September 29, 2011

I've Seen Worse

Over the weekend I went home to help my mother out with repairing her home, damaged in the flood of almost three weeks ago. I talked about that here.

The first three hours of the drive were lovely, with the trees in the higher elevations putting on their beautiful fall colors. It was a sunny morning, the perfect light to enjoy the seasonal beauty. And on the interstate, there are no leaf peepers to contend with. The colors will peak in a few more weeks, but it was delightful enough right now.

The last section of the drive was less fun. The highway follows the river, and flood damage was frequently visible. The road itself had been underwater in several sections. One stretch narrowed to one lane in each direction, because the road edges had been undercut, and a bridge had visible damage to the piers that hadn't been there last time I drove I-86.

Driving through Owego to my mother's house, the air was dusty from the cars kicking up flood mud from the road. There were plenty of visible puddles. Outside every house, on the curb, was a giant pile of debris. Pick-ups are underway, but they aren't keeping up with the damage.

I couldn't park in my mother's driveway, because there was an unfamiliar pickup truck in her driveway. I found out that a horde of workers from a nearby factory (Dresser-Rand, I think?) were volunteering to help people out on that weekend, and one of them was suctioning up mud from Mom's basement. He was a nice guy, although we decided not to shake hands because of all the mud. Which was silly, since we both had muddy gloves.

Anyway, my mother's house had flooded up to about five feet on the first floor. According to the survey, she was going to have to remove the brand-new floors in the kitchen, dining room, and front hall. She's especially annoyed about the front hall, because there's some nice ceramic tiles there. I guess the wooded underfloor had swelled from the water and messed up the tile attachments? I wasn't quite clear on the details. I wonder if they can be pried off and re-glued down, as I didn't notice any that were actually broken.

The first day I moved stuff around, including things like getting an old dorm-style refrigerator down from the attic, for use while the downstairs is being renovated. Not only did Mom lose all the new appliances, the water got high enough to destroy the new lower and upper cabinets. We cleaned the mud off the basement window screens and put them back in, so as to reduce the number of insects arriving. Luckily, the flood waters are draining faster than last time, so the mosquitoes were an annoyance, not a nightmare.

The Red Cross is still driving around the affected neighborhoods, delivering hot food twice a day. It wasn't great, but it wasn't terrible either, from the four samples I had. In order, I ate hot dogs, chicken breasts, dirty rice, and chicken nuggets.

The original plan was for me to stay at her place overnight, but I decided I wanted a hot shower in the morning too badly, so I drove to my Dad's house for the night. He was out at a concert featuring Count Basie's Orchestra, which was a bit of a surprise, since Count Basie died in 1984. If he's doing a concert tour, then one of three things must be true: (1) it's really creepy the way they keep him around like Lenin; (2) the zombie apocalypse is underway, so I'd better rush off and loot the sporting-goods store and then a grocery store; (3) I'd better re-evaluate my religious beliefs.

But my father cleared it up by pointing out that it was, in fact, Count Basie's Orchestra, and that the Count himself was no longer involved. In fact, only three or four of the members had been hired by Basie himself. I was told the concert was quite good.

The second day, back at my mother's somewhat later than planned due to staying up late studying and lingering over breakfast, I applied myself to a shop-vac. We were getting power via an extension cord from the neighbor's. My mother had already torn down all the wet wallboard, so I was sucking up plaster dust and mud, both of which were holding lots of water up against the house's balloon framing. It was clearly drying out much better in the non-gunky spots. I also helped her tear down some of the old plaster-and-lathe walls around the downstairs bathroom. They had been just covered with modern wallboard, but the lathe was soaking wet, and again the plan was to get as much portable wet stuff out of the house, to encourage the non-portable wet stuff (i.e. structural elements) to dry more rapidly.

While I was there a Verizon repairman showed up and got telephone service reestablished. He presumably didn't have to repair anything past the terminal block where the outside lines come in, but he tested the house lines and discovered one of the house's wires had gone bad. He suspected it had some split insulation from years back, and the flood had corroded it somewhere, So he replaced that wire, gratis. A nice guy.

Soon enough, though, the sun was setting and I had to get back on my way. I had plenty of academic work to do over the weekend, and I'd done none of it. I got back to my apartment at about 10:30 PM, and commenced a study session that lasted until the faintest streaks of light were brightening the horizon. Caffeine is pretty much my favorite substance, these days.

The day after I left, I got word that the electrician had replaced Mom's master circuit breaker, and she had power again. The next day a hot-water heater was installed. So at least the house is now safe and comfortable, although there's a bit of a hurry to get a new furnace installed, and the walls up and insulated, before the weather gets any colder.

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September 20, 2011

Everyone In the Room Is Now a Whaling Expert

Today I gave a presentation on my research so far. It went quite well, I'm proud to say. There were only seven attendees, but I wasn't realistically expecting overwhelming interest into the American whaling industry during the 1800s. We had the room for an hour, so I talked for 40 minutes and took questions for the rest. Then a first-semester MA student interrogated be for another hour about all sorts of things, from "how did you pick a topic" to "how can I teach a class without the undergrads ignoring me."

The questions for the last 20 minutes of the main session were a mix of requests for more information (e.g. the role of women in the industry) and suggestions for how I might extend the project and what additional questions I might ask. The only problem was that my adviser was there. One of my data sources was logbooks kept by the Seaman's Institute in New Bedford. The Institute included a church, the Seamen's Bethel. My professor suggested that I see if sermons from that church had been preserved, as so many sermons were in this period. Now, she's probably right, that if I can find those sermons I can get some great stuff for my project. But it's not like I'm swimming in free time. I have no idea how I'm going to make time to read a century of so worth of weekly sermons! I almost hope they have been lost. It's unlikely, though, since the Bethel was famous during this time period, and it survived, so its records probably survived too.

UPDATE: I've gotten lots of compliments from fellow students, which was nice, but we're a pretty friendly group. Today, though, the professor in attendance told me that she was very impressed. That was quite flattering to hear.

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September 17, 2011

That Time of Year

The Canada geese are leaving.* Apple-harvesting festivals are starting. Gardens are bringing forth their bounty. The local grocery store is offering huge pumpkins, along with mountains of candy. The maple leaves are beginning to turn. Last night I turned on the furnace.

* Some Canada geese now overwinter. Just another reason I hate those things.

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September 13, 2011

Zug Zug

Some have wondered why I'm not going home to help my mother out this weekend. Well, next week I have the following:

  • Monday: 7 page paper on al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi aka Joannes Leo Africanus de Medicis aka Yuhanna al-Asad, an interesting figure in the early sixteenth century Mediterranean world.
  • Tuesday: 30 minute public presentation on my current research.
  • Wednesday: 20 page paper and 15 minute presentation on Wiemar Germany.
  • Thursday: dental exam with bonus x-rays.
I'm pretty sure that the dental appointment will be the high point of the week. So, I don't really have the time to go help my mother clean and gut her house. But I'll be going down to help out the following weekend.

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September 08, 2011

I'm Trying Not To Use My Marine Vocabulary To Express How I Feel About This

My mother's house is currently underwater, suffering the third "100 year flood" in the last six years. This is the biggest yet, a "500 year flood", with the highest water on record. My quick calculation suggests that three such floods in that time frame, assuming floods are normally distributed, is about a four-sigma event. Which should be quite unusual. I suspect that the model used to predict floods of the Susquehanna River is not a very good one.

The last flood crested at 35.9 feet, and did substantial damage to the first floor of my mother's house. The current flood is projected to crest at 39.8 feet. My mother did receive a several hours of warning, courtesy of an automatic call from the town, which she spent in moving stuff from the basement and first floor to the second floor, and also getting things out of the garage to the extent possible. In the true spirit of community, two neighbors came over to help. I considered driving down to assist, but by the time I'd heard of the flood, if I drove straight there I'd have to swim the last part of the way. I have a good car, but it's no Humvee.

When she had moved all she could and the water was close, my mother evacuated and spent the night with her eldest daughter's in-laws. Today she was planning on continuing on to stay with her daughter. I hope to come down and help with the cleanup once the water recedes. I expect that my professors will be understanding.

If anyone wants to see the output of the river gauge in her town, here are two good sites: the US Geological Survey's and the National Weather Service's. They present the data in different ways. The first one also has a flow graph, which (as of 1600 on 08 Sep 2011) indicates the current instantaneous flow rate is 144,000 cfs. As a point of comparison, the flow rate on this date in 2010 was 1450 cfs. That hundredfold jump is not good.

The news is reporting various bridges out, but I'm moderatly confident that the main bridge from Owego to I-86 will be intact, as it's quite high. Of course, it's piers could be undermined. And there's a neat little historical marker on end of the bridge that mentions the previous bridges on that location that had been swept away.

So, I will summarize. There's a bad flood right now at my mother's place. My mother is safe. Her house is likely be inundated much higher than last time. And it was only this summer that the damage from the last flood was finally repaired. I'm just hoping that the water stays below the level of the second floor, where she had moved as much of her chattel property as she could.

Not-so-pretty pictures:

UPDATE: The river gauge stopped reporting at 0800 on 08 Sep 2011, because the gauge has a design maximum of 38 feet. That's how bad a flood this is.

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September 05, 2011

They Call Them "Massholes"

Trying to get a graduate degree in history requires doing some research. My primary subject is Early Modern Europe, i.e. Europe from about 1450-1812 or so. (Those dates are approximate, as arguing about periodization is what academic historians do when we've got nothing more important to argue about.)

Despite its being outside my primary interest, I've started a Master's project on the national origins of nineteenth century whalers. It's sort of building off the term paper from one of my "core" classes. To summarize that paper, most histories of whaling are very nation-based: American whaling, Norwegian whaling, Argentine whaling, etc. But whaling crews were a trans-national bunch.

New Bedford, Massachusetts was the home of the American whaling industry for most of the industry's existence. This was a good example of economic specialization– there were many larger ports, but the concentration of whalers in New Bedford meant that was where whaling hardware makers sold their goods, where the deepest market for whale oil was, and where experienced whalers could be found between voyages. Whaling was a lucrative trade, too– the local newspaper calculated that in 1840, New Bedford had the highest per-capita income in the United States.  Those days are long gone. Today, New Bedford is half fishing town, half tourist town. The fishing half harvests scallops, and according to the town's Chamber of Commerce, it has the highest cash-value fishing harvest of any American port. The tourist half services people like me, who want to see the historic district.

At any rate, New Bedford is where the New Bedford Whaling Museum is located. Attached to the museum is a large archive of whaling-related texts. It is to that archive that I wanted to go, in search of data.

I packed up on Saturday, bought an E-ZPass on Sunday, and left on Monday, only an hour after I had intended to get on the road. But I know myself well enough to add an hour of slack into my schedule.

I had my bike rack on the back of my car, with my good Jamis commuter bike attached. I had reservations for a hotel about six miles away from the archive, but the directions from hotel to archive seemed simple enough to bike: just follow State Street most of the way. Cycling would provide me with valuable exercise and allow me to avoid paying the parking fees of the downtown lots.

The weatherman on the radio said it would be overcast and cool all day, getting windy in the evening. Unfortunately, the weatherman was making a projection for the weather around Buffalo. About when I rolled past Syracuse, the heavens opened up with a series of ferocious thunderstorms. I nevertheless made it to my friend Paul's house, south of Albany, almost on time. After a "hello" to his mother, Paul and I hopped in his Prius for a jaunt over to his regular Monday evening game.

I'd played with these people in the past, albeit briefly. My presence was enough to largely derail the planned game, as it turned into a party/BS session. It was a good time. The hosts were scheduled to move out of their apartment the following weekend, but I didn't see evidence of a lot of packing. I figured that wasn't my problem, though.

After the game wrapped up, we headed back to Paul's place, and we stayed up later than perhaps was wise, chatting. Good times!

Morning came, and I left with the sun. Well, to be honest, the sun got a substantial head start on me. But at least it wasn't all that high in the sky yet. Back onto the interstate, and soon across the Massachusetts border.

The drive to New Bedford was mostly uninteresting, although I went through the heart of Providence, Rhode Island. That got slightly exciting because there's an Interstate highway realignment project going on, so both my GPS and my paper map were inaccurate. After some weaving between lanes, doubtless reinforcing the predjudices of those that saw my New York license plates, I manage to stay on-track. Part of the route was along a road that clearly sees lots of traffic on good weekends for people heading to Cape Cod. Driving along on a Tuesday morning, the hordes of gas stations and cheap motels looked somehow lonely.

Once I reached New Bedford, I checked in at my hotel, dropped off my bags, and headed for the archive, which opens at noon. The original plan was to ride my bike, see above. But the first day, time was wearing on, and I wanted to scout the route first. So off I drove.

Getting around downtown New Bedford is a nightmare. It's a warren of tiny streets, along a steep hillside, laid out in such a way as to make me believe they were intended for pedestrians only, not even horse-drawn wagons. The streets are mostly one-way, and not in a sensible alternating pattern. Streets also all change names right in the center of town, as a result of a political hissy-fight held two hundred years ago.

I finally found a parking garage, and even that took longer than expected, as the middle two floors of it were reserved for a couple of downtown businesses. Once parked, I had to ask for directions to the archive, as the helpful little tourist map I picked up at the garage's lobby was utterly useless.

I'd been warned what to expect at the archive itself. They don't want people wandering in, looking for a user-friendly museum. Most of the people that show up fall into two categories: scholars at Massachusetts universities, well-known to the staff; and retired folks looking for genealogy information, as New Bedford was Massachusetts's second-largest port of entry for immigrants in the 19th century.

So I rang the doorbell, which is disguised to keep out the riff-raff. I'm not kidding about that. After a few moments, the door was opened by a rather elderly volunteer, and I had to spend some effort convincing her that I was (a) expected, and (b) a serious researcher.

Past the gatekeeper, I put my backpack and cell phone into a locker, divested myself of every writing implement save a pencil, signed a contract specifying what I was and wasn't allowed to do, signed a logbook that will get filed somewhere and perhaps be used by researchers in the 22nd century, and was ushered into the sanctum itself.

The archive building was built as a bank, with a thirty-foot ceiling, huge windows (filmed to protect documents), and an open plan. Three-quarters of the space was the stacks and off-limits to folks like me. Somewhere in the back there are the original four vaults, still in use for the most prized documents. In the front, there were four large nicely-lit tables for visitors to work at. The archivist I'd been corresponding with came out to welcome me, assuaging the worries of the elderly volunteer who had opened the door and was still hovering, apparently worried that I was going to do something irrationally youthful at any moment.

The first day I started off with some microfilm records. Which was all good, except the last time I used a microfilm reader was 1994, in high school. It's easy to see where the film reel goes on the spindles, but the subtleties of the control scheme took me a little while to recollect and/or discover. I spent a couple of hours, sitting in an uncomfortable chair, squinting at a screen that really needed a shade from the sunlight shining on it, trying to read a charity's logbooks, written in a crabbed hand by someone that has undoubtedly been dead for a century. It was fun!

All to soon, though, the archive was closing. I'm not exaggerating about it being soon, because the archive's hours were Tuesday through Friday, noon to four PM. Budgets are tight, these days.

I found my way back to the parking garage, and was ruefully preparing to pay their exorbitant rate, when the attendant noticed my university parking hangtag. He asked to see my student ID, then charged me a single dollar. Woo hoo! I later found out that the student rate is only for students at the nearby community college and UMass Dartmouth campus. So the attendant was doing me an even bigger favor than I'd thought.

Despite dragging my bike across three states, I decided not to ride to the archive the next day. The hotel was on "State Street" which sounded nice and looked OK when I had scouted it from home via Google Maps. But "State Street" was also US-6, with traffic ripping past at 55 mph and zero shoulder. It was bikable in a certain sense, but only at substantial risk. There weren't any parallel streets I could use, either, as this is the part of New England carved out of ancient mountains, where there's no good reason to live except to avoid religious prosecution by setting up one's own system of religious prosecution.

Wednesday was more slogging in the microfilm mines. I was getting a bit dispirited, and mentioned to the archivist that I didn't think I was going to have enough time to take sufficient data down in longhand from the film. She said "You know, I think there's someone that's doing a book with the info in those. A while ago she had a big project to transcribe it all into a database. It's still embargoed, of course, but I could see if she might be willing to help you." So she sent an email off. I was torn between the hope that I was going to be saved endless hours of soul-destroying data entry, and the despair that perhaps my project had already been scooped.

Thursday I gave up on the microfilm and moved on to some original documents, these ones from Sag Harbor, NY. Late in the afternoon, the author that had supervised the transcription of all those pages I'd been looking at showed up. She was emeritus and possessed of that particular crusty personality found in those women who have survived New England for many decades. She started off by interrogating me about my project, then spent twenty minutes haranguing me about the readings I hadn't yet done, and then gave me her data upon the promise that I'd give her credit, and also not have it published before the data embargo ran out. Which, as it turns out, was the end of September. Not much of an inconvenience there.

Friday was the last day of research. I was thinking I'd dig in the records of Hawaiian crew, partially because I'm a masochist. Most of the Hawaiian sailors signed on as "John Kanaka", "George Kanaka," et cetera. "Kanaka", in a variety of different Polynesian languages, just means "man" or "person". So as you can imagine, there were a lot of John Kanakas.

But my visit was cut short. Apparently some high muckety-mucks in the foundation had decided they were going to hold some important meeting at the archive that day, because the main museum's meeting room was already booked. With fulsome apologies, the archivist threw me out. Perhaps it was for the best, as I spent the rest of the day touring the museum, seeing the Seaman's Bethel, visiting bookstores, etcetera. As I'd checked out from the hotel, my bike was on my car, and I cycled a bit around town. The biking was terrible: the streets were hilly and frequently one-way, as I've mentioned. But also, in the 1960s the city ripped out all it's nice pavement in the downtown historic district, and installed granite setts, which are stone pavers with big gaps between them. I probably did all sorts of damage to my wheels by bouncing my road tires over those nasty rocks. Growing tired of the annoying wheels, and having seen the museums,  I made an early start for home.

The plan had been for me to stop by Paul's place and spend the night again. But with an early departure from New Bedford, I converted that to a one-hour rest break and pushed on. I made it back to Buffalo just before midnight, three days before the first day of classes.

Total distance added to my car's odometer: 1386.5 miles. Also, those crummy setts broke the brake hold-down clamps on my car's rear end, which necessitated a visit to a mechanic after I decided to stop ignoring the nasty noises. The good news is that the bike didn't seem to reduce my fuel economy much, so I don't feel as bad about schlepping it around for only a two hours of riding.

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September 01, 2011

Begin As You Mean to Go On

I intend to continue commuting to class exclusively by bicycle. It's good for my health, and it's faster than driving anyway, as finding parking on campus is a nightmare.

The first day of the semester, there were sunny skies but a dark cloud on the horizon as I set out for my first class. So I tossed a windbreaker into my bag, just in case it got cool.

That dark cloud arrived much more rapidly than I was expecting. While half-way to campus, a sudden torrential downpour broke out. When I staggered into the history grad student's lounge, I was shaking with cold, and soaked to the bone. My torso, protected by the windbreaker, was only damp. My legs and feet were so soaked, my shoes squelched with every step.

It seems Mother Nature has thrown down the gauntlet, eh?

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