Archive for the ‘Research’ category

Call me a shill, but those Apple ads ain’t lyin’

16 November 2011
Categories: Research

Several months ago, I made a flat statement that I will never own a Kindle. For what it’s worth, my reasoning was a combination of technological expediency (what if, years from now, I want to read a book that I purchase today?) and sentimental tangibility (by holding this book as I read it, it becomes imbued with more value than is contained in its contents alone). The stodgy old reader in me declared “books are better.”

My stance remains the same, at least with regard to single-purpose readers like the Kindle. But I have a sudden, tremendous, newfound respect for tablet computers, thanks to my wife who recently gave me a new iPad as an early Christmas present.

Why? Because a tablet makes an absolutely indispensable research tool.

Consider this: as I explore topics to expand my website A Brief History of East Lansing and the Michigan Agricultural College, my core research materials include History of the Michigan Agricultural College by William J. Beal, the Annual Reports of the Secretary of the Board of Agriculture of the State of Michigan,* the Minutes of the Board of Agriculture/Trustees, and Semi-Centennial Celebration of Michigan State Agricultural College edited by Thomas C. Blaisdell. I own copies of the books, purchased at some expense given their age and limited printings; and I have downloaded PDF scans of the Annual Reports and Minutes.

Trouble is, Beal’s book is over 500 pages; Blaisdell’s, nearly 400. The Annual Reports are thousands of pages long, and the Minutes count to well over 10,000. I would need a duffel bag to carry it all, or maybe a rolling suitcase.

And yet every one of these is available online for free. They fit into my iPad all together, with plenty of room to spare. (It bears mentioning that cramming all the Minutes into it was a chore; iTunes choked more than a few times on my attempts to import 1,262 PDFs at once, and also when I combined them into seventeen PDFs that averaged 200+ megs each.) Plus it has a web browser, so I can find other information I might need. I can write notes in it about new discoveries. I can even update my website directly through it. And when I get tired of research, there’s always Catan, or a Ken Ken or crossword puzzle to solve.

Sure, it’s not going to replace my treasured copy of Beal, especially since the online version lacks the full-size foldout map and timeline that the hardcover included. But I now can leave Beal safely on the shelf—and read him anywhere at the same time.

The slow-moving “profound revelation”

30 April 2010

The ironic term “profound revelation” is borrowed from a Woodstock-era drug-humour book called A Child’s Garden of Grass, but its use here is not meant as any kind of drug reference. Rather, it applies well to a certain progression of thought: when, in the midst of research, one discovers or figures out a particularly interesting fact, and thinks “holy cow! look what I found!”—and then, upon further research, realises that just about anybody with marginally closer proximity to the subject matter would look upon this so-called discovery and say, “well, duh.”

One of the most fascinating (to me) items in the history of East Lansing, Michigan, is that it not only had a streetcar line that served the Agricultural College from Lansing, but that the line was later upgraded to an interurban service that reached all the way to Owosso. Growing up riding CATA buses, I had no idea that this other form of public transportation had existed, some fifty-plus years earlier. That is until, as a teenager in the mid-’80s, I saw the tracks myself—hidden beneath the pavement of M.A.C. Avenue, briefly exposed during a repaving project.

Befuddled by this inexplicable, long-buried infrastructure, and as yet unaware of the streetcar, I promptly forgot about it. But several years later, as I started my research on city history, I came upon Chace Newman’s 1915 map of the city and immediately noted the railroad tracks running past the college grounds and straight up M.A.C. Avenue. I put two and two together and realised what those rusty rails had been.

I wanted to know more, but at the time my resources were more limited. J.D. Towar informs us that the interurban reached Owosso and was popular for excursions to Pine Lake, which we now call Lake Lansing. Newman’s map only extends to the 1915 city limits, and even then the subdivision of Avon Dale—not yet incorporated into the city—is obscured by the map legend. The interurban line ran along the south side of Burcham Drive, but cannot be seen on the map as it reaches Hagadorn Road.

So I left it at that. The vague “headed out past Pine Lake to Owosso” would have to suffice.

Late last year, I noticed an interesting marking on the OpenStreetMap wiki atlas: a dotted line denoted “Interurban Pathway.” “Holy cow!” I exclaimed, or words to that effect. “That must be the old interurban right-of-way!” As that map shows, the railway continued straight along Burcham Drive, past Park Lake Road, and went on without bend at least as far as Okemos Road. With new-found excitement, I started to track down further information on the line, slowly piecing together its route through old maps and vague references in newspapers and history books. As recently as two days ago I sent an e-mail to someone at the city, ingenuously asking, “I think maybe that thing, near your thing, might possibly be part of an old interurban right-of-way… do you know anything about this?”

Little did I realise that this obscure (to me) “Interurban Pathway” on OpenStreetMap was in fact a rails-to-trails project of Meridian Charter Township, and was paved with a twelve-foot-wide strip of asphalt in 2007.

Well, duh. Maybe if I still lived near East Lansing I’d have half a clue these things were happening. Turns out, this summer the township and the county road commission will extend the pathway along the interurban right-of-way by another mile or so, out to Marsh Road. I wonder if they’ll find any remnants of the old railbed.

A lode of manure… sheds

17 November 2008
Categories: Research

Years ago—in 2003 to be exact—while I was first placing online my Brief History of East Lansing, I included among its pages a footnote I privately (and facetiously) refer to as “The Historian’s Lament”:

The difficulty in charting the lives of buildings such as barns and greenhouses lies in their purely utilitarian nature. A spiffy new structure, even a minor one, will often get a bit of fanfare from an historian, especially if it incorporated some important new technology (e.g., the school’s first underground grain silo, as mundane as that may seem today). However, these same historians are much less likely to mention the demise of these. The buildings become run down from heavy use; they are referred to by different names as their purposes change; they make way for much more spectacular edifices. (Or, as in the case of the greenhouses behind Old Horticulture in 1998, they are ignominiously removed to expand a parking lot.) In any case, it becomes a matter of connecting the dots: e.g., botany greenhouses were built in 1867, 1874, and 1892; but which of these, if any, was the greenhouse demolished in 1955 for the Main Library? In the absence of solid facts, one can only strive to avoid spurious assumptions.

Yes, it’s true that the mainline historians will fail to mention the demise of utilitarian buildings. Kuhn hardly mentioned barns at all. Lautner went for the larger scope of campus land use (as well as some interesting political machinations) and glossed over the less permanent buildings. And Beal—heck, Professor Beal seems not to have been able to admit to himself, let alone put into print, that his own Botany Lab had burned to the ground. When it came to the farm, he deferred to others for most of what he included in his book.

However, I have come to discover that I have been looking in completely the wrong place. Of course these historians are going to give the big picture overview. Yet just because they find a building too mundane or utilitarian to mention its demise, that’s no reason to assume that no one found it interesting, or described its fate in excruciating detail.

While attempting to determine the date of a photo of the second boiler house that I received via e-mail from a fellow alumnus (thank you Tom!), I got to wondering about the barn in the background—and took that as an excuse to attempt, once again, a catalogue of all campus buildings, including the barns and greenhouses. As I tabulated the maps I had on hand, I noticed in the 1899 map a notation for B. O. Longyear’s house on College Delta, which intrigued me.

Why it intrigued me is a tale for another time. It was in a Google search for biographical data on Longyear that I stumbled across an online treasure trove—the Annual Reports of the Secretary of the State Board of Agriculture of the State of Michigan. Between Google Books and Internet Archive, nearly a complete set of the reports from 1862 through 1920 are available in several formats. (Unfortunately, the first report, from 1861, still eludes me.) Since the Board of Agriculture’s principal bailiwick was the Michigan Agricultural College, these reports tell of the school’s inner workings, often in painstaking detail—all the way down to minutiae like the cost of chalk and erasers for the classrooms.

I had been trying to figure out what all the barns had been in the original compound (around where Ag Hall is now, and east and south of there). I wanted to know when the newer compound (around where Hannah Administration and the Computer Center are now) was created, and which barns in it were new and which were moves and/or reconstructions. I knew I was getting close when I found the following comment in the Forty-Seventh Annual Report (1908) by Dean of Agriculture (and future President) Robert S. Shaw:

The farm building equipment work is now practically complete and a full description of the regrouping, remodeling, and refitting of the various buildings has been given in Station Bulletin № 250, with the exception of a manure shed erected since this report was issued.

…a Bulletin that is included, in its entirety, on page 211 of the same Annual Report.

Jackpot! If I wanted to reconstruct the farm compound exactly as it appeared in 1908, accurate down to the last timber, cupola, fence post, and horse stall, I need look no further than Experiment Station Bulletin № 250. Its level of detail is mind-boggling—in part because the College’s intent with its bulletins was to help the state’s farmers learn from the mistakes that the College farm had made. A map of the old compound as it appeared in 1902 is included, and descriptions and diagrams of each barn’s modifications as it was moved or repurposed to the new compound carry on for some seventy pages in all.

Now, to write the article for my site…

Tough love for Moo U

2 April 2008
Categories: Research, Wikiality

Over the past couple of years, ever since I first heard about it in Walter Adams’ excellent memoir The Test, I have been fascinated with the Michigan State University Group, a technical assistance project that MSU provided to South Vietnam from 1955 to 1962. Part of the reason it intrigued me was the fact that up until two years ago, I had never heard of the project—and I’d even worked for one of the participating MSU departments for seven years (albeit thirty years after the project ended). I know I’m not alone in this; MSU seems perfectly happy to forget it ever happened.

The thing is, all I could find online on the subject was a reprint of the Ramparts article (“The University on the Make”) that had generated such controversy and campus uproar. In reading John Ernst’s even-handed 1998 history Forging a Fateful Alliance, and more recently Scigliano and Fox’s “official” 1965 overview Technical Assistance in Vietnam, I could see how one-sided the Ramparts article was. Yes, it raised some valid questions about the project, its motivations, and its CIA connection. But it did so by deliberately ignoring any positive benefit that MSUG might have had for the people of Vietnam.

This hardly seemed fair to me. After all, the people who had initiated and participated in MSUG had done so with (mostly) good intentions. That the results were less than stellar was pretty much par for the course in that era of overseas technical projects run by American universities, as Adams and Garraty so deftly illustrated in their book Is the World Our Campus? (1960).

Most people are unlikely to do as I did and take out interlibrary loans of dusty, seldom-used, sun-faded volumes from such far-flung locales as Southern Illinois University and the former Northeastern Illinois State College (as one book’s stamp reads). For them, the sum total of MSUG history on the Internet was a possibly spurious, certainly unsubstantiated tale of cloak-and-dagger nefariousness. History is written by the victors, and in this case the victors were the conspiracy theorists.

I’m not trying to defend the project. Diem was a complete bastard, the U.S. was wrong for backing him at all (much less as long as we did), and MSU managed to piss away a lot of its intellectual capital and new-found respectability by playing along. But the University’s motives were not 100% craven, and MSUG was not merely a CIA front.

So, to provide a more even rendition of the history to a wider audience, I wrote an article for Wikipedia. (My other, more personal, motivation was that it allowed me to finally get the story out of my head, where it had been bouncing around without a proper audience for months.) Before posting it, I ran it past my wife, who called it “tough love” for my alma mater; and one of my closest friends, who suggested I run it past my dad, who remains active in the University community.

Dad was very supportive: not only did he purchase and send me another book on the subject, but he also contacted a fellow retired professor who had run the MSU international programs office for many years. (This professor begged off the question by reminding Dad that he had started in that role several years after the end of MSUG, belying the fact that he had of course worked closely with nearly everyone involved. This may be seen as an indication of how the subject remains a sore spot with the MSU administration.) The professor read the article and offered only minor copy edits and a few vague suggestions, and said he thought I should submit the article to a magazine or scholarly journal for publication. That was a pretty clear sign that I had nailed it.

And now, a digression into Wikipedia minutiae…

With no red flags waving, I posted the article just after noon UTC on March 26. I added a few redirect pages and also incorporated links to it in several articles that mentioned (or should have mentioned) the project: Ngo Dinh Diem, John A. Hannah, and Operation Passage to Freedom among them.

It soon was noticed by a user with a vast Wikipedia résumé on South Vietnam, Blnguyen, aka YellowMonkey, who praised it and kindly offered assistance in polishing it up for Featured Article status. He (I assume it’s a he) made some minor improvements but otherwise left it well enough alone. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have any sources for related photos either, so I’m still trying to figure out if the image of Fishel and Diem I scanned from Ernst’s book can be used.

The other thing I did that day was to self-nominate the article for Wikipedia’s “Did You Know?” feature. DYK has only a five-day window for eligibility, meaning that nominally the hook could go up on the main page any time through the 31st of March, or maybe the 1st of April (or, not at all). For the next several days, I watched it closely.

The DYK template has a minimum refresh interval of six hours, but as I watched it over the past week, it generally had a refresh interval of closer to 7½ or 8 hours, or about three new lists per day. It was pretty easy to follow, even though checking on some updates meant stopping by the computer after a 4 a.m. trip to the head. Thing was, the DYK nomination list is usually backlogged, so the stuff that appears is almost always the five-day-old hooks. This meant I should have expected to see my DYK, if it was chosen, around the 1st.

Except of course the 1st was April Fools’ Day, and all the DYK hooks were jokey twists on reality. So everything got delayed by a day. The first DYK update went up promptly at 00:01 UTC, 2 April, signifying the official end of April Fools’ Day (not that that abated the attempts to edit the Oldsmobile page, but that’s a different story).

The next DYK went up at 06:02, exactly 1 minute after the refresh window opened. And lo and behold, there was my hook.

Or, a facsimile of my hook. Although it exceeded the 200-character recommended limit by a handful, I had offered up:

…that the Michigan State University Group, which gave technical assistance in public and police administration to the government of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1962, provided cover for the CIA?

What appeared was:

…that Michigan State University, which gave technical assistance to South Vietnam from 1955 to 1962, provided cover for the CIA?

In other words,

…that the Michigan State University Group, which gave technical assistance in public and police administration to the government of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1962, provided cover for the CIA?

By the way, the edits and inclusion of my hook in DYK were done by my new acquaintance, Blnguyen. I suppose “in public and police administration” was simultaneously too detailed and not explicative enough. Pulling “the government of” was a good bit of clean-up, since the contract was with the government but the assistance was, at least in intent, given to the country—i.e., not just the government, but the people of Vietnam.

Piping the article title into “Michigan State University,” however, shocked me a bit. At first I thought my trouble with the piping is that it implies, at first glance, that “Michigan State University” is a new article, which of course it is not. But the truth is, it was shocking to me because it pulls no punches, and gets to the heart of the matter: MSU itself provided the assistance—and the cover. MSUG was just the instrument of providing. This edit made me face the fact that I’m still a bit uncomfortable about my school’s integrity having been risked on this enterprise, and perhaps subconsciously I was trying to distance MSU from MSUG.

What chagrins me most, though, is the fact that the next DYK update occurred at 12:14, or 6 hours and 12 minutes after the previous. On average, the DYK refresh intervals today (including a relatively laggard one at 18:34) have been merely 11 minutes longer than the required 6-hour minimum. That’s a considerable change from last week: from 3/25 to 3/28 the average interval was an even 8 hours. Clearly they’re working to eliminate some of the backlog by updating as often as possible. (And yet, by 03:00 UTC on 3 April, they were back to an 8 hour interval.)

In short, if we go by Michigan State time (that is, EDT), the DYK hook appeared from 2:02 AM to 8:14 AM on a Wednesday morning. So much for getting it noticed. I’ll have to check stats.grok.se tomorrow to see if the article received any bump in traffic at all.

Follow-up: Well, that was at least a bit impressive. 1 April: 11 reads. 2 April: 1172! (Also bumped up views of my user page on that day to 25, from a pre-posting YTD average of 2.34.) Nevertheless, I still feel that the article didn’t get the audience it deserved from DYK.