Archive | September 2013

Understanding wars – the visual way!

For those keeping track, I give you yet one more example of my desire to replace reading text with seeing icons (check the blog’s graphics tag for other examples). Turns out I can trace my fascination with visualizing info to my teen years. My first recollection of being amazed at the visual organization of lots of information was my high school periodic table of the elements. It was a fancy two-side sheet brimming with colorful detail – I can’t find that particular version online, but here’s an example:

Periodic Table of Elements element

Periodic Table of Elements element

In addition to the way in which the elements were organized into periods and groups, other info (in a smaller font, as above) was included as well. One side of the sheet included the atomic mass and many other numeric values for each element, while the other side illustrated some kind of 3D shape/structure associated with each element (haven’t taken chemistry since high school, so I don’t know what it would have been exactly, but I think it looked kinda like the shape of a crystal, or a molecule). I remember being excited, literally excited, at how much information was grouped into that little space – a very efficient micro-macro reference device.

Eventually (as a sophomore in college) I became a historian. What a let down in the visualization department (with the exception of those wacky Annalistes). So let’s talk one of the most frequent ways historians summarize historical info: the timeline. I hope I’m not the only one who hates simple two-column timelines that waste space by spelling out Battle of Mohács, Siege of Vienna… Not only does it take up a lot of extra space, but you can’t include any other info in the list with text alone (who won the battle? which sides were involved? what did it lead to?…). You can of course use a limited number of font style options to add one or two more dimensions to the info in the timeline, but why not use icons, which can manipulate Bertin’s visual variables of shape, orientation, color/hue, value, size, position and texture? Lots of permutations there. This ability to include much detail in a small amount of space is also the motivation behind Tufte’s sparklines, which would be awesome to include in campaign narratives: march rates, casualty rates, army size fluctuations… Yet such things almost never appear in military history, despite our heavy reliance on maps. It’s particularly odd how historians expect these kinds of symbols on maps, but don’t think about using them elsewhere. (Not that I’ve got anything against maps, mind you.)

Thus my mantra: Condense the info and add more, dammit! And, lest you fear, notice that a lot of this info doesn’t even require BIG DATA and massive quantitative datasets – it’s simple nominal and ordinal data.

But back to my timechart-of-the-day (wait for it), which illustrates the major military events of the Ottoman Empire in the first half of the 16C. It probably has a lot of mistakes, but it’s not my fault you see. When you try to create such campaign overviews for most early modern wars, you quickly discover that historians love to mention big events like major battles and sieges, but rarely do they mention the operational context, and they happily skip over entire years when there may (or may not) have been fighting. Half of the time we can’t even be bothered to specify the year: “Several years later the Turks returned…”. Yet even if every combat and campaign doesn’t merit narration, they could at least be included in an appendix or table/chart. (Note to publishers: I would gladly pay an extra $20 for a book that included such basic information, data absolutely critical to judging the quality of an author’s argument. Or I’d pay $20 for digital versions of the kinds of timecharts I post here. Am I the only one?)

So this chart (wait for it) provides yet another example of the challenge non-experts and experts alike face trying to assemble a systematic overview of a campaign based off of spotty narratives that leave out all sorts of details and important information. Reminds me of grad school, where I quickly realized that we could argue about Roberts’ or Parker’s Military Revolution (how much change? when did it change? how did it change?), but since we didn’t know the details of all the various battles/sieges and campaigns, it was a pretty speculative discussion, and not incredibly worthwhile. Now if we had systematic empirical evidence to back our hunches up rather than a decontextualized quotation or two…

In other words, I haven’t found the perfect source that provides Ottoman campaign narratives by year – most of what I have are thematic works by the likes of Rhoads Murphey, Gabor Agoston (apologies for the lack of accents), and Virginia Aksan.

So check out the Symbol page for my icons if you haven’t memorized them by now. And finally, without further ado, I give you the Ottoman wars chart.

Ottoman Wars timechart, 1505-1547

Ottoman Wars timechart, 1505-1547

So was it worth the wait? I think it works as a good reference sheet, but I won’t say too much about its content, other than to suggest that it does a decent job of illustrating how the Ottomans had to juggle expansion (and defense) along several different frontiers, from North Africa and the Mediterranean, to southeastern Europe and Hungary, to Persia to the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf and Red Sea. Palace coups, revolts, plagues and fires, raids, battles and sieges – they sure were busy!

Feedback (corrections especially) appreciated. And please make your own timecharts and share them; feel free to use my iconography if it helps (I think it does, needless to say). As usual, feel free to use this chart (no publication), as long as you properly attribute it to this blog.

Random Powerpoint slide

‘Twill be a busy year, so discussion of Marlborough et al must wait.

But in the meantime, I present a semi-randomly selected slide from my European warfare course. We just covered early gunpowder weapons, so I summarized Kelly DeVries’ chronology (I think it’s pretty similar to the more recent The Artillery of the Dukes of Burgundy).

Early gunpowder development

Early gunpowder development

Lessons learned? Technology takes a long time to standardize and optimize, and there will always be certain usage scenarios where older technology may still be adequate.

Devonthink revisited

A reader asked for a bit more detail about how I use Devonthink, and after several months of use, I have a more straightforward description. Straightforward, however, does not mean short. I don’t know the meaning of the word.

The way I use DTPO, there is no significant difference assigning tags and groups. Groups and tags are two separate hierarchical lists in the left-hand pane that you can drag documents to, but other than that, they are almost identical. You can assign documents to either a tag or a group by simply dragging them onto the appropriate icon. If the target is a group, dragging is essentially using the Move To command, which will remove the document from its current group – that may be the problem some people have in assigning a single document to multiple groups. Of course if you’re moving it from the Inbox that’s not really a problem since you probably want the Inbox empty anyway.

In any case, there are easy ways to create duplicates/replicates, which is what you need in order to put a document in multiple groups.

1. For those mouse-draggers, you can Opt-Cmd-Drag a document to another group and it will create a replicate there. Option-drag creates a copy (duplicate) in a new group. Oddly, however, I’ve noticed that on the Magic Trackpad (my pointer of choice) the Opt-Cmd three-fingered drag motion MOVES the document rather than Replicate it. If you use the more traditional click single-finger drag combination on the trackpad, however, it works. Whatever.

2. Using the Magic Hat drawer is a bit trickier, since the Move To is just that. So you can Move To a specific group (or shift-select multiple groups) and then use method 1 or 3 or 4 to send to groups that aren’t listed in the Magic Hat list. (I think there may be Applescript somewhere to automate this more by creating new groups as well.)

3. But I try to be keyboard-focused, so when working with a specific document, I assign the groups by jumping to the Tag bar of the document (there’s a key shortcut) and just typing in the tag or group, as many of each as I want. This is particularly helpful if you have nested hierarchies and don’t remember the parent group name (to navigate to in the list) but do remember the specific subgroup, e.g. I remember the subgroup ‘England-Netherlands’ even if I don’t remember that it’s in the Diplomacy-Alliances parent groups. The popup in the Tag bar will recommend to autocomplete a tag/group I’ve already created. This way, having the same document in multiple groups is automated if you type multiple groups into the Tag bar of an individual document – you don’t have to do anything else. It will automatically create replicants as needed. All this assumes you’ve unchecked the Exclude Group from Tagging option (right-click the database name in the left-most pane, choose Database-Properties and uncheck).

4. Or you can manually replicate/duplicate a specific document (key commands) and then drag the copy to another group (or right-click and do the same with the pop-up menu). If you are concerned about database size, use a replicate, which will create multiple instances of a single copy (red title if you have that setting checked). If you will be further modifying the document depending on which group it belongs to, choose duplicate (title in blue), which will keep the original separate from any copies.

So my basic workflow consists of creating provenance tags and then moving the original PDF/rtf documents directly to the provenance tag, then taking notes (‘one thought, one note’) in separate rtf documents (within that same provenance tag) with a wikilink back to those originals. Then I assign topical groups to those note rtf’s in the note document Tag bar, which keeps a copy with the original in the provenance tag and creates a replicate of the note document in all the topic groups I’ve typed. If you need more detail:

1. Drag copy of an original source PDF/rtf into DTPO – to the Inbox if I don’t have a provenance tag already created, or directly into the provenance tag if it already exists. Of course I could just create a blank provenance tag and then drag the PDF there if I have the time. Generally I try to do so, so I avoid step 2.
2. If the PDF went to the Inbox, I then create a blank provenance tag and drag the PDF there. But ideally you skip the Inbox, because that is actually its own group, i.e. you need to assign a document to another group to get it out of the Inbox. AFTER sending the document to a Tag, you still have the ‘Inbox’ group assigned (if you’d moved it to a group it would have replaced the ‘Inbox’ group with the new group). For those instances, I created a sub-group under Inbox called “Untagged”, drag the PDF from the Inbox into it, then delete the ‘Untagged’ gray tag in the document’s Tag bar (you can’t see the Inbox gray tag in the Tag bar of documents in the Inbox, but the Untagged group tag essentially replaces the invisible Inbox tag with a visible Untagged tag when you move it to Untagged). This removes the document from the Inbox so it is currently only in a provenance Tag. (Now you see why I prefer to create the provenance tags first and skip the Inbox.)
3. Once the original PDF is in the provenance tag, I can then assign the entire document to any number of groups via the Tag bar. But since I have lots of image PDFs and long treatises in full-text that cover a variety of topics, I rarely assign an entire 17C manual in PDF to a specific topical group. Instead I usually excerpt parts (or type up notes/thoughts) in a separate rtf document within the provenance tag, and link (Copy Page Link) to the original PDF, to the specific PDF page even. Then I can assign one or more groups to that note document, that may be different from other notes on the same source.

Using groups for provenance will work, but you lose DT’s ability to auto-suggest based off of the groupings – unless of course all of your groups (400 folios of archive volume 43254 for example) relate to one specific topic.

That being said, I do use Tags for other purposes – in part because DT isn’t a relational database that would allow me, for example, to create a lookup table so I could identify person Nottingham as a Tory… But that’s a function of the limited metadata available in DT. Given the granularity at which I want to tag/group my data, I have to use groups and tags in several different ways.


But there might be broader issues of divergence here. I’m not sure if the group/tag difference comes from people wanting to put an entire original document into a single topic (whether group or tag). In general I don’t think that’s a very good idea because you are most likely analyzing subsets of that document. Perhaps I’m unique, but I work with a level of granularity that divides a single one-page letter up into several parts – one note for the first sentence talking about receiving news about the siege of Turin, then the next paragraph talking about politics back in England, then a final postscript about the shortage of fodder. Or a treatise on the art of war that spends a chapter on the infantry, then one on the horse, then one on siegecraft (with subtopics within each chapter). If the goal is ‘one thought, one note’, which it should be, ideally you shouldn’t have very many note documents with multiple topics – if you do, your search results won’t be very granular. Although that depends on your vocabulary: I distinguish a topic from an author from a place from a level of war from a branch of service from a date… Unfortunately DT’s limited metadata requires you to condense these thirty different pieces of metadata into just a handful of dimensions (groups, tags, names, limited metadata). Say I have a single sentence on a siege (EventID=Douai1710), that talks about the food supply (Level=Logistics) of the Allied besiegers (Army=Besiegers): it’s hard for DT to make room for all of those (in addition to all the provenance info) without having either the group or tags do double-duty. So I have a group for the siege of Douai 1710, another for Logistics, another for… Presumably just what people do with tags, but with groups. I’d still really like some mass-editable custom metadata fields in DT – that would truly make it a killer app for historical research.

Another possible divergence I’ve noticed comes from how much you want to use the AI. Yes, you can assign multiple tags to a document, but you can’t use the AI on those tags. If you have a limited number of documents so that you can fully process all of them, and your analysis will be relatively focused in time and scope, this may be fine. But that’s not my situation. You can use the AI’s See Also on any specific document without grouping by topic, which will definitely help you find other documents with similar content.

But I’m not sure how robust these results will be. For example, will See Also connect my single document consisting of a paragraph on English politics to other discussions of politics outside of England? I don’t know – it would be great if someone tested it empirically. But given that it looks for unique-ish words, I’d think proper nouns tied to England in that paragraph (London, Parliament, Godolphin…) would outweigh other political-y words that might be shared by more general discussions of politics (elect, secretary, vote, debate). If you create separate groups based on politics regardless of country, in theory the AI should more easily see the patterns among these shared politic-y words. And what if you want to look for other documents that talk about Parliament (without mentioning its name), or want to do a separate search on documents that talk about Godolphin? I’m not sure that you can force a simple See Also search to ignore some of the content of the document, whereas I think you can at least demote its importance by grouping it with other documents that talk about the topic you want to focus on, e.g. documents that use phrases like Lord Treasurer, the Queen’s servant and Whitehall when you’re looking for Godolphin documents. The Devonthinkers don’t want to divulge how exactly the AI works, so we users are in the dark until somebody does some real tests. My assumption has been that Classify is a more powerful and more flexible use of the AI since you can create an infinite number of forced semantic groupings of your own choice.

I don’t have all of my documents (24,000 after all) fully grouped and parsed, and only 8,000 of them are text, but the results from the screenshot example below gives me a bit more faith in the Classify by groups than the See Also by individual documents.

Classify vs See Also

Classify vs See Also

The selected document’s content is in the second-from-right pane. The Tag bar at the bottom shows the specific group I had assigned it to on my own – Fear of Casualties – subset of Laws groups. The right-most top column shows the AI’s Classify recommendations. Ideally you would explore each of these groups and their documents in turn, but my initial reaction is that the AvoidCasualties and Casualties groups are spot on – maybe I even need to consider combining the Fear of Casualties and AvoidCasualties groups for even more robust results.

More interesting are some of the other suggestions. I’m not really sure about French criminal – maybe ‘bloody’ and ‘killing’ prompted the connection? The Defense of Great Captains is interesting – possibly the prescriptive tone is being noticed by the AI? The Deception group could be focusing on the ‘least bloody’ language. Again, speculation, but the AI has suggested some interested thematic suggestions that I hadn’t initially thought of. Even if the AI is wrong (i.e. its similarities aren’t based on what I thought), my speculation might itself merit further exploration, or at least serve as brainstorming. So maybe if I create a group with all the prescriptive literature combined together, what other connections will I find? And so on.

On the other hand, I’m not as impressed with the See Also (bottom of right-most pane). A few individual documents seem quite appropriate (and probably help suggest why French criminality and Deception were suggested groups). There are some definite suggestions to explore, but they seem rather limited, or at least they don’t immediately suggest the conceptual connections automatically suggested by Classify – and any topical tags won’t appear in Classify. That alone makes Classify and topical groups worth it in my eyes. Further, there were a number of documents in the suggested groups that do not appear in the See Also list. Not sure what this means, but it might be worth exploring as well. The experiment continues.

[Bonus content! In the screenshot above, my wikilink back to the original is the blue hyperlink ### at the top. I use ### because I found that if you include citation info in the document text, e.g. Dryden Fables ancient and modern, that will interfere with the AI. It will link all the notes on Dryden together because they all share the text ‘Dryden Fables ancient and modern’ – thanks for telling me the obvious! But since the provenance tag (blue Dryden tag in the Tag bar, lower right) already indicates its provenance, that’s wasting the AI. You want the AI to base the connections off of the content of that document, not off of the citation text, and to have the AI suggest documents that aren’t obvious. Since DT doesn’t interpret non-alphanumeric characters, it doesn’t include ### in its analysis. It’s a bit gimmicky, but it seems to work.]

Sad news re: Higgins Armory, with a happy ending?

I just learned that the Higgins Armory will be closing at the end of the year.

Those outside of New England may be unfamiliar with the armory, but this Worcester, Massachusetts-based museum was built around the medieval/Renaissance arms and armor collection of early 20C industrialist John Woodman Higgins. The resulting museum, lowering its drawbridge in 1931, currently claims 3,000 items, and is “the only dedicated museum of armor in the western hemisphere, housing one of the few significant collections of knightly armor outside of Europe,” according to its website. The museum also focused on outreach, offering dozens of educational programs for schoolchildren every year. Unfortunately, it’s almost 60,000 annual visitors weren’t enough to make up for the lack of an endowment.

Given the focus, the interior is quite impressive and well worth a visit in the few months left:

One room in the Higgins Armory (

One room in the Higgins Armory (

It will be closing its portcullis for the final time at the end of the year, and will transfer the core of its collection to the Worcester Art Museum. It looks like WAM has big plans for the transferred items, and they promise within 6 years or so we’ll be able to see 2,000 items from the collection in “open storage.” Stay tuned.

Conferences, conferences…

Deadline for proposals for the Society for Military History’s annual conference (next April) is coming up at the end of the month.

Personally, I won’t be doing the conference circuit this year, instead trying to get more of my book written. (Yeah, right. I mean, Yeah, write.)

But clearly someone reads the blog, if I may quote from the call for papers (CFP):

“The year 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. It is also the 150th anniversary of the third year of the American Civil War, 200th anniversary of seminal events in the Napoleonic Wars and War of 1812, and 300th anniversary of the end of the War of the Spanish Succession.”

I like how they finessed the anniversary of “seminal events”, although I’m hoping reeling off a list of anniversaries won’t become the standard from now on. And seminal events? They’re a dime-a-dozen. It made sense for a conference theme of memory and commemoration, but it could get old real quick I think.

But then maybe the SMH has painted itself into a corner – how can you not mention the end of the Napoleonic wars in next year’s CFP? Maybe we can take 2016 off? We’ll know the SMH is really pandering to the early modernists if they invite us to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Peace of Noyon ending the War of the League of Cambrai!

Maybe History isn’t that far behind the curve?

Chronicle of Higher Ed reporting on a recent study in biomedicine methodology (CHE article currently behind a paywall, but may eventually be converted to free access).

The study found that only 54% of the instruments and materials used in 238 recently-published articles could be identified from the content of the articles. Not surprisingly, this makes replication of the results (you know, what the scientific method is based on) difficult if not impossible. Takeaway quote: “The group quantified a finding already well-known to scientists: No one seems to know how to write a proper methods section”.

What’s the percentage in History do you think?