Sunday, November 12, 2006

Remembering to Remember

As I'm writing this, Remembrance Day has passed. I spent the morning at the local cenotaph, and along with thousands of other Canadians, I adorned a poppy on my lapel, as a gesutre of recognition and respect for the sacrifices made by our fallen soldiers.

My friend Kelly noted on her blog that reflecting on the impact of war is an individual thing - and I couldn't agree with her more. However, I can't help but be troubled by comments that I overheard dismissing the poppy as an irrelevant symbol or denouncing Remembrance Day as a simple act of complacency.

While on the bus, I overheard a student ranting that Remembrance Day was merely a "candy-coated" service, and that anyone who attends a ceremony is just going along with the tradition of glorifying war and accepting it as a necessary evil. Unfortunately, I cannot decide what aspect of this line of thinking saddens me most - the complete disregard for war veterans or this student's ignorance as to the significance of both the poppy and of Remembrance Day.

These services provide all Canadians with the occasion to acknowledge and honour the sacrifices made in their name by the thousands of young, healthy, and vibrant Canadians throughout the First and Second World Wars. More importantly, these ceremonies provide the last few living veterans an occasion to reflect on their past and salute their fellow comrades who died in war.

Over 100,000 Canadians lost their lives in a battle for freedom. We wear a poppy as a symbol of remembrance for all those who gave their lives. Remembrance Day ceremonies are not a glorification of war. They are part of a day set aside to recognize the sacrifices made by individuals in order to maintain freedom. What is important here is the verb "maintain." A political entity threatened to impede upon a people's freedom and the only means left to protect and maintain that freedom was armed conflict - it is not glorified if you remember the sacrifces made by those players.

I fear that a new generation of Canadians are removing the human cost of war from their definitions of Remembrance Day. Without proper credence to the human element, we run the risk of trivializing war and rendering those individuals lost as simple statistics. We would be quicker to make destructive decisions when the true losses attributed to conflict are not recognized.

As time goes on, fewer and fewer veterans will be available to teach us about the horrors they endured. It is up to subsequent generations to ensure that the sacrifices made by these indivudals are not forgotten. As Canadians we enjoy many freedoms and it is our duty to ensure that we will always remember the cost for those blessings and those who paid for them.

Serenity Now! Insanity Later...

Well, comps are officially over. It's sort of ironic - a process that is supposed to promote a sense of historical awareness and knowledge has instead ripped me of my confidence and left my graduate student soul in tatters.

Serenity now!

I'm officially ABD, (All But Dissertation), which means that I can focus solely on my own research. In addition to that project, however, I plan on developing and refining my digital history skills. Thus, this blog shall resume, and I will return from time-to-time to track my progress. I'm really looking forward to getting back into the digital groove.

Maybe it will help me stave off the insanity...

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Taking the elephant by its tusks

While I'm not entirely convinced that anyone actually reads this blog, I still feel the obligation to write an explanatory note for my lack of - and my expectant lack of - posts. There is a simple explanation for this absence.


For anyone who has gone through graduate school in the Humanities, the word "comps" can take on several meanings. Fear. Stress. Anxiety. Relief. Truthiness.

Since I'm right smack in the middle of comps, I can't seem to wrap my own mind around what it all means, but I think I may have heard the best comps story ever this past weekend at Wheats, a conference organized by Bill Turkel and Alan MacEachern.

An upper year PhD student, Emily, who studies animal history (?), told me that she was in the middle of her comps and had to hand in an essay by a specific date and time. She was at school about an hour or so before the essay was due, and was trying to print it, but, as is always the case when trying to hand anything in at the last minute, the printer wouldn't work. Desperate, she called the secretary of her department to ask for assistance, and broke down over the phone. The secretary, trying to calm Emily down, asked her a metaphorical question: How do you eat an elephant? (Meaning: approach a big task bit-by-bit by completing small tasks until the job is done). The metaphor, however, was lost on Emily who had just completed a field in the History of Science and Medicine that included a list of books on the treatment of animals. One book in particular dealt with hunting in Africa during the 18th century, which detailed how hunters would kill elephants, trade and sell body parts, and, when there was no other food, eat them. So, Emily, explained to the secretary, "First you slice a foot........."

Hilariously grotesque. Or grotesquely hilarious? My brother would probably argue for deliciously hilarious. Regardless, in the next few weeks, I will be preparing for my exams, and praying that I can remember all the information I have consumed over the past five months, hoping that I can learn a trick or two from that noble creature (the elephant, not my brother).

After all, an elephant never forgets.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Whither Wikipedia?

I guess it's official. I'm a computer nerd. Now, don't let my new title fool you - just because I'm a computer nerd does not mean that I have the faintest idea how computers work (or, perhaps more importantly, why they don't work). I don't know the difference between Delphi, Perl or Java (isn't the latter slang for coffee?), and I certainly don't know why the letter "W" follows the letter "Q" on a keyboard. But I took the first step toward being a computer nerd by creating a blog. I took the plunge tonight by creating a Wikipedia entry. But even that didn't make me cross the threshold from being an everyday nerd to a computer nerd. What cinched it, was that I enjoyed it.

I followed the advice of my professor, Bill Turkel, and created an entry that related to my field of research: technology. Personally, I am more interested in the history of technology, and if I can be even more abstract, to the history of thought of technology, or what I am calling, the intellectual history of technology. But how can I ever propose to study that, if I can't even describe what technology is?

Enter Wikipedia.

My first exercise in defining a term. Online. For anyone to read. It's an exciting, but altogether discomforting venture, because I know that my hard work can be (more likely, will be) deleted and re-written by some anonymous drifter out there in cyberspace. If I knew how to virtually shake my fist, I would. For now, I'll settle on physically shaking my fist at the screen.

If I don't like the changes to my entry, then maybe I can focus on the soon-to-arrive, democratically sounding, Citizendium, which promises to be Wikipedia's newest challenger. Its goal is to "create a responsible community and a good global citizen" by creating a trustworthy online resource and reference site. Its basics are similar to Wikipedia in that anyone can create or edit an existing entry, but it departs from the Wikipedian philosophy by having each entry monitored by specialists who will have to publicly state their credentials.

It will be interesting to see if a Wikipedia-style website that boasts increased editorial control will have an impact on the way Internet sites are evaluated in historical research. I also can't help but wonder if people who want to submit an entry to Citizendium will chafe under editorial restrictions and revert back to Wikipedia's free-flowing narratives. Or perhaps this new website will be to Wikipedia what Google was to Yahoo!. Who knows? As Niels Bohr once commented, "prediction is very difficult, especially if it is about the future."

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Seafood, steak, and algorithms

I experienced some life-altering episodes this weekend that have left me humiliated, stunned, and bloated. My brother Francesco got married to a wonderful woman yesterday in a (dare I say) typical Italian wedding - too much food, lots of wine, and hundreds of guests. In the context of that event, I have learned the following:

1. You can never really know everything about a person. For example, I had no idea that my brother leads a double life as a street dancer in the breaking community - until I watched him perform the Worm in his designer suit during a dance-off with my other brother Gaspare. Represent.

2. It is okay to eat bread, cheese, pasta, rice, filet mignon, potatoes, lamb, lobster, shrimp, calamari, and cake. On different days. Never in one sitting. My stomach hates me right now. But I couldn't help myself. I love food. Once it's hits the lips... it's so good.

3. In relation to the above, seafood, steak, and algorithms do not mix. I tried the computer science exercise today, but my desire to finish the assignment was in constant competition with my bloated stomach that demanded answers for my reckless eating (and drinking) from last night.

4. I can't add. It's embarrassing. I have been trying to determine the time efficiency of the Simple, Insertion, and Selection Sorts but haven't been able to calculate the correct sums. I started having flashbacks of elementary school math class when my teacher showed us flash cards to help us practice addition and multiplication. In my mental image, the cards were blank.

5. As a PhD student undergoing comps, I appreciate the unambiguity of algorithms in Computer Science. If only we could convince some historians to discard their verbal refuse.

6. Knowing the way I am, I need to see algorithms in practical use before I'll truly understand how and why to use them in relation to digital history.

That's it (for now).

Sunday, September 10, 2006


"You think too much," a friend once complained to me a few years ago. "I find it incredibly irritating." Ouch. I haven't been able to forget my friend's observation (clearly giving credence to her claim) and it may be the reason why I've decided to pursue a PhD in History. As such, I am currently a student at the University of Western, and I am auditing a course on Digital History - an intriguing subject because it acknowledges a more relevant medium of pursuing the past...and relevancy is key in a world where books, the time-honoured vehicles for disseminating ideas, are increasingly challenged by the rapidity and convenience of the Internet. I'll be using this blog to note my progress during the course, and who knows, maybe I will expand its uses once the semester ends. Hmmm...I'll have to think about that.