Category Archives: history


Izabella Łaba, who grew up in Communist Poland, wrote a long, fascinating blog post about the lived realities of socialism:

If I were to name the most “socialist” things that I see or hear about on this side of the pond – “socialist” referring to the reality I’ve experienced, not to the latest myth du jour – Obamacare or “big government” would not be especially close to the top of the list. (If you recall, the problem with the “big government” in the Soviet bloc was a little bit more particular than it just being big.) On the other hand, big U.S. banks and other “too big to fail” entities are pretty good analogues of the coal and steel communist corporation. Pork barrel politics. I’ve mentioned Wall Street already. Academic politics, in so many ways that it just hurts to think about it. But also bureaucrats and politicians who try to micromanage academic research they don’t understand and use arbitrary indicators of “usefulness” to evaluate it, much like communists instituted a set of “criteria” to control production.

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Yossef Zisman, 1832-1925


This is my great great great grandfather, Yossef Zisman, who lived in Corjeuti, in what is now Moldova.  He died at 92 when his cart overturned in the snow and he was crushed by his own horse.YossefZisman

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Novel World Series matchups

Next to the Yankees, the Cardinals, Dodgers, A’s, Tigers, and Red Sox are the teams with the most pennants, and all are still in the playoffs.  So you might think we’re very likely to see a World Series matchup we’ve seen before.  If the Cardinals win the pennant, that’s true:  they went up against the A’s in 1930 and 1931, the Tigers in 1934, 1968, and 2006, and the Red Sox in 1946, 1967, 2004.

But the Dodgers have never faced the Tigers or the Red Sox in the World Series.  Basically, they won lots of pennants but just played the Yankees again and again.

I’m still holding out hope for the Pirates to take the National League pennant.  If they do, they’ve got a chance to get revenge for their loss in the very first World Series, in 1903, 5 games to 3 to the team then known as the Boston Americans, now called the Red Sox.


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Adam Smith on mathematicians and poets

I got this strange and interesting passage from Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments from Mark Lewko’s blog, which seems to be quiet at the moment but I hope it comes back!

The beauty of poetry is a matter of such nicety, that a young beginner can scarce ever be certain that he has attained it. Nothing delights him so much, therefore, as the favourable judgments of his friends and of the public; and nothing mortifies him so severely as the contrary. The one establishes, the other shakes, the good opinion which he is anxious to entertain concerning his own performances. Experience and success may in time give him a little more confidence in his own judgment. He is at all times, however, liable to be most severely mortified by the unfavourable judgments of the public. Racine was so disgusted by the indifferent success of his Phaedra, the finest tragedy, perhaps, that is extant in any language, that, though in the vigour of his life, and at the height of his abilities, he resolved to write no more for the stage. That great poet used frequently to tell his son, that the most paltry and impertinent criticism had always given him more pain, than the highest and justest eulogy had ever given him pleasure. The extreme sensibility of Voltaire to the slightest censure of the same kind is well known to every body. The Dunciad of Mr Pope is an everlasting monument of how much the most correct, as well as the most elegant and harmonious of all the English poets, had been hurt by the criticisms of the lowest and most contemptible authors. Gray (who joins to the sublimity of Milton the elegance and harmony of Pope, and to whom nothing is wanting to render him, perhaps, the first poet in the English language, but to have written a little more) is said to have been so much hurt, by a foolish and impertinent parody of two of his finest odes, that he never afterwards attempted any considerable work. Those men of letters who value themselves upon what is called fine writing in prose, approach somewhat to the sensibility of poets.

Mathematicians, on the contrary, who may have the most perfect assurance, both of the truth and of the importance of their discoveries, are frequently very indifferent about the reception which they may meet with from the public. The two greatest mathematicians that I ever have had the honour to be known to, and, I believe, the two greatest that have lived in my time, Dr Robert Simpson of Glasgow, and Dr Matthew Stewart of Edinburgh, never seemed to feel even the slightest uneasiness from the neglect with which the ignorance of the public received some of their most valuable works. The great work of Sir Isaac Newton, his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, I have been told, was for several years neglected by the public. The tranquillity of that great man, it is probable, never suffered, upon that account, the interruption of a single quarter of an hour. Natural philosophers, in their independency upon the public opinion, approach nearly to mathematicians, and, in their judgments concerning the merit of their own discoveries and observations, enjoy some degree of the same security and tranquillity.

The morals of those different classes of men of letters are, perhaps, sometimes somewhat affected by this very great difference in their situation with regard to the public.

Mathematicians and natural philosophers, from their independency upon the public opinion, have little temptation to form themselves into factions and cabals, either for the support of their own reputation, or for the depression of that of their rivals. They are almost always men of the most amiable simplicity of manners, who live in good harmony with one another, are the friends of one another’s reputation, enter into no intrigue in order to secure the public applause, but are pleased when their works are approved of, without being either much vexed or very angry when they are neglected.

It is not always the same case with poets, or with those who value themselves upon what is called fine writing. They are very apt to divide themselves into a sort of literary factions; each cabal being often avowedly, and almost always secretly, the mortal enemy of the reputation of every other, and employing all the mean arts of intrigue and solicitation to preoccupy the public opinion in favour of the works of its own members, and against those of its enemies and rivals.

Now that the public reads no more poetry than it does mathematics, have the moral habits of poets and mathematicians converged?

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Baseball players and Brooklyn hipsters

My mom got me the excellent Baseball in the Garden of Eden, by John Thorn, whose book The Hidden Game of Baseball I studied obsessively in the pre-sabermetric days of my youth.  The new book aims to clear out some of the mythic fog surrounding the history of the game — which means taking a clear-eyed look at urban America in the 1840s and 50s, something we learn almost nothing about in school.

Here’s a small insight I drew from the book.  You know how we make fun of young hipster dudes in Brooklyn who form leagues to play kickball, because it seems such a dopey affectation for adults to play a kids’ game and drink beer while they do it?  Well, the early history of organized baseball is more or less exactly the same.  Thorn shows persuasively that baseball (and its relatives, like “round ball” and “old cat”) were popular children’s games, which no more had an inventor than do Capture the Flag or Kick the Can.  The innovation was for adults to play the game in organized leagues, to drink beer, to bet on the outcome, and to charge admission.

Also, I was surprised to learn that the use of the word “plugging” to describe hitting a runner with a thrown ball was already prevalent in the 19th century.  My idiolect somewhat favors “pegging” over “plugging” for this, but both make sense to me.


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The American universities that sent representatives to the 1900 ICM in Paris

  • Bryn Mawr
  • California
  • Chicago
  • Clark
  • “Dakota”
  • Northwestern
  • Georgetown
  • Haverford
  • Lehigh
  • Princeton
  • Stanford
  • Texas

Interesting list!


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The greatest danger which today confronts the white race

I needed to look at R.A. Fisher’s review of John Maynard Keynes’s treatise on probability, which was published in Eugenics Journal, which I was trying to figure out if JSTOR has, and that led me to this, written by Yale geographer Ellsworth Huntington in 1923.  I know you all know early 20th-century attitudes around race were weird but it’s good to actually look at chunks of it from time to time.

Nevertheless, the greatest danger which today confronts the white race in general and the United States in particular is probably the dilution of a fine, capable racial inheritance with stocks of less capacity, both white and colored. In the clear and forceful manner that is characteristic of his entire book the author points out that “the East can underlive the West” and thereby drive out the westerners wherever the two attempt to compete on equal terms. This is true not only of Asiatics but of eastern and southern Europeans. Whenever such people mingle with those of higher heredity, they do not lift the superior type to a higher social level, as is often supposed, but actually drive it out, or rather prevent it from being born, as is rapidly happening in New England. This is not because the lower type is biologically the “best” but because it is willing to increase and multiply regardless of its own standard of living and that of its  children. The higher types, on the contrary, refuse to lower their standards by rapid multiplication and therefore die out. The forceful way in which this great truth is brought out makes Mr. Stoddard’s book deserve not only careful reading but careful thought in order that its conclusions may be acted upon.

There’s probably something to be said about the relationship between the rhetoric of race struggle in 1923 and the rhetoric of disruptive innovation now, but not by me.  By the way, New England turned out fine, as far as I can tell.

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Dan Sharfstein wins Guggenheim

Congratulations to Dan Sharfstein, who is one of this year’s Guggenheim Fellows!  I have written before about my admiration for Dan’s book The Invisible Line, and this seems a good occasion to say again — if you’re at all interested in the long, complicated history of race in America, buy the book and read it.  His new book will be about Oliver Otis Howard and the Freedmen’s Bureau.  This is the kind of project that requires long, deep research and painstaking thought.  I don’t know if we can Kickstarter things like this, and I’m glad we have the Guggenheim Foundation to help make them possible.


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On Thermonuclear War

This is the world we used to live in.  Herman Kahn, one of the architects of postwar US nuclear policy, from his 1960 book On Thermonuclear War:

However, our calculations indicate that even without special stockpiles, dispersal, or protection, the restoration of our prewar GNP should take place in a relatively short time — if we can hold the damage to the equivalent of something like 53 metropolitan areas destroyed.




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Chazen 1934

Gold Is Where You Find It by Tyrone Comfort

[photo by flickr user Chris Tank]

CJ and I went to the superb 1934: A New Deal for Artists show at the Chazen this weekend.  Highly recommended if you like American representational painting from the first half of the 20th century at all, or you have an inquisitive kid who likes to see what the world used to look like, or both.  Very good, historically informative title cards, too!  The best special exhibition we’ve seen there, I think.

A couple of good new pieces in the permanent contemporary collection upstairs, too:  a new Beth Cavener Stichter, this one a deer’s body with a rabbit face turned toward the viewer in an unimpressed way, and a funny Gregory Scott painting/movie about Roy Lichtenstein, which you can watch on vimeo:


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