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Current Topic: History

A Helpful Illusion, But An Illusion Nonetheless
Topic: History 6:48 am EDT, Jun 10, 2010

Richard Florida:

We have come to an economic juncture where we must re-examine even our most cherished beliefs.

Mark Foulon:

We have tried incremental steps and they have proven insufficient.

Viktor Chernomyrdin:

We wanted the best, but it turned out as always.

Peter Singer:

Human lives are, in general, much less good than we think they are. We spend most of our lives with unfulfilled desires, and the occasional satisfactions that are all most of us can achieve are insufficient to outweigh these prolonged negative states. If we think that this is a tolerable state of affairs it is because we are victims of the illusion of pollyannaism. This illusion may have evolved because it helped our ancestors survive, but it is an illusion nonetheless. If we could see our lives objectively, we would see that they are not something we should inflict on anyone.

Can non-existent people have a right to come into existence?

Nicholas Bakalar:

People start out at age 18 feeling pretty good about themselves, and then, apparently, life begins to throw curve balls. But by the time they are 85, they are even more satisfied with themselves than they were at 18.

Mike Berners-Lee:

Although it takes a lot of energy to make paper, a good read will pin you down for hours, distracting you from all the more carbon-intensive pastimes you might otherwise be indulging in.

Getting cremated is likely to be less than a 10,000th of your life's carbon footprint. On this one occasion you can treat yourself to whatever form of disposal you prefer, safe in the knowledge that you have already done the most carbon-friendly thing possible.

Randy Palumbo:

The greenest thing you can do in your kitchen is not tear it up and put in a new one.

Angus McCullough:

The only way to end your game is to lose.

Sarah Silverman:

You're very free if you don't love money.

David Youngberg and Robin Hanson:

Compared with relatively modern societies, nomadic foragers had similar levels of food and disease, and less murder and suicide. They did not fight over land or resources, and they en... [ Read More (0.2k in body) ]

Topic: History 7:08 am EST, Nov 13, 2009

Charles C. Mann:

If Christian civilization was so wonderful, why were its inhabitants leaving?

Elizabeth Fenn:

You have to wonder: what were all those people up to in all that time?

Dean R. Snow:

It's really easy to kid yourself.

On Drew Gilpin Faust:

She wanted to understand how whole classes of people can get caught up in a shared worldview, to the point that they simply can't see.

Jose Saramago:

If only all life's deceptions were like this one, and all they had to do was to come to some agreement ... Were it not for the fact that we're blind this mix-up would never have happened, You're right, our problem is that we're blind.

Joe Nocera:

They just want theirs. That is the culture they have created.

Charles C. Mann:

Minute changes in baseline assumptions produce wildly different results.

Paul Graham:

Surprises are things that you not only didn't know, but that contradict things you thought you knew. And so they're the most valuable sort of fact you can get.

Lucas Foglia:

Rewilding: the process of creating a lifestyle that is independent of the domestication of civilization.

Dan Kildee:

Much of the land will be given back to nature. People will enjoy living near a forest or meadow.

Freeman Dyson:

Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over.

Charles C. Mann:

I felt alone and small, but in a way that was curiously like feeling exalted.

Michiru Hoshino:

Oh! I feel it. I feel the cosmos!


The Great Gamble
Topic: History 12:31 pm EST, Feb 16, 2009

Gregory Feifer has a new book about Afghanistan.

Here's the brief review at The New Yorker:

Feifer’s history of the Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan, in the nineteen-eighties, comes just in time for a proposed expansion of the seven-year-old American effort there.

It ought to be instructive, because the Soviet experience (“an increasingly senseless conflict”) closely mirrors our own—a lightly contested invasion later thwarted by a homegrown resistance and the “Afghan tradition of shifting allegiances.”

Feifer assiduously chronicles Soviet errors; some, like the indiscriminate use of explosives when searching villages and the shelling of wedding parties mistaken for bands of the enemy, have close analogues in the current war.

Yet, strangely, having pointed out all the parallels, Feifer persists in thinking of the American venture as a “historic opportunity” undermined by the second front, in Iraq, rather than as intrinsically hopeless.

From November 2008, an interview with a Soviet veteran of the Afghan war:

I can tell you which mistakes you made and which mistakes we made. They are the same mistakes.

From January 2009:

We will not be able to eliminate the Taliban from the rural areas of Afghanistan’s south, so we will have to work with Afghans to contain the insurgency instead.

All this is unpleasant for Western politicians who dream of solving the fundamental problems and getting out.

They will soon be tempted to give up.

Have you seen "Revolutionary Road"?

Hopeless emptiness. Now you've said it. Plenty of people are onto the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.

The Great Gamble

The Speech
Topic: History 3:51 pm EST, Jan 10, 2009

Yesterday I found myself at the bookstore, in front of the "New in History" shelf, mostly facing a dazzling array of recently published tomes about America's sixteenth President. I briefly wondered how one human subject could occupy so much attention, year after year, both from readers and writers. I briefly reviewed the covers, but picked up none of the books. Then I moved on.

Today I read Jill Lepore's latest piece in the New Yorker (sadly behind the paywall, but well worth the read), in which I came above this excerpt from Lincoln's first inaugural address:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearth-stone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely as they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

And I thought, oh.

The Speech

Well-­Behaved Women Seldom Make History
Topic: History 6:52 am EST, Feb 11, 2008

Most American academics start their careers re­searching something small and obscure, and ­then—­if they’re ­lucky—­work their way up to topics of larger import and scope. Only at the pinnacle of their profession are they permitted to muse on sweeping themes.

The midwife kept a record of a regular life filled with such “women’s work” as delivering babies, bartering goods, and doing laundry. But women who “made history” in the standard sense were different: To attain anything recognizable to historians as status or influence, women have had to “mis­behave.” And misbehavior brought danger and, frequently, oblivion. We remember only those who successfully “negotiated the boundary between invisibility and scandal.”

Well-­Behaved Women Seldom Make History

Challenging History
Topic: History 6:52 am EST, Feb 11, 2008

An interview with Drew Gilpin Faust, author of "This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War."

There are a number of things that make Drew Gilpin Faust different from those who've come before her as head honcho of America's flagship university.

Faust is, for example, the only president of Harvard known to have produced an academic paper titled "Equine Relics of the Civil War," the research for which included attending a solemn burial ceremony for the cremated bones of Stonewall Jackson's horse.

She is, it seems almost certain, the only one among the anointed to talk about what inspires her by calling herself "an archive rat."


In the 21st century, we "shy away from death," she says, and we tend to think of a good death as a sudden one. Not so in the 19th century. Dying well meant having time to assess your spiritual state and say goodbye -- which is difficult to do if you're killed in battle.

What's more, there were so many dying: some 620,000 soldiers in four years. As a percentage of population, Faust says, that's "the equivalent of 6 million Americans today."

How could the culture not be changed?

... Her early work centered on the intellectual arguments of slavery's prewar defenders. She wanted to understand how whole classes of people can get caught up in a shared worldview, to the point that they simply can't see.

Challenging History

Wasn't It Great?
Topic: History 6:51 am EST, Feb 11, 2008

In the Great Depression, Roosevelt saw a third of a nation ill-housed. Here you are, in an alternate reality, in the Second Great Depression, ill-housed yourself.

Your favorite neighbors will hit the road in search of work or an upbeat sense of spiritual self-determinism. Pretty soon you'll pack up and leave too.

It is one thing for Cormac McCarthy to win a Pulitzer last year for a deeply depressing novel ("The Road") about nuclear winter. It's another thing entirely -- bad juju -- to envision or talk about the ruin of our economy.

Yet isn't that the point of fretting -- imagining the worst?

Even in the darkest times, 75 million Americans a week were finding a way to go to the movies. (A 15-cent movie ticket in 1933, adjusted for inflation, should cost only $2.40 now. Tell us again how everything's okay?)

"There's this hunger in this generation for discussing collective purpose," he says. "There's a spiritual hunger for something larger to be a part of. They remember 9/11 and being urged to continue shopping."

Wasn't It Great?

Freeman Dyson, on "Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War" by Michael J. Neufeld
Topic: History 9:29 am EST, Feb 10, 2008

I first recommended this article last month when it was behind a paywall at NYRB. (I also mentioned a letter and a reply in the next issue.)

Dyson's review is now freely available through Powell's. An excerpt:

In my opinion, the moral imperative at the end of every war is reconciliation. Without reconciliation there can be no real peace. Reconciliation means amnesty. It is allowable to execute the worst war criminals, with or without a legal trial, provided that this is done quickly, while the passions of war are still raging. After the executions are done, there should be no more hunting for criminals and collaborators. In order to make a lasting peace, we must learn to live with our enemies and forgive their crimes. Amnesty means that we are all equal before the law. Amnesty is not easy and not fair, but it is a moral necessity, because the alternative is an unending cycle of hatred and revenge. South Africa has set us a good example, showing how it can be done.

In the end, I admire von Braun for using his God-given talents to achieve his visions, even when this required him to make a pact with the devil. He bent Hitler and Himmler to his purposes more than they bent him to theirs. And I admire the United States Army for giving him a second chance to pursue his dreams. In the end, the amnesty given to him by the United States did far more than a strict accounting of his misdeeds could have done to redeem his soul and to fulfill his destiny.

Freeman Dyson, on "Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War" by Michael J. Neufeld

What is a Map?
Topic: History 5:50 am EST, Nov  8, 2007

The “Gospel Temperance Railroad Map” is an example of an allegorical map. It was published in 1908 by G. E. Bula and looks very much like the typical American railroad map of its day. It presents the traveler with three main lines diverging from Decisionville in the State of Accountability at the left-hand side of the map. The routes of the lower two lines, the Way That Seemeth Right Division and the Great Destruction Way Route, pass at first through towns representing relatively minor vices and self-deceptions of alcohol use, but lead inevitably to more serious “states” of Depravity, Intemperance, and Bondage. A River of Salvation offers hope for some, but those who stubbornly remain on the path of drink and debauchery end, without escape, in the City of Destruction. The upper line from Decisionville, the Great Celestial Route, is not without its trials, represented by such station stops as Bearingcross, Abandonment, and Long Suffering; but the final destination, The Celestial City, is clearly more desirable than its counterpart.

See also "Mapping", Episode 110 of This American Life:

Five ways of mapping the world. One story about people who make maps the traditional way—by drawing things we can see. And other stories about people who map the world using smell, sound, touch, and taste. The world redrawn by the five senses.

In particular, see Act One, with Denis Wood and his maps, like this one:

On Halloween 1982, I walked around the neighborhood and photographed all the jack-o'-lanterns. In most cases, the photograph is of the pumpkin on the porch at that location, but where my photographs didn’t turn out, we duplicated an image from another porch.

What is a Map?

A Great Upheaval
Topic: History 6:24 am EST, Nov  7, 2007

The world alters as we walk in it, so that the years of a man's life measure not some small growth or rearrangement or moderation of what he learned in childhood, but a great upheaval.

-- Robert Oppenhemier

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