Sunday, October 24, 2010

From dirt to dust.

I have completely neglected my blog posts this month, and though some might see my justification for it as a cheap excuse, I’m willing to throw to my readers to gauge their long-term support over these snags. “Snags” is probably an understatement, but for the past few weeks I have been preoccupied with preparations for a new job in Afghanistan, most likely at a US Air Force base there. I left my temporary home in Biloxi earlier last week, and I have been typing this document on a plane to Florida as my week of orientation begins, to be followed by the arduous flight halfway across the globe.

Though I am thrilled about the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead in this new job, it does place my blog in limbo. I remain committed to discovering new landscapes and exploring the built environment, but my focus has remained doggedly within US boundaries. I put “American” in the blog with a clear purpose in mind; I had to narrow the scope to some degree. But I will not likely spend much time on American soil for the next year, and this distance from home leads me to question how much time I’ll be able to spend on American Dirt. Yet I still have dozens of potential topics for posting, enough to sustain the blog during this sojourn. Unfortunately, the demands of the new job will give me even less time than I have had throughout October, and my Internet connectivity might be meager by Western standards. I will continue American Dirt, but the rate of posting for the months ahead may be more akin to this October (2 or 3 posts a month) rather than the prolific months of 2009.

Friends and supporters have helped my ambivalence about how to continue: many encourage me to blog about Afghanistan, regardless of my initial goals with American Dirt. And since most of my time will be spent on US bases there (probably Bagram AFB), it wouldn’t entirely deviate from my thematic focus to feature articles and analyses—the built environment will remain fundamentally American. However, I fear the blog could tread dangerously close to a series of real-time journal entries, which has never been my intention or desire. I’m also a bit constrained by conflicts of interest and national security, regarding how much I can elaborate upon what I see there.

Thus, I intend to find balance in this transition from Dirt to Dust. The thematic core of American Dirt will occupy much of my blogging activity at this URL over the next year, with articles and observations very much akin to what I have featured in the past. But I will occasionally deviate with Dust—a term I use to describe any Afghan observations, most of which will likely dominate with photos until I determine the propriety of writing full analytical pieces. I choose the word “Dust” not just because of its good alliterative qualities when paired with dirt, but because dust ostensibly is a prevailing part of the Afghan way of life: a gossamer powder, not unlike talcum, which settles onto everything (hopefully not the innards of my computer).

Stay tuned in the months ahead, for although the posting frequency may be a bit sparse, I should more than compensate through an unconventional approach at reconciling landscapes both domestic and foreign.

And thanks, as always, for your readership and support.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dividing the loyalties at the bumper.

While I continue to sift through articles and scholarship on neighborhood associations in my free time, I’ve come to realize I’ve let the posts lag a bit too much. So I offer a quick rumination on a topic I love but haven’t featured much: license plates. Some states doggedly adhere to a certain design over the years; Minnesota and Delaware come to mind for offering the same appearance for the standard plate for as long as I can remember. Other states refresh their plate design routinely: Ohio, Indiana, and Mississippi generally feature a new look every two to three years. In addition, some states only offer a few specialty plates; again, Minnesota and Delaware seem particularly consistent in this regard. They may offer plates for veterans and environmentalists, but the variety is relatively limited. Indiana and Mississippi, again, offer so many designs that it’s hard even to identify the standard.

But now I must provide a quick snapshot from a license plate I have only seen twice—once in New Orleans and once (here below) in Gulfport. Chances are slim that it’s from the same car, but it’s hard to imagine there are too many other examples of these out there:

This strikes me as among the strangest specialty plates that a state can offer: one featuring a university (Louisiana State) that differs from the parent state featured on the plate (Mississippi)! I can certainly understand states offering plates for alums from the key university in state, but why would a state offer plates with the logo and motto of one of the most prominent rivals? While I’m sure this isn’t the only example—the Plateshack website above features a Delaware specialty with the West Virginia University logo—this is the only example I have seen in person. Louisiana and Mississippi share a border of more than two hundred miles, much of it focused upon the nation’s most prominent river. Their shared cultural ties to the Deep South are unquestioned. And it probably is more common for a Louisiana State University alum to live in Mississippi than, say, Vermont. But the Academic Common Market from the Southern Regional Education Board reveals a significant number of reciprocal agreements for academic programs between the two states: thus, a resident of Mississippi can enroll in certain departments at LSU and still only pay in-state tuition.

It may be bold to say that this spirit of cooperation extends to Departments of Motor Vehicles, but Mississippi most likely does not owe Louisiana enough to feature the Pelican State’s pre-eminent state university on the back of cars licensed and registered in the Magnolia State. But clearly it happens, and I’m sure a keen eye would find a car that features the opposite—a Mississippi university on a Louisiana plate. The culture of license plates’ design and content seems to be shifting away from centralized, authoritarian control across the country, as increasingly more flexible, diverse plate designs add to the aesthetic palette, even in comparatively staid plate states like Minnesota. A simple search for Department of Motor Vehicles yields privately owned sites like these, suggesting that the private sector passively allows some mild outsourcing of this branch of government. We may eventually get to the point where the combined culture of (increasingly popular) vanity plates and specialized designs work to eliminate the significance of a state’s original or flagship plate. If states continue to feature content from their neighbors just as Mississippi has, it could over time erode the significance of identifying cars by their parent state. I know this is a complete stretch, but it may even become meaningless altogether to list the state name on a car—the plate number and the design could be enough. As long as the plates retain a high degree of individuality it would hardly seem to disrupt the cultural order: after all, what better place for Americans to announce to the world their emotions, vocations, and ideals than on their bumpers?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Midpoint assessment (spatially).

A few weeks prior, I managed to achieve what would have seemed to me unthinkable when I started this blog 15 months ago: a blog entry featuring my 25th state. Upon featuring an article on airport security in Roanoke, Virginia, I had officially covered half of the US states. Obviously, from looking at the spread of articles, some of these states figure more prominently in the blog than others; it is clear that I have spent a good amount of the past two years in Indiana and Louisiana. And, of course, the fact that these articles explore half the states hardly means I have come even close to covering half of the country’s land area. The nation’s 3,141 counties (or county equivalents) offer at least a somewhat more pointillistic way of surveying the land, and I have only covered about 2.2% of them. And, as anyone scanning the featured states in my blog can quickly see, the West remains virtually completely untapped. Featuring more Western landscapes remains a goal of mine, but my familiarity with the region leaves something to be desired; I haven’t visited California in 13 years.

But leave it to me to sell myself short, even as I try to promote the blog. The intense work load is unlikely to let up soon, which prevents me from posting as frequently as I’d like, as well as devoting time to get the word out. But that hasn’t stopped me from enrolling my blog in Google Analytics to learn the stats regarding my blog's viewership. Unfortunately my subscription has been spotty since I first enrolled in December 2009; I unwittingly terminated my enrollment in April of 2010 when I changed the blog’s template. I finally realized the error of my ways in early August of this year, but the three months in which my Google Analytics tracker was down will remain a mystery. Nonetheless, here are the most critical observations at this point in covering 50% of the states (if hardly 50% of America):

- My most popular blog articles have surprised me, since they usually aren’t among the most commented upon. The persistent success of Indianapolis’ Greenwood Park Mall is my third most viewed site; the unusual skyline of Houston is the second most viewed, and the study of the flag of Maryland (and vexillology in general) is my most frequently viewed page.

- For a blog titled American Dirt, it comes as no surprise that English is by far the preferred language of my viewers, and that the overwhelming majority of visitors to my site come from the United States, followed by Canada, United Kingdom, and Australia. More surprising is that Malaysia, Philippines, and Switzerland feature into the top 10. And alas, the world’s most populous country, China, has not viewed my site at all in the past two months. Brits actually spend a longer time on average on my site than Americans, by more than thirty seconds.

- Even as the geographic scope of my blog has expanded (it initially nearly always featured articles in Indiana), the majority of sites used to reach me are Indianapolis-derived blogs: and Urbanophile.Com are the top two.

Diversification has long been a goal, as well, of course, with expansion. But the former may even be more important for ensuring long-term support. Even as my posts will likely be sparse for the foreseeable future, I hope—however slowly—to improve both of these two characteristics. Thanks again for reading, stay tuned for more, and, as always, I welcome your comments--and will be happy to respond.