Postcard — September 13, 2017, 1:38 pm

Pivot to Digital

A visit with the man who has digitized more newspaper pages than the Library of Congress.

Photograph by the author.


Tom Tryniski isn’t trained as an archivist. Nor does he have ties to any institution or receive much compensation for the many hours he’s spent scanning the microform of local newspapers he orders from libraries. Still, he is devoted to the endeavor. Since his retirement in 1999, he has digitized some forty million newspaper pages and posted them to his website, fultonhistory.com. His collection, at three times the size of the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America archive, is in all likelihood the largest free repository of its kind.

But there is more work to be done, Tryniski says. “Do you have any idea how many rolls of microfilm the state of New York has?” the sixty-eight-year-old asked on a Wednesday afternoon in November, his face illuminated by two massive computer screens. He was sitting in his living room in Fulton, New York, a declining industrial town twenty-three miles north of Syracuse. “I’m going to guess 50 million.”

And that’s only counting New York. Tryniski’s archival ambitions well exceed the borders of the state where he has lived his entire life. Fultonhistory.com already contains more than a thousand newspaper titles from across the United States and Canada. But Tryniski knows that his efforts thus far have barely scratched the surface of our vast printed history. U.S. libraries alone contain more than 154,000 U.S. newspaper titles, according to a directory maintained by the Library of Congress. So Tryniski spent that afternoon, the day after Donald Trump was elected president, doing what he has done every day for the past eighteen years: sitting in his living room, tending to his website.

Tryniski is a slight man with a thin covering of white hair. His life is dictated by strict routine, including his daily uniform of T-shirts, blue jeans, and old sneakers. He built much of his house himself. Like his website, the design of which he has not changed since 1999, the building suggests an outsider architect. Disassembled computer motherboards lie in piles under low, sloping ceilings. A gazebo he built on the porch houses an eighty-terabyte server. It’s almost full.

Tryniski, who lives alone, had Fox News on. “It was . . . that working-class voter in those Rust Belt states who delivered the election to Donald Trump,” a commentator said, her face filling the TV screen. “I believe it,” Tryniski replied. He likes Fox News. “I believe it’s fair and balanced,” he said. He can’t say the same about newspapers—neither today’s nor the old ones that he has worked feverishly for nearly two decades to preserve. “You go back to the newspapers from around 1800, of course they were biased!” he said, citing Horace Greeley, the nineteenth-century newspaper editor who promoted Whig and then Republican politics in the New-York Tribune. “Reading the newspaper is simply going to tell you which way it’s tilted,” Tryniski said. The room heaved and buzzed around him. It was the sound of eleven computer processors churning an endless stream of historical newsprint into digital replicas.

Tryniski is both devoted to newspapers and suspicious of them—one of many contradictions in his relationship with journalism. Another is his support of Trump, who regularly heaps scorn on news outlets and has threatened to roll back libel laws to make it easier to sue them. But Tryniski doesn’t take these threats seriously. “He will never attempt it, to silence the press,” he said. “Even though he’s a partial nutcase.”

A shipment of microfilm was waiting for Tryniski at the Fulton Public Library, so he got into his pickup truck and drove across town, past rows of wood-frame houses, then fast-food restaurants and empty parking lots. “Fulton has a lot of history in it,” he said. It was the town’s past that sparked Tryniski’s interest in old newspapers, he said. He liked reading about its bygone paper mills and manufacturing plants. “You could get a job anywhere in Fulton,” he said. And now? “Just the opposite.”

Tryniski parked in front of the library and came out a minute later with a box over his shoulder. Back home, he sliced into it with a screwdriver, revealing fifty small cardboard cartons labeled Ridgewood Times. He’d ordered them via interlibrary loan after a man who grew up in Ridgewood, Queens, emailed Tryniski asking him to upload the neighborhood paper to his site. Much of the microfilm he now scans lands on his to-do list because of such requests—some even from public libraries. The professional scanning companies are expensive, whereas Tryniski asks only for donations in exchange for his work. Most of the time he does it for free.

Once scanned, the Ridgewood Times would join the Port Chester Journal, the Rochester Daily Record, the Chattanooga Daily Times, the Troy Times, the Stillwater Messenger, the Gloversville Intelligencer, the Peekskill Highland Democrat, the Essex County Republican, the Homer Independent, the Lackawanna Leader, the Dakota Gleaner, the Louisville American Baptist, the Plummer Pioneer, the Ohio Socialist, the Victoria Daily Colonist, the Silver Creek Gazette, the Silver Creek News, the Silver Creek Times, the Silver Creek News and Times, the Creeker (of Silver Creek), the Springwater Enterprise, the Vermontville Echo, the Shakopee Argus, and other newspapers in Tryniski’s archive.

He sat cross-legged on the floor and began arranging the microfilm boxes into chronological rows. “When I was a kid I used to go to the library and run through the microfilm of the Fulton Patriot,” he said, watching the columns of cardboard cubes grow in front of him. “It’s the small-town newspapers that captured everything,” he said. “They reported on all this small-town stuff.” He took ten rolls to his desk and fed the first into a hulking scanner. Grainy newsprint from 1956 flashed across his screen.

Tryniski did not have any experience building archives when he started his website. He learned how to code during his decades working as an engineer at Black Clawson, a company that built paper-manufacturing machines. But what Tryniski lacks in formal training he makes up for in resolve. On average, he works on his website ten hours a day, seven days a week. His average six-month output is 1.6 million newspaper pages.

It is through sheer dedication that Tryniski has built his immense and sophisticated archive. He touches up the digital files when necessary before uploading them, and runs them through word-recognition software, making his entire trove searchable to the letter. The site has become the envy of more established competitors such as findmypast.com and newspapers.com, whose collections themselves already contain hundreds of millions of digitized newsprint pages. Tryniski calls them the “big boys.” He has received buy-out offers in the six figures, but he turned them all down. He doesn’t want his newspapers hidden behind a paywall, he said.

Tryniski’s commitment to the free, communal use of online resources seems at odds with his staunch conservatism, but he doesn’t see it that way. To him, fultonhistory.com exemplifies the virtues of free enterprise. The big boys may be flush with funding and trained archivists, but all their overhead slows them down, he said. Alone with his scanner and his fleet of computers, Tryniski is unfettered.

There are other perks to being your own boss: no need to look professional. Thus some of the weirder features of Tryniski’s site, such as the animated goldfish that swims across the splash page, the occasional live stream of a squirrel eating corn on Tryniski’s porch, and the button labeled “Page Me” that plays an explosion when clicked.

“It’s a sense of humor,” Tryniski said. “Most people get a charge out of it. Some people think it’s crazy. But then again, when they come to my site, they’re on my dime, right? I’m going to put crazy things on my site if I want.”

Tryniski’s website is still only a hobby for him, and not necessarily a permanent one. “I will no doubt move on to something else like I always do,” he said. A microfilm roll finished running through the scanner and spun on its spool, flapping. “Prior to this I was into four-wheeling, Jet Skis, motorcycles. My Corvette is downstairs, I’ve had it for forty-something years,” he said. But “I got sick of it in 1982. I pulled it in the garage, I put a tarp over it. I never looked at that car again until 1989. Then I decided to pull it apart and rebuild the whole damn thing.”

Perched on a router in Tryniski’s living room are framed portraits of his mother and father, both deceased. They are the only photographs on display. Tryniski is unmarried and has no children, but he does not get lonely. “I’m happy doing this,” he said, his scanner next to him humming. “This is my legacy. One hundred years from today, they’re going to say: ‘Yeah I know that Tom Tryniski, he’s the one that digitized all these newspapers.’ Now if I didn’t do something like this, people will say: ‘Who’s Tom Tryniski? Never heard of him.’”

The next morning, Tryniski went to Mimi’s Drive-In, as he does every weekday, to drink coffee and read the local papers. A giant photograph of Trump covered the front page of the Post-Standard from Syracuse. “‘No Dream is Too Big,’” read the headline.

Tryniski used to read the Fulton Patriot too, but it stopped printing in 2010. The remaining papers in the area have struggled to hold on. “Every one of these papers I’ve mentioned has shrunk,” Tryniski said. He held up the Valley News, now the size of a large pamphlet, and laughed. Despite his efforts to conserve local newspapers, Tryniski is unsentimental about their decline. “They’re dying for a reason, because of the internet. That’s just the way it is,” he said. “If they were viable for the city, they’d still be in business.”

The diner was packed. “This is one of the busiest places in town,” he said. A woman hobbled in on a walker strapped with an oxygen tank. Hillary Clinton visited Mimi’s during her 2000 Senate campaign, but Tryniski didn’t go. He voted for Trump in 2016, after previously supporting Obama, like many of his neighbors. In 2008, Obama received 50 percent of votes in Oswego County, where Fulton is located. In 2016, Clinton won less than 36 percent.

Tryniski liked Trump’s pledge to renegotiate trade deals and bring back manufacturing jobs, which are sorely needed in places like Fulton, he said. After his coffee, he got back into his pickup and drove around town in search of the UPS truck. The store was closed, and he had a package of microfilm he’s been trying for days to ship back to a library in western New York. He passed a cluster of massive red brick factories with deep gashes in their facades.

“That was the original building that Nestlé started in,” Tryniski said. It was the Swiss food company’s first U.S. plant; Tryniski grew up a few blocks away from it. “Every time it rained there was the smell of chocolate in the air,” he said. The plant once employed thousands in the town, including Tryniski’s mother, who worked on an assembly line producing chocolate chips. But the company started laying off workers in the 1970s. “We all knew it was going to close sooner or later,” he said. The plant shut down in 2003.

“Do I think Trump will be able to bring back Nestlé? No! Not in a million years,” Tryniski said. Still, the nostalgia underlying Trump’s promise to “make America great again” resonates with him. “I miss the old things, the way they were,” he said, surveying his dying town. “Granted, I knew things were going to have to change. But you always look back and say, ‘Boy you know I remember that. Those were the best years of my life,’” he said. “This is my way to express what I feel, through my website. That’s why I’ve got all these old photos of Fulton, and the old history, and the old newspapers.”

He couldn’t find the UPS truck, so Tryniski returned home to continue scanning microfilm.

Share
Single Page

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2018

Combustion Engines

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

There Will Always Be Fires

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The End of Eden

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

How to Start a Nuclear War

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Combustion Engines·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
Article
There Will Always Be Fires·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
Article
The End of Eden·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
Article
How to Start a Nuclear War·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

Minimum cost of a “pleasure palace” being built for Vladimir Putin:

$1,000,000,000

Israeli researchers claimed to have identified a ruthlessness gene.

Trump and Putin puzzle out cybersecurity in Helsinki, John Kelly didn't like his breakfast in Brussels, and a family of woodchucks ate the wiring in Paul Ryan's car

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today