Infinite Musings

The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it. Edward R. Murrow

Friday, June 01, 2007


I guess the public health system we have here in Canada has changed somewhat in the six years I've been away. I have no family physician anymore, and it appears the chances of finding one are about as good as winning the lottery. But, finally, after an extended wait, I was able to get an appointment with a rheumatologist. He looked over all the blood tests, probed and prodded my swollen joints, wrote a bit and then looked up and pronounced Savcoid something or other, and erythema nodosium. I found myself stifling a giggle, as his words brought to mind Angela Lansbury, the apprentice witch in Bedknobs and Broomsticks trying out some new spell. I waited for the rheumatologist to continue. But no, he had come to a full stop and had started to write again. It appears that those words of diagnosis were, he thought, sufficient. Oh...right. Savcoid something or other, erythema nodosium. What was I thinking? Of course! What else could it possibly be? I finally screwed up the courage to ask him to elaborate, if he didn't mind. What exactly did all that medical mumbo-jumbo mean in plain English? He tried, and faltered, looking for ordinary English words to explain. At the end the only thing I understood, and it was enough, believe me, it usually goes away in 6-8 weeks. PHEW! This wasn't a return of the rheumatoid arthritis from which I suffered over twenty years ago. It would go away. But why was it so difficult to explain that right away? I didn't need the fancy medical words at all. He could use those with fellow rheumatologists, or at a conference.

But then again, who am I to cast stones? I thought back to my own work at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. I was as guilty as the doctor of using my own mumbo-jumbo. It was fine when I spoke to people within the Tribunal, but when outsiders were looking for information about the Milosevic trial, I would breezily refer to 92bis, 89F, Rule everyone should know what they meant. It was only when their nods turned to looks of puzzlement, that I realized I wasn't really speaking English anymore.

And then take the Freemasons, whose nineteenth century history in Ontario I had to research for an assignment. Ever read any Masonic history? These gentlemen don't really need secret signals and codes. Their official histories are written with so many unexplained acronyms that it took me weeks to figure out what exactly I was reading. Mumbo-jumbo writ large!

I tried to think of other fields of endeavour, in our atomized, specialized world-everybody has their own particular mumbo-jumbo lingo that is largely incomprehensible outside the group. Who speaks, or, for that matter, writes plain English anymore? And then I grinned a grin, that would have done Dr. Seuss's Grinch proud. Historians! We write in plain English. What we write is still accessible to those that speak and read plain English. But before we pat ourselves too smugly on the back we need to recognize that plain English is not the only key to accessibility. We have a reputation for writing that is as dry as dust-a non-medicinal cure for insomnia-and remote.

Whenever people ask me what I'm studying and I tell them history more times than not they tell me they are interested in history/the past, but they hated studying history at school. When I tell people I'm studying Public History, I get that same quizzical look I used to get when I talked Tribunal mumbo-jumbo. I've spent much time this year trying to understand what public history is, and how it fits into "history". Reading numerous articles from the Public Historian for a recent paper, I got a better sense of some of the issues dividing academic historians and public historians. Are history and public history two different fields that only share the word history in common? Or, is there only one history, be it public, social, oral, political, economic, women's history (the list goes on), but differing audiences?

It seems to me that when public historians write anything, because their audience is the public, there is less room for the dry as dust, remote variety of writing. But some academic historians, this is a personal opinion, seem to think that if history is readable and accessible to the general public it somehow isn't academically rigorous enough. There is a disconnect between academic and public history, and more the shame. However public historians chose to define or align themselves, one thing is clear to me, after my year in the public history program. I find myself definitely on the side of wanting to speak to a public audience. Those people interested in the past, but who have not found history, as practiced in academe readily accessible. I am grateful for the opportunity to have studied public history in an academic setting. I hope I have learned how to make whatever work I may do rigorous enough to satisfy academic standards. But I also hope my journalism training and work experience outside of academia have given me the tools to make my work accessible in plain, and interesting English to a broader audience.

Sitting through war crimes trials I have seen first hand the power of history used by unscrupulous politicians, nationalist ideologues, controlled media to break-up a country (Yugoslavia an "imagined" community if ever there was one!), turn neighbour against neighbour and leave behind widows, orphans, displaced people, trauma and hatred that will take more than a generation to heal. History and historians cannot afford to be remote from the broader society. I don't think that necessarily means pandering to the public-give them what they want, entertain them-but it does mean producing work that is broadly accessible, and relevant. I have been particularly inspired by the National Council on Public History Presidential Address given by Robert Weible, “The Blind Man and His Dog: The Public and Its Historians,” (published in the Public Historian, Volume 28, Number 4. Fall 2006(pp 9-17)). I recommend it to those that may not have read it--no mumbo-jumbo and lots of food for thought.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Diagnostic Conundrum

I've been called a lot of things over the years, the less pleasant epithets usually coming from lawyers, but hey I can give as good as I get on that score. Right now, however, I'm struggling to come to terms with a new moniker, "diagnostic conundrum". As the academic year quickly draws to a close and the days left to finish work decrease in an inverse ratio to the work yet to be completed I find myself stuck at home reflecting on how quickly and without warning everything can change. From the simplest things like getting out of bed, and putting on socks. How did these suddenly become milestones for which I can pat myself on the back? How in less than two weeks have I gone from good health to barely able to walk? And why can't the doctor tell me what's wrong? "You have very low iron", he said as he wrote up the order for another nine vials of blood to be removed from my vein. "Your "sed" rate is elevated", he continued, "indicating inflammation." Well that's news! Who would have guessed about the inflammation looking at my ankle which is more swollen than when I broke it years ago, or my knees usually the kind of knobby knees you don't want knocking yours on a dance floor. Now they look like smurf footballs and they don't bend anymore. My elbows, on the other hand, are bent and won't unbend. Anything else you can add, I ask plaintively? I tend to avoid doctors. Nothing against them...but when I do have to see them, I guess, foolishly, I expect them to have answers. This doctor is jovial. A nice man really. But all he can saw, with a broad smile, is "you are a diagnostic conundrum". He writes me a prescription for new drugs scarier than the last. Take for a maximum of five days the pharmaceutical company's website warns. That doesn't deter the doctor. "I've given you two refills on this prescription," he says. And that is that. And now, I wait. I try to keep up with assignments. I think about the wonderful colleagues--yes I do consider them colleagues!--I've been honoured to share the program with. I reflect on how much I've learned about history, about London, about technology, life and friendship, identity and nostalgia and aging the past year after landing bemused and displaced from the Hague and THAT trial. I'm trying to maintain my sense of humour, and learn from this experience as well. Please keep your fingers crossed that I come out the other end kicking a football rather than resembling one.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

On Reflection

To my dismay I woke up this morning and it was already March 7, 2007. What happened to January? Who stole February before I could turn the page on my Manet wall calendar? I'm still wishing people a Happy New Year! Did I sleep in? I remember as a child, hearing grown-ups, the keepers of time, talk about "time flying". It didn't fly. It drifted by. The summer holidays stretched on and on. March break was really a long break. Well now I understand. But time isn't just flying it's being sucked into some supersonic vortex. I haven't posted a blog--fortunately you can't see me blushing sheepishly--since November. Now that may seem like a long time ago but in fact it feels like the day before yesterday.

This blog is meant to capture my reflections on public history. Is one to assume then, and hopefully Alan MacEachern is not, that I have not been reflecting in the interim? Not so. In fact I have the opposite problem. Too much reflection. I can't stop reflecting. On everything I read...everything I hear. What does "public" mean in public history? What does "history" mean outside of academia? How do we not only interpret, write, teach history but preserve our increasingly digitized, atomized present for future historians? How can I use my skills and make a living doing public history? All things, of course, I can hear Alan MacEachern say, I should be blogging about. All things that my industrious colleagues do blog about. What is my problem? I wish I knew. There is a disconnect, for me, between reflection and blogging. Blogs suggest themselves to me constantly: Exams, Essays and Aspirin, Non-sequitur, Going Public, Hearts of Hamilton, Inpiration from Aisle 4 of the Grocery Store, Meet Time's Man of the Year, Hyphenated History are some blogs stuck in draft mode much mulled and reflected over but never completed, never published. I carry them around in my head as I do all the other reflections, adding, deleting, editing, expanding, linking. But, what good are those reflections trapped up there in the grey cells of my aging CPU? How "public" are they up there? I took the time to copy down (hopefully correctly) these words by Paul Courant from one of the very first readings in Digital History, Scholarship and Academic Libraries (and their kin) in the World of Google. "Ideas must be conveyed to qualify as ideas." "Publish or don't waste our time. If we can't retrieve what you have learned, you have violated your explicit scholarly oath." "Take an idea. If you don't write it down the thought will have no public effect...if you don't publish (or at least teach) then you almost certainly have no effect, not even on the mind." Perhaps I should have pasted these words to the monitor of my computer, repeated them as a mantra every morning. I do believe Courant is correct, and I do believe that this exercise of reflecting and blogging is a useful one. Perhaps if I'd spent less time reflecting about everything and more time reflecting and writing about a few things I wouldn't be shaking myself out of a reverie and noting with incredulity that it is already March 7, 2007.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Back to Square One

And so it has come to pass: what goes around comes around and despite my fleeting moment of glory I find myself right back at square one. My day would be so empty without one of the Sympatico technicians to talk to. Fortunately, today just when I was wondering how bad the withdrawal might be I discovered the fates were kind. I still had occasion to call 310-SURF. I have yet to memorize my home telephone number but like a lovesick teenager I have Raji and Said and Brian’s number imprinted on my heart. What else could possibly go wrong you ask? Well I ask myself that same question each morning as I stumble out of bed and I don’t usually have to wait too long for the answer. Today it was the DSL signal. But all my previous calls to 310-SURF have not been in vain. I have learned the basic troubleshooting steps; turn off the modem; unplug the cables, reboot – hopefully we could skip those. As I dialed the oh too familiar number I could barely contain my anticipation; who would it be tonight? It was Brian who got the short straw. But Brian hasn’t been through the worst of it with me as poor Raji has and he obviously took his happy pill today. His cheerfulness was disconcerting. I hesitated to tell him my dark secret that the exorcist had taken up residence in my computer and in exorcising him I think he escaped into the phone line. But just as a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet so too the exorcist in the phone line by any other name still means no DSL signal. Brian pulled out all of his tricks from his bag but none could match the power of you know who. He had to confer with a higher authority. And in case you didn’t know; the higher the authority the longer you get to wait on hold. Brian had obviously gone to the highest authority. And when he finally got back to me his cheerfulness, if anything, was increased. “Give us 72 hours”, he said. “A technician needs to check the phone line.” I didn’t want to spoil his mood by asking him what the other three technicians that had already come to the house had done. “If you don’t hear from us by Thursday, feel free to call back. Thank you for choosing Sympatico and have a nice evening.” Well it’s a fine thing I don’t really have too much work piled up these days. What’s 72 hours? As I settle in to my static, hard copy digital readings for this week I cannot help but be overwhelmed by the irony of it all. These articles deal with cutting edge digital technology while I find myself on the wrong side of the digital divide. Bots, APIs, TDM, NGD… Well I now have my own little acronym: JGMACAICTW (just give me a computer and internet connection that work)! That will at least allow me to leave the starting gate.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Exorcism

Just when I was reveling in my new found connectivity disaster struck. Sympatico, “X”s and all, was still functioning fine. I’d moved on to bigger and better problems. My Internet Explorer no longer worked. $%@#$#$%#!!!!! The Exorcist seemed to be alive and well and living in my computer. I tried everything I could to resolve the problem before calling the dreaded Sympatico helpline 310-Surf. And if I dread calling 310-Surf I can only imagine the horror on the other end when they see my number come up, yet again. I’m sure my call is left on hold while the technicians pick straws to determine who the unlucky one is that will have to deal with me. You see I already know most of the technicians by name and they certainly know me; we’ve spent hours together on the phone. All, alas, in this latest chapter to no avail. Final verdict: not our problem go bug Microsoft. This had become so outrageous that the only thing one could do is laugh and laugh I would have if I wasn’t so frustrated and deflated and behind. But I suspected there was a lesson in this somewhere and it took me a little while to find the "silver lining". I certainly didn't relish reclaiming my chair in Weldon library, especially given the drop in temperature.

I found inspiration in one of the digital history readings--an interview with Lawrence Lessing--in which he reflects on the work being done in Brazil to build technology self-sufficieny. Musing on my sad, stuck, dependent state I wondered could I possibly be further removed from technology self-sufficiency? Realising I had "nothing to lose but my chains" I experienced a surge of revolutionary consciousness. I was determined to take control rather than be controlled. I would perform an exorcism on my computer. With my new-found revolutionary zeal I was not deterred by the fact that I only dimly knew what I was doing. Six long hours and four dogged "full restore" tries later unbelievably (at least to me!) some measure of sucess. The problem it appears was incompatibility between Internet Explorer, the pre-installed McAfee and my anti-virus program PC-cilin. Humming Tom Petty's "Don't come around here no more" I immediately replaced Internet Explorer with Firefox and cobbled together parts of the intransigent McAfee and tenacious PC-cillin. I am now reconnected but have no idea what level of virus protection I currently have (or don't). The silver lining? From frustration and dependency a new sense of empowerment. It's not impossible to teach an old dog (and may I be clear that I mean that about myself in the figurative and not literal sense) a new trick afterall. And this is only the beginning.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Internet "X" - The Devil is in the Details

For a while there it seemed this day would never come. It seemed like a simple thing getting a telephone connection and setting up the Internet. I'd moved to London after all not Lagos. Simple, oh no. But one learns valuable lessons along the way and gets to meet new and interesting people. Bell technicians are an especially colourful lot while the Sympatico technical cadre seem to have been deprogrammed of any sense of humour. Every cloud has a silver lining, I always say. Unfortunately, lately, the silver lining seems to have pooled under my eyes appearing in most light as unsightly dark circles trying to keep up with readings, labs, blogging (we won't dwell on my failures in that department), teaching, marking, accessing the Digital Repository and the Wiki, trying to understand how a linotype works without Internet access at home. I've spent hours upon hours in Weldon Library where climate control seems to be determined on the weather outside: If it's cold outside it better be colder in the library. There are only so many hours one can spend, teeth chattering, in that lofty building before the law of diminishing returns sets in. I could probably have purchased two new printers for all the money I've deposited in the one-armed bandit that issues copy cards so that I could read at home when I couldn't bear a single moment more in the Library. But today, an almost balmy November day in London, while the sun shone gloriously, Said (Sympatico technican extraordinaire) and I finally crossed my Rubicon. Intermittant phone line: Problem fixed. "Multiple gateways": ultimately disabled. All systems go but still no lift-off. In the end, I can scarcely believe what was keeping me separated from the 21st century: a simple "x" or should I say "X"? If God is in the details let me assure you that the Devil too is into details. Dear Sympatico, when issuing case sensitive access passwords please ensure that uppercase letters are clearly distinguishable from lower case letters most especially the "x"s!

Being on-line for just 24 hours my life is transformed. But just how and when did I, the non cell phone owner and pre-digital age relic, become so dependent on the Internet? This is what surprises me most of all. But doing the digital history readings this week online was illuminating. Being able to follow the links, which is not possible in hard copy, make me realise how much more dynamic information is available in the digital versions of the readings. The hard copy, while still easier to read, is static. The author stands alone and his/her citations and linkages to a broader community are dead words on a page. In the digital version a world of context is embedded and only a click away. Likewise, the class wiki which up until now I've had to print-out or read fleetingly in the library and to which up I haven't been able to contribute to significantly. What an incredible way to communicate and aggregate queries and understanding at a group level. I suppose it was the absence of easy access that makes me more fully comprehend my new-found Internet dependence. I feel as I've been trotting by in a house and carriage while some of my classmates zoom by in sports cars. I feel so behind that my tail is longer than Amazon's "long tail". But rather than despair; which is not to say that I haven't felt at the point of despair more than once in the last few weeks, I'll trade in the horse and buggy for a Model T and try to catch up.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

In Memoriam - Lindalee Tracey 1957-2006

It’s hard to believe that she is gone. I received the sad news today though I did know the end was near. In the month of October which has been coloured pink for breast cancer awareness Lindalee Tracey lost her fight with that dreaded disease. Knowing her it was a dog fight but one, alas, that she didn’t win. I am consumed with guilt that I did not see her to say good-bye. I didn’t call. Of course there are reasons and excuses I could give but now that she is gone none of them seem valid. It always seemed like there would be time but time is exactly what there wasn’t enough of. What’s left undone cannot be changed now. In not seeing her frail and facing death I am instead left with a memory of her in health, full of passion and life. And I cry bitter, angry and sad tears at the unfairness that she is gone too soon. I cry for her son and I cry for her husband.

All that is left for me is to memorialize her; remember her hearty, deep-throated laugh; her sparkling, mischievous green-blue eyes, her fearlessness; her humour; her compassion and deep social commitment. Lindalee was a consummate storyteller; a writer (On The Edge: A Journey Into The Heart Of Canada. 1993, Growing Up Naked. 1997, A Scattering of Seeds 1999) and documentary filmmaker (Burlesque 2003, Toronto: City of Dreams, 2000, Abby I Hardly Knew Ya, 1995). I was lucky to work with Lindalee for two years at White Pine Pictures. As I reflect on what public history is, how it is done I realize how much she taught me: about narrative, about writing, about filmmaking, about audience, about quality. She was not a “public historian” but, in many ways she did the work many of us likely aspire to.

Death and loss teach us how much we should value every minute of every day. Pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and think how good it is to be alive. Call, or better yet, see somebody you’ve been meaning to but haven’t got around to. Hug somebody close to you and tell them how much you love them. Smile at your reflection in the mirror. Then, ladies, if you haven’t done so lately do a breast self-examination. And gentlemen inform yourselves about prostate cancer (something no man will readily or easily speak about). I lost my father to prostate cancer 8 years ago. Had he been tested sooner perhaps he would still be here despairing about my driving skills.