In June of 1832, the 57 Irish migrant workers arrived at the docks of Philadelphia. Their job was to lance a flat path for the track through steep, hilly terrain. In railroad parlance, this is known as a 'cut' and thereafter that stretch of track would be known as Duffy's Cut. Six weeks later, they would all be dead.
A lot of eerie folklore and some community organized archaeology uncover a murder mystery on Philadelphia's Main Line.
Image courtesy the Duffy's Cut Project
If you expect a massive earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis to lead to panic in the streets and every-man-for-himself struggles, then you've probably been surprised by the Japanese response to their country's woes. But, before you start waxing philosophical about how different the Japanese are from your home country, consider what's known about how people—people all over the world—actually behave in disasters. Hint: A lot of the stories you've heard about crime and mayhem are either myths, or overblown accounts that don't represent the vast majority. The London Independent's Johann Hari writes for the Huffington Post:
In her gorgeous book A Paradise Built In Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise In Disaster, Rebecca Solnit shows how this is how almost everybody responds to disaster, across continents and across contexts. When power grids are destroyed and city grids demolished, social grids light up.
This is so cross-cultural -- from Haiti to New Zealand -- that it is probably part of an evolved instinct inherent to our species, and it's not hard to see why. We now know that 60,000 years ago, the entire human race was reduced to a single tribe of 2000 human beings wandering the savannahs of Africa. That was it. That was us. If they -- our ancestors -- didn't have a strong impulse to look out for each other in a crisis, you wouldn't be reading this now.
Yet there are a few examples stubbornly fixed in the popular imagination of people reacting to a natural disaster by becoming primal and vicious. Remember the gangs "marauding" through New Orleans, raping and even cannibalizing people in the Super-Dome after Hurricane Katrina? It turns out they didn't exist. Years of journalistic investigations showed them to be racist fantasies. They didn't happen. Yes, there was some "looting" -- which consisted of starving people breaking into closed and abandoned shops for food. Of course human beings can behave atrociously - but the aftermath of a disaster seems to be the time when it is least likely.
This information is essential for knowing how to respond to disasters. There is a fear that the Japanese government is with-holding information about the dangers of the nuclear meltdown because they don't trust the people to react sensibly and calmly. There is no way of knowing, yet, whether this is true. But understanding this crucial history should guide the government to tell the truth and trust the people. As Solnit puts it: "If you imagine that the public is a danger, you endanger the public."
That analysis also fits with Amanda Ripley's 2008 book The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes. So far, I've only read parts of this book—enough to make me completely rethink a short story I was planning out for my writing club—but it's very high on my list of books I must read in their entirety asap.
This seems to be one of those places where "common sense" simply isn't. On the whole, humans respond to disasters more like the Japanese people responded to this one, and less like what we imagine from movies and nightmares.
One issue that has emerged during the nuclear crisis in Japan is that there isn't always a reliable source for radiation levels from specific areas. RDTN.org has just launched, an experiment to help address that need. The site allows people to submit their own reads, and maps them out next to data from official sources and measurement dates. This way, anyone can quickly get an idea of what is happening on the ground, first-hand. The site is brand new but should be very useful going forward.
Also worth noting and specific to what is going on in Japan right now, JapanStatus.org is "a dashboard of accurate, sourced information on the situation in Japan following the March 2011 disaster."
The skies have stories to tell. Some of the stories make for interesting puzzles, particularly sightings of previously unseen objects in earth orbit. My friend Ted Molczan is part of a small but dedicated group of private citizens who track satellites, with a special focus on unannounced/secret satellite launches. 2011 has already been an interesting year for the group, who post their findings at the SeeSat-L website (satobs.org) and others. Ted presented compelling evidence that he had spotted a possible Prowler satellite that may have been secretly launched in 1990 on space shuttle launch STS 38. Today, Greg Roberts of their group found the USAF's X-37B OTV 2-1 spaceplane, launched into a secret orbit on Saturday. Ted was kind enough to share his philosophy, techniques, and consumer-grade equipment, all of which is easily available for interested citizens wishing to get involved.
Do you consider yourself a government transparency activist?
Ted: "I see myself as a hobbyist who enjoys solving technical puzzles that help to increase public knowledge of space flight, and improve the transparency of activities taking place in Earth orbit."
How do you respond to your critics within government intelligence agencies?
Ted:"The most common criticism is that by publishing the orbits of intelligence gathering satellites, we may enable adversaries of the U.S.A. and its allies to Read the rest
Read the rest
This new policy has been a while in coming. In October, NPR noted that the site had grown to 350,000 registered participants, and thus needed a little help moderating comments, particularly with trolls who come "to wreak havoc in discussions." Hence, the media organization brought in Canadian-based ICUC Moderation Services to assist.Looks like they're simply overwhelmed by nasty anonymous and just-registered comments. Public radio decides it's time to chase trolls away [Ars Technica}
Inside this box lies hundreds of dollars worth of stuff: gadgets, CES swag, gris-gris. It belongs to one of our followers on the social networks, but I'm not sure who. Trusting chance, I'll mail it off tomorrow evening after selecting one at random. If you want a shot at getting it, do any of the following:
Or on Facebook
Then retweet this post with the #whatsinthebox hashtag, or comment below to tell us why you absolutely must know what is in the box.. The recipient will be selected from the hashtag search and commenters here.
UPDATE: A recipient has been selected. Thank you, everyone!
You are planning to make something cool with the last 11 years of Boing Boing posts, right? Here's a quick update on the release from earlier in the week:
• So far, the XML file I posted last week has been downloaded 2,500 times. Woo! We're very excited to see what you all do with it.
• macartisan on Twitter noticed some validation errors in the original XML file, and others of you saw similar issues. Fortunately, ntoll at FluidDB fixed these errors while working with the data. The XML file has been updated so you won't have to worry about wonky characters while parsing it.
• ntoll also converted the file to JSON for those of you who don't want to deal with XML. That file is available for download as well, and has some extra goodies like better category organization and a list of URLs and domains mentioned in each post.
• The FluidDB for Boing Boing has finished parsing. You will now be able to access all 64,000 posts through their API. ntoll is also adding the URL and domain information from the JSON file to the API. He'll be doing a write up with some examples and explanations on how to use the API soon.
If you've got some time this weekend, and want to play around with a huge collection of text, URLs and other interesting information, we'd love to see what you come up with. You can send me your projects directly at email@example.com or on Twitter.
On Tuesday I released the last eleven years of Boing Boing posts all in one file to celebrate Boing Boing's recent anniversary. Large datasets are fun, and we wanted to see how the great minds of our readers would twist all this information into something more awesome.
We were not disappointed. This morning I found out that ntoll over at FluidDB collected all the information in the XML file into their centralized database system. ntoll's post on the FluidDB Boing Boing repository explains a little bit about the structure of their system and how to access it as an API for use in other web applications, programs or plugins.
The system is pretty easy to access using their various wrappers (in Python, for example). You can find the documentation for FluidDB here as well if you're interested in developing an application on top of this database system.
Clearly, this is a very interesting project with a lot of far-reaching implications for developers and interested people looking to play around with the Boing Boing archives. I'm looking forward to seeing what new applications of our data come out of this.
If you're working on something neat with this data, you can let me know directly either at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.