Databases in the news

The New York Times has two interesting articles about online databases being used to track campaign financing and Iraq war casualties. The web has made it possible to access information like this with a depth not possible before.

The first item, pictured above, is a graphical and interactive map of how the presidential candidates are doing in the campaign fund-raising race. Click on a candidate's name in the list and the map is redrawn to show where their money support is coming from (the bigger the circle, the more money raised). You can also see who donated and how much they gave from individual zip codes. For instance, my zip code has no Clinton donors but several for Obama.

Turning data into a graphical format like this reminds me of the work of Hans Rosling (see a previous blog entry here) who mines U.N. data in a similar way. Rosling's work shows how our notions of the world are frequently wrong.

The second item is a story about how people are using databases and web sites to track military deaths in the Iraq war and honor the dead. There are links to the sites in the story. Several of the sites attempt to connect a photo and a story to each military death in Iraq and Afghanistan (New York Times stories are typically available free for only a week so look fast).

The use of these types of databases was a big topic at the Society of News Design's annual conference last summer. Offering access to databases like these allows readers to dig up information that is most interesting and relevant to them. The question is whether people will take the time to dig through these sites and whether they will be able to make sense of the data once they've found it.

Amazing stuff.


Kurt Vonnegut is dead

Kurt Vonnegut has died at age 84. He suffered brain damage after a fall several weeks ago and never recovered.

This is all incredibly sad. Vonnegut was one of those people I think should be granted immortality (although he would have turned that gift down flat).

I read my first Vonnegut novel, "Slaughterhouse-Five," when I was in high school. The movie was coming out and I was going to see it with friends. It was a revelation to read, with its giddy time travel structure and its sharp moral outrage over war and the stupidity of much of what humans do on this planet. Plus, it was funny as hell.

Vonnegut was instantly the great, crazy uncle every high school and college kid wished he had. I gobbled up a bunch of his early novels and stories but, sad to admit, haven't read him in the years since. He had done his job for me and countless others, making us aware of the insanity and sheer daffiness of much of modern life. You really do look at things through a Vonnegut lens after reading him.

Maybe it's time to catch up with him. Farewell, Mr. Vonnegut. And so it goes.

The New York Times has a long obit here. There's also a collection of Times' reviews of his books plus articles he wrote for the Times.

Salon offers a clip of Vonnegut reading from "Slaughterhouse-Five" here.

NPR has a bunch of clips of past interviews.


Fort Apache

I've been slowly working my way through the excellent DVD boxed set of John Wayne/John Ford movies that came out last summer. Ford was the director and Wayne was the star of these films, which range from Ford's classic Westerns ("She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," "The Searchers," "Stagecoach") to military films ("The Wings of Eagles," "They Were Expendable") and even a piece by Eugene O'Neill ("The Long Voyage Home").

Last night, I watched one of the Westerns, "Fort Apache," for the first time. Although it's not the best of Ford's Westerns, it's still quite good with an unexpectedly serious message about the arrogance and corruption of power and the importance of tradition and loyalty. Like Ford's last Western, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," it focuses on the truth behind the legend and how that truth is often at odds with how history records events.

"This is the West, sir," says the newspaper man in "Liberty Valance. "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

In "Fort Apache," the legend in the making is Lt. Col. Owen Thursday, a stiff, by-the-book West Point graduate, played coldly against type by Henry Fonda (pictured above). Thursday has been posted to remote Fort Apache much against his wishes. He's determined to return to prominence by turning what he sees as a sloppy post into a model of obedience and regulation.

Fonda is brilliant and frightening as the isolated and arrogant Thursday. He clashes repeatedly with Wayne's Capt. Kirby York, a realist who understands the Army's complex relationship with the Apache Indians in a way Thursday never will. When York attempts to broker a truce with Cochise, the Apache chief, Thursday uses the trust between the two men to lay a trap and lure the tribe back to U.S. soil where it will be forced to return to its reservation.

When Wayne protests that he gave Cochise his word that he would be unharmed, Thursday brushes his concerns aside: "Your word to a breech-clouted savage? An illiterate, uncivilized murderer and treaty-breaker? There's no question of honor, sir, between an American officer and Cochise."

Later, when York tries to warn Thursday that he is leading the troop into a trap laid by Cochise, Thursday won't hear it. He relieves York of his command for being unwilling to lead the charge. "There's no room in this regiment for a coward," Thursday says. Thursday's charge turns in to a slaughter. But the Army, and history, unwilling to accept such blundering, turns Thursday into a hero. And York has to go along with it. How can you argue with a legend?

As he did in "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," Ford ends with a salute to the average soldiers who suffer and die not for glory or fame but because it's their job (Wayne gets the following speech):
"The pay is thirteen dollars a month; their diet: beans and hay. Maybe horsemeat before this campaign is over. Fight over cards or rotgut whiskey, but share the last drop in their canteens. The faces may change ... the names ... but they're there: they're the regiment ... the regular army ... now and fifty years from now."
A year later, in "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," Ford directed a similar speech (that time spoken by the narrator):
"So here they are: the dog-faced soldiers, the regulars, the fifty-cents-a-day professionals ... riding the outposts of a nation. From Fort Reno to Fort Apache -- from Sheridan to Startle -- they were all the same: men in dirty-shirt blue and only a cold page in the history books to mark their passing. But wherever they rode -- and whatever they fought for -- that place became the United States."
No doubt, Ford's World War II service in the Navy informed his view of the "dog soldiers" who suffered, sweat, bled and died while their superiors got fame and honors.

"Fort Apache" shows Ford maturing in to a serious filmmaker able to take a popular genre and populate it with complex themes. Its portrait of a commander insulated from reality who blunders into a military disaster is even more relevant today than when the film was made in 1948.

Maybe it's time for a remake.