Archive | September 2012

Hay is for horses, and other early modern wisdom

That old ‘hey is for horses’ line is pretty old: Jonathan Swift used it in A complete collection of genteel and ingenious conversation from 1738. More generally, the number of equine metaphors are indicative of how important horses have been to human (excluding sub-Saharan African and pre-contact American) history: rein in, saddle up, hoof it, jockeying for position, champing at the bit are just a few of the English sayings that remind us of our special relationship. [Note: I tried to limit this post to just three equestrian puns, but horsing around is too much fun.]

The combination of a logistical thread promised much earlier in the year and previous discussion of cavalry leads logically to a separate post on fodder, which only makes sense since, as mentioned in the inaugural logistics post, fodder was likely the third-most important foodstuff for the men (after their own food and drink), and probably the first for the horses (water could be first, but I’ve read somewhere that green forage tended to have a fair amount of water content). The whole topic leaves me with all sorts of questions, so this is just a first attempt to delve into the details of how horse supply worked. Gavin or somebody could probably point me to better discussions already in print. I should probably have looked at a few of the secondary sources on the topic, but that’s why this is a blog post and not an article manuscript. So what follows is a somewhat rambling first attempt to get my head around the subject. You can lead a horse to water…

I’ll preface this post by admitting my ignorance here, for my knowledge of the details of early modern logistics is far less than it should be, although I think that is largely a function of the lack of literature on the subject. In addition to previous comments I’ve made on the difficulty of studying logistics, understanding fodder is particularly difficult for us today because it deals with horses, beasts which most moderns are unfamiliar with, as well as with agriculture, the details of which most moderns are equally unfamiliar with – Erik might refer to an agricultural knowledge economy or some such. Then too, it requires us to look outside of military history (narrowly defined) to the history of agriculture, rural society, and transportation. So I’m admittedly stretching here when talking about the details. Don’t take it from the horse’s mouth: let me know where I screw up. [I’m going to ignore more exotic beasts of burden like oxen, mules, donkeys, burros and their ilk…] Read More…

SMH 2013 deadline

Just a reminder that the deadline for submitting panels and papers for the SMH 2013 in New Orleans is October 1. The conference theme is “War, Society and Remembrance,” but any topics will be considered.

The conference call for papers goes out of its way to tie the 2013 theme of remembrance to timely anniversaries. To quote from the call: “The year 2013 marks the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Society for Military History, as well as the continuing anniversaries of the Second World War (70th), the American Civil War (150th), and the War of 1812 (200th). …. We particularly encourage papers that reflect on these historic anniversaries.” I won’t claim to know what exactly a “continuing anniversary” is – it’s probably similar to a “long” century, or maybe it just means “circa.” In any case, did the organizing committee really feel the need to remind people to submit panels on the oft-ignored topics of the Civil War and WW2? I realize the National WW2 Museum is one of the sponsors, but seriously.

I will say that I’m a little disappointed, though not too surprised, to notice that a call for papers for a military history conference taking place in 2013 doesn’t mention the only real anniversary of a major war that was actually concluded in a year ending in ’13.’ The truly forgotten war in this story, of course, is the early modern War of the Spanish Succession, whose Treaty of Utrecht (signed 1713) terminated the conflict between Bourbon France/Spain and four of the main Allied protagonists (Britain, the Netherlands, Savoy and Portugal). A year later the Empire and the Austrian crown would make peace with France at Rastatt and Baden; peace between Spain and the Empire/Austria would have to wait a bit longer.

So, there’s no mention of the 300th anniversary of the end of the Spanish Succession – a pretty big war as far as British history goes (and featuring one of Britain’s greatest commanders), as well as Louis XIV’s worst defeat, and a conflict which included Queen Anne’s War in America to boot. Yet we are reminded to commemorate a historic 70th “continuing anniversary” of a war that started in 1939 (depending on who you ask) and ended in 1945? Why don’t we just commemorate the Second World War seven years out of every decade and be done with it? Oh yeah, I forgot: we continuously celebrate WW2 tens years in every decade as it is.

But the invisibility of the early modern doesn’t end with the Spanish Succession. We could, for example, note other anniversaries, anniversaries that commemorate the actual ending of wars. These would include the 365th anniversary of the Peace of Westphalia (Thirty Years War), the 335th anniversary of the Treaty of Nijmegen (Louis’ Dutch War), the aforementioned 300th of Utrecht, the 265th anniversary of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (War of the Austrian Succession), the 250th anniversary of the Treaty of Paris (Seven Years War), and the 230th of the Peace of Paris (a continuing anniversary of the War of 1812 but not even a hat tip to the American Revolution?). And what’s up with all those nice round anniversaries for 17C-18C wars anyway – Europeans saw a year ending in 3 or 8 coming up on their calendar and decided to make peace? Kinda eerie. Maybe we’ll have to have a giant EMEMH conference in 2018!

But at least there will be another conference a month later (April 2013) that will give Utrecht its due. To be fair though, even the Europeans insisted on having a conference entitled “1713-2013 The Peace of Utrecht Revisited” in June 2012 in Madrid. Go figure. Organizing conferences is a lot of work, and historians are generally horrible at organizing things, so I guess we should cut them some slack. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to remind your members that we’ve had more than 200 years of war; I’d even suggest that the last thing an SMH call for papers needs to do is encourage people to submit even more panels on the Civil War and WW2 – it’s an incredibly present-minded group as it is.

So after making fun of the call for papers, I’ve probably destroyed any hope of my panel on “Remembering the War of the Spanish Succession” being accepted, particularly since those three modern wars are apparently the topics that they are particularly looking for. But there probably won’t be much competition from the War of 1812, the American Civil War, and World War II, so we’ve still got a shot! I hope other early modernists are submitting panels or individual papers as well. If our Spanish Succession panel is accepted, I’ll provide more details on the papers. In the meantime, never fear: all our papers are comfortably ensconced within the 18C. Let us know if you have papers/panels accepted as well. And let’s hope they don’t schedule those few early modern panels against each other (again).

Just as importantly, I’m hoping that any EMEMHians attending the conference would like to schedule one evening/dinner to get together and discuss things of an early modern nature. Don’t worry, there will be more than enough opportunities to get your WW2 geek on during the rest of the conference. Other than the banquet dinners, most evening dining at the conference is rather extemporaneous and catch-as-catch-can, so it might be a good idea to schedule this ahead of time to avoid too many conflicts.

If you are planning on attending the conference, let us know in the comments. Also let us know if you are interested in doing an EMEMH dinner while in N’awlins. I’m also available via my school email address.

Because you never know who’s reading your mail

Apropos past posts on intelligence, I just came across a Japanese website that has an English page on the codes and ciphers used by the English during the Spanish Succession.

Presumably the webmaster has an interest in historical cryptography (why not? why not indeed). With the exception of a few dozen pages on various early modern ciphers and codes (including American Revolutionary), the rest of the site seems to be in Japanese. Apparently ciphers are a subject best discussed in English.

For the hell of it, I include my own small contribution:

English cipher cheat sheet

Challenges for EMEMH

The deadline for panel/paper proposals for the Society for Military History 2013 in New Orleans is coming up in just a couple of weeks. Hopefully there will be several early modern panels, but as I have discovered throughout the years (and am reminded of as I’m trying to put one together right now), it’s not always easy being early modern. The following reasons apply to any subfield, but I think EMEMH particularly faces several challenges.

Publications on the topic of EMEMH provide an indication that somebody out there is interested in the topic, but by themselves they do little to create a sense of community, even with the occasional book review. That requires more informal discussion and debate over a longer time frame. The traditional venue for such community-building is the academic conference, where scholars present their research findings and engage in discussion. Academics have a variety of different conferences to present at throughout the calendar year: those dedicated to a particular place (British Studies or French history), a particular type of history (Society for Military History), special thematic conferences (like the upcoming Peace of Utrecht conference I’ll be attending), generic regional conferences (Great Lakes History Conference), as well as the broad disciplinary conferences, such as the annual American Historical Association. Any number of factors will influence a scholar’s decision of which to attend – perhaps there’s a usual gang you hang out with at the same conference year after year – some conferences tend to be as much about the  social atmosphere as the panels. Or maybe you’re on the job market, in which case you need the exposure of a large cross-section of the history field (if you’re not already scheduled for some first-round job interviews at the AHA). Just as important as these idiosyncratic personal factors are structural ones.

Geography plays a particularly important role, particularly for American/Canadian historians living on the expansive North American continent. North American historians of Europe tend to keep their eye out for conferences in Europe, but us across the pond are naturally at a disadvantage when it comes to being able to attend multiple conferences across the Atlantic. Often times you don’t even hear about the conferences until the schedule of panels has been set – special thematic conference participants in particular appear to be by invitation rather than open calls – which of course leads us back to the same old names. Even for conferences hosted in North America, geographical proximity will influence the number of conferences a scholar can attend – particularly as an observer rather than as a presenter. It’s quite understandable that American conference organizers try to locate their annual meetings in various parts of the U.S. (limited as well by the availability of host institutions), but it can also discourage the creation of regular attendees, unless those regulars either a) have plenty of money to travel to multiple conferences, or b) always present at the same conference year-after-year. Such serendipity is rare: this blog was in fact created after experiencing a rare confluence of EMEMHians at a recent conference. And EMEMH suffers unique disadvantages in the U.S., since it is, I would argue, the least popular among the periods of Western military history: modern, medieval, ancient, and only then early modern. Within military history – itself a poorly represented field in the academic world – there are numerous modern history conferences (check out the SMH Headquarters Gazette for examples, including those focused around individual wars), while American military history is obviously far more popular than European around here. Similarly, only a few European countries have garnered enough historical interest to sustain regional organizations in the U.S.: the Western Society for French History, and various regional branches dedicated to British Studies come to mind. Many European countries (e.g. the Netherlands) don’t even have an active national society/conference in the U.S.

Another important factor is money. Academics have varying levels of support from their university. This includes the ability to take time off from coursework to travel to a distant conference, as well as recourse to travel funding. Scholars at research institutions obviously have a significant advantage in both regards – not only do they have much lighter teaching schedules, but they also have more financial support. Both of these operate on multiple levels, for not only do they have more money and time for conference travel, but they also have more money and time for research, research that can then be presented at conferences. Those of us at teaching institutions have much less support for conference travel, and since there is a heavier teaching load, there is less opportunity for research, our libraries and research budgets are smaller (if they even exist), and therefore we have fewer papers to present in the first place. Since there are extremely few EMEMHians at research institutions and far more a teaching schools, that usually means most individual academic EMEMHians can swing one or two conferences a year, and will usually be paying much of their own way for at least one of them. In some cases, you might only receive full funding if you present or comment, not if you simply chair a panel or attend out of interest.

A lack of numbers adds to the economic and geographical challenges. It’s difficult to gain a critical mass of participants when there are relatively few EMEMHians in academia – I can think of half-a-dozen deserving Ph.D.s I personally know that are no longer in History departments, and there aren’t that many more who are. Those that have survived the tenure-track lottery mostly work at teaching institutions, with the concomitant scarcity of resources mentioned above. The fact that there are relatively few EMEMHians and that most EMEMHians only have the material for one or two papers per year is exacerbated by additional challenges, deriving from the subfield’s diversity and amorphous nature. Since many of the conferences are either country-specific or type of history-specific, and because our interests vary across several centuries and several countries, the people you know may not all work on the same country or century, which eliminates many panel opportunities. It also explains why the Society for Military History is the obvious default conference in the U.S. – military history is what all EMEMHians share, even though one studies 16C France and another 18C Britain. The paucity of EMEMHians can also lead to conflicting conference schedules – the perfect contributor to your panel may have already committed to another panel for that year, or another conference altogether, in which case you are out of luck. (This becomes even more problematic when conferences limit participants to one paper or panel.) As suggested above, there are few conferences dedicated to the period of early modern history, much less EMEMH, just as there are extremely few journals. This again encourages EMEMHians to glom on to a place or subfield conference. Broad conferences are useful, but if they are too broad, the usual result is a very small number of attendees actually interested in EMEMH. If you present at one of these, this is possibly your only conference for the year. And since one of the main points of conference participation (other than a line on the c.v.) is discussion and networking, many broader conferences provide little opportunity when there are so few EMEMHians in attendance. I assume I’m not the only one to be frequently underwhelmed by most of the feedback offered at such generalist conferences.

As a result, we tend to see small subsets of EMEMHians as regular attendees at places like the SMH. Since conference organizers are strongly incentivized to accept whole panels rather than try to cobble papers together and dragoon ill-fitting commenters to the Frankenstein result, it really helps to have a network of regulars that you know you can depend on. It doesn’t help, however, when a conference committee actually splits up a cohesive panel proposal because they prefer a different grouping. (Had that happen once.) Usually it will be evident when conference committees make a valiant effort to include as many singletons as they can in their program – you can usually tell by the generic-sounding panel title. And while this is, from the presenter’s perspective, better than no paper at all, it’s not likely to get very good attendance, or else it encourages the kind of attendance where audience members pop in and out, which ruins much of the discussion. Many people deciding whether to go to a conference or not will base their decision on how many panels look interesting to them, which can self-fulfillingly discourage a critical mass of EMEMHians in attendance. Even worse, when there are only two or three panels on EMEMH at a conference, they can easily be swallowed up by competing time slots, e.g. I was on a EMEMH panel that was competing with a panel on the Military Revolution. Even worse, the occasional disastrous EMEMH panel might have papers that are so poor that it taints the subfield!

In short, there are several challenges to any attempt to create a sense of an EMEMH community. So what is the solution? Well, other than getting some billionaire to fund a new EMEMH society or set up endowed chairs at research universities for EMEMHians, the options are limited. The most obvious would be better coordination: a year in advance, EMEMHians would let each other know about their current research topics, and possible paper topics. That way particular conferences could be targeted well in advance. It would also help to have more give-and-take about what a panel might have for its focus. As it stands, it’s usually easier for a single individual to take the lead, create an ideal panel topic in their head – often based off of the conference’s theme to improve the likelihood of acceptance – and then enlist people they know to participate by encouraging them to write on that theme, which might actually require the invitees to change their focus away from their current research slightly. The pressure to say ‘yes’ is probably not insignificant, since the invitees might have their own counter-ideas for a panel topic, but would need to invite these same people to participate in their alternative panel. And since serving on any panel is likely to get you more travel funds than just attending as a spectator, it’s easiest to go with the flow. Of course, a much better process would be a group effort to collectively develop a panel theme, but that requires more regular contact. Ideally such communication would include new and up-and-coming scholars, not just the same old regulars.

Ultimately, conferences can help, but I think their periodic (and expensive) nature make them insufficient in and of themselves. Frankly, the most realistic (and easiest) way to encourage greater communication between EMEMHians is to eliminate the biggest problems: travel and schedule coordination. The web has made this possible: this blog is attempting to do that, and could easily host an asynchronous conference-like event. But this medium would have to overcome a challenge of its own: It would require a lot more participation from academic historians than we currently see in the comments. I’m not disparaging non-academic contributors – in fact I think the blog thus far has illustrated how much there is to learn from those beyond academia – but, frankly, we need more academic voices added to the mix. One impressive model is the collective Russian history blog, even if it doesn’t have Skulking’s personality! 😉

Of course this would, in turn, likely require some kind of incentive. Participating on the blog would have to be worth an academic’s while – we are all very busy with lots of competing demands on our time. Would the blog need to fulfill some academic objective to make it attractive to participate, e.g. would participation count towards promotion and tenure? I have little control over this obviously, so hopefully the answer is ‘no’. Not to mention, history particularly remains hesitant to consider thinking and writing in the digital realm comparable to peer-reviewed publications. But are there things that would make academic EMEMHians more likely to contribute to the blog, either in the comments, or with guest posts? Or, if one prefers their own platform, starting up their own blog? (Remember in the old days when they had ‘rings’ of websites on a similar topic? Today I suppose that’s called a blogroll) Does Skulking need a different format? Different types of posts? More bloggers? Or would a new blog altogether be needed? I’m not going to give up Skulking, but if other academics were interested in trying to replicate something like the Russian history blog, I would be interested in hearing proposals. For this blog, I’m particularly interested in trying out a ‘blog conversation‘ – I even have a book in mind for an attempt in a month or two.

Creating a community of EMEMHians requires creating an EMEMH identity. My sense is that one of the biggest challenges to EMEMH is that it is too diffuse – there’s too much historiography that is unique to a specific place and period: late Stuart England, Louisquatorzian France, Frederickan Prussia… Whether anything can overcome this challenge remains to be seen, but at least I’m trying.

Thoughts? Any professional academic EMEMHians out there? Sound off like you’ve got a pair (as the expression goes).

That Old Sports-as-War Metaphor

Are you ready for some football?

Too bad if you’re not, ’cause “America’s Game” is here. Last weekend was the official opening for college (NCAA) football, with the professional league (NFL) games starting this week. For those un-American readers in our audience, we’re talking American football, not “soccer” – or the Latin-flavored fútbol as we tend to see it here in the US. We’re talking the kind of football that encourages you to hit the other guy, hard. Canucks know what I’m talking about, even if they have teams with girly names like the Alouettes (admittedly the mascot is pretty butch)

Football is probably the most popular sport here in the U.S., and I’d certainly guess the most fanatically followed by the largest segment of the American population – though it does tend to vary by region. Sports historians have long analyzed different sports in different cultures to open a window onto cultural assumptions and values, and doing so with American football can be just as fruitful. The angle I’ll talk about today is one that appears again and again – the comparison of football (or sport more generally) to war. Given the physical and mental damage caused by throwing bodies around after a pigskin, it’s no surprise that football players and coaches will, in unguarded moments, refer to their contest as ‘war,’ with the linesmen ‘fighting it out in the trenches,’ with the need to ‘defend this house’ [from assault apparently], and so on.

This comparison between sports and war isn’t new. I’m sure the Ancient Greeks said the same about their Olympic wrestling contests, and the Romans – always ones to take it too far – literally made their sports a heroic form of war with their gladiatorial combats and mock naval battles. Medieval knights turned battlefield equestrian maneuvers into jousting tournaments, yet sometimes the competition between sports and war could harm military readiness, as when Henry VIII had to renew bans on Sunday football, when able-bodied men were instead to be practicing at the archery butts. Early modern mock sieges were undoubtedly as entertaining for their reenacting participants as they were serious training – they certainly were for the crowds in attendance. Waterloo may or may not have been won on the ‘fields of Eton,’ but by WWI rugby stars were encouraging Englishmen to do their patriotic duty – they were doing theirs. It’s said the modern Olympic pentathlon was based on the skills a military runner would need to deliver a message during wartime: shooting, riding, swimming, fencing, and cross-country running. More recently Honduras and El Salvador showed us that sports sometimes could actually turn into a war (see: Football War), and those crazy English hooligans still don’t understand that the struggle should remain on the pitch and not spill out into the streets. Nor, for that matter, did Tommies and Gerries realize you’re supposed to shoot bullets at the enemy, not kick a soccer/football past them. Read More…

Dragged into the Future, kicking and screaming

Well, I’ve finally done it. I’ve finally resolved myself to the 21st century, an age where your content isn’t really yours, it’s only borrowed. For a historian of my generation, I’ve been an early adopter regarding digital research, but it’s only just this past week that I’ve accepted what many others already have in their life more generally – a connected world where you pay based on a subscription plan.

Perhaps the disconnect between my professional and personal life is best illustrated by the fact that I still haven’t bitten the bullet and purchased a smartphone. It’s not for lack of desire – ten years ago I was the proud owner of an Axim PDA. For the past six years or so I have made use of the poor-man’s equivalent of the iPhone, an iPod Touch. But what has held me back is the philosophical principle – I loathe being forced to pay $X for an iPhone and then have to sign up for a two-year data plan that will quintuple the purchase price, every two years. But I fear it’s inevitable – I would in fact already have one if they sold the 64 GB iPhone in stores (a failed emergency purchase attempt the morning of our flight to London). So in the past week, I’ve almost completely thrown in the towel, admitted defeat, and learned to (almost) love my new overlord masters – subscription services.

A week ago I broke down and subscribed for a year to Evernote’s Premium service, so I can download all my notes and use them offline when I don’t have Internet access. This was a real problem in England, since the cheap hotels rarely had reliable wifi, and the international 3G plans were expensive and exhausted rapidly. It’s also an issue at work, where it is taking forever for the entire campus to acquire a wifi signal. Plus, I’ve been thinking more and more of using Evernote for my research journal, thought notebook and draft snippet container, even as I keep my primary sources and bibliographic database in MS Access – the freeform nature of Evernote makes it easy to postpone worrying about where exactly to file your content. Portability is also key: I have ideas in all sorts of places, and since I usually have an iPad at hand, it makes sense to use an iPad app that syncs automatically with the desktop client, as well as being accessible anywhere through a Web interface. Fortunately you are not totally locked into Evernote: I had already gotten in the habit of performing occasional backups of my notes by selecting them all, exporting them as html, and then converting them into a PDF so they would be searchable on my iPad’s GoodReader and elsewhere. But even though that only takes a few minutes, I’m not going to do that each time I make changes, and exporting to PDF eliminates all of the other features of Evernote. So I guess I’m stuck with Evernote, for now at least. [Side note: for those who use Evernote, be sure to learn some of the search syntax to search by tags, in note titles, etc., and make saved searches so you can combine notes from different notebooks – it’s made life a lot easier since I actually decided to look up tips on how to use it. You can also use Ctrl-Shift-V to paste text into a note with the default Evernote formatting, something that I was constantly having to fiddle with.]

But Evernote Premium wasn’t the end of it. I also just subscribed to Dropbox’s 100 GB per year plan – up from the free 5 GB or so I had already filled up. The desire to easily transfer files from device to device, combined with the desire for an offsite, online-accessible backup, forced my hand. Dropbox has the advantage of replacing the USB drives with which I shifted files between home and work, especially class handouts and ever-growing numbers of PowerPoint presentations (more than twenty 2-10MB presentations for each of the eight courses I regularly teach over a three-year cycle). I’ve already lost three USB drives over the past eight years, which might be a blessing in disguise, since I have an old USB thumb drive that can carry a whopping 250 MB! With Dropbox and other cloud storage companies you can also access your files from the desktop, the iPad (iPhone…) as well as from any Web-accessible device; most iPad apps also include Dropbox as a default import source, which helps. At the same time, my school encouraged me to take the plunge, since it provides a piddly 2.5 GB of storage for faculty, and I would need to go through a cumbersome remote desktop to access that data from home in any case.  (I’ve also decided to scan in the textbooks I use regularly, so I can have them wherever I want to prep, and just use the iPad in class.) Dropbox is also the main way in which I transfer PDFs from the desktop to the iPad’s GoodReader, which I do 100+ files (a gig or so) at a time. Plus, I can now quickly backup whatever changes I make to my folders. For example, I’m in the process of dividing up each of my archive PDFs (i.e. PDFs of images of archival volumes) by year, so I can have all the materials on the year 1702 in a single folder: published and archival, primary and secondary, text and image, full-text and merely scanned. Considering all the work that entails (find what page of the PDF each year starts and ends on and then save to a separate PDF file, repeat ad nauseum), I want to back up after I’ve parsed each volume. Plus, I now have a more secure backup than what I have at home (a 2 TB external drive) and at my office at school (100+ DVDs piled in my office, 4.7 GB at a time). I should have done this a long time ago, for the offsite backup alone. But I guess I’ve been cheap principled up till now. It’s still not enough storage space for all my needs, but I can prioritize much better with 100 GB than with 5 GB.

With these two purchases I have finally bought into the future of capitalism, renting in perpetuity rather than owning outright. It’s been a long time coming I suppose. I vaguely recall a few moments of weakness related to the Columbia Music House and History Book-of-the-Month clubs, experiences which probably first clued me in to the evils of subscription services, especially when you don’t even need to mail the card back to get the Pick of the Month! (Bastards.) Perhaps these early experiences soured me to cable, not to mention that at least there was still free broadcast TV and no-commitment Blockbuster video rentals. (My wife and I only got cable in 2003 after I caved, twelve years into our marriage.) Then it morphed in the 1990s into talk of Web-based software and thin clients. The practice was enabled by the commercialization of the Web, and popularized by services like Netflix, and more importantly by iTunes and expanded by Amazon Kindle, now made practical with the near-ubiquity of wifi and data plans conjuring up visions of “the Cloud” that is everywhere and nowhere all at once. The difference between 1970s-era music/book clubs and the modern version, however, lies in what purely-digital content allows: end-user agreements, contracts which increasingly specify that you literally do not own your digital “purchases,” instead you simply rent the right to access them. The reality of constant Internet access also allows companies to revoke previously-acquired access at a moment’s notice (read the EULAs, search Kindle’s Orwellian treatment of 1984, as well as Netflix’s struggle with content provider Starz). I eventually sucked it up for cable, but for some reason, music and smartphones are my tipping point: I have been extremely hesitant towards a service that locks customers into perpetual subscription-tude. Libraries have already been force to cave, as they now rent access to journal databases that can be taken away whenever Elsevier et al deem fit (search the Chronicle of Higher Ed and Inside Higher Education for examples where libraries suddenly lose access to journals, including back issues they had already paid for but turns out never really owned). And textbook companies not surprisingly want a similar model, where students rent e-textbooks rather than purchase cheaper used copies (no additional royalties to the publisher) that the students can then resell (assuming the publishers don’t release a new edition every year to combat this). Digital serfdom one could say, with unending fees and no guarantee of future price scales, much less future service.

But, to quote Trent Reznor, maybe there is Happiness in Slavery. There are certainly advantages to the subscription model (easier upgrading and trouble-shooting among them), and the amazing possibilities of digital data over the Web make the idea bearable. Yet I still find myself pining for the good old days when you actually owned what you bought, and companies didn’t force you to sign up for a never-ending ponying up of cash. I’ve already had to repurchase a dozen MP3s that I’d previously purchased from Napster (legally), but now am unable to “acquire the license” when I try to play them – I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much, though, since I fortunately never had a large vinyl collection to replace on CD (just a bunch of relatively-inexpensive mix tapes).

That being said, the individual costs of such subscription services usually aren’t outrageous for a single year (especially now that you can purchase digital items in small chunks, for just a little cash) – but of course that’s the beauty of subscription services, they make themselves useful and don’t remind you of how much you end up paying over the long term. Whether this is worth it or not depends on what companies decide to do with your data, how much they decide to raise the price next year, and how accessible it will all be at some indistinct point in the future. For that we’ll need to wait and see. In the meantime, I guess I just need to forget that consumption wasn’t always a (potentially) life-long commitment to a particular brand, and ignore as well the little counter in my head that keep toting up how much my Dropbox, Evernote and webhosting services cost me over a five year period.

Back up! Make your own copies – don’t assume anything you find online (e.g. Google Books) will be available a year from now!

So, are you analog, digital, or a reluctant hybrid? Any can’t-live-without subscription services that make it all worthwhile?

I read the news today, uff da, Pt. IV

Just finished the first week of classes, and it looks like I’ll shoot for one post per week as a reasonable pace. I’ll try to schedule it for every Monday, to get in a rhythm. Comments always welcome.

Concluding our discussion of early modern intelligence.

So, what to do with all this intelligence left behind by our early moderns? Most obviously, we can mine such intelligence reports for the details relating to any specific event: the siege of Stevensweert, the battle of Ramillies, or what have you. But we can also generalize a bit. To wit: Read More…