Christmas in Paris

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I like Paris in winter – there are not too many tourists and the queues to get into museums and galleries are much shorter. Of course, in 2010 western Europe experienced snowpocalypse and many people suffered from cancelled transport and were forced to spend days trapped in airport terminals. Luckily I was spared that experience.

The typical Australian Christmas experience for me is to join relatives for a long lunch in the heat (trying to stay out of the sun) and then drive home in the evening to collapse for a nap.

Instead, this year, I drove back from Ieper (aka Ypres) in Belgium to join some friends for Christmas in Paris before flying to London. These friends are not geeks, so there was little discussion of technology. Instead we dined very well and went to the opera. Our conversation was wide-ranging and that camerarderie that arises when far from home on a traditional holiday kicked in.

Au Chien Qui Fume Xmas 2010On Christmas Eve we dined at a traditional restaurant called Au Chien Qui Fume near Pont Neuf. The staff were friendly and welcoming – making jokes and recommending wines to accompany our meal.

For Christmas Day we had a late lunch at a tiny but lovely Breton inspired place called Le Relais de l’Isle. It is on l’Ile Saint-Louis just across the bridge from Notre Dame Cathedral. Again we experienced a warm welcome from the proprietor of this establishment and enjoyed a fine meal with good wine.

Opera Bastille Paris Xmas 2010Then on Christmas Night we were off to the Opera Bastille to see a performance of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. It was rather amusing to see the opera performed in German with surtitles in French. It was a very enjoyable production and I enjoyed the strong female performers.

It was a very different experience of Christmas – of note was the fact that so many venues were open in Paris on Christmas Day. The weather on Christmas Day was lovely, Paris at its winter best with cold crisp air and clear blue skies.

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Flanders mud is pretty bad too

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Recently I visited the site in Flanders where John McCrae wrote the famouns pomen In Flanders Fields. It is at the Essex Farm Aid Station only a few kilometres from Ieper (aka Ypres).

I visited on a cold, muddy and miserable day. The concrete bunker where the medicos triaged the wounded was not far from the various battlefields of the Ypres Salient. The site is also a cemetery now – Essex Farm Cemetery – as those who expired were buried in the field next to the aid station.

But the most telling thing for me was the tiny space that so many men fought and died over. The Ypres Salient was about 20 km by 6 km and you can stand on one of the few ridges in the area and see much of the disputed territory that was fought back and forth over between 1914 and 1918.

McCrae’s poem is moving – especially with the backstory of his inspiration at the death of his friend. But the sad truth is that some poetry was a mechanism for supporting the war and encouraging more men to sign up to fight. To become mere names upon a wall (like the Menin Gate) rather than to live, to create and know joy or peace.

I find the final sentiments of his poem not to my taste:

“Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”

Source: In Flanders Fields

More to my taste – having seen the utter waste and destruction of World War One – is Wilfrid Owen’s pungent poem:

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori. ”

Source: Dulce et Decorum Est

Simply because the wars we fight now are not on the same grand scale as World War One it does not mean that individual and societal human suffering is any less. Afghanistan, Iraq show us the same futility and waste of humanity, and the pain and suffering will reverberate into future generations in ways of which we cannot yet count the cost.

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The Somme really does have sticky mud

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I have taken some time out from business meetings in Europe to make something of a personal pilgrimage in the steps of my ANZAC ancestors.

It has been a very moving and very sombre experience. To see the tiny spaces of land fought over in World War 1 that resulted in so many deaths is beyond tragic.

It is sobering to realise that every death did not just kill the individual concerned, it had flow on effects to each family, town and country and that damage reverberated for generations. And for every survivor there was no counselling, no awareness of the physical and emotional damage they carried with them and shared with families and society throughout their lives.

I toured the Somme and Ypres Salient with a French guide who combined a deep knowledge of the history of World War 1 with a gerat reverance for the sacrifices made by those who fought. Olivier Dirson of Chemins D’Histoire really helped me to understand what had happened both in battle and to the people around.

One of the saddest places to visit is the Fourth Australian Division monument at Bellenglise. Sad because it is a monument to battles fought in 1918 and to sacrifices made so close to the end of the war.

Yet also sad because, unlike the fine Somme American Cemetery and Memorial near Bony in Picardie, the Australian memorial is in the middle of farmers’ fields and can only be approached by a rough and muddy road. The stories of Somme mud are no joke. It is sticky and clumps-up on your feet and it is easy to see how walking through this mud could add several kilos to every step.

In damp or snowy weather it is impossible to drive up to the Fourth Australian Division monument at Bellenglise. This is a national scandal! That Australia cannot even be bothered to ensure that those of us who would remember them can reach this memorial made me feel angry.

How much would it cost to build a short paved road so that we can visit this site to remember the enormous sacrifices made by these men?

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Privacy! Who the hell ever had privacy?

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One question that I am often asked when speaking to groups about the digital revolution is “what about privacy?” This is usually in relation to social media and social networking.  Privacy comes from the Latin word privatus:

In Roman law, the Latin adjective privatus makes a legal distinction between that which is “private” and that which is publicus, “public” in the sense of pertaining to the Roman people (populus Romanus).
Source: Wikipedia

This question fascinates me.  Privacy is such a recent invention and many people seem to be unaware of this. Also there is an important distinction to be made between privacy and confidentiality.  Since time immemorial societies have acknowledged that some kinds of information are confidential.  A good historical example of this is the Catholic Church keeping the revelations made during their rite of confession confidential.

However, until very recent times – during the late twentieth century – privacy was an aberration.  Anchorites had privacy, but most people lived cheek by jowl with others for their entire lives.  This is important because privacy is predicated on separation. It is predicated on a physical separation between people – it is enabled by the spaces in between individuals.  If there are no spaces between individuals then privacy is very hard to achieve (or even to conceive).

In the past even the most wealthy and most exalted personages did not experience privacy.  Kings and queens lived surrounded day and night by their courtiers.  In the days before genetic testing even queens gave birth in front of their court to ensure veracity.

Historically nobles were attended, bathed and dressed by their servants.  The servants lived together in crowded quarters.  Secrets were very hard to keep in such a world.

For the poor, there was no separation even between people and their livestock.  And, if there was no separate room for the livestock, nor was there a separate room for any of the people.  Entire families were conceived, born, lived and died within shared physical spaces.

Even in cities people lived  a village-like existence (London is a good example).  Without transport to move easily from place to place people stayed within the confines of their local village.  Neither rich nor poor city dwellers experienced privacy.

Nor did the generations of the early twentieth century experience privacy.  During the first half of the century poverty meant that most people could not afford the luxury of privacy.  And during that same period the wealthy still lived with domestic staffs who cared for their needs (and continued to ensure little privacy).

Privacy for most of us only became possible with the advent of the post World War II economic and population boom.  The growth of tract housing in suburbs meant that nuclear families could live in large houses with separate rooms for most family members.  Thus it was in this period that people could assume that they had a right to privacy.

Thus a brief flowering of privacy in the latter part of the twentieth century allowed many people to assume that this was how things had always been.  It also allowed many to assume that this would continue.  However, with the advent of the hyperconnected world of the early twenty-first century we are seeing digital villages remove the spaces between individuals once again.

Perhaps the only thing that enabled privacy to blossom was the increased physical space between people and lack of communications technology during the late twentieth century? And perhaps it is now time to farewell privacy once more?

Some resources for thinking about privacy follow:

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ANZAC – a New Zealand view

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A good example of the fellow feeling across the Tasman for ANZAC day and all that it means is the speech by the New Zealand Governor-General, Dame Silvia Cartwright, at the 2004 ANZAC Day Dawn Service:

“The presence of so many children and young men and women at ANZAC ceremonies is a stark reminder of the youth of those who fought for us. Look at them and wonder at the fears of their families, at their terror as they faced fierce fighting and watched their friends die. Listen to these words written to mark the evacuation in 1915, by a 23 year old Australian soldier-poet Leon Gellert, a combatant at Gallipoli.

[The Last to Leave, written by 23-year-old Australian soldier-poet Leon Gellert, a combatant at Gallipoli, to mark the evacuation of the peninsula in 1915.]
The guns were silent, and the silent hills
had bowed their grasses to a gentle breeze
I gazed upon the vales and on the rills
And whispered, “What of these?” and “What of these?”
These long forgotten dead with sunken graves,
Some crossless, with unwritten memories
Their only mourners are the moaning waves,
Their only minstrels are the singing trees
And thus I mused and sorrowed wistfully.

Lest we forget.

No reira, tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.”

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ANZAC 2010 – Mapping our ANZACS

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It seems appropriate this ANZAC Day to share a good online resource.

Thus I commend to people the Australian National Archives site called Mapping our ANZACS.

It provides a way to browse 375,971 records of service in the Australian Army during World War I according to the person’s place of birth or enlistment.

Using this site I was able to find out about one of the missing uncles from my paternal grandmother’s side of the family. It was strange that in her family stories there was this uncle who was just a name. Nobody talked about him apart from the occasional mention of his name.

He was one of the many uncles around the world who fought and died during World War One. I suspect that the pain of their loss had not diminished, even after all that time.

Rupert Alexander was 31 years old when he was killed in action on 26 September 1917. The records note merely that Rupert fell “in France or Belgium”.

He had never married and had no children. He’d worked as a plate layer in a sawmill prior to enlisting. My grandmother once mentioned that Rupert had the family look about him, standing about 5′ 9″ tall with blue eyes and brown hair.

His widowed mother received two pictures of his grave near Ypres in Belgium and a ‘victory medal’ from the authorities. Apparently she rarely spoke of him afterwards.

When I travel to Europe later this year I will visit Ypres and tour about the area where Rupert fought and fell. I might even try to track down his grave using the information located via Mapping our ANZACS. [Update: I did find his grave, it is pictured below.]

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Binyon: For the Fallen

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Ada Lovelace Day 2010: call for women's history #ald10

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Today is Ada Lovelace day, the day that women around the world celebrate the achievements of women working in technology.
While I could write about a woman in technology – there are many whom I admire here in Australia – instead I am putting out a call for documentation of the achievements of Australia’s women pioneers in technology.

It saddens me to discover that I can find little record of the achievements of Australian women in technology online. We have lost contact with our heritage of Australian women pioneers in technology – I know from anecdotes that women worked on many seminal technology projects.

My recent investigations have found lots of information about US women in technology but little equivalent information for Australian women.

There is the Timeline of Geek Feminism (HT: @piawaugh) and I do recall seeing some women in technology history on an old incarnation of the Australian Computer Society’s website (but that seems to have disappeared in a site restructure over the years).

Recently FITT celebrated their 20th anniversary and posted this slide show.

We need to capture these stories and celebrate the history of the women who made our current achievements in technology possible. We need to uncover the stories of heroines who challenged the status quo and made the idea of women working in technology commonplace. We need to discover the barriers and challenges these women faced in order to pursue their passion for technology.

If you know a story or have a link to a story about Australian pioneer women in technology please add a comment to this post.

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