D-Day in the Public Mind

by Kieran Healy on June 7, 2004

With all the “hoopla over D-Day remembrances”:http://news.google.com/url?ntc=0M1A0&q=http://www.boston.com/news/world/europe/articles/2004/06/07/west_honors_d_day_sacrifices, I found myself wondering whether remembering the anniversary had become more or less important in the last twenty years. To this end, I spent twenty minutes getting “LexisNexis”:http://web.lexis-nexis.com/ to email me _New York Times_ stories mentioning D-Day since 1980, running it through the world’s kludgiest Perl script to clean it and drop irrelevant entries[1], and looking at the data in “R”:http://www.r-project.org.

The result is the figure to the right, which shows the number of stories per year over a 25-year period, though of course the 2004 data only go to June 6th of this year. D-Day stories in the Times The number of stories per year varies from zero to 120 with a median of about 17. The two biggest years by far are 1984 and 1994, the 40th and 50th anniversaries respectively. A “smoothed regression line”:http://geography.anu.edu.au/GEOG2009/guide/tutorials/loess/ picks out a gentle but consistent upward trend in coverage. There are more stories as time goes by. It’s not surprising that the big anniversaries are the most covered. Beyond that, coverage seems to be increasing as the D-Day cohort ages. The contemporary political benefits of making a big deal of such a praiseworthy event probably amplify this trend. This would lead us to expect the D-Day commemorations to decline as time goes by, though on the other hand World War II lives on in our culture (as a good war as well as the biggest one) in a way that most other wars do not.

Of course none of this tells us anything about the _substance_ of the commemoration and whether that’s changing over time. Historical events are remembered in the light of present-day concerns, and very well-commemorated events or major monuments are reinterpreted or “forgotten”:http://www.grantstomb.org/tdr2.html as circumstances change. I wonder how long this upward trend will continue: it’s a question of whether D-Day is tied to the cohort who fought it, or whether its commemoration is attached to its veterans or whether it will become a more general event as time goes by. Probably the former, but it’s hard to say.

fn1. Mainly paid death notices of people who had served on D-Day — casual Lexis-Nexis queriers should beware of this kind of thing.



dsquared 06.07.04 at 10:03 am

Is R any good, Kieran? Someone told me you can get WinBUGS (the “Win” is short for “Winners don’t use Macs”) to work with it these days, so I became interested.


Matthew 06.07.04 at 10:13 am

Are you sure there aren’t just more stories in the New York Times on everything?

In Britain the (to give an obvious comparision) Times has gone from about 12 pages in the 1950s to more than a 100 pages today. Obviously most of this is features, not news, and I know it’s not as true with the NYT, but this could explain the gently upwards slope, no?


Kieran Healy 06.07.04 at 12:10 pm

D2 – R is terrific. I use it for all the statistical analysis I do. The learning curve is steeper at the beginning because it’s a command-line/programming application rather than a menu driven thing like SPSS, but it’s much better, more powerful and flexible in the medium to long run. It’s well supported by a very active and smart community of users. “Here’s a post”:http://www.kieranhealy.org/blog/archives/000109.html of mine saying a bit more, with a bunch of links to the various books available about R. “Here’s a screenshot”:http://www.kieranhealy.org/blog/images/r-snapshot.html of it running on my linux workstation, and “here’s one”:http://www.kieranhealy.org/blog/archives/FinderScreenSnapz001.html of it on my PowerBook. R works best with Emacs and LaTeX because “Emacs Speaks Statistics”:http://www.analytics.washington.edu/statcomp/copy_of_news/projects/ess and R supports “literate programming methods”:http://www.ci.tuwien.ac.at/~leisch/Sweave/FAQ.html that make doing reproducible data analyses really easy. But its console application is fine and other editors support it as well.

A finance guy like yourself will want to check out “RMetrics”:http://www.itp.phys.ethz.ch/econophysics/R/, a package of functions for financial engineering and computational finance. I know nothing of this. There is also “RQuantlib”:http://dirk.eddelbuettel.com/code/rquantlib.html.

R’s main advantage is that it’s developed by really top-notch people who have a best-practices approach to the functions and packages available for it. This allows schmucks like me to avoid mistakes and appear cleverer than we are.

I’ve used WinBUGS before, though not recently. (BUGS is short for “Bugger Windows has crashed/gotten infected/reported me to the RIAA again.”)


Kieran Healy 06.07.04 at 12:13 pm

_Are you sure there aren’t just more stories in the New York Times on everything?_

Yeah, there is that — if I’d spent more than 20 mins on this I’d need to find some way of normalizing the measure, though this is harder than it sounds.


James Joyner 06.07.04 at 1:52 pm

The spike does seem to occur with the widespread use of the Web. Presumably, the amount of news is no longer bounded by the number of column inches available.


eszter 06.07.04 at 5:18 pm

James – I’m pretty sure the Lexis Nexis data base Kieran used here includes articles only from the print copy of the NYTimes, which wouldn’t necessarily be affected by the Web. The issue Matthew raises is a good one and I agree with Kieran that it would likely be quite a headache to figure out, unless you could find someone else who’s already figured it out and use their data for normalization. But of course, finding such a person wouldn’t be that easy either…


bryan 06.07.04 at 7:43 pm

A propos R, there is I believe currently a project underway to make it easy to interface J http://www.jsoftware.com (the language I brought up in the APL thread as being one of the successors to APL) with R.


Aaron Gurwitz 06.08.04 at 3:30 am

What D-day has going for it as an historical event to be commemorated is the fact that it took place on one day, June 6, 1944. If historical significance drove commemoration, we’d see a lot more articles about the Battle of Stalingrad than about D-day, and, if we did, people would have a much better idea about how the Nazis were defeated.

More generally, I wonder whether single-day events capture more than their fair share of attention — Pearl Harbor, 9-11, the Ides of March — and what effect this might have on how we understand history.

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