Thursday, April 02, 2020

History on TV: Stitch in Time

SIT host Amber Butchart
British TV manages to produce regular streams of young, brash, irreverent historians who actually get to conceive and make programming  about things they actually know. (Imagine that in Canada!) 

One example worth a look is "A Stitch in Time," available on that cornucopia of sudsy British TV, Acorn, which is now making one-month streaming privileges available free.

Each episode of "A Stitch in Time" takes a painting that displays some historical fashion trend, and then works with tailors to recreate the garment in question and with curators, art historians, and period experts to flesh out the historical context.

It's also impressive in that it seems to be entirely a female production. A recent episode I saw did not have a single male on screen throughout, even though the costume in question was one originally worn by King Charles II.

In admiring "A Stitch in Time," I'm claiming no great gender progressivism on my own part. I started my historical career in historic sites work, where I got to wear a good deal of reproduction costuming and gained a longstanding interest in historical costume. But if you have seen "Great British Battles," or anything by David Starkey, say, you can't help but observe that history run by women doesn't exactly look like history run by men. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Survey: This Changes Everything? UPDATE

This survey is now closed.  Thanks to all who participated.

Three two new comments on our recent survey as to whether Covid-19 changes everything or things mostly revert to the norm. The survey will remain open a little longer.
It's an opportunity to change the world for the better. It *could* mean big changes; so often, I hear that X can't be changed because "The Y Industry/Lobby is too powerful," now we've got a chance to reset or radically alter the worst aspects of capitalism, to make a better world.
Following WWII, we made some great changes, creating the welfare state, nationalized healthcare, and other reforms. It was when we created the world that Harry Leslie Smith wanted us to have. But, even if the changes are smaller, I do think there's a good chance we'll see major positive changes. A greater emphasis on local food, and reduced air travel, would mean great things for the environment. Legitimizing more work from home means great things for disabled people who struggle in the economy.
But I'm hoping the biggest difference is social. A large group of people, surviving a catastrophe together, can mean people being nicer, and kinder, and more community-oriented. Instead of social media being where people complain and start fights, it could become a tool for boosting morale. People may decide life is too short and precious for that kind of nastiness. Every historical era is flawed, and I wouldn't want to live in any other era but now, but - I do get the sense that the 1920s had a lot of optimism.
I get the sense that the UK voting in a Labour majority in 1945 and supporting massive public projects reflected optimism. I'm hazier on what happened following the great European plagues, but my sense is that the survivors brought in the high middle ages and the ambition of the renaissance. It's early still. But my sense is that we can emerge from this with a "never again" attitude, appreciate the value of being able to enjoy what civilization has to offer, and be more concerned about those who are less fortunate. I've no idea what actual changes it will bring about, but even if the changes are slow and small, I think it will inspire a generation or two to want to make humanity better.
I do think it is big and systemic. I do think that business travel will not recover, especially as we see the incredible improvements in the skies over China. Cruise ships are like fax machines – finished. Everybody flew to get on one of those. Together, alone, these are fundamental shifts in the aviation world. This will affect options to do ... pleasure travel.
Update, April 1:  And one more:
I believe that there will be some changes such as building more redundancy, increasing institutional history, and robustness in various systems. However, we will return very much to our normal social patterns in a few years as the memory of the current events gradually recedes.

Those predicting major changes coming from the pandemic now outnumber the "not so much" crowd 70-30.

Orphans in the storm? Recent history publications

What's it like publishing a new book when everyone's focus is elsewhere and you cannot even have a little launch party to bully your friends into buying one? Books can still be ordered and delivered -- and read -- so give a thought to the historians trying to get their new book around and about.

At University of Toronto Press, I note Lachlan MacKinnon's Closing Sysco: Industrial Decline in Atlantic Canada’s Steel City, about the long slow decline of steel making in Sydney, Nova Scotia since 1945.

McGill Queen's UP is preparing Thomas J. Carr, Jr's A Touch of Fire: Marie-André Duplessis, the Hôtel-Dieu of Quebec, and the Writing of New France, a biography of the 18th century nun who "has been credited with Canada’s first literary narrative, Canada’s first music manual, and the first book by a Canadian woman printed during her own lifetime." Who knew? Pas moi.

UBC Press has an April launch announced for editors Christopher Dummitt and Christabelle Sethna's No Place for the State: The Origins and Legacies of the 1969 Omnibus Bill, the one making fundamental changes to Criminal Code provisions on homosexuality, birth control and abortion.

Lots else being published in CanHist, if you care to look around.

History of writers in need

The Writers' Union of Canada, the Writers' Trust, and the Royal Bank of Canada have stepped up to provide emergency support to writers who have suffered severe economic loss during the Covid-19 emergency.

The Writers' Union, which has been surveying its members on their income losses, has already identified more that $1.6 million in lost income by independent writers.
“The Writers’ Union of Canada is proud to be a founding partner in the Emergency Relief Fund,” said John Degen, TWUC’s executive director, “The crushing economic blow from COVID-19 comes at a time when writers are already imperilled by regulatory failure around copyright licensing. And yet more than ever, the works of Canada’s authors are desperately in demand by teachers and students. We hope our contribution will inspire others to donate to keep authors working.”
Lost income may not be a problem for tenured and salaried academic historians, but directly affects trade-market historical writers and other nonfiction writers and freelance journalists along with other creative writers. And who will support unorganized sessional lecturers and other insecure scholars remains an open question.

The Emergency Fund is accepting donations through the Writers' Trust website. I think I'll send them something. 

Monday, March 30, 2020

CanHist resources online

Trying to do some home-schooling in isolation?  Historica Canada wants you to know it has a vast collection of free, bilingual Canadiana content: videos, quizzes, articles, education guides, access to The Canadian Encyclopedia, etc.

And the Canada's History homepage online has another substantial trove, everything from back articles from the magazine to introductory Cree lessons.

Friday, March 27, 2020

History of rock and roll live

Stuck at home tonight like the rest of the world?  Here's a thing:  

newchoir, a 100+ voice Toronto choir that only and exclusively does rock and roll tunes (with a rock and roll band) has cancelled its Spring 2020 concert at Koerner Hall, Toronto. In recompense, it is special-casting last year's concert, with live MC'ing by the amazing Fiona MacCool. That is tonight, Friday, March 27, at 7 pm Toronto time.

(Personal note: The one who has been taking care of invalid me 24 hours a day lately has rocking out with newchoir as her other principal avocation.) 

newchoir sez about tonight's video presentation:
Special guests Elliott Brood joined newchoir on May 25, 2019 at Toronto's Koerner Hall, While we're all stuck inside we are premiering this concert highlight video for newchoir members and their fans to watch together. We hope you enjoy the show! Live chat with us during the performance. It is approximately 60 minutes long.

This changes everything? First survey responses

So far, on the key survey question from yesterday -- "will Covid-19 fundamentally change our world? versus, "will things mostly get back to normal? -- "change everything" has opened up a 66/33% lead over "back to normal."  The survey remains open; to shift these numbers, click the link above.

Some responses re #2, the open-ended comment item: (Not everyone chose to answer this)
This is a tough one, because I want to believe that we will see the value of the environmental benefits realized during the pandemic, as well as the utility of a basic income program. I also hope that "we're all in this together" wins out over finger-pointing and blame. I do think many of us will realize the value of both slowing down and focusing on basics, as well as of time spent with those we love. (These are the musings of someone who has the privileges of continuing to work and of living in the country where distancing comes easily.) I just know that humans also have an enormous capacity to ignore long-term threats, and to revert to what is easy and familiar. And then there's the image I can't get out of my head, of Homer Simpson, after being spared from death, saying that he'll live every moment to his fullest...cut to him on the couch eating pork rinds and watching bowling.

More online shopping, more non-air trips - the airlines have done themselves no favours - bad refunds, cancelling flights without a plan for people to get home

Faith in institutions of governance will be shaken with varying results in different places. In global south autocracies and klepto states may be unsustainable. What replaces them will be more local and more efficient. In global north, one result may be sweeping away of our current massive centralised bureaucracies in favour of more localised, more efficient, more nimble and responsive service delivery — in hospitals and schools, for example.

Less flying more vc  [vc = virtual communication, I guess?]

I foresee: decreased unnecessary travel (a lot of travel will come to be seen as unnecessary); slowing or stalling globalization; and disruption to established industries and corporations, and ways of working and doing business.

Full disclaimer - I have no expertise, and am usually wrong about major world events. I also don't know if this is a cynical take or an optimistic one, but I do think things will get back to normal, or very close to it. I think that humanity invests an enormous amount of effort and ingenuity into assuring its own comfort, and we don't much like change: I can imagine more investment in incremental changes like more automatic doors and touchless shopping options, but I think we continue to do things like fly to Germany to meetings because we want to. And there will be enough money in encouraging people to do so that making it viable again will become a scientific and engineering priority.

I think your point in the post is bang on: I'm on a flight every two weeks, and I'm just an academic (but in a travel-intensive sub-field). Holding meetings and events via Zoom isn't always as great, but I must admit, I would be surprised if I returned to the level of travel I used to. Some events will probably never bounce back from this, but more importantly, I think we are going to become better at remote events.
In the realm of aspirational change -- what we might like to see change as a result of Covid-19, rather than what changes we expect -- the most interesting I have seen is environmentalist Bill McKibben's proposal in the New Yorker: that all the vast bailout monies that are about to flow be made conditional on the recipients (banks, airlines, oil companies...) agreeing to meet the targets set out in the Paris Climate Accords and promptly providing clear plans as to how they will do that.

Now, that could have changed the world.  

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Survey: This changes everything?

Above:  "(We're All) Homebound," my current fave online find about our moment.  (Don't know who these people are at all.)  

What's Covid-19  gonna change? Here's a survey to pass the time.

Background: My smarter older brother is a bit of an astronaut, constantly in orbit to global conferences and board meetings on environmental matters.

But recently he cancelled a two-day trip to Germany. He and the twenty-four people he had planned to meet there got all their work done in a couple of hours of online conferencing, each from a different place of isolation somewhere in the world.

They could have done this anytime, he acknowledges. But it took Covid-19 to shake their inertia. He thinks that as this lesson is absorbed by his globe-circling cohorts, business travel will never recover.  One of many permanent transformations to be wrought by this pandemic?

Will Covid-19 permanently change our world?  Or will things fall back into old and familiar normal ways when they are able to? One might think, for instance, that the pandemic would end all opposition to universal healthcare in the United States. But since that has not happened up to now, we have to admit, the forces against it may be deeply enough entrenched to resist even this. 

We're historians. we don't do the future.  But we think we have some familiarity with processes of change (and inertia) over time.

In case you have been pondering this question of what and how much Covid-19 will change, I've set up a two-question survey to collect your wisdom.  I'll leave it open a few days.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Historians and national identity

There's a remarkable article, currently not paywalled, at the New York Review of Books website, on a debate in Germany about, of all things, the property entitlements of the Hohenzollern dynasty which abdicated the German throne in 1918.

The Weimar constitution of 1920s abolished aristocratic privilege but preserved aristocratic property.  In Soviet-bloc East Germany, however, aristocratic property became state property after 1945. Since 1990, Germany has entertained claims by old aristocratic families to restitution of their estates in the former East German. Including, astonishingly, claims by the descendants of the Hohenzollerns, who would regain some of Germany's major public palaces.

All that is weird enough. (There are Hohenzollerns? In 2020?)  But there is a public-interest escape hatch: the German constitution prohibits restitution to those who assisted the Nazis or the Communists.  

So now, both sides are rushing to hire prominent historians to write reports affirming that the Hohenzollerns were -- or were not -- Nazi sympathizers. (tl;dr: they were. Nazi supporters and facilitators and murderous anti-Semites to boot.) So commissioned briefs by professional historians become part of a national debate that is also an egregious attempt at a landgrab by some of the worst people in the world.   Yeesh.
Norbert Frei, another major expert on Nazi Germany, in an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, accused the Hohenzollern family of “a brute reinterpretation of history” that “distorts historical facts, blurs responsibilities, and destroys critical historical awareness.” In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Richard J. Evans, Regius Professor of History Emeritus at Cambridge, criticized his colleagues for not reflecting more carefully before accepting offers to produce expert reports.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Pandemic history readings

Canada's History, nicely ahead of the game, has a lively 2006 piece about Canada's experience with the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19.  It is online here.   And a website from the War Museum here

Among histories of the event: Mark Osborne Humphries's The Last Plague (from 2013) -- is the title suddenly becoming inadequate?

Also, a recent American econometric study of the economic impacts of the Spanish flu, argues that they were brief, not that severe, and rapidly recovered from, even in the face of 700,000 American dead (and 60,000 Canadian). Possibly reassuring if the state of your investments/pension fund is just another thing to stress about right now. (Update, March 19:  Kevin Drum, my source on this link, is now having second thoughts about the possibility of escaping without economic demage.

Update, March 17:  Helen Webberley from Melbourne, Auz:
We always think of plagues being only a medieval issue where the average age of death was in any case young. They had appalling filth and no real medicine, so plagues were inevitable, and fatal. 
Secondly we think of our modern world as so sophisticated that any disease will be minor, localised and easily treated. Thanks for the reference. It will show that neither of these two thoughts are totally true.

(Some) History of the blogger's prostate

And we're back.

I rise from my sickbed* out of a sense of duty: all my poor readers, socially distancing, isolated, and desperately searching their browsers for something, something, to read.

May I be a little more detailed about the history of my medical situation?  Prostate cancer remains enough of a "men don't talk" subject that I feel obliged. Briefly, a routine medical visit led to a PSA test with a bad result, after which a specialist took a look and ordered a biopsy. Results in January revealed prostate cancer, and not the fairly common, slow-growing, "watchful-waiting" variety, but the aggressive lethal type, still (fortunately) entirely localized inside the prostate gland.  Hence last week's surgery: to remove the prostate gland and all the cancer cells inside it.

It was major surgery, with much recuperation in store, but the prognosis seems excellent (subject to tests to confirm).

I did some reading in preparation, including Man to Man by the American author Michael Korda, which I found both very helpful and absolutely terrifying. It was written in the 1990s, and the 1990s turn out to be the absolute dark ages compared to prostate surgery today  -- many horrors I have not actually had to face or which should be not nearly so awful.

I am glad to have been in and out before Covid-19 really complicated hospital stays.  Other than that, I must say I have had prompt and excellent treatment throughout, and great care from the staff at my local hospital, St. Joseph's in Toronto.  As someone spending his first nights in a hospital since he was about 8 years old, I never felt so grateful for all our taxes pay for.

* Actually, lying in it and quite comfortable.  Needing to rest much of the day turns out to be an excellent adaptation to social distancing requirements.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Blog on hiatus

I'm calling a temporary pause on Christopher Moore's History News. 

Not going on holiday or anything. Going into hospital for some surgery, in fact. The prognosis is excellent, I'm told, but the recovery may take some time. So the blog will appear next on what is pretty much its actual schedule, just more literally: when I feel like it.

Let's leave it at this: Men, get your PSA test done.  

Thomas Scott loses his monument

They have demolished the Thomas Scott Memorial Orange Lodge in Winnipeg. At Active History, Matthew McRae reflects on the significance.

Monday, March 09, 2020

Product testing: the Epson FastFoto scanner

Is this blog an influencer? Some media connections recently asked if I would accept a loan of a high end Epson photo scanner, just to see what I thought of it. Sure.

Historians (and local history researchers and genealogists and anyone with boxes of old Kodachrome images) do regularly enough access old photographic prints that have not been put out there at the other end of a google search. So, a hyperspeed photo scanner with built-in software to catalogue and organize your images, even  correct (if you want to) red-eye and colour-fade and overexposure and the rest.... that might be interesting.

So I have been playing a little with a loaner Epson Fastfoto FF-680W. It claims to be the fastest personal photo scanner in the world. It says it will scan, restore, organize and share any image you give it, will link wirelessly to your computer and let you to share jpeg and tiff images with all your social media. 

How's it do? Well, it was fun to see the scanner pull in and spit out prints at something just short of lightspeed, where our old scanner would be wheezing and grinding for a minute or so. It did link effortlessly and wirelessly to my laptop, so scanning and filing new images was pretty much a one-click operation. And the photos look great to me.

If you need high-volume, high-quality scanning of printed photos, it does the job. I was glad to have one to play with.  

But the 680W retails for between $650 and $700. And you know, I'm not sure many of us need one that much when we all have access to not-bad scanners that come virtually free with whatever printer we have. Particularly when for most of us, the supply of already digitized photos is what most of us spend much of our time working with.

Still, gotta say I kinda love having a nice digital copy of this family photo, the golden anniversary portrait (in a lowland Scots setting) of some ancestors of mine who were married in 1855. That youth toward the rear, right behind and between the happy couple, is my grandfather.  And the software did improve the condition of the image a bunch.

History of the HBC: approaching 350

The Bay's former flagship store in Winnipeg
May 2, 2020 will mark the 350th anniversary of the chartering of the Hudson Bay Company, now long established among North America's oldest company.  

Canada's History has been working up an issue to mark the anniversary, which subscribers will be receiving soon. Recently the Toronto Star also noted the looming anniversary, juxtaposing it against the modern retail giant's current struggles (and the now ever-looming possibility that the HBC's survival is in doubt) and the ambiguities of its history.
For the Indigenous trappers HBC relied on, the trade was “a mixed blessing,” says Arthur Ray, professor emeritus of history at the University of British Columbia. Along with the guns, pots, foodstuffs and the now-iconic point blankets, which were bartered for furs at HBC trading posts, came “smallpox, measles, whooping cough and all sorts of diseases they hadn’t had to deal,” Ray notes.
As part of its coverage of the anniversary, Canada's History is soliciting readers' memories and images of their own interaction with The Bay. 

Friday, March 06, 2020

History of leadership: removing Justin Trudeau?

In The Tyee, journalist Michael Harris observes that Justin Trudeau's recent performance disappoints just about everybody these days. On environment policy, indigenous policy, and economic development policy, he says enough to infuriate the lock-'em-up-build-that-pipeline mob (aka the Conservative Party base), but he does too little to earn or hold support from his progressive constituency, or environmentalists, or First Nations.

But then Harris predicts that the Liberal Party may remove Trudeau before the next election.
When the next election rolls around, both the Conservative and Green parties will have new leaders. Even NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is newish.
No one should be surprised if the Liberal party follows suit. The case for dumping Justin Trudeau before the Liberals face the electorate again gets stronger by the day.
Well. If we had a functioning parliamentary democracy, maybe. In a parliament where the principle held that leaders are constantly accountable to the people's elected representatives, it would be normal for there to be some discussions in the government caucus by members concerned with saving their seats, followed by a swift, smooth shift in leadership by vote of the caucus.  

This is Canada. It doesn't work like that. Paul Martin did prove it is possible to remove a sitting prime minister from the leadership. But it takes years, costs millions, and pretty much destroys the electoral credibility of the party involved in the process for a decade or so.

But if, say, Christa Freeland resigns from cabinet to spend more time with her family, one of those party membership vote-buying orgies may be about to erupt in the Liberal Party. Could be settled by, oh, sometime after the next election.

Image: Greg Perry for The Tyee     
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