Category Archives: history


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.