Category Archives: history

Consolations from the classics: Seneca and Suetonius

First up, Seneca. Here’s a good piece that summarizes some of the consolation letters he wrote to people close to him. Though they were written centuries ago, they are timeless and worth reading.

Second, Suetonius. Here’s a good piece on why you want to read him:  The Consolations of History. Essentially,  good histories like those of Suetonius give you  perspective that help you deal with your own time. Sometimes they do that by showing you things are fundamentally the same. Other times they do that by showing how much things have changed since that time. Either way you come away with a deeper understanding of your own time even as you learn about another time.

During the pandemic I have been noticing this frequently. People are looking back at the pandemic of 1918-19 and trying to draw lessons from it. That’s a good thing, I think. We can all gain perspective by looking to the past, which is never really past.

 

Great parts of Toronto: Baldwin Street

Recently there was much discussion around this famous bakery in Toronto: Yung Sing. Many people I know have fond memories of going there and eating their famous pastry. And not just people I know, as this shows: Why Chinese bakery Yung Sing is one of the most fondly remembered in Toronto

That got me reminiscing about the street that Yung Sing is on. Baldwin Street has many famous places that incorporate Toronto history. You can see one example of that  in this piece: Yiddish sign survives threat to last vestige of Jewish enclave on Baldwin | The Star. 

And John’s and Yung Sing are just a few of the great places on Baldwin. You can read about more of them here: Toronto patios: Baldwin St. | The Star. 

That’s an older piece, but there’s still some of those places. And there are other places that are new and great, like Omai.

I miss Baldwin Street. I used to go often before the pandemic. It’s easy to get to from Spadina Avenue and it’s just up from the AGO, making it a perfect destination. I need to go back soon.

If you want to learn more about the street, read this: Baldwin Village – Wikipedia

(Image linked to in the story on the Yiddish sign).

On the historic smashed guitar of Paul Simonon of the Clash

From small moments of frustration, history is made.  As the Guardian explains:

The guitar was last played on stage at the Palladium in New York on 20 September 1979. Frustrated at the stiffness of the audience, Simonon raised his guitar like a giant axe, turned his back to singer Joe Strummer, and brought it crashing down.

That moment was captured on film, made into part of the cover for the band’s London Calling record, and the rest, as the cliche goes, is history.

For more details, see: Bass guitar smashed at Clash gig to join relics at Museum of London | The Clash | The Guardian

(Image via GuitarWorld)

On my study of history in school and out of school

In the United States and Canada recently, there have been terrible events that have driven people to ask: why didn’t we learn about XYZ in school? Tom Hanks devotes an article to this line of thinking in the New York Times, here.

I just have a few things to say about that, based on my own education in history, the education of my kids, and the education I gave to myself post high school.

In Canada there was a big discussion about the Residential School System and why did we not learn about it. I didn’t, and my kids didn’t, I don’t think. What I did learn when I was younger was different aspects of history for each year I was in grade school. In the earlier grades, we studied Nova Scotian history, British history, and Canadian history. We studied ancient world history and then history of the second millenium. We did study indigenous people at the time when the focus was on North America. (As well, we studied Mi’kmaq religion in grade 7, which was interesting). Indigenous people were not invisible in the lessons, and their role was significant at times. That said, the lessons were mainly Eurocentric and mainly focused on major events like wars and politics, though.

I noticed a shift in this when my kids were studying history in grades 7 and 8. There were lessons on injustices in Canada, especially when it came to racist events such as the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II. I thought that was a good improvement in the study of Canadian history.

Of course what facts are taught in history, and what are not, changes all the time. This will depend on many factors, from school administrators, teachers, parents, and others. Even what books are available matters. I hope and expect that Canadian history will be taught in a less Eurocentric way, and that Indigenous and people of non-European origin will get more focus. Also important would be more focus given to the role of women in history. That would be a change for the better.

I think it is important to acknowledge, though, that the point of history classes in school is not just to teach facts. For example my kids were learning not just about Canadian history, they were learning how to think about history. That makes a great deal of sense (though learning the facts is good too).

I can say this because I actually stopped studying  history as soon as I could in high school, and I think that is a shame. I found grade 10 history boring, and there were alternative classes that were more interesting in the next two years, classes I took instead. I made up for that later by reading history copiously starting in my late 20s, thanks to encouragement from my brother. By reading people like AJP Taylor, not only did I learn about history, I learned how historical writing could be criticized. I also learned from Taylor how history could be presented in a way different than more mainstream historical writing. I was studying history again. Thinking about it. Thinking about the arguments historians made. Agreeing and disagreeing with historians. Getting to recognize good history from not so good history, at least in a limited way.

I think knowing how to think about history is as important as ever. We are being confronted with our past and the past of others all the time. By being able to think critically of those times, we can better understand our past, our current era, and even ourselves.

P.S. If you want to understand more about how to history is taught, at least in Ontario, see this.

(Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash)

Revisiting my views on the Renaissance and the Middle Ages

Growing up, I learned about the glorious Renaissance and the Dark Ages that preceded them. If you learned something similar, here are two articles to set you straight. The first one argues that the Middle Ages (not the Dark Ages, thank you very much!) were pretty interesting, actually. After you read it, I think you will agree. The second one argues not only were the Middle Ages good, but the Renaissance was not all that great. I had to agree after reading it.

I will still have a fondness and a preference for the Renaissance, but I found these two pieces were good correctives for my bias against the Middle Ages.

(Image from the first piece in currentaffairs.org)

One of my favorite photos: nine kings at Buckingham Palace

This may be one of my favorite photographs of all time:


Nine Kings at Buckingham Palace – Iconic Photos

It pictures the nine European Kings gathered together for the funeral in 1910 of England’s King Edward VII.

What I love about it is the illusion of power and permanence it holds. All nine men were soon to shaken by the changes brought on by the upcoming war. All nine would fall from the height they stood on in this photo.

If you go to the link in Iconic Photos, you can get a who’s who of the Kings as well as what happened to them.

More on it here including some wonderful detail, such as the seating list for dinner. Of those gathered around the table, everyone was royalty save the heads of state of the USA and France.

Four good pieces on my hometown, Glace Bay

Anyone with an interest in Glace Bay will find these worth reading:

  1. A COAL TOWN FIGHTS FOR ITS LIFE | Maclean’s | MARCH 15 1954: this was fascinating. A story from Maclean’s Magazine in the 1950s that documented Glace Bay at the crossroads. So much in this piece explains my home town and the people who lived there.
  2. Glace Bay hockey rink’s new name closer to its roots | CBC.ca: a mainstay of Glace Bay is the hockey rink. When I was a kid I lived about 100 meters from it. I spent most of my early days (until grade 10) going to it. So many memories back then revolved around that building.
  3. KEN MACDONALD: Remembering the miners | Local-Lifestyles | Lifestyles | Cape Breton Post: a good piece from the local paper on the mines of Glace Bay and the miners who lived and sometimes died in them.
  4. Miners’ houses: Lawren Harris in Glace Bay – Nova Scotia Advocate: finally this piece on Glace Bay with a focus on a famous painting of Glace Bay by Lawren Harris (shown above). It used to be in the AGO and I often paused to reflect on it, and my hometown. Just like I am doing now.

A short introduction to Ulysses S. Grant

If you are not familiar with Grant, I recommend this piece. Grant’s life makes for fascinating reading. If you agree after you read that, then I highly recommend this biography by Ron Chernow. It’s superb.

Grant is a deeply flawed and deeply great man. He deserves to be better recognized today. Here’s hoping he is.

Quote

Mary Beard on Statues


Mary Beard brings her unique perspective to statues and what to do about them, here: Statue wars | blog post by Mary Beard – The TLS.

Good food for thought on people for or against the disposal of statues.

Quote

The post-presidential life of Mikhail Gorbachev

If you have forgotten about Mikhail Gorbachev and wondered what he is up to, you can find a rich source of information here:  ‘Crucify me right here’ The post-presidential life of Mikhail Gorbachev — Meduza.

At 88 he is still alive and active. He’s outlived Reagan and Bush Sr and many other leaders of the era when the Soviet Union was collapsing. He’s led a remarkable life, one worth reading about.

(Photo: Mikhail Svetlov / Getty Images; linked to at the site)

Quote

One of the best views of the changing 4,000 year history of the world is this

Such a great infographic:

You can see a bigger version here: Histomap: Visualizing the 4,000 Year History of Global Power

Quote

Why math is great, and other interesting ideas, from Steven Strogatz

It’s hard to say why this interview with Strogatz is so good, other than to say he covers much ground on a variety of interesting topics and speaks lively on them. (Ok, I find game theory, “elegant” math, math education, etc, interesting, but you likely will too).

If you enjoyed this interview, he has a recent book out, “Joy of X: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity.” Worth a look. 

Interview is here: Steven Strogatz interview on math education and other related topics

What people died of in the 18th century

Is not what you might think. Some are the same, such as the casualties list. But the diseases show their age. (Who dies of an itch?) Fascinating how people saw illness in the 18th century (not that long ago).

The chart is via Naomi Clifford | Bill of Mortality 1743. You can get more details on it at the link.

Can we have greater equality without great catastrophes?

This is the question reviewed here:  Are plagues and wars the only ways to reduce inequality? | Aeon Essays.  (It’s a long read but a good one.)

If you are not familiar with this idea, consider this graph:

The higher the red line is, the greater inequality is. Throughout the last 2000+ years, inequality has been reduced only by terrible events like plague and war.

For a time post World War II, inequality was declining in much of the world. Then, around the 1980s, it started to increase and continues to do so. Now we have a race on. Population declines should occur over the next 100 years, leading to greater equality. To counter that, we have greater automation occurring which may boost inequality as those with the means to control the automation make much of the income and increase their wealth. Will this inequality lead to events that once again levels off the distribution of wealth and income? Or will we reach a balance somehow?

I highly recommend the article. Rising inequality will be one of the great strains on the 21st century, and this article helps to provide some context on the subject.

 

Before the Kindle, there was Napoleon’s travelling library

And what a library! Napoleon had asked for it to be as follows:

The Emperor wishes you to form a traveling library of one thousand volumes in small 12mo and printed in handsome type. It is his Majesty’s intention to have these works printed for his special use, and in order to economize space there is to be no margin to them. They should contain from five hundred to six hundred pages, and be bound in covers as flexible as possible and with spring backs. There should be forty works on religion, forty dramatic works, forty volumes of epic and sixty of other poetry, one hundred novels and sixty volumes of history, the remainder being historical memoirs of every period.

Even with slimmed down books, that is a lot of paper to be carrying around as your conquer Europe and other parts of the world. I’m sure he would have loved the Kindle.

For more details on this library, see: Napoleon’s Kindle: See the Miniaturized Traveling Library He Took on Military Campaigns | Open Culture

Thinking about Woodrow Wilson (and other American leaders)


Before this piece, I had limited knowledge of Woodrow Wilson. Most of that was centered on the work he did at the beginning of the 20th century, and much of that came from Margaret McMillan’s book, “The Peacemakers” (in the UK) / Paris, 1919 (in North America)”. My impression of him was a giant, transforming the old world with his ideas and his actions, and it was a transformation that was much needed. The world transformed after the first World War, leaving behind much that was bad, and a lot of that was Wilson’s doing.

However, Wilson racism was a terrible thing, and there is no overlooking it. There is no way to say Wilson was simply a great man: his racism and the discriminatory actions he took stain him permanently. He is a complex man, though, and there is no one scale to measure him on.

This complexity is  true for all American presidents. There is a part of Americans that want to revere their leaders. They build them monuments, they sanctify them, they constantly assess and reassess them, be they Wilson, or Grant, or even Reagan. No doubt this will happen to Obama, too. This desire to sanctify leads to trouble, just as it is leading to trouble in Wilson’s case.

Ideally Americans would spend less time idealizing their past leaders and building them monuments and centers like the one for Wilson. Anything like that should include all the history of the person and the time they lived in. Show the complexity of the person, their strengths and their weaknesses, and highlight both what they achieved and what they failed to achieve. Give a full accounting of the person.

(Image is a link to a photo by Mark Makela for the New York Times)

What has mattered most over the last millennium (a list of 10)

Principia Mathematica

This is a fascinating piece: The 10 greatest changes of the past 1,000 years | Books | The Guardian. It’s easy to argue that additional things should be added (e.g. emancipation) and things should be deleted or modified (I would replace “Columbus” with “Explorers”). Indeed, one of the things that makes such lists enjoyable to read and think about is how you would change it. As it is, it’s a pretty good list, and in line with what you see in other works that span time like this (e.g. “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari).

If you liked reading that list, you may like “Sapiens” too.  I’d also recommend The BBC’s History of the World in a 100 Objects.

 

The worst ever president of the United States of America is…

…likely this guy: James Buchanan.

James Buchanan

And this piece makes the case for why he — and not the current guy — is the worst: No, Trump isn’t the worst president ever – Indivisible Movement – Medium. In a nutshell:

In order to wrest the title of worst president from Buchanan, a contemporary commander in chief would need to wreck the economy, revoke all human rights from an entire race, violate the constitutional separation of powers, and plunge the country into a ruinous civil war that kills nearly 2% of the US population.

With all the staggering incompetence and corruption of the 45th presidency, it may seem hard to believe anyone could be worst. I believe in time Trump will be in the bottom 5 presidents. But to wrestle the title of worst President ever, he still needs to do worse. Let’s hope he does not.

On the myth that Hitler and the Nazis were unopposed

With the rise of right wing extremists, including neo-Nazis, I see it often said on social media that the German people of the 1920s and 1930s did little if anything to oppose Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party’s rise to power. This is untrue. There was a lot of opposition to the Nazis rise to power, opposition that the Nazis spent much time and effort to overcome. Ideally you should read this history to see this, whether you read works by AJP Taylor, Ian Kershaw, John Toland, Joachim Fest, or others (but not David Irving). For a start, you can read this: Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, beginning with the Beer Hall Putsch. As you read along, you can see many opposed to the rise of the Nazi party. You can argue that they were ineffective: you cannot argue that they did not exist. Many of the opponents were killed (members of the Red Front) and many others, like Ernst Thälmann, were sent to concentration camps. Some fled, others became silent, and still others become supporters. Many died in the war to come.

The Nazis were supported, of course: that is how they managed to be in a position to take over power in the first place. But the idea that they met with little or no opposition is wrong.

For more reading, you can find a link to

Capital and slavery in America

It is striking to see what percentage of American capital attributed to slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries (the striped section in the chart above). In the late 18th century only agricultural land counted for more, and there slavery contributed to that too.

The American Civil War and the emancipation of those bound in slavery destroyed all that capital, and that was great and necessary. While it is wrong to consider slavery only in terms of money, it is impossible to talk about slavery in the United States without considering its relationship to the economy and capital.  The capital that derived from slavery was massive.

In the U.K. the abolition of slavery resulted in the government providing capital back to the slave owners. It was a terrible omission that neither the U.K. nor the U.S. provided capital to the freed slaves.  There are those, like Ta-Nehisi Coates, who argue that such capital in the form of reparation is due.  Based on the chart above, a case could be made that it would be a tremendous amount of money.

(Chart above taken from “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Piketty)

What happens when Queen Elizabeth II dies?

Alot! As you can see when you read this: What happens when Queen Elizabeth II dies – Business Insider. It’s fascinating, and the number of things that will change will surprise you.

Speaking of surprises, this chart surprised me:

It is amazing to see how many other world leaders have come and gone in the era of Queen Elizabeth II.

Well worth a read.

CP/M and Computer History Museum


If you are an old geek or interested in computing history, especially the early days of the PC, then I highly recommend you check out the section of the Computer History Museum on CP/M. Before Microsoft and Apple there was CP/M. You can even download the source code! Fun! 🙂

See Early Digital Research CP/M Source Code | Computer History Museum.

The odd story of Kodak and the small nuclear reactor

This nuclear reactor:

…sat in Kodak Park, in Rochester, NY, for over 20 years before being wound down in 2007. Facinating. The Democrat and Chronicle – (democratandchronicle.com) has the story on what it was like and what Kodak used it for, and why they finally had to shut it down.

Authentic rum is coming to the Fortress of Louisbourg in Cape Breton

Thanks to the folks at Authentic Seacoast and Parks Canada, it looks like rum and the rum trade will be coming to the historic site in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The news release says:

After almost 300 years, rum is once again being stored behind the massive stone walls of the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site.

Authentic Seacoast Distilling Company Ltd., Parks Canada and Fortress Louisbourg Association are collaborating on a multi-year project to enhance the visitor experience at the Fortress through an authentic interpretation of the historical rum trade of 18th century New France. The Magazin du Roi will serve as a warehouse to mature carefully selected Caribbean aged rums for use in special edition Authentic Seacoast Distilling Company rums.

Sounds like a great idea. Rum and the rum trade is a not insignificant part of Nova Scotian history. It’s great to see this. For more on it, see: Authentic Seacoast™ Company Media Centre press release,  Rum Returns to Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site.

Some thoughts on the infancy of the Web, on it’s 25th birthday

The web is 25 years old, and I have been using it since the very beginning. For those of you that haven’t — and those feeling nostalgic — here are some fun facts about the early days of the World Wide Web:

  • Before the web, there was just the Internet. And the Internet consisted of various services, from e-mail (of course) to Gopher to ftp to WAIS to news groups/Usenet, etc. It was all great, but then the World Wide Web sprung into action and the browser quickly became THE tool for using the Internet (save email). I wonder if anyone under 30 has even heard of any of those other services, let along use any of them?
  • In the beginning, most people couldn’t access the Web or even the Internet. Most people’s PCs had Windows, and Windows didn’t come with software to connect to the Internet. I was using OS/2 at the time – Really! – and OS/2 did provide a “TCP/IP stack” that allowed you to connect. You could buy a Stack and install it on your Windows machine, and eventually Microsoft bundled it with Windows. When that happened, Internet access took off.
  • To access the Internet, everyone had a dial up modem, with U.S. Robotics making some of the finest ones at the time. Web pages had to be designed to be very small, because every byte delivered by modem had to count.
  • The mid to late 90s was an exciting time to be on the Internet. The web, access to the Internet via new software, ISPs, and email all hit most people at about the same time. Things changed so quickly, the notion of a “web year” (3 months) came about.
  • In the early days, there were a range of browsers, from Mosaic to Viola to the one from IBM called Web Explorer. Then came Netscape and then Internet Explorer. It was along time before Firefox and Safari came along to challenge IE.
  • The “www.” part was important at first when you were using the Web. You could type “www.ibm.com” or “ftp.ibm.com” or “some other protocol.ibm.com” and your browser and the server would figure out what you wanted. It wasn’t assumed you were going to a web site Likewise, you could type “ibm.com:80” to go the web server. Eventually , the only thing that people wanted was their browser to talk to the web server, and the “www.” and the “:80” became superflous.
  • Server technology was very expensive at first. Netscape’s web server came with nice bells and whistles and cost about $10,000 for some form of that. Then Apache came along with their web server and essentially obliterated the web server software market.
  • Yahoo! was a big thing in the beginning. I actually tried to do a Canadian version of it. FYI: you cannot hand craft your own Yahoo! It’s like an artisanal Google. Needless to say, I abandoned that idea soon and left it to the professionals. I was involved with the early development of IBM’s global presence on the web.
  • Early web pages seem ugly now, but at the time they were amazing. You didn’t have to type in a bunch of commands to access information, like you did with FTP. You could type in one thing and just point and click, and each click brought up new information or played audio files or played video files! All of that was simply amazing.
  • The moment I thought the web was going to be big was when paintings from the Louvre went online. I thought: this isn’t just for technical people: any one can do this.
  • In the early days of the Web, there were two big concerns. One was doing commerce on the web. Companies were cautioned to be very discreet about selling things: otherwise the hard core Internet people would make a big stink and make life difficult for you. The second big concern was that the Internet backbone in the United States would get broken up or underfunded or somehow messed up and that this would inhibit the health of the Internet. This was a really big concern. The Internet has always been in various states of precariousness, and the recent threats to net neutrality are part of an ongoing story.
  • Speaking of net neutrality, there have always been special connections between major sites and major ISPs. In the early days it was from big sites like AOL connecting directly to big ISPs. Now it is Netflix who is making the deals. The more things change… 🙂

Happy birthday, World Wide Web, you great information superhighway! May you be around for 25 more!