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Historical Scholarship in the Digital Age

The Dell Mini 9: A Historian’s Review

dellmini9

The subnotebook – or “netbook” – has become a hot gadget in the last year.  With the introduction of the Asus Eee PC just over a year ago, the market for budget notebooks has exploded.  The first Asus Eee boasted a two-pound, 7 inch screen starting at under $300, an attractive price compared to the “ultra-portable” laptops that often ran above $1,000.  Dell joined the netbook frenzy in October 2008, releasing the Dell Mini 9 for $349 (Linux) or $399 (Windows XP).

The system comes standard with 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270, 512MB of RAM, and a 4GB solid state drive, making it a very basic computing machine.  I made some upgrades to the memory (going with 1GB) and the hard drive (going with 8GB).  Being a fan of open source and a user of Linux on my previous laptop, I opted for Linux Ubuntu 8.04.  Ubuntu comes with all the gear I would need for my basic day to day tasks: OpenOffice Suite for word processing (alternatively I often use Google Docs for taking notes when I have access to wireless Internet), Firefox web browser (which I customized with Firebug, Web Developer, AdBlock, and Zotero), and media software for playing audio or viewing videos.  My only other addition has been JungleDisk so I have access to my Amazon S3 server.

Battery life thus far has been fantastic.  Installed with a four-cell battery, Linux estimates I can get nearly four and a half hours of life out of it (I suspect the number is actually closer to three and a half, but thats a far cry better than the one and a half hours I might get from my prior machine).

As the title suggests, this thing is tiny.  The computer is just over an inch thick (1.07″) and weighs just over two pounds.  It’s roughly the size of a book, and riding in my bag I would never know I had a computer with me.  The compact size makes trips to class, the library, the office, and archives a snap.  The display (1024 by 600 resolution) is sharp and clear.

In terms of hardware, the netbook comes standard with three USB 2.0 ports, VGA, Ethernet, and headphone and microphone jacks.  It also comes with a 4-in-1 memory card reader.

Now perhaps the most important part for historians:  the keyboard.  The keyboard might be less cramped than an Asus Eee’s keyboard, but it is still very compact.  Most of the alphanumeric keys are easy enough to use and drafting a document is fairly painless.  However, the Tab, Shift, and Caps key have been shrunk down or placed in unfamiliar spots.  The most frustrating relocated key has been the apostrophe/double quote key.  I find myself often hitting Enter instead (the normal position of the apostrophe key on a QWERTY keyboard is next to Enter), which can be quite irritating.  I’ve been able to retain touch typing rather than hunt-and-peck for the most part, but its been an exercise in retraining my brain to recall some of the new placements.  This computer isn’t designed to replace a main computer.  If you have thoughts about using this as your main computer, I recommend picking up a full-size keyboard, wireless mouse, and external monitor.  The keyboard construction, however, is well built.  There’s little flex in the keyboard as you type and the keys are responsive.

The touchpad is decently sized, has a good textured feel to it, has great sensitivity and response, and can easily naviage the desktop.  Two mouse buttons are located below the touchpad.

If the machine is reserved to word processing, surfing the web, or checking email, the Dell Mini 9 is a great machine.  As a portable tool for research, taking notes, or PowerPoint, coupled with its nice pricetag and ease of use, it would be hard to go wrong.

minicompare1

The 8.9" screen compared to a 15.4" screen.

[photo credit]

Filed under: Technology,

Presidential Election Word Clouds

If you have not checked out wordle, it is an excellent tool for visualizing word frequencies in a given text.  Additionally, it is extremely easy to use.  After the historic election on Tuesday night, the transcripts (or versions of them) from President-elect Barack Obama’s victory speech and Senator John McCain’s concession speech were on several different news outlets.  I pasted the text from each of their speeches and imported it into wordle to create word clouds.  This is another tool that can help one analyze and understand texts.

Here is Obama’s Victory Speech:obama-victory-speech

And McCain’s:

mccain-speech-word-cloud1

Filed under: Technology, , , ,

Print is Not Dead, but Reading and Knowledge Dissemination are Changing

After my recent reading of Jeff Gomez’s new book Print is Dead: Books in our Digital Age, I began thinking about print media.  Print is not dead, but it is fading as the preferred medium for reading. The world today, as Jeff Gomez points out in his book, is increasingly digital with hundreds of millions of people electronically linked.  Electronic media appears to have surpassed print media as the primary means of recording and disseminating information and entertainment.  Many, perhaps most, people read their news, get their information, communicate, share, take notes, and listen to music digitally. With more engagement and interaction with reading in a digital form, it becomes necessary to reconsider the book and its paramount place in historical scholarship.  As the nature of reading changes from linear and page turning books to circular interlinked digital literature, the form or forum for producing and distributing words and literary content must also change so that people will read and share new historical discoveries, understanding, and knowledge.

Books, according to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, “are the last bastion of analog.” In a primarily digital world, why then do print publications remain the ideal for disseminating historical understanding?  Historians research and write to have their work read and discussed, not just amongst their colleagues, but for the interested public as well. The digital realm can reach far beyond that interested public who might pass over a book in a bookstore, if a bookstore will carry a nuanced historical monograph in the first place. When considering that libraries worldwide only purchase roughly 200 copies of a book, it seems clear that access to and reading of that research and writing is inhibited. Logically then, in print form, historical work is not read widely. As Gomez suggests on his blog, “As a writer you can only hope that people read, or think critically, about your work. With a physical book, you know if they bought it but not if they read it (not mention whether or not it’s being discussed).”

Conversely, a study produced digitally and available on the World Wide Web to hundreds of millions of linked people will have a wider readership and probably a higher level of discussion amongst all readers. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Books, Scholarship, Technology, Web, , , , ,

Textual Analysis

In order for digital history to embrace and employ the great potential of the technological age, text encoding becomes necessary. Text encoding is one method of taking original textual materials from analog to digital representations, electronically searchable for scholarly research. XML is an encoding standard that assists in the creation, retrieval, and storage of electronic documents. Through text encoding and XML, researchers can gain a higher level of expertise about original texts and documents in electronic form. Such technology allows for systematic manipulation and analysis of complex historical texts, deciphering their intricacies into a more understandable form while preserving that complexity. Furthermore, Perry Willett asserts in his article “Electronic Texts: Audiences and Purposes,” “Electronic texts give humanists access to works previously difficult to find, both in terms of locating entire works, with the Internet as a distributed interconnected library, and in access to the terms and keywords within the works themselves, as a first step in analysis.” The digital tools available to historians for textual analysis have opened new realms of historical analysis. As a tool for researching, analyzing, and teaching, XML and textual analysis offers avenues of research to describe and analyze the literary and linguistic past.
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Filed under: Research, Scholarship, Technology, Tools, , , , ,

Liveblogging: The Programming Historian

William J. Turkel, professor of history at the University of Western Ontario, is on the UNL campus today giving a talk titled, “Interactive, Ambient and Tangible Devices for Knowledge Mobilization.”

11:03 Following a brief introduction, Turkel described his talk as the exciting work he is currently undertaking, rather than presenting a published paper. Some of his current work stems from Geocoding photographs of the Chilcotin region , which was the focus of his dissertation. Turkel states that he sought to tell a story with no written archival record and tell an environmental history of an area over 300 million years.

11:05 As soon as he started searching for sources, he found thousands and thousands of sources including an interesting story of the people performing research extraction in the region. Turkel came to find every place as an Archive. Things come from a past that is progressively deeper. In his work, Turkel wants to consult the archival record while performing field work to better reconstruct the past with the present. Mostly historians have to take the field back to the archives, or vice versa, but it would be excellent to have the archival record with you in the field. Historians are able to do this via digital means. Turkel discusses instances where students digitized maps and documents and geocoded them so that they are usable with ArcGIS, so that this information could be used in the field. This is partially how Turkel involves people in digital history. Additionally, he notes that he put together a pilot project with area youth to get them involved with digital work in the field.

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Filed under: Academia, Conferences, Technology, , , , , , ,

Digital History and Wikipedia

We’ve been informed that the digital history Wikipedia page we created needs some work. Help us contribute to and wikify the digital history Wikipedia page!

Filed under: Technology, Web,

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