Quick Note: SEA2013 (or, if that tag’s taken, SEA13)

I’m just back from the Society of Early Americanists’ 2013 meeting – which, like NAVSA 2012 was a fantastic series of interdisciplinary panels.  I’m always amazed by the degree to which we historians use the same language as scholars of literature, but often use it to mean such different things.  Fantastic papers by NYU Atlanticists Jerusha Westbury, Dan Kanhoffer, Kate Mulry, Jeppe Mülich and Mairin Odle were seen, alongside equally wonderful ones by Mike LaCombe, Melissa Gniadek, Lauren Klein and Molly Perry, and a whole panel on the process of creating digital archives which I’m very excited to get into sometime soon.

I think, though (aside from the amazing company) my favorite parts of the conference were the conference were the panel on early Georgian foodways, featuring some fantastic locally grown food, and the live-tweeting phenomenon of the whole conference.  The idea of putting my first impressions of a paper out into the inter-ether is, frankly, pretty terrifying, but I was quite impressed by the number of people who catalogued their conference experiences as we went along.

Mapping neighborly spats

Having finished this dissertation project of mine, I’ve been thinking about the big picture view of my research, which has led me to explore mapping and GIS, which in turn has pointed me towards an episode of This American Life on mapping and cartography.  All of this is to say that what I’m about to write about is sort of a stretch, but does actually come out of the dissertating process.

The TAL episode in question talks about a lot of different kinds of maps (odd spatial ones, aural, olifactory) and basically makes an argument that almost anything can work in map form.  So today, as I was walking to the train post-Nemopocalypse, it occurred to me that the bands of unshoveled sidewalks between houses might be read as a map of contested property boundaries.  Neither neighbor wants to shovel any more than they absolutely have to, so these unshoveled spaces seem to indicate divergent expectations about property lines.

Now, back to learning GIS.

Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t link to Strange Maps when writing about strange maps.

Mass observation

I was living in Cork for the last inauguration, but came home from the archives early to watch.  Though Twitter existed in 2009, trending hash-tags were not yet a “thing,” and one group tried to track impressions of Obama’s first inauguration using the Mass Observation technique pioneered in Britain in the mid-20th century.  The January the 20th project tracked international impressions of the inauguration, and posted them with little analysis.  The original Mass Observation project is searchable by topic, and includes diaries, surveys and photographs.  The dominant themes include “sexual behavior,” “reading habits” and “bird watching.”  Twitter is something like a perpetual modern-day Mass Observation – there were more than 14,000 tweets per minute during today’s inauguration ceremony.  Trending topics included the musical performances, #inaug2013, #fourmoreyears, and FLOTUS’s bangs.

Quick note on breakfast cereal

I love playing around with the idea of realizing different projects in different genres – exemplified for me, by Douglas Adams’ quip about starting a new project:

People wanted me to do a CD-ROM of Hitchhiker’s, and I thought, “no, no.” I didn’t want to just sort of reverse-engineer yet another thing from a book I’d already written. I think that the digital media are interesting enough in their own right to be worth originating something in. Because, really, the moment you have any idea, the second thought that enters your mind after the original idea is, “What is this? Is it a book, is it a movie, is it a this, is it a that, is it a short story, is it a breakfast cereal?” Really, from that moment, your decision about what kind of thing it is then determines how it develops. So something will be very, very different if it’s developed as a CD-ROM than if it’s developed as a book. (From an interview with the Onion AV club, reprinted in The Salmon of Doubt)

Well, the playwright Lucy Prebble just published a piece on the New York Times‘ ArtsBeat blog about gaming and narrative and form and argument.  It’s quite good.

Quick note: “Snow Fall”

The New York Times has been pushing “Snow Fall,” a multimedia article about the February 2012 avalanche in the Cascade Mountains.  It’s a six part story, much like one of the NYT Magazine‘s feature articles, but supplemented with video interviews, interactive maps, and other material designed to bring the story to life.  It takes some time to get through, but is, I think, worth getting into, because it seems like one direction that newspapers might take in this “digital age” of reduced print circulation.

That being said, I’m not convinced that the story really needed all of the bells and whistles.  The story itself – of 16 professional or semi-professional skiers caught in an avalanche – is compelling enough on its own.  Interviews with survivors are heart-wrenching, but for me the most difficult part of the piece was the narrative reconstruction of the victims’ loved ones’ reactions.  Many people are familiar with print analogues to stories like these – the Magazine’s story last week about Barney’s, for example – which could be augmented with digital material, and I suppose there’s an argument that says that the more information included, in as many different mediums as possible, the better.  And some parts of “Snowfall” worked really well.  As you read each part, the text scrolls over background images – in some cases of snow, in others of trees destroyed by the avalanche, and, perhaps most effectively, over maps which highlight the position of the skier being discussed at the moment.  But in other places, the information feels superfluous, or not fully integrated – digital content for the sake of novelty, rather than for the sake of telling a better story.

I hope to see more of this kind of thing from the Times, because I think that it charts some rich terrain for the future of journalism (and I’d frankly love to play around with something like this for history writing).  I also have to wonder whether some kinds of stories are suited to this treatment more than others.  Because I’m a disaster studies nerd, I did find myself thinking that disasters are particularly well-suited to these kinds of pieces (I was actually reminded a couple of times of the “Murder on Beacon Hill” documentary and app – which, if you live in or near Boston, is really worth checking out).  Disasters (or in the case of the Beacon Hill piece, murders) often feature a discrete cast of characters, a series of events easily fit into narrative form, and take place in a limited enough space to make things like maps useful.  I’d really love to see the “Snowfall” treatment applied to a more data-driven story though, because I think a lot of great work has been done recently with visual and interactive representations of information that could really enhance readers’/viewers’ experience of a story.

The more [history] you learn, the more [history] you see


Credit: Bill Amend at http://www.foxtrot.com/

I’ve been throwing out variations on this line since I first saw this strip, and I’ve been having quite a few “the more history you learn…” moments in the past few weeks because of the hurricane.

On Saturday, the Press of Atlantic City reported that NOAA classified Sandy as a post-tropical cyclone right before it made landfall in NJ, a decision which is estimated to save homeowners/cost insurance companies millions of dollars in deductibles.  NOAA isn’t a political body, but the classification is a fortuitous one for those facing insurance claims for their destroyed property, and it was echoed by NJ Governor Chris Christie when he issued an executive order prohibiting insurance companies from charging hurricane deductibles.  (For a really fascinating discussion of the relationship between disasters and flood insurance, see parts II and III of Ted Steinberg’s Acts of God.)  Though most of the article was about the impact of this call on insurance claims, the article briefly digresses into talking about what it means for a scientific body to be in charge – however indirectly – of a huge financial decision:

“If this was a court case, you’d have multiple meteorologists on the stand,” said Campbell H. Wallace, an attorney for the Professional Insurance Agents of New Jersey.

There is no court case. Insurance companies in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut have agreed to waive costly hurricane deductibles, which could have run in the millions of dollars along the three-state area.

Wallace said the insurance industry accepts the fact that the National Weather Service is “legally tasked” with making such determinations. He said meteorologists are judged by their peers and credibility is paramount to them.

The Wallace quote reminds me of another apparently ancillary fact about the Atlantic hurricane – the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 which killed upwards of eight thousand people.  Although meteorologists, both in the U.S. and in Cuba registered concerns about a storm headed for the Gulf of Mexico, the National Weather Bureau’s policy was to limit the use of the word “hurricane” in official correspondence, because it might engender widespread panic.  On top of all of the other reasons for the high Galvestonian death toll (the misguided belief that hurricanes never struck that part of the Gulf, little way for ships to communicate observations from the middle of a storm, buildings that were particularly susceptible to storm damage) some of the blame must go, and has gone, to whomever made the decision that “hurricane” was just too dangerous a word for the American people.

In some ways, what is happening with insurance companies today is the flipside of what happened with the NWB and Galveston – in defining what counts as a hurricane, and what is “merely” a post-tropical cyclone (the two can be differentiated by as little as 1 mph difference in maximum wind speeds measured on the ground) the NOAA is saving – intentionally or no – thousands of people millions of dollars in total.

Quick note on the Irish election

I was watching the party leaders debates on TG4 last night (as Gaeilge!) and was struck by two things.

  1. The fetishization of Irish land that all of the major party leaders express (Sinn Fein was not represented – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour were the only debaters) strikes me as very similar to the way that land was talked about during the famine.  If only (leaders at both times said) Irish land could be maximized, the current economic problems would either go away or be largely mitigated.  I can’t think of a time (and I’ll admit, my recall of early modern or even pre-1800 Irish history isn’t as good as it could be) when Ireland has reached this magical maximization of land use.  I wonder if its not something that’s easy to invoke, because of its misty-far-off possibility.  
  2. American tourism is another big key to saving the Irish economy.  As an American, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard the actions of another country invoked as a significant column of any kind of reform.  Perhaps immigration, but even then the American debate is about what Americans can do to defend the border, not what Americans can convince Mexicans and Other Dangerous People ™ from entering the country illegally.

Also, Enda Kenny is pro-puppy.