Sunday, May 27, 2007

Email and History

I was watching BookTV on C-Span2 yesterday (I’ll pause here while you laugh at that). Historian Heather Ewing was talking about her new book “The Lost World of James Smithson.” If you don’t know who Smithson is, you’re not alone. He was the illegitimate son of a Duke, a man of science in the early 1800s and the person who donated his fortune to the United States government to create "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men" which would bear his name. It took the government nearly twenty years to decide how to spend the money and finally establish the Smithsonian Institute.

He experienced many disasters in his life, including the loss of most of his personal possessions. So how did Ms. Ewing learn so much about his life?

By reading letters. Long, hand-written correspondence to him, from him and about him.

Historical research often includes letters written by and about the subject being researched. Generations ago, people wrote letters to acquaintances and family and these tomes served as a chronicle of their lives and times.

Letters could be three or four pages of opinions and information, spelled out\in great detail. Collect enough of them and you have a reasonably complete, personal picture of someone’s life.

What will future generations learn about us from our written communication?

OMG did u c idol?

We don’t write letters any more, especially Americans younger than Boomer age. Our written communication is in fragmented emails, consisting of short sentences or half-sentences which are often deleted as quickly as they are read and answered. Instant Messaging and texting might be even more common than email, and those exchanges are almost never saved. Blogs may showcase our lives but they’re usually more public than personal.

Maybe it won’t matter because our lives are chronicled in media other than pen and paper. We have ubiquitous TV, film, video, cell phone cams, etc.

Or maybe it will matter because these records of our lives are much more easily altered or deleted than hand-written history.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Most Trusted Man In America

When you think of newscasters who you trust to deliver the complete, accurate story, with occasional commentary that is identified as such, who do you think of? Katie Couric? Brian Williams? Anderson Cooper? Wolf Blitzer? Any of another twenty whose names you don’t know?

If fifty-something Boomers are asked that question, they are likely to say, without a moment’s hesitation, Walter Cronkite.

He hasn’t anchored a newscast on CBS in 26 years, but the 90-year-old is still revered enough for CBS to produce a prime-time special about his career. It airs Friday night.

Cronkite started his journalism career in newspapers in the 1930s, then moved to radio in the 40s and ultimately to the new medium of television in the 1950s. He began a two-decade run as anchor of the nightly CBS news just a year before the assassination of President Kennedy, a tragedy that many Americans first heard about from him on that day. Some say his calm, measured delivery of the unfolding story helped soothe the shocked nation.

He covered some of the most intense news of the 20th century, including the Cold War, the Viet Nam conflict, the civil rights movement and Watergate. He is also remembered for his marathon coverage of political conventions and early space flights.

During most of Cronkite’s anchor tenure there were only three TV networks so it was easier for a journalist to become a star. But he outlasted most of his competitors and continues to appear in television specials.

His reputation today is as rock-solid as it was on the night of March 6, 1981, when we watched him say for the last time, “and that’s the way it is.”

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Mother’s Day 2007

This is my second Mother’s Day without Mom. She died a few days after her nursing home’s totally uncoordinated Katrina evacuation. Her mental capacity was diminished during her last year, so she was probably not aware of what was going on around her in those last few days.

She was born early in the 20th century, before radio and TV, before cars were common, only a few years after the first powered human flight. Her birthplace was a farm in rural Louisiana and her native language was Cajun French. I’m not sure if she finished high school, but in her generation that didn’t matter. She held jobs in an era when women usually didn’t, married at 39 at a time when most women married at 20, had two children in her 40s which was unheard of at the time.

Mom was a story-teller with a good sense of humor and a love of travel. She liked to socialize and always knew what was going on in the lives of her family and friends. She had a strong sense of duty in life and always wanted to do things the right way. Her opinions were strong but she carefully chose when to make them public. I’m a lot like she was and I’m not sure I realized how much till I wrote this paragraph.

Even though she had a unique and interesting life before we came along, Mom frequently told my sister and I that her life didn’t really start till her 40s when she had us. What an amazing way to say she loved us.

Love you, Mom. Miss you.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Thanks For The Roads, Ike

Fifty-somethings might recall that Dwight Eisenhower was President during our early youth. Ike, as he was known, had been a General in Europe during World War II and noticed that the 4-lane German Autobahns built in the 1930s were much more efficient than the typical highways in the U.S.

There were already plans for an improved national highway system, but Ike convinced the nation that good highways were a national issue more than a state issue. His leadership and the efforts of several members of Congress (including Senator Al Gore, Sr.) resulted in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Road design standards were upgraded to anticipate traffic pattern forecasts for 1975 and the Federal Government paid for most of the construction costs.

Some differences between Interstate Highways of the 50s and now: cloverleaf interchanges have been replaced by more sophisticated designs; on-ramps are generally longer; signage has improved significantly, with early warnings of upcoming exits … And most exits outside of major metropolitan areas have signs pointing the way to hotels, gas stations and fast-food restaurants (Wow, McDonalds is only .3 miles to the right. I’m lovin’ it.)

My recent 3000-mile trip along stretches of I-95, I-40, I-59, I-10 and I-81 confirms my belief that the system is pretty good overall. Not perfect, but so much better than in our youth.

Thanks for the roads, Ike.