A Historian’s Year with a Chromebook

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by Sean Kheraj

Could a Chromebook satisfy the computing needs of a historian? Over the past twelve months, I’ve been using one to find out.

Google’s low-cost, Web-based operating system, ChromeOS, is one of the most unique developments in computing in recent years. It is a lean computer operating system based almost entirely around the use of Web applications and cloud storage. Recognizing that most ordinary computer use takes place in a Web browser, Google decided to make a computer centred exclusively on the Web. With ChromeOS, computing takes place on the internet and the Chromebook is just an access terminal.

First announced in 2010 and then released to consumers in 2011, ChromeOS originally appeared on just two consumer laptop models, one by Acer and another by Samsung. By 2015, at least twelve manufacturers produced dozens of different models of Chromebooks. And by the third quarter of last year, Chromebooks accounted for more than half the sales of notebook devices in the K-12 education market in the US. Recently, David Pierce advised college students, “you should seriously consider buying a Chromebook for this school year.” Part of the reason Chromebooks have become so popular in the education market is that they are some of the most low cost computers available to students.

Given the growing popularity of the Chromebook in education and its low cost for students, I wanted to know what it was like to use a Chromebook for my own daily computing needs as a historian. Is this a device I would recommend for another historian or a history student? Continue reading

Intergenerational Solidary? The Postal Labour Dispute and the Historical Context of Young Workers

by Christo Aivalis

Canada Post delivery truck in Ontario. Public domain image.

Canada Post delivery truck in Ontario. Public domain image.

Over the past few weeks, people, organizations, and small businesses have been left unsettled over a looming Canada Post lockout of its unionized workers, which would leave the country without mail access. However much we live in a digital world, the public postal service continues to have a logistical and cultural prominence.

The dispute is based on Canada Post’s assertion that they need greater labour flexibility and cost efficiency to spur competitiveness in a world with more parcels, and less postage. As a result, Canada Post wants the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) to accept more part time labour, along with a two-tier pension model that would put new hires under a defined contributions plan as opposed to a more secure defined benefits plan.

As I’ve written recently, CUPW is resisting a two-tier model on behalf of future postal workers. If they simply represented existing members, it would be easy to concede the existing pension model for members-to-be. This is a strong application of solidarity between generations of workers, but it is also a recognition—which has played out many times historically—that alliances between young and old workers need to be actively nurtured for the good of the labour movement.

Most of the historically-relevant context has arisen in the postwar era. Historians like Ian Milligan have noted that, while their parents had direct experiences with the Great Depression and total war, young workers in the 1960s and 70s grew up in a time of relative peace and prosperity. This environment, combined with more pervasive media and higher levels of formal education, meant young workers had higher expectations, and were more apt to challenge societal preconceptions around order and respectability in order to achieve those expectations. Continue reading

The Distance We Have Traveled: Practicing History in the Twenty-First Century

By Andrew Nurse

Practicing History in the 21st Century. Image designed by Tom Peace.

Practicing History in the 21st Century.      (Image designed by Tom Peace)

To argue that there have been improvements in the practice of history is almost a-historical, at least heuristically. After all, claims of progress are a sign of Whig historiography and something we are supposed to avoid. And, yet, after leaving the Practicing History in the 21st Century Symposium, the idea that progress had actually been made was hard – for me at least – to shake.

There are several reasons I felt this way, but I should begin by saying that Practicing History in the Twenty-First Century was a symposium organized to honour John Reid, the noted Saint Mary’s University historians. I should also say “mea culpa” because I was one of the organizers, along with Tom Peace, Peter Twohig, Elizabeth Mancke, Jeffers Lennox, and Jerry Bannister.  As organizers we wanted to do more than honour John. We wanted to craft an event that took up the ideas with which he had worked and looked forward, building on ideas that have emerged in regional, colonialism, and Canadian history over the last generation.

The symposium featured panels that looked at public history, the shifting (or, not shifting) spatial organization of Atlantic regional history, relationships between historians and other communities, historical collaboration, and the audiences to which historians speak. Continue reading

Masculinities and the Culture of Parliament

By Matt Barrett

Drawing by Matt Barrett

Drawing by Matt Barrett

Without a hint of hyperbole, the House of Commons descended into a scene resembling a Blue Jays–Rangers dugout-clearing brawl on the afternoon of May 18th. According to Peter Mansbridge, “We’ve never seen anything like this in the House of Commons.” Prior to a vote on the assisted-dying bill, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau crossed the floor, entered a crowd of MPs and took the arm of Conservative Whip Gord Brown. During the jostling, NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau stated she had been “elbowed in the chest by the prime minister.” When NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair subsequently confronted Trudeau in an intense exchange, several Liberals left their seats as well until tensions cooled.

An incredulous Peter Julian, NDP House Leader, declared, “There is not a parallel in contemporary Canadian history.” Calling Trudeau’s action “an extraordinary example of physical intimidation,” Conservative Peter Van Loan added, “I have read about this stuff in history books from the 19th century. I have never seen such a thing in my lifetime.” Ironically, four years ago, Van Loan himself  reportedly “stormed across the aisle” to yell and wave his finger at the NDP Opposition. Although for the most part attacks in the House of Commons are of the verbal variety, historically, physical confrontations between MPs are nothing new. Even a cursory look through the 149-year history of the Canadian Parliament reveals numerous incidents of insults, threats, intimidation, scuffles and even sporadic violence. Continue reading

History on TV: Political Drama in the 2010s

Alban Bargain-Villéger

Still from Borgen, 2010.

Still from Borgen, 2010.

In recent years, serial political dramas such as House of Cards and the Danish series Borgen have enjoyed quite a bit of success in North America. Although one might argue that the genre is more of a child of the 1990s, since the original House of Cards trilogy (set in a fictional post-Thatcher Britain) came out in 1991, and The West Wing ran from 1999 to 2006, the four series that I intend to examine in this post are all products of the 2010s. A comparison of Borgen (“The Castle,” Denmark, 2010-13), Les Hommes de l’ombre (“The Shadow Men,” France, 2012), House of Cards (USA, 2013-present), and Okkupert (“Occupied,” Norway, 2015) is not only useful in providing an overview of how western European and American politics are being imagined (even fantasized about) in our day and age, but also yields precious information of a historical nature. In their own way, each of these series tries to make sense of a different political history. Of course, it should be acknowledged that these four series reflect the views of the writers, directors, consultants and producers who created and shaped them. Nonetheless, the commercial and critical success that they have garnered as well as the themes they address raise several questions about the ways western democracies and their histories are perceived today.

SPOILER ALERT: be warned that plot points will be given away. Continue reading

The Big Hole of Black Oblivion

RHphoto1By Rachel Hatcher

[This is the second in a series of posts titled “Learning and unlearning history in South Africa’s public spaces”]

The Big Hole in Kimberley, in South Africa’s Northern Cape province, somehow manages to tower over the city in a way that is surprising for a big hole in the ground, which is precisely what the Big Hole is. Yet the Big Hole does just that. It towers. Part of this is certainly because the Big Hole, which is reputed to be the biggest hand-dug hole in the world, seems to be the only reason people visit Kimberley. Mention in nearby Bloemfontein that you went to Kimberley on the weekend, and you will be asked if you saw the Big Hole. Another reason the Big Hole towers over the city is because of its history. Kimberley exists because of the Big Hole and, more specifically, because of the millions of dollars of diamonds dug from the hole, many of which ended up with the DeBeers company, founded in Kimberley in 1888.

Today, the complete Big Hole experience begins with a short film, Diamonds and Destiny, which tells the “realistic” story of the mine’s early existence “through the eyes of two fictional characters of the time,” a white travel writer and a black labourer. The experience continues with a short tour of the underground mine; a visit to the viewing platform perched overlooking the Big Hole; and, finally, a visit to the mine museum and the heavily guarded diamond display. Visitors are also invited to take a trolley ride or walk around the restored old town with its blacksmith, garage, “High Class London Tailor,” milliners, and other shops. Continue reading

Justin Trudeau and Canada’s Colonial Baggage: Past and Present

by Christo Aivalis

‘(official denial) trade value in progress’ participatory art project responding to Harper's no history of colonialism statement. Photograph by Krista McCracken.

(official denial) trade value in progress’ participatory art project responding to Harper’s no history of colonialism statement. Photograph by Krista McCracken.

Justin Trudeau—since his October 2015 electoral victory that catapulted him to the office of Prime Minister, and his Liberal Party to a majority government—has not lost much of his sheen with the Canadian public. He still embodies for many youthfulness, respectable progressivism, and what the modern Canadian state and civil society should resemble.

Additionally, Trudeau on the international scene is seen as sexy, cosmopolitan, and as an embodiment of what Canada is stereotypically thought to be, even if it isn’t the reality. Trudeau’s actions, symbolic as they mostly have been, are nevertheless speaking loudly within and beyond Canada’s borders, giving him a highly publicized pulpit from which to evangelize his brand of Canadian l/Liberalism.

In this light, it was just a few days ago at New York University where Trudeau took questions from students. But one topic that went relatively unchallenged was Trudeau’s justification for what Canada can offer the United Nations:

it’s a capacity to engage in the world in difficult places without some of the baggage that so many other Western countries have, either colonial pasts or perceptions of American imperialism, as a critique that’s often out there.”

Some people, including NDP MP Niki Ashton, keyed in on Trudeau’s disavowance of Canada’s colonial and imperial baggage. Others have made the case that this sort of statement mirrors Stephen Harper’s claim that Canada has no history of colonialism. Continue reading

Merchants of Death: Canada’s History of Questionable Exports

By Stephanie Bangarth and Jon Weier

LAV-III. DND Photo

LAV-III. DND Photo

I must say that I feel the whole Canadian policy to be very hypocritical. We talk a good game but then proceed to act inconsistently by promoting trade with the countries whose policies we denounce.[1]

The year was 1974 and the issue of Canadian trade with South Africa was making the headlines, along with concerns over the sale of CANDU reactors to Argentina and India. It reflected the increasing awareness of and support for human rights in Canadian foreign policy during the late 1960s and the early 1970s. As David Forsyth notes, as a general historical trend, more attention is now paid toward humanitarianism in world affairs.[2] In part, this development was due to parliamentarians such as New Democrat Andrew Brewin, who were central in making the issue of human rights more than merely a domestic issue.

Brewin’s statement is as relevant today as it was in 1974. Since its election in October 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new Liberal government has been dogged by the continuing saga of the sale of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. This deal, initially pursued and approved by the previous Conservative government, would see General Dynamics Land Systems sell $15 billion worth of Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) to re-equip the Saudi National Guard. These LAVs are to be produced at the General Dynamics production facility in London, Ontario, and were a centrepiece of the previous Conservative government’s plan for bolstering the Canadian arms industry through increased exports. Continue reading

In Search of Digital Literacy in Canadian History Programs

By Stacey Devlin

For both students and practicing historians, a wealth of information is often just a few clicks away. Photo by Thomas Lefebvre via unsplash.com

For both students and practicing historians, a wealth of information is often just a few clicks away. Photo by Thomas Lefebvre via unsplash.com

During the second half of my MA, my colleagues and I were tasked with preparing an exhibit about early-twentieth-century medicine. Not having a background in medical history, I began by downloading archived medical periodicals from Early Canadiana Online. I reasoned that if I could identify important conversations of the profession during the period of interest, I would have clear leads for exhibit content. What were considered standard practices? What were the pressing issues or the latest controversies? Unfortunately, I wasn’t at liberty to read the thousands of pages I had downloaded, let alone to keep an ongoing record of topics or word usage. During the previous semester, however, I had taken courses on digital history and digital research methods. After using Voyant Tools to generate a list of frequently used words in my periodicals, I put together a program to extract instances of these key words and save them in new documents for review. My processing of the periodicals ended there, but even this simple operation gave me useful direction for continued research.

In the two years since then, I’ve continued to use a variety of technologies in my work. My university training in digital history (and the willingness to embrace new technologies in general) has been helpful in finding employment opportunities outside the academy. I incorporate digital tools into my workflow because they’re illuminating, time-saving, and even fun. However, digital literacy was not a priority during most of my university career. Similarly, I have few peers that would consider themselves digital historians, despite the fact that research is routinely conducted online and the digital humanities are a frequent topic of discussion within the discipline. Continue reading

Hamilton: A Belated Discussion

By Jonathan McQuarrie

It turns out rap is a perfect medium for history. Hamilton has become a touchstone musical, winning laurels from a range of audiences from musical aficionados to people (like me) who are never quite sure why everyone is singing. Its wide appeal has made it a notoriously difficult ticket to get—as of this writing, the tickets are “extremely limited” and ticket resale sites ask for $500 to $700. As the New York Times reviewer noted, “I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to attend a hit Broadway show. Hamilton, directed by Thomas Kail and staring [Lin-Manuel] Miranda might just be worth it[.]” For those unwilling to resort to such extreme measures (including myself), the cast recording is widely available, and captures much of the energy and power of the work. It has the feel of being one of those generational musicals with the power to define how many people understand a historically significant figure, much as Les Misérables shaped understanding of the French revolutionary period.

Hamilton is a lasting success. So, we need to pay attention to this cultural moment. Here’s why.

  • One need not read a fully footnoted work to find some analytically rich and complex material. The creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, demonstrated an impressive commitment to historical accuracy. He drew rigorously on Ron Chernow’s popular, but extensive, biography of Alexander Hamilton, and Chernow contributed as a consultant to the production. Other historians have largely praised the work’s portrayal, noting only minor omissions or confusions. Indeed, the approximately three hour work is remarkable for how much detail it does include, from Hamilton’s efforts to form a new financial system to an intricate detailing of the rules of dueling. The “Cabinet Battles” are must-listens.

Continue reading