Living in Society

Archiving Twitter

DPRK Twitter Image

I heard about the Library of Congress partnership with Twitter to archive all of Twitter, past, present and future since its launch in 2006. I hadn’t heard the project went bust with insufficient funding in 2017. Too many tweets, one presumes.

Should we care? We should, but not because there is profound knowledge on Twitter.

Yes, noted scholars create multi-tweet threads with reasoned arguments, citations, and links to references. Yet what role does that play in advancing learning? The potential audience seems limited on Twitter. Wouldn’t the same argument inform more effectively in a newspaper, blog, or scholarly journal? It would be more targeted, for sure. Such targeting would garner better impact on learning than the transitory ephemera of Twitter..

News writers use tweets as a source of quotations from prominent people. A quote is a quote, I guess. It’s easy, which prompts the related sentence, “they are lazy.” What point are they making? Why not get an actual quote from a news maker? I know the answer: access is easier on Twitter. Definition of the word “access” is peculiar here.

With hundreds of millions of tweets per day, who could read all of that to glean valuable content? Some form of artificial intelligence or tweet-bot, maybe. Not a human. I can’t think of who would want to review all of that. I hardly look at my own tweets from yesterday, let alone something I posted in 2008. There are three hundred million or more tweets per day.

If a user considers their universe in Twitter, a time line can be carefully curated. It is only within this curation that any of it has much meaning. Archiving Twitter would seem to preserve little of that personal vantage point. Tweets are a fungible commodity only to the extent an individual user loses their individuality. We Americans resist that.

The role for libraries and archives with regard to Twitter and other social media platforms is to push governments to define better laws regarding collection, archiving, and ownership of our posting. As the example of Cambridge Analytica during the recent presidential election illustrates, there were few rules about scraping the internet to collect detailed voter information and using the aggregated data to influence the election. At what point does that become an illegal invasion of privacy? The answer hasn’t been defined and doing so falls in the wheelhouse of people who spend their lives compiling archives of information and documents.

When we examine the history of libraries and archives, my bet is as much that was important has been lost as was saved. I think of the Protestant Reformation and its raiding of libraries and archives to destroy the physical records of the Catholic Church. There are plenty of other examples. Regarding Twitter, if the Library of Congress can’t preserve it, then who can and to what end?

With planetary warming, we may not have to trouble ourselves with these questions for much longer. If archives exist to tell the story of humanity’s demise to beings living multiple millennia from now, there is no point. Like us, I doubt future such beings will be much interested in those billions of tweets.


Into a Mine Shaft

Detail of the USGS quadrant map for coal mining in Bureau/LaSalle County, Illinois. There were three coal seams in the Cherry mine, the deepest at 485 feet.

A Twitch-TV streamer played Minecraft in the background as I worked on daily rushes about… coal mining. From there I descended into the mines, at least figuratively, for several hours.

My maternal grandfather mined coal in Bureau and LaSalle Counties in Illinois for at least 30 years that we know. Besides family lore and my interactions with him while young, I knew little about this aspect of his life. He was the guy from Illinois, no longer married to Grandmother, who gave me a handful of pennies each time he visited. Coal mining was a much bigger deal than I thought in the basin of the Illinois River in Central Illinois.

The Saint Paul Coal Company operated the Cherry mine in Bureau County, one of the places Grandfather worked. The company was established in Illinois in 1902 and owned two mine properties in 1909, the year of the Cherry Mine disaster in which 259 men and boys died. The mine operated on 7,217 acres of land, producing about 300,000 tons of coal annually with a daily capacity of 1,500 tons.

Because of the mining disaster, a significant amount of documentation exists, including the 96-page report on the disaster from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At this writing, the Cherry Mine disaster remains the third most deadly in American coal mining history. Grandfather first showed up as a miner on the 1910 U.S. Census in LaSalle County, old enough to have worked at the Cherry Mine during that period.

Rushes are the first draft of a section of my book. My process is to take a topic, typically a couple of paragraphs, and write rushes which will be heavily edited before being added to the draft of my autobiography. It gives me a chance to refine what I want to say without mucking up the main draft of my work. So far the process has served.

I decided the chapter about my maternal grandparents’ early days needed historical background. In a couple of ways, the mining history of LaSalle and Bureau Counties depicts a similar lure of wage work that attracted many European immigrants to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This includes my maternal great, great grandfather, who mined coal in Allegheny, Pennsylvania after arriving from partitioned Poland in the 1880s. My paternal grandfather mined coal in the early 20th Century in Southwestern Virginia, although his ancestors were well established in the United States by then.

I found a history of Saint Hyacinth’s Church in LaSalle, written on the occasion of their diamond jubilee in 1950. Established in 1875 by a community of mostly Polish and German immigrants, it is named for the saint, a Polish Dominican priest and missionary who worked to reform women’s monasteries in his native Poland in the 13th Century. The Polish exclamation Święty Jacku z pierogami! (“St. Hyacinth and his pierogi!”) is an old-time saying, a call for help in some hopeless circumstance. Pierogi was a constant topic of discussion during family visits to our relatives in LaSalle. It likely remains available there. According to family lore recorded on, My great grandparents contributed to establishment of the Saint Hyacinth cemetery where they and Grandfather are buried.

I started the day’s research late morning and the next thing I knew, it was time to start dinner. It wanted pierogi, yet we had to settle for enchiladas. I’m not finished with this topic yet.


What is a Home Library?

Snapshot of part of my home library

The place where I write is surrounded with books. There are more books in the next room, in boxes and piled on tables. There are shelves of books in the garage. There are documents going back to the 1950s. There are also boxes of artifacts. What is all this stuff?

To call it a library is not quite accurate. It is a collection of things, yet only in the loosest sense of the word. I set up my desk when we moved in, the same place it is today, before electricity was connected to the structure. Things collected here the way flotsam washes to shore. There is little agency in the word “collection” as applied to my place.

“Archives” doesn’t get it right either. In a corner is a tree trunk from the pine tree that grew outside my window during the 1960s. On top of it I pile each bill as it comes in and is paid. The stack of papers is 16 inches tall. When someone wants a document, I say it is filed on the stump. A stump is not a filing system, they say. I don’t argue the point.

As a newly minted septuagenarian I’m concerned with a couple of things.

When I die, I want people to be able to find relevant things, such as my will, whether I paid the last electricity bill, the title to the automobile, and a list of my computer passwords: an archive of the exigency of now. This is a given, it exists, and can be improved upon.

There are too many books to read or to pass on to someone else to sort through. A sorting has begun. A library is a place to find something specific. As needs change, so should the contents. Getting rid of many books and papers is common courtesy to my survivors. I try to be courteous. It is difficult to find things if I’ve forgotten what I have. This can be a problem when considering what I leave behind.

Mainly I want quick access to books and papers I need for my writing. Egads! I’m not there and time’s a wasting! Archival materials would describe this if I had taken time to archive everything, which I have not. I’d like to get the collection to a manageable size, one that would fit in a single room. Once I get there I may call it a home library and be justified in doing so. For the time being, it is what it is and the word “library” is not an accurate fit.

It is a place to work. A place of my own. That will have to suffice for now.


Writer’s Week #1

I discarded worn hats and pulled these out. Spring styling has begun.

It was a good week for my autobiography.

I made steady progress on re-writing the first four chapters. The time was about ten to one editing over writing. The most difficult challenge is getting the narrative right so it is honest and understandable. I located key documents I’d forgotten. I also created one empty banker’s box. That last part is particularly rewarding for a retiree with too much stuff.

There was a file with old resumes in it, including a Statement of Personal History (DD Form 398) I completed in 1982 or 1983. It includes every job I held and every address I had from birth. That will be useful in creating a time line. A quick glance revealed a number of inaccuracies. I know more now about my life than I did when I was living it, which seems normal.

Importantly, I located the family history documents Mother provided about my paternal line. It is a set of genealogy forms with a lot of information completed. This makes the process easier. Like with every documentation, there are some mistakes and omissions. I can fill in the blanks if I choose. I debate whether to tamper with the originals and have thus far mostly left them as is.

In 1983, we made a long automobile trip from Iowa City to Saint Louis; Evansville, Indiana; Wise County, Virginia; and then to Philadelphia to visit friends and relatives. It was a sort of second wedding trip after our first one to Chicago in December 1982. I located my journal entries from the trip, in which I recorded the interaction with my Uncle Gene when he traveled from Florida to Wise County to be with us. He explained his family life in and around Glamorgan, Virginia where he and Father were born. The journal will help. I may quote most of it directly as it tells the story as well as anything I could write now.

Uncle Gene also took us to some of the home places, including a parcel of land described as “lying and being in Wise County, Virginia on the waters of Guests River in the Rocky Fork section of the Gladewell Magisterial District.” This property, called Rocky Fork by family, goes way back. We explored it during the visit.

I spent considerable time thinking about the 1920s and 1930s this week. I’m reading a book called Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore. It recounts the history of use of the element radium in manufacturing consumer goods, and the impact of radioactivity on workers. The radium girls literally glowed from toxic radium contamination.

Part of the Radium Girls narrative presents the history of The Radium Dial Company, founded in 1917 in Ottawa, LaSalle County, Illinois. It supported what became the Western Clock Company in 1919, featuring the Westclox brand. Radium Dial Company made watch dials painted by hand with radium so they would glow in the dark. The Westclox manufacturing plant was in Peru, LaSalle County, Illinois.

In the book there are two references to Starved Rock, which is where my maternal grandmother worked when she arrived in LaSalle County from Minnesota about 1925. It was a place for group outings for the radium girls and others. I hadn’t considered the broader context of LaSalle County in my autobiography, but now I am. Reading this book was a breakthrough.

As Moore points out, not everyone had automobiles at that time. Likewise, there was radio but no television. People mainly got news from each other, and from newspapers. For a historian, newspapers make it relatively easy to follow coverage of major stories like the one of the court cases of the radium girls.

This led me to think about how I gather news.

We need news, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, yet always. First priority is news about key family members, which is mostly sourced from networks of family and friends. After that, we seek news about what could impact our daily lives. How we gather news changed since the 1920s and during my lifetime. It will likely continue to change.

Our family tuned the television to watch the Huntley-Brinkley Report for news during my formative years. With theme music from the second movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, it had a weighty feel. News stories were told in direct, clear language. It catered to what passed for adults back then. It went off the air the summer after I graduated high school.

We subscribed to local Davenport newspapers, the Times-Democrat and the Catholic Messenger. In eighth grade we had a project to read and clip newspaper articles into a scrapbook. I got an A on the project. I was a paperboy who delivered the Times-Democrat in our neighborhood yet hardly read it except for a school project.

In graduate school we watched KWWL-TV news when we had a chance. They had opened a news bureau in Cedar Rapids which featured a recent college graduate, Liz Mathis. Mathis is currently running for Congress. I can’t recall when I stopped watching television news. It was long ago.

Today the day begins reading newspapers. I subscribe to online editions of the Washington Post, Cedar Rapids Gazette, Iowa City Press Citizen, and Solon Economist. Each of them informs me from a different part of the community. I’m a member of Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Arms Control Association, and the Climate Reality Project. Each of these sources provides specialized news. I subscribe to the governor’s press releases, to the county supervisors and public health news releases, and to a number of political office holder newsletters, including people who represent me in the Iowa legislature and the Congress. Lastly, I follow news reporters on Twitter. One exercises caution in picking them. I read their biographies and some of their work before following. There are a lot of great people writing relevant news stories about contemporary society if one is lucky enough to find them.

I had a good writing week and felt like sharing. Thanks for reading.


Is What People Say Real?

Wise County, Virginia Civil War Group

I’ve been reading more obituaries lately, partly because of my main writing project, and partly because as I age, long-time friends and acquaintances are passing. Survivors put the best face on the deceased in an obituary. That is okay. I wrote a draft of my own obituary to make it easier on my survivors. Not everyone does it and that’s okay, too.

As a proof reader at the local weekly newspaper I edited the obituary section. Mostly, they needed work in terms of format, grammar and punctuation. It was easy to tell when a funeral home used a template. I tried to make them grammatically adequate and positive regarding the life of the deceased. It was a minor part of the job yet I enjoyed it. No one ever complained.

An obituary requires specific information and it should all be accurate: birth date, death date, and if married, a wedding date. Survivors are a nice addition, yet we don’t need to read the names of all the great, great grandchildren or pets. Spouse, children, parents, siblings and partners, if any, are enough. The author should mention a career although an obituary is not a resume. What the deceased did in retirement is good if they were lucky enough to live so long. The obituary should make the deceased stand out without portraying them as being too highfalutin or better than everyone else.

Instead of “devoted wife,” I’d like to read how impossible the marriage was because she was a shrew. I’d also like to hear how the husband spent all his time at the bar after work improving the cirrhosis of his liver. I don’t suppose my wishes will be granted.

Military service is typically mentioned, although is not really necessary. Uniformed service is nothing special unless one served in a combat zone. I read this in an obituary about someone I had been with twice. The header was “Another of the ‘Greatest Generation’ has passed.”

How fitting that his death came in alignment with Veteran’s Day, for he was a true patriot. He is a decorated veteran of World War II, having been awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals for his actions during combat operations in the Ardennes Forest, known as the Battle of the Bulge. He was an infantryman in the 23rd Armored Infantry Battalion, 7th Armored Division, and fought across Belgium in the winter of 1944-45.

If they had mentioned it while living, I may have thanked them for their service and talked about General Anthony McAuliffe’s negotiations with the Germans in the Ardennes. McAuliffe told them “nuts,” in case you forgot or didn’t know. I might have mentioned my own trip to the Battle of the Bulge site during the 1970s.

Where this ramble is going is whether what people say about each other is real. It is as real as it can be, I believe. At the same time, I read accounts of history in which there is no agreement over simple things. Spelling of the name of a person can vary radically. Dates were not the forte of 19th Century rural communities. Everyone knew at the time when someone was born, yet when a relative made it to the county seat to have the birth recorded, time could pass and with it some of the specifics.

When it comes to public events, vagary is endemic. In the case of the 1927 lynching of Leonard Woods in Pound Gap between Jenkins, Kentucky and Pound, Virginia. There are multiple stories of what happened and depending upon to whom one listens there are many interpretations. What stands out to me is the local sheriffs did not write down a single license plate number of the hundreds of vehicles driven and parked at the site of the lynching. Sometimes people don’t want to say what happened.

I couldn’t find a Leonard Woods obituary. The text on the historical marker placed on Oct. 16 2021 will serve:

Leonard Woods Lynched — Leonard Woods, a black coal miner from Jenkins, Kentucky, was lynched near here on the night of 29-30 Nov. 1927. Officers had arrested Woods for allegedly killing Herschel Deaton, a white man from Coeburn, Virginia, and had taken him to the Whitesburg, Kentucky, jail. On the day of Deaton’s funeral, a white mob numbering in the hundreds broke into the jail and brought Woods close to this spot, where they hanged, shot and burned him. No one was ever arrested. In the aftermath, at the urging of Norfolk editor Louis Jaffé, Norton’s Bruce Crawford, and other journalists, Virginia Gov. Harry F. Byrd worked with the General Assembly early in 1928 to pass the nation’s first law defining lynching as a state crime.


From what I’ve read, these words are true. They are not the whole story and maybe that’s my point. The historical society put the best face on this murder. I want to know the rest of the story.


Walkabout #4

Hydrant near the village well.

I unlocked the door to the village well for two technicians. Today’s task was short: they drew raw water samples from the Silurian aquifer for analysis. We didn’t chat much. I stayed outdoors while they worked because the coronavirus is surging.

It has been cold with about six inches of snow on the ground. I stay on paths that have been cleared so I don’t turn an ankle. That means I started a compost bucket in the garage until the path to the composter near the garden is clear. Winter is just beginning. We are heading into a cold spell with subzero temperatures forecast the rest of the week.

There are limits to how long I can work at my writing table. I acquired provisions to last two weeks during a trip to a local commercial center. Maskless minions were everywhere. Luckily, there were few of them out early in the morning and I could avoid them. Bloomberg is reporting the U.S. today exceeded one million COVID infections in 24 hours, doubling the figure from just four days ago and setting a global record.

I appreciate being able to go on walkabout. Even if it is only to visit the village well.


Writing Autobiography

Working copy of my autobiography.

Starting an autobiography is easy. Finishing it… is something else.

I began my autobiography a dozen times over a period of decades, and each time it found no conclusion. Last year, while making substantial progress, I had an epiphany. I had no idea what the process should be. I start 2022 with a work plan to remedy that.

Process became a collection of things.

At first I sat and wrote about whatever came to mind, about 150,000 words in 2021. I merged this writing into a single document (with multiple backups). After all that writing, I determined another, better method was needed to write. Too much of the blogger in me was coming out in my daily writing.

I had to get a better plan written down. I began with 3 x 5 inch index cards in a rough outline of topics, one per card. I made a Word document with a more detailed outline. It included most of what was on the cards and more. Finally, after a year of writing, I wrote a Word document called “big sections” which is a list of the chapter headings. I printed it out and placed it on my white board. The big sections will change going forward, yet I developed a way to add topics as the meaning of them was discovered or developed. It took last year’s writing experience to sort out what I would include in the finished product in the form of chapter headings.

As written on Dec. 16, 2021, I made a shelf of three-ring binders to contain my rough draft. I set aside my 2021 draft document and began a new rough draft which I expect to print and place in the binders. The binders have become a storage place for documents and writing I find along the way. As I write the 2022 draft, documents in the binders will be used as reference. I expect the number of binders to increase as writing proceeds, with the printed draft in front of each chapter heading and source documents behind it.

A main challenge is to follow Robert Caro’s advice to turn every page. At present I don’t know where all those pages reside. I organized my collection of personal journals beginning with school work in 1966. I have a shelf of books which contains my blog writing since 2007. I also placed the letters written to Mother from her estate in three-ring binders. There is a significant trove of emails in electronic form dating to 1999. In a pile on a table are stacks of clippings of opinion pieces, letters written to the editor, and articles I wrote as a freelance journalist. These documents alone are a lot.

What is more challenging is the many boxes of documents and artifacts stored throughout the house. I haven’t counted, yet there are scores of them. They settled in beginning when we moved here in 1993, and I can’t say what is in them with specificity. The way they exist is not in usable form, so I’ll have to open and go through them.

I developed a discovery process to interface with source material. The idea is to methodically go through everything to decide whether it goes in the autobiography, will be stored elsewhere, or discarded. If a particular container is useful to the autobiography, I’ll write about what is in it.

The format will be what I call “rushes,” a name taken from daily rushes in the film days of motion picture making. I’ll encounter an artifact and if applicable, will write a rush, and then edit and place the rushes into the main autobiographical document. I’ve been writing rushes since the beginning of last year. This formalizes what I’ve already been doing.

Along the way, I will edit the main draft of the autobiography for continuity, grammar, spelling, and better word choices. Once the whole document is done, and I’ve examined all the artifacts, true editing will begin. This will lead to eventual publication of the work in an undetermined format, although it likely will be both on paper and in electronic format.

The first year of writing my autobiography felt productive. What I learned makes me optimistic about progress this year. I don’t know if I’ll finish the first draft this year. I know it will be better than the draft I produced in 2021. There is clarity about process, better than there was. Like any process, it will be subject to improvement as I write and learn.


Looking Forward

The author at age five weeks with my baptismal sponsors, Aunt Winnie and Uncle Bill.

Today I am officially a septuagenarian. Deep in memories of the previous 70 years, on this day, my birthday, I’m looking forward.

Blessed with good health, I can see 80 from here. 90 is too far ahead for clarity. The goal is to make the best use of my time before shuffling off this mortal coil.

I have no profound thoughts or statements upon turning 70. It is another day to accomplish things. I may accomplish taking a nap after lunch. Priorities change with age.

Yesterday, for the third year in a row, this blog passed 12,000 views. While I’m not running a major outlet here, I am grateful to everyone who finds me and spends time reading what I wrote.

My best wishes for the next ten years. There is so much to do before the final curtain call.

Living in Society

List of Things — 2021

A vegan Christmas dinner, 2021.

The year began with the Jan. 6 attempt by President Trump and his supporters to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Those events confronted us with the possibility the work of our founders, to create a society built on new foundations contrary to a monarchy, may fail. It was a sobering realization, even if insurrection leaders were pathetically unskilled at insurrection. After Biden was sworn in, he got to work and the economy came roaring back. We are not out of the woods yet.

On my Christmas morning walkabout the air was quiet and still. Scarcely a sound besides birds. Normal background noise of traffic on surrounding highways was silent. Ambient temperatures were in the forties and winds calm. It was a peaceful time to be with family.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic we did not travel to be with our child at Christmas this year. We joined their festivities via video conference and met some new friends. I’m not sure who came up with the idea yet it was a good one.

We spent the morning sleeping in and doing individual things around the house. After noon we joined in the kitchen to make our vegan Christmas feast. According to the scale this morning I lost one pound overnight. There will be leftovers all week.

As year’s end approaches taking stock is important. Here is a list of the most significant events of the year:

  • Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection.
  • Coronavirus pandemic entered its second calendar year and persisted.
  • Served as president of the home owners association and secretary of the sewer district.
  • Wrote at least 1,000 words of my autobiography per day through April.
  • Worked at Sundog Farm in the spring.
  • Twice served as a Climate Reality Leadership Corps mentor.
  • Helped Jon Green get elected as a Johnson County Supervisor.
  • Donated excess garden produce to the local food pantry.
  • Trip to Boone, Iowa to visit my sister-in-law.
  • Trip to Orlando, Florida to help our child move to Illinois.
  • Covered Blog for Iowa editor’s summer time off.
  • Walked in the Coralville Independence Day parade.
  • Two family trips to visit our child in their new apartment. They visited us, too.
  • Became a single automobile family.
  • Worked through a manganese contamination at the community well.
  • Tooth extraction #14. Decided to leave the gap.
  • Covered the Solon School Board election on this blog.
  • Wrote a series of posts about carbon capture and sequestration for Blog for Iowa.
  • Grew net worth by seven percent.
  • Read 54 books.
  • Successfully increased garden production.

Time passes quickly these days. We grasp today, only to soon let it go into the drift of society. Luckily, with some focus, I got a few things done in 2021.

Living in Society

Retro Post – Christmas Morning

Christmas coffee mug.

(First posted on Dec. 25, 2007, during the first year I wrote a blog. Lightly edited because I couldn’t stand some of my previous usage).

The meaning of Christmas is derived from my remembrance of priests at Holy Family Catholic Church in Davenport genuflecting while reading John 1:14 “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us…”

There are many translations of this verse and the idea that an omniscient God would take human form remains a compelling idea. In order for our lives to have meaning, we should live them as Jesus did, through acts in human society.

If Jesus was the incarnate God, we are something less.

If the meaning of Christmas can be found in John 1:14, how should that affect us with our imperfections?

My Christmas story is about the coffee cup that we keep in our bins of Christmas decorations. It was a gift from my spouse and printed in the glaze are five reindeer around a typewriter consulting on a message. The reindeer at the keyboard has a red nose, and must be Rudolf. On the other side of the mug are misspelled the words “Merry Christmas,” presumably typed by Rudolf. At some point I chipped the cup and each year we discuss whether we should get rid of it because of the chip. I have always said no, although I should probably let go. The chipped cup with the animals trying to put a message into human language using human technology has become part of our Christmas tradition. Because it is so similar to the meaning of Christmas, I have trouble letting go of it. We have always ended up keeping the cup and I am using it now to hold the coffee I made this morning.

We humans can use some coffee on Christmas morning, and we need to put it in something.

Merry Christmas reader!