Saturday, May 10, 2008

2008 Kalamazoo Paper

Posting the text of the paper presented this afternoon, at the 43rd International Congress on Medieval Studies (because I said I would.) The happy part is that I can actually hyperlink the stuff that ought to be hyperlinked -- which , of course, is how God Meant for Text to Be.

Text in Motion: Navel-Gazing as Pedagogical Strategy

John Gower wrote:
That men mowe take remembrance
Of that thei schall hierafter rede:
For in good feith this wolde I rede,
That every man ensample take
Of wisdom which him is betake,
And that he wot of good aprise
To teche it forth, for such emprise
Is forto preise; and therfore I
Woll wryte . . . (John Gower, Confessio Amantis 1.76-84)

Okay, maybe he wasn't talking specifically about blogging -- but he knew that written text lasts in a way the spoken word simply cannot. Blogging continues an unbroken tradition of writing that is simultaneously personal and pedagogical, both private and public: it's a hybrid of journaling, conversation, and writing-as-performance.

This isn't a new idea, of course -- but implies that the nature of text itself is perhaps less static than we might like to think, but at the same time rather more stable than we might fear; even while digital text changes the very nature of how we perceive and use the written word.

The word itself, text, is from the PIE base *tek- "make" -- cognate with technology. The etymology implies a process, weaving, possessing texture and dimension -- which is an excellent description of electronic text: text as action, in addition to text as object.

I've been hearing people express concern about the future of text almost since I began to read. I remember a Philosophy professor laughing at himself but also expressing real anxiety over the delete function of his word processor. He talked about envisioning all those deleted words and letters, laying somewhere at the bottom of a dark pit hidden by the cover. While it was funny, he also was expressing very real consternation and anxiety over the forced changes in his own perception of what text actually is, how it's created, and what we can do with it.

In the introduction to The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts, a collection of essays published in 1993, Richard Lanham said:
For the changes brought by electronic text, including the very redefinition of what a "text" is, touch upon practically every central question on the current humanist agenda. The volatility of electronic text, its mixture of alphabetic and iconic information, and its essential typographical plasticity, seem, much more than film, the perfect fulfillment of the Italian Futurists' desire to abolish the book in favor of a more dynamic medium.

Electronic text thus leads us to the many twentieth-century attempts to release language from the traditional rules print has dictated.

And electronic text has come much further, since then. How does this change what we do in a text medium, then? If, rather than a static object -- a book or a page -- text is dynamic and liquid, what practical challenges and considerations arise? And what possibilities?

One of the most exciting things that happens is that text is entirely set free of any specific temporal place and physical location. This paper I'm reading right now can be poured, essentially, from screen to flash drive to page, and later I'll go home and post it on my own blog. It's liquid.

Just the overwhelming variety of modern fonts, instantly available, is something John Gower could never have envisioned. And isn't it interesting that those same fonts that offer us an amazing range of choices also limit us in a way pen and ink do not, in terms of creating text as art? It's still a finite number. The way around that, of course, is to simply design our own fonts -- and we can do that now, too. Maybe it's still not calligraphy, but we can hyperlink the gloss to any esoteric terms, embed video and sound, animate the words themselves; and when we've finished all that, have a quick vanity-Google to see who has linked to us most recently.

That inherent flexibility of digital text creates a remarkable platform with which to parse complex ideas and examine the history of our language, art, and literature -- all the while reaching an audience that's both interested and participatory -- and in many cases will provide near-immediate feedback. Text in motion.

That's excellent news for medievalists, who have an unprecedented opportunity, then, to bring the past into the present in a nearly tangible and immediate way -- and capture the intimacy and immediacy of personal conversation in the permanence of text.

Essentially, the difference between a blog and "regular" website is a difference in container for text -- similar to the way this page, that browser, or the flash drive in my pocket are different containers for text. Blogs are characterized by features that we don't see in other websites, typically -- although more and more of those features are starting to cross over, as their value becomes ever more evident.

Meg Hourihan wrote an excellent early examination of blogging several years ago, called "What We're Doing When We Blog":
If we look beneath the content of weblogs, we can observe the common ground all bloggers share -- the format. The weblog format provides a framework for our universal blog experiences, enabling the social interactions we associate with blogging. Without it, there is no differentiation between the myriad content produced for the Web.

Whether you're a warblogger who works by day as a professional journalist or you're a teenage high school student worried about your final exams, you do the same thing: you use your blog to link to your friends and rivals and comment on what they're doing. Blog posts are short, informal, sometimes controversial, and sometimes deeply personal, no matter what topic they approach. They can be characterized by their conversational tone and unlike a more formal essay or speech, a blog post is often an opening to a discussion, rather than a full-fledged argument already arrived at.

Characteristics in common, that differentiate a website from a blog (cribbed heavily from both Meg Hourihan's essay linked above, and Lisa Spangenberg's The Rhetoric of Blogging):

-- frequent updates: fresh content provides fodder for the social interaction we associate with blogs. Even if you have your comments turned off, a blog predicates on the idea that the same people will be following your thoughts from day to day, week to week. The comments feature allows those readers to respond, contribute, and interact with those ideas.

-- hyperlinks: Again, a blog is about conversation. The intersection and dynamic tension between various viewpoints, and the response and interaction between writers, whether those writers are reader-commenters or other bloggers.

-- timestamps: We're working with text that, again, has been released from the constraints of temporal and physical location -- a timestamp, then, offers an anchor to a specific context; a specific place in time to use as reference to the world at large. When a news article about a new archaeological discovery comes out, that timestamp offers a context for the environment in which you wrote your own response to that discovery.

-- permalinks: Beginning from the premise that a blog is liquid, flowing, constantly changing text -- a tiny current in the larger river of the net itself -- the permalink provides a reference point allowing a return to a specific previous point in that stream. It also allows other bloggers and respondents to link to that point.

-- RSS or other feed: Blogs typically have a feed that lets you subscribe. This is important because it means your blog-reader will go and fetch the text back to your own tool, you don't have to go out and find the site via bookmark and mouse clicks, then wait for it to load, in order to read. The text comes to you.

Those key characteristics of blogging allow for more flexibility and a much greater range of communication and interactivity than offered by a more fixed and static website. This flexibility and interactivity creates unique opportunities for scholars to introduce, discuss, and hone ideas; similarly, the immediacy and versatility inherent to blogging allows reader/audience participation on a scale and with a degree of engagement not always possible in a more formal or traditional academic setting.

And blogging is an amazingly egalitarian process. You don't have to be a scholar. People blog about the most amazing things - their kids, gardens, medical issues, cats, recipes, and knitting projects. The magic happens when we establish connections to like-minded souls, forming communities with a commonality of interests and passions.

Our audiences are motivated to be there, reading and interacting -- otherwise, they'll just close the window or click the next link on their reader. There is, then, a sort of inherent "survival of the fittest" built directly into this textual conversation: if you're boring, people don't come back.

That sounds alarming, perhaps -- but it's not really that bad. That dynamic provides some checks and balances. The presence of an engaged community provides us incentive to post, stay interesting, and say something fresh; while our readers have incentive to engage, participate, ask questions, and make observations. Readers who lack that incentive either "lurk" or drop away entirely -- leaving the blog with a community of actively interested participants.

That passionate, active interest combined with the inherent flexibility of liquid text creates a new classroom, also cut free from the moorings of time and place. There are, of course, some challenges too, then -- there's an amazing amount of crap on the internet, right? And how are we teaching people to differentiate? How do we convey the ever-growing requirement for critical thinking, that being the case? I don't actually have answers for that, other than we all bear individual responsibility to teach when and where we can, by example.

What an amazing time and place we're in, though. For example, I just encountered (through a link on Dr. Nokes' blog, Unlocked Wordhoard) a newish blog started by novelist Nicola Griffith, specifically for the purpose of research.

From the sidebar description of Gemaecca:
This is a blog about writing a novel. The novel is based on the life of Hild of Whitby. I intend to not contravene what is known to be known about those people and those times, but while I'm a good novelist (I've published and won awards for five) I'm an indifferent scholar. I'm going to need help. I don't think in footnotes. I don't remember references. I read a little Latin and I've picked up a smattering of Old English (enough to pick out a word or two) but I'm much more at home with translations. My hope is that those who know more than I do about seventh century Britain will be generous enough to share their thoughts from time to time. Meanwhile, I'll share my process, that is, to the degree that it's comfortable. I don't usually discuss works-in-progress; if it turns out to be too uncomfortable, I'll fold my tent quietly and steal away.

This is a remarkable thing. When and where in history have we had the sheer access to information that we now have, let alone the ability to intersect and interact with one another about that information, without waiting months for letters and pictures from across the country -- or across the world? Anything we're interested in Google will fetch right to our fingertips in an instant. A passionate interest that takes our search deeper will provide weeks, months, or years worth of reading; then blogging allows us to either join or establish a community just as passionately interested in engagement with the subject, creating a dynamic conversation captured in text that's both liquid and permanent.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Friday, February 08, 2008

Since it came up in the comments...

There are a couple of responses to this weeks AW Newsletter editorial. Since not everyone who reads the blog reads the newsletter, I'm going to repost the editorial, here, sans only the salutation:

The daffodils are poking up through the mulch, very bright young green against the perpetual gray of the Northwest spring weather.

I've been looking at the plum trees in the yard, thinking I need to prune them. It always feels so wrong to me to prune a tree as aggressively as the fruit trees seem to prefer. The horses got their first worming of the new year, and all their feet trimmed. They're still fuzzy with Winter coats, though, and seem like they will be for a while.

I'll be going to the caucus for my voting district, Saturday, since the Dems aren't planning to count the primaries in Washington state. Since I'm hardly a shrinking violet about my opinions, I've been talking politics wherever I go; so it is I've met a number of folks (elderly or else young mothers, most of them) in my district who need a ride to the caucus - so I'll be spending a good part of the morning with Google maps, so I can pick people up on the way.

Whoever your candidate might be, I can't encourage you strongly enough to do something to support him or her. Our system may indeed be gravely flawed, but it's the system we have to work with.

While Absolute Write has never done anything like an official endorsement (just the idea makes me laugh at myself) I'll be voting for Hillary Clinton, Saturday, and trying to talk everyone I encounter into doing likewise. There are a number of reasons I prefer her to Obama: she has actual experience in contrast to Obama's hopeful-but-empty rhetoric (attractive as his oratory skills may be) and I think we've had quite enough of the conflation of wishful thinking with reality, the last eight years.

We don't have to passively accept anything we're told, just because some pundit on TV said so. We don't have to believe and trust our favorite bloggers, even, without investigation. We can think. We can read. We can research and examine and struggle with ideas. It's tempting to give in and feel as powerless as the media would like all of us to believe we really are -- but we don't have to do that.

Me? I can and will write. I do have a voice, and so do all of you.

I'm going to leave you with some links to folks who have articulate and insightful things to say about it all:

most especially

Sharp words about the Dems' "circular firing squad":

And still more:

From Erica Jong - a terrific writer:
"As a senator she has learned compromise and negotiation. She has gotten to know red America as well as blue. If she could win over the rednecks in upstate New York, she can win over any American. She knows this country is full of "security" moms as well as soccer moms. Since she is a woman, she has to show she's ready to be commander in chief. Hence her "triangulation" on Iraq and her signing the absurd Lieberman-Kyl resolution, which calls on our government to use "military instruments" to "combat, contain and [stop]" Iran's meddling in Iraq.

[ . . . ]

"I understand my hopeful friends who think an Obama button will change America. But I'm sticking with Hillary. I trust her because all her life, her pro bono work has been for mothers and children. And mothers and children -- of all colors -- are the most oppressed group in our country. I trust her to speak for our children and grandchildren -- and for us. She always has."

And finally, from an essay by Robin Morgan that I can only wish I'd written:

"Me? I support Hillary Rodham because she’s the best qualified of all candidates running in both parties. I support her because her progressive politics are as strong as her proven ability to withstand what will be a massive right-wing assault in the general election. I support her because she knows how to get us out of Iraq. I support her because she’s refreshingly thoughtful, and I’m bloodied from eight years of a jolly 'uniter' with ejaculatory politics. I needn’t agree with her on every point. I agree with the 97 percent of her positions that are identical with Obama’s -- and the few where hers are both more practical and to the left of his (like health care). I support her because she’s already smashed the first-lady stereotype and made history as a fine senator, because I believe she will continue to make history not only as the first US woman president, but as a great US president.

"As for the 'woman thing'?

"Me, I’m voting for Hillary not because she’s a woman—but because I am."

Get involved with your world, folks. Write hard -- because it's what we do. Write true -- because otherwise, why bother? And always, always, write on.


And if you're interested in more reading, HRC, from 1995:

And finally, this is from an HRC speech in 1969:

"There's that mutuality of respect between people where you don't see people as percentage points. Where you don't manipulate people. Where you're not interested in social engineering for people. The struggle for an integrated life existing in an atmosphere of communal trust and respect is one with desperately important political and social consequences. And the word 'consequences' of course catapults us into the future. One of the most tragic things that happened yesterday, a beautiful day, was that I was talking to woman who said that she wouldn't want to be me for anything in the world. She wouldn't want to live today and look ahead to what it is she sees because she's afraid.Fear is always with us but we just don't have time for it. Not now." [Emphasis added]

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Big Horse Posts, collected

I'm going to stash this here, because I've had occasion to link to it over and over again, the last few years. Better to store it all in one place, I'm thinking.

I got a pm asking an excellent question--and bringing up an issue that has made me roll my eyes more than once, when reading a story with horses. I thought I'd repost my response here, with a pared-down version of the original question:
1. a) What's a reasonable maximum daily distance that you could expect a horse and rider to travel in a day, assuming that the same horse is ridden for a week or two straight and you don't want to ride the horse into the ground? ... b) Would riding double decrease that distance significantly?... c) Would bringing a remount increase that distance?
That's actually a pretty complicated question, with a ton of variables that can make a difference. Terrain, size and breeding of horse, what kind of gear, stirrups or no, etc.

I rode endurance (extreme distance racing) for a number of years, and trained endurance
horses for a living, and in my experience 20-25 miles a day is going to be a fairly sustainable average, actually, for most people and for most horses. Less, if you're crossing undeveloped terrain, on trails or cross-country.

Terrain, horse breed, proficiency of the rider, and available feed and water is going to drastically
change times and distances. If you check out the Western States Run and the WS Trail Ride, over the same trails, a human running on foot can cover the same 100 miles nearly as fast as the winning horse/rider pair. (It takes the guy on foot about an hour longer.)

Figure for long distance stuff, in moderate terrain, a fast horse, pushing hard, will cover @ 15 miles an hour. An average horse will cover 8-10 miles an hour. The further you go, the more complicated it gets trying to hold your horse together, though.

note: A short sprint is an entirely different pace!

A more leisurely pace would be completely understandable, for standard travel--say cut the above times in half, and cover ground walking and trotting. In that case, if you do slow down, you have an easier time keeping your horse alive and sound (not limping) It would be entirely reasonable to ride 35-40 miles in a 8 to 10 hour day, with a break or two. Not for the faint of heart, though. It's gonna hurt, unless your riders are accustomed to all those hours in the saddle.

One rider with light gear on a fit horse can cover 25-30 miles in about 4-6 hours at a fairly steady trot with some cantering and some walking, to break up the pace--figuring in at least one hour-long rest period . . . you can do that daily, without much trouble, indefinitely. Again, taking as given that the horse is fit, not a horse who has stood in the pasture unworked for months. Also, remember that the more consecutive days you travel, the slower you need to go.

We know this was about average, because the California missions (and many early European towns, for that matter) are located what was considered a day's travel apart -- which ranges between 22-26 miles, roughly.

Your hypothetical rider will spend most of his time "posting" a trot -- from the word "postillion" -- here's a decent description of the technique, if you'd like. It's pretty much the most efficient gait for distance traveling. The Pony Express riders went much faster, but the horses did not have to go out on consecutive days, and they ran in relays so they didn't have to cover as many miles.

Add a remount, and the rider can cover nearly double the ground, without much trouble. If only traveling for 6-7 consecutive days, you could do that on two horses, resting when completely exhausted, and reasonably cover 80-100 miles a day, on roads and good trails; 50-60 miles a day, cross country and on trails; or 20 or so miles of steep terrain with good trails.

But with steep terrain, deer tracks to follow or no trails at'll be lucky to make it 5-10 miles. An extra horse is almost a liability in that situation, and won't really increase your speed or distance.

Add a 100 lb person riding double, you can probably get away with 25-30 miles a day, for 5-7 days . . . but you'll have a very tired horse, trying to go lame, and getting cranky about being saddled. Also probably getting quite sore over the loins.

A horse bred to trot will go more efficiently and even faster, a standardbred or arab, say 25 miles in about 3 hours-- 50 miles in 6-7 hours (that's riding time only, you'll have to figure in at least a brief rest for the horse every 2-3 hours, with a big drink (ideally) and something to eat, even if it's just a few mouthfuls of grass -- but that's going to be pushing pretty hard, and you can't do that day after day. Not at those speeds.

On a rangy, athletic, fit horse, bred to trot, it would be entirely reasonable to cover 40-50 miles a day (counting time to rest) for a week or so, in 10-11 hours a day before needing to have some time off.

The horses bred for endurance can cover around 100 miles in about 12-16 hours (again, just on average) but cannot do so day after day--would need several days to rest afterwards, or you're risking metabolic failure or lameness. (carrying around 190-200 lbs)

A heavier horse (draft or draft mix, like you'd expect of a horse who carried a knight in armor, for instance, will take longer, and need more frequent rest stops. Also, a heavier horse won't stand up well to longer distances than around 40 miles.

2. When you stop for the night, what would you do in the way of horse care? Unsaddle, rub down, blanket (?), check hooves? High energy food if you've got it?
Hydration is actually a big factor--horses will go into metabolic failure fairly quickly, if they become dehydrated and over-fatigued. So you're looking for food and water all day, along the trail. You don't pass water without drinking...ever. You try to let your horse grab a couple of mouthfuls of grass, whenever you can spare the time.

When you put him up for the night, you'll check him over for sores or galls caused by the gear, you'll wipe him down with water (warm if you can get it) to take off the crusted-on sweat and dirt. If you can't get a sponge or rag to rub him down, you're going to brush and curry and brush some more, until his coat is clean and smooth.

You'll check his legs for nicks, heat, swollen places, etc., you'll check his shoes for rocks, and to make certain they haven't slipped or loosened...(if he isn't shod, cut the above distances in about half--cuz he'll wear his feet off too fast, otherwise) note: there are, of course, exceptions to this generalization--the Comanches rode unshod horses for staggering distances. There's an old saying about how far a cowboy, a Mexican, and a Comanche can ride a horse without killing it.

Wish I could remember precisely how it goes.

You'll give him a high-energy ration, soaked, if possible...probably a mix of corn and oats (up to around 10-12 lbs), and then you'll follow with all the good clean hay he wants to eat, and likewise, you'll make sure he has free access to clean water all night. if you can beg a fistful of salt to throw in his grain, all the better.

Yep, if you have a wool blanket, toss it over him--unless it's hot enough outside that he'll sweat with the blanket on. It's that much less energy he has to expend to keep himself warm.

Now - one of the more specific questions I've received:


Here's my scenerio, It's 1864-65, something like that. A Young woman, around 28 I think, is riding across IT (Indian Territory) toward Arkansas with her daughter (about 5 or 6). They don't have much in the way of gear, just what she could tie on the two horses (she didn't want to take a pack horse, probably because she didn't have one). She isn't following a trail, but she is taking time to try to hide her trail. She is being tracked by two men who start out at least 2 maybe three hours after she does. About how far can she travel and how soon can the men catch up to her.

This is what I was thinking, she leaves headed east (the way they expect her to go) they follow her 2-3 hours later. She turns north about the time the men start out. They miss where she turns north at first and lose about 30 min. looking for her trail. About an 1 1/2 hours later she angles back to the southwest (toward the town she left) then in another hour or so she turns back toward the east.

What are the chances she can do all of this in one day, without them catching up to her? And how many times will she have to stop for more than 5 min. for her daughter, and her, to rest and stretch?
How far does she have to get? If the two men are two or three hours behind her, and having to follow hidden trail, unless they are better-than-average trackers, they aren't going to catch up real fast...following trail takes a bit of time, you have to dismount, sort out footprints, etc.

Kids on horseback actually fare better than adults. If I had a five or six year old daughter (what's that 60-70 pounds?) and was an smallish-to-average-sized young woman, I'd ride double with the kid (she's old enough to ride behind me and hold on) leading one horse to trade off when the first got tired.

I'd also keep to either roads (where you can't very well sort one print from another) or rocky, hardpan sorts of surfaces. The creek trick you see in books and movies is all well and good, except sooner or later you must come out again, and riding down the middle of a creek you make much slower time than on regular, firm surfaces, and it's hard on the horses' stamina. Where you come out will be fairly obvious, even if you use a handy gravel bank.

If the woman is a good rider, with a constantly more-or-less fresh horse, she could actually increase the distance between her and her chasers.

If she's used to riding, then she won't have to stop for longer than to water the horses, and she and her daughter can stretch their legs while the animals water and graze--say three or four 10 minute stops over the course of the day. The followers will also have to rest their horses and water, or risk having their horses drop out from under them.

With a two hour head start, and a spare horse? These guys are actually gonna play hell catching up, if she knows what she's doing at ALL, especially if she pushes on after dark. They'll have to stop when the light gets too bad to follow her trail. If they are very good, and push very hard, they might catch her sometime in the afternoon or early evening, the following day.

Does she know she's being followed? Or is she hiding her backtrail because she's in hostile territory?

If, on the other hand, the plot requires that they DO catch her, then she just needs some bad luck to slow her way down--a lame horse would do it, unless she just cut it loose.


More reading:

And if you're curious about distance riding, and up for a little further research, check out: and

A horses in fiction discussion.

Another horses in fiction discussion.

About mules.

A decent FAQ about mules.

About packing in on horses and mules.

The Care and Feeding of a Mortal Mount (well-known Rumor Mill essay)
There are a few inaccuracies, but it's mostly good information. The author clearly isn't a long-distance rider, but for a long time this was one of the most-linked resources for writing about horses on the 'net.

Julia's Horse Fax is another good resource specifically for writers.

I hope this helps, and good luck!

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