Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Origins of Memorial Day

So my husband and I were discussing whether Memorial Day started after WWI or the Civil War. He was really certain that Decoration Day (as his mother used to call it) really begin after the Civil War. I rather thought it started after World War I.

Lo and behold, a Suffolk colleague, Prof. Frank Cooper, sent me an e-mail stating:
Memorial Day was started by former slaves on May, 1, 1865 in Charleston, SC to honor 257 dead Union Soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp. They dug up the bodies and worked for 2 weeks to give them a proper burial as gratitude for fighting for their freedom. They then held a parade of 10,000 people led by 2,800 Black children where they marched, sang and celebrated.
Wow! I thanked him, but before I ran to OOTJ to post this for your edification, I felt obliged to check it out.

First, I went to the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs website. This provides quite a lengthy history of the dispute over when and where the first Memorial Day celebration was held. It was definitely held shortly after the end of the Civil War, so my husband has won the argument, hands down. However, the VA does not repeat Frank's story at all. There are lots of competing first celebrations, but none involving freed slaves or people of color at all.

So, then, I searched for details from the e-mail Frank sent me. That actually turned up a couple hits, but I followed the link to Snopes.com. Snopes lists Memorial Day Origin and pretty much repeats Frank's e-mail. They credit the story to David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press), 2001, pp. 69-71. (ISBN 1-674-00332-2 for your convenience.) Snopes also includes all the details (and more) from the VA website, so it's a very detailed source on this topic. They conclude that, it's quite clearly true that the event occurred, with newspaper reports of the re-burial at a Charleston racetrack, carried out by the congregations of all the black churches of Charleston. But it is not so clear that this powerful public statement actually led to the spread of Memorial Day celebrations in other areas of the country.

The folks who reburied the Union soldiers in Charleston built an elaborate fence around the graveyard which they created. There was white-washed arch at the entry, with a sign painted on it: "Martyrs of the Race Course." The e-mail Frank sent me did not exaggerate the number of participants in the ceremonies, which is astounding. It did include a photograph, ostensibly of the children saluting the flag during the ceremony. The group of children is certainly not 2,800 children in size. And my husband wondered aloud how they got all those children to hold still long enough for a daguerrotype to be made. It turns out there were about 4 or 5 other technologies floating around to make photographic images. See this history. It may be that some technolgies did not require the subject of the photograph to hold still so long. But the image, used above to decorate this post, is evocative, whether it really comes from this very ceremony or not. I also find it rather chilling that the children appear to be saluting the flag with what would later be a Nazi salute!

The Veterans Affairs website states the General Army of the Republic (the Union Army) celebrated a memorial for the Civil War dead of both sides in May, 1868. There were apparently many local remembrances in 1866 and on, with many different towns and cities claiming to have been the first Memorial Day site. In 1966, a federal law officially recognized Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day. Both the Snopes site and the VA site continue in detail about the various contenders for the first site of Memorial Day and also various first celebrators of Confederate Memorial Days, and current dates for such celebrations. It was not until 1971 (!) that Memorial Day became a federal holiday and was moved to always fall on a Monday.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Handwriting Improves Memory Retention

So, the Boston Globe Ideas section today (May 25, 2014), has an article, "Taking Notes? Bring a pen, skip the computer." The article is based on (and thoughtfully includes a link to) a scholarly article by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, "The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking," (this is an updated version of the article linked from the Globe article). The article has not yet come out in print, but may be in vol. 25, issue 6, June, 2014, Psychological Science. From the abstract of the Mueller/Oppenheimer article:
Prior studies have primarily focused on students’ capacity for multitasking and distraction when using laptops. The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.
The Globe article describes the research from this scholarly paper. The Oppenheimer and Mueller divided their research subjects watch a lecture video. One half were assigned to take notes on laptops, and the other half were assigned to take notes by hand. 30 minutes to one week later, all the subjects were tested on their memory of the facts and concepts in the lecture. Those who took longhand notes performed "significantly better" than those who took notes on laptops, particularly regarding the conceptual elements of the lecture. The Globe author, Ruth Graham does an interesting job of following up this report by bringing together expert quotes and more reports of other research. I recommend reading the article.

Basically, experts are pointing out that those taking notes on computers are making themselves into automatons who take the words in through the ear, and automatically put it out their fingers, without processing it through the brain. An article in The Atlantic of May 1, 2014, also reporting this same research, elaborates that the Mueller and Oppenheimer even warned the laptop users NOT to simply transcribe the lecture, but to make notes in their own words. But the computer users still seemed to fall into transcription mode automatically. Yet somehow, those who handwrote the notes, perhaps because they were significantly slower, and had no hope of transcribing the lecture, engaged in mental processing and summarization in their notes. That mental processing resulted in much greater retention of both facts and concepts from the lecture.

I recall earlier research on the same topic, that adds considerably to the understanding of what is happening when we write by hand. On January 24,2011, Science Daily reported findings by Norwegian professor Anne Mangen and French professor Jean-Luc Velay who surveyed the research literature. The Science Daily report includes a description of research that is not discussed in the publication I link below. This research involved teaching a group of adult research subjects to write an unknown alphabet of 20 characters. Half the subjects were taught using keyboards and half were taught to hand write the characters. Three and six weeks into the experiment, the subjects were tested on their recall of the characters. In both tests, those subjects learning to hand write the alphabet performed better both recalling the characters and recognizing when characters were reversed or drawn correctly. Additionally, fMRI scans on the subjects showed an area of the brain, Broca's area, associated with speech production was activated in those who used handwriting, but not in those who used computer keyboards.

The Science Daily report is based on material from Professor Mangen and an interview with her. The original research appeared in a book, Advances in Haptics, available here as "Digitizing Literacy: Reflections on the Haptics of Writing." The researchers write:
... [T]he visual attention of the writer is strongly concentrated during handwriting; the attentional focus of the writer is dedicated to the tip of the pen, while during typewriting the visual attention is detached from the haptic input, namely the process of hitting the keys. Hence, typewriting is divided into two distinct, and spatiotemporally separated, spaces: the motor space (e.g., the keyboard), and the visual space (e.g., the screen). Another major difference pertains to the production of each character during the two writing modes. In handwriting, the writer has to graphomotorically form each letter – i.e., produce a graphic shape resembling as much as possible the standard shape of the specific letter. In typewriting, obviously, there is no graphomotor component involved; the letters are “readymades” and the task of the writer is to spatially locate the specific letters on the keyboard. Finally, word processing software provides a number of features all of which might radically alter the process of writing for professional as well as for beginning writers. [They are referring to spellcheck and grammarcheck.]

[They refer in section 4 to a list of research about the visual, kinesthetic and auditory interrelationships between writing/reading and the body and brain, referred to as "melodies."] ... the importance of acknowledging the vital role of haptics, and the profound and fundamental links between haptics and cognition, in writing. Our body, and in particular our hands, are inscribed in, and defining, the writing process in ways that have not been adequately dealt with in the research literature. The current radical shift in writing environments mandates an increased focus on the role of our hands in the writing process, and – even more importantly – how the movements and performance of the hand relate to what goes on in the brain. ....

... [F]ocusing instead on human cognition as inextricably and intimately bound to and shaped by its corporeal foundation – its embodiment. In this current of thought, cognition is no longer viewed as abstract and symbolic information processing with the brain as a disembodied CPU. It is becoming increasingly clear that the body is an active component that adds uniquely and indispensably to cognition, and that human cognition is grounded in distinct and fundamental ways to embodied experience and hence is closely intertwined with and mutually dependent on both sensory perception and motor action.
This fascinating article rings all kinds of bells with me, at least. I blogged about this issue of body and tool shaping the mind back in 2008, when I was all excited over the book Proust and the Squid, by MaryAnne Wolfe. I found earlier research on the subject in Science Daily which is referenced in that blogpost as well. We humanists need to stay in touch with what the scientists are saying because sometimes they have some pretty profound things to say about issues close to our hearts! I found it fascinating that some of the research in the Digitizing Literacy article shows that merely watching images of people performing work, of tools, or even hearing or reading just action verbs all can trigger areas of the brain that DOING the task would trigger. (Too bad it doesn't burn the calories, or couch potatoes would all be buff athletes!)

The image decorating this blogpost is the Creation of Adam, from the Sistine Chapel, a Wiki Commons image, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Creaci%C3%B3n_de_Ad%C3%A1n_%28Miguel_%C3%81ngel%29.jpg

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Hiawatha Bray responds to the E.U. Court of Justice decision requiring Google to remove "reputation staining" information

May 13, 2014, the European Union Court of Justice ruled in Google Spain SL, Google Inc. v Agencia Española de Protección de Datos, Mario Costeja González that individuals may require search engines to remove links to objectionable information. The Court of Justice ruled that search engines do more than simple search and retrieval:
... the operator of a search engine ‘collects’ data within the meaning of the directive. The Court considers, furthermore, that the operator, within the framework of its indexing programmes,‘retrieves’, ‘records’ and ‘organises’ the data in question, which it then ‘stores ’on its servers and, as the case may be, ‘discloses’ and ‘makes available’ to its users in the form of lists of results. Those operations, which are referred to expressly and unconditionally in the directive, must be classified as ‘processing’, regardless of the fact that the operator of the search engine carries them out without distinction in respect of information other than the personal data. The Court also points out that the operations referred to by the directive must be classified as processing even where they exclusively concern material that has already been published as it stands in the media. ....

The Court further holds that the operator of the search engine is the ‘controller’ in respect of that processing, within the meaning of the directive, given that it is the operator which determines the purposes and means of the processing. The Court observes in this regard that, inasmuch as the activity of a search engine is additional to that of publishers of websites and is liable to affect significantly the fundamental rights to privacy and to the protection of personal data, the operator of the search engine must ensure, within the framework of its responsibilities, powers and capabilities, that its activity complies with the directive’s requirements. This is the only way that the guarantees laid down by the directive will be able to have full effect and that effective and complete protection of data subjects (in particular of their privacy) may actually be achieved.
You can read the New York Times' article about the ruling here. It includes several responses from experts considering the potential effects of simply stripping out information from the Internet, and alternatively the power to control your own reputation.

The United States is very unlikely to come up with any similar ruling, largely because of our First Amendment free speech legal tradition. Hence an interesting column from the Boston Globe's technology columnist Hiawatha Bray on alternative ways U.S. residents can modify their search results to improve or maintain their Internet reputations. Some of what Bray offers is common-sense good advice that parents every where are handing out to their teens and college-age kids:

1. Don't do stupid stuff (at least in public)! But some of what he says may be counter-intuitive:

2. Establish your reputation online - and make sure it's what YOU want it to be! A dearth of information could be as damaging as bad reputation because others may fill the gap for you in unflattering ways.
* So use your real name on major social media sites
* Build your sites carefully and with a professional eye.
* Don't post stuff you'll regret (no drinking parties, etc!)
* Publish lots of interesting, but harmless posts (I think you should include things that establish your personality, but that may be after you are somewhat established in your profession -- I just think you should not be too bland!)
* Include a photo & information on personal interests, hobbies & a simple biography in that "about me" link

3. You can set up a personal website in your own name (HiawathaBray.com, for instance) for as little as $30/month, and he recommends it.

4. Bray reminds you that search engines rank social media websites and personal websites very high, so these will come up early in searches for your name, so do think carefully about what you post on these. They will be your first impression on anybody "googling" your name.

5. Link all your social media and personal web pages together. Put your LinkedIn link on your Facebook page, with your Twitter link, and make sure it's all copied on all the other web domains you have.

6. Keep it fresh. Try to post fairly regularly. More often is important when you are first establishing your presence in each social media arena, then you can slack a little as you maintain it, but you still have to keep a regular presence.

7. Use a Google Alert to check what people are saying about you. I never thought of this!

8. He discusses various services that offer to repair your reputation, for various prices.

Interesting to consider! You might notice that I haven't linked everything up... The decoration for this blog post is a dramatic illustration from the Quick n Brite blog about a cleaner for showers and baths: http://quicknbritecleaning.blogspot.com/2010/06/how-to-clean-hard-water-stains-in.html - I just thought it made an excellent metaphor for the new ability of European citizens to clean off one little corner of the Internet!

Facebook Privacy Check-up

The New York Times reported the other day that Facebook is offering a "privacy check-up" to subscribers. Apparently the growth of privacy-friendly services such as SnapChat and WhatsApp has caught the attention of Mr. Zuckerberg. Facebook is acquiring WhatsApp this year, according to the Times article. But Snapchat has a strong privacy policy, where they delete "snaps" from their servers and from users' devices once viewed. Snapchat allows users to more easily control what information the service collects and to control with whom they share information on the site (read the privacy policy).

WhatsApp, a "cross-platform mobile messaging app which allows you to exchange messages without having to pay for SMS," does not fund its service through advertisements that depend on user information. (Read "Why we don't sell ads"). It appears to be free for the first year (at least on the versions I checked), and then 99 cents a year thereafter. WhatsApp's privacy policy is contained in their "legal" or Terms of Service. It appears at the bottom of the page. They make the information clear, easy to understand, and easy to control. They also take some pretty good steps to secure the information users do send them against hacking. The policy includes a warning "in the event of merger, sale or bankruptcy" that the policy may change.

However, the Times article makes it sound as though Zuckerberg is seeing some financial benefit in making it easier for users to control the ways his company/companies collect and use their personal information. Both because European laws regulate this much more closely than the U.S. and because consumer pressure is building for more consumer control in this area, the article makes it sound as though Facebook and Zuckerberg are becoming privacy converts. Time will tell if they stay converted!

The image decorating this blog post is the WhatsApp logo from their home page.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Hiawatha Bray on Computer Security in the Wake of Heartbleed

I keep meaning to post about an excellent column by the Boston Globe technology columnist, Hiawatha Bray on May 1. "After Heartbleed, Change the Locks," is partly a sympathetic note to all of us who are tearing our hair out, or maybe just apathetically groaning, at the news that we must change all of our passwords because of this new security breach!! But it also is a much more useful, step-by-step explanation of different levels of security. In part, Bray discusses why passwords are just NOT doing it for us as security.

But passwords are pretty much what most of us are stuck with. Most of us don't yet have fingerprint or iris scan technology. So,... Bray explains that the best way to deal with passwords is two-factor authentication. Actually, Bray's explanation is not the clearest. What his column does very nicely is scan the current state of security options, and review them. Very nice and handy!

Two-factor authentication typically requires something you know (i.e., a password) PLUS something you own (for instance an ATM card or cell phone. That way, even if a clever hacker figures out or steals your password, it is exceedingly unlikely that they will also have your cell phone or ATM card. (Here is a link to Google's set up two-step authentication link for Android Phones, as an example) and a general Google Two-Step explanation. This Lifehacker post includes a long list of links for a number of social networks and other services that now offer two-factor authentication.

Two-step can work with another combination, as well, such as a printed list of codes. You use each code once, and mark it off each time you use it. Those codes are used in combination with your password, so again, it is a combination of something you KNOW and something you HAVE. So long as you keep the thing you KNOW (password, computer with passwords saved as cookies, or PIN) separate from the thing you HAVE (phone, ATM card, list of codes), this is a very secure way to access online data. So, for instance, don't copy your PIN number on your ATM card!

I previously posted about two-step authentication here before. See....

Library Services I Wish I Had Thought of!

Napping Stations!

The Chronicle of Higher Education breathlessly reports that the University of Michigan has installed napping stations where students are encouraged to nap for half-hour blocks under staff supervision on vinyl cots. They offer small lockers to store belongings, and disinfectant wipes to clean the cots and the pillows have disposable pillow cases.

Much better than the sofas scattered around libraries, unsupervised where students have drooled for generations, and slept with their belongings at risk of looting!

Not only that, but a single student could monopolize the sleep surface for hours!

How wasteful is that?!