Monday, December 04, 2006


It turns out that I have some borken links on my blog, so I am going to take a couple of articles down, and find a new path to the information that I wanted to link to the entry.

Also, there are still a couple of posts that I have yet to finish. They concern my attempts at tagging digital media. If you are interested: I am getting butt-whooped by the code.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Greek Computers

A recent article in Archaeoastronomy describes a study performed on an ancient lump of metal. It turns out that the Antikythera Mechanism is the equaivalent of an ancient Greek computer. Now, images of a P4 logo etched on face aside, this article leaves a few questions unanswered.

First, the device is supposed to be able to 'calculate' "the position of the sun, moon and planets against the celestial sphere". What the article does not specify is what version of the solar system it is employing. The ancient greeks had competing models of the universe: geo-centricism and helicentricism. Now, most people are familiar with the ancient geocentric model because most textbooks like to bash it to show how "stupid" everyone was until Copernicus.

So, which model does the device use? I am going to assume that it is the geo-centric model, but that is only because the Arab world and the medieval West both had similar devices that used it: the astrolabe and the armillary sphere.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The origins of the mouth-breather.

Alright. One post on how much I detest mouthbreathing was just not enough for me. So, herein I am going to try to investigate the historical status of the mouthbreather. I just want to understand where we went wrong.

Wikipedia has a useful entry on mouthbreathing, covering both the medical definition and the common impression of the behaviour. Note that I am obviously not the only one on this most-just crusade. Actually, I have found at least one supporter on the net.

However, wikipedia does not give me any information on when the term first entered use. So, I checked out…that veritable treasure-trove of idiomatic knowledge…and I got bupkis. Nadda. There was one definition, and it was simply concerning the mechanical/medical status of mouth breathing. There was nothing on the social appearances, or the negative impact of the behaviour.

I started to suspect a conspiracy. Could the mouthbreathers have allies high-up enough that they are preventing common-knowledge from being recorded? Could The Man be a mouth-breather?

Worried, I decided to re-start my search with a resource that features the “common” usages of terms. That’s right- the Double-Tongued Dictionary. I was delighted to find that the definition for “mouth-breather” was (rightly so):
mouth-breather n. a stupid person; a moron, dolt, imbecile. Related: English, Derogatory, Slang

What is even more useful about the DTD is the fact that the site provides a list of citations supporting their definition. This way, one can get a sense of when the term started to take on its meaning. In this case, the earliest citation of “mouth-breather” used in the manner described by the definition (after all, what is the definition of a word other than how it is used in a phrase?) was from 1944.

I was a little doubtful of this date, so I decided to check if it appeared at all earlier. Much earlier. I decided to search for “mouth breather” on EEBO. And once again, I got bupkis.

So it seems that the pathology of mouth-breathing was not discovered (or, dare I say it: created) until the current century. There was an etymology discussion on surrounding where the term may have originated. The earliest that this author could find of the use of the term was with regards to the physical effects of mouth breathing on hearing.

So I tried using FindForward’s “early century” search counter. The results gathered by the search for “mouth breather” suggest that the use of the term peaked during the 1940s. However, since this search does not allow me to actually see the data gathered, I can not say for sure if the results are relevant to my search.

The “later century” search saw some interesting variation in the use of the term (peaking in the early 80s), but once again, since it does not actually allow you to access the data, I can not determine the relevance. However, what is interesting is if you compare these results to a search of the term “mouthbreather” (one-word). The results peak around the same years. Once again, though, the fact that I cannot examine the data for myself makes the results dubious.

Friday, November 17, 2006

I hate mouthbreathers.

I know that this is definately not a post about using digital sources to do historical research, but I really have to say something. While doing some crowd wathcing over lunch this afternoon, I must have counted something like 20 mouthbreathers. Some were even

In the new regime, I am going to put a public tax on mouth-breathers.

Seriously. I think that there are one or two other things that one could do to successfully tell the world that they are barely thinking. Now, before writing this off as just another diatribe- which, admittedly it is- just stop to think about it. Have you not ever seen someone walking on campus with their mouth half open? Haven't you also noticed the fixed-forward stare of these people? Honestly, it looks as though they are asleep on two feet. What's worse, is the dull, glazed-over expression that dominates the face. Why don't these people take a look in the mirror? Moreover: the sound. I swear that whenever I go to a movie theatre, in that moment when the lights go down and the audience quietly awaits the film to start (or, properly, the commercials), I can always hear a cacophany of mouth breathing. That's right. It's this not-quite-a-snore-but-damn-louder-than-NORMAL-breathing sound.

Well, it could just be that they are living down a long evening, or they are suffering through a long day, and they really are starting to fall asleep on their feet. But I doubt that that is always the case. This seems to me to be an abnormality that is fostered by our health-care-centric, lazy, sedentary lifestyle. If people were more active, breathing through their noses would become normal. Yes, it is true that you can draw more air through your mouth. So when you are exercising it makes sense to inhale through the mouth. However, it is also very effective to exhale slowly. Come on, everyone has done those calming exercises where they are told to "breathe in 1-2-3, hold, and exhale 1-2-3-4".

This is not just some yoga-new-age-mumbo-voodoo. There is a physiological rationale here. When you exhale too quickly, you throw off the CO2 balance in your blood. This is usually referred to as hyperventillation. Not healthy, to say the least. When your CO2 balance is off, your body stops functioning properly. This results in the fatigued I'm-so-tired-that-can't-even-find-the-strength-to-close-my-mouth look.

Aside from leaving the body in a panic-response mode, imbalances in blood pH can lead to immune deficiencies, and increase sensitivities to allergens and other air-borne pollutants. There are also several other points about the detriments of mouth-breathing, but the last one that I will bring up is that mouth breathers are obviously bad kissers.

Take running, for instance. that I think of it, running may be a bad example of nose-breathing vs. mouth breathing since most people do not have to worry about breathing rythm. Also, I think that the general consensus among runners is that whatever works is good for you.

But that doesn't help to prove that nose breathing is better. Swimming: there's a sport where your breathing rythm affects performance. Try swimming while exhaling through the mouth, and then through the nose. You should find that you need to take fewer breaths/length when exhaling through the nose. Inhaling through the nose is a bit more difficult due to (proper) head position, so a combination of mouth-inhaling and nose-exhaling is probably best.

My bottom line here is that mouth breathing is just ugly, aside from being un-healthy. Especially when not exercising. Now, as a nose breather I know that nose-breathers can be equally loud. I am pretty sure that everyone has had that experience where they go from walking outdoors and sit down inside and then their nose starts running. If you don't have a bunch of tissues on you, you end up making sniffing sounds every couple of minutes. Believe it or not, but I find that this sound is much more tolerable than the slightly-audible grating of a mouth breather.

So, to all of the mouth breathers out there: there is hope for you. Admit you have a problem, and seek some rehabilitation.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Throwing Swords for Dummies

Alright, admittedly this post is not in keeping with my previous ones, in that I am not going to be strictly commenting on internet tools for historians.

I'm not sure if I am the only movie-buff in the world who has noticed this, but sometimes it just seems this way. Have you ever watched a movie where the main character throws their sword? The most recent flick that I had seen it done in was "The Last Samurai" where Tom Cruise throws his sword, and it impales some guy like a spear.

Honestly, I can't help but start laughing whenever I see this. What strikes me as so funny is, first: the idea of using a sword as a spear sometimes seems to be a result of not actually having a spear in the prop department.

It kind of makes me think that our civilization does not actually remember what sword is for.

Second: (and I admit that I could be flat-out wrong on this one) Swords cannot be thrown like spears/javelins. Trust me, I have tried throwing any number of sword-like objects in the past (hey, we were all kids once!), and swords are just not balanced like spears, or knives.

Now, I have tried searching the web for this topic, but it seems to me that no one has actually posted on the real-world physics behind throwing swords. When performing a search on the google, the main hits returned were from a bunch of RPG-players trying to come up with the stats for "throwing swords", and sword manufacturers. There was one site that seemed as though the author had done some credible empirical research, until he made the following statement:

"...pointed out that there's a LOT more momentum behind a missile from a horse. Partly because of the extra height, partly because you've got that extra 30 mph to add to the missile. So, yes, a thrown big knife will do enough damage to be noticed."

Once again, demonstrating to me that scienticians (my definition: non-science people commenting on science) should take some physics.

So to end of this rant, I am going to start a list of movies that incorporate a scene where the hero throws a sword and impales his/her enemy, or cuts some object at the last possible moment to stop a chain of (possibly deadly) events from unfolding:

1) The Last Samurai; Tom Cruise impales the racist American colonel, from horseback.
2) Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; Morgan Freeman throws his bizarre scimitar at the witch just before she stabs Robin in the back.
3) Any Movie with Schwarzenegger holding a sword; Conan, Red Sonja, the Conan Sequels, Predator (apparently this a machete, but hey!)
4) Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail: The Black Knight, anyone?
5) Gladiator: Russel Crowe gets one of the riders in the colosseum (who is on horseback)

If anyone would like to add to the list, please feel free.

Monday, October 30, 2006

I (heart) Python

So I have finally decided to sit down and try to learn some of this programming mumbo-jumbo. After glancing over a couple of the beginner's guides, I have settled on Guido Van Rossum's Python Tutorial. I find that his guide is much clearer on indenting than some of the others, but the one thing that I would really appreciate is a syntax guide. Even if it was just a list of the most basic functions would be helpful, as it would spare me from constantly growling at the computer.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Context-hunting computers?

During an in-class discussion the other day, a question was posited about how a computer program could be made to search a digitized text for its context (or was it subtext?)

This got me thinking about a tool that can be easily accessed on the internet: the linguist's search engine. Basically, it is a program that can break down a phrase/sentence into its syntactic parts. So, if you enter the statement: "The Chinese community was blamed for the 2003 SARS pandemic", the program will identify that the subject of the statment is the "chinese community".

What I think would be pretty awesome is a tool that can take a search query (like the one stated above) and first identify the syntactic role of the various word-strings. Following this, it could create an ad hoc storage base not only of the separate word-strings, but also for word-strings semantically related (re:synonyms (probably the first three entries of an on-line dictionary)) to those data pieces. This way, you could have a program that can perform a broad non-specific search for a particular phrase.

I had always wondered if there was a way to graphically represent people's reactions following a particular event in the news. With a program like this, I believe that it would be possible to find out how many people thought, e.g., that the Michigan Militia (re: T. McVeigh) was responsible for the attacks of Sep 11/2001, before al-qaeda released a video taking responsability.

I'm not too sure how to make a program like this work, or even if it is feasible. BUT, in theory it seems sort of cool.

Any thoughts?

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Faking it on the Web

The proliferation of internet "digital hoaxes" brings several things to mind:

First: the urban legends

These popular pictures spread as attachments that were forwarded a billion times across the web. Some of them were just obviously ridiculuous, such as the "Bert is Evil" campaign. However, there were others that seemed at least slightly plausible. They were often grotesque images with an accompanying explanation. I’m pretty sure that everyone got at least one of them: the “eye-infecting dust-worms”, “breast infection”, and “contaminated sushi” seemed to be the most famous. In the instance of the breast infection, a doctored photograph did the trick, but the other two used actual pictures. The stories describing them were invented.

I believe that our fascination with this sort of spectacle can be connected to the 18th century fascination with cabinets of curiosities. The only difference is that the ‘curiosities’ can now come to us. In the past, people would question the veracity of an exhibit simply because of what it was presented with. Now that these curiosities are coming to us via email, it seems that the onus of determining a thing’s “truthiness” depends on the viewer’s own ability to check sources, as well as their ability to be skeptical, or at least agnostic.

Second: Mechanical Objectivity

I think that our visual gullibility can be connected to a cultural acceptance of what Lorraine Datson and Peter Galison have termed “mechanical objectivity”. Basically, with the invention of the camera, people believed that they finally had a way to present reality without worrying about bias in the presentation. Now, this was back in the 19th century: since then we have also learned to be skeptical of photographs. However, we can’t forget that the idiom: “Pictures don’t lie” is based on the assumption that a camera always discloses the truth.

Third: Political manipulation of imagery

Once the public accepted the notion that “pictures don’t lie”, various groups/individuals/institutions have tried to use this belief against us for their own rhetorical ends. During the 2004 election campaign, John Kerry’s picture appeared in an image with “Hanoi Jane” Fonda at an anti-vietnam rally. Now, I do not necessarily believe that this sort of manipulation resulted in Kerry’s defeat…the man did it to himself (or rather, did not do it)…but it is clear that whoever doctored the image did it for propagandist ends.
As an historian, I tend to historicize things. In this case, doctoring photographs for propagandistic ends has been an old tactic, and does not depend on digital technology. The case of Trotsky disappearing from Lenin’s side was accomplished, after all, through analog methods.

Fourth: Coded Objectivity?

The article on Farid’s truth-seeking algorithms makes me think about our own era’s notions of objectivity. If the truth is no longer in the camera (which can be manipulated), does this mean that the truth is in the code?

Friday, October 06, 2006

Spiders crawling all over the web... has a very interesting article on creating web spiders. The article is pretty technical, however, after parcing through it there is alot of useful information to be gleamed. Using a web spider is kind of like using google. However, as I understand it, the information returned by a webspider follows a directed path of links starting from the "root"; whatever website you choose to have the spider start following links from.

At the bottom of the article there is a downloadable Demo program of a spider. Very fun program to play around with. Once I became used to the advantages/disadvantages of using various breadth and depth settings, I was able to return some intereseting results.

For instance, if you set the maximum search depth to "100", this particular program will follow each link until it has travelled 100 links from the root. At that point it will start the "breadth" field of the search, which involves travelling along each of the links found on each website, until it can travel no farther.

So, it seems as though the Demo Spider has two modes: first, the depth mode, it travels along the first link it encounters until it can not travel any farther, or it reaches the maximum number of sites to travel along. Following this, it "backtracks" to each site, and explores any other links available, until there are no more, or it reaches the maximum depth specified.

As a tool, this strikes me as extremely useful since it searches the entire website for you. Rather than try to search through a site map for specific content and links on a website, one can make the spider do it for you! If one wanted to create a database of links on a particular subject, this program performs an exhaustive search. Granted, you have to go through the material yourself. However, there is an added tool in the program to make that task much easier.

You can enter keywords for it to pay attention to, so the program will highlite any webpages that match the criteria that you specify. This is not like a key word search on google as it does not isolate the sites that return the keyword. However, it is useful for "seeing" the shape of the net.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Tagging and the Natural History of Art

While going over a couple of readings on the current project to make museum catalogues more searchable by generating non-expert keywords, I was reminded of a book by John Pickstone (Manchester) called "Ways of Knowing".

The book is essentially a history of Science, Technology and Medicine from the Renaissance to the present. Pickstone addresses the limits of local history (local referring to a particular time, place and theme), by experimenting with a novel historiographic approach. This approach is intended to outline the larger features of the history of science, technology and medicine (STM) without limiting his narrative to only one tradition.

So what does WoK have to do with Museum tagging? Pickstone distinguishes between 3 types, or ways of knowing in the history of STM: natural history, analysis, and experimentalism. He includes the way of “technoscinece” to analyze relations between science, technology, industry and policy.

What struck me as very interesting was the similarity between tagging and the tradition of "natural history". Pickstone describes natural history as the tradition which “covers all the things that can be named and collected”, and all forms of “collecting, describing and displaying". Basically, taking a natural history of a thing involves the naming and describing of it. Essentially, one has to "create" a place in their world-system by naming a thing. Although natural hsitory was most prominent in the 17th and 18th centuries in the history of STM, Pickstone suggets that natural history as a way of knowing can be seen in the world wide web: a place where things are categorized by their names, not by an hierarchical categorization.

I just went through my old posts and did some spell-checking, and I also added some titles to the posts. The presentation of the blog seems a bit more coherent for the moment...

Friday, September 22, 2006

Don't try this one if you have a life (if you're like me, then it's okay...)

After an in-class discussion about open-source software, I was reminded of one of my favorite video-games, The Battle for Wesnoth.

Basically, it is a combination Strategy/RPG where you lead an army against your enemies. Not very original, neh? What I believe makes this game quite unique is the fact that- aside from the fact that it is free to download and play!- the source-code is not protected. Basically, people who play the game are free to edit it and to add to it as they please. The programming language used for the editor is not simple, but it is also not impossible to learn (actually, a little experience with Deductive Logic may go a bit farther than computer programming language here). The only expectation of the players is that if they make some change to the maps/scenarios/sprites/etc, they should share it. That is it.

It's encouraging that there are communities like this on the intra-web. My only real wish is that someone would make the Reseau-Lu software open-source...and free!

P.S.: I do not accept any liability for time lost becuase you get addicted to the game.
ANT, Reseau-Lu, and a wish-list

There is a particularly useful lesson on datastructures posted on this online computer science tutorial. The reason that the lesson is particularly useful to me is that it provided some answers concerning some new technologies being in science studies(made up philosophers, historians, anthropologists, and sociologists- mostly the last group.)

Actually, I think that the wiki on science studies provides a pretty useful tool if you want to find out what it is all about. Since the history of medicine oftentimes converges with the history of science, I have had some experience with this sort of literature.

Of my experience, I have found that one of the most interesting (-and dare I say useful?-) tools to come out of this field is the Actor-Network Theory. Once again, the wiki provides a decent over-view of the theory, but it also leaves out the more recent changes and developments.

This theory is particularly useful as the basis for schematizing the spread of scientific knowledge. Recently, some science studies articles have used certain computer programs to create a two-dimensional representation of these scientific networks. The most current co-citation software being used is Reseau-Lu.

The program was used by Alberto Cambrosio (McGill), Peter Keating (UQAM), and A. Mogoutov (Aguidel) in an analysis of antibody reagent workshops (Social Studies of Science 34/3 (2004):325-64). By using Reseau-Lu, the authors were able to create a two-dimensional map of the cluster-designation workshops that was not limited to just the relationships between people: the map included the relationships between workshop groups, molecules, cell markers, and equipment. Interestingly, the methods employed by the authors to analyze the heterogeneous map were similar to those used by the scientists to develop a cluster designation nomenclature. Here is one of the maps used in the analysis:

Now, back to data structures. The lesson that I mentioned at the beginning of this page helped me to visualize just how this sort of software operates. The nodes seen on the map are basically the nodes described in the lesson. It strikes me that the Graphing Data Structure lesson can help one to appreciate how a program like Reseau-Lu operates. This sort of program could be extremely useful to historians who want a way to represent complex interactions between people, places and objects in the past. With a little tweaking, the program could even be used to represent various periods (years, decades, etc) of the network.

The only thing that I can see preventing me from using this sort of software is price. As I understand it, it happens to be pretty expensive, and it does require some training. Then again, it's not as though my weekends are completely booked these days, so that is not much of an excuse. that is certainly holding me back...

Monday, September 18, 2006

Getting Wiki-fied

It's late at night, and I've just finished reading Rosenzweig's article on the history of wikipedia. I'm a little too tired to post all of my thoughts on the article, but one thing that seemed clear to me was that my own opinion of Wikipedia are not really that unique. Another thing that caught my attention was how Rosenzweig compared the current concerns over Wikipedia's "objectivity" to the birth of the AHA, described in Novik's seminal work.

One issue that neither author brings up is the question of just what sort of objectivity is being discussed. For instance, in the beginning of Novik's book, objectivity is used as a yardstick to determine the extent to which an historical work is scientific. That is, connected with the values of late 19th Cent. science. However, those values were not static. More recently, historians like Lorraine Datson, also Peter Gallison have demonstrated that "objectivity" itself has a history, and that its usage by people aspiring to it has varied across historic contexts.

Don't get me wrong, it is not that I feel it takes away from Rosenzweig's article, it is just a thought that popped into my head. Otherwise, the article also impressed on me that there are a lot of issues surrounding wikiality.

Did you just ask what 'wikiality' is? It's a little bit of pop-trivia. I am a pretty big fan of the Colbert Report, and while reading the article, I suddenly remembered one of his monologues from over the summer. Stepehen discusses Wikipedia, and how through it we can create a reality that we can all agree on- the reality we just agreed on.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Thinking Machines, Racing Brains, and conversations with ALICE

I've just finished going over this lesson concerning AI. Now, all joking aside about computers taking over our world, and watching a computer and a brain race away, get awarded trophies and frown over losing...Bah, who am I kidding? I laughed at that animation until milk came out of my nose! It was awesome!

Now, since I am not a scientician (sic) in any real way (does watching star trek count?), when I first came across a lesson on AI, I thought: WOOHOOO! Now I'm going to find out how long it will be before I can buy a computer program that will write a publishable paper for me! Much to my chagrin, it turns out that my dreams do not stand a chance of becoming reality. Boo-urns.

What struck me as particularly interesting about the lesson (aside from the responses by the ALICE program to my very inappropriate questions) was the notion of "expert systems". The potential for new diagnostic technology was particularly intriguing to me. At the same time, the complexity required for such a system to be actualized is daunting. The lesson made it clear to me just how much of our cognitive processes are in fact the sum of several thousand at once. The instances of language and visual recognition were very illustrative. In order for a computer to become an expert diagnostician, it would need to be able to analyze huge amounts of data, reconciled by various tasks. However, at the same time it seems that there are certain factors in play in a clinical encounter that the computer could never really get around. For instance: after testing positive for a form of leukemia, would a computer prescribe a high-toxicity chemotherapy to a patient that is already severely weakened by the course of the disease? What factors influence a physician's decision in such a matter, and can they all be reformatted into a useable computer program?

I suppose such a situation could be handled by a logic tree of some sort, but it strikes me that the clinical encounter requires too many implicit value judgements for a program to be able to handle.

At the same time, it strikes me that historical analysis may be quite far beyond the current theories of AI. After all, where does one's inspiration come from when we choose a particular topic to investigate? I know that this is an old "art" argument, but I am surprised that nothing like it what covered in the articles. It is possible to apply fractal algorithms to Pollock's art, but how does one even begin a program to create such a piece? I guess that I'll have to keep looking for an answer...

Then again, it may be the case that I am just a neo-luddite.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Historical Algorithms?

So I recently found myself doing some readings on algorithms. I found this lesson pretty interesting, if a little rudimentary. I thought that the principle characteristics of a good algorithm were well explained, but the lessons themselves involved a little too much guiding by hand. Luckily, the good ol' intraweb has the resources to help me read more about the topic. One thing that did interest me comes from the page on worst case scenarios. What caught my eye was how the authors skipped doing all of that summation work for the selection and instertion sorts by recognizing the trend seen in the first order of magnitude analyzed. However, how would they have solved the equations: (n-1)+(n-2)+(n-3)+...+1 if they did not have the simple sort to compare with?

After a quick Google search with "math" and "summation" as my principle search terms. The first result returned was for the title "the algebra of summation notation". I found that the site was fascinating.

Although the site did not explain exactly where some of the "well-known" summation rules came from, I could see that the (n*(n-1))/2 shortcut used in the algorithm lesson was based on rule #2, where S(n)(i:n)= (n*(n+1))/2. I could also appreciate that rule #2 could be derived from rule, rule #3 and #4 are a little difficult to appreciate. Where do the 6 and 4 come from?

I guess that I will have to figure that one out on my own...

The sorting algorithm strikes me as an essential tool for anyone doing research that involves collecting pieces of data. However, it is significant as a stochastic tool, as I believe that it will not return sorted data in a way that is meaningful to historians. Of course, this last point is certainly up for debate...
Wikipedia, Phlogiston, and Tradition

When looking at the Wikipedia link about the Phlogiston theory, a couple of things stand out. First, and I think that this is just becuase becuase I am the sort of person who reads the end of a story first, the bibliography only contains one reference, and it is from 1900.

1900? Since it is not a primary source, I find it a little circumspect. Couldn't the author have found the information from a more current source? It is not that I believe that the content of the article is isn''s just that really old sources like that cannot be connected to the current literature in a significant way.

The next thing that stands out about the article, to me, is the way that the description of the theory removes it from its historic context. It is one thing to explain who developed the theory and what it stated. I think that that would be in traditional encyclopaedia form. This article in fact tried to elaborate on the history of the theory by describing its "enduring aspects":

'Phlogiston theory allowed chemists to bring explanation of apparently different phenomena into a coherent structure: combustion, metabolism, and formation of rust. The recognition of the relation between combustion and metabolism was a forerunner of the recognition that the metabolism of living creatures and combustion can be understood in terms of fundamentally related chemical processes.'

This statement reeks of positivism. I have a personal dislike for arguments that try to directly connect the science of the present to what was being done in the past. Earlier I mentioned that the article removed the theory from its historic context. I'll elaborate on that now. From my own reading on the subject, what one has to consider when looking at eighteenth century theories is that people saw the world completely differently from the way that we see it. That seems pretty obvious doesn't it: they were living over two hundred years ago, right?

What the article does not explain about the Phlogiston theory is why the theory appeared when it did. Why did it not appear earlier, or later? Perhaps the latter is easier to answer, in the article the author explains that Lavoisier "discovered" oxygen, leading to the notion of oxygenation.

However, why did Becher come up with the theory when he did (by the way...the article does not give an exact date as to when the theory was developed)? That is, why did it appear then? I beleive that this is important information that the aticle negelects to bring up. Becher's theory should be understand as a philosophical theory as much as it is a "scientific" one. The notion of Phlogiston is akin to earlier notions of "life force" (soul, pneuma, chi). That is, it is an unquantifiable factor at play in everyday life. The theory was postulated as a resistence to the iatromechanism of the day.

This is why I thought that the author missed the point of the theory. It was not a precursor of modern chemistry, specifically because it was not intended to help explain physical phenomena in terms of reducible, quantifiable substances.

The wikipedia article is interesting, as a primer. However, it removes the theory from its historic context, and creates illusory links to modern chemistry.
Phlogiston on the Web

So continuing the elaboration/rant about the phlogiston theory, I suppose that I should explain it. Rather than pull out references to the particular print literature that discusses the history of the theory, I am going to try to use this 'intra-web' thingy to assemble useful information about the history of the Phlogiston theory.

After entering "Phlogiston:" as my basic search term on, the top results were (in descending order):

Infoplease (a personal webpage)
A transcription of Joseph Priestly's 1796 Essay: "Considerations on the Doctrine of Phlogiston and the Decomposition of Water" (transcription by C. Giunta, Dept. of Chemistry, LeMoyne College).
Each of these websites is interesting, and (hopefully soon) I will share some of my thoughts on how useful they are to a historian.
Why not a blogiston?

Some of you may have noticed that the title of my blog is "Phlogiston". I chose it for several reasons:

first, I thought that I might try to use the term "blogiston" as a title, then decided against it since it sounded a little too much like the name of a central asian republic.

Second, one of my historical interests is the history of science. My main field of study is the history of medicine, but the two subjects tend to share alot of the same material. Especially before nineteenth century (*arguably). The "Phlogiston" theory was a particularly interesting philosophical theory during the eighteenth century. Notice that it was a philosophical theory. Simply put, "science" as we practice it today was markedly different from what was done in the past. Before the modern era, alot of the experimental research of the past was categorized as "natural philosophy". I'll post more on the specifics of the phlogiston theory later.

Lastly, I chose the title of my blog because I thought that it sounded cool.
Post the First

For my first post, I am going to offer a disclaimer: this is my first attempt at blogging, so my posts may seem a tad amateur to some. If that is the case, I welcome any comments and criticism concerning my future posts. After all, (constructive) criticism is an excellent tool for learning!

I guess that I will say a couple of things about myself:

I am currently working on my Master's at the University of Western Ontario, in History. I originally hail from Toronto, but I did my undergraduate study at McGill University in Montreal. My main area of historical study is the History of Medicine. I am particularly interested in modern medicine, and the various ways that the social/cultural environment has influenced standards and protocols. In the past, I have been involved in research projects on the history of orthopaedic surgery in Canada, as well as the history of standards and protocols in orthopaedics. I am also interested in the "Scientific Medicine" of the 19th Century, specifically how scientific rhetoric influenced clinical practices.

My 'other' interest of the moment is in the novels of Haruki Murakami. He's a very popular novelist in Japan, who has recently garnered alot of international acclaim. His oftentimes unique narrative structure, as well as the way that the lines between reality/unreality are blurred make for very interesting reading. I've nearly completed my collection of his works, as I am only missing a few (including the most recent...grrr...). If you are interested at all, don't worry about familiarity with Japanese/Japanese culture. His short/concise style translates very smoothly into English, and I have not had any complaints with the translations so far.

I look forward to discussing history (or anything else) this year...