David Patrick McKenzie

History Communicator

Category: Uncategorized (page 1 of 2)

Visualizations: U.S.-American Claims Against Mexico

[cross-posted at the class blog]

As our summer History and New Media minor field readings course draws to a close, one of the final assignments is to create our own data visualizations.

For my fall 2012 “Clio 3” class, I built a database of U.S.-American claims against Mexico before 1846. These claims form a collection in Record Group 76 at the U.S. National Archives. You can learn more about the database and the project here. As part of that project, I included a series of visualizations. For this assignment, I’m building on those visualizations.

At the time I was in CLio 3, I had 38 of the 109 claims heard by the 1839 U.S.-Mexican Commission in the database. Although I recently went to the National Archives and am now up to claim 61, I haven’t inputted the data yet. As such, I instead am making my visualizations based on a chart from pages 181-185 of Dr. Peter Jonas‘s dissertation about the process of resolving the claims. His chart includes claims up to 1837, with short summaries.

First I went through the chart and placed the claims into eight categories:

  • Seizure/destruction of goods/ship
  • False imprisonment, harassment, expulsion
  • Seizure/destruction of goods/ship with crew harm
  • Nonpayment for goods/loan
  • Forced loan
  • Libel
  • Ship fired upon
  • Ship conscripted

Initially I only had seven categories, but I noticed that some claims included both the seizure of a ship or goods, as well as physical harm to the crew, so I made that into its own category.

I then created a spreadsheet in Google Docs with each claim and its classification. Following that, I totaled each category and made a pie chart, showing the percentage of the 57 claims that fell into each:

Sadly the embed code that Google gave me didn’t work, so we’ll have just to use a picture of the chart for now, and for this assignment I didn’t bother with using the Google Charts API that I did for Clio 3.

This chart tells us some information. We can see that most of the claims had to do with confiscations of ships; this often happened due to customs authorities and ship owners/captains interpreting customs laws differently.

But this chart can only tell us so much. It lacks one of the essential elements of history: change over time. So my next step was adding the number of claims that fell into each category by year, and creating a visualization of that:

This is an even more interesting visualization, as it shows both changes in the numbers of claims by year of the incident and what types of incidents took place. So then that leads to more questions, particularly about why certain incidents took place when.

Let’s take, for example, the large spike we see in 1836. In that year, the relationship between the United States and Mexico deteriorated seriously as mostly U.S.-born rebels in Mexican Texas, with a great deal of unofficial aid from across the Sabine River, revolted and split Texas from Mexico. Is the rise in incidents against U.S. citizens, particularly those involving harm to the crews of confiscated ships (a category that also spikes in that year) indicative of the deteriorating official relationship between the two countries? This reflects what I see being one of the central questions of my future work: How did the deteriorating diplomatic and cultural relationship play out on the ground? Is this spike indicative of a correlation? Or is it indicative of claimants feeling they needed to add a physical harm component to an economic one to get recompense? Those answers will only come from further archival research on my part.

But this exercise shows that visualizations are not merely ways to illustrate a point, but to raise new questions. I most likely would not have seen that particular pattern had I not run these visualizations. I will be curious what patterns will emerge as I input more data into my database, and categorize those claims. Stay tuned!

Critique: Amber’s Final Project

When I put out a call on Facebook for suggestions on improving my final project website, Amber suggested a great idea: a mutual critique of each other’s. For me, the critiques by friends and classmates, whether in class or via social media, have been really helpful (thanks, all!). So in that spirit, my thought’s on Amber’s final project, Grand Rapids, Michigan: The Hand Is Where the Art Is.

  • The title: I like the title. I really do, especially after occasions of seeing people from Michigan use their hands as maps. However–in this iteration of the website, without the map of Michigan in the header, I’m not sure that it makes as much sense. I agree with the decision to remove the map from the header, as we talked about in class. Perhaps on the front page, “above the fold” as they say but in the content area instead of the header, include a map with Grand Rapids highlighted? That might help make the connection more clear.
  • Header art: I like the sculpture. It helps give the visitor a greater sense of the site’s content. I like how you’ve floated it so that it’s not in the header box–in fact, I was inspired by how you did that with the Michigan map, and did the same with Santa Anna for my site (coincidence: the newspapers I looked at for Santa Anna’s time in Washington also were talking about Michigan statehood). The piece needs some work to make it lighter and more visible, though (nice that you took the picture!). You could also float it over the menu bar, perhaps by decreasing the space between the items and making the sculpture larger. I think that would help it stand out more, and give your viewer the idea that, hey, there’s some cool art in Grand Rapids!
  • Nav bar: Ah yes, navigation. I think I have spent more time on this than anything else in this class! I think it works really well here to have each section under the header bar, rather than on the left side. It’s very clear what your visitors are navigating. I think it would be more clear, though, to use the font you use in the body text for the menu bar. You use the decorative font, to nice effect, for the header and for the headers in the body, so I think you can use the body font here–that might also help with opening up some space to make your great sculpture photo even bigger, for all the world to see your photography skills!
  • Color scheme: I think the gray palette works for readability, especially with the blues thrown in. However, I do think, since you are discussing art (granted, what do I know, I’m a historian rather than art historian!), perhaps you could go to using, say, the red from the wonderful photo of the Calder sculpture? I like how you put the pull quote at the beginning–I think that could benefit from a nice, light-red background to help it stand out more. I can imagine, though, that it must be tough trying to decide what colors to incorporate since there is such a variety of colorful artworks in your site.
  • Repetition: Since this flows from the previous entry, I’ll start CARP with repetition (that, and I misremembered the C and started an entry for consistency!). The site has benefitted from you using a consistent color scheme throughout. You’ve really nailed consistency/repetition with one color scheme, one header design, etc. At the same time, your use of different header images on each page adds some extra visual interest. You do this in a consistent way, a way that doesn’t distract from what you are trying to do–each piece is in the same place, and aligned the same way. The main part that could be more consistent, though: The header. It might be better to keep the site title at top, even if in some way besides the header. Otherwise, although the color scheme tells the visitor he/she is on the same site, the headers don’t as much. Tough dilemma, though, where to put the different page titles. Perhaps have them highlighted in the menu bar, and then an extra level of heading above what you have?
  • Contrast:  Your contrast is good. In each section you contrast the different elements from each other, so that they flow together but you do a good job showing your visitor what is what.
  • Alignment: Unfortunately, not all of your paragraphs in your body copy align. Some are to the left of others. Can be tough to nail in the CSS! Otherwise, the alignment works nicely. Everything flows together.
  • Proximity: You do good work with putting things close enough together that they flow, without scrunching them too closely. I think your line spacing, in particular, is good. The one place that could be improved is in your captions. Sometimes the image credit is too far from the rest of the caption.

So all in all, great work, Amber! I think this site is coming along well, and I hope that my suggestions are helpful but aren’t too time-consuming. Thanks for the thought of a critique exchange!

Critique: Design Assignment

For class we are each offering friendly critiques of one person’s design assignment (here is Claire’s insightful critique of my assignment). I am critiquing Amber’s assignment, about sites in Athens.


  • This is, overall, a really nice site. The color scheme works extremely well here–it’s muted, thus not taking away from the content. It matches well with the bust that you have at the top.
  • Your header font works well. It immediately invokes Greece, without exoticizing it too much. The headlines are consistent throughout the page. Although it’s a fun font, it’s also readable.
  • Your font throughout the page works really well, too. The serif is a nice choice, particularly since you are emphasizing ancient Athens. Also, you leave plenty of space between the lines.
  • Good choice of pictures. I especially like the bust hanging over the header.
  • The margins are nice–there is enough “white” space, without it being overwhelming. All in all, things are nicely spaced.

Just a few areas for improvement:

  • The bust, unfortunately, hangs over a little too far, obscuring some of the text. I know that’s a tough thing to control–perhaps shrink the bust a bit in Photoshop (or specify a smaller footprint in the HTML or the CSS)?
  • The spacing underneath the headline for the Parthenon was smaller than the spacing underneath the other headlines.
  • The captions could be distinguished in some other way from the main text. They are close to the images, and in a smaller font, so that certainly helps; perhaps also italicize, or even put a different color box around the images? That might help them stand out more. Perhaps use the same nice color that you use in the header and the footer?
  • That same color may work better for the pull quotation, as well. However, nice work in putting the pull quotation above the fold!
  • The left menu could be more aligned with the header background. Also, I think it would work to get rid of the left and right margins in both the header and the footer.

So, all in all, nice work! Is your final project going to be about Athens? Looking forward to seeing it!

Design Assignment is Live

You can find it here. Not so coincidentally, this is also the address of my final project. Because I am using Omeka for the project, I went ahead and got the whole site ready–at least with fillers for the pages, to give an idea of the site structure and the navigation.

Working with Omeka for this assignment was a trying but will be, I think, ultimately a rewarding experience. It was trying because I haven’t used PHP before, so I was flying partly blind. That led, for example, to several hours of me trying to figure out how to make my exhibit sections menu my primary menu, while also including a link back to the homepage. I ultimately gave up this pursuit, instead manually putting in each exhibit section into the PHP–hence why every page also shows the homepage as the current section (if anyone has any suggestions for this, please do let me know!). Thankfully, the Omeka Codex came to my rescue more than once.

To create the design for my site, I began with Omeka’s From Scratch theme. After some time, though, I gave up with it; I discovered that it was not structured for the most up-to-date version of Omeka. I also realized that I did not have the most up-to-date version of Omeka.

So I upgraded, and while that was happening I made my header graphic. For that, I took a Library of Congress map from 1837, did some necessary repairs (large parts of Illinois were missing, for example), and recolored it. I then cut out Santa Anna from a background and placed him on the side of the map. Finally, I traced the route of the journey, and added the lettering.

While I made the header graphic, I gave more thought to the color scheme for the overall site. Generally picking colors is not my favorite thing, and I’m not so confident in my skills; when asked to do a poster at work recently, I was relieved when asked to match a certain branding! For this, I was looking for something that evoked early 19th century, and also the United States and Mexico. However, I did not want a Southwestern theme a la Omeka’s Santa Fe theme (which I did use for my final project last semester–the database from which my project this term is drawn). The reason: this project doesn’t specifically focus on the Southwest, and indeed, my dissertation will likely leave out the borderlands (focusing on the “cores” of the United States and Mexico).

Especially after I discarded that “usual suspect” color scheme, I found that picking a color scheme for a transnational project is difficult! Like Beth, I didn’t want to exoticize Mexico, so I didn’t want to go with the national colors or anything that looked like it came from the tourism board. So in the end, I went back to the color scheme I’ve used for the rest of my portfolio: a mellow yellow with a dark red. I added a darker blue, which I hope helps evoke the Early U.S. Republic, and generally that period’s aesthetic, without being overly “patriotic.”

Once I had upgraded Omeka, I went into one of the four themes that came with that new installation: Seasons. I duplicated the folder for that one, and went to town creating my own theme, which I called “Santa Anna Goes to Washington” (creative, I know). I went into the CSS and modified. After a while, a design scheme started to come together. I kept the same fonts that I used in my type assignment, and even used my favorite (one) ornament!

Like when I did my portfolio page, I had trouble getting the menu bar as I wanted it; perhaps I’m overly picky with those? I hoped to have a border between each of the items, but because of my lack of knowledge of PHP I couldn’t figure it out (that awaits next semester). And there is my aforementioned issue with the start page remaining highlighted, no matter what page someone is using. I’m also debating whether I want the secondary navigation (the pages of each section) to have a different background color–I’m unsure whether my ornament is enough division.

So, I’m open to any suggestions! As part of this week’s assignment, we are each critiquing one of our classmates. So tomorrow, I will do my critique of Amber’s. Claire, go to town on mine!

On blogging for class: A student’s perspective

This blog was initially the result of a class requirement. I had thought about blogging, even taking a stab in 2004 (since deleted) and again briefly in 2009 (as in, all of one post). But it took Dr. Leon’s requirement in my class last semester to really spur me. I’m glad it did, as blogging for class, and otherwise, has been a valuable experience. Thus far, most of what I’ve seen written about class blogging, while valuable, has been from a faculty perspective. Spurred by Miriam Posner’s question tonight on Twitter, and a stupendous class blogging experience this weekend, I thought I’d add some thoughts from a student’s perspective.

The technology of reading response  has changed in each of my three rounds of postsecondary education, as each round has been separated by at least a couple of years. In undergrad (1998-2002), I often did response papers for readings; blogs had barely been invented, and had not taken off yet. Although they had taken off by the time of my M.A. program (2004-2006), I suppose they weren’t used in the classroom much, at least at GWU; I still did the traditional response papers to readings in my history classes.

But then in my Ph.D. program (2011-[good question]), I’ve used blogs instead of the traditional response paper for my classes. This has been much more effective.

Reading response papers do not compare. I suspect I was like most students: I dashed them off rather quickly as class time neared. I never quite figured out the style I wanted to go for, as they were too short to be, well, real papers,especially as graduate school progressed and I struggled writing anything except exhibition text under 10 pages! But since they were meant for the professor, I didn’t go for the more personal style that a blog can take. Plus, they were written for only the professor. Sometimes we’d be required to read each others’, but that was clunky.

A blog, by contrast, forces us to write for more than just the professor–indeed, more than just our classmates. Anyone could come across the blog, even if you don’t take my self-promotional step of posting links on Facebook and Twitter. The exercise in conveying the substance of the week’s readings or activities to an outsider helps me crystallize said readings or activities in my own mind. Thus, I’ve gotten a lot more out of the exercise than I did in writing for the professor.

Because blogging is meant to be personal, I’ve found it easier to write in a reflective style, to record my reactions to the readings.

At the end of last semester, Dr. Leon asked us if we thought it was better to have one “class” blog, or individual blogs. Among others, I responded that having a personal blog was better. From my student perspective, I’d recommend that to any faculty member contemplating blog assignments.

Using WordPress templates provided a solid lesson in super-basic web design, a good way to get my feet wet before diving into the full-scale design in which I’m engaging this semester.

Perhaps most importantly, blogging every week for class meant that I started to build a record of my own writing in a public forum. I’ve learned that others are reading it; I’ve been flattered when others have retweeted links to my posts. When I met up with a Twitter friend when he was in DC (one who now has his own blog), he mentioned reading my posts–thus he had an introduction to my interests. I now have a cyberspace presence as a historian, not only through my class posts but also others I have written when the muse struck. Those posts are now all together, something that would not have happened without having my own blog.

That presence in cyberspace makes us low-hanging fruit for people looking for information about the subjects on which we blog. When I wrote a post about Peace Corps’s withdrawal from Central America, a U.K.-based freelance writer working on an article about that subject contacted me; she had been referred by Dr. Mike Allison, whose informative blog Central American Politics she had found. I wasn’t the best Peace Corps volunteer; for many reasons, I left El Salvador after 10 months, and except for a brief trip in 2005 haven’t been on the ground since. But because I had the cyberspace presence, she found me before the 20 or so others from my cohort who stayed the whole time. In the end I referred her to some of them, as they could offer much better insight. Nonetheless, this blog I started for class meant that I was found first.

This weekend brought another manifestation of why class blogging is so valuable–it can lead to great dialogue among the students. Sheri began everything with a post on Sunday. Her post inspired a response from me. In turn, Geoff responded to both of us. Then Lindsey got into the game. And Celeste. And Megan. And Beth. And Stephanie. And John. And Jeri. Taken together, all of our commentaries in our blogs riffed off of each other, creating a rich dialogue before class. We all came into class better-prepared.

Even though Dr. Petrik requires that we comment on at least one other blog for the week, that wasn’t necessary for this to happen. Granted, something as amazing as this week’s blog conversation doesn’t happen every week (I know some weeks my posts have been rather banal and trite). But all in all, blog assignments have greatly enriched my classes. From my perspective as a student, having students blog, preferably on their own, is something I would strongly recommend.

Comments for week of Feb. 20

This week I commented on the following blogs:

Playing with Type

This week’s homework was our typography assignment, in which we experiment with type styles to prepare a page–one that may influence our final project website.

One of the documents that provided my inspiration: letters sent from Texas by Santa Anna during his captivity. The main horizontal rule came from here.

Since my final project will be about the journey of Antonio López de Santa Anna to Washington in 1837, I chose to have the page reflect documents surrounding the Texas Revolution and U.S.-Mexican relations in the early 19th century. I borrowed elements from two documents, which I have pictured here: a Mexican Army order from the Texas Revolution, and a compilation of letters sent by Santa Anna from his captivity in Texas.

The first task was font matching. I was happy to discover WhatTheFont from myFonts.com. I took screenshots of parts of my documents, and uploaded them to this site. It returned some good choices–with commensurate price. So I then checked Google Fonts. I chose the font Alegreya, which was pretty close to the fonts that I saw in those documents, and helped give the look and feel. I just checked, and it appears that font is on FontSquirrel, as well, and for free. So I may switch to embedding the font, rather than running it off of Google.

I used that font for the h3 and h4 (the headers and subheads). For the text I went with Georgia and its associated serif fonts; I chose these in order to keep the page consistent. Although I realize that sans-serif can be easier to read on the screen, the contrast between Alegreya and the sans-serif was just too much, and Georgia remains readable.

I also chose some decorative elements based on the two documents. The main horizontal rule, as the caption says, comes from Santa Anna’s letters. The subhead horizontal rules come from the Mexican government letterhead, as shown here. To create both of these rules, I took screenshots from the documents, erased the surrounding white, and converted them to .gif files. Then I set up CSS rules that made these into the horizontal rules in specific instances. I also made sure that the left margin of the text lined up with the middle of the decorative rule from the Mexican laws document.

As others experienced, I was unsure how to make the footnote numbers become superscript. I took Megan’s suggestion and inserted “vertical-align:super” into the CSS for the sup command. That worked.

Overall I’m happy with the page as it’s turned out so far. For the final assignment I may add some more color to it, as it was a bit jarring when I added a color image into the document; hence I went with black-and-white completely. But we shall see. Nonetheless, I found this to be a rewarding experience. As others have noted, playing with it became addictive; I continually wanted to see what I could do. I suspect it will be that way for the rest of the assignments, and I will look forward to putting up my final project!

Clio 2 Comment: Stephanie’s post for January 30

Note to readers: For Clio 2, we all are required to post a comment on at least one classmate’s blog every week, then post a link to it on our blogs.

So, following this set of posts will give you links to the I’m sure far superior posts that my classmates are writing.

I commented this week on Stephanie’s blog post, about brainstorming how to make her website topic interesting for others.

Addendum–other posts on which I commented:




Manifold Greatness: An apt name

Today the missus and I went to see Manifold Greatness at the Folger Shakespeare Library. A large introductory panel greeted us as we walked into the Folger’s magnificent space. The intro panel set the stage well for the exhibition: although it appeared to be longer than the 75-to-100 words that is usually the rule, this panel concisely summarized the importance of what we were about to see. It also told us exactly where to begin our journey. Each word was carefully chosen, and in the end not superfluous–thus the text did not seem overly long, like so many exhibition intros are.

The exhibition is laid out in several cases along the walls of the room. Each case does not just contain a random assortment of objects. As we progressed along first the left, then the right, side of the room, we learned the story of the creation of the King James Bible 400 years ago, starting with early vernacular translations, then the creation of the King James version, and finally its afterlife through the present day. Each case has a summary text panel, bringing the story along and presenting the broader context of the objects in each case. The object labels offer further insight. Taken together, this effective use of layering of information (to use the exhibition development jargon) allows visitors with little time still to get the story, while also offering opportunities to go in-depth.

Since the Folger and the other institutions that created Manifold Greatness–the Bodleian Library at Oxford University and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin–have largely textual holdings, most of the objects are books. Yet as they have on other exhibitions, the Folger uses these books in an engaging way. The object labels tell the visitor for what to search on the page, and its significance to the broader story. Not only that, though: the cases feature strategically-placed arrows in the books, and even close-up images of portions to which the curators want to draw our attention, like a printer’s omission of “not” from the commandment against adultery (oops).

Although I did not partake of this option, the exhibition allows visitors to use their cell phones to hear commentary from the curators and other media clips, such as the Apollo 8 astronauts reading from the King James version of Genesis as they orbited the Moon on Christmas Eve, 1968. I did see others using their phones for this purpose. These are also available on the comprehensive Web site, which I plan to explore further.

As is obvious by this point, I loved this exhibition. I only have a few small quibbles. My main complaint is something that probably could not be helped: the lighting. Likely because the exhibition contains mostly rare books, the lighting was low, meaning some object labels were tough to read. Because some of the books were small, more than a few people in front of the cases made it difficult to spend any time examining them closely. Also, some object labels, such as one describing a Washington family Bible, were hard to see because of their placement.

However, those are only small quibbles. All in all, this agnostic (who loved his two undergrad Bible as Literature classes) came out of Manifold Greatness with a new appreciation for the King James Bible and its cultural significance. I felt like I learned a lot, while not feeling overwhelmed. For those in the Washington area, I strongly recommend you go see this exhibition. For those in Texas, thou shalt see it later this year. These three institutions should be complimented for creating a scholarly and engaging exhibition about an important subject. It created a Sunday afternoon well-spent.

Final project website

Still under construction for my Clio 1 class project #2, comments are welcome!


Please note:

  • I haven’t yet put tags on most items. I will be adding them. Thoughts on a controlled vocabulary?
  • I uploaded some of the documents from Zotero; the fields didn’t match up. I’m having to change them around manually. Some items need more metadata.
  • The project is a proof of concept–meaning enough to show the idea, but by no means comprehensive.
  • More to come!
Older posts