May 31, 2006

Reliable signs of summer

It intrigues me that the media in Minnesota (the TV news, for example) refers to summer as distinct three month periods that coincide with the equinox and the solstice, when that's clearly out of sync with other tendencies of the season. Early December with snow and temperatures well below freezing is clearly "winter," at least to me, not late fall.

Same with summer. It starts well before June 21. There are some very reliable signs of summer I see when running and I've seen them all in the past week.

  • Bugs
  • Men who shouldn't have their shirts off, with their shirts off in the sun.
  • Canoodling couples on the East River Flats. Why do they think that they have privacy in a public place?

Summer is here ...

Posted by eroberts at 6:32 PM

May 28, 2006

Attaching spousal characteristics for IPUMS datasets in Stata

First draft of a program for attaching spousal characteristics in IPUMS datasets using Stata

capture program drop spousal_char
program spousal_char, sortpreserve
capture drop _merge
tempfile spouses
sort year serial pernum
keep year serial sploc `0'
rename sploc pernum
foreach i of local 0 {
capture drop sp_`i'
rename `i' sp_`i'
label var sp_`i' "Spouse's `i'"

sort year serial pernum
drop if pernum==0
save "`spouses'", replace

merge year serial pernum using "`spouses'"

Once you have run the program you can attach spousal characteristics by typing
spousal_char [varlist]

Obviously some improvements could be made ... at a later date.

Posted by eroberts at 6:16 PM

May 27, 2006

Useful Stata finds of the day

translate for translating .smcl logs to text and vice versa.

Stata syntax highlighting for Text Wrangler.

AlphaTcl with even better syntax highlighting.

Posted by eroberts at 7:17 PM

May 26, 2006

Tim Pawlenty's re-election strategy: Keep quiet

Notice the governor much this legislative session in Minnesota? For sure, he popped up to sign a stadium bill, and made a bit of show of going to the not-so-political fishing opener, but that's about it. Maybe Pawlenty was doing something behind the scenes, but most of the reported action in getting a bonding bill together was done by the legislature. I'm sure we'll see Pawlenty turn out for Memorial Day, 4th of July and State Fair events, but beyond that don't expect to see much of him during summer. And perhaps after.

Keeping out of the way and not doing or saying anything significant or controversial is probably going to be the path to re-election for Tim Pawlenty. I'm guessing that will probably include keeping to himself on the campaign trail, and steering a little clear of Michele Bachman (R-6th District candidate) and Mark Kennedy (R-Senate candidate).

The amazing thing about the Minnesota political scene this year is how crowded and noisy it could get. This is quite the advantage for an incumbent governor. First up, you have a Senate race that will draw national attention, and could get ugly quickly. Mark Kennedy is trying to walk away from his established record as a loyal Bush Republican. Even if he succeeds in doing that, he must start out at a slight disadvantage to Amy Klobuchar in the Senate race. Klobuchar just has to run a competent campaign and take advantage of the slight advantage that Democrats have shown in Minnesota at the last two presidential elections, and she will win. If Kennedy looks like he is going down, look for Pawlenty to distance himself.

Similarly, in the 6th district where there were about 12,000 voters who voted for both Patty Wetterling and George Bush, I imagine that Pawlenty is not going to embrace Michele Bachmann on the campaign trail straight away. There are enough people out there who could potentially vote for Wetterling and Pawlenty that Pawlenty will probably keep his distance for now.

The 5th district is highly unlikely to go Republican, but with Mike Erlandson now stepping into the DFL primary, that contest will also soak up political interest and coverage. That's good news for an incumbent governor who wants the gubernatorial race to slip into the background.

This analysis is predicated on the assumption that so long as a governor hasn't made a major screw-up, incumbency and the name recognition and deference it conveys, is an advantage. Say what you will about Tim Pawlenty's policies but he hasn't made major screw-ups. Even if you disagree with the social spending cuts that were made, many of them affected people who would already vote for the Democrats. The electoral impact was probably slight. Pawlenty could campaign with Bachmann and Kennedy, but given that they're not certain to win their races, the risk averse thing to do is to stay away from them.

The last factor to consider in assessing Pawlenty's re-election chances and strategy is the DFL contest for the gubernatorial nomination. Currently, there are three candidates: Steve Kelley, Becky Lourey and Mike Hatch. Kelley has pledged to abide by the endorsement process at the DFL convention in Rochester from June 9-11, but the other two have not. Thus, it's likely there will be a primary for the DFL nomination in September. This is great news for Pawlenty, since it means he might not have to engage his opponent until September. (By the way, the websites are revealing. Mike Hatch's looks like it was designed in about ... 2001, Kelley's in 2003, and only Lourey's seems up-to-date and professional in its internet aesthetics)

Kelley seems like a decent, earnest man with an interest in policy, and representing a suburban district might be placed to pick up votes in the suburbs. But if his effective campaign season is less than two months, and with potentially competitive races in the 6th District and Senate, it's not clear he's a man who will get his voice heard above the melee. There's only so much attention people have to give to politics, and some races just get ignored. This nearly always benefits incumbents.

Hatch's website makes it quite clear what his strategy is going to be: attack Tim Pawlenty. Hatch is clearly a political animal. There's nothing wrong on a personal level with being motivated to run for another office just because it's there and you enjoy the contest. But it's not clear that gives voters a sufficient reason to dump the incumbent. If Hatch is the DFL nominee we can be quite confident he'll raise the noise level in the race, get coverage, and go on the attack against Pawlenty. Hatch and Pawlenty clearly don't like each other, and I wouldn't be surprised if Pawlenty climbs down into the ditch to wrestle with Hatch if that's the race we get. But this kind of strategy is always risky for the challenger, if voters just decide it's a plague on both parties, the incumbent retains some advantages.

That brings us to Becky Lourey. She's different, and I don't mean that in a lily-livered Midwestern way of saying I don't like her. This week's City Pages article is a good one; clearly impressed with Lourey and her biography and values, but rightly skeptical of whether she can raise her name recognition in a campaign. While I could absolutely see her getting the DFL nomination in June and September, it's not quite clear what the path to victory in November is. Can she raise money? Can she get free media attention? As a rural woman who supports gun rights and opposes the Iraq war, Lourey confounds some of the normal stereotypes of Minnesota Democrats. This is still the state that elected Jesse Ventura 8 years ago, and while Jesse was a noisier candidate, it does indicate there's still an inkling for the unconventional populist candidate in Minnesota politics. Moreover, because she defies easy stereotyping Lourey could potentially be the more challenging candidate for Pawlenty to run against because she's different. And Minnesota could still be a state small enough that a candidate will go quite far by making a supreme effort to meet as many voters as possible. If you start early enough this kind of campaign can be effective and difficult to defend against.

All in all, Pawlenty is probably going to win re-election by 2-3% of the vote, but a strong flowover tide from the Senate race could overwhelm him. And if it gets really close the DFL candidates all have the advantage of having last names further up the alphabet than he does ...

Posted by eroberts at 6:50 AM

May 25, 2006

15 minutes of fame

for Gopher steeplechaser Emily Brown in the Star Tribune and Runners World.

Mildly funny discovery of the day: As I looked for the link to the permanent version of today's—May 25 2006—Runner's World Daily News I accidentally got the news for tomorrow ... Now I grant that not a lot of athletics competition occurs on Thursday nights (but probably an awful lot of workouts) so it's probably OK to prepare the news in advance. Hopefully on the weekends they actually wait for the results before posting the news.

Posted by eroberts at 12:33 PM

May 24, 2006

Amateur digitization for historians

This query about buying a digital camera stimulated me to put finger to keyboard and jot down my collected wisdom about using a digital camera for your research. Some of what I say will pertain mostly to historians—that will be the references to the mysterious archives that conveys a lot to historians and perhaps diddly to others—but the basic idea of substituting digital photography for photocopying will have general applicability for a lot of people.

Getting my caveats up front, I should note that, like photocopying itself, photographing material you could just be reading and taking notes on and being done with, is one of those productive forms of procrastination that feel like work but don't get the real job—writing—done.

That aside, what I outline here really can save time and money over a period of a couple of years. Digital photography is a lot quicker than photocopying (time is money); you can file your documents more compactly, which can be worth a lot if you anticipate/are moving homes or offices; and if you name your files or folders well (and use shortcuts/aliases) you can file your materials more effectively. Some people may ask, what about scanners? Don't bother, is my opinion. Scanners take much longer to record their image, are potentially more damaging to the documents, and are larger and heavier making them far less convenient for traveling to archives. Not to mention, ever tried taking a family photo with a scanner?

The bottom line figures for historians to keep in mind is that if you are photographing quickly and not stopping to examine and select material you can photograph up to 400 pages an hour. A linear foot of archival material is approximately 2000 pages. Thus, allowing for distractions and breaks to prevent RSI etc ... you could photograph a linear foot of archival material in an eight hour day. Do your own calculation here on how long it would take you to work through this reading and taking notes. If you can photograph material I think it quickly becomes an economical option for a lot of research.

The cost-benefit calculation of photographing the documents and returning home, versus going to the archives and reading the material there will depend on your situation. Most importantly, the archive or library has to allow self-copying with a digital camera. This is becoming more common, but may depend on precisely what you are looking at a particular place. As always, contact the archivist before you go! Other variables to consider in deciding whether to hit the archives, photograph and return include;

  1. What is the cost (time/money) of spending time at the archives? The higher the cost of research trips the more you want to consider the short trip to photograph material. It might be less obvious that the slower you read, the more you should consider the "photograph and run" approach to archival visits.
  2. Other ways of thinking about archival time versus time with your photographed images are;

    • How intensely are you taking notes from something? If you're basically transcribing a page, well, photograping is a lot quicker than sitting in an archive far from home. Taking dictation from dead people, as it were. Though I do grant that typing direct quotations from your sources is an unparalleled way of internalizing the sources you're looking at. In short, if you are doing more than a couple of lines summary of every page you look at, consider photographing it for posterity and note taking later. If you're looking at making some sort of systematic database of whatever (probates, wills, laundry lists, surveys) don't do data entry in the archives if you can avoid it. Photograph it and take it home. This also allows you to double key some of your entries if you have the time and inclination to do so. And once your data is all entered you can verify any strange entries.
    • How accurate do your notes have to be? If you write "taht" for "that" there's minimal damage to your research. Indeed, what with modern standards that we shouldn't even sic basic errors like that, maybe none. But if you change a 39 year old to a 93 year old on a census schedule (for example) suddenly someone who was a wife and mother looks like perhaps she should be a great grandmother and mother in law in the same house. That's quite a change. In other words, the more accurate your notes have to be, or the easier it is to make errors while taking notes quickly, the more you want to photograph.
    • Do you know in advance what you're looking for? The less you know what it is you're looking for, the more it helps to photograph the documents for later persual, in case your initial note-taking focused on the "wrong" thing. Lists and tables and the like are prime candidates for photographing as they defy easy, accurate and quick summary in notes. If it's in a table it's already a summary so you often can't just take one or two figures from it, as you might summarize a page of an argument in a couple of sentences. If you've ever reproduced a table of figures from an archival source in your notes you'll know what I mean, it takes a while. You have to count the columns and rows, and then decide which way to read the table to enter the data accurately etc. Photograph it and take it home.

  3. Are you going want to follow up leads you find in material you've copied? How well have you identified beforehand what you are going to copy? The most productive "hit the archives and copy" trips are those where you know precisely what you want to copy before you go, and aren't likely to be needing to use other collections.
  4. How much do you need to look at? If you only have a small amount of material to work through the traditional approach to visiting the archives should work. The larger the collection, the more you probably want to copy.
  5. Are you looking at images or small text that is difficult to read? Being able to view an enlargement of your material can be really, really useful in some situations. With a photograph you are not limited to the 200% enlargement you could get on a photocopier.
  6. Are you going to use it again? The more you are going to re-use a particular page, the more you want to photograph it.
  7. Do you anticipate giving presentations about your research where you might want to illustrate what you are talking about? Being able to show a slide of the sources you are using can be very interesting for conference presentations, and especially when you have images. As best I can tell from talking to archivists displaying an image in a conference presentation does not constitute reproduction that requires permission since there is no permanent copy of the item being distributed. You should check this for yourself for 'your' collections, but digital photography can open up new possibilities for what you include in teaching and conference presentations.

If you have decided to hit the archives to photograph material, what follows is potted practical advice on how to go about it. It bears repeating, check with the archivist you can do this before you start ...

Camera: To reproduce archival material or modern printed books and journals a camera with a "document" mode is ideal. The Nikon Coolpix range has this feature. Personally, I have been using the Coolpix 5900 which (of course, one year later) has been superseded by the 5600 which you can pick up for $250-300. Apparently Sony also has cameras with this setting. I have been very pleased with the Nikon as it is small and lightweight, while still having a large LCD screen. The 5900 has a 5 megapixel default setting, which is just about ideal for document photography.

Flash and macro settings: The document mode mentioned above defaults to black and white images with no flash. Many archives want you to avoid flash to protect the sources. However, if you're photographing modern material (journals/books) you may choose to use a flash to get better contrast. Beware of glossy pages and make sure that if you are using flash it is not reflecting on the pages. Many older books have non-glossy text and then glossy photographs, so be sure to be aware of this if you are photographing books with the flash on. If you get a camera without a document mode, you want to be sure you can turn the flash off, set it to black and white, and use a close-up or macro setting. This will allow you to focus closely on the pages and get high quality reproductions of the documents.

Memory cards: If you are copying a lot of material you will want high capacity memory cards. On a 5 megapixel document setting, each image is about 950kb, depending on how complicated the image is. Just for comparison, a regular colour photo will be about 2/3 larger again. The image for a nearly blank piece of paper might be as small as 700kb, but if there's lots of text then it might be around 1mb. A 1GB card can hold up to 1300 document images. Your needs will vary, so this is only a guide.

Power source: A lightweight camera (like the Nikon Coolpix range) runs on rechargable lithium batteries which run out relatively quickly. If you are using the battery you'll be lucky to make 400 images before having to change the battery or stop (for several hours) to recharge it. The bottom line is that if you are going to be photographing a lot of pages in a short period of time, then you need at least two batteries so you can be charging one while you are using the other, or buy a power adapter for the camera. A power adapter is relatively cheap, and can be purchased separately from the camera. Unless you are going to urgently photograph a lot of documents in a short period of time (e.g; you are at an archive for one day and can't return easily if you don't finish) start with a couple of batteries, and purchase the power adapter if there's a demonstrated need. Of course, if you have a research grant you need to spend on equipment ...

Copy stand or tripod: Tripods are widely available and with a little fiddling can be set up in such a way that you get good images. However, if you are going to be doing a lot of photography of sources, consider buying a portable copy stand. You can get a good one for approximately $70 (or see here, at buy.com). Note that you will also need a piece of cardboard to lay over the legs of the copy stand to put your documents on so they lie flat under the camera. The huge advantage of a copy stand is that the documents lie flat under the camera. Many tripods can only be configured to photograph the documents at a slight angle, reducing readability and accurate reproduction. If you have a copy stand you can—if you make good copies—do your own reproductions for publication (though be sure to get permission to publish). Many archives charge $10 (at least) for photographic reproductions of material suitable for publication. You don't have to do this many times to exceed the cost of the copy stand. A copy stand is not something any one person will be using all the time, so you might consider seeing if your department could purchase one for loan to people who need one.

How the copy stand works
Since I first published this post, people have asked the most questions about the copy stand. Hopefully these pictures will illustrate it better. As you can see the camera is looking directly down upon the documents, which is difficult to achieve with a tripod, unless you have a tripod arm. The height of the copy stand is adjustable. With the Testrite CS-7 I've been using I can photograph A3 or legal paper by having the camera at the highest point.

Document photography with the copystand proceeds most rapidly with loose leaf paper. The procedure is simple. Put the paper on the stand, photograph, move the next piece of paper on, photograph ... repeat. Doing this it is straightforward to achieve 300-400 pages per hour, though this gets tiring.

Books are slower, since you sometimes have to hold the books open at a particular page. Although this means getting partial images of your hands beside the document text, it is quicker than using beaded book weights to hold each page down.

Source information: Make sure that you include information on the source in the image, so you know where the material came from. If you know ahead of time what collections you will be photographing material from you can print out reference information that you cut into strips to lay beside the documents when you photograph them. These strips of paper should include the collection and library and other information. You can leave space on the paper to add any document-specific information with pencil, erase it, and use the same paper for the next document.

Transferring images and organizing files: If you are concerned with making the most of your time in the archives, wait until the end of the day to transfer images from the camera to your computer. If you have multiple images it can take quite a while, as most cameras transfer data via USB which is not that fast.

Once you have the images on your computer, it really is up to you to organize as you see fit. Since hard disk and other computer failures are more frequent than house fires, whatever you do should include backing up your images at least once. This need not be too complicated or expensive. If you are at a university, you should have access to some form of network server storage provided by the university that is backed up regularly and reliably (onto tapes and stored offsite ideally). This should probably be your first option for a backup. Don't rely on CDs or DVDs for long-term storage unless you want to be spending your time rotating disks and checking that one set hasn't failed etc etc ... Network storage is the way to go as your house is unlikely to burn down at the same time as the university does. If it does you are probably living in an area with geothermal risks or hurricane activity. Or Chicago in 1871.

Backing up is the most important thing everyone should do with their images. Beyond that my advice, for what it's worth, is that you find a way of organizing your files that does not take too much time, while still allowing you to find things quickly. You could spend a lot of time renaming all your files from the default digital camera name (DSCNxxxx.jpg, for example) or you could spend it doing something more productive. My approach, and I have more than 15,000 images for my research and this has worked well for me, particularly for documents from archival collections, is to group images into folders with usefully descriptive names. Sometimes a folder relates to just one document, and may only have a few images (pages) in there. Sometimes a folder will initially relate to a whole collection (e.g; all the photographs from a particular magazine over twenty years). When I examine the material in more depth I may create more folders. (Once documents are in folders, renaming them from DSCNxxxx.jpg to "something more meaningful xx.jpg" is relatively straightforward. If you're using OS X, see here. Also pretty quick on Unix. I can't speak as competently to what's possible in Windows)

When I am working with the images, principally what I am doing is reading and taking notes into Word documents. At the moment, for each of my five dissertation chapters I have between five and twenty Word files with my notes on variously defined sub-topics for the chapter. Basically, this is the old historians method of separate thematic note cards, but just done in Word so I can search it. I annotate my notes with both the original source citation and the name of the image file I have of the source. By having the original source citation right there, when I'm writing I can add in the footnote immediately without opening the image file again. But if I want to go back and re-examine the image of the source I can quickly find the name of the file too. This approach works well for loose leaf material from archives.

If you have photographed articles or whole books (old ones, of course, out of copyright) then the folders and original images approach can still be used, but making Acrobat files is even better. This allows you to have just one file for a whole article or book, which you can then organize by adding bookmarks for navigation, and using Acrobat's editing features to add your own comments and annotations. Acrobat can be had for $88 academic pricing. This is only worth the money if you have enough documents you'll be wanting to combine into one file to keep together.

OCR: One extension to this way of working that I am beginning to explore is the possibility of optical character recognition from photographs. If you have photographs of printed or typed sources then this may be something worth exploring to save re-typing information. My guess is that you would need to have a project where you need to re-type quite a lot of data to make this worthwhile. In my case, I have some printed tables that I want in a database. Because of the uniform layout of the material it should be possible to use OCR.

Adding it all up: To undertake your own personal digitization project you are looking at spending about $500-600 upfront.

1GB memory card $80
Copy stand $50
Extra battery $40
Optional to start with  
Power adapter $40
Acrobat $90

I have estimated these costs at somewhat above what you could end up paying so that the comparison with photocopying and spending time at the archives is conservative. Switching to digital photography costs money up front, but the savings in time and money over a period of a couple of years can be substantial. When you consider that most archives charge at least 10 cents per page for photocopying, and often more (50 cents is not uncommon) you are starting to break even between 2000 and 4000 pages copied, even without accounting for your time and travel expenses. Indeed, it's the time savings that can really make digital photography the economical option. If you can turn a two week research trip into a one week research trip, and save six nights at a mid-range hotel and meals on the road there's your $600 and more repaid just like that. One problem is that some funding sources for graduate students and faculty are rigid (backward or asinine, perhaps) in the categories of expenditure they allow. That is to say that travel and accommodation expenses will be paid without questions, but equipment purchases are not permissible. A reasoned statement of how equipment purchases will save money in the long run, and a willingness to make equipment available for colleagues can change minds.

Trivial practical hints: Spending all day photographing documents can be mind-numbingly dull. Bring your headphones and set iTunes to shuffle so that you have something else to think about. Repetitive strain injury is not impossible. Take a break every hour or so, even if you are blitzing through and photographing a box quickly. While CDs are not recommended for long-term storage they can be used for short-term backup while you're away from home. Then if your laptop dies you haven't lost all your work to date, just one day of work.

Other sources of useful information
Columbia: "Going digital in the archives"
Journal for Maritime Research: Historical research in the 'digital era'
George Mason's Electronic Researcher website
American Historical Association: Taking a Byte Out of the Archives: Making Technology Work for You

Notes: Edited on 1 June to add references to multiple file renaming tips.
update, 27 February 2007: This discussion at eh.net on the economic history mailing list is incredibly valuable. Note, in particular, the recommendation to go for ISO and image stabilization over megapixels as criteria for cameras that are good in the archives.

Posted by eroberts at 8:24 AM

Happy birthday ...

... to Bob Dylan. Searching for any Minneapolis events commemorating the same, the google news headlines included this slightly strange one: Cate Blanchett to play young Dylan.

Posted by eroberts at 7:31 AM

May 23, 2006


Running Firefox on multiple computers? Want to keep your bookmarks synchronized?

Try Foxmarks. The price is right: free.

Posted by eroberts at 6:31 AM

May 19, 2006

Ooh Ah Umaga and other foreign sports chants

The Hurricanes—Wellington's Super 14 rugby team—make the final for the first time.

Now to call the Irish bars and see if they'll be showing it. Unlikely, since the Irish bars in the Twin Cities seem unauthentic and never seem to show rugby on the big screen.

Posted by eroberts at 7:28 AM

May 18, 2006

Alan who?

(Click on image for larger version)

Posted by eroberts at 10:53 AM

Ariel Sharon wants to give me money

Mr. Cardello Ian writes:

Dear Friend, This may come to you as a surprise, But I plead your indulgence to listen to me and get this important details. I am from the Hadassah hospital where I serve as the director of operation. I am by name Dr. Cardello Ian . As you may be aware of the situation on ground as regard the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.


He has disclose to me a personal savings which he has managed to put together to run the up coming election before it sudden stroke of 4th January 2006.

In the case of Sharon's illness, however, he has been declared permanently incapciatated and elections has already occured.Thus, the need for the fund transfer.

He has given me the order to look for a reliable personnel of your calibre to assist him in reprofiling a certain amount of funds which is undisclose at the moment.

As soon as I get your willingness and confidentiality to forge ahead in executing this transaction, I will let you into confidential information on how to execute the transaction. Meanwhile, Be aware that the percentage sharing of the fund will be divided in this manner, 30 % will go to me and you will get the same 30% . The wife and children goes with 30% while 10% is used for any expenses we may incurred in the process of transfering the funds to your account. Thus, I am thanking you in advance for your cooperation in finalising with this transaction swiftly.

Now, that is very creative. But who would be silly enough to believe that kind of thing?

Posted by eroberts at 6:21 AM

May 17, 2006


Just got a call from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee soliciting my $110 (why $110?) which I, of course, declined as a law-abiding "alien." But before they'd got to that point they did tell me this rather startling bit of information: that if the Democrats retake the House that will enable them to impeach President Bush before his term ends. Seriously, that's what they said. I woud have thought after Nancy Pelosi had spent a good week (long time in politics and all that) trying to hose down these supposedly Republican-generated rumors they wouldn't actually be giving credence to the claim that the Democrats will try and impeach Bush.

Posted by eroberts at 4:53 PM

May 16, 2006

Historical census occupations of the day


A sly comment, that probably went un-noticed by those it was meant to insult, but which we can still appreciate today.

Posted by eroberts at 6:30 PM

Lunchtime track trivia

Who ran the first sub-four minute mile on American soil?

The clue that it was an Australian would have led me astray. It's not John Landy. Though he also broke four minutes in the same race.

Posted by eroberts at 1:30 PM

May 12, 2006

How much would Canada fetch?

New Zealand not for sale: eBay

May 12, 2006

AN Australian man has failed in his bid to sell New Zealand for a bargain-basement price on eBay.
The South Pacific country was described by the eBay man as having "very ordinary weather" and bidding opened at one cent.

A generous bid of $3000 had been entered by the time the eBay realised the problem and stepped in to say New Zealand was not for sale, the Associated Press reported.

More than 22 bids were received before eBay - which describes itself as selling "mostly household items" - pulled the plug.

"Clearly New Zealand is not for sale," eBay Australia spokesman Daniel Feiler was quoted as saying.


Posted by eroberts at 12:30 PM

Signs I don't understand

Boston Public Library

Posted by eroberts at 7:26 AM

May 11, 2006

Historical census occupations of the day

An occasional entry in an irregular series


This is very probably a man selling fire engines for the American LaFrance company.


Your guess is as good as mine

Posted by eroberts at 6:39 PM

Good cup, bad cup

The Boston Globe was right: they make good coffee at Simon's Coffee Shop at 1736 Mass Ave, Cambridge. But ... a paper cup for good espresso? Not so good. It's the often-downfall of American coffee shops that want to both make good coffee and serve the "to-go" crowd. Customer service, people. If they're drinking in, crockery ... It's not hard.

One place they get it right is the newly (3 weeks ago) opened Kopplin's coffee shop at Randolph and Hamline in Saint Paul. The espresso was excellent. Andrew Kopplin, the owner, apologized for drawing it a little long, but I prefer it long. I grew up on the long black after all. All in all, great ambience, great coffee.

The American coffee shop is an interesting thing. Whenever my father visits this country he's struck by the number of people who work in coffee shops. Working alone and in groups. Even before free wireless access. And when a lot of those people are consuming a 64oz gulper of burnt filter coffee I suppose you have to stay a while just to finish it.

Now, by contrast, you don't see many laptops and notebooks in an Australasian coffee shop. This has something to do with wireless being less ubiqitious, but that's not all. Coffee is more exclusively a social thing. That's another nice thing about the long black; it's both espresso and the time to drink it coincides nicely with getting into a conversation.

When Americans serve espresso they serve it short. It's good, don't get me wrong, but the trouble with a short espresso is it's over so quickly. You can't nurse your short espresso for a couple of hours while sitting there doing some work. So, the American espresso conflicts a little with the stay-a-while culture of American coffee shops.

One thing I've always wondered about this stay-a-while culture is how much the implicit price of a seat in the cafe varies by location and time of day. How much do you have to buy before they suggest you get something else. In New Zealand they seem to expect more turnover in the seats at coffee shops, and I have occasionally been asked if I'd like something else because it's getting busy now and it's an hour since I last bought something. Which is not what you'd necessarily expect, that American businesses would be less pushy about making you keep buying. But that is one of the paradoxes of American life; that in some ways life is very commercialized and yet there are pockets of American life that are less overtly commercial like Christmas and coffee shops.

Posted by eroberts at 6:53 AM

May 10, 2006

Random reading recommendations

Linda Colley on American anti-Europeanism. Another way to look at the trans-Atlantic relationship.

Jill Lepore in the New Yorker reviews Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution and Cassandra Pybus’s Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty. Pybus is a great writer. Her book on a 1950s sexual harrassment case at the University of Tasmania, Gross Moral Turpitude is still memorable 13 years after I read it.

Posted by eroberts at 9:35 AM

How many ...

... rubber bands does the US postal service use every day?

Where do they get them all from? One big contract? Lots of suppliers? Is that what inmates make in federal prison?

Posted by eroberts at 7:40 AM

May 9, 2006

Sir, that's icky

A couple of years ago I went to Seward Montessori school and talked to them about Australia and New Zealand, and let them try Vegemite. This is what they thought then:

In the first class, the choicest and most appropriate comment, was the girl who said that "I don't really care for that." One can assume that all the children saying "ewwww" and "yuck" would have expressed similar sentiments if they had been as articulate.

In the second class though I received proof that children in Minnesota are taught to lie, and to debase the meaning of useful words in the English language. Amidst a chorus of "ewww" and "yuck" the teacher actually told the children "If you don't like something, don't say yuck, say that's interesting, or that's different".

Anyone who has spent anytime in the Midwest will know that "interesting" and "different" do not mean curious and distinct as they do in most other parts of the English-speaking world -- they mean "I don't like that, but I'm not going to tell you that directly."

Today I had four, count 'em, four children in a class of about twenty 1st through 3rd graders, request more Vegemite. Really, it is good stuff, even if you have to grow up eating it to really like it. The touching moment of the day—after I'd seen lots of little faces pulled and lots of little kids run to get a drink of water after their morsel of Vegemite—was the boy who tugged on my shirt as I was leaving, looked up at me with big, round, brown eyes, and said politely "Sir. Sir, that's icky." Polite and honest.

De gustibus non disputandum

Posted by eroberts at 4:04 PM

May 1, 2006

Unexpected food irony

This, in the Star Tribune today, was kinda ironic:

BBC/ Few people are more ridiculed for their cuisine than the Brits. There's no food programming on BBC America. So it's a bit jarring to find a site that rivals the Food Network's and is immensely easier to navigate. Swell recipes, lively chat rooms and a great glossary make for an entertaining, edifying mix. (www.bbc.co.uk/food)

New Zealand/ In the who'd-a-thunk-it? department, a Kiwi production recently was named the world's best food magazine at the Gourmet Media World Festival. The website of Cuisine magazine reveals it's no surprise. There's an admirable local focus, but also an assortment of worldwide recipes and cool chapters on travel, wine, books and "Toys & Tools." (www.cuisine.co.nz)

Not to sound too defensive, but someone from the Midwest, home of hotdish and "cuisine" whose main ingredient is chicken-mushroom glue is criticizing the reputation of New Zealand and British food. Pot. Kettle. Black.

Posted by robe0419 at 6:40 AM