Monthly Archives: November 2011

NASA, the North American Steppe, Jon Rask and Chess

On November 26, 2011, a local Bismarck (North Dakota) television station aired a story concerning Jon Rask. A google search turned up Rask’s cv, and it turns out he is North Dakota’s premier space farmer — or “astro-biologist” for you scientists in the crowd.  Rask is putting in time in Antarctica with NASA in order to push our (this is the Royal Our, or Royal Us, or Humanity — which is why Scientists and Scholars are willing to transcend contemporary geopolitical borders and shirk short-term money-making schemes for the sake of scholarship and making contributions to knowledge) understanding of plants and hydroponics in new directions. Information gained in Antarctica will in turn help us get to Mars for the duration.

To quickly make this relevant to capitalists (and I say this non-pejoratively), this is one of the reasons we are taxed today, and one of the reasons those tax dollars go to NASA: some day this will allow said capitalists to mine Mars for minerals and who knows what else. Yes, everyone likes money, and it just so happens to be one of the chorus lines repeated in the movie “Idiocracy.” But we also like WD-40 and plastics and calculators and jokes about Tang.

It turns out North Dakota winters and Antarctica are perfect places to perform studies that give us insights toward eventually planting ourselves on Mars, and eventually planting plants on Mars.

The chess reference in this subject line refers to Jon and his dad, Richard. The Bismarck Public School system charged the latter with educating battalions of 5th graders at Grimsrud Elementary School (I was one of them). Perhaps one of the most important components of Richard’s (or Mr. Rask, as I still think of him) class was that he required all of his students to learn chess. I know (or at least I think) Richard’s son (Jon) and daughter (Lisa) were subject to one chess match after another. Chess is important in that it requires each player to not only think about the short-term, but the long-term as well: not just one move, but several down the line. So the takeaway here is to learn chess in your early years. Either learn it in the 5th grade, or have your dad or mom sit down with you when you are in the 2nd grade and teach it to you (this is how it worked in my youth, as my father taught me chess when I was in the 2nd grade — by the time you’re in the 5th grade, you’re ready to crush the local competition).

Revit and Digital Documents

A couple months ago I finished a historical case study that concerned an airport in the Red River Valley (in central North America to geographically position you international readers), and throughout the course of this study the project benefitted tremendously for two reasons. This included the cross-disciplinary cooperation that is central to completing a project on time and within its budget; and the increased digitization of all things, historical documents included.

Only after the case study was complete did I correspond with an engineer who in turn made this historian, archaeologist, anthropologist, and historic preservationist privy to the latest and greatest Web 2.0 (or perhaps a prologue to Web 3.0?) engineering software. This is known as Revit, a program that brings traditional drafting techniques into a type of digital matrix. This matrix, in turn, provides digitized centralization for everyone involved in or working on a project. So far, the wikipedia entry on Revit has been the best source for getting familiar with it. YouTube’s search engine produces numerous Revit tutorials as well.

Ulteig Engineering Revit graphic (left) synthesized with (right) 2011 construction of the Grand Forks Byron L. Dorgan International Airport. Thanks to Jon Scraper of Ulteig Engineering for passing along the graphic.

In the realm of history, and through state and private collaboration, the Grand Forks International Airport (GFIA) in 2007 received scanned copies of newspaper articles from the Chester Fritz Library (University of North Dakota), which is in its 50th winter and undergoing its own digital revolution. The GFIA’s website provides visitors with a history sub-link, and here with the ability to download newspaper articles from the years of 1959 to 1968, and from 1968 to 1984. This digitization of the documents allows professional and non-professionals to access them simply by having an internet link, and it also provides an individual with the ability to circumvent the understandable time constraints traditional archives are forced to keep.

The takeaway from digital technologies that seem to “make life easier” is never to undermine the need for future engineers and historians to be trained in the way of systematic analysis. In order for someone to properly use and understand Revit requires that individual to properly learn and understand the advanced mathematics the program requires. This also means historians need to sit down with a stack of digital or 3-D documents and carefully analyze them (this certainly requires hours, and more usually days) before they can deploy the writing styles that they took years and decades to develop as well. The engineer and the historian, after all, has to figure out a way to communicate this information to broader, non-specialized audiences.

[note: I sliced off the last paragraph of this entry on 11/25/2011 4:35PM CST as it seemed to be important but a bit disconnected. Also an Ulteig Engineering Revit graphic was added on 11/26/2011 12:10PM CST.]

Porterhouse Steak: Central Asian Dry Rub

Below are the following directions for a Central Asian dry rub for a porterhouse steak.  I e-mailed this to a friend (I’ve ascribed to him the name Yeoman, or the Lakota name conjou, since he is both a professor of philosophy and an organic farmer in northern Dakota). He asked about my thoughts on how to prepare a porterhouse steak, at least something different from the standard olive oil, fresh ground pepper and kosher salt.

Porterhouse and T-Bone Steaks with Central Asian-style Dry Rub

So the other day I issued to him the following (altered only slightly) in e-mail correspondence:


Get a bowl out.  Into it add: heavy on the paprika, and less heavy on the ground cayenne and ground pepper.  Put salt in there too.  Then add a couple pinches of ground cloves, ground allspice, ground cinnamon, ground turmeric, a bit more of ground cumin (essentially anything that tastes like Central Asia or the Levant).  I added a bit of ground thyme to mine as well. Lick your finger and stick it in to the rub, and then taste what sticks to your finger.  If it tastes good, then it’s good.  Then rub it on the porterhouse.  Then let it sit for about an hour while you guzzle half a bottle of Malbec and devour some goat cheese you picked this up at one of those bulk stores for something like $6/lb.  Also prepare some of your organic potatoes, boil water and toss in a couple of ’em with a couple cloves of garlic (mash this later with milk and a bunch of butter). Maybe chop up that iceberg lettuce in the fridge, too, since you’re going for a kind of American West Cattle Country Meets Central Asia and the Levant here. Hit the iceberg lettuce with the blue cheese dressing.  Also have plenty of icy cold beer on hand in the fridge, too, because that wine isn’t going to last forever.
Hope this helps.  Mine turned out glorious.  Having typed and re-read this, my mouth is pouring right now.

I followed this up with subsequent text-messages as further directives about the perfect Central Asian steak rub solidified in my brain.  The first message said, “After removing porterhouse from heat, let it rest for 5 min and spread goat cheese on top of it.”  I offered this advice since the goat cheese adds an element of Central Asian free-range that we come to expect from that part of the world (goat cheese has a subtle type of gaminess taste to it; much like what we taste when lamb hits the palate).  My second text transmission said, “And don’t cook it past med-rare. If you do, don’t tell me.” Yes, ignorance is bliss.  He promised not to cook it past med-rare, and then he inquired about another technical matter.  Does a person use a grill, a broiler or a cast-iron skillet?  In this case, any one of these would work. Instead of potato mash, Conjou did fingerling potatoes roasted, sans iceberg lettuce.  The rest, he said, “went off as directed.”

Modern With a Lower Case “m”

Here’s a recent piece from that asserts the rise and fall of Postmodern. It got me thinking about how it’s another one of those movements that many feel a part of, all while no one can really agree on a definitive, well, definition. This is why everyone looks confused (or if not, suppresses the feelings of confusion) when the word Post Modern is used. Post Modern is, of course, predicated on the notion (and acceptance) of Modern as a systematic framework as well, and that Modern was somehow a reaction against another systematic framework, and so on, ad infinitum. I still prefer to take my modernity with the lower case “m” and in the vein that it is perpetual and never ending, a type of tension between existing structures and the evolution necessary for society to breath in the present and theorize about how to project itself into the future (a quasi fancy way of saying “planning for tomorrow”). I suppose this recent Post Modern piece from can be considered fairly modern.

Power to HBO’s “The Wire”

Currently I’m revisiting the HBO “The Wire” series.  I watched it a couple years ago, read a couple articles on it from The Atlantic Monthly (here) and I thought it was time to once again re-watch organized gang-bangers in Baltimore.  What I enjoy about this series is how once a person scrapes below the surface of (or cultural constructs as we sometimes say in the business — and yes, the phrase cultural construct is even a cultural construct) Police and Drug Dealer and Politician and Judge and Journalist and Realtor and Commerce and Union and Lawyer, the viewer is shown exactly how interconnected they all are by the quest for money (which is analogous to power) that flows in and out of the cops, courts, politicos and, effectively, that huge thing we call the free market.

Season 1 and Season 3 of HBO's "The Wire"

To another degree David Simon, the main author of the wire, is attempting to shock his viewers. Yet we, the viewers, are just as ridiculous to think that somehow 1) money is — ahem — clean; and 2) that it ever was or could be, ahem, “clean” — whatever that word may mean.  To a large degree we ascribe the negative value judgement of “dirt” to money, but it, money, is just sitting there, empowered by the viewer and backed by the Federal Reserve and the most powerful and technologically equipped military in the history of the world (if the United States was unable to defend itself and its interests, there would be a serious under-mining of that currency — there would be, as they say, no street cred because there would be an absence of power backing it all up). So is there such a thing as virgin purity?  Only illusions of it, smoke and mirrors as we say.  But perhaps there’s more to it.

To conceive of virgin purity feeds into the reality of being able to start things anew, and perhaps this is why it’s a concept inherent to our existence.  If an individual is experiencing something new for the first time, then by all means that individual has yet to be touched by the experience.  This is why the older a person is, the less likely they are to be outrageously excited by what they come into contact with (old hat, aka, they have been there and done that).  Anyhow, the above is a slightly remixed and expanded conversation I had the other day with Nick Steffens about The Wire.

Mash Up, Remix and Originality on the Northern Plains

In the analog and digitized age, every generation has reached (or will reach) a point where they listen to what is touted as The New and Original yet internally say to themselves, “That sounds a heckuvalot like [insert name of artist from previous generation here]…”  To the naive (or the really naive since naivete is a matter of degrees — this means, deep down, we all have a little naivete in us no matter the age), this can be particularly disturbing since it seemingly undermines the illusion or construction of the word known as originality.  Yet mimicry — supposedly an abandonment of originality — is easily one of the greatest forms of flattery (and it can also be one of the greatest forms of mockery — it’s a matter of presentation, perception and reception).

In our digital Web-based world (currently at Web 2.0 and poised to push into Web 3.0), this idea of the new and original is not, in fact, new or original.  Take any profession — the Rock Star profession notwithstanding — and trace the history of its intellectual or artistic trajectory. Without too much researching effort, this rather quickly demonstrates how forerunners and pathfinders benefitted from the ideas of their predecessors.  This, for example, is why Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery just didn’t come on the scene and heroically discover the Pacific Ocean (trust me, it’s pretty large and hard to miss if you just keep heading west; and W. Raymond Wood speaks at length as to how L&C benefitted from several mapping and exploring predecessors); or why Nirvana didn’t create “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” one day on MTV Unplugged — that was Lead Belly, and as Wikipedia informs me Lead Belly was merely reflecting an 1870s American folk song of Southern Appalachian origin.

A Mashup of potatoes, sweet corn, garlic, butter, salt and pepper.

So this leaves us with the ways in which humanity rebrands and repackages seemingly old ideas, or combines several old ideas to form something anew.  In Web-2.0 Speak, this comes by way of the words Mashups and Remix.  In Web 2.0 for Librarians and Informational Professionals (New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc., 2008), Ellyssa Kroski defines Mashups as follows: “Hybrid Web applications created by combining two or more distinct sets of data or functionality to form something new.”  Brian Lamb defines the remix as “the reworking or adaptation of an existing work,” noting varying degrees of subtlety, but how “efforts are focused on creating an alternate version of the original.”  So you just take old stuff, or stuff that’s lying around, and slap this or that together to make something new and — with any bit of artistic ingenuity or luck — quite beautiful or useful, philosophically or technically.

On the northern Plains, several in-your-face Mashups and remixes come in the form of 1) University of North Dakota’s Chester Fritz-at-50 site; 2) the Digital Horizon site; 3) the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University; and 4) the horizontal fracking technology honed in Canada and deployed in western North Dakota and eastern Montana (as of November 9, 2011, we’re still very curious as to what is in the fracking slurry that is pumped underneath us on the northern Plains).

And this raises other points, especially when it comes to copy and property rights.  With digitized songs and artifacts, the way in which the digital resources can be re-used, recycled and re-analyzed again and again is infinite.  When it comes to fracking and acquiring petroleum, however, the resource is finite — in effect, oil cannot be digitized and reused, and the companies pay the mineral right owners to de-value their land through the extraction and exploitation of those finite resources (until theoretical chemists and physicists can give us clean endless power and energy, there will always be a market for energy resources).

The only overarching and concluding remarks on how all of this will play out in the future comes in the form of musings on how it is quite all right to digitally mashup and remix.  How the mashup and remix are deployed to better — or seemingly better — our lives is the point of contention.  It is another matter for the technological mashup and remixing that allows for the exploitation of the finite resources that are, in the case of this posting, petroleum reserves in the middle of North America.  A bigger question in that realm is how the public, laborers, professionals, academics, artists, writers, bloggers, politicians and state legislators are or are not getting together to mashup and remix old ideas to develop ideas that maximize the long-term impact of the permanent degredation that is part and parcel to extracting finite resources in any realm of the world [insert “Treat North Dakota’s Resources Well for Future Generations” motto here].  I can only assert how useful it would be for a large chunk of these finite resources to be put — through state taxes and/or later philanthropy — into educational institutions throughout the northern Plains, including N.D. K-12 and the North Dakota University System as well…

Thoughts on Digital History

Digital History is a phrase that needs to be un-packed, but it also needs to be placed into the context of how change is inevitable in any private and professional aspect of our lives — the historical discipline notwithstanding. Some notes scribbled down in thinking about this are 1) the change that has always been central to a historian’s work, whether from Ancient Chinese historians to Herodotus and Thucydides using scrolls to the advent of the book (revolutionary since a person didn’t have to unroll meter after meter of scroll to locate a piece of information — they could just flip to the assigned page number), then the famous Gutenberg press, the individual job press (a sort of personal “blog”), the newspaper, then radio, television and then the Internet in all of its endlessly random glory. Thus, an acceptance of this change and realization that this digital web-based world is not going to go away — whether we like it, or sit in denial and cry about it in a closet — is crucial to the 2) point, which is our real and our imagined problems associated with digitally representing two and three dimensional artifacts. Are tangible, paper artifacts somehow superior to digitized artifacts, and if so why or why not? Tangible artifacts are susceptible to burning up in a fire; this as opposed to a digitized artifact that cannot be touched, but can be disseminated and copied onto an infinite number of individual hard-drives, arguably ensuring that it is preserved somewhere at all times. In our increasingly paperless society, the digitized is regarded as ephemeral and the in-your-hand paper as constant. Yet this feeds into the presumption that paper, even archival quality, is some how not ephemeral. So is it better to digitize the tangible artifacts and disseminate them across the web, thereby democratizing the access? Or is it better to not digitize the artifact and keep them safely stored in a fire-proof archive, access to them only allowed during normal business hours? (Which, by the way, coincides with your own normal business hours, making it all the more difficult to access those documents.) And finally the 3) point concerns the ethical nature and legal/copyright issues inherent to the digitization of private and seemingly public collections.

In no way is this (or any) simple blog-posting meant to be exhaustive or equally representative of all the issues at stake here. It does, however, address the broad question in our digital age of access to and the sorting of information, and the ever-present human and professional need to analyze and put that information into some type of deliverable and intelligible context — whatever your job, your comrades, colleagues or co-workers will not be impressed if you just dump information onto their desk or workspace. All professions require (ideally) information to be sorted and processed in some kind of way. It continues to be up to historians (and all professionals, from automotive mechanics to physicians to lawyers) to figure out ways to remain salient as more and more information becomes increasingly accessible to larger and larger sections of the planet’s population.