The inside story of The Jersey Shutdown, 2017

The Chris Christie beach memes are fun­ny of course but I talked to more than a few local res­i­dents who won­dered what the state shut­down was about. The Star Ledger has gone deep and inter­viewed the play­ers to find out just what hap­pened ear­li­er this week:

When it end­ed ear­ly on the fourth day, New Jer­sey had been treat­ed to a remark­able polit­i­cal spec­ta­cle, even by Tren­ton stan­dards, com­plete with duel­ing press con­fer­ences, nasty back­room shout­ing match­es, and even pro­pa­gan­da posters.  Some of it played out pub­licly — very pub­licly. What didn’t is told here, the inside sto­ry of what caused — and what final­ly set­tled — the New Jer­sey gov­ern­ment shut­down of 2017.

It’s espe­cial­ly depress­ing to read the kind of horse trad­ing that was going on behind the scenes: oth­er mea­sures float­ed to end the stand­off. It was a game to see which con­stituen­cy the politi­cians might all be able to agree to screw over. I pre­sume this is nor­mal Tren­ton pol­i­tics but it’s not good gov­ern­ing and the ram­i­fi­ca­tions are felt through­out the state.

Read: The inside story of The Jersey Shutdown, 2017

Recovering the past through photos

2015 looks like it’s shap­ing up to be the year that online cloud pho­to ser­vices all take a giant leapt for­ward. Just in the last few months alone, I’ve gone and dug up my ten-plus year pho­to archive from a rarely accessed back­up dri­ve (some 72 GB of files) and uploaded it to three dif­fer­ent pho­to services.

First it was Drop­box, whose Carousel app promised to change every­thing. For $10/month, I can have all of the dig­i­tized pho­tos I’ve ever tak­en all togeth­er. It changed how I access past events. Back in the day I might have tak­en 20 pic­tures and post­ed 2 to Flickr. The oth­er 18 were for all intents inac­ces­si­ble to me — on the back­up dri­ve that sits in a dusty draw­er in my desk. Now I could look up some event on my pub­lic Flickr, remem­ber the date, then head to Dropbox/Carousel to look through every­thing I took that day — all on my phone. Some­times I’d even share the whole roll from that event to folks who were there.

But this was a two-step process. Flickr itself had boost­ed its stor­age space last year but it wasn’t until recent­ly that they revealed a new Cam­era Roll and uploader that made this all work more seam­less­ly. So all my pho­tos again went up there. Now I didn’t have to jug­gle between two apps.

Last week, Google final­ly (final­ly!) broke its pho­tos from Google+ and the rem­nants of Picasa to give them their own home. It’s even more fab­u­lous than Flickr and Drop­box, in that its search is so good as to feel like mag­ic. Peo­ple, places, and image sub­jects all can be accessed with the search speed that Google is known for. And this ser­vice is free and uploads old videos.

Theo (identified by his baby nickname, "Skoochie") in a backpack as we scout for Christmas trees, December 2003.
Screen­shot of Theo (iden­ti­fied by his baby nick­name, “Skoochie”) and Julie, Decem­ber 2003.

I’m con­stant­ly sur­prised how just how emo­tion­al­ly pow­er­ful an old pho­to or video can be (I waxed lyri­cal­ly about this in Nos­tal­gia Comes Ear­ly, writ­ten just before our last fam­i­ly vaca­tion). This week­end I found a short clip from 2003 of my wife car­ry­ing our new­born in a back­pack and cit­ing how many times he had wok­en us up the night before. At the end she joked that she could guilt trip him in years to come by show­ing this video to him. Now the clip is some­thing I can find, load, and play in a few sec­onds right from my ever-present phone.

So what I’ve noticed is this quick access to unshared pho­tos is chang­ing the nature of my cell­phone photo-taking. I’m tak­ing pic­tures that I nev­er intend to share but that give me an estab­lish­ing shot for a par­tic­u­lar event: signs, dri­ve­way entrances, maps. Now that I have unlim­it­ed stor­age and a cam­era always with­in reach, I can use it as a quick log of even the most quo­tid­i­an life events (MG Siegler recent­ly wrote about The Pow­er of the Screen­shot, which is anoth­er way that quick and ubiq­ui­tous pho­to access is chang­ing how and what we save.) With GPS coor­di­nates and pre­cise times, it’s espe­cial­ly use­ful. But the most pro­found effect is not the activ­i­ty log­ging, but still the emo­tions release unlock­ing all-but-lost mem­o­ries: remem­ber­ing long-ago day trips and vis­its with old friends.

Three-fort touring

The three-fort tour from Ft Mott near Salem, New Jer­sey, to Ft Delaware on Pea Patch Island (de fac­to Delaware), to Delaware City, Delaware and adja­cent Ft DuPont.

A few weeks ago Yum­my­gal at South​jer​sey​ex​plor​er​.com wrote up a trip report on The Three Forts Fer­ry Tour. It didn’t take more than two min­utes of texts before my wife and I decid­ed we would recre­ate this.

It’s wasn’t so easy at first. I spent way too long on the park system’s web­site try­ing to fig­ure out how to board the fer­ry at Ft Mott on the New Jer­sey side. Every option I tried had me board in near­by Salem, N.J. It wasn’t till I was home that I read that the Ft Mott stop had been out of com­mis­sion until ear­ly this sum­mer because of Sandy and that Salem had been the alter­nate board­ing loca­tion. The web­site hadn’t been updated.

Once we got to the dock we saw there was no tick­et kiosk. Once the fer­ry came in we found they couldn’t swipe a cred­it card onboard (real­ly? can’t any mod­ern smart­phone han­dle that?, but I digress…). The only place they could han­dle a cred­it card was the far end, in Delaware City. We’d have to dock on Fort Delaware/Pea Patch Island but stay in the boat and con­tin­ue to this city. We’d hadn’t even real­ly planned to nec­es­sar­i­ly go to Delaware City but we end­ed up spend­ing much of our day there.

Delaware City was a small port town whose claim to fame was its loca­tion as the east­ern ter­mi­nus of the orig­i­nal nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Chesa­peake and Delaware Canal. The mod­ern canal bypass­es it a few miles to the south, so Delaware City is a bit frozen in time.

First stop: Crab­by Dick’s, one of three eater­ies rec­om­mend­ed to us (the oth­ers being a pub and an Ital­ian restau­rant). Being a veg­e­tar­i­an I don’t get into this sort of a restau­rant very often but they had veg­gie burg­ers and cre­ative sweet fries (cinnamon-covered with an apple but­ter dip – yum!). Luck­i­ly it was near­ly emp­ty around noon in a Sun­day so our trou­ble­mak­ing kids didn’t cause too much commotion.

Next door was a small ice cream shop. The tem­per­a­tures were in the 90s so this was an obvi­ous stop.

What we should have done next is wan­der the town until the next fer­ry to Pea Patch Island and its fort. One of our par­ty was deter­mined to see all three forts so we set out for Ft DuPont. It’s adja­cent to Delaware City’s dock and down­town as the crow flies. But we aren’t crows, or fish. DuPont’s on the oth­er side of the old canal. You have to walk about a mile to the first bridge that cross­es it, a rick­ety one at that, then make a sharp left to trav­el in the same direc­tion you had just come from, only on the canal’s south side.

There’s no signs for the fort. Even Yum­my­girl had got­ten lost on her trip so I knew to rely on my phone’s maps. Most of Ft DuPont’s acreage is a large cam­pus dot­ted with an odd assort­ment of run-down ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry mil­i­tary build­ings sur­round­ing an old parade field. The camp had been a major deploy­ment cen­ter dur­ing WW II and had also served as a POW camp for Ger­mans. The state’s been try­ing to repur­pose it in recent years but it’s an odd assort­ment of halfway house ser­vices and nation­al guard asso­ci­a­tions, stuck in between crum­bling build­ings that will nev­er find a new role.

At the far end of all this a nature trail going through what remains of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Ft DuPont. Walk­ing it is a bit like tour­ing a jungle-covered Aztec city: every so often a ruin sticks out of the trees and tan­gled vines. It’s an interesting-enough trail but not worth a four mile round-trip hike with four kids in 90 degree heat. We were able to beg a ride back from a park ranger fin­ish­ing her shift thank good­ness but much of our day was sit­ting under trees drink­ing the last of our water.

Back at the Delaware City fer­ry office, we bought a small for­tune of water from the vend­ing machine till the next (and final) boat to Pea Patch Island. This is typ­i­cal­ly the des­ti­na­tion of the tourists but by this time we only had about 45 min­utes before the last boat from the island to Jer­sey. We had an extra half hour as the boat wait­ed in dock for a spec­tac­u­lar storm to pass over the river.

We’ll def­i­nite­ly return but prob­a­bly skip Delaware City except for pos­si­bly a meal.


Nostalgia comes early

One of the most famous scenes in the AMC show Mad Men comes near the end of sea­son one. Kodak has asked the adver­tis­ing firm to cre­ate a cam­paign around a new slide pro­jec­tor that has a cir­cu­lar tray. Don Drap­er presents the Carousel and gives a nostalgia-steeped pre­sen­ta­tion that use his per­son­al pho­tographs to move both the Kodak execs and the view­ers at home, who know that these semi-focused pic­tures will soon be all that left of his dis­in­te­grat­ing family.

No falling apart fam­i­ly for me, but I find myself already feel­ing nos­tal­gic for a fam­i­ly vaca­tion to Dis­ney World that doesn’t start for anoth­er six days. I’ve recent­ly been look­ing through our Flickr archive of past trips (four for me) and real­ize that they are our Carousel. The start with my fiancée tak­ing a cyn­i­cal me on my first trip. Lat­er vis­its bring kids to the pho­to­graph­ic line­up: newly-found legs to run, the joys of messy ice cream, the scare of not-very-scary rides and the big eyes of parades all run through the sets.

In less than a week we’ll start a new set. There will be two new chil­dren in this one. “The babies” are both walk­ing and tod­dling and are at their peak of baby pho­to­genic cute­ness. The old­er two are real kids now and the eldest is start­ing to show ear­ly glimpses of teenage-hood: eye-rolling, exha­la­tion of air (“uh!”) to show dis­ap­proval of incon­ve­nient parental instructions.

Icon­ic fam­i­ly pic­tures will hap­pen. Since our last vis­it five years ago, my wife’s lost her father to can­cer and my mother’s been slip­ping into the for­get­ful­ness of Alzheimer’s. As the wheel of life turns it some­how becomes more pos­si­ble to see our­selves as part of the turn­ing Carousel. Some decades from now I can imag­ine myself going through these pic­tures sur­round­ed by indulging chil­dren and antsy grand­chil­dren, exclaim­ing “look how young every­one looks!”

Theo and Francis, Dec 2008
Theo (then 5) and Fran­cis (3) zonked out after a long day in 2008. Hard to believe they were ever this cuddly.


Update post-trip:

There are 104 pic­tures from this trip in our pub­lic Flickr set, with one of our four kids hold­ing hands as they walk to the pool a stand­out icon­ic shot of their child­hood together:

Visual storytelling through animated gifs and Vine

NPR’s Plan­et Mon­ey recent­ly ran an arti­cle on glass recy­cling, How A Used Bot­tle Becomes A New Bot­tle, In 6 Gifs. The Gif part is what intrigued me. A “gif” is a tightly-compressed image for­mat file that web design­ers leaned on a lot back in the days of low band­width. It’s espe­cial­ly good for designs with a few dis­creet col­ors, such as cor­po­rate logos or sim­ple car­toons. It also sup­ports a kind of prim­i­tive ani­ma­tion that was com­plete­ly overused in the late 90s to give web­pages fly­ing uni­corns and spin­ning globes.

Ani­mat­ed gifs have grown up. They make up half the posts on Tum­blr. They are often derived from fun­ny scenes in movies and come with humor­ous cap­tions. The Plan­et Mon­ey piece uses them for sto­ry­telling: text is illus­trat­ed by six gifs show­ing dif­fer­ent parts of the recy­cling process. The move­ment helps tell the sto­ry – indeed most of the shots would be visu­al­ly unin­ter­est­ing if they were static.

The short loops reminds me of Vine, the six-second video ser­vice from Twit­ter which I’ve used a lot for sil­ly kid antics. They can also tell a sim­ple sto­ry (they’re par­tic­u­lar­ly well suit­ed to repet­i­tive kid antics: up the steps, down the slide, up the steps, down the slide, up…).

In my work with Friends Jour­nal I’ve done some 7 – 12 minute video inter­views with off-site authors using Google Hang­outs, which essen­tial­ly just records the video con­ver­sa­tion. It’s fine for what we use it for, but the qual­i­ty depends a lot on the equip­ment on the oth­er end. If the band­width is low or the web­cam poor qual­i­ty, it will show, and there are few options for post-production edit­ing. But hon­est­ly, this is why I use Hang­outs: a short web-only inter­view won’t turn into a week­long project.

Pro­duc­ing high-quality video requires con­trol­ling all of the equip­ment, shoot­ing ten times more footage than you think you’ll need, and then hours of work con­dens­ing and edit­ing it down to a sto­ry. And after all this it’s pos­si­ble you’ll end up with some­thing that doesn’t get many views. Few Youtube users actu­al­ly watch videos all the way through to the end, drift­ing away to oth­er inter­net dis­trac­tions in the first few minutes.

I like the com­bi­na­tion of the sim­ple short video clips (whether Vine or ani­mat­ed gif) wed­ded to words. My last post here was the very light-weight sto­ry about a sum­mer after­noon project. Yes­ter­day, I tried again, shoot­ing a short ani­mat­ed gif of Tibetan monks vis­it­ing a local meet­ing­house. I don’t think it real­ly worked. They’re con­struct­ing a sand man­dala grain-by-grain. The small move­ments of their fun­nel sticks as sand drops is so small that a reg­u­lar sta­t­ic pho­to would suf­fice. But I’ll keep exper­i­ment­ing with the form.

Make a buck, make a buck

“There’s a lot of bad ‘isms’ float­in’ around this world, but one of the worst is com­mer­cial­ism. Make a buck, make a buck.”
–Alfred, Mir­a­cle on 34th Street (1947)

Did Thanks­giv­ing even hap­pen? Walk­ing around the neigh­bor­hood and scan­ning the store cir­cu­lars it seems more like some blip between Hal­loween can­dy and Christ­mas toys. In 1947, Alfred’s Christ­mas ism was a fast-footed sprint launched by Santa’s appear­ance at the end of the Thanks­giv­ing parade (though with all due respect for Mr Macy, for us old time Philadel­phi­ans the finale will always be a red-coated fire­man climb­ing into Gimble’s fifth floor).

What was a six week sprint for Christ­mas sales in 1947 has stretched out to the leisure­ly half-mile jog through the autumn months. Trea­cly remakes of hol­i­day stan­dards have been play­ing in malls for weeks. Box store work­ers who might have pre­ferred to spend time with their fam­i­ly on Thanks­giv­ing were pressed into ser­vice for pre-Black Fri­day sales (fed by the hype of arti­fi­cial scarci­ty, it feeds the gam­bler gene’s need for the big win). And today, serv­er farms around the coun­try are over­heat­ing to meet the demands of the lat­est retail gim­mick, the seven-year-old Cyber Mon­day (proof that cap­i­tal­ism hasn’t for­got­ten how to dream up more “make a buck” isms).

And all for what? Most of us mid­dle class Amer­i­cans have every­thing we need. What we lack isn’t the stuff that line the shelves of Wal­mart super­stores and Ama­zon dis­tri­b­u­tion cen­ters, but the us that we’re too busy to share with one another.

I love the puri­ty of ear­li­er gen­er­a­tions of Quak­ers. They point­ed­ly ignored Christ­mas, work­ing and open­ing their schools on the 25th. They would have undoubt­ed­ly skipped the com­mer­cial­ism of the mod­ern con­sumer hol­i­day. But I’m not will­ing to go that far. In our fam­i­ly Thanks­giv­ing and Christ­mas is a time of togeth­er­ness and sea­son­al habits–tag­ging the Christ­mas tree, Sweetzel’s spiced wafers, mak­ing cook­ies and pies, vis­it­ing fam­i­ly. When I was young, my moth­er made a framed col­lage of my annu­al pho­tos with San­ta, and while it once fas­ci­nat­ed me as a doc­u­ment of San­ta vari­a­tions, now the inter­est is watch­ing myself grow up. Today, our family’s Flickr col­lec­tion of Christ­mas rou­tines shows that same pas­sage of time. None of us need fall into the Hal­loThanks­Mas sea­son of make-a-buck-ism to find joy in togetherness.