The First List: From Throwing to Chronology

French hand axe, possibly from 500,000 BC.

In the previous post, we looked at the earliest examples of organized information.  These are primarily bone or antler artifacts with small slashes often incised over a period of time, indicating a chronologic list.  Why would our first attempts at organized information be chronologic?  Surprisingly the answer may involve our ability to throw.

I first started thinking about this after finding the work of neurophysiologist William H. Calvin, who theorized that our advanced throwing arm improved our hunting skills which in turn increased cognition.  He believes throwing at moving targets enhanced our ability to plan, thus leading to modern mental capabilities.

To bolster his argument, Calvin suggested that the ubiquitous prehistoric hand axes were actually throwing devices.  These hand axes were built and used by early humans and pre-humans for millions of years in Africa.  As hominins migrated to Europe, Asia and the Americas, they brought their flint knapping skills with them, always improving the technology, as hominins like to do.  The palm-sized tools tend to be symmetrical, narrow at the top, wide at the base, with a very sharp edge all around.

“Three wooden spears like this one were found at Schöningen, Germany.”

Several tests found the hand axes to be aerodynamic.  Calvin suggested hominins threw them into a herd of mammals, not to kill but to surprise the one that got hit.  The victim and the herd would then bolt, dispersing the animals.  In all the commotion, one of the prey might trip and that would be the one the hominins ate for dinner.

Unfortunately, Calvin was wrong about that.  The most thorough analysis of hand axes indicates they were used for butchering, not throwing.  John Mitchell, an associate of Mark Roberts at the Boxgrove site in England, had a professional butcher, Peter Dawson of Oxford, use several hand axes on a deer carcass.  Apparently if you know what you’re doing, they work great.  As Roberts stated in his book with Michael Pitts, Fairweather Eden, “Any aerodynamic properties . . . are simply incidental” (2000, p. 289).

Just because Calvin was wrong about hand axes, doesn’t mean he was wrong about brain development or throwing.  Spears from 400,000 BC were discovered by Hartmut Thieme at a site in Schoeningen, Germany.  They are made from spruce tree trunks where the hardest part is at the base of the tree.  That hardness forms the point of the spear.  The weight of the projectile is heaviest about a third of the way up the shaft, just like a modern competition javelin

As usual, these spears are controversial in terms of the date of the artifacts, the effective penetration of the projectile, and the physiological ability of pre-humans to throw.  That lack of throwing ability was challenged by a June, 2013 study in Nature.  Researchers had Harvard baseball players throw while wearing braces that replicated the mechanics of the pre-human arm and shoulder.  Their results suggest that hominins could throw accurately much earlier than previously believed.

Model of pierced Boxgrove horse scapula.

The Boxgrove site is 100,000 years older than Schoeningen.  Roberts’ team didn’t find any wooden spears.  But they do have a scapula from a butchered horse with a round hole that seems to have been made by a projectile.  Forensic analysis indicates the spear was propelled with a throwing device that allowed a hominin to throw faster, farther, and harder.  This is a preliminary finding and is controversial considering that some researchers don’t believe pre-humans could even throw, let alone build a throwing device.  For now, Pitts and Roberts make this comment about the hole in the scapula, “We are not saying that it was made by a spear thrown by Man. . . . We are saying that at the moment we cannot think of any other explanation” (2000, p. 267).

So Calvin may have it right about our ability to plan a throw possibly leading to improved cognition.  But there’s more from Boxgrove about planning skills.  The researchers there, including Francis Wenban-Smith and Phil Harding, made stone hand axes themselves and discovered it’s not so easy.  Today’s Boxgrove flint knappers say it’s similar to playing chess.  You have to plan ahead five or six steps, “if you follow the path of least resistance, you will remove parts of your axe” (Pitts & Roberts, 2000, p. 298).

The artifacts at Boxgrove are from half a million years ago.  The chronologic bones and antlers of the Upper Paleolithic are only from 10,000 to 30,000 BC, plenty of time to learn how to plan.  It’s no wonder when humans were ready to leave the archaic and move on to the future, they built a chronologic planning tool.


Michael Pitts and Mark Roberts (2000).  Fairweather Eden: Life Half a Million Years Ago as Revealed by the Excavations at Boxgrove.  New York:  Fromm International.


French hand axe, possibly from 500,000 BC.   Wikimedia Commons.

“Three wooden spears like this one were found at Schöningen, Germany.”   Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution.

Model of pierced Boxgrove horse scapula.  James Di Loreto & Donald H. Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution.

Jul 2013

The First List: A Prehistoric Chronology

Taï Plaque

I have been hanging out in the Paleolithic trying to find the earliest example of organized information.  So far, that seems to be incised artifacts from around the time of prehistoric cave paintings, a highly creative era for Homo sapiens.  These possible recording devices, from as early as 30,000 BC, tend to be sections of bone or antler with slashes or other types of repetitive marks that look like an early form of a list.  In fact, when they were first discovered in mid-19th Century France by Édouard Lartet, they were called marques de chasse, or hunting lists, like notches on a gunslinger’s weapon.

Engraved ochre from the Blombos Cave in South Africa

These engraved lists are not the earliest use of incised marks.  That honor belongs to an ochre from 78,000 BC found at Blombos Cave in South Africa.  Here the slashes seem like decoration, a design engraved because it looks nice.  It’s worth noting that the design has a repetitive symmetrical quality that may have influenced list makers 48,000 years later.  That first list was a long time coming.

In the second half of the 20th Century, Alexander Marshack, a NASA journalist turned archaeologist, innovated the use of microscopic analysis on prehistoric artifacts.  His most famous example, the Blanchard Bone (actually an antler) from about 28,000 BC, has circular marks reminiscent of the moon.  Using the microscope, Marshack (1991a) compared the Blanchard Bone and other possible lists to a lunar model he developed for the purpose.  He discovered that groups of marks on many artifacts tend to change with the moon’s cycle, particularly around the time of the dark of the moon.  So he designated these artifacts as lunar calendars.  The idea is controversial, although otherwise well researched documents accept without criticism the hunting list explanation, which is little more than a wild guess (see for example Hoffecker, 2011, p. 133).

One critic (Littauer, 1974, p. 327) included her own suggestions on how the incisions should have been arranged, “(W)hy could not these have been easily made clearer by the insertion of a gap or a vertical indicating the beginning of a new set?” Apparently this researcher didn’t realize she is the product of 32,000 years of information organization.  The prehistoric engravers invented the recording of meaningful permanent marks.  They also invented the list.  The idea of a gap between sets hadn’t yet occurred to them.  That didn’t catch on for Latin word spacing until the 7thCentury AD.

Blanchard Bone

As a specialist in information organization, I find Marshack’s (1991b) discussion of the Taï Plaque, a French bone from 10,000 BC, to be the most compelling.  Although relatively recent among prehistoric engravings, this bone was incised 2,000 years before the formation of Lake Michigan.

The notches on the Taï Plaque run in parallel lines with enough daily marks to complete 3.5 years, compared with 2.25 months for the Blanchard Bone.  The engraved Taï Plaque fits into Marshack’s lunar model quite nicely; he even includes the solstice in this one.

It’s such a good fit that I believe the Taï Plaque has something to do with the moon.  However, I’m not sure if it’s a calendar or a device for recording daily events that tend to coincide with the moon.  It may be that the dark of the moon is simply a time to catch up on record keeping.

The marks on these artifacts are incised in groups, which seems to imply chronological entry or the ongoing recording of something that has already happened, perhaps even the non-lunar products of consecutive mammoth expeditions.  It could be that some artifacts are lunar calendars, some are marques de chasse, and some are anything else that needed to be recorded.

Alexander Marshack's drawing of the Taï Plaque

Lunar or not, the Taï Plaque is clearly a list.  Two of the parallel lines are incised to the very edge of the bone and then take a 90° turn so the list continues along the edge.  Did you ever do that?  On a postcard perhaps?  Not quite enough room so you write along the edge.

Marshack believed this marking along the edge was done so the solstice could be included within a line of marks.  In order for the lunar/solar explanation to work, the parallel lines would have been incised with the baustrophedon technique.  That means you read right to left on one line and left to right on the next, continuing back and forth.  It’s a method seen as late as the early alphabet.  Once spelling gets involved, the various languages tend to settle each into their own direction.  But it works quite well if all you’ve got is notches.

With the Taï Plaque, and others like it, we clearly see that the first instances of recorded  information were lists.  If Alexander Marshack was correct and these lists represent lunar notation, then the first instances of recorded information were organized structures, lists in chronological order.  Based on the concept of grouped incisions, even if Édouard Lartet was correct and the engravings recorded hunting statistics, they’re still lists in chronological order.


Hoffecker, John F. (2011). Landscape of the Mind: Human Evolution and the Archaeology of Thought.  New York: Columbia University Press.

Littauer, Mary Aiken; F. D. McCarthy & Alexander Marshack (1974).  On Upper Paleolithic Engraving, Current Anthropology, 15(3), 327-332.

Marshack, Alexander (1991a).  The Roots of Civilization: The Cognitive Beginnings of Man’s First Art, Symbol and Notation. (Revised and expanded).  Mount Kisco, NY: Moyer Bell Ltd.

Marshack, Alexander (1991b). The Taï Plaque and Calendrical Notation in the Upper Palaeolithic, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 1(1), 25-61.


Both Taï Plaques:

Blombos ochre:

Blanchard Bone:

Jul 2013

Noor Inayat-Khan at the Air Forces Memorial in Runnymede

Noor Inayat-Khan

In 1949 King George VI posthumously awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest non-battle military honor, to an Indian princess, Noorunissa Inayat-Khan, Sufi musician, children’s author, and spy.  The French government also awarded her the Croix de Guerre.

Noor’s father, Hazrat Inayat-Khan, a musician of royal Indian blood, brought Muslim Sufism and Indian classical music to the West.  Their international family, with an American mother, Ora Ray Baker from Albuquerque, first lived in Moscow and London.  Noor then spent much of her early years in Paris, where she and her younger brothers studied with Nadia Boulanger, the famous composition instructor whose students included Elliott Carter, Aaron Copeland, and Quincy Jones.   One brother, Vilayat, became head of the Sufi Order International.  The other, Hidayat, continues to compose music in Paris and the Netherlands.

At the age of 13 in 1927, Noor took responsibility for her family when her father died and her mother became inconsolable.  She began writing children’s stories for magazines and for French radio.  In 1939 she published a children’s book, Twenty Jataka Tales, folktales about previous reincarnations of the Buddha in both human and animal forms.

When the Germans invaded France in 1940, Noor and most of her family relocated to Britain.  Hidayat stayed behind and still lives in the Parisian suburb of Suresnes, location of an estate given to the family by a Sufi follower.  When they got to London, both Noor and Vilayat wanted to support the anti-Nazi cause.  Vilayat served in the Royal Navy, while Noor joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and later the Special Operations Executive (SOE), an espionage agency.  They taught her how to use a wireless and how to be a spy.  She wasn’t very good at her lessons, particularly the anti-interrogation techniques.  But she knew how to operate a radio and she spoke French, so they sent her off to Paris to begin transmissions.

Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede

Most wireless technicians only lasted a few weeks before capture.  Noor keep her radio operation going for several months until she was betrayed by another spy.  In her ten month imprisonment, she was tortured with daily beatings.  According to her German captors, Noor never revealed any information, despite her superiors’ lack of confidence in her anti-interrogation skills.  However her equipment was confiscated, causing the capture of several more SOE agents.  After an escape attempt, Noor and three other British female spies were transported to Dachau.  The three other women, Yolande Beekman, Madeleine Damerment, and Eliane Plewman, were executed with shots to the back of the head.  One witness reported that Noor was almost beaten to death before she was shot.  Her last word was “Liberté,” the last word of many patriots at the guillotine during the French Revolution.  The four women are listed together on a plaque at Dachau.

Noor Inayat-Khan’s Inscription at the Air Forces Memorial

Noor Inayat-Khan is among the 20,456 names on the Air Forces Memorial in Runneymede, a memorial for WWII Commonwealth air force personnel who died with no gravesite.  The names are listed by year and then by air force.  The Royal Air Force is followed by the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.  Next are the air forces of five different countries listed in the order of the number of names on the memorial:  Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and India.  These are followed by four civilian units in alphabetical order.  Then names are listed by rank and alphabetical order.  Noor is listed in 1944 with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force at the rank of Section Officer.  Her inscription includes G.C. for George Cross.  On November 8 of this year, a memorial to Noor was unveiled by another princess, Queen Elizabeth’s daughter Anne, in a park near the Inayat-Khan’s London home.

Runnymede is the site of the signing of the Magna Carta and the location of several memorials, including one to President John F. Kennedy with this quotation from his inaugural address, “Let every Nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend or oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

Photo Credits:  PortraitImperial War Museums; Memorial — Yoavr763W; Inscription — Antony McCallum of Wyrdlight

Nov 2012

Wired’s 12th Century Mall of the Future

Each month Wired invites readers to send ideas for the “Found” page, forecasting the future of one aspect of society.  September’s “Future of Shopping Centers” shows Floor 38 of the six floor McMurdo Mall, presumably in the globally warmed Antarctica of 2071, with imaginatively branded shops in a high rise of at least 40 stories and a directory that meets the findability standards of the 12th Century.

15th Century scribe, three hundred years after the introduction of alphabetized biblical indices

In this mall directory, businesses are named at their map locations only, not under their respective categories or even in alphabetical order.  To find a store, customers must already know where it is or they must examine each floor map separately by looking at every storefront.  That’s a 12th Century technique.  In the early days of indexing, biblical indices were organized in the same order as the Bible.  Since medieval Christians believed the Bible to be perfect, this was considered the optimal arrangement, even though, in order to find something, you had to already know where it was or you had to read the entire index from beginning to end.  Then visionary preachers, needing fast information for their daily sermons, rearranged biblical indices into alphabetical order, opening a new world of findable information.

Categorical Illogic

Today’s malls usually provide detailed classification and often an alphabetical listing.  It’s a form of advertising for the stores.  On McMurdo’s Floor 38, Wired only shows four fuzzy categories:  Body, Clothing, Retail, and Food Court.  Instead of listing businesses under their categories, classifications are differentiated on the map by nearly indistinguishable light pastel hatch marks.

McMurdo Station in 2007

McMurdo’s customers will surely notice the logical error of placing retail stores in the Clothing category at the same level as the generic Retail category.  In addition, the Body classification is not accurately filled.  Wackenhut Day Care, named for the founder of a private prison corporation, would be better categorized as educational, along with two other Body businesses.  The Build-A-Child Workshop might offer human genetic engineering or it could be an educational facility with an alternate pedagogical theory to the prison model.  Rosetta Stone Cognitive Enhancements presumably sells smart drugs.  This store could market itself in both the Body and suggested Education categories, perhaps for an additional fee.

Mall Directories Today

The actual future of mall directories started appearing about 1984 when Telesyne developed perhaps the first interactive directory at the Chicago Ridge Mall in Oak Lawn, IL.  Like McMurdo, it had a touch screen, but it also talked.  Visualized trails illuminated routes to stores.  Coupons arrived via printer, along with trivia games.  It even featured a filtered search mechanism.  Customers selected a combination of attributes, such as gender, age and price, then retrieved a list of stores meeting the criteria.  Of course, it had the basics of alphabetized and categorized store lists (1).

Chicago's 900 North Michigan

The vertical McMurdo Mall has multiple floors, like the 900 North Michigan Shops in Chicago, which again includes categorized and alphabetized lists in its directory.  Rather than McMurdo’s single floor diagrams, 900 North Michigan shows all maps on the same screen  Click on a category and the alphabetized list changes to only show stores in that category.  Hover over a store name in a list and it is highlighted on the map.  Click the store name and you get an advertising page.

I understand the folks at Wired are clever branders, not organizers, but here’s one electronic feature they really should have caught.  Downloadable apps!  Now offered by Micello and PointInside, these apps live on your device so you can use the directory while strolling the mall’s innermost areas.

McMurdo Scenario

Wired located their 2071 mall at McMurdo Station, a research facility maintained by the United States in Antarctic territory claimed by New Zealand.  The mall’s logo is a red, white and blue star.  Wired did give one indication of New Zealand culture, although it has a double meaning.  Does GNC MRI offer magnetic resource imaging and or is it a retail nutrition store that only speaks Maori?

USAF and Maori touch noses during a Powhiri welcoming ceremony in Christchurch

Global warming research will be more advanced in 59 years, with McMurdo Station in the forefront.  Its warmer climate allows scientists and support personnel to bring their families, although there may not be a high turnover in mall customers since potential residents will need a job to get on the plane.  McMurdo may be a self-sustaining society, perhaps with a hospital to ease the 17 hour flight to Christchurch for surgery.  Because of the ozone hole, this may still be an interior society.

2071 Mall Directory

So we have an intelligent population with cabin fever.  Mall merchants want them to spend their spare time shopping.  How can the directory support that?  Sponsored electronic games is one idea from Telesyne.  Play the game, win a coupon.  Play stations could be adjacent to directories, maximizing the number of people who can interact with the directory at the same time.

New customers en route to the McMurdo Mall

Businesses will want extensive categories allowing multiple entries, along with an alphabetized drop-down list.  McMurdo has a simple floor plan, so showing routes may not be necessary.  However, downloadable apps could be a source for further promotions, delivered via customers’ information devices as they stroll by participating stores.

Customer recognition might be a good idea, perhaps by voice, perhaps multilingual, offering personalized specials.  In the Wired model, businesses provide brief marketing messages any time someone clicks on a brand.  This could be expanded to a promotional video on a nearby screen, inviting customers to win a coupon at a personalized game.

The directory’s display could feature specials at happy hour, an important event at McMurdo.  The only watering holes on Floor 38 are Starbucks and Soylent Julius.  We’ll probably still have a cannibalism taboo, so the latter may be serving soymilk orange drinks, contributing to improved land productivity by growing crops for humans instead of cows.  However the folks at McMurdo like stronger stuff, so Rosetta Stone Cognitive Enhancements may want pre-shift marketing messages for their smart drugs.  They might also consider automated delivery or in-apartment reminders.

Another findability resource could be full store inventories, searchable from the directory, with routing to the exact location in the store.  But remember, findability is secondary to the primary goal of getting customers in the door.  The easier it is to find stuff, the sooner a customer exits the mall.  Grocery stores in 2012 often switch merchandise around, encouraging customers to look at new products.  At McMurdo, Telesyne’s filtered search could provide customized lists of businesses that meet a set of generic criteria.  Inventory directories could then be placed inside each store.  That way a customer has to actually walk into the establishment to get precise directions.

The Organizing Challenge

In an online retail environment, the information management interface is often the primary entry for customers.  If it’s confusing or illogical, they’ll go somewhere else.  If it’s too rigid, they’ll just buy one thing and then go somewhere else.  With accurate and stimulating search mechanisms, customers linger and return often.

For their 2071 shopping center, the designers at Wired thought more about brand names than about getting customers into the stores.  To be fair, their skill sets don’t seem to include information organization.  That takes a very focused mind.  Yes, everyone can organize.  Everyone can sing too.  Some sing as performers and some sing in the shower, with vast differences in skill.  Even smart people can be bad organizers.  I once encountered a computer PhD who didn’t understand the mechanics of alphabetical order.   Wired’s clever branders selected an organizational device for their futurist vision, but they only got as far as the 12th Century because they forgot to include an organizer on their team.


(1) Hi-Tech Mall Directory Debuts, Marketing News, 11/9/84, p. 18

Wikimedia Photo Credits:  Scriptorium Monk at Work (public domain), Ob Hill and McMurdo Station (Alan Light), Chicago 900 North Michigan (J. Crocker), Powhiri, USAF (Tech. Sgt. Shane A. Cuomo), Antarctica C-17 (Tas50)

Sep 2012

De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum*

(Today is the birthday of the Dalai Lama, a survivor of religious persecution.  So we honor the shrines of Timbuktu, recently demolished by religious vandals who think God wants them to destroy beauty.)

Three Soldiers

Burton Barr Central Library sits a mile or so from my house.  Named for a Phoenix politician who supported the library, this main branch still has a few microfilm readers.  That’s where I’ve settled in, immersed in the early days of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM) as documented by the Washington Post and just about every art critic in 1980’s America.

The announcement of Maya Lin’s winning design erupted into a battle between the forces of representational and non-representational art, causing the addition of an Iron Mike, the typical soldier statue erected in a town park.  Twelve years after the VVM established itself as one of the world’s great memorials, best-selling author Tom Wolfe, a representational combatant, illogically lamented the 1980’s “ludicrous lapse of taste,” while boasting of “the throngs who came annually to see” Three SoldiersFrederick Hart’s statue, of course, benefits from its proximity to Lin’s VVM.

While I respect Lin’s fight for artistic integrity, I like Three Soldiers, handsome guys in the tradition of World War II movies, a good war when President Roosevelt’s four sons all served in the military.  The statue solved another controversy.  War memorials cannot be neutral because neutrality is defined as anti-war.  Wars require promotion, PR skills honed with millenniums of practice and contradicted by the reality of a list of names.

Aerial View of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

On the memorial, the names are in chronological order by date of casualty, with each day alphabetized.  I have stated many times that chronological order and the mirrored surface allow vets to join their comrades.  But thinking about local Iron Mikes made me realize that chronological order also creates a memorial for every day of fighting in Vietnam and for every battle.  When a vet finds names from a battle he survived, he discovers a personal Iwo Jima monument.  The VVM is not just one memorial; it’s thousands of memorials.

The Washington Monument

A complaint against Lin’s concept was the lack of Vietnam vets on the selection committee.  But that’s why they got this exceptional memorial.  As a consultant, I know fresh viewpoints build innovation.  Instead of learning about the Vietnam War, Lin studied other memorials with names.  She built a space to heal sorrow.  The descent into the earth and the V-shaped design, with names beginning and ending at the central vertex, all interact with the phallic Washington Monument to bring us into the comforting arms of the feminine.  The VVM is about those who died, but it was built for those who survived and for them, it’s a coming home.

* In matters of taste, there can be no disputes.

Photo Credits:  Wikimedia Commons, Three Soldiers, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington M0nument

The Art of Thank You

Juniata College

As part of her site specific sculptural installation at Juniata College in Pennsylvania, Maya Lin gave an address to the college on a “reflection of art within society.”  In it she articulated the idea of “a strong, clear vision,” which later became the title of the Academy Award winning documentary about her life.  After her talk, four local Vietnam veterans made a presentation thanking her for “our Vietnam memorial.”  Maya responded, “Thank you very much.  It was meant for all of you and I’m glad you liked it.”

Not everyone liked it.  This was six years after the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the acrimonious process that almost derailed it.  There were complaints about the shape and color of the memorial, about chronology instead of alphabetical order, and about Maya being an undergraduate Chinese-American woman.  Through all that hostility, Maya Lin stood her ground.  By the time of the Juniata event, these four veterans knew she had built for them a powerful memorial, a place where “the memories of our friends and brothers will live forever.”  When they thanked her, she let those four vets know they were the source of the power.  It was a brief encounter, just 170 words, with emotions bubbling under the surface and an expression of gratitude about every 20 words.  Thank you to Maya, thank you to the veterans, thank you to the college.

Fred Astaire thanks his sister Adele for the dance.

Terry Gross, of NPR’s Fresh Air, always thanks her interviewees and they usually respond in kind, sometimes offering a final insight into the person’s character.  Around 2004, Terry interviewed Madonna about her interest in the Kaballah when one of her books was published, possibly a children’s book called The Adventures of Abdi.  I am basing this on memory and a little Internet searching because NPR was unable to supply the audio or the transcript.  Terry, of course, graciously thanked her guest.  As I recall, Madonna did not say thank you in return, implying instead that she was doing Terry a favor by appearing on the show to promote her new book.  It may be a coincidence, and the book did make the New York Times best seller list, but according to Wikipedia, among the series of Madonna children’s books on the Kaballah, The Adventures of Abdi was the least successful.

Some of my readers know that I am a good dancer.  Perhaps this is what makes me sensitive to the art of thank you.  There is an etiquette to dancing with a stranger.  Even rock ‘n’ roll dancing is intimate and at the end of the dance both partners say thank you.  It acknowledges the enjoyed shared experience and ends the encounter so we can each go on to dance with someone else.  Everyone on the dance floor knows this etiquette.  If you mess up, the crowd senses it.  There is nothing so obvious as someone who is rude.

So let me take this opportunity to thank my readers.  I get a lot from writing.  I share my ideas, clarify my thoughts, and express my creativity.  But without readers, it’s just an exercise in putting words together.  Readers have their own motives – the pleasure of reading, the acquisition of ideas, the generation of new knowledge.  As a reader myself, I know we all have much excellent writing to choose from.  It is an honor when you give me your attention.  Thank you.

Photo Credits:
K.hierasimowicz, 2006.  Halbritter Center for the Performing Arts na kampusie Juniata College w Huntingdon.  Wikimedia Commons.
Fred & Adele Astaire. ca. 1906
.  Wikimedia Commons.

Jun 2012

Little Bighorn: A Work in Progress

(Today, June 4, is the birthday of Larry McMurtry.  In addition to novels and screenplays, he wrote a biography of Crazy Horse, who along with Sitting Bull and Gall, led the Lakota warriors at the Little Bighorn.  McMurty also wrote Oh What a Slaughter: Massacres in the American West, 1846-1890, which includes his thoughts about the battle.)

7th Cavalry Memorial

One of the first memorials with names of enlisted soldiers,  the 7th Cavalry obelisk was erected at the Little Bighorn in 1881, just a few years after the 1876 battle.  In the study of American battles, it is second only to Gettysburg, which also featured George Armstrong Custer.  Several books have been written about the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument as an historic site, including Stricken Field: The Little Bighorn Battlefield Since 1876 by Jerome A. Greene.

While primarily about the battlefield itself, Greene also discusses the history of the memorial, to the point of listing every town the granite structure visited in its railroad journey from Massachusetts to Montana.  But he says almost nothing about the names on the memorial.  Turns out that access to the railroad itinerary is simple but those names are complex.  I may be the first researcher to attempt an understanding of the arrangement of names on the Little Bighorn obelisk.

It stands above a mass grave of 7th Cavalry soldiers in Custer’s command, listing 263 men who died with Custer or in other areas of the battle commanded by Frederick Benteen and Marcus Reno.  A memorial to the Indians of several tribes who fought against the 7th Cavalry was erected in 2003.  I will be looking at that memorial in the future.

The 7th Cavalry obelisk consists of two sections, one on top of the other, grounded by a two-layered base.  The sections both have four sides listing names in two columns or centered.  Supplied with a list of names on the memorial by Jerry Jasmer of the National Park Service (NPS), and with photos of the memorial and several lists of 7th Cavalry names, I figured out the general idea for the arrangement.

Officers, on the top West side, are centered, grouped by rank and, for the most part, listed by date of military commission, with rank indicated.  First Lieutenants are listed before Second Lieutenants, but both are grouped under the word “Lieutenants.”  It gets more complex with the remaining soldiers.  The memorial also lists scouts and civilians, to be analyzed in a future post.  Custer brought along a newspaper reporter, a civilian brother, and a teen-aged nephew.  He also had another brother and a brother-in-law in his command.

George & Libbie Custer

The names of the non-commissioned officers and enlisted men begin on the memorial’s lower West section, arranged by Company, rank and alphabetical order within rank, although only their names appear.  Since the first element of the arrangement is Company, you would think that all members of the same Company appear together.  However they are scattered around the memorial, with each section following the pattern of Company, rank and alphabet.

Companies are contiguous within each section, names reading first in the left column and then in the right column.  Only on the South side do names continue in the same order to the lower section. The West lower section contains a Staff member and Companies A – E.  The two South sections contain a Staff member and Companies A – G, overlapping the West side by Staff and five Companies.  The upper East section has Companies E – I and the lower section, Companies G – L.  The upper North section has Companies I – M and the lower section Companies L & M.  The final name, from Company L, is centered.  Most Companies appear in at least two orderings, the exception being Company D, which lost three men who appear together on the West side.  Companies E, G, I & L have  three orderings, four for L if you count that last centered name.

Fortunately, Jerome Greene footnoted his information about the memorial to History of Custer Battlefield by Don Rickey, Jr.  Rickey footnoted his material to the Elizabeth Bacon Custer archive, which she donated to a museum at the battlefield.  George and Libbie had an especially romantic relationship for the Victorian era.  When he died, she devoted herself to honoring his memory.  She wrote books, gave speeches, and arranged for the erection of large statues.  General Montgomery C. Meigs headed the construction of the memorial, keeping Libbie Custer apprised of his progress.  Her archive contains a list of the memorial names prepared by Meigs.

So I contacted NPS at the monument.  The archive requires preservation and recently moved temporarily from the battlefield in Montana to the Western Archeological and Conservation Center (WACC) in Tucson (!), a couple hours’ drive from my home in Phoenix.  The materials should be available sometime this summer.

However parts of the Elizabeth Bacon Custer collection were microfilmed.  Sharon Small of NPS provided me with copies of memorial construction plans and the list of names that Meigs sent to Libbie Custer, but not his accompanying letter.  The names for the soldiers are in almost perfect order – Company, rank and alphabet.  All Companies are contiguous.

Indian Memorial

It looks like a printed document, so Meigs probably sent the same list to the stonecutter in Massachusetts.  And then what happened?  Why didn’t the stonecutter follow the list?  That would be easier than dividing up the names with a few here and a few there from each Company.  Did anyone notice the rearranged names during the transportation and construction process?

The answers may sit in Libbie Custer’s archive in Tucson.  WACC is still working on the collection, so a little patience is needed.  In the meantime, I am beginning to research names on the Indian memorial at the Little Bighorn.  After all, they won the battle.

Photo Credits

7th Cavalry Memorial:  Belissarius, Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument, June 30, 2008, Wikimedia Commons.

George & Libbie Custer:  Mathew Brady, George Armstrong Custer and Elizabeth Bacon Custer, between 1860-1865, Wikimedia Commons.

Indian Memorial:  Michael Brunk, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, July 10, 2011, Flickr.

Jun 2012

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Rededicated

While there have been reunions all year long, today marks the beginning of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War.  Memorial Day weekend activities in Washington DC included Rolling Thunder’s Ride to Freedom motorcycle rally and a concert honoring their own 25thanniversary of POW/MIA work.  The official ceremony today, a rededication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, features President Obama, the first President to speak at the memorial since Bill Clinton in 1993.

Rolling Thunder Parade, 2009

As my readers know, I believe the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM) gains its power from a chronologic name arrangement, building community among veterans.  By remembering just one name from decades ago, a veteran can find all his fallen comrades from the battles he survived.  In the mirrored surface, he sees his own image among the names of his friends.

Why did I become interested in this “Names on Memorials” project six years ago?  Memorials mostly commemorate war or tragedy and I am a compassionate pacifist.  Although never attending an anti-Vietnam War demonstration, the demonstrators later became my friends.  I started looking at memorials when the initial plan for randomized names at the World Trade Center memorial was announced and then denounced by myself and many others.  After years of controversy, the arrangement was changed to reflect the 9/11 community.  Even though Michael Arad misunderstood the value of arrangement, the memorial designer identified Maya Lin and the VVM as an influence.  She in turn was influenced by Edwin Lutyens’ Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, which also created community among war veterans and survivors, not with chronology, but with a traditional military arrangement that kept friends together because of Britain’s location-based World War I recruiting strategy.

In the world of online search, we value finding specific answers, but the presentation of those answers can be just as important.  If we only wanted to find names on the VVM, we could have built a granite alphabetical index.  In fact, the lack of alphabetizing was a major complaint against Lin’s design.  We now see that her arrangement provides a context for the names, an especially valuable context for the veterans who survived the war.

I am interested in memorials because they use the arrangement of names to elicit an emotion, to provide the visitor with a guided experience.  These monuments are not digital.  They are set in stone and this allows us to evaluate the success of the arrangement.  That success can be translated to the digital environment when we choose how to arrange our own information.  What elements best present the data?  What arrangements help users understand the context or promote our ideas about the information?  For data mining, which elements help us compare, coordinate and discover.

In many ways, information management is a study in relationships.  At the VVM, Maya Lin used chronology to express the relationships of military personnel as they cycled in and out of their tours of duty.   By understanding how designers use arrangement in the art of memorials, we can bring these subtle skills to our own information projects.

Photo credit:  Alan Kotok, Rolling Thunder Parade, May 24, 2009, Constitution Ave., Washington, DC

May 2012

Titanic’s Musicians

(Along with Titanic’s 100th anniversary, today is my grandfather’s 110th  birthday.  I don’t know how much the Titanic news effected California’s Italian immigrant population, but my great-grandparents must have spent some time that day thinking about their own Atlantic voyage in the previous century.)

Wallace Hartley

Titanic’s musicians hold the most honored position in its many tales of heroism.  Shortly after the iceberg hit, the band started playing cheerful tunes.  They kept on playing during the crisis, right up to their final “Nearer, My God, to Thee” as the ship submerged.

As with most legends, some details are controversial.  Did they take a break?  It looks like they did, since they seem to have acquired lifejackets in the second half of the concert. Also Bandmaster Wallace Hartley’s pockets were found filled with small valuables, which he might have grabbed in his cabin when he retrieved his lifejacket.  The biggest music controversy is the last song.  Was it really “Nearer, My God, to Thee” or perhaps “Songe d’Automne?”  Each has its supporters, with carefully constructed and convincing scenarios.

More important is the heroism of these men as they helped passengers endure disaster.  Hartley once told a friend, “When men are called to face death suddenly, music is far more effective in cheering them on than all the firearms in creation.”  He proved this on the Titanic and his valor soothed two nations.

With the eight musicians hailed as the finest examples of manhood, as many as 40,000 attended Hartley’s funeral procession in Colne, Lancashire.  The parade had eight bands, one choir, and even a second line of mourners, about as close to a New Orleans jazz funeral as Edwardian England could get.  The Titanic Band Memorial Concert at the Royal Albert Hall included seven orchestras, with such prominent conductors as Edward Elgar and Thomas Beecham.

Amalgamated Musicians Union Poster

The band inspired at least 18 group and individual memorials.  Several of them seem to have been based on a poster produced by the Amalgamated Musicians Union (AMU) of Southampton, which sold 80,000 copies in the first few months.  Proceeds were contributed to a musicians’ convalescent hospital.

Titanic’s band was actually two bands, a Quintet for the First Class dining room and a Trio for the Parisian Café.  Here’s the lineup, suggested by Titanic experts Walter Lord and Jack Kopstein:


Wallace Hartley, Bandmaster and Violin

Theodore Ronald Brailey, Piano

John Frederick Preston Clarke, Bass

John Law Hume, Violin

John Wesley Woodward, Cello


Percy Cornelius Taylor, Piano and Cello, possible Trio Leader

Roger Marie Bricoux, Cello

Georges Alexandre Krins, Violin

The AMU poster includes eight photos with two large ones in the center column and three on either side.  One of the larger photos is Bandmaster Hartley, the other is Taylor.  None of my resources comment on Taylor as Trio Leader, however I assume the AMU thought he functioned in that position.  The instrumentation suggests he was in the Trio and his photo is enlarged in the poster.    The two side columns are headed by Krins and Bricaux, both Trio members identified by Lord, with the four Quintet members below. This suggests the poster was organized to show the two different bands.

Titanic Musicians Memorial in Southampton

If my analysis is correct, then the AMU missed an opportunity.  The band leaders are arranged as Quintet and Trio because Bandmaster Hartley has to be at the top.  But the rest are organized as Trio and Quintet.  If the Trio members had been placed at the bottom, then the Quintet would have been next to Hartley and the Trio next to Taylor.

This error became more prominent when the arrangement was used for the Titanic Musicians’ Memorial in Southampton, where the AMU was headquartered.  Here the names surround a carving of the Titanic being held by a deity.  It feels like a circle, which can give the appearance of equality while maintaining hierarchy, as we saw in the Shuttle Challenger Memorial at Arlington.  Hartley is at top and Taylor, bottom, both in larger letters.  The remaining musicians on either side are in the same arrangement as the poster, with the Trio on top and the Quintet below.  So the two leaders are again separated from their respective bands.

Titanic Musicians' Memorial, New South Wales, Australia

The Titanic Bandsmen Memorial in Broken Hill, New South Wales, Australia, may have used the AMU poster as a starting point and then gone off in its own direction.  This memorial is a broken column, symbolizing young lives cut short.  Here the two Trio members are immediately after Hartley, in the same order as the poster although Bricoux’s name is misspelled.  They are followed by the Quintet in a different arrangement from the poster, with possible Trio Leader Taylor among them.

New South Wales Memorial Detail

Recently commentators have argued that the band may have cost lives, that its music lulled passengers into a false sense of security.  At the beginning some passengers may have felt safer on the ship with its cheery music, perhaps one reason lifeboats launched half full.  Yet while the music played, passengers remained relatively courteous, at least in First Class.  We have their stories because they are the ones who survived.  People calmly sacrificed their own lives to save others, including Miss Edith Corse Evans who gave her place on the last collapsible boat to a mother of five.  When the music stopped, things started getting mean on the lifeboats.  On the ship, Wallace Hartley and his Trio and Quintet had kept passengers calm as they sorted out who would live and who would die.  Then the musicians comforted two nations in mourning with the story of their selfless attention to duty.

Primary resource for this article is Steve Turner’s The Band that Played On:  The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic.

Illustration credits:  Wallace Hartley; Amalgamated Musicians Union Poster (April 12, 2012); Titanic Musicians Memorial in Southampton; Titanic Musicians’ Memorial, New South Wales, Australia; New South Wales Memorial Detail

Apr 2012

UnLATCHed: Richard Saul Wurman’s Theory of Limitations

Richard Saul Wurman, innovative organizer of the TED Conferences, publisher of the Access travel guides, and the first information architect, claimed “there are only five ways to organize information, not 50, not 500, five” (Follow the Yellow Brick Road).  To describe his five finite methods, he used the mnemonic LATCH (Location, Alphabet, Time, Category, Hierarchy), apparently not realizing that mnemonics is a sixth way to organize information.

Web designers embraced the idea, spreading Wurman’s law of five throughout the burgeoning field of information architecture, a term Wurman coined.  It’s even included as one of the Universal Principles of DesignBut LATCH fools smart people like Wurman and the UPD authors because of an error in logic.

The first three items in LATCH are examples of sequence.  The fourth method, Category, is the logical error.  Categories are not sequences.  They are labeled containers for information that must be sequenced.  Both the labels must be sequenced and the contents of the labels.  Never the less, it is Categories that makes LATCH seem to work.  If something cannot be organized by LATH, it can always be categorized because everything can be categorized.

The fifth method, Hierarchy is actually two different structures.  Sometimes Wurman uses it for a size sequence, sometimes for a series of nested categories.

In addition to the logic error, LATCH does not cover all the available arrangement methods. Along with mnemonics, which he used but did not recognize, Wurman missed random.  We can now call these seven structures MR LATCH, but we have an abundance of organizing strategies, too many for a mnemonic.

For example, much of what we think of as random is really a sequence called chaining described by George Lakoff in Women, Fire and Dangerous Things:  What Categories Reveal about the MindPerhaps you are writing a grocery list.  Cereal reminds you of milk, which reminds you of coffee, which reminds you of sugar, which reminds you of cookies, etc.  In information organization, chains are generally not intentional, but you see them a lot.  People post online lists.  They don’t consciously arrange them so they unconsciously put them into a chain.

One intentional organizing strategy is shape.  Let’s say you have three lists containing items numbering 10, 5, and 5.  You put them into two columns, one with 10 and the other with 5 and 5.  You have just organized by shape because you made an organizational decision based on how something fits on a page.  Wurman used this technique in his 1990’s Smart Yellow Pages which listed community resources at the beginning of the printed Pacific Bell Yellow Pages.

Wurman also missed the Canonic structure.  This is one of our oldest arrangement techniques, post-alphabet.  Because the Bible was seen as perfect, its early indexes were arranged in the same way as the Bible itself.  A top level index list would be Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, etc.  The introduction of alphabetical order was controversial because it threatened the perception of Biblical perfection.  Canonic structures are still common.  Tables of contents, for example, are Canonic.

Speaking of numbers, they are not a sequencing method.  They are labels.  When you put Zip Codes into numerical order, you are actually organizing by Location because that’s what Zip Codes represent.

When he described his idea of five and only five ways to organize information in Information Anxiety, Wurman explained that we don’t need to be anxious about organizing information because of these “reassuring limitations.”  False limitations are what make me anxious.  Limiting organizational arrangements to four plus a label forces inexperienced organizers to look at their material in only a few ways, diminishing creativity and findability.

Illustration Credits:  Open Gates, Derek Menzies, Wikimedia, and Dame mit Kaffeetasse, Emile Eisman-Semenowsky, Wikimedia

Mar 2012