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History isn’t what it used to be. Or, to put it another way, everything you know about the past could be wrong, or at least subject to revision. And the revision isn’t done by loyal bureaucrats of Big Brother, altering official records to make the Party look good. It’s done by working historians trying to accommodate new facts and perspectives.

It’s a reflection, really, of how long history has been an academic discipline. In many cases, you could write an interesting history of histories about how our views of various eras have evolved.

I first became aware that history was not the fixed medium I imagined when I was still a boy, and Louis Riel changed from a despised madman in Canadian history to a Metis nationalist and folk hero. Part of that change was a reflection of the times, but, even if the change may have exaggerated some traits in the short term, in the long term it gave a more complex, more truthful view of Riel and his actions than the textbooks gave, and provided those of mixed First Nations and European ancestory with some long overdue cultural respect.

As I’ve grown older, this change in history has kept happening. The dinosaurs, I learned as a young adult, were not the dim-witted giants that I had loved as a child, even as I fled screaming from their gaudy statues at roadside attractions along the coastal highway in Oregon and California. Instead, they were suddenly animals with complex social lives, some of whom had survived to the present by becoming birds – an idea that, now that I think, may be responsible for my love of parrots.

Similarly, the Egyptians changed from a death-obsessed, hierarchical culture of stifling dullness to people with a fondness for beer who thought a potbelly a sign of success. Queen Hatsheput, instead of being a schemer who murdered her husband the Pharoah to seize power and feuded with her son and sometime co-ruler became a quieter figure who ruled wisely and peacefully handed over power to the next generation as archaeologists realized the original story was a product of Victorian imagination without evidence to support it.

In English history, the same thing happened. William the Conqueror became, not the founder of a great tradition, but an usurper who, culturally and legally, set back English culture five or six centuries. Richard III was not the murderer of his nephews, and George III, while a rather dull man, was industrious and well-loved for much of his reign. The more I read, the more the changes kept on coming.

And just this week, I’ve regaled myself and anyone who listen with snippets from Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the America Before Columbus.. Some of what he had mentioned I had heard, but hearing them all at once was overwhelming. I mean, pre-Inkan states? The Amazon rain forest not pristine wilderness but artfully managed orchards? The First Nations arriving, not by a break in the glacier, but by skin boards edged carefully down the coast of British Columbia? The Aztecs nursing schools of philosophy and being less bloody-minded in their public executions than the Europeans of their day? The Five Nations being closer to modern democratic ideals than my European ancestors?

The snapping sound you hear is my mind stretching to the breaking point. Yet many, even most of these ideas might very well be true.

Some people, I suppose, might resist such sweeping changes to history, or even deny their possibility. After all, history is not simply the search for objective truth that the best academics see it as. It’s also the source of our cultural myths, the stories we tell ourselves about how we got to the present state of things and how our identities were established. To many people, a challenge to these myths is unsettling, and to be denied even if it means ignoring inconvenient facts.

And I suppose, too, that being well into middle age, I should feel threatened by such changes myself.

Instead, I find myself fascinated. I like to think that I have a scientific mind, because what I’m talking about is how science is supposed to work, with hypotheses formed to fit the evidence, and then thrown out when a better explanation comes along that fits the known facts. But I suppose I could simply be a contrarian, taking an unwholesome delight in seeing what everybody knows over-turned.

Either way, absorbing the changes is simply fun. When I was a boy, I used to worry that I might run out of things to learn in the subjects that interested me, and that I might become stodgy with age. But when I learn that another long-held view of mine is overturned, I know such worries are groundless, and there’s enough to keep me fascinated for several lifetimes.

These discoveries are like a vigorous massage by an expert therapist: mentally, I might groan and ache during the process, but afterwards I’m invigorated and fully of energy. As unsettling as some of the revisions might be, they reaffirm my faith in the complexity of the universe, and my conviction that curiosity has no limits.

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I spent today at the Public Knowledge Project’s conference at Simon Fraser University Harbour Centre, interviewing people and lining up contacts for future articles. Student and instructor, I’ve spent considerable time at Harbour Centre, so going there always stirs memories. But, like most people at the conference, what preoccupied me was the fact that the air-conditioning failed in a humid heat wave in which temperatures were as high as 37 degrees Celsius. Whether the failure was a brownout downtown or confined to the campus, I’m not sure, but it started me wondering: Why doesn’t North American industrial culture ever build for the climate?

The question is worth asking. Place a few hundred people in an overheated, airless lecture theater is a recipe for extreme discomfort at the least. If anyone is old or has a heart condition, it could mean illness or death.

Fortunately, nothing serious happened so far as I could see, but, even so, the inconvenience was there. Many people were skipping discussions they had traveled to hear, so they could stand in the lobby and chugalug the free juice and pop provided by the conference sponsors. Campus security had to rush around more because the open doors brought many of the homeless in (something that doesn’t bother me, but bothers security staff immensely). Students were skipping classes, and campus staff were sweating and short-tempered – all because the summer heat wasn’t taken into account when the building was renovated to house the university. Apparently, the assumption was that the air-conditioning would always be available, and that the ability to open windows would be a security risk.

To be fair, the renovators had the disadvantage of having to work with an older building that was probably designed for the climate of southern England, rather than the Pacific coast of Canada. But Harbour Centre is far from the only example of local construction unsuitable to the climate.

Few roads in the greater Vancouver area are higher in the middle so that the rain for which the climate is notorious will run along the sides instead of creating giant puddles for cars to hydroplane through. And thanks to all the imitators of native son Arthur Erikson, local architects continue to use concrete in buildings that the rain can eventually erode – that is, when they’re not imitating styles suitable for the desert conditions of California and using flat roofs. For years now, leaky condos have plagued the area, and four-story buildings shrouded in plastic and scaffolding are still sprouting up everywhere like multi-colored mushroom.

It shouldn’t be difficult, while architectural students are learning about the tensile strengths of different materials, to teach them some basics about designing for specific climates. Much of the matter is common sense. Yet, so far as I can tell, this basic consideration is far from their minds when they sit down to design. Nor does anyone hold them to account. Instead, the public suffers and shells out for repairs.

Now, if you excuse me, I’m going to drink another three or four liters of Gatorade to restore some moisture to my dessicated tissues.

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