Tunnels as infrastructure and symbols of pride

Boring machines broke through today at the opposite end of a 35.4 mile tunnel in the Alps, creating the world’s longest tunnel in Switzerland and taking the title away from Japan. While this is a feat of engineering (allowing high speed trains to carry cargo under the mountains rather than have it be shipped on trucks over the Alps), it is also interesting to read about the emotional responses people are having:

Trumpets sounded, cheers reverberated and even burly workers wiped away tears as foreman Eduard Baer lifted a statue of Saint Barbara — the patron saint of miners — through a small hole in the enormous drilling machine thousands of feet (meters) underground in central Switzerland.

At that moment, a 35.4-mile (57-kilometer) tunnel was born, and the Alpine nation reclaimed the record from Japan’s Seikan Tunnel. Television stations across Europe showed the event live…

Peter Fueglistaler, director of the Swiss Federal Office of Transport, called Friday “a day of joy for Switzerland.”

“We are not a very emotional people but if we have the longest tunnel in the world, this also for us is very, very emotional” he told The Associated Press.

This project is not just a boon for business and the environment; it is seen as a testament to the will and determination of the Swiss. As a project that has been in the works for decades (with the referendum votes for funding taking place nearly two decades ago), to see the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” is a big accomplishment. This is cultural moment that will likely become part of the Swiss collective memory.

How might the response in the United States to such an engineering feat differ?

Like Cubs fans wanted the reminder: seventh anniversay of Bartman incident

Seven years ago today, the lives of Steve Bartman and the Chicago Cubs became inextricably linked. It was a sad night, one I remember vividly – in a span of mere minutes, the Cubs went from World Series hopefuls to unlovable losers.

But beyond the emotions (which apparently are still running high), it is interesting to see how this has entered the collective memory of Cubs fans and other sports fans. The media is playing a role:

But fair or not, Bartman’s legacy remains intact, perpetuated by the national media. Fox Sports aired a promo for the 2010 NLCS that featured a freeze-frame shot of Bartman going for the ball. ESPN had scheduled Academy Award winning filmmaker Alex Gibney’s documentary on Bartman for their “30-30” series to coincide with the start of the World Series.

But the film, entitled “Catching Hell,” was recently pushed back from Oct. 26 to some time in 2011 at the request of Gibney. No air date has been scheduled, an ESPN spokesman said.

In the narrative of Cubs fandom, Bartman has become an interesting figure, an innocent fan who became a scapegoat for the futility of a popular franchise. Why exactly do Cubs fans need or want a scapegoat? Why is Cubs management (the Ricketts) still even talking about the curse and wanting a manager who understand all of this backstory?

The narrative of sports is almost more important than the events or outcomes themselves.One important event can lead to a long-standing narrative of triumph or defeat. Particularly during the long baseball season, fans are consistently engaged with historical moments and what-ifs. To be a true fan means one truly has the ability to know the narrative and to fully buy into it as a story worth telling and retelling. And narratives between teams can be similar (though never exactly the same – the pain of Cleveland vs. the pain of Chicago Cubs fan is interesting to think about): Gibney is a Red Sox fan who became interested in the Bartman story because he saw similarities with what happened to Bill Buckner.

Even this Chicago Tribune article becomes part of the ritual: we must reconsider what Bartman means.

Transcribing a cultural milestone: the musical scores of Super Mario Brothers

A pianist has developed a website where he has the complete Super Mario Brothers (the original) score including fingerings. It sounds like he went through a rigorous process:

Karam used professional engraving software and transcribed every pitch and rhythm of the original 8-bit NES game, cross-checking his work with several of the best transcriptions available on the web. He then organized the score into a readable booklet and learned all of the pieces by playing them on the piano every day for several months.
This website is apparently set up to line up with the 25th anniversary of the release of the game.
But perhaps what is more interesting is how this music came to be part of American (and worldwide) culture. I’ve heard people play this music on the piano before and it is instantly recognizable. Some of this is due to the popularity of the game and the eventual Mario series which still is going strong today. At the same time, this game, perhaps more than any other, set off a video game revolution. This music is part of the collective memory for a whole generation.

How national sports broadcasts contribute to the collective understanding of their sports

I’ve watched many sporting events in my lifetime. National broadcasts of the major four sports are somewhat different than local broadcasts: because they are for a wider audience and because they are more neutral, they emphasize broader plot lines. I believe these national broadcasters try to cast themselves as keepers of the collective understanding of their particular sports. There are three primary components to retelling and producing this collective memory: an emphasis on history, overcoming hardship, and continuity across networks.

The most obvious way this happens is through the historical overview. The common plot line: “this is not just a single game. This is another match-up in a long and engrossing history. You the viewer should pay more attention because you could be seeing history tonight.” There are often flashbacks to games or championships decades ago like Joe Namath guaranteeing a win in Super Bowl III. This history can be fun, particularly if considering how modern stars would fit in an older era or vice versa or reliving some emotional or breathtaking moments. Of course, these historical overviews and comparisons may have nothing to do with the current team but they imbue the current game with a sense of meaning. This can quickly turn into unnecessary sentimentalizing.

The emphasis is typically on how the teams involved have overcome hardship. These narratives like nothing better than the team that has risen from the pits of the league to be on top. Teams that have received this treatment in recent: the Tampa Bay Rays, the Chicago Blackhawks, the New Orleans Saints, the Boston Celtics. This return to the top is cast in heroic terms as players and coaches successfully battled all the odds. This heroism can be over the top and result in the sportscasters making hyperbolic claims about the power of sports. Returning to the New Orleans Saints: there is no doubt the team overcame difficulties but to suggest the team has been vital in helping to revive the city after Hurricane Katrina is a much more difficult argument to prove.

It is remarkable to see how consistent these messages can be across networks and broadcasters. It is like they have a common storyline vault that they all share and tweak a little bit in each broadcast. If you watch enough national broadcasts, you have heard all the main stories: how remarkable so and so is, how this franchise has survived or has had difficulty winning the big game, how great the hustle of the role player is. Part of the problem with this is it leads to blandness – who has new insights? Why not focus more on the game at hand? They also may be repeating hard to prove stories: is Mariano Rivera really key to the success of the Yankees (even as statistics suggest closers are not as valuable as other position players)

With these tactics, national broadcasts build a collective understanding of each sport. This understanding is difficult to reverse or steer in a new direction.

Teaching 9/11 in schools

Now that we are nine years removed from September 11, 2001, this is something I’ve wondered: how do schools teach about this day? According to the Christian Science Monitor, there seems to be a variety of approaches.

Another place to look would be school textbooks. With evidence that textbooks either just plain get it wrong or present biased perspectives, how younger generations learn about 9/11 will be something to watch.

Overall, both specific school lessons and textbooks will help shape the American collective memory regarding the event. This collective memory can take time to develop and is likely to be controversial; just look at how long the 9/11 memorial is taking to shape up at Ground Zero.

Plainfield: From deadly tornado to suburban growth

Plainfield, Illinois has experienced much suburban growth in the last twenty years: it had 4,500 people in 1990 and it was estimated in 2007 to have more than 37,000 (with projections of 120,000 people in 2030).

But at the beginning of this growth spurt, a deadly F5 tornado ripped through the community on August 28, 1990:

The tornado touched down outside Oswego about 3:15 p.m., and the 200 mph winds inside it etched a scar 16 miles long, stretching to the southwest side of Joliet.

By 3:45, the sky was clear and the horizon lined with battered, leafless trees and ruined homes. In all, 1,500 buildings were damaged or destroyed, 300 people were injured and 29 were dead, victims of the most powerful tornado ever to strike the Chicago area.

As the community prepares to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the tornado, this article provides some insights into the collective memory of the community. The memory of their darkest moment faded away as new people moved in, 1,000 new residents in the first year after the tornado. Today, Plainfield is something different than it was then.

Sociological studies of the effects of disasters or crises tend to focus on big cities. I recently heard a presentation about a new book comparing the 9/11 crisis in New York City and the Hurricane Katrina crisis in New Orleans. I wonder if the insights of that book would be able to speak to the experience of people in places like Plainfield.