Mindmapping and Writing

Ale’s goal of getting her thoughts in order before she starts writing made me think of something I’ve been meaning to share here. Literature and Latte, the folks who brought us Scrivener, recently debuted a new app for mindmapping: Scapple. I’m far beyond the planning stages of my own project, but during this recent thought-provoking conference at Michigan I started organizing some thoughts on the intersection between the American carceral state and my own research on African American AIDS activism. Here’s a slightly more polished version of what I put down:

Created with Scapple.
Click for larger version.

Here I devised a kind of visual logic using the different note shapes that Scapple offers. Rectangles are abstract concepts, with the governing concept of the carceral state having a thicker border than the others, round-cornered boxes are concrete examples, and the bubbly cloud-box-things were meant to represent a process–ACT UP Philadelphia reaching out to halfway houses and drug treatment programs as part of their drive to bring in new membership, which in turn changed their civil disobedience tactics.

I like to use mindmaps in my teaching to help students organize their knowledge (h/t Melanie), but I can also see how this would be useful in sorting out a project in the early stages. How do y’all organize your thoughts before you write (if you do)?

See also:

ProfHacker on Scapple

Flavorwire: Charts and Diagrams Drawn by Famous Authors


Friday… fun?

Via Joe.My.God., here’s a… um… fun browser-based mapping application you can use to simulate the detonation of a nuclear warhead over the city of you choice.  By selecting from a drop-down menu, you can drop anything from “Davy Crockett,” the smallest nuclear warhead ever produced by the United States, to the potential* nuclear blast yield of “Tsar Bomba,” the largest hydrogen warhead ever produced by humankind.

Aside from being a morbid distraction, I’m trying to decide if this would be an appropriate teaching tool to help students visualize a) the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II or b) the damage that could have been caused by a nuclear attack during the Cold War, such that they better understand the nuclear paranoia of mid-century.  One thing that struck me when I “detonated” Little Boy and Fat Man over my house in South Philadelphia was that the destruction didn’t reach out nearly as far as I expected, so I’m concerned that students would be… underwhelmed?  And although the program will show you how large an area would be immediately consumed by a fireball versus merely leveled by the resulting shock wave, the map is a little clinical for my taste.  When I’m teaching this kind of material, I really try to get students to empathize with the bombing victims, so for teaching Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I’ll probably stick to something like this:

Or this excerpt from one of my favorite documentaries:

No joke, Fog of War makes me cry pretty much every time I watch it.  Stupid Philip Glass score.

And as long as I’m basically free-associating YouTube clips here, this whole thing reminds me of Isao Hashimoto’s wonderful piece of video art, “1945-1998”:

When I watched this for the first time, I didn’t know about the history of French nuclear weapons testing in North Africa–I’m sure there’s an interesting study to be done there, if one hasn’t been done already.

Have fun bombing the crap out of your respective neighborhoods, y’all!


*When the Soviets tested it in 1961, they did so at only half yield–a measly 50 megatons.  Here’s more video!

No jest.

1079, 388.

You know when you run across something in the intertubez that makes you want to grab the person sitting nearest to you and shake them because it’s just SO EFFING AWESOME and you want someone to share it with right away, even if that person happens to be the unfriendly coffee shop hipster at the next table who has been giving you the side-eye for ostentatiously mouthing Kylie Minogue lyrics for the past 45 minutes while they try to read Crying of Lot 49?  No?  Because that was totally the reaction I had to this article from the New York Times about The Decemberists’ new video for the appropriately-titled “Calamity Song.”  The video dramatizes what is probably the best single scene from David Foster Wallace’s massimum opus Infinite Jest, in which the students at a Massachusetts tennis academy simulate nuclear war through a game called Eschaton that involves lobbing “5-Megaton” tennis balls at athletic gear representing the combatants’ (AMNAT, SOVWAR, IRLIBSYR, SOUTHAF, and IRLIBSYR being more or less self-explanatory) strategic targets, all laid out on a map encompassing several tennis courts.  We get Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy as Michael Pemulis/The Peemster, grand don and progenitor of Eschaton, drummer John Moen as aspiring sportscaster Jim Troeltsch, and keyboardist Jenny Conlee as a pink-wigged Ziggy Stardust cum DFW himself, as well as child actors playing Otis P. Lord, who runs the Eschaton show from his computer cart, Evan Ingersoll, who brings on the real chaos by launching a ball at Ann Kittenplan, who in the video looks quite a bit more diminutive than the novel’s steroid-addled version.  Director Michael Schur opted not to end the video with Otis P. Lord’s head inside of a computer monitor because “They’re all flat screens, and you can’t put your head through a flat screen.”  I only wish he had included the jockstraps re-purposed as MRVs.

Short as it is, this post involved a lot of Googling since I don’t have my copy of IJ handy.  In the process of searching, I came across this massively detailed diagram of the book.  Regular readers of this blog (hi, Grandma!) know that I have an abiding, albeit pedestrian, interest in maps and cartography, which perhaps explains part of my affection for IJ, given DFW’s extensive use of motifs of maps and mapping.  Also, here’s a link to the io9 post that originally led me to the Times piece.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put my head through the monitor.

New banner.

This summer I’m teaching a course on Cold War culture in America, and this is part of an image I used during a lecture on Truman, liberal anti-communism, and the Marshall Plan.  Here it is in its entirety:

In the 1948, Truman faced a tough re-election.  With the Cold War escalating, Republicans and conservative Democrats used red-baiting as a blunt tool for discrediting the president and his symbolic ties to the late Roosevelt and the New Deal.  At the same time, Senator Robert Taft and other leading isolationists challenged Truman’s commitment to a leading role in world affairs through the Marshall Plan and the United Nations.  In the upper left hand corner you can see the onion domes of Moscow (capped by a red sky) threatening some (western) Europeans proclaiming their love of peace, prosperity, and democracy.  The United Nations sits along the same vertical axis as Moscow, suggesting that collective security (interestingly, not the United States, although Truman certainly can be understood to represent American power) will provide a bulwark against the spread of communism.  The use of global imagery is also interesting (John Fousek’s To Lead the Free World has a great visual essay along these lines), suggesting at once a world made “smaller” by communications and transportation technologies, and that the entire world can and should be the literal sphere of American influence.

The great thing about teaching this course is the sheer wealth of audio and visual material that I can use during class.  This means that I can literally illustrate my lectures, and that we can practice analyzing posters, photographs, songs, and other primary sources as a class.  To my mind, this encourages the critical thinking and analysis skills that are the most important things that students can take away from a history course.

If you want to practice your own critical thinking skills, or just look at/listen to some fun stuff, here are some links to web collections of Cold War materials:

Authentic History Center



Ward Shelley, knowledge, and maps.

Ward Shelley has been getting a lot of attention lately (at least in my corner of the internet) for his map of the history of science fiction:

"The History of Science Fiction, ver. 1" by Ward Shelley

Among other projects, including performance art, installations, and sculptural work, Shelley specializes in large (the above measures about three feet by four feet) and graphical timelines that recall both the intricate temporal maps recently collected by Anthony Grafton and Daniel Rosenberg in their recent book, Cartographies of Time, and the scientific illustrations done by past generations of natural historians.

"Who Invented the Avant Garde, ver. 3" by Ward Shelley
"Downtown Body, ver. 1" by Ward Shelley

These often describe the histories of art movements or genres, like the Beats or science fiction (above), or broader trends in cultural and artistic production, like the changing nature of the avant-garde, or the “autonomy” of art amid shifting economic pressures:

"Autonomous Art, ver. 1" by Ward Shelley

It’s worth viewing these (and the others) on Shelley’s site because there you can zoom in on high-resolution versions of these images, and these are pieces that definitely reward close viewing.

Shelley’s works are of course visually interesting in and of themselves, especially if you consider their real-life dimensions, and moreso for the way they draw connections among bits of disparate information to make visual arguments about the complex terrain of artistic expression and experience.  The generic references to both mapping and scientific illustration seem purposeful, as Shelley’s work meditates on the power that inheres to representations of knowledge.  From the artist himself:

These paintings… are about the struggle of form to express content in the cognitive space that exists between the Subject (us) and the Object (the world). If that cognitive space is a territory, these paintings are landscapes of that territory.

Other works of his similarly explore the materiality of information, as with the collaborative (with Douglas Paulson) installation piece “Archive,” which consists of thousands of stacked, uniquely labeled boxes:

"Archive" by Ward Shelley and Douglas Paulson

We might understand the boxes to represent many things, but to me they suggest the power of the archive–expressed here through sheer volume–to shape future narratives, as well as the sometimes arbitrariness of preservation:

"Archive" by Ward Shelley and Douglas Paulson

I just began reading Carolyn Steedman’s Dust: the Archive and Cultural History, which opens with a discussion of Derrida’s notion of “archive fever,” through which he links the repository of documentary knowledge to the Greek arkhe, “a place where things begin, where power originates, its workings inextricably bound up with the authority of beginnings and starting points” (Steedman 1).  One thing I try to get across to my students is that knowledge production is always contested and freighted with political assumptions.  Some have more trouble wrapping their heads around this than others, but fortunately (for my pedagogy, anyway) American history is filled with examples of specious “knowledge” deployed to political ends:


from Races of Mankind (1854) by Josiah Nott and George Gliddon

The trick is to get them to apply that critical perspective to the world around them.  It’s not easy, but for me it’s one of the major payoffs of teaching history.

For more esoteric cartography, check out Frank Jacobs’ appropriately titled blog, Strange Maps.