Brief Thoughts on Presentation Software

Although I do not wholly subscribe to the powerpoint is evil movement (“Power Corrupts. PowerPoint corrupts absolutely”), I am always looking for alternative platforms and tools.  Powerpoint is fine and servicable, but I think we can look forward to find other ways to package presentations than something based on outdated media.  Powerpoint more or less replaced slide shows in education, but it is still built on a model that emulates the very technology it put out of business.  Generally, I am a BIG fan of Prezi, which emulates a blank canvas.  There’s more chance for creativity in how the information is structured and presented, as you have much greater control over the flow of text and images.  Of course, there are drawbacks: if one is hasty or inexperienced, it is easy to make your audience seasick!  Fortunately, the Prezi team is very aware of this and has a ton of videos and guides for beginner prezification (here’s one of many, in prezi form).

Recently, I came across, a quirky, online presentation site that allows for more interactive presentations.  Perhaps designed best for people to work through themselves,’s main innovation is that the user can navigate through slides in a vertical (i.e. how one usually experiences powerpoint-related formats), but also horizontal.  When presented by a single person, it retains much of the feel of any generic slide program, but it can be put online and turned over to a wide number of users, who can all tour it at once.  The extra navigation options allow for a more customized experience.  One can literally browse across and then go down in depth if something is particularly interesting.

Recently, I made a presentation for my Digital Humanities class to play with as an introduction to 19th century New York theatre history.  The idea was simple: show them a few images and ask a few, basic questions.  The response was overall very positive, as students enjoyed the feeling of control and pace that it allowed.

Here it is:


As you can tell, has some limitations.  It is not easy to finely manipulate text and images, and it would be fantastic to be able to collaborate; however, with its current level of functionality, is definitely a valuable addition to the arsenal of powerpoint alternatives at the ready (and available for free).


Vintage MAD Magazine: Computer Phobias

Off the topic of the 19th century, I found an old copy of MAD Magazine’s Books of Fears and Phobias when going through boxes.  In the peerless work of writer John Ficarra and illustrator Paul Coker, Jr., here are some of my favorite technology-related cartoons with phobias run rampant:






Links Diagram: H.M. Ranney’s 1849 “Terrific and Fatal Riot”

here I am using a few analytic and visualization tools to get a general sense of how people wrote about the riots in their aftermath.

1. In light of that, here’s a force-directed analysis of H.M. Ranney’s Account of the Terrific and Fatal Riot at the New-York Astor Place Opera House, on the Night of May 10th, 1849, an 1849 summary of the riots with selections from official reports, etc.  I started with Ranney, who is surely an idiosyncratic source, to get a general sense of the possibilities involved in working with texts associated with the APRs.

Here, I used Adobe’s OCR to render the pdf into text and worked with the “Links” tool from Voyant Tools (a collection of data visualization tools that is easy to use):


LinksGraphAPOH Terrible and Fatal draft


The diagram is useful for a couple of things in particular:

1. The size of each word roughly corresponds to its prominence in the text (as in a word cloud)

2. Words are grouped with other words that are associated with it.  The closer the words, the more associated they are with each other, and the farther away, the less (generally speaking, although I am not intimate with Voaynt’s code).  For example, the word “mob” is often associated in Ranney with the word “force.”

The value of diagrams like this is that it lets you see the information is a fresh way, and can supplement any study, even from an analysis as cursory as this one.

General Thoughts

  • “Macready” is the most often used word in the text (a fact that is generally true of the documents associated with the riot that I have noticed), and its use is generally related to “Forrest,” possibly suggesting that Ranney wrote about them in the same sentence or two.
  • Looking at it broadly, there are three main groupings, those around “house,” “mob,” and “Macready.”  These tend to be placenames, nouns denoting conflict and combat, and proper names, respectively.
  • What is interesting to me is the words that link the clusters: here, “theatre” is literally the link between Macready/Forrest/England/ and mob/military/force/stones/troops.
  • “Forrest” is associated with friends and engagement (social and professional words), “Macready” with Stage and Play (artisticish words).
  • “Military,” which connects “House” and “Mob” is closely linked to the term “Sufficient.”  Looking forward, I found that a great deal of the post-1850 discussion of Keywords in Context, tends to group the terms “Military” and “Necessary,” which suggests that the discussion is not just who is at fault, but what was the appropriate response to the mob action.

Any other observations?

Astor Place Riots and Google N-Grams


At this point, I am not using any fancy tools, but a quick look at Google’s N-Gram viewer reveals some unexpected patterns which suggest a closer look is needed.  Started in 2010 as a more or less experimental tool, the N-Gram viewer experienced a major overhaul in 2012 and has been improved since.  For a good overview of N-Grams, see this Programming Historian 2 lesson.  Basically, this tool will search tons of google books and count how often your search term appears compared to others.  Google’s viewer is great because it allows poor coders (like myself!) to get a quick look at general patterns in a topic over time.  It can be a powerful tool, but with its easy access comes some caveats: chiefly, google claims it searches 5 million books, but it does not say what those works are, or if they change over time.   To me, it’s like an average wikipedia entry in that I can get an overall sense of things, namely, where to look next, but I would not formally cite it without further verification.

That said, it’s fun!  When I was curious about how the term “Astor Place Riot” appeared in the second half of the nineteenth century, the viewer returned an unexpected pattern:

Although the actual numbers of texts counter are marginal, the Astor Place Riots remain a visible presence in Google Books’ corpus.  In fact, the frequency of their mention seems to increase at times, spiking in the 1880s and 1890s, which I was entirely not expecting.  I think here is the value of such an analysis: while it does not tell me much about the context of the occurrences of the term “Astor Place Riots,” a long-view analysis can point to places that deserve closer looks.  In this case, I have briefly done an overview of sources from the time period, and they show an engagement with the riots that is concerned mostly with how they could have been prevented (rather than causes), which has the potential to tell us something about how those writers used it as part of arguments about civil unrest and revolution.

Interestingly, here is an N-Gram comparing the same search for the Riots with “Astor Place,” showing that there was at least small increases in frequency to the occurrences of the Riots when people began mentioning the placename.



Why Astor Place?

At least once a year, I take my theatre students over to Astor Place, where we stand on the corner of Astor and Lafayette  and rehearse the events of May 10, 1849. Shouting over the ever-present construction, I point out the area as it had been, from farmland to pleasure garden to mansions for the “upper ten.” We look at where a Kmart and Starbucks now sit on the site of the Astor Place Opera House, figure out where the militia set up their guard as rioters poured in from the convening streets, and where almost one hundred people were shot, twenty-two of whom were fatally wounded.

This is, of course, part of the story of the Astor Place Riots, a series of disruptions and actions that are central to the history of nineteenth-century American theatre, and the subject of my current research. Most of the events are well-known, such as the feud between the American Edwin Forrest and the British William Macready (both of whom are depicted as Macbeth in their links), and have been well-documented by Richard Moody (1958) and Peter Buckley (1984). Despite the presence of such terrific work, I have long had a fascination with the riots, but each time I think about working on them I have to ask: why study Astor Place? Pardon the pun, but they have nearly been done to death.

The events are, briefly:

May 7: William Charles Macready, an English star took the stage at the genteel Astor Place Opera House to play Macbeth.  Contrary audience members hissed, booed, and protested his presence, and, arguably, the theatre’s presence as a restricted place of refined drama and opera.  Macready continued some of the performance in dumbshow, a common response to uproarious audiences.  Afterwards, he swore to leave the country.

May 10: Many prominent New Yorkers petitioned Macready to stay and give another night as Macbeth.  Having been promised safety and a peaceful performance, Macready stayed.  On May 10, the new mayor of New York agreed to order the militia to guard to Opera House.  When the show started, numerous rioters disrupted the performance inside.  Many more outside massed in Astor Place and attempted to vandalize the building.  The militia calvary charged but were repelled.  Finally, the order to fire was given and 22 people were killed, many of whom were onlookers (which suggests there were multiple kinds of rioters present, from participant to audience).

In the following days, more protests formed, and several thousand marched on the Opera House, but were repelled by a well-organized militia presence.  The city was nearly shut down, and for several days, police heavily patrolled the streets (though, to my knowledge, mostly moving from bar to bar).  Many feared a second American Revolution along the lines of what had been going on in Europe a year before.

Historians have written extensively on what caused the riot (usual suspects: a feud between Macready and Forrest, class antagonism, American nationalism) and its effects (allowing for separate entertainment venues for separate classes).  The answer to “which is of these was the case” is probably “yes,” so what I am interested in is how contemporary New Yorkers at the time interpreted, viewed, and represented the riot.  I presented a paper on the visual culture of the riot, but here I am using a few analytic and visualization tools to get a general sense of how people wrote about the riots in their aftermath.

 While much attention has been paid to the events of May 7-11, I aim to explore the wider reception of the riots in American culture. Instead of examining into causes or guilt, I am going to look for how contemporary New Yorkers thought about the riot, and how the riot was re-interpreted over time. In most political events, from elections to revolutions, there is a secondary fight over the interpretation of the what has just happened. As we have seen in the recent shutdown, politicians, pundits, editors, and the public has been (and still is) engaged in a fierce contest of facts and ideologies. I hope to see how Astor Place was marshaled in contemporary discussions, and how it was resurrected to serve dialogues over civil disturbance, police action, and social organization throughout the nineteenth century.

At the moment, I am looking at nineteenth-century writings on the riots through text mining and data visualization tools.  My work is currently in the beginning stage of assembling a corpus and playing with the data, but I plan to use word count, key words in context, and network visualizations (among others) to look at the relationships among the many texts that engaged the riots.  Already I am impressed by the sheer volume of relevant material in the decades after the riots, which suggests that the events of May 1849 left a long footprint over the century.

In November, I am hoping to present some of my findings at an “unconference” at the American Society for Theatre Research annual meeting.  Eventually I am building an Omeka site to exhibit much of my analysis, but until then, updates on the work will follow here as well…