Category Archives: history

Antony Beevor on Russia’s New Winter War

Antony Beevor has a fine historical review of Russia’s winter wars in Foreign Affairs magazine. He revisits the wars waged by and against Russia since the beginning of the 18th century with Sweden. Many of them were great victories for Russia: this war against Ukraine may be different.

For instance, in WWII, Beevor writes:

German soldiers referred bitterly to winter conditions as “weather for Russians.” They envied the Red Army’s winter uniforms, with white camouflage suits and padded cotton jackets, which were far more effective than German greatcoats.

Now in the Ukrainian war zone:

While Russian troops curse their shortages and lack of hot food, Ukrainian troops are now benefiting from supplies of insulated camouflage suits, tents with stoves, and sleeping bags provided by Canada and the Nordic nations. Putin seems to be in denial about the state of his army and the way that General Winter will favor his opponents.

It’s easy to assume that Russia comes out ahead in wintry weather wars. Read Beevor’s piece and you’ll get the sense that this may be just the opposite: Russia’s New Winter War: Could Putin Go the Way of Napoleon and Hitler?

P.S. As an aside, it’s great to see a writer like Beevor depend on more than what happened in WWII to help us understand what is happening in our world now. So many writers have a limited historical range. Beevor is not one of those.

I highly recommend Beevor’s books. My favorite is Stalingrad, but all of them are worthwhile.

The history of technology and telecommunications is also a history of Cape Breton


Cape Breton is known for many things, including a great deal of history. One part of that history that I wish were played up more is the part it played in telecommunications at the beginning of the 20th century. I thought of that when I read about how a Cape Breton town (North Sydney) knew about the end of WW I before the rest of North America. It knew about it because of the Western Union offices there. It was a leader at the time. Sadly that Western Union building in North Sydney was torn down.

While that place is lost, there are still other sites on the Island that recognize that history of technology. There is the Alexander Graham Bell museum in Baddeck that is worth visiting. And while it is small, The Marconi Museum in Glace Bay is also good. There are some fine museums in Cape Breton: if you are going there to there to see that sort of thing, make sure you include those two.

Cape Breton had a significant role to play in the history of world telecommunications. That role should get recognized and more museums should be made to promote that era, in my opinion.

For more on North Sydney, see:   wikipedia North Sydney Nova Scotia.

(The image above is the Marconi National Historic Site of Canada in Glace Bay, linked to at goCapeBreton.com)

Not to be overlooked: five great women of the 20th century you should know about


Here are two good essays on five great women. First up is this piece on the Oxford Quartet: The Women Who Took On the Philosophical Establishment. And then there is this piece on Regina Jonas, who was officially ordained as the world’s first woman rabbi.

Both are well written essays featuring outstanding women who accomplished so much, despite the hardships they had to deal with. (In Jonas’s case, that is an understatement.) I recommend both as good things to read on a Sunday.

The story of Rabbi Jonas is part of the Overlooked series by the New York Times. I admire that series, and I’m glad the Times has it. If you want to read good bios of exceptional people, go deeper there.

(Image is of Regina Jonas, link to image in NYT)

On the passing of Queen Elizabeth II today

The Queen died today. There has been an outpouring of response to such an event. No doubt you’ve read a number of them. You will likely see many more in the days and weeks to come.

Of the ones I came across, I thought this collection by the BBC was good: Queen Elizabeth II: A life in pictures. I thought this summary by Helen Lewis also worthwhile: Queen Elizabeth’s Unthinkable Death in The Atlantic.

I have been familiar with the Queen since I was a young child. She was in post offices, on our stamps and on our money. Here’s an interesting piece on the Queen on the bank notes, from the Bank of Canada Museum.

I have written about her occasionally here. This was from 2015: What happens when Queen Elizabeth II dies? This touches on something I have always been curious about: Why did the Queen sit for a portrait painted by Lucian Freud? And finally, I will have to update this: On Liz 2 and Chuck too. (Monarchy Watch).

Rest in Peace, ER II.

(Image: link to image in Museum piece)

 

 

 

 

Historians going wild! (What I find interesting in history, September 2022)


Historian and their work usually don’t get much news. So it was a bit unusual to see them making news recently. As Noah Smith explains:

A lot of people are talking about the history profession this week. There was a kerfuffle when James Sweet, the president of the American Historical Association, wrote a rambling and somewhat opaque post criticizing what he felt was his profession’s excessive focus on the politics of the present, and singling out the 1619 Project for criticism. A subset of historians predictably flew into a rage at this, and forced Sweet to issue a stumbling apology.

Smith went on to criticize historians for wanting to have it both ways in the sense that they want to wade in on topics using the weight of history while also saying that others cannot test history writing the way you can test say economic writing.

My thought is that some historians wade into other disciplines like political science and economics, and when they do, that’s when they get into trouble. History may not be testable, but when you are a historian jumping into political science with your historical ideas, you should expect to get tested.

It’s a fascinating discussion. I encourage you to read more about it here: Noah Smith on historians .

Some other interesting pieces on the topic of history was this, Is History History, and this, Is All history revisionist?

Speaking of historians getting into trouble, here’s a sad piece on Kevin Kruse and charges of plagiarism.

Here’s something on recent history that is still…well, history!…  history of the web. Here are three interesting pieces on ancient history: A 2000-year-old postcard – Medieval manuscripts blog and the challenges of deciphering minoan script and also does-an-unknown-extraordinarily-ancient-civilisation-lie-buried-under-eastern-turkey.

If you are like me, you may have thought the Roman Empire ended many centuries ago. This article challenges that in an interesting way: When did the Roman Empire end: 1917 or 1922? – Orthodox History.

This is a story on the disturbing history of Ole Miss yearbooks and how they sometimes included lynching victims and represented racist history and other racist thought.

Finally, here’s a fascinating story on how a Tip-Off from a Nazi saved someone’s  grandparents. Surprising.

 

Sunday reads: on how to deal with racist art, Critical Race Theory, and more

I collect thoughtful pieces on a wide range of topics to educate myself, to change my mind, and to see the world in a new and better way. Pieces like those below that revolve around race, racism, anti-semitism, and related topics. They are not easy reads, but worthwhile ones, I thought.

On the topic of Critical Race Theory and educating students on race and racism,  this was good: Inside Mississippi’s only class on critical race theory – Mississippi Today, as was this Teaching about racism. More on CRT, here: What CRT is.

You may not think too much about this incident, but this essay on it is very good:  Whoopi Goldberg’s American Idea of Race in The Atlantic.

This was insightful:  Slavery and the Rise of the Nineteenth-Century American Economy. As was this: Why Southern white women vote against feminism in The Washington Post.

Speaking of race and education, this was informative to me: Segregated schools in Ontario.

There was a discussion earlier this year on whether or not Darwin was racist. On the surface, he may seem so. But to me it doesn’t seem to be the case when you dig down deeper. You can read this and judge for yourself: Was Darwin a racist and does evolution promote racism? – #DarwinDay, and Quote-mining Darwin to forward a political agenda?

Here were two pieces on anti-semitism I found worthwhile:  Art and anti-semitism and Socialism without anti-semitism.

Finally, this piece got me thinking about racism within art: Tate’s “unequivocally offensive” mural to have new work alongside it. I don’t have a problem removing public statues. For art, I think it is better to put it in context. That seems to be what the Tate is doing.

(Image: link to the image in the piece on the Tate).

 

 

 

 

 

On Bades Bake Shop and the Chip Wagon of Glace Bay

It can be notoriously difficult to find images of Glace Bay on the Internet. Google is no help: I had been searching for “Bades Bakery Glace Bay” and came up with nothing. It was only through searching for the specific phrase “Bades Bake Shop” did I find it.

I loved Bades as a kid. It was on my route to the hockey arena, and depending on the time and how much coin I had, I could drop in and get a doughnut or something sweet. I don’t recall there being any other such establishment nearby, so it was an oasis for someone like me who loved sweet things. I recall the lettering for the sign being yellow against a brown backdrop. It was a great place, long gone. (You can read more about it, here.)

Here’s a good piece on another place I loved as a kid and as an adult: the Chip Wagon. When I was a kid it was in the main part of town. Later as an adult I would line up like these people to get a sample of those delicious fries. I don’t know if it is still in operation. If not, that’s sad. Like Mike’s Lunch, it was a must visit whenever I went home to Glace Bay.

If you are feeling nostalgic like me, you can see lots more images of Cape Breton at Caperpics or here at the flickr account of the Beaton Institute. Forget Google: go directly to those two places.

(Images: links to images at the Beaton Institute and Caperpics).

The King of Jerusalem, and other Ghost Kings haunting Europe and the World

I’ve written about European Royalty, specifically on  the nine kings at Buckingham Palace at the beginning of the 20th century.

Much has changed since then. Most Kings are gone. You might even think that may of their descendants have disappeared from the world. They have not, as this piece by Helen Lewis shows: Among Europe’s Ex-Royals – The Atlantic. It’s an odd but good piece about what the Hapsburgs and their ilk are up to. They’re still around, haunting Europe like ghosts. Some have even come close to regaining their thrones and property. Others have hopes of leading their nations once again as Kings.

I suspect these aristocrats will forever be hanging around, waiting for a chance to reclaim something or other. After all, the current King of Spain also claims the title of  King of Jerusalem, a role that disappeared in the days of the Crusades! I am fascinated by that role in particular. I mean, the idea of anyone from Europe being King of that city is absurd. Yet the claim remains. Just like their other claims will last well into the Third Millenium.

The Habsburgs, their history and genetics

Yesterday I featured a painting I took of a Dutch Still Life in the National Gallery in London. Today I want to feature one of the paintings in the Gallery with royalty as a subject. Specifically, Habsburg royalty. If you don’t know anything about the Habsburgs, you might look at this painting and say: his chin is a bit odd. If you did, you would be correct! As this piece shows, centuries of inbreeding among European royals (specifically the Habsburgs) was responsible for famous facial deformities seen in historical paintings. And so you get facial features like those above (or worse). 

This is not a terribly ancient behavior: Queen Elizabeth and her husband were third cousins. So it’s not like the Habsburgs were outliers. (See also: Romanovs.) It is a behavior that can cause terrible genetic deformities, though. Deformities that the Royal Family worried about, if the stories of the Bowen-Lyon sisters locked away are any indication.

In the end such deformities in the Spanish Habsburg led to the War of the Spanish Succession, a major turning point in Europe and the World. All due to inbreeding throughout the ages. Inbreeding you can see in the portrait above.

 

 

 

 

On Time magazine making Hitler (and Stalin) Man of the Year

In 1938, Time Magazine made Adolf Hitler their Man of the Year. Since then, they have taken much abuse because of it. I have often heard people mock Time because of their lack of judgment. Yet, I have never read the actual magazine. I assumed they simply praised Hitler at the time.

So I was intrigued when I was checking out Amazon Singles and came across the chance to learn more about it, here: Amazon.com: Adolph Hitler: TIME Person of the Year 1938 (Singles Classic). In the blurb for the magazine, it states:

Führer of the German people, Commander-in-Chief of the German Army, Navy & Air Force, Chancellor of the Third Reich, Herr Hitler reaped the harvest of an audacious, defiant, ruthless foreign policy he had been pursuing for five and a half years. He had torn the Treaty of Versailles to shreds. He had rearmed Germany to the teeth— or as close to the teeth as he was able. He had stolen Austria before the eyes of a horrified and apparently impotent world.

All these events were shocking to nations which had defeated Germany on the battlefield only 20 years before, but nothing so terrified the world as the ruthless, methodical, Nazi-directed events which during late summer and early autumn threatened a world war over Czechoslovakia. When without loss of blood he reduced Czechoslovakia to a German puppet state, forced a drastic revision of Europe’s defensive alliances, and won a free hand for himself in Eastern Europe by getting a “hands-off” promise from powerful Britain (and later France), Adolf Hitler without doubt became 1938’s Man of the Year.

Nowhere in there is Time praising Hitler for his goodness or wisdom or any such nonsense. They highlight his ruthlessness and his terrifying actions. Even his stealing of Austria and his bloodless (for the time) destruction of Czechoslovakia. However horrible Hitler was and remains, he was the most significant political leader in 1938. And that significance led to him being chosen Man of the Year.

Ironically he would have been chosen Man of the Year for 1941 too, says Time, if not for another man. That man, Joseph Stalin, was chosen Man of the Year then. Another horrible person.

Both Hitler and Stalin caused monumental suffering and death with their actions, some of it well before World War II. You can argue that such men don’t deserve to be Man of the Year. But that’s not how Time goes about choosing who gets the title.  They continue to do pick people, however odious, even naming Trump Man of the Year after winning his first election. (That they put him in a chair turning seems to echo a picture Time had of Hitler at the time, which is possibly coincidental. Possibly.)

If you want to learn more about this, check out the links. Better still, if you want to read a good history book that ties Hitler and Stalin together, read Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin.

AJP Taylor, on Winston Churchill

So there’s a new article/book critical of Churchill, and like most anti-Churchill work, it fails by emphasizing his faults and diminishing his accomplishments.

Of the many things I’ve read on Churchill, the one thing that convinced me of his greatness despite everything else is this 1974 essay by AJP Taylor: Daddy, what was Winston Churchill? – The New York Times. Taylor’s essay succeeds because he clearly sees Churchill for what he is. He sees a man who goes from an outcast to an unrivaled leader, his people fully behind him. He sees a leader making many mistakes but succeeding on the one essential thing he had to do. He understands how much worse the world would have been if he, and those he led, had failed. And after you read that essay, you should see and understand that too.

The criticisms of Churchill’s many failures are valid. But the one thing, the most important thing he did, leading the defeat of Hitler and Nazi Germany, should never be diminished.

Indeed, as Taylor starts his essay:

On Jan. 24, 1965, there died Winston Spencer Churchill, Knight of the Garter and, if he had not refused the title, Duke of London. Six days later he was given a state funeral in St. Paul’s Cathedral, an honor previously reserved for two great men of war — Admiral Lord Nelson, victor at Trafalgar, and the Duke of Wellington, victor at Waterloo. What brought Churchill into this select company? The men of the time had no doubt as to the answer. He was the savior of his country, the first Englishman to be so hailed since King Alfred the Great.

Perhaps Churchill’s stature will crumble under a constant eroding criticism. It has happened to other leading historical figures of England and it could happen to him. What should not be forgotten or diminished is what he accomplished in a way only he could have accomplished it. It’s an inconvenient truth for some. But it is a truth that will remain.

P.S. That essay also appears in a fine collection of Taylor’s works, Essays in English History. I highly recommend it. Among other things, it has a great cover. Like Cromwell, Churchill will remain relevant for centuries to come. Warts and all.

(Top image from Wikipedia. Bottom image from Goodreads.)

On the complex process of electing the Doge in 14th century Venice

Last week on twitter I came across something that fascinated me: how the Venetians elected the Doge in the 14th century. It was a supremely complex process. At first I couldn’t believe it was real, but then I came across this: Electing the Doge (The Ballot Boy). Not only that, but I came across this academic article explaining why it made sense! And I thought runoff elections of modern states could be complicated.

For more on the city of Venice at that time, I recommend this site: The Ballot Boy – Venice in the 14th century. It provides a superb view of Venice at that time.

(Image link to The Ballot Boy, Diagram of Ducal Election)

A critique of the weird counterfactual history of Matt Yglesias and his case for the Austro-Hungarian Empire


Recently, Matt Yglesias wrote one of his contrarian essays arguing the case for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There’s so much wrongness about it that it’s hard to know where to start.

Perhaps the best place to start is some basic history of the empire over the 19th century. As the Holy Roman Empire was dying off, the Austrian Empire was formed from it and lasted from 1804 to 1867. From there it transformed into the Austria-Hungary Empire.  During the 19th century the Empire, led by the Hapsburgs, had stability issues. It was battered from the outside by leaders such as Napoleon of France and Bismarck of Prussia/Germany. It was torn internally, with revolutions like those in 1848. Even under less dramatic situations, it struggled to manage large parts of it due to things like the divisive actions of the Kingdom of Hungary.

Given all that, the idea that Yglesias puts forward that:

In today’s light, the idea of the Habsburg realms evolving into a multi-lingual democratic entity doesn’t seem particularly absurd.

Well, it is pretty absurd. The Emperor took all forms of actions to prevent the forces externally and internally from defeating the Empire, but those forces only grew stronger over that time. To imagine it evolving into a singular democratic entity is based on nothing and counter to the history of the Empire during that century.

Yglesias goes on to propose:

The empire wasn’t doomed by its diversity of linguistic groups — it started and then lost a major war.

Actually, it was doomed by its diversity in war and peace. In peacetime it was doomed by too many political groups it could not reconcile. In wartime it was doomed too. (This is covered in depth in the book,  A Mad Catastrophe.) The army of the Emperor was terrible for many reasons, and a key one in particular that led to their downfall was the inability of its soldiers to communicate with each other.

Yglesias drives forward:

And this, I think, is the thin point: had the continent not plunged into war following Ferdinand’s assassination, I think the empire could have survived.

This overlooks why there was a war in the first place. The Empire was looking to flex their muscle in the Balkans since they made aims to move into that area that was once part of the Ottoman Empire. After the assassination, an ultimatum of demands was put to Serbia. The demands were difficult and still Serbia made an effort to agree with them. Despite being agreeable to all but one, Austria-Hungary would not accept this and this ultimately lead up to the Great War. The continent was plugged into that war because of the Empire.

Assuming no war – a tremendous assumption – he goes on to imagine an optimistic future for the Empire:

My optimistic view is twofold:

Absent the pretext of war, the Viennese authorities would recognize the need to return to parliamentary government, even if that meant dealing with socialists as a counterweight to the grab-bag of nationalists.

Franz Ferdinand wanted to cut Hungary down to size (literally) and the Hungarian nationalists might have realized that this was actually in their interests and would have let them be masters of their own domain.

Again no. Hungary had been fighting against the leaders in Vienna for decade. There’s nothing in their history that indicates they would have changed their minds. If you are going to be a contrarian historian, at least have some facts to support your counter history.

He also has a fantastical view of how the Empire might have operated:

I think a more workable version of federalism would have been to leverage the Empire’s small administrative divisions and create a state where a lot of power was devolved to local government with the national government handling national defense and foreign policy, plus the kinds of things that are run out of Brussels and Frankfurt in contemporary Europe.

This is also counter to the facts. Facts such as how Hungary would subvert any kind of spending that was not in their interest, including defense, to name just one.

More fantasy in the form of how schools would run:

The expectation would be that schooling would be available in one or two local languages of instruction in every locality, that every non-German student would be taught German as a foreign language, and that every German student would choose from one of the other languages of the empire. I think that absent the outbreak of war, this would have proved to be a sustainable model

Again, no. Not based on history.

Finally:

And by midcentury, the script has sort of flipped on the Habsburg domains. Far from a feudal relic, the empire starts to seem progressive and modern.

That certainly wasn’t going to happen when Franz Joseph was emperor. He truly was a feudal relic, and the only purpose of the empire was for him to be Emperor. Preferably an empire that was based on those of centuries past. He and the land he ruled was notoriously conservative and antiquated. Nothing in their history would indicate this would become anything other than that, short of dissolution.

In summary, Matt Yglesias imagines an Austria-Hungary that never existed and never could exist, but if it did, it would form a model of some ideal federation within Mittel Europa. The only place that might fill that bill is Switzerland.

If you want to read what the empire was really like at the end, read A Mad Catastrophe. As well, AJP Taylor has written several essays and books on the subject, including this. I’ve found all those worthwhile The Guardian has 10 more books on the topic, here. Finally, consider reading Musil’s The Man Without Qualities.

On the annexation of the Balkan regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary (or, the world needs more historical examples)

I find it sad is that whenever something happens that can be compared to history, we get comparisons only to Nazi Germany. Case in point, last week I saw Nancy Pelosi compare the attack on Ukraine to the Sudeten Crisis.

This is problematic in several ways. One problem is that it isn’t the only comparison that can be made. There are many such instances in history where military annexation takes place.  Another problem is that such comparisons lead people to think that things will progress along the same lines.

The solution is to learn more history. This can be hard for non-historians like me. Google is no help. I searched for annexations this weekend and most of my searches returned links to Nazi Germany. We have to research deeper.

When it comes to annexations, there are countless examples throughout history. Take Prussia. If you go through the history of Prussia in the 19th century and look for annexations, you can find many examples. European nations were always annexing their neighbor’s turf, and Prussia was just one such nation to do so.

But you don’t have to go back that far. For instance, you would be wise to read about  the Bosnian Crisis of 1908 – 1909.   In it you can see many parallels to what is happening in Ukraine right now. And that’s just one concrete example. There are many more.

The point is, the next time you want to reach for a comparison to Nazi Germany or you hear someone reference Nazi Germany in comparison to something that is happening in the world, try and read more history and find other examples.

P.S. Note the quote on that image: Civilization is on the March. That’s some disagreeable quote, but not a surprising one.

 

Colonialism, Churchill, and other things I find interesting in history, February 2022

Recently I’ve been reading more about colonialism, Churchill and more. Here are some links on this.

Recently there was  a controversial article that praised colonialism. This article shows colonialism’s real legacy was ugly. This piece also shows how colonialism was a disaster and the facts prove it.  More dismissal of the idea that colonialism was good: A Quick Reminder of Why Colonialism Was Bad. This argues that: All Britons Benefited From Colonialism, Regardless Of Class. While Britain was a big colonial power, there were others as well. For example, Russia: Empire of the steppe: Russia’s colonial experience on the Eurasian frontier. Finally: 500 years of European colonialism in one animated map.

Related to colonialism, here are some links on Winston Churchill. Here’s two pieces critical of him: The Case Against Winston Churchill and Why can’t Britain handle the truth about Winston Churchill? My thought is anti-Churchillians downplay his role in defeating Hitler, while pro-Churchillians focus mainly on his role in defeating Hitler and downplay everything else. Finally, for a piece that takes into account the complexity of Churchill and his legacy, there is this:  The best books on Winston Churchill.

I disagreed with the monocausal aspect of this piece, The Bomb Didn’t Beat Japan, Stalin Did. Many things led to the defeat of Japan. Russia was one of them, for sure. Still a good read.

I liked this piece by TNC that  talks about Tony Judt: The Man Who Freed Me From Cant. My minor criticism is that Coates has an American centric view and this prevents him to some degree to fairly assessing Judt. But it’s a minor one: I recommend it, as I do for anything Ta-Nehesi Coates writes.

On Seneca, or good advice is good advice, regardless of whom it comes from

I’ve always thought highly of the wisdom dispensed by Seneca. Many do. However, I started to think about it more after reading this: Lucius Annaeus Seneca | Daily Philosophy.

Seneca’s advice is admirable and worthwhile. His life, less so. Read that piece and you will see what I mean.Which is once again why I will conclude that good advice is good advice, regardless of whom it comes from. Not everyone is as consistent in life and thought as Diogenes. 🙂

 

Late night thoughts on America, China and Africa

Here’s some interesting links I found on America, China, and Africa over the year that I thought worth revisited as we move from 2021 to 2022.

On American justice: There was plenty of turmoil in the American justice system in 2021. For example, the Arbery trial outcome was uncertain:  Nearly All-White Jury in Arbery Killing Draws Scrutiny while the Rittenhouse trial was not: Of Course Kyle Rittenhouse Was Acquitted. The effects of the US Supreme Court becoming more conservative was discussed in pieces like this  Five Justices Did This Because They Could and this It’s time to say it: The conservatives on the Supreme Court lied to us all. Finally a reminder of how terrible capital punishment is in many ways, as this piece shows: They executed people for the state of South Carolina. For some it nearly destroyed them.

On American history: Americans spent much time debating their history, too, in pieces like this, Date of Viking Visit to North America Pinpointed to 1021 AD,
this The Debate Over a Jefferson Statue Is Missing Some Surprising History  this Cancel Columbus Day: Sun storms pinpoint Europeans being in Canada in 1021 A.D., and this: Does America really lose all its wars?.

A special focus was put on the 1619 Project, here The 1619 Project and the Demands of Public History and here The 1619 Project started as history. Now it’s also a political program. Relatedly, this: List of last surviving American enslaved people.

Finally, this bears rereading:  Bertrand Russell’s Ten Commandments for Living in a Healthy Democracy.

China: like the US, China is struggling too. Struggling with it’s young people (‘Lying flat’: The millennials quitting China’s ‘996’ work culture to live ‘free of anxiety’), scandals (Beijing Silenced Peng Shuai in 20 Minutes, Then Spent Weeks on Damage Control), worldwide distrust (As Distrust of China Grows Europe May Inch Closer to Taiwan), and their treatment of  Uyghurs (U.S. Holocaust Museum Says China May Be Committing Genocide Against Uyghurs). And as Xi Jinping gains more control, he is coming under more scrutiny, as seen here China’s Xi Jinping Remakes the Communist Party’s History in His Image and here What if Xi Jinping just isn’t that competent?

Africa: For the first part of the 21st century, China and the US will be the dominant great powers. However as we move towards the 22nd century, the next great power may come from Africa. At the very least, Africa’s rising cities will be dominant.

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.

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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.

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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)

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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

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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.