Today is day 44 since my family and I self-isolated at home. We have, for the most part, achieved some sort of normal in our household. Thankfully, our weather has been beautiful in the last week or so. We’ve taken the opportunity to eat meals in the backyard, work outside in the garden, or take walks around the neighborhood.

Through all of this, these small moments have been essential:

  • Taking walks around the neighborhood as a family in the evenings.
  • Clearing and simplifying my at-home workspace.
  • Coffee. Morning and afternoon.
  • Board games with the kids.
  • Daily exercise. The Peloton app and Fitbod have been essential for me.
  • Journaling in Day One.
  • Impromptu phone calls or FaceTime with friends and family.
  • Continuing with my Norwegian language lessons.

As part of this, I also battened down the informational hatches: I’m spending almost no time on Twitter except for some of the Twitter lists I follow. Apple News gets checked once a day, but is otherwise not on my home screens nor is it allowed to send me notifications. I didn’t do this early on, and the never-ending flow of news on COVID-19 was too much. I also think it’s worth seeking out media that give you joy. (Parks and Rec’s S4E11 “The Comeback Kid” is perfect television.)

Paper notes

From about 2011 through 2018, I was mostly a digital note-taker. Armed with a phone, laptop, or tablet, I always had the ability to take notes as well as access them anytime and anywhere. But lately, I find myself taking far more paper notes, a subset of which become digital transcriptions. Here’s a few things I’ve come to notice when doing paper notes. My notebooks are append-only. There is only one exception to this: a writing journal I keep as I work on books, chapters, or articles. But otherwise I don’t find it helpful to keep notebooks on specific subjects, mainly because I can’t organize paper notes the same way I can digital notes. Instead, anything and everything ends up in notebooks. I leave the first page blank, and return to it after I’m done with a notebook to add a table of contents. This does two things: 1) captures the content of the notebook for easier discovery, and 2) ensures that I’ve transcribed notes that need to be in digital form. What needs to be in digital form? Reading notes, meeting notes, sometimes random ideas or reminders. I want a notebook that is extremely portable. This means I’m not using Moleskine. I love Field Note notebooks, which gives me a simple 40-some-page notebook with a simple but sturdy cover stapled together. I typically fill one of these up in a month. Since the notebooks aren’t organized by subject, I keep all of these notebooks organized by date in a Field Notes archival box. Field Notes archive The other great thing about Field Notes is how awesome their cover designs are. If you want simple, they offer simple. But some of my favorites – Autumn Trilogy, National Parks, Mile Marker – are so well designed. The only exceptions to this are Panobooks and GoodNotes. The Panobook by Studio Neat (along with the best pen I’ve ever owned) is the place where I do a lot of sketching and planning for projects. Anything related to data visualization, software engineering, or digital history typically end up in the Panobook, which gives me a lot more space to sketch out ideas than the Field Notes. Another frequent tool I’ll turn to is my iPad Air and Apple Pencil, often for the same reason: sketching out ideas in a space larger than my small notebooks. GoodNotes is a fantastic tool for this. The breakdown is pretty simple: if I’m working on something that needs sketching or annotation, it’s in Panobook or GoodNotes. Most other notes end up in Field Notes. Nearly everyting that’s created on paper ends up digital, as a transcription or photograph that’s tagged, noted, and stored away for later retrieval. Digital notes end up in Drafts. I was a Bear user for quite a while, but with recent changes to Drafts and its arrival to macOS I find myself turning to it more frequently for longer-term storage of digital notes. Plus, Drafts actions means if a piece of text needs to end up somewhere else – as an email, twitter quip, longer piece of writing, text message, Things 3, Basecamp – I can easily send the content off to a different service. And since Drafts is purely a Markdown editor, the text is extremely portable and can be moved if or when the need arrives.

On Tornadoes

On the evening of May 30, 1998, I was laying in bed listening to the local radio. About an hour and a half or so before, I was driving with my dad on South Dakota Highway 37 north towards Huron, South Dakota. We were heading for the dirt track races, but turned around after the races were canceled due to severe weather in the area. That night, the news on the radio was terrifying: the small town of Spencer, South Dakota, which lay just twenty miles from my hometown, had been destroyed by a tornado. The storm was among the most destructive in South Dakota’s history. For the next few weeks I collected every front page story my hometown paper ran about the tornado; I still have those newspapers stored away in a box. The United States faces more tornadoes than any other country in the world, averaging around 810 every year. The Spencer tornado occurred during one of the worst tornado years on record, which saw 124 recorded tornados.1 Moore, Oklahoma, lies within the heaviest tornado activity in the United States, an area known as Tornado Alley that stretches across the Great Plains. The phrase comes from Air Force meteorologists Major Ernest Fawbush and Captain Robert Miller, who coined the phrase “tornado alley” in 1953 during their research studying severe weather in the central plains.2 Although every state has the potential to experience a tornado, the storms are heaviest in the land between Texas and South Dakota between the Rocky Mountains to the west and the Missouri River to the east. Growing up on the Plains, severe weather was a common occurrence between the months of May and September. Warm coastal airs blow up from the Gulf of Mexico northward and collide with dry, colder continental air coming from the Rocky Mountains, creating a volatile climate that is the seedbed for supercell thunderstorms. Today’s tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma, and the haunting stories and images emerging from reports reminded me of the destructive force of the Spencer tornado. The Spencer tornado clocked wind speeds upwards of 246 miles per hour. Preliminary measurements of the Moore storm measured wind speeds at 199 miles per hour. Today’s storm was not Moore’s first encounter with strong tornadoes. Thirteen years ago, another intense tornado swept by Moore, with wind speeds peaking at 302 miles per hour. Although wind speeds were lower in today’s storm, the storm’s destructive potential was amplified by its 40-minute presence on the ground</a>; tornadoes are often on the ground only for moments, but today’s mile-wide and long-duration storm tore a deadly path of destruction across Oklahoma. The American West often sees extremes in weather and climate, sometimes with deadly consequences. My best wishes for safety and recovery go to the city of Moore and the state of Oklahoma. To those injured, I wish speedy recovery; to those lost, my heartfelt condolences. There are several resources covering the storm and its aftermath: The Red Cross is accepting donations via text message. You can text REDCROSS to 90999 and you will be billed $10 as a donation. The government of Moore is also posting updates on Facebook.

  1. Note that tornadoes were not rigorously recorded until after 1953.
  2. See John P. Gagan, Alan Gerard, and John Gordon (December 2010) “A historical and statistical comparison of ‘Tornado Alley’ to ‘Dixie Alley’,” National Weather Digest, vol. 34, no. 2, pages 146-155. [PDF]