Category Archives: history

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.