Exploring the meanings of Chicago’s underground Pedway

A Chicago artist and teacher has spent years exploring and analyzing Chicago’s large underground Pedway:

You want to know the best thing about the Chicago Pedway? It’s not that, despite this Polar Vortex winter, you can cover almost 40 city blocks on the Pedway without ever stepping foot outside. It’s not that the Pedway began modestly in 1951 and now stretches through the North Loop, jogs beneath Millennium Park and ventures as far east as the mouth of the Chicago River. It’s not that the Pedway could be regarded as a kind of yardstick of municipal progress, always seeming as though it might extend just a little bit longer someday. It’s not even that the Pedway’s generally mundane, charm-free hallways offer little to see — look, another “For Rent” sign! — and therefore it works perfectly as a daily treadmill for ambulatory meditation…

Where you see putty-colored corridors leading to a job in a cubicle farm, she sees dreams of the American frontier. You pass convenience stores selling gum; Tsen, 38, a native of Cambridge, Mass., passes through a long, winding metaphor for a Chicago never realized — “the by-product of projected futures,” she writes in “The Pedway of Today,” her new, perversely compelling guidebook/consideration of the Pedway’s cultural meanings.

Indeed, Tsen, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and photography/video teacher at Wilbur Wright College on the Northwest Side, has come to see the longtime walkway as her canvas. About four years ago, the Chicago artist — and former Wendella Boat tour guide, who says travel and The Path Not Taken have become the preoccupations of her art — began offering tours of the Pedway (she has since stopped). But she never charged her audiences, she said, because the tours would also quietly double as performance art, as free-associative strolling lectures in which your guide (Tsen) would dole out not dates or landmarks but thoughts on Jules Verne, revolving doors and how the Pedway is like Florence…

Eventually she stumbled across an entrance to the Pedway in the back of the Renaissance lobby, the path itself so low-key that you can see it every day without quite recognizing it. “The Pedway struck me not as the frontier that I had been looking for but a reminder of the glamour of early cities and a promise of future frontiers.” At this point in her guide Tsen asks readers to imagine that it’s 1893 and — though the Renaissance was built a century later — they are relaxing in the lobby before returning home from the World’s Fair, where they “attended Frederick Jackson Turner’s fabled lecture ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’ … still pondering his words: ‘The frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American History.”

Sounds like a very interesting and interpretive tour. All sorts of large infrastructure and urban projects would benefit from people who know them well enough and are enthusiastic about what they offer to share it with others.

If Chicago tried to advertise the Pedway more, would regular users complain that too many tourists are clogging the passages a la New Yorkers and the subway?

James Loewen still educating people about real cause of Civil War

Sociologist James Loewen has written several good and accessible books about American history (one about textbooks, one about historical monuments). One of the main issues he confronts is about the true cause of the Civil War: slavery or something else (like states’ rights)? Loewen explains again why we can be sure slavery was the main issue:

“One hundred and fifty years ago Christmas Eve day, everyone knew why South Carolina was seceding because they said so — it’s a wonderful document,” said James Loewen, a sociologist and co-editor of The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader.

Four days after South Carolina seceded on Dec. 20, 1860, the state adopted a second document titled “Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” Loewen considers the record, central to his new collection, one of the five most important documents in the history of the country, launching as it did a seminal chapter in America’s ongoing struggle to define itself.

“So why does nobody ever read it?” he asked. “Everybody knew [secession was] about slavery. This document is all about slavery.”

Seems like a fairly cut and dry issue to me. This may become a more public issue as we near the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War.

But historical events are often open to interpretation. In the same article, noted Civil War scholar James McPherson says, “Probably 90 percent, maybe 95 percent of serious historians of the Civil War would agree on the broad questions of what the war was about and what brought it about and what caused it.”

So how could we get to a point where most or all Americans would acknowledge slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War?

Google offers tool to analyze texts going back to the 1500s

Among other projects Google has been working on, they recently opened a new online tool that allows users to search for certain words in texts going back to the 1500s:

With little fanfare, Google has made a mammoth database culled from nearly 5.2 million digitized books available to the public for free downloads and online searches, opening a new landscape of possibilities for research and education in the humanities.

The digital storehouse, which comprises words and short phrases as well as a year-by-year count of how often they appear, represents the first time a data set of this magnitude and searching tools are at the disposal of Ph.D.’s, middle school students and anyone else who likes to spend time in front of a small screen. It consists of the 500 billion words contained in books published between 1500 and 2008 in English, French, Spanish, German, Chinese and Russian…

“The goal is to give an 8-year-old the ability to browse cultural trends throughout history, as recorded in books,” said Erez Lieberman Aiden, a junior fellow at the Society of Fellows at Harvard…

“We wanted to show what becomes possible when you apply very high-turbo data analysis to questions in the humanities,” said Mr. Lieberman Aiden, whose expertise is in applied mathematics and genomics. He called the method “culturomics.”

The article mentions some projects that use this database and sound interesting. And it sounds the dataset can be downloaded and analyzed by users on their own computers.

But thinking about the methodology of this all, I would have some questions.

1. Do we know how well these digitized texts represent the full population of texts? This is a sampling issue – could there be some sort of bias in what kind of texts ended up in this database?

2. Studying word frequency by itself is tricky. Simply counting words and when they appear is one measurement while trying to assess the importance placed in each word is another task. Do the three little “culturnomics” graphs on the left side of the online story really tell us much?

3. It sounds like this would be best for looking at how language (grammar, word choices, structure, etc.) has changed over time.

A reminder that information overload is not just limited to our particular era in history

There is an incredible amount of data one can access today through a computer and high-speed Internet connection: websites, texts, statistics, videos, music, and more. While it all may seem overwhelming, a Harvard history professor reminds us that facing a glut of information is not a problem that has been faced only by people in the Internet age:

information overload was experienced long before the appearance of today’s digital gadgets. Complaints about “too many books” echo across the centuries, from when books were papyrus rolls, parchment manuscripts, or hand printed. The complaint is also common in other cultural traditions, like the Chinese, built on textual accumulation around a canon of classics…

It’s important to remember that information overload is not unique to our time, lest we fall into doomsaying. At the same time, we need to proceed carefully in the transition to electronic media, lest we lose crucial methods of working that rely on and foster thoughtful decision making. Like generations before us, we need all the tools for gathering and assessing information that we can muster—some inherited from the past, others new to the present. Many of our technologies will no doubt rapidly seem obsolete, but, we can hope, not human attention and judgment, which should continue to be the central components of thoughtful information management.

As technology changes, people and cultures have to adapt. We need citizens who are able to sift through all the available information and make wise decisions. This should be a vital part of the educational system – it is no longer enough to know how to access information but rather we need to be able to make choices about which information is worthwhile, how to interpret it, and how to put it into use.

Take, for example, the latest Wikileaks dump. The average Internet user no longer has to rely on news organizations to tell him or her how to interpret the information (though they would still like to fill that role). But simply having access to a bunch of secret material doesn’t necessarily lead to anything worthwhile.