Saturday, June 30, 2007

Pecia: a blog on manuscripts

Anyone who can read French and who is interested in medieval manuscripts might want to go by the blog Pecia and have a look.

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Allen Drury, Advise and Consent

To advise and consent (or not) to various acts and appointments of the president is one of the constitutional duties of the US Senate; it's also the name of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Allen Drury, of 1959. It focuses on a hard-fought battle to confirm the appointment of a new Secretary of State (foreign minister) in an atmosphere of looming world conflict between the US and the USSR.

It's not quite certain what year this story is supposed to take place, but it's not 1959: perhaps a speculative 1967? No postwar presidents are named, and the entirely unnamed incumbent can't be any of them. The key fact, which emerges only slowly, is that the race to the Moon is almost over, and both superpowers are in a position to launch manned ships -- and they do. Drury started writing this book in 1957, the year of Sputnik, and reflects a pessimistic mood about free societies losing out to communism.

The real identity of the president is not a big mystery to anyone who read Drury's A Senate Journal. He's a figure who takes in all the most important characterstics of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as seen by Drury: a man of vast personal presence and strong character, the "great seducer," a man who has done so much good and so much bad that his contemporaries will never be able to come to a rounded judgment about him. Drury, a half-century after he wrote, has succeeded in piquing my interest in FDR. Whether I'll ever have the time to follow it up, I don't know. Any suggestions on further reading are welcome.

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The Vikings are back

Not the movie, but a crew who have reconstructed a longship and intend to sail it from Denmark to Ireland. The ship is called the Sea Stallion and it will be launched tomorrow. The Sea Stallion has an attractive website which you can use, among other things, for following its progress.

Question: Vikings could be either merchants or pirates, and usually both. This applies to just about every sailor of ancient or medieval times. Very little "Law of the Sea" back then. Is there a good book about this?

Image: The Sea Stallion's first launching, 2004.

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

What was Hadrian's Wall built for? What is George Bush's fence meant to do?

Usually off-the-cuff analogies between famous historical events or institutions and things that are in the news right now are shallow or even risible. However, I found this mini-essay by Tony Keen at Memorabilia Antonina pretty impressive (if not necessarily correct). Keen obviously knows more about the Roman Empire than you find in survey treatments, and has an understanding of sources and political motivation that I find sympathetic.

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How to rack up some site visit statistics...

...even when no one particularly cares what you have to say.

  1. Put a really nifty picture of Saladin on your site.
  2. Put a really nifty picture of a wolf pack on your site.
  3. Have your blog on a Google-owned platform so that Google searches privilege your site above, for instance, the sites that originally provided the picture of Saladin and the picture of the wolf pack.
  4. Sit back and let the hits accumulate, even when you've said nothing for a while.
I hope your summer day is as nice as mine is currently.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Reason for hope?

From Dan Froomkin's column at (and Associated Press):

Students Against Torture

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush was presented with a letter Monday signed by 50 high school seniors in the Presidential Scholars program urging a halt to 'violations of the human rights' of terror suspects held by the United States.

"The White House said Bush had not expected the letter but took a moment to read it and talk with a young woman who handed it to him. . . .

"The students had been invited to the East Room to hear the president speak about his effort to win congressional reauthorization of his education law known as No Child Left Behind.

"The handwritten letter said the students 'believe we have a responsibility to voice our convictions.'

"'We do not want America to represent torture. We urge you to do all in your power to stop violations of the human rights of detainees, to cease illegal renditions, and to apply the Geneva Convention to all detainees, including those designated enemy combatants,' the letter said."

Update: See the students speak.

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Back and feeling OK

I'm back from the Pastel Utopian Treatment Centre of the Future and am feeling quite fine. Thanks to those who expressed good wishes.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Bogota, Colombia: happier all the time?

Yesterday, Toronto's Globe and Mail had a series of articles on happiness, what it is and how to get it. The articles varied in interest, but I was fascinated by this one on Bogota, Colombia. It seems that Bogota's mayor, in an effort to make it possible for people to be happier, is working to eliminate something that really makes people miserable -- commuting based on pro-automobile development. I'd like to know more about this, but anything that reduces the murder rate is worth looking at. Here's another article on bicycles in Bogota.

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Medical leave

I'm going out of town Monday evening for medical treatment Tuesday. It's nothing drastic but my blogging may fall off in the upcoming week.

Finishing Drury's A Senate Journal 1943-5

It's been a fascinating read; as I went along I was less and less able to put it down. Discussion of the shape of the peace, ending in the Senate's ratification of the UN Charter supplied much of the focus for the second half of the book.

There continued throughout Drury's concern for the survival of democracy in the United States in the face of executive power and the "military oligarchy" (= Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex"). Incidents most people have never heard of, and which even at the time were soon overtaken by other events, seem to have a sinister importance.

Take Drury's comments of March 25 and 27, 1945 on a bill to give the Director of War Mobilization vast and poorly defined powers to allocate labor through "labor ceilings," "labor freezes," and the regulation of hiring and firing of individuals in any industry, and authorized in advance any regulations he cared to make.

March 25, 1945....Out of the minds of 8 men...has come the most fantastic, fascistic bill ever proposed in America. It is a strange commentary on the times that it is expected to have no trouble in the House, and perhaps not too much in the Senate. By so tenuous a thread does our democracy hang, and here in the Congress, by [a list of admirable senators], the thread is about to be cut.

March 27, 1945....So it has come about, just as the dark Cassandras said it would --- the last great battle for democracy has not come on a foreign field. It has come here, at home, on the Hill. Almost unnoticed out in the country save in the intemperate editorials that have consistently misrepresented the case and begged with masochistic eagerness for the very dictatorship the press is theoretically so dead-set against, it has gathered in the House and in the Senate over the past two months. And now it has been lost in the House and only the Senate remains. It may now be the hysteria of the moment, and perhaps time will prove it to have all been a harmless thing -- yet it seems no exaggeration at this moment, here where the thing is taking placed, to say that the vote the Senate will cast sometime in the next few days is the most important it has cast. Everything which is America is at stake; and the frightful knowledge about it is that men on the other side of the Capitol, men just as patriotic and just as sincere and just as freedom-loving, have just voted calmly and matter-of-factly, and as though this were no less routine than an appropriations bill, to throw it away.

Strange resonances!

The bill was defeated in the Senate when opponents were able to show that there was no labor shortage and it became clearer by the day that the war in Europe was almost over.

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More on the Long Now, early history and living in the future

Further discussion continues at In the Middle.

You may want to look at this earlier post and its links.


A modern religious mosaic -- Washington, D.C.

The Washington Post has a slide show illustrating the construction of a mosaic depicting the Incarnation of Christ at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (USA).

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

Some Texans revolt against the Rio Grande fence

In theory, you will soon need a passport to cross from Canada to the US (even if you are an American citizen). In theory, there will soon be a big, technologically loaded fence between Mexico and the United States.

As these "fixes" meant to keep the US secure approach reality, more and more of the Americans who are going to be affected by them are getting angry.

Here's a story about the Rio Grande.

File under geopolitical fantasy.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Other medieval blogs

There are a number of medievalists who write weblogs. Some of those blogs are devoted to tales of survival in the academic life; others are more focused on medieval subject matter; a few are quite substantial, and include some of the fruits of the author's scholarly efforts. Let me draw your attention to a couple of the latter, and then two more resources worth knowing.

Matthew Gabriele teaches at Virginia Tech and writes a blog called Modern Medieval. I'll bet he's a good teacher by my own personal standards, because he clearly does not believe that the Middle Ages are dead and gone, or impossibly remote. Two posts illustrate this, the first being Tony, meet Chuck, wherein he draws an interesting and I think non-trivial parallel between Tony Soprano and Charlemagne: people now aren't sure that Tony Soprano is dead, and people then weren't sure Charlemagne was. You may say that Tony Soprano is a fictional character, while Charlemagne was a real person, but then I'd ask you to reread The Song of Roland and explain your position in light of that.

A second post is more somber: Gabriele teaches at that same Virginia Tech where the shootings took place, and this eventually inspired him to write a short essay called The New Relevance of the Middle Ages at Virginia Tech. He made two major points in it: first, the motivations of the killer were not all that different than the motivations from those that inspired the First Crusade; second, in looking for hope Gabriele says:

If nothing else, the Middle Ages show us how the intellectual path we’re on isn’t the only one available. In 1095, 100,000 people thought that violence could bring peace. In 2007, Seung Cho believed the same and the world cried out in horror. Cho took one path from 1095 and the vast majority took the other. In and of itself, and in the middle of all this sadness, this is a reason for hope.

Here I have to say that it's easier to say what "the world" says or thinks than to prove it. We don't know what the majority thought or did in 1095. Certainly we know what a dynamic and influential minority did and were able to do. But the rest? Did they agree or were they just ignored, or steamrollered? And it's pretty sure that no Yakutians or Incans were involved at all.
Now, of course, we hear lots of cries of horror, but also lots of influential calls for more bombings and more secret prisons.

Nonetheless I look forward to more reading at Modern Medieval.

Modern Medieval has already made me aware through its blogroll of A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe. This blog, which seems to be anonymous, has lots of scholarly comment on things I find interesting, including an essay on whether material motivations influenced the Crusaders. The 10th century blogger rightly says that recent scholars have downplayed the idea that members of the First Crusade enlisted to get rich quick, for the reason that it was appallingly dangerous and expensive to go. A good point, but our blogger wonders if the First Crusaders knew it was such a bad bet (a point also made by others).
Having studied the motives behind warriors taking part in dangerous "deeds of arms" I ask, didn't they use a different calculus of risk back then. There were plenty of cautious and conservative people in 1095, but weren't active warriors expected to be risk takers beyond what was normal? They sure were expected to be stronger and braver.

I've mentioned this blog before, but I'll mention it here again for new readers: is a compilation of a lot of valuable material, especially the section called News for Medievalists. And I should mention, too, the section of devoted to the Middle Ages. It is edited by Melissa Snell, who has a fine, light touch and shows a lot of imagination in her compiling of good material from the Web.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Inappropriate Nazi comparisons -- December, 1944

An adage among Internet users -- incorrectly, I believe, confused with Godwin's Law -- is that if you bring in an inappropriate analogy between some evil and Nazism, you lose your argument.

Allen Drury's Senate Journal (discussed below) cites (pp. 320-1) an early and somewhat shocking example from December 24, 1944.

US Senator Alexander Wiley (Wisconsin) released to the press a statement accusing New Deal Democrats of maintaining "a perpetual scarcity in natural foods [like butter] and accustom American palates to synthetics such as oleomargarine."

Drury quotes Wiley as saying "Is the New Deal, with Nazi-like stealth, planning to complete such destruction of the home market, by employing high-sounding but wretched excuses now and after the war?"

What's noteworthy about this is that as the statement was being made, the Allied (and mainly American) forces in Europe were in the midst of the Battle of the Bulge.

Image: A US tax stamp, one of the 19th and 20th century efforts to restrict that evil oleomargerine.

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Early history or living in the future?

I sometimes wonder whether this blog, originally conceived as an adjunct to my university teaching, has become too much of a general purpose site, including as it does lots of things that aren't directly about "early history."

Today, however in reading the Medieval Studies blog In the Middle by Karl Steel, Eileen Joy and J.J. Cohen, I felt reassured. Today's post is linked to an older one by Joy and commented on by Cohen, which clearly shows that these two scholars share my feeling that the various themes found here can shed light on each other.

Do read that post.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Strange Turkish maps of a divided USA

A Turkish site referenced in a comment at Strange Maps shows the results of a contest for maps showing alternative versions of the USA: the Divided States of America. They are ludicrous, but that I think was the point of the contest, to show all those American amateur commentators who love to argue for partition in the Middle East what it would be like if the shoe was on the other foot.

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Allen Drury, A Senate Journal, 1943-1945

In 1959, Allen Drury, a former political journalist, wrote a blockbuster novel called Advise and Consent, set against the background of the US Senate. I checked it out of the library recently as part of my project to read classic novels of US politics. (Suggestions are welcome!) At the same time I discovered that the NU had in its collection, unloved and unappreciated, a book called A Senate Journal (1963), an edited version of Drury's personal journal from when he covered the Senate in the last years of World War II. I picked it up and decided to read it before going on to Advise and Consent.

Well, it has been an odd experience. Drury didn't bother to explain more than a few of the features of American politics, assuming that his readers would have a pretty good idea of the issues and perhaps even the personalities of 20 years earlier. Perhaps that was justified; after all, a surprising number of Senators of that era were still in the Senate during the Vietnam War era when I remember them. (It gives one pause to recollect that!) However, even a reader whose memories stretch back that far, like me, has a hard time coming to grips now with the issues of the early and mid 40s. But the effort has been worthwhile.

One thing that shocked me is the portrayal of Franklin Roosevelt -- not yet the victor of the Second World War, not yet a semi-martyr from dying in office -- as a sneering, superior, untrustworthy man, whose wartime powers and personal attributes are a danger to the Republic. Yes, I can remember jokes about FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt (the Hillary Clinton of her time) told by people who still despised them, but it seems like eons ago. Even American aristocrats who want to destroy the remnants of the New Deal by abolishing Social Security don't waste five seconds denouncing FDR or using him to fuel the engines of "conservative" outrage. He's just too remote; Carter (!) and the Clintons are the great "liberal" villains. Indeed, I can't remember the last time anyone mentioned Eleanor. (It's not just living in Canada; I read a lot of American news and opinion.) So obscurity overtakes someone who was hated with a passion by her foes for decades. Specious parallels between Eleanor and Hillary would be so easy, but nobody cares enough to do it. Might as well joke about Mrs. Andrew Jackson.

Reading A Senate Journal takes me right back to a time when many people saw the huge growth of Executive Branch power under Roosevelt as a great danger. The book insofar as it is about the war, is about the domestic management of the wartime economy, and how the transition to a peacetime economy would be handled without catastrophe or a sinister restructuring of the social system. Drury came to Capitol Hill as, or was quickly converted on the Hill to, a defender of Congress and the Senate in particular as constituting the essence of democracy. Roosevelt comes across as a far more sophisticated Huey Long, a man who does his best to bamboozle Congress with the help of his unprincipled legislative collaborators on such issues as the goals of the war and the shape of the peace. And who will be able to exploit both war and peace for their own profit.

Does any of this sound in the least familiar?

Update: An American mother connects Eleanor and Hillary.

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Strange Maps

Andrew Sullivan's blog at the Atlantic alerts me to the existence of a blog called Strange Maps. Wow! It's already on my list of blogs to track.

The map above is what caught Sullivan's attention. It labels US states with the name of the country closest to it in Gross Domestic Product. Note that New Jersey is labeled as "Russia." This not only tells you that Russia is poorer than you think, but that New Jersey is richer.

Note that Saudi Arabia for all its supposedly fabulous wealth is only as rich as Tennessee.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Vikings (1958)

I just re-viewed this movie for the first time in a very long time. I first saw it when the major American networks started showing recent releases in prime time. I loved it then, but now I'm a medieval historian! Would it be a groaner or a joke?

Well, it's still a fun movie, and more. Though the plot and the characterizations are in the authentic Hollywood tradition, it's got many virtues rare in big budget semi-historical movies. The landscapes and the Viking ships, village, meadhall, equipment and clothing are either good or excellent. (The English stuff is more uneven, a mixture of the 9th and 14th centuries.) There are many scenes that are simply beautiful. (For instance: the preparation of the Viking ship burial.) Even the big battle is more believable than, say, the Battle of Helm's Deep or the recent assault on Troy.

All in all, a movie where the guy in charge really cared about doing it right. That guy was the star, Kirk Douglas.

Two other points: yet another medieval movie where the Bayeux Tapestry stands in for another period. (Others include Mel Gibson's version of Hamlet and El Cid, where noble ladies in Denmark and Castile embroider it in their spare time.) Will there ever be a feature film on the Norman Conquest?

Second, another movie where Tony Curtis wears short, short tunics.

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Sauna to go: North speaks to north

For the last few days I've been in the Big Smoke (otherwise known as Toronto, Ontario). I just returned home today. As we drove Highway 11 North, we were looking for the yurt we saw on a previous trip. And indeed we saw it, at a Muskoka-area outlet called Paddle Shack. (They claim the yurts are Mongolian, which makes me a bit sad -- I thought this was the great Yakutian break-out.)

Before we reached the Paddle Shack, however, we saw another northern custom imported to Canada. Not one that's at all new, really, since Finns abound here, but I've never seen it in this form.

Someone had taken a couple of immense wine barrels, converted them into saunas, and put them on wheels. Voila, rent-a-sauna, or more precisely, Sauna to Go.

Unfortunately, no picture or web site.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The complexities of World War II

Living in the future (?)-- battling Apocalypses

Brad DeLong says it best in his post Battling Apocalypses, where he cites other linked material. The story, briefly, is that the location of Jesus' appearance on the Last Day has become a minor (we can hope) issue in the American presidential campaign. And as Brad points out, there are international implications...

This reminds me that Robert Heinlein's pioneering science fiction series "Future History" featured a theocratic dictatorship in the USA.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

The last two centuries as seen by a tree in Kaliningrad

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Jarbel Rodriguez's Captives and their Saviors in the Medieval Crown of Aragon

At the Medieval Studies congress in Kalamazoo last month, this book caught my eye and I picked it up. Even paid for it! My interest grows out of my current study of Charny's Questions
on War, which include many on capture and ransom of legitimate combatants ("men at arms") and their rights of the two parties. Rodriguez here talks about something different here: how common it was for Christians and Muslims to enslave each other along the religious frontier in Spain and the Mediterranean, how cruel conditions were, how expensive and unlikely ransom was, yet how important the relief of captives was as a policy for important institutions like town governments, religious institutions, and royal government. Rodriguez talks primarily on the basis of documents from one Christian kingdom, the Aragonese confederacy, but makes it clear that these things worked both ways and capturing and ransoming affected all parts of the society he studied. There is a lot more written on this subject, but this was a good introduction to a big topic.

Both literary works and documents make it clear that in many medieval wars, even when there was no difference of religion to justify enslaving, non-combatants were taken for the purpose of ransoming them back.

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Living in the present -- June 9, 2007

Found on the land this morning:

Wild strawberry -- very early.

Deer prints -- unusual

Moose prints -- almost unprecedented.

Maybe the last explains why the horses were excited a couple of days ago.


C.S. Lewis Summer Conference, San Diego, June 28-July 1

Anna Shea of the C.S. Lewis has asked me to mention the C.S. Lewis Summer Conference at the end of this month, on the topic: Finding the Way: C.S. Lewis as Pilgrim Guide in an Age of Pluralism.

I agree that some readers will probably be interested, so here is the information. Note that they have other programs.

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Living in the future -- plastic water bottles

If you live long enough, you begin to live in the future that you used to imagine. (And as a science-fiction reader since the age of ten, I've had a lot of help and practice.) Some of the things that happen in that future are unexpectedly good (the nearly bloodless collapse of European communism), some are bad surprises (name your genocide; global warming and the unwillingness of powerful people to do anything about it, or really even think about it). But it's the unexpectedness that gets me. Often this is most obvious in little things.

Yesterday, I had a "living in the future" experience at convocation. We faculty were sitting in a hot hall in front of the graduates and guests, slurping water from plastic bottles. When I was graduating from university that would just not have happened. First, there were very few plastic bottles of any kind. Second, buying water was seldom done (the current distrust of tap water strikes me as superstition -- bottled water comes out of a tap). Third, at least in my family, slurping from a bottle on a formal occasion was considered a slobby thing to do. Sure, drink out of a glass bottle at a picnic, or a picnic-like meal indoors, but at a graduation? Or, as recently, while delivering a paper at an academic conference?

Here's another smallshock from life in the future. Say you have to take a dog with you in the car on a sunny day. However careful you are you will want to have water for that dog. If you went out to the mall, both bowl and water are available. The bowl, if bought at a dollar store, has almost certainly come from China, may look quite attractive, and will last as long as a ceramic bowl does. Despite the fact that it has traveled half way around the world it will cost you a dollar plus tax. The water you put in that bowl is Canadian water from Ontario, is packaged in a disposable bottle made in Ontario, and costs a lot more.

Life in the future!


Friday, June 08, 2007

Nipissing University Convocation, June 8, 2007

Today's afternoon convocation at NU included most of our history graduates. Of course it was hot and humid in the hall, even though snow had fallen and briefly stuck on the ground two days earlier. Nevertheless, there were some really nice moments, on top of the general joy surrounding graduation.

The speakers -- the honorary doctor and the valedictorian -- were exceptional. The Hon. Jean Jacques Blais, a former MP for this riding who has spent his last decade or so in practical democracy promotion, made an eloquent case for good governance making all the difference between one country and the next -- say, Russia and Canada, two places with sparse populations owning huge areas filled with natural resources. And then he went on to insist that honest devotion to the public good is the core of good governance. His speech made me very happy -- at a time when much of the world is being torn to shreds by the greedy, the selfish, and the bloodthirsty, that there is a place where people who believe in such sane values not only exist, but have influence. And I live there! It means a great deal to me that Dr. Blais, a product of the Nipissing District, said what he said; it almost means more that the NU community chose to award him a D.Litt. honoris causa for manifesting those values.

Tomorrow, the same honorary degrees will be awarded to Maher Arar and his spouse Dr. Monia Mazigh at another convocation. 'Nuff said.

The valedictorian for the convocation today was Jennifer Evans, who gave a convincing performance of the student who went to university -- a small and rather obscure one -- and found exactly what she wanted and needed, not only the opportunity to learn, but the opportunity to make the most valuable kind of human connections. My colleagues who have had her in their courses aver that she is exactly the way she appeared today. It's nice to know that your university can sometimes do exactly what it aspires to do.

On a more personal note, I was touched by how many students asked about my health -- it's a great deal improved, thanks -- and I left the university feeling even better than I did when I came.

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Song of Roland

Richard Nokes at Unlocked Wordhoard cites an interesting post on the Song of Roland by the single-named Jacob at the University of Arkansas who, after reviewing a new translation of Roland, reflects in an interesting manner on the poem itself, and as Nokes has already said, provided some possible topics for future and non-plagiarized papers.

Image: The so-called horn of Roland, a real medieval elephant-tusk horn, or olifant.

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Six Day War, 40 years on

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War, which as much as any single event created the Middle East situation we now live with.

There are many retrospectives around the Web, but I've decided to link to one at Le Monde Diplomatique (in English) to give a perspective that may not be familiar to North American readers. The link is to just one of several articles in a feature called Forty Years of Conflict in the Middle East; related articles can be seen listed on the left.

These articles bring back a time when France was Israel's most important international supporter.

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

NU Historians graduate, June 8, 2007

Nipissing University historians will be granted their BAs on Friday afternoon. I'm planning on being there. Come by and say hello.

The forecast is for normal temps -- low 20s Celsius.

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Ottawa: a northern capital comes of age

Long ago there was a story going around -- in the typical style of Canadian self-disparagement -- that Ottawa was known in the international diplomatic corps as one of the bleakest places to be posted. Given the refined tastes that most diplomats would like to indulge, the story may well have been true. Ottawa was a pretty ordinary place, and colder than most.

Whatever the truth of the story, it can hardly be true today. The place has grown, diversified its economy, and generated a lot of the neat things a good city should have, and some of the institutions that capitals generally support. And early June is a pretty wonderful time to see its green river valleys.

I often go to Ottawa to visit friends, and don't have a chance to just enjoy the city. But this past weekend I went to visit the city, and among other things saw a big flashy public institution, the National Gallery of Canada. All the big Ottawa museums have been rehoused in the last quarter century -- I've joked that they explain the deficits of the Trudeau-Mulrony years. Despite the fact that the "new" NGC was finished in 1988, this is the first time I've been inside it.

We got our money's worth on this one. There are some good collections here, but the building itself by Moses Safdie would be worth visiting -- a shorter visit, maybe -- if it were empty.

I've been to the Museum of Civilization -- also a fine building; next trip, perhaps the War Museum. I'm only about 2 years late on that one.

Image: "Maman" (Mama) by Louise Bourgeoise, outside the NGC.

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June in North Bay

Air conditioning inside the store -- ice pellets falling outside!

Image: These are ice pellets from Iran -- the online National Geoscience Database. A little extra for you former HIST 2805 students.

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