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The past isn’t even past, and it’s still quite explosive:

Luftbilddatenbank, based on the top floor of Carls’ home just outside Würzburg in the southern state of Bavaria, specializes in finding bombs using old aerial photos. In the last five years, the company has digitized hundreds of thousands of images, developing a database of geographical coordinates and archival reference points that let them request photos of specific locations from collections of wartime photos in Washington, DC, and Edinburgh, Scotland.

Followup to this, and h/t to Jonathan Beard.


As a follow-up to this post, I note this:

The Air Force has more drones and more sensors collecting more data than it has humans to interpret what the electronic tea leaves say. The glut of all that video and still imagery is “unsustainable,” says the Air Force’s top civilian — but it’ll be “years” before the Air Force digs its way out of it.

As the article points out, there are various levels of processing needed. There’s a need for an immediate triage of imagery for time-sensitive operations. If an American unit’s under attack, the imagery that might help them can’t go in the normal processing queue. But there’s also the general processing, that might yield information useful over the medium or long term.

More computers, please.

Repurposing a comment I made in this thread, I thought I would run a chart of American military fatalities in Afghanistan. I use American military fatalities “as a quick and dirty way to tell how things are going in a US counterinsurgency effort, figuring that killing an American soldier is always a valuable achievement for an insurgent, that American soldiers (especially in the respective surges) are in harm’s way, that killing one requires mobilizing a certain amount of effort on an insurgency’s part, and that (perhaps most importantly) the Pentagon can’t really fudge the number of deaths (they can with wounded; the definition of “wounded” changed in the middle of the Iraq War to, shock! surprise!, reduce the numbers). It’s not perfect (not nearly so), but it worked pretty well for me looking at Iraq in 2008 and 2009.” Note that this is not a statement about the morality or utility of the war, but simply an attempt at measuring the military effectiveness of the American effort there.

In Afghanistan, the two periods to look at are summer and winter. Summer has the highest number of fatalities and winter the lowest. In both seasons, American fatalities began surging in 2009, peaked in 2010, and started downward in 2011.


That suggests to me that, like Iraq, the American effort is knocking the insurgency down, if slowly.

[UPDATE, 3:00 PM: Having written and scheduled this post on Friday, it turns out to be ill-timed, given the horrific slaughter of Afghan women and children by an American soldier over the weekend.]

I was playing around with the data at and decided to share:

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We are still living in the aftermath of World War II.

Powers 2The sources available to historians jump exponentially for the post-1945 era. The rise of typewriters, copy machines, computers, and printers created a blizzard of paper that shows no sign of ending. Add into that all the electronic files, email, and the like, not to mention oral history recordings, and historians studying the years after World War II might be forgiven for having a thousand-yard stare and powerful bifocals. Google (which I am using as a generic word for search & indexing of all type. There goes the trademark) has helped some, but has its own problems.

Now comes the flood of video. The Air Force, the linked article notes, collects 6 petabytes (which is technical language for “Holy sh#$%$#%, that’s a lot of data”) of high-definition video per day. Such video could be remarkably useful for military historians (want to watch a combat engagement in real time?) but wading through it will be the work of generations.

(Part one here, part two here)

Having ended up with thousands of photographs from an archival research trip to Britain, I returned to the United States and realized that I had to figure out what to do with them. In essence, by using the digital camera, I had transferred the work of sifting, reading, and note-taking the sources from the archive itself to my home. What had been a concentrated effort in the archive, with multiple layers of seeking, finding, and judging all going on at the same time, had become more spread out.

The solution lay in both new tools and new methods. Unlike my earlier approach, I actually planned out ahead of time the process I was going to use to take notes. I would load the pictures into Scrivener, my writing tool of choice at the moment, and take notes on them directly into the program. That way I wouldn’t have to switch back and forth between photo application and note-taking application. Each individual item (following my practice) would include the information or quote I wanted to remember and the citation to its source (Scrivener could do citations that MS Word would recognize and format as footnotes when I exported the prose to the manuscript, making this even more useful). If I could think of the text I might actually use in the eventual manuscript, I would try to write a paragraph incorporating the information/quote in it, with the citation. Then, when I came to writing, I would have complete nuggets of text, all ready to be placed into the draft.

This went wrong almost immediately. Scrivener was not designed to hold lots of large photos (2 MB + each) and started to slow down as I put more and more into it. It wasn’t going to be able to handle hundreds, let alone thousands of large files. I thus looked around for something that could handle such large files. Eventually, after trying a range of applications, I settled on Devonthink Pro (now Devonthink Pro Office). The developers emphasized large-scale document storage, analysis, and retention as the primary goal of the program. It had other tempting attributes: OCR was built-in, it supported scanning directly into the program, and it had reasonably useful text-handling attributes. It did lack the ability to create footnotes in its text, which munged my process a bit.

Nonetheless, I decided to give it a shot. Read the rest of this entry »

[First post here]

But if laptops replaced paper as the main way of getting notes down, the difference in the actual physical process of research was not that much altered. Go to the archive, order the sources you needed, and spend days or weeks or months taking notes on them. Copying costs at most archives were much too high to consider wholesale reproduction, and so note-taking depended on how fast you could type. Portable scanners did not really work; either one had to put the document face down on the scanner or drag the scanner along the document. Neither of those things pleased most archivists. In addition, the scanners were slow and did not offer much storage. Thus, note taking remained resolutely textual, and resulted in the production of lots and lots of MS Word documents with notes on specific sources.Notetakingwindows

That changed dramatically with the advent of digital cameras with high resolution, storage, and battery life. Suddenly, I could buy, relatively cheaply, a lightweight camera able to take hundreds of shots at a resolution that, properly framed, could be read with relative ease on a monitor back home. This advance came too late for A War of Frontier and Empire, but I decided to convert entirely over to using a digital camera for The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China, 1900. This was encouraged by the birth of my daughter Madeline, whose arrival meant that long research trips, while restful, did not contribute to domestic harmony.

Powershot sd800 frontBut what kind of camera? I thought about getting a DSLR, but quickly discarded the idea. This was going to be an experiment, and paying over a thousand dollars for a camera to do it seemed excessive. Instead, I decided on a smaller camera, a “point and shoot.” After a fair amount of Internet research, I settled on the Canon SD800. It got good reviews, took a detailed picture (without being too large), and was reasonably priced. I equipped it with the largest memory card I could (512 MB at first; now up to 4 GB, which translates to about 3000 pictures), and set off.

From the first moment in the archive, I was ecstatic. Read the rest of this entry »

We’re having a nor’easter this weekend, here in the extremely eastern part of the American West. I had the grumpy-old-man thought that we didn’t have nearly as many nor’easters when I was growing up, grumble, grumble, aaarr, get off my lawn, you kids. So I went and checked, and oddly there’s some truth to the thought. From Google’s quite wonderful Ngram viewer, mentions of the word “nor’easter” from 1800 to 2008:


Meanwhile, the New York Times mentions “nor’easter” 254 times from 1851-1980, but 272 times since 1980. The word is being used more, though whether that means those kind of storms are more frequent? Unclear.

[UPDATE: A kind reader points out that a number of the more modern hits may come from the 1991 publication of Sebastian Junger’s book A Perfect Storm, which uses “nor’easter” in its book description.]

But…grumble, grumble, aaarrr, get off my lawn, you kids.

Coalition fatalities continue to drop, month over month, in Afghanistan. In addition, September 2010 was the first month in which fewer coalition soldiers were killed than in the same month of 2009:

The predicted fatalities are based on an extremely rough and ready calculation. Fatalities from Spring 2009 to Spring 2010 nearly doubled (1.78, actually), so I applied that same increase to the Summer 2009 figures to get to Summer 2010 estimates. I make no claims to any particular analytical value for this.


Total coalition fatalities for each season since 2001.


Fatalities are the total fatalities in each month from 2001-2010, so “January” is the sum of January, 2002 plus January, 2003, etc.

Monthly Fatalities

(Coalition, not just American, and both combat and non-combat)

Welcome to the January 17, 2010 edition of the Military History Carnival, a roundup of the best recent military history from around the web. This is the first time that H-War and Edge of the American West have co-hosted. Today’s edition ranges widely, from the Ottoman Empire to the Atomic Bomb to the American Civil War.

Pre-19th Century

Scott Manning presents Joan of Arc’s Military Successes and Failures posted at Digital Survivors.

Jason presents 1683: Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha, for the Battle of Vienna posted at Executed Today.

19th Century

Tim Abbott presents Is the Richard Kirkland Story True? posted at Civil War Memory, saying, “A superb guest post at Kevin Levin’s Civil War memory by Michael Schaffner”

Jennie Weber presents Lucy Hayes’s Civil War Role posted at American Presidents Blog.

Michael Ramalho presents the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, parts 1 & 2 at Osprey Publishing.

World War I

Ross Mahoney presents Leigh-Mallory Fined! posted at Thoughts on Military History.

Rich Landers presents Somewhere near Vaudesson, 3/13/1918 posted at Soldier’s Mail.

Rich Landers presents Sarrey, France 1/5/1919 posted at Soldier’s Mail, saying, “Soldier’s Mail features the writings home of U.S. Sergeant Sam Avery from the front lines of American involvement in the Great War. Letters are posted on the same date they were written more than 90 years ago, and make for fascinating eyewitness history from the hot sands along the Rio Grande to the cold mud along the Meuse. Come march along with the Most Gallant Generation!”

Penny Richards presents March 17: Josef Sudek (1896-1976) posted at Disability Studies, Temple U., saying, “We’re marking the birthday of a disabled WWI veteran who became a noted Czech photographer”

World War II

Joseph McCullough presents Osprey Publishing – Military History Books – Blog – Photographs from a life in the Royal Navy posted at Osprey Publishing.

Nikolaos Markoulakis presents The Security Battalions: ‘Quislings’ on Behalf of the King posted at Hoplite, saying, “The reasons for the existence and use of the Axis’ created Security Battalions. The paper focuses on the volunteers of the Security Battalions. Why did they join? Was it only to combat communism? Or were the reasons more complicated?”

Scott Manning presents Nazi Body Count: 20,946,000 Non-Battle Deaths posted at Digital Survivors, saying, “The Nazi Body Count represents non-battle deaths caused by Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945. This includes genocide, execution of civilians and POWs, forced labor that resulted in deaths, bombing of civilian populations, imposed famine and resulting diseases, and “euthanasia.” These numbers do not include civilians who got caught in the cross-fire of battle.”

Steven Germain presents In The Dead Silence Of The Morning…(Now I am become Death – the destroyer of worlds…) posted at Rough Fractals, saying, “Perhaps the defining moment in the history of man – the capability of annihilation becomes a tool of modern warfare.”


Mary Dudziak presents Legal History Blog: On drones and the war power posted at Legal History Blog.

David Gross presents The Unconquerable World (Jonathan Schell) posted at The Picket Line, saying, “In The Unconquerable World Jonathan Schell tells the story of the evolution of the logic of war and political power in a way that might just give it a happy ending after all.”

That concludes this edition of the Military History Carnival. Submit your blog article for the next edition using the carnival submission form.

Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

I’m hoping that Amazon doesn’t actually put this into action:

Method and apparatus for programmatically substituting synonyms into distributed text content. A synonym substitution mechanism may programmatically replace selected words in textual data with synonyms for the selected words. The modification to an excerpt performed by the synonym substitution mechanism may not significantly alter the meaning of the excerpt to a human reader. By replacing one or more selected words in an excerpt with synonyms for the words, illicit copies of the excerpt may be recognized by comparing a copy of the excerpt to the original. Particular permutations of synonym substitutions may be provided in excerpts to particular requestors. The particular permutations may be recorded and used to determine a requestor as the source of a copy of the excerpt. Synonym substitution may make programmatic excerpt chaining difficult by substituting different synonyms for the same word(s) in an overlapping portion of two adjacent excerpts.

The dangers are obvious, albeit entertaining:

“We have nothing to fear, but apprehension itself.”

“I have nothing to offer, but blood, toil, tears, and elbow grease.”

“We few, we happy few, we unofficial association of brothers.”

“I am a jelly donut.”

So much for textual analysis or the linguistic turn.

[Hat-tip to John Scalzi]

The effects of the crisis in China in 1900 were not confined to China, obviously. They could reach as far down as the streets of New York, and as deep as the children of that city:

Nicholas Ageno, an Italian boy of twelve years, living with his parents at 77 Oliver Street, and who the police say is leader of a band of boys, last night summoned his followers and set out to look for Boxers. As darkness fell over the city they reached Chatham Square. On Sunday evening Chinamen from all parts of the city and round about congregate at Chinatown. Young Gee, an inoffensive Chinaman who conducts a laundry at 221 East Broadway, came walking across the square toward Pell Street. The boys espied him and advanced to the attack with a well-directed volley of stones, dirt, and other missiles. Gee started for Chinatown on a run, but the boys cut off his retreat, crowded about him, tore his blouse, and otherwise ill-treated him. Patrolman Rafsky of the Oak Street Station went to the Chinaman’s rescue on a double quick. The boys fled, and the policeman when he arrived on the scene, found only a very dilapidated and thoroughly scared Chinaman with his blouse torn and mud stained, and part of his queue missing. He was not badly hurt, but he declared that the policeman probably had saved his life. The patrolman next directed his attention to the assailants, and after an exciting chase captured Nicholas Ageno, who was placed under arrest and locked up in the Oak Street Station on the complaint of Young Gee.

Let’s see how far we can track that, using Google Street View… Read the rest of this entry »

Brett Holman, whose series post-blogging the Sudeten Crisis inspired my Boxer Uprising Day to Day, is now starting to work his way through the “phantom airship wave” in 1909 Britain:

It’s 90 years since the phantom airship wave of 1909, when mysterious aerial visitors appeared in the night skies over Britain. Or at least, stories about mysterious aerial visitors filled the newspapers of Britain. It’s hard to tell from this distance: the only evidence we have about the scareships are the press reports, which could be a problem if you are interested in a possible underlying reality. But then again, since the number of (alleged) phantom airship witnesses is relatively small, the press was the only way most people would have learned that their sky was being invaded by Zeppelins every night. So for them as for us, the stories are the event itself.

If it lives up to his previous work, it’ll be well worth following.

In the San Francisco Chronicle today, John King writes about New Deal public projects in the Bay Area.  Gray Brechin has channeled his longtime interest in this history into the California’s Living New Deal Project, an index of public works by the WPA and other agencies across the state.  Naturally there’s an interactive map, so you can drill down to your neighborhood.  Out here on the foggy margins of San Francisco, for instance, there’s a golf course, two shooting ranges, and many features of our storied zoo.  But other projects are more picturesque.  I’ve mentioned one of our branch libraries here before, a beautiful example of the synthetic “Spanish” style.   My favorite, though, for sentimental reasons and more, is the Rose Garden in Berkeley.  On the bay side of Euclid Avenue in the hills, an amphitheater drops through ring on ring of rose-beds, focused at once on the tiny “stage”, large enough for a wedding, and on the Golden Gate beyond.

Photo by Flickr user sailor ripley used under a Creative Commons license.

As a youth I was fortunate that my parents put me in nerd camp—computer programming classes at the Science Center. They had a Honeywell mainframe, in a room full of tape drives and disk drives, the disks that looked like stacks of LPs in a covered cake dish made of clear plastic.1 All that was housed in a room with plate-glass windows, and on the other side was a room full of terminals. Many if not most of them were basically teletypes with keyboards—every time you hit a key, it would dot-matrix the character right onto a roll of perforated paper that just kept on scrolling as you typed. At first I preferred these to the LED screens, because they reminded me of typewriters and if you had to debug code you reached behind the machine and lifted up a yard of paper to scan down it, holding a pencil, making you look like someone reading the stock-ticker or telegraph tape in an old movie. We started in BASIC, and the first program they showed us produced an ASCII art picture of Snoopy.2 Oh, brave new world. I think the appeal of the thing was basically identical to that of playing with an insect or a lizard you found in the yard: you do something to it and it reacts, not always in a predictable way. Maybe you can train it, you think….

When did you first realize you could get along with a computer?

1Not unlike this, but I remember them being cylindrical.
2I think it was this one, but this page has annoying music so maybe you don’t want to open it.

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