The Compression of History
Russell Degnan

"Most of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop. For example, [...] the other deal old lady who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy"
- George Orwell, "Bookshop Memories", 1936

Reading Orwell is not normally a disconcerting experience. He is very precise with his dates and consistent in how he perceives the changes in English society up the end of the Second World War. His description of events at the start of the 20th Century are written as history, in a style that makes the actual date they were written seem irrelevant. Periodically however, passages like the above jolt you into a realisation that this was definitely not the case. Even though he was exaggerating for effect, 1897 is not a year I can relate to 70 years after the passage was written. 1897 is the time of Queen Victoria, it is a time of long dead politicians, a time before Australia existed as a political entity. Yet, when reading history, it is worth reminding yourself that to Orwell it was nothing of the sort. It was a mere 6 years before he was born.

In our modern society, current history, history to be learnt from, history that everyone knows, history that everyone understands implicitly, seems to begin in 1945. I don't remember a time when people related to times earlier than this, and it is only very recently that it seems to be shifting, moving imperceptibly forwards, presumably to after the last great battleground of popular perception - the 1960s and 1970s. But everything before 1945 is something else, it is history we don't know so well, a time when people thought differently, and most bizarrely, a period where time is compressed.

To us, the 50 years from 1955 to today seem to be in constant flux, a half dozen different periods, each with their own distinctive art, music, culture, politics, and economics. By contrast, the 50 years from 1851 to 1901 -- from self-government to Federation in Australian history -- seem to be one long Victorian blur. The fact that the problems of the goldrush 1850s were vastly different to the depression 1890s, or the booming 1880s is generally lost. Other eras, in other contexts are equally abused, even by otherwise respectable historians, particularly when geography comes up.

"The conquest of Corsica (1091), of Sardinia (1022) and of Sicily (1058-1090) took away from the Saracens the bases of operations which, since the ninth century, had enabled them to keep the west in a state of blockade."
- Henri Pirenne, Medieval Cities

"Trade with America developed rapidly after the union of 1707; the tobacco trade built up swiftly after the first boat sailed in 1718. By 1727, in Defoe's account, nearly fifty ships sailed out of Glasgow on the Atlantic run every year [...]. By 1772 the Clyde had 56 per cent of Scottish-owned foreign shipping [...]"
- Peter Hall, Cities in Civilisation

In both cases 70 years, or some three generations of protagonists get compressed into a single statement of generality. As much as it is useful to mark a trend in this way, it washes away all the subtlety, and all the humanity.

But worse still, the perceptions of the people who lived then are melded together as well when they cannot possibly be. We take as our bearing, events up to 50 years ago, but with much greater emphasis on events that occurred much more recently still. Even given the rapid changes that occurred in the early part of the 20th century, why would others be any different?

Historians occasionally, but other writers regularly make two incorrect assumptions about the perceptions of people in times past. Firstly, that they are affected by events in the same proportion to how we are affected by them, many years later. What we make a sweeping statement about, say, the 17th century would be seen very differently from the perspective of someone in 1660. There the events of 1648 are of recent memory, those of 1618 less perceptible, and those of 1555 mere history. Placing them all together as one long stretch of history gives them a coherency that they could not and did not have.

Secondly, it is forgotten that some events that might seem to be mere footnotes in the historical dialogue today, were closer and more memorable to those living then. When the history of late 20th century music is written, the broad sweep will show a progression of styles, different ages, and different influences appearing simultaneously. Yet for those of us living it, one year's music stands in stark contrast to another, new music is anticipated because it is new, and because it is created; not because it is part of an oeuvre, or because it reinterprets works from a generation before. For most artists, interpreting new works as a development to what has gone before will be far more illuminating.

Interpretation becomes harder, but it also becomes more interesting. And if people are to truly appreciate it, it must be more than just a succession of related events.

Passing Fancy 31st July, 2005 19:00:38   [#] [2 comments] 

The fine art of finding a hostel: I - Namur, Belgium
Russell Degnan

If there is ever a time when having a rough idea how different cities are laid out and a good sense of navigation is useful, then finding your preferred place of accommodation in a city you just arrived in is surely one.

Namur, lying at the conjunction of the Meuse and Sambre Rivers in Wallonia, Belgium is not a large city, nor even an especially interesting one, but it has its merits. Most impressively, it is dominated by the citadel on the hill and by mist. The two together make for an intriguing mix of oppression and romanticism that left me in a daze for my entire visit.

But when I arrived I had a more difficult task. It was late afternoon, as I'd come down from Amsterdam, and had (deliberately) left my guidebook (which had a map) at a friend's house. Instead, I was relying on a very rough memory of what the other map said, which was worse than useless, and a truly awful map from the Hostel guidebook, faithfully retained to this day, and reproduced at right.

Those of you who clicked on the first link will immediately recognise some of the problems with this map: it is not really orientated to the north (at least not consistently); it has no scale and is in any case, stylistic with inaccurate distances; it marks only one street, and one bridge; it doesn't show the railway station, and worst of all, depicts the rivers at right angles when they are not even remotely close to that orientation (the Meuse runs straight for a start).

So what to do?

Where the city centre was in relation to the railway station was not clear, but I was reasonably certain the river would be at the bottom of the hill I was on. I'd have been remarkably surprised if it wasn't in fact. I made my way down, each step taking me further under the looming side of the mountain atop the citadel sits.

The problem was, I had no idea whether I was approaching the Meuse, or the Sambre. The bridges should be a clue, but aren't, because not all of them are depicted on the hostel map and the width of the citadel as I approached it seemed to indicate I was approaching from the wider Meuse side -- when actually it lies along both rivers.

Having reached the river, I figured that I should walk downstream, hoping to find the confluence where I could orientate myself. Fortunately, this too led me directly to where I needed to go. After spending a few minutes looking at available landmarks, I felt reasonably sure I knew which river was which, and chose the road that led upstream of the Meuse. But how far?

The hostel guide said 3km from the station, but if anyone trusts those figures I have a bridge I'd like to sell you. They are often out by whole factors. So, off I trudged, with the citadel on my left, for a goodly distance, before I finally reached the bridge. It is a very nice bridge as can be seen from the picture below. It does not, however, face onto the Casino.

The casino is further, near the Avenue Felicien Rops [1] from which there is a very substantial walk to the hostel. And I mean a substantial walk - see the lights on the dam upstream of the bridge? It is past that.

But being lost is no longer an issue, even if being crushed by the weight of your backpack is; because all along this avenue live people who regularly see lost backpackers, trudging to their destination, but without any clear indication of where it might be. And they are very helpful and friendly, waving you along like spectators at Le Tour. For a while, the sun even came out. Just for a brief moment. It is Belgium after all.

[1] The museum to Felicien Rops is also in Namur and worth a visit.

Days Spent Away 30th July, 2005 00:50:26   [#] [1 comment] 

Monday Melbourne: LXXXI, July 2005
Russell Degnan

The Metropolitan Hotel, North Melbourne. Taken July 2005

Melbourne Town 26th July, 2005 13:05:36   [#] [3 comments] 

Sharing road space
Russell Degnan

I love plans that are destined to fail. Particularly those otherwise logically sound plans that give an insight into the mentality of the proponent. Like this one to take demerit points off the licenses of cyclists who break road rules. Naturally there are two problems. The first is they aren't driving. It makes as much sense as taking demerit points off passengers in speeding vehicles, or for that matter, for a crime like theft. Secondly, there is a reasonable chance that the cyclist won't have a license at all, which somewhat defeats the purpose.

There is a broader issue however, that relates to the attitude of cyclists to traffic and vice versa. On a normal road the cyclist has to contend with drivers in the cycle lane (if they are lucky to have one), drivers who cut them off, drivers who don't bother leaving space, drivers who think cyclists travel at about 5km/h and go in front, and plenty of other problems. In a big bunch cyclists are largely protected, visible and dominant. For all that their behaviour is illegal, it is occuring because for once it can. The level of scrutiny it is receiving is a disgrace when compared to that given to the poor and illegal driving that puts pedestrians and cyclists at risk.

But one other point should be made, and it is that riding in lage bunches is exactly the sort of social and physical activity that should be encouraged. At right are two pictures I took in Paris in 2001. It was taken very late at night, nearly midnight, when a certain number of roads were closed in the city centre for skaters. The cars had to wait, upwards of 15 minutes in fact, while thousands upon thousands of people cruised on by.

It is not unreasonable for a similar response here. Beach Rd. is not so buy, nor so important that it couldn't be closed for three hours on a Saturday morning for cyclists to use. it is certainly a better response than an indulgent legal crackdown in favour of a over-privileged drivers.

Sterner Matters 24th July, 2005 23:38:52   [#] [4 comments] 

Inner Navigation - Erik Jonsson
Russell Degnan

Given the majority of books I purchase these days are recommendations creamed from assorted bloggers, it is nice to stumble across a book that was simultaneously fascinating, completely unknown to me, and extremely useful. The sub-title of this book is "Why we get lost and how we find our way". Jonsson seems more fascinated by the former than the latter in this breezy and entertaining read. Each chapter placing another brick or two in the argument through a wealth of interesting stories about lost people, and confused internal maps.

In a basic sense, we seem to have two methods of wayfinding. The first is our 'dead-reckoning' system, our ability to say roughly what direction we are heading, and keep track of how far. The second is complementary. It is the landmark method where a person walks from known place to known place in a sequence.

A Landmark's usefulness is based on our ability to integrate the knowledge it gives us into the current mental map we have of where we are. The interesting parts therefore, are how we actual orientate ourselves, and how we assess our position, and to Jonsson, how these can go wrong.

Although he mentions other orientation systems, the author, to me, overemphasises the compass points as means of orientation. Probably because of his background in orienteering and non-urban navigation. For probably two reasons I can't say I have much use for north-south at all -- though I can generally point them out with a bit of thinking. Firstly, Melbourne has an imperfect north-south street grid, a perfect one to its north, confusing curves in North Melbourne and something else south of the river. Secondly, when travelling overseas, and as Jonsson describes, it can be quite difficult to work out which direction the train is travelling as it curves into town. In addition, the sun, being in the southern sky in Europe throws my northern sky orientation so much I can't trust it.

My method of orientation is different. It might be more unreliable at times, but it is easier to construct. Instead of compass points -- useless on curving medieval streets anyway -- I generally orientate myself according to a line from the railway station to the town centre. A sort-of town-north if you will, that may or may not resemble an actual north. I therefore have an odd directional sense: in Bologna north is actually south-south-west; while in Ravenna it is east, which an abominable west to the top tourist map made even more problematic. Though this isn't always the case, in Genoa's maze of twisty little streets, all alike, it is easier to orientate yourself by the harbour, and to pray. While in Florence I orientated myself by the river (and it seems strange to me that the old Roman part of town is orientated differently to the Uffizi gallery).

The book doesn't provide all the answers. Navigation seems to remain something of a mystery to cognitive scientists. But it does provide an excellent basis for thinking about navigation, about how people get lost, and more interestingly (to me), how to try and prevent that happening through good urban design and better maps.

Finer Things 19th July, 2005 02:17:20   [#] [6 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: LXXX, July 2005
Russell Degnan

The Myer Building and Bourke St. Taken July 2005

Melbourne Town 18th July, 2005 23:41:29   [#] [0 comments] 

Publishing, Past and Present
Russell Degnan

Reading this piece by John Quiggin, it is interesting to note the uncharacteristically optimistic tone. The general impression is that we've entered a time where the unparalleled ease with which a person can now publish has allowed anybody and everybody to become a member of a permanent republic of letters in whatever field they wish.

And while I would like to believe it true, a passage from the excellent book, "The Printing Revolution in Modern Europe" by Elizabeth Eisenstein, recalls that this sort of thing is not new, but rather part of the succession of ebbs and flows that has characterised publishing since Gutenberg did his thing.

By the simple expedient of being honest with his readers and inviting criticism and suggestions, Ortelius made his Theatrum a sort of co-operative enterprise on an international basis. He received helpful suggestions from far and wide and cartographers stumbled over themselves to send him their latest maps of regions not covered in the Theatrum.

The Theatrum was ... speedily reprinted several times ... Suggestions for correction and revisions kept Ortelius and his engravers busy altering plates for new editions ... Within three years he had acquired so many new maps that he issued a supplement of 17 maps which were afterwards incorporated in the Theatrum. When Ortelius died in 1598 at least 28 editions of the atlas had been published in Latin, Dutch, German, French and Spanish ... The last edition was published by the House of Plantin in 1612.

Similar collaborative efforts on the part of amateurs can be seen throughout history, through groups such as the Royal Society or the Lunar Society, in salons, and during the Scottish Enlightenment when "University of Edinburgh chemistry professor Thomas Hope's public lectures drew more than 300 serious-minded ladies from the town." And in all cases they eventually stopped being so open to the non-expert non-professional scholar.

Earlier this year I reached my first decade of internet access, simultaneously reminding me of how old I am getting and of how much things have changed in such a short period. In the web's earliest days, the lack of reliable information meant that anybody who could produce something reliable could also garner a substantial readership. I've been following Soccernet for most of its 10 year existence including when it was being run from a 12 year-old's bedroom; similarly CricInfo who used to advertise for scorers and writers, and had all manner of odd sections before they turned professional - so to speak.

The point is that there are lots of costs involved in providing information. The cost of gathering it, of collating it, of publishing it, and of critiquing it. And all of it is dependent on the return provided. For an individual web publisher, the return is mostly through friendships, kudos, and personal development. Any voluntary project is therefore dependent on their ability to attract and hold those individual contributors, not just in the initial burst of excited contributing, but over a long period of tedious day-to-day updating. Often with expectant users hassling you about something that isn't your day-job.

For profit based companies, the costs were previously tilted in their favour, but easier communication, collaborative models, and cheaper publishing has made blogs and wikis competitive. In addition, the difficulty companies have had in finding a feasible financial model has meant their resources have often been inferior to web users. But there is no guarantee that this will remain the case. Soccernet and Cricinfo both demonstrate that websites can grow into real, non-collaborative media companies.

The appeal of online media, and the likely trends depend on their role and their alternatives. For political blogs, the quality of the competition (i.e.. journalists) is often abysmal. They are rushed and under-researched to the point where their output is no better than a well thought out blog (actually in general it is worse). For a newspaper to compete they need to be better. Full-time investigative journalists and op-ed writers will probably find their jobs changing substantially within the next decade, if not sooner.

For academic blogs, their advantage over traditional academic journals is their ability to speak in a manner the layman can understand, to be relevant to current events, and to be free of charge. But there is inevitably a tension, between true scholars, and the general readership, who may lack the requisite knowledge to participate in the discussion -- Jason Soon and Mark Bahnisch come to mind. As more academics come online, valuing the relevancy and high quality discussion, this tension will increase, and the inevitable result will be blogs that are off limits to the general reader, in kind, if not in fact. Academia will retreat to its towers again, losing relevancy in the process, but that seems to be its fate. History also suggests that it will return.

Finally, there are culture blogs, whose popularity generally depends on the quality of the writer, and of the discussion. Popular blogs here, perversely end up with unmanageable discussions. Inevitable they will eventually quit, turn professional, or move on, but others take their place. This group is probably the most likely to retain its present form. However one aspect of it that strikes me continually is the tendency to become more and more geographically focused. The end point of blogs of this type is a discussion with local residents, about local things. Usenet did it, the early web boards did it, and blogs are too. Eventually, it will just be another way of communicating and finding friends, like going to your local pub was in days gone by.

As the Wikipedia becomes more popular it increases expectations, and its running costs. Simultaneously, possibilities arise to get real revenue, and of having sufficient contributors to be selective about who should have their say. The fact that collaboration is fundamental to Wikipedia means that it is unlikely to ever be completely exclusive, but the trend is towards more organisation, and greater checking (such as through their peer review process. Needless to say, in all things, organisation begets rules, rules beget processes, and processes are anathema to collaborative projects.

We are probably at a high-point then, in terms of the freedom granted to the general public to publish and be recognised for their efforts. This doesn't mean that it is all downhill from here, and there are many aspects of society that could benefit from the sort of processes that the web can work with, but it does mean that things will become more formalised and less exciting. Though pockets will remain -- as they have before -- and they'll be easier to find, which is good.

Passing Fancy 16th July, 2005 20:50:52   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: LXXIX, July 2005
Russell Degnan

Late, but I've had no internet. The Western suburbs, from Flagstaff Gardens. Taken May 2005

Melbourne Town 16th July, 2005 01:28:22   [#] [0 comments] 

The Birth of Religious Movements
Russell Degnan

There seems to be a lot of comment on religion at the moment. Not surprisingly perhaps. Religion would appear to be at the forefront of a number of prominent political movements, one of which holds as an article of faith the killing of non-believers. Such movements seem to be like fast strikers running at the heart of liberal, secular defences. The response is panic, confronted by the ghost of religions past, they are dismissive of the politics, and aggressively negative of the role of religions in modern society.

Pleading for a separation of church and state is not an adequate response. Not least, because it is a perversion of the concept. The separation is not a denial of religious movements in a secular society, but a fundamental call for the right to practise religion free from state control. It harks back to the times when Sebastian Castellio could say, "There is almost no sect which does not regard others as heretic;" when having the church and state as indivisible meant that "if you are thought to be right in one city or region, in the next you will be thought a heretic". At heart, all religions are a view of society itself; hence they are political, and must be engaged on those terms.

Which leads to my rule for the understanding of all religious movements. Namely, that they all share the same view of society:

1) that society has lost touch with its spiritual or religious side, and

2) that society should adhere to their political and social worldview.

The first is, of course, a given, because if a reformer wishing for less religion, would not start a religious movement.

The second holds as true for the Catholic church, built on the ruins of the Western Roman empire, and evolved to exert temporal power over a society fragmenting under the strain of the barbarian invasions; as for the more spiritual, less rational, Orthodox church that sat under the protection of the Byzantine empire. Other movements, both within and without the Catholic church, show the same pattern. Mendicant monasteries arose in the burgeoning medieval cities, as a rejection of the new idea to acquisition wealth, and as solace for the inevitable problems city-life brings to its weaker inhabitants. Fernand Braudel pointed out that the Protestant reformation followed broadly the line of the old Roman empire (although it is quite rough); that there religion became different because their society was different. I'd add that both the reformation and the counter-reformation occurred in the urban cities that were taking political control. The Dutch being the prime example.

It is no less true today. Churches formed in the past half-century are infused with the political currents of modern life -- the Uniting Church being a particularly sappy example of the late 70s. The Catholic church too, will continue their glacial like adoption to new conditions, but for those who lack the conservative patience of the new Pope alternatives seem to be growing in popularity.

The point of this piece however is to draw attention to the underlying currents of new religious movements. Noone should attack the Hillsong church for their fervour, or for their faith. if they want to be happy clappers, that is their prerogative. But noone joins a church for a bit of light entertainment, there is an underlying social movement there, an earnest movement, probably shared by many other non-religious people that is disillusioned with something.

My personal opinion: for the first time in a long time, if ever, a large percentage of the adult population (in Australia if not elsewhere) has not had and has no interest in, or may never have, children. They are divided by geography, as the childless move to the inner suburbs, by education, since the educated seem to be marrying later (though I should check that), by real income, given the cost of raising a child, by time, because people with children have none, and by the activities they engage in. And they are divided by politics, because that is a lot of things to have uncommon.

Needless to say, the portions of Islam that advocate terrorism. It is by no means all of Islam, even where sympathetic, and even given Islamic expansionism through history. Specifically, a strain is anti-Western, as the Wahabbism it grows from was, and is, anti-colonial. It is a political issue however, not a theological one. Attacking the otherwise harmless religious element merely serves to emphasize the first part of their case: namely that people aren't religious enough, while not engaging the political and social implications of the movement.

And they do need to be engaged. Because while it was largely ignored after 9/11, terrorism in Western countries has been performed by people educated and residing in the West. Somehow, they never imbibed those values that has made the West cohesive. This isn't surprising in a secular state, but it does need to be addressed. If history is any guide, religious movements flourish in the absence of something that provides a contemporary view of society. And that absence is clearly being felt.

Update: Also note this post on the Western nature of terrorism.

Sterner Matters 16th July, 2005 00:42:59   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: LXXVIII, July 2005
Russell Degnan

Strictly speaking I didn't take this. But it was on my camera, and the Domed Reading Room never looked better. Taken July 2005

Melbourne Town 5th July, 2005 00:08:23   [#] [1 comment] 

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