (smartly) using visuals.

While sending a lowly web writer to a seminar discussing the 30,000 foot view of visualization was probably not the most utilitarian of ideas, I did appreciate the fact that I was getting a nice overview of the importance of proper visualizations and the theory behind what is good and what is bad. Not that I think I ever fully realized my goals of making kick-ass visualizations.

Years, age and more education later and I still know the difference between a good visual and a bad one and yet, I’m still not sure I could easily create one. I still architect visualizations for work and I think that a visual is only as good as the data you have underneath. furthermore, visualizations are only as effective as person creating the visual has an understanding of the underlying data. And I think this is the rub. And the irony. Time and detailed study are required to create a visualization that people can quickly find and skim for the pertinent information. Gobs of info in a quick byte.

I’m still striving to deal with data in intelligent ways. When I come across something I really like, like the video in my very first post here, I spend some time and really look at what they’ve done and how. The Onion does them well, but I think it’s easier to build them when you aren’t as stressed about the integrity of the data, which I ended up having to do quite a bit during my five-year stint running an entertainment channel at AOL.

Complicated or nuanced data is a bit tougher to deal with. And as much as Tufte hates it, USAToday has created a level of expectation for these things. And if we are attempting to attract and audience larger than 20, it would do us well to consider that.

And again, we are back at the question that spans two Clio courses: who are building these suckers for?

I believe we can strive to cut a middle line where we remain academic and true to our standing as historians, and still make the data easy to digest and recall at a later time. After all, I think Dr. Hans Rosling toes this line pretty well in his video. I have no doubt about the veracity of the underlying data, nor do I think it’s shallow by any means.

So upon my re-read, many years later, of Visual Explanations, I think it still stands the test of time. We have more accessible data visualization tools now and a bit more experience in viewing these on the web than we did when it was first published. We can still strive to find the right balance between information and accessibility. As a budding historian, it’s certainly a goal that I have.

Though the fake ones are amusing!

funny graphs and charts
see more Funny Graphs

Purpose-Built Content

I finished up my Type assignment last night. Like most of our other classmates who’ve expressed such things, I spent an inordinate amount of time on it. Even still, I’m not totally happy with it.

For the final project, I might do what Ruel did and use a graphic for my rule instead of that long line. I put a dividing line between my content and my footnotes and I don’t like the way you can’t tell the difference between the two rules.

Additionally, I’m not crazy about my actual text. (I know the point of this project was to code the layout of the text, but still…) Since I am creating this project from scratch I think I’m going to have to spend some quality time actually writing up my thoughts and research in a way that will be usable for my project.

Which brings me to the question of purpose-built content. It has been very interesting for me to read how all of you took existing text and applied it to this project. Specifically, those of you who struggled with how to deal with the length. Since I did not use something from my back pocket, I had length issues on the other end of the spectrum. Namely, how much is enough to formulate a real discussion online? Whatever the answer, I don’t think I made it this week, as what I have feels more skeletal than anything.

And this has led to me ponder the concept of purpose-built content for consumption online. Much like my beloved Nutshells were purpose-built to be used as training tools, and only as tools, I think I’m going to have to widen my thinking about creating and consuming history online. Not to get too metaphysical here, but this becomes a bit of a chicken and egg question: which exists first? The concept for the site or the research behind it?

If the concept for my proverbial future site exists first, specifically, if I say to myself, “Self, this is a really cool subject and I think you should study it and make it into a website, because that is the best format AND audience for it.” Well then I’ll have to visualize the guts of my scholarship in a different way than if I churn out a really good paper and decide to post it online. (And then I will get medication for talking to myself in such a way.)

Those are two very different sites, with very different purposes. As such, everything about them would be, for lack of a better word, different: design, presentation, information architecture — all would need to play the appropriate part to bring the scholarship alive in the right way.

This post-assignment rambling is meant only to really force myself to think about how to proceed from here. I’m not sure about you, but once I got past fighting with the endnotes, it seemed to me that we really are at a turning point with this assignment. We now have to get beyond making our sites work and really start thinking about the specifics about our projects and how we want to present them. And for me, that is the scariest question. And right now, I have no answers. So I throw this question to you? Do you think I’m over-thinking it?