Medal of Honor Winners on the African American Civil War Memorial

(1) African-American Civil War Memorial

African American Civil War Memorial

Enraged by a Confederate massacre, the United States Colored Troops (USCT) and other African-American fighting troops earned 24 Medals of Honor in the years between the Battle of Fort Pillow and the end of the Civil War.  Nathan Bedford Forrest enlisted in the Confederate Army when the war began and was immediately commissioned a general because he was rich, having made his fortune in the slave trade.  Did he have leadership capabilities?  He was responsible for one of the worst massacres in U.S. history at the Battle of Fort Pillow in Tennessee.  Confederate troops murdered soldiers who had surrendered, black and white, but mostly black.  Other victims may have been tortured and burned alive, including civilian women and children.  Despite multiple eye witness accounts, the accusations of torture remain controversial.  You can see a sanitized version of the Fort Pillow massacre in the 2016 television mini-series Roots, Part 4 (Bruce Beresford).  After the war, Forrest founded the Ku Klux Klan but he lost his fortune.  As an old man, preparing to die and meet his maker, he made amends with the African-American community by giving a speech promoting racial harmony.

African-American Civil War troops became ferocious after the massacre, rallying to the cry of “Remember Fort Pillow.”  They fought to the death because they knew they faced torture if they didn’t.  Except for William Harvey Carney’s Fort Wagner medal on July 18, 1863 and Robert Blake’s naval medal on Christmas Day, 1863 , the remaining 24 African-American and United States Colored Troops (USCT) Medals of Honor were earned in the year between Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864 and the end of the war on April 9, 1865.  These men from the South experienced slavery.  Those from the North experienced racism, a racism that continued in their own military as they were dying for their country.  They kept fighting for freedom, a fight their descendants carried into the Civil Rights movement, a fight that inspires us even today.

John Lawson

John Lawson

The Wessyngton Plantation memorial that we looked at on Memorial Day 2016 indicates which slaves joined the USCT to fight for the Union in the Civil War.  A reader expressed interest in the USCT and found the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington DC which has a memorial that lists names.  This memorial includes the Spirit of Freedom statue by Ed Hamilton depicting three African-American Civil War soldiers and a sailor.  It is surrounded by four low walls in a semi-circle with the names of 209,145 members of the USCT and other African-American army units.  African-Americans who served with white units, such as Medal of Honor winner Bruce Anderson, are not listed.  Members of the Navy are also not listed.  Seven African-American sailors received Medals of Honor during the Civil War:  Aaron Anderson, William H. Brown, Wilson Brown, John Lawson, James Mifflin, Joachim Pease, and the first African-American to receive a Medal of Honor during the war, Robert Blake.

The names on the memorial are organized in alphabetical order within their regiments.  There is no designation of rank.  One of the purposes of alphabetical order is to create equality and that is the result here.  In the USCT regiments, almost all of the officers were white, so organizing by rank or giving the rank with the name would build an inappropriate racial hierarchy.

The regiments are organized primarily numerically and alphabetically within each number.  They begin with the 1st Regiment, USCT Cavalry, Virginia, the second being 1st Regiment, USCT Heavy Artillery, Tennessee.  The state indicates where the regiment was formed.  Units may have had different names originally and took new names after being incorporated into the USCT.  These two can be found on panels A-1 and A-2.  There are four walls, but both sides are used on the innermost wall, so the panels are designated A – E.  The 157 panels number consecutively from A-1 to E-157.

The last USCT unit is the 138th Regiment, USCT Infantry, Georgia on panels E-140 and E-141.  The remaining panels are not so obviously arranged.  These include four military bands from Louisiana, the first being Brigade Band Number 1 Corps d’Afrique; African-American regiments that were formed early in the war and then abandoned; and state sponsored regiments that never entered the USCT.

(3) Andrew Jackson Smith

Andrew Jackson Smith

One such unit is the famous 54th Regiment, Massachusetts Cavalry (Colored), which the film Glory (Edward Zwick, 1989) was based on.  This film is highly recommended for its depiction of the experiences of African-American soldiers during the Civil War.  It builds up to their valiant attack on Fort Wagner in South Carolina, which, while not successful, was inspirational and encouraged other young African-American men to enlist.  Massachusetts even formed another regiment, the 55th.  Both claim Medal of Honor winners – Andrew Jackson Smith of the 55th at Honey Hill, South Carolina and William Harvey Carney at Fort Wagner.  Carney’s action is the earliest to win a Medal of Honor for an African-American but it was issued in 1900.  Smith received his medal posthumously in 2001 at a ceremony that also gave a posthumous Medal of Honor to Theodore Roosevelt for his military actions during the Spanish-Civil War.  Roosevelt’s oldest son, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., earned a Medal of Honor for his actions on D-Day during World War II.

Each name on the African American Civil War Memorial is separated from the next by one of three symbols.  The primary symbol is a star that simply separates the names.  A circle indicates multiple records in the regiment with that name.  A diamond shows this soldier may have served in other regiments, although he will only be listed once.  I would like to honor the people who put together the list of names.  They were dealing with fragile hand written records at least 140 years old, collected during a war.

These names can also be seen in a three volume print reference work titled Book of Names: The United States Colored Troops by Frank Smith Jr., Walter B. Hill Jr., and Hari Jones (2007).  This organizes the regiments by geography:  (1) The Northern States, (2) The Border States and (3) The Southern States.  Each volume lists regiments by the state where they were originally formed.  States and names are in alphabetical order with associated memorial panel.  Within each state, the regiments are organized as on the memorial, numerically and then alphabetically.  Regiments without an associated state are in the first volume.  That includes the four Corps d’Afrique brigade bands presumably because Louisiana is not officially part of their names.

(4) 4th or 36th USCT Infantry

4th or 36th USCT Infantry

At the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, also known as New Marked Heights, 15 members of the USCT, earned Medals of Honor.  These soldiers were battle hardened from the siege of Petersburg in Virginia.  During that action, two of the regiments, the 4th and the 5th, experienced one of the worst Union losses at the Battle of the Crater.  The Union used explosives to initiate a battle but instead dug a crater from which they could not escape.  Surviving Confederates simply shot down at Union soldiers in what was called a “turkey shoot.”  This battle is portrayed in the film Cold Mountain (Anthony Minghella, 2003), where the action is shown from the South’s point of view.  The film displays the beginning of trench warfare, a style of war that continued into World War One.  Decatur Dorsey of the 39th USCT Infantry, Maryland received a Medal of Honor for his role in the battle.

(5) USCT soldiers at Dutch Gap

USCT soldiers at Dutch Gap

As they headed toward Chaffin’s Farm, Virginia, the 4th and 6th USCT infantry regiments participated in the action to protect the canal at Dutch Gap.  After Chaffin’s Farm, the 36th Regiment returned to Dutch Gap.  The photo here shows USCT soldiers at Dutch Gap.  Perhaps they are members of one of these regiments.

Christian Fleetwood

Christian Fleetwood

Three Chaffin’s Farm Medal of Honor Winners from the 4th Regiment USCT Infantry, Maryland appear on panel A-11 – Alfred B. Hilton, Christian Fleetwood, and Charles Veale.  Hilton is the only African-American Civil War Medal of Honor winner to die from wounds received in battle.  Fleetwood was a diarist, so his writings provide much information about the African-American troops.  Uncommon Valor: A Story of Race, Patriotism and Glory in the Final Battles of the Civil War, by Pulitzer Prize winner Melvin Claxton and Mark Puls (2006), is based in large part on his work.  At the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, Hilton carried two flags, the United States flag and the regiment flag.  In the Civil War infantry, the flag bearer leads the soldiers who are trained to follow him into battle.  When Hilton fell, Fleetwood and Veale picked up the flags and continued to lead the 4th Regiment into battle.

Powatan Beaty

Powatan Beaty

Four more Medal of Honor winners from Chaffin’s Farm appear on panel A-14:  Powhatan Beaty, James H. Bronson, Milton M. Holland, and Robert Pinn of the 5th Regiment, USCT Infantry, Ohio.  All the officers from the 5th Regiment were killed and these men took over leadership.

On panel A-17, the Chaffin’s Farm Medal of Honor winners are Nathan Huntley Edgerton, Thomas R. Hawkins, and Alexander Kelly of the 6th Regiment, USCT Infantry, Pennsylvania.  Edgerton was an officer.  These men picked up the flags after their flag bearers fell and continued to lead the regiment into battle.  Their actions are depicted in the painting “Three Medals of Honor” by the well-known modern Civil War illustrator, Don Troiani.  The painting now hangs in the Union League of Philadelphia.

Two Medal of Honor winners from the 36th Regiment, USCT Infantry, North Carolina appear on panel C-51.  James Daniel Gardner went ahead of his fellow soldiers and killed a Confederate officer who was urging his troops into battle.  Miles James rallied his USCT troops into battle despite a serious arm injury that resulted in a battlefield amputation.

The final three USCT Medal of Honor winners from Chaffin’s Farm appear on panel C-53:  William H. Barnes, James H. Harris, and Edward Ratcliff of the 38th Regiment, USCT Infantry, Virginia.  These three men ran ahead of their fellow troops into the battle.

If we look at these 15 USCT Medal of Honor winners from Chaffin’s Farm, the common theme seems to be leadership.  Four of them took on the responsibilities of officers who had died.  The honor came for six of them because they carried the flag and therefore took their men into battle.  The remaining six ran ahead of their fellow troops, also leading their men into battle.

"The Gallant Charge of the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts (Colored) Infantry" by Currier & Ives. Note Union flag bearer as leader.

“The Gallant Charge of the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts (Colored) Infantry” by Currier & Ives. Note Union flag bearer as a leader.

Only a few African-Americans were allowed to become officers, although many did achieve non-commissioned officer status.  Christian Fleetwood, the diarist, advanced as far as he could within a few weeks of enlisting.  However, white enlisted men could become officers if they simply transferred over to the USCT or if, like Nathan Bedford Forrest in the Confederacy, they had a lot of money.  The massacre at Fort Pillow shows the result of selecting leaders for reasons other than demonstrated skill.

The film Glory explores this theme of leadership.  The character of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) is shown as someone who may not be prepared for this level of leadership and who grows into his role.  Sergeant Major John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) leads because he has the wisdom of age.  However it is Private Silas Trip (Denzel Washington) who has natural leadership capabilities.  Just about every scene involving him displays his leadership.  His actions inspire Shaw to get the men new shoes.  He leads the revolt for equal pay for African-Americans.  Finally, in the battle to take Fort Wagner, Trip grabs the fallen flag, as did Medal of Honor winner William Harvey Carney.  Unlike Trip, Carney survived and returned to camp with the flag and the words “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!”

Graphic Credits

All graphics are licensed under Creative Commons.  The photo of the Memorial is from Sites of Memory.  The remaining photos are from Wikimedia CommonsLawson, Smith, Infantry (This is for the 4th Infantry.  Another caption for the same photo indicates it is the 36th Infantry.), Dutch Gap, Fleetwood, Beaty, Gallant Charge

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Stolpersteine: Europe Becomes a Holocaust Memorial


Stolperstein for Erna Wazinski

Today is the 95th anniversary of the World War I armistice, when the war ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.  The night of last Saturday and Sunday was the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a pogrom that moved German Jews from the loss of civil rights into a nightmare of torture and murder.  Both concepts, honoring the war dead and remembering the Holocaust, are featured in Stolpersteine an art project by Gunter Demnig, who transforms all of Europe into a war memorial.

Stolpersteine is the German word for “stumbling blocks.”  The blocks are small brass cobblestones installed into sidewalks near locations of Holocaust events, primarily homes where victims once lived.  They are small, about 4 inches square, one per person.  While there are variations due to individual circumstances, the stones primarily give name, date of birth, deportation, and the fate of the person being honored.  Demnig also makes “stumbling thresholds,” Stolperschwellen, for areas with too many names, such as a mental institution in Trier from which 542 patients were taken and murdered.  These can be as large as 1 square meter.

The typical cobblestone is sponsored for a fee of €120.  Demnig’s instructions tell sponsors how to interact with municipal authorities and who to inform, including family members and neighbors.  Demnig personally installs each of the stones, a full time job.  He can also give a talk about the project for an additional €200 plus expenses, a remarkably reasonable fee for someone of his stature.

Gunter Deminig with Two Newly Installed Stolpersteine

Gunter Demnig with Two Newly Installed Stolpersteine

By December 2013, the project expects to have installed 43,500 stones in 1000 locations.  This is up 3,500 stones from the April 2013 count, also at 1000 locations.  It looks like once a municipality agrees, the stones continue to be laid throughout the area.  Today, Armistice Day, Demnig is placing stones at several sites in the Berlin area.  Tomorrow, 11/12/13, he will be in Stuttgart.  In 2014, he is tentatively scheduled through May for 136 installations and 8 speaking engagements.  There is a six month waiting list for installations.

When I first heard of this, I immediately had negative thoughts about people walking on these sacred names.  But you have to look beyond that.  Of course, there is a logistical issue.  Plaques on the sides of houses require negotiations with current owners, while a project of brass cobblestones in the sidewalk can be approved once by the municipality or the approval process streamlined by regulations.  But more than that, the cobblestones are placed where these people lived.  They are on the sidewalks in front of their homes.  When we walk in their neighborhoods, even if we tread on named cobblestones, we walk where they walked.  We share a moment in their lives before insanity grabbed them away from us.


Erna Wazinski

This past week we had news about 1400 artworks discovered in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, son of Nazi art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt and his wife Helene Hanke, a dancer who worked with German modern dancer Mary Wigman.  An additional 22 works were then voluntarily disclosed by Hildebrand’s brother-in-law.  So we’ll take as our example the cobblestone of Erna Wazinski, a 19 year-old non-Jewish German who lived in Brunswick.  The town was bombed in 1944.  Erna went to her bombed home trying to find her mother and to collect what was left of their belongings.  A neighbor denounced her as a looter and she was guillotined by the Nazis for having a couple of suitcases filled with stuff she thought she owned.  In 1986, German author Adam Seide wrote a novel about her, Die braunschweigische Johanna: ein deutsches Requiem (The Brunswick Johanna: A German Requiem).

Let’s compare Erna and her two suitcases with the Nazi pillaging of Europe.  Nazis conceived of World War II as not just a military war but a cultural offensive.  Hitler, an artist himself, first went after valuable objects, looting entire countries of their museums and private collections.  Then they started taking everything else.  In Paris, Nazis went door to door.  If a home was not occupied they helped themselves to its contents, with no concern for value.  In The Rape of Europa, Lynn H. Nicholas provides a list of loot from one apartment, “5 ladies’ nightgowns, 2 children’s coats, 1 platter, 2 liqueur glasses, 1 man’s coat. . . .” (p. 139).  The Nazis transported boxcars and trainloads of other people’s stuff across Europe, using massive resources that were therefore not available for the actual shooting war.

Erna’s translated Stolperstein reads “Here lived / Erna Wazinski / Born in 1925 / Arrested in 1944 / Looting / Convicted 21.10.1944 / Executed in / Wolfenbüttel.”  Germany has 60% of the cobblestones.  The rest are scattered all over Europe in Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Italy, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the Ukraine.  In Stolpersteine, all of Europe is a location-based memorial.

Smaller location-based installations include the Oklahoma City National Memorial, which places an empty chair at the site where a body was found, with a litttle chair to indicate a child.  The World Trade Center’s National September 11 Memorial is primarily location-based.  Within the footprints of the two structures, names are included with their associated building.  In addition, family members suggested placement of their loved one’s name, which, for the most part, was among their co-workers.  Since companies were housed in different offices, this essentially creates a location-based arrangement, although actual placement has a lot to do with the puzzle of fitting name groups into the available space.  The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme in France also has elements of a location structure.  Because of Britain’s World War I recruiting strategy, a strict adherence to military order of precedence places soldiers from the same town together.

Today, Armistice Day 2013, Gunter Demnig installed stones at Weißensee and Charlottenburg in the Berlin area.   Weißensee is the site of one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe, which brings up an argument against his project.  The cobblestones remind some of the broken Jewish gravestones that were used for paving.  In response, Demnig quotes a passage from the Talmud, a passage illuminating this entire “Names on a Memorial” series, “A man is not forgotten until his name is forgotten.”


Buddy Bear in Charlottenburg

In addition to the Stolpersteine, Charlottenburg participates in another international public art project, the United Buddy Bears.  These are life size decorated statues of smiling bears representing peace and happiness.  The project was conceived by a German couple, Eva and Klaus Hurlitz, with sculptor Roman Strobl.  The bears are installed individually or as part of a travelling exhibition, the Circle of United Buddy Bears, with alphabetized bears representing each nation.  Typical bears have upraised arms, allowing them to stand hand-in-hand together.  At the end of each tour, the bears are sold with proceeds donated to UNICEF.


Buddy Bears in Kuala Lumpur, 2012
(click on the photo for a closer view)

Cartoony smiling bears might seem trivial compared to evil of such dimension as the Holocaust.  But Eva Hurlitz has created a compelling ethic around her bears including the golden rule, tolerance, and respect for others.  This message, delivered by a painted bear, can especially resonate with children, who will have to navigate the international snares of an ever-shrinking world.  As Eva said in her joyous writings about peace and tolerance, the Buddy Bears help us “understand one another better, trust each other more, and live together more peacefully.”

(In the spirit of Buddy Bears, and in remembrance of the Holocaust, I would like to suggest donations to a charity helping the Philippine victims of Typhoon Haiyan.  A final death toll has not been released but it looks like 10,000 were killed in Tacloban, the capitol of Leyte Province.  ShelterBox provides a large box of life’s equipment, including a tent that sleeps 10.  I support this charity because it simply provides a basic human need.  For people who suddenly have to live outside, perhaps mourning family members, the privacy of a tent can make a big difference in the ability to cope.)

Photo Credits

Wikimedia:  Stolperstein for Erna Wazinski, Gunter Demnig, Erna Wazinski, Buddy Bear in Charlottenburg, Buddy Bears in Kuala-Lumpur

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Nov 2013

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.

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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:

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Jul 2013

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)

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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

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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

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Mar 2012

Pearl Harbor: Equality in Service

Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd, USN (1884-1941)

Today is the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  On that day, 19 American ships were damaged or sunk; 171 airplanes destroyed; 1,178 people injured; 2,389 killed; and 14 Medals of Honor awarded.  Pearl Harbor memorials to those who died tend to list the names in alphabetical order.  This is especially significant because one of the names is Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd, Commander of Battleship Division One.  The highest ranking casualty of the attack, he was the first U.S. Navy flag officer killed in action against a foreign enemy.  The USS Arizona was his flagship.

In the early 20th Century, the Pearl Harbor memorial would have been a larger than life statue of Rear Admiral Kidd, probably not on a horse because he was a Navy man.  We started seeing lists of names during World War I, with its massive losses and better record keeping.  In that war, Rear Admiral Kidd would have been at the top of a hierarchical list of names.  But in 1962, when her memorial was dedicated, the names from the USS Arizona were carved in alphabetical order, signifying equality of service.  Rear Admiral Kidd is almost exactly in the middle, surrounded by his men.


Anchor of the USS Arizona on display at Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, Phoenix, AZ.

In Hawaii, Pearl Harbor or World War II memorials with names include the USS Arizona, USS Oklahoma, USS Utah, the Valor in the Pacific Remembrance Circle, and the Honolulu Memorial at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.  In Phoenix, the Arizona’s anchor sits atop a base displaying the names of her dead.  The only exception to alphabetical order is the list of Arizona survivors who choose to be buried in the submerged ship.  These names are located near their shipmates on the Hawaii memorial, but for practical reasons, they are chronological.

Rear Admiral Kidd among His Men at the USS Arizona Anchor Memorial in Phoenix









The Arizona accounts for almost half the deaths from the attack.  She remains in the harbor, her superstructure removed and her hull visible under water.  Most of the bodies were not recovered and are considered buried at sea.  The USS Arizona Memorial, designed by architect Alfred Preis, straddles the mid-section of the ship without touching it.  An open air building, reminiscent of a covered bridge, it is high on both ends and shorter in the middle, to symbolize December 7 as a low point from which America recovered.

USS Arizona Memorial


At the far end of the memorial is a wall with the 1,177 alphabetized names of those who died on the ship.  Listings include initials, last name, and rank.  Most are Navy, with 73 Marines in a separate section.  Rear Admiral Kidd and the ship’s captain, Franklin Van Valkenburgh, have an extra line indicating their position in the ship’s command.

Both earned Medals of Honor, as did Lieutenant Commander Samuel G. Fuqua, who became the ship’s highest ranking officer during the attack.  When personnel abandoned ship, he made sure everyone who could evacuate did so and he was the last person off.  Many survivors credited him with saving their lives.  About 90% of those on board at the time of the attack died.  Today, when ships pass the memorial in the harbor, sailors honor the Arizona by manning the rails, standing evenly spaced along their ship’s railing.

USS Oklahoma Memorial

Don Beck’s 2007 memorial for the USS Oklahoma overlooks the harbor.  Here the 429 alphabetized names are engraved on separate pillars, with the group of pillars fronted on two sides by short marble walls containing engraved quotes about Pearl Harbor.  The visual effect is that of a ship with its sailors manning the rails to honor those who died.  Two men from the Oklahoma earned Medals of Honor.  Ensign Francis C. Flaherty and Seaman First Class James R. Ward both held lights in different turrets so the crew could escape.  They did not survive when the ship rolled over.  The Oklahoma was eventually salvaged but sunk while being towed to San Francisco for scrap metal.

USS Utah Memorial (with her exposed hull on the left)



The USS Utah is its own memorial, remaining in the harbor rolled over with its hull exposed.   There are several plaques on a pier overlooking the wreck.  One contains the names of the 58 who died including Medal of Honor winner Peter Tomich, the Utah’s Chief Watertender and a Croatian immigrant.  His citation reads, “Although realizing that the ship was capsizing, as a result of enemy bombing and torpedoing, Tomich remained at his post in the engineering plant of the U.S.S. Utah, until he saw that all boilers were secured and all fireroom personnel had left their stations, and by so doing lost his own life.”

USS Arizona Memorial Visitors Center - Remembrance Circle

Also overlooking the harbor is the Remembrance Circle at the Visitor’s Center of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, containing the names of all who died at Pearl Harbor, except those from the Arizona.  Here the names are essentially organized by location, although military personnel are initially divided into their respective branches.  Within each grouping the names are alphabetical.  Based on this photo of an summary plaque, the branches are organized by Department of Defense order of precedence: Army, Marines, Navy.  Today the Air Force would be in fourth place, but at the time it was part of the Army.  Because of the overwhelming majority of Navy deaths, order of precedence continues to evoke equality.  Note also that civilians are first.  At the 1925 memorial to the Revolutionary War Minute Men in Medford, MA, a civilian who died is placed last. 

Located in the Punchbowl area of Oahu, the Honolulu Memorial at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific consists of a wide staircase leading to a Liberty statue with Courts of the Missing on either side of the stairs.  The Courts contain names of those missing or buried at sea from American wars in the Pacific – World War II, Korea and Vietnam.  The World War II missing from the southwest Pacific are memorialized at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines, where the names are alphabetized within each military branch.

Punchbowl (Honolulu Memorial at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific)

The architects of the Honolulu Memorial, Weihe, Frick & Kruse, may have been influenced by Edwin Lutyens’ World War I Memorial to the Missing of the Somme in Thiepval, France.  That memorial is an open air building with a wide staircase leading to a memorial stone.  On either side of the stairs are areas which could be termed “courts of the missing,” formed by interwoven structural arches.  (I have written extensively about the Somme memorial in IsisInBlog.) 

The names in France are in a full hierarchy, beginning with British Army Order of Precedence and continuing in a listing by rank.  World War I British recruitment strategy built military units from individual towns.  So this arrangement keeps neighbors together, but it does not express equality.  At the Honolulu Memorial, names are organized first by war, then by military branch, then alphabetized.   

Those who died on the USS Arizona, and whose bodies were not recovered, are declared buried at sea and therefore missing, so Rear Admiral Kidd is on the Honolulu Memorial.  As the highest ranking officer to die at Pearl Harbor, his name is among the K’s with other Navy personnel missing from World War II.  Here he is surrounded not only by his men on the Arizona, but also by almost 12,000 Navy personnel whose bodies, like his, were not found.

Photo Credits

Heiter. (n.d.). Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd, USN (1884-1941) Naval Historical Center. Photo NH 48579-KN.

Victor-nv. (April 13, 2010). Anchor of the USS Arizona on display at Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, Phoenix, AZ. Wikipedia.

Katherine Bertolucci. (November 29, 2011). Rear Admiral Kidd among His Men at the USS Arizona Anchor Memorial in Phoenix.

Jayme Pastoric. (May 23, 2002). USS Arizona Memorial. U.S. Navy photo 020523-N-9769P-057.

Wally Gobetz. (May 26, 2010). USS Oklahoma Memorial.

Rosa Say. (August 20, 2008). The USS Utah Memorial.

Wally Gobetz. (May 26, 2010). USS Arizona Memorial Visitors Center – Remembrance Circle.

Jiang. (December 22, 2005). Punchbowl. Wikipedia.

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Dec 2011

Arranging to Persuade: Tunneling or Guided Persuasion

Long Tunnel

Fogg’s Principle of Tunneling:  “Using computing technology to guide users through a process or experience provides opportunities to persuade along the way.”

            This month we take a journey to tunneling in our series on B. J. Fogg’s seven tools of persuasion from his book Persuasive Technology:  Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do.  Fogg cites software installation as a tunnel.  That frequently involves staying near the computer and answering questions every so often.  You are a captive audience as the installation proceeds.  As such, you may experience promotions for other products or about the benefits of your new purchase.  You and the company share a journey of software installation, with the company selecting the sights along the route.

              In his narrative, but not in his Principle, Fogg defines a tunnel as a committed journey, like an amusement park ride.  Once you sit in that gondola (or begin software installation), you’re committed to the entire journey.  In information arrangement, tunneling encompasses a wider definition.  You are enticed along a journey that you may or may not complete.  At any point you may decide what you are looking for is not worth the effort, or you may complete the journey, ending it only when you find what you are looking for.

One example of persuasive tunneling is the arrangement of a grocery store.  Many people pop into the store just for a quart of milk.  Milk sometimes goes bad suddenly so you pick it up on a quick errand.  That’s why milk is always at the back of the store.  If it was at the front, you would buy that one item and head on home.  When it’s at the back, you travel through the store aisles, experiencing other products and perhaps buying something else.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM) provides a more complex tunnel.  Its 140 panels increase in height from 8 inches at the ends to over 10 feet in the center.  Names are inscribed in chronological order by date of casualty and alphabetical order within each day.  So it would seem that visitors take a journey from the beginning of the war to the end.

That is the case, but the journey actually begins in the center.  Maya Lin wanted the VVM to symbolize a circle so the names begin and end at the tall center panels, indicated by the only two dates on the Memorial, 1959 and 1975.  No other dates appear.  Walking along the panels, the only indication of a new day is the beginning of a new set of names in alphabetical order.  Even though this is the journey of the Vietnam War, it does not feel like a persuasive tunnel, since we only see a massive display of names.

Many visitors believe the chronology begins at the short left panel.  That’s logical since we read from left to right, not from the center to the right to the left and back again to the center.  When we experience the VVM from left to right, the shape of the memorial helps us feel the shape of war.  A few deaths at the beginning, building to a crescendo at the center and winding down to just a few names at the end.  In this case, because we know the names are in chronological order, the shape of the VVM creates a journey along the panels, persuading us to experience feelings about the progression of war.

Illustration used with permission from Microsoft.

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Arranging to Persuade: Reduction or Persuading through Simplifying


Last month I introduced B J Fogg’s seven tools of persuasion as outlined in his book, Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do.  I showed how information arrangement exploits these tools with specific reference to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM).  The VVM arranges its names in chronological order by date of casualty, grouping together soldiers who served at the same time.  In so doing, the memorial demonstrates six of the Fogg’s seven persuasive tools.  This month, let’s take a deeper look at the first tool, Reduction or Persuading through Simplifying.

Reduction strategy is all about cost/benefit analysis.  How much effort (cost) achieves the benefit?  Fogg describes Amazon’s 1-click ordering method as pure reduction.  Before
this innovation, every click in the online sales process was a chance for customers to change their minds.  Will they go on to the next buying step or will they give up and click over to anotherWebsite?  At Amazon, one click seals the deal.  If a mind changes later, there’s a new cost/benefit analysis for the effort involved in cancelling the order.

Many years ago, when Ma Bell stopped being our only telephone company, the new phone services battled mightily for customers.  It became very easy to change your long distance company.  One brief request and it was done.  Sometimes you didn’t even have to bother with the request.  Sign your name to some freebie promo and you might find out later that the small print was an agreement to change phone services.  One step and it didn’t even involve thinking about phones.

Maya Lin’s VVM is a more honorable example of reduction, but her controversial proposal almost didn’t get approved.  Among many complaints about Lin’s design was the chronology, which requires the use of an index to find an individual name.  Critics wanted the names on the VVM in alphabetical order, making the memorial itself a giant index. 

MIT’s John Maeda, in his book, The Laws of Simplicity, assigns organization as the second law.  Organizing arranges similar items together and simplifies our efforts to use them.  Alphabetical order on the VVM would have made it easier to find a single name, but much harder to find a group of names.

First, a vet would have to remember names from more than 30 years ago.  Then he would have to look up each name individually, walking along the panels from A – Z.  To prepare for the effort, he might alphabetize the names of his dead buddies, the ones he remembers, so he doesn’t have to move back and forth among the 144 panels.  The names near each lost friend would have no meaning other than an alphabetic
similarity, or even the same name in some cases.  Names he can’t remember would remain forgotten.  The primary memorial activity here is similar to using a print dictionary, an exercise in the alphabet rather than an emotional experience of memory.

Chronology reduces the effort and increases the depth of feeling.  The vet only has to remember one name.  He finds that name in the printed index and goes to a panel representing the time he spent in Vietnam.  There are all his friends who died or went missing.  If he can’t remember someone’s name, the memorial remembers for him.
They are together again, the vet seeing his reflection in the polished marble among the names of those he lost.  The next time he visits, he won’t need the index.  He’ll know where to find his friends. 

Illustration used with permission from Microsoft.

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