Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Only a slightly different perspective - History of Oil

We have gone through this history in quite a number of podcasts: Sarajevo 1914, Pearl Harbor 1941 and even the fall of Mossadegh 1953, haven't we? How is it that I was glued to my iPod with these narratives all over again? I was listening to A History of Oil an amateur podcast by Peter Doran. (feed)

Any new history podcast should reveal a fact about history that was not that clear until now. A History of Oil does that even where you hardly expect to be surprised. Take for instance Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi Invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. We already knew the Germans over-stretched themselves. We knew they had fuel shortages. We knew they had to capture the oil fields on the Caspian Sea around Baku and failed to do so. We knew that no matter how long they could hold out in Soviet territory, this was a turning point in the Second World War, but still A History of Oil's perspective gives something new.

A History of Oil effectively starts in the middle of the nineteenth century when crude oil began to enter the markets as a commodity and before long we approach the First World War. The British are the first to let their navy switch from coal to oil, but others are soon to follow, so that we are more than normally aware how oil has become a vital strategic resource by the time the Second World War comes around. Then, in 1941, as the Nazis invade the Soviet Union and have one success after another, oil became a problem. The Germans had used many times more fuel than planned. In fact operation Barbarossa rapidly depleted the oil reserves and no source was at hand that could meet the increased demand. So, if we thought that the defeat at Stalingrad was the turning point, A History of Oil, makes it clear that the defeat was inherent. Not a radically new point, but still a new support for the thesis that Barbarossa was a decisive Nazi mistake from the get go.

This is only one example of what the slightly altered perspective of A History of Oil brings to familiar data. Another refreshing experience is to go through the era not by means of national histories, but by means of the history of corporations; Standard Oil, Royal Dutch, Shell, British Petroleum and so on. It makes John D. Rockefeller more prominent than Theodore Roosevelt. It makes the Japanese invasion of Borneo more prominent than their attack on Pearl Harbor. It places Mexico, Venezuela and Indonesia in the center of attention what rarely happens and so on.

In short, A History of Oil is a remarkable enrichment to the library of history podcasts and highly recommended listening.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The history of English and the history of the alphabet

Recently I have been dedicating all my listening time to one podcaster, Kevin Stroud, who offers two series on the web. The first is The History of English Podcast which has by now reached its 30th episode, 20 of which I have managed to cover since I made the discovery. The other is The History of the Alphabet which I learned about through the aforementioned and which I listened through from beginning to end in one fell swoop.

Kevin Stroud is an American lawyer with a love for language, who has taken up the unique challenge among history podcasts to relate the history of a language, any language. His history of the English language goes back to the earliest of beginnings, the Indo-European language and slowly takes it from there. He delivers a lot of linguistic samples but by following a historic narrative which is in many ways a retelling of the main stream history from the dawn of civilization up to modern times. This means he delivers material that is touched upon by many other podcasters. I am not sure whether he is familiar with them all, but I find his history to be closely in synch with what is known through other sources. What makes the podcast unique, original and highly interesting is the linguistic perspective. In addition, Stroud has a good voice and delivers his text in a way that is highly effective in audio, that is, his sentences are straightforward and he does not shy away from repetition so that you cannot get lost and his point passes really well. (feed)

During this podcast, Stroud naturally gives a lot of attention to the development of script in general and the alphabet in particular. For example he dedicated a whole episode to the letter C. However, for a more extensive and systematic discussion of the alphabet and this different letters, he decided to make another series: The history of the alphabet. This is more of an audio-book and it can be purchased from several vendors at a price around $9, but I bought it for $6 directly at the podcast's website. It is the first time I have actually paid money for audio and I have not regretted it for a single moment. This series has shown me how the Hebrew alphabet that I had to learn at a later age is much more closely related and traceable in the Latin alphabet with which I grew up than I thought. It clarifies some of the strange spellings you encounter, especially in English and French, but not much less in Dutch. I also never knew that the letters J and V are actually so new in our language that the first dictionaries that were made, like for example Samuel Johnson's (1755), did not even treat them separately from I and U.

I'll continue to catch up with Stroud's podcast and in the mean time I should be updating you on many other new podcasts I have been picking up on of late. Many of these also dive into ancient history, so it seems I am really going through a 'back to the roots' phase as it were. My playlist contains The Ancient World, Myths and History of Ancient Greece and the Podcast History of our World to name a few along this line.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Monocle - Saeed Ahmed

Here is another guest-post written by Saeed Ahmed:

Monocle is a relatively new magazine (launched 2007) that takes great pride in it's real-paper format, putting tremendous thought into the look, feel and emotional appeal of the visual and tactile aspects of its product. However, don't let this retro-focus fool you. Since 2008, Monocle has been "airing" a around the clock radio schedule. I recently discovered this and after sampling a couple of its program offerings, decided to immerse myself in the Monocle experience for a week, which included listening its podcasts and watching videos posted on the Monocle website.

On weekdays, Monocle has five daily hour long news shows which start at 6am (UK time) and end at around midnight. The Monocle staff are prompt in posting the podcasts (much faster than news podcasts from the BBC it seemed to me). Each of these has news headlines at the start and in the middle of the show. In between, there are pre-recorded reports from correspondents, live interviews, and a review of newspapers from different regions of the world, usually with a studio guest. Each of the five shows (Globalist, Midori House, Briefing, Globalist Asia, and Monocle Daily) has its own flavor, and what I found remarkable was the very small amount of redundancy. I didn't listen to every show every day, but when I did listen to two or three of these in a row, generally only one or two stories were repeated at the most.

In addition to the weekday news shows, Monocle has weekly shows on that cover design, urban living, food, movies, books and magazines (yes, magazines, in a show called the "Stack" in which they discuss developments in in-print magazines because this is something they consider important and enduring).

Monocle is also somehow able to maintain a correspondents in several countries (all of whom are good on air), to find interesting studio guests, and to maintain good relationships with other news outlets whose representatives call in regularly and provide reports. Perhaps my favorite thing is the Monocle radio personalities, who come from many different places including the UK, US, Canada, Australia and Finland. Unlike the dry presentation of Al Jazeera, BBC or the US networks, the Monocle broadcasters inject a quite healthy dose of humor in between the news headlines, features and interviews.

I don’t know how Monocle does maintains this prolific output and very high standard in print and broadcast media with what must be a small staff and budget (compared to BBC, CBC, ABC RadioNational, RTE and US networks). It is amazing! I hope they can keep it up.

After my week long immersion, I felt like I had been on a vicarious vacation of sorts, and made new friends. Give it a try, and perhaps you will feel the same way about Tyler Brule, Andrew Tuck, Emma Nelson, Barney Burnham, Markus Hippi, Aisha Speirs, Fiona Wilson and the rest.

You can check out Monocle’s Wikipedia page or read an article about it (The Independent - Monocle, the media project I have always wanted to do). Brule also has his own page, and enough of an internet presence that someone generated a somewhat tongue and cheek fan site.

If I could give feedback to Monocle, I would suggest four things:
1) include some information about it’s radio personalities on its website,
2) provide some links to features that come up in it’s shows,
3) during the news shows perhaps mention some of the videos that are posted on it’s website so that people know to look at these and enrich their experience, and
4) provide the podcast RSS feeds (rather than just i-tune links). This last mentioned one can be a bit irritating to those who don’t use i-tunes. However, there is a technical way to retrieve the RSS feed from the i-tunes site, which can be accessed here (after you go to each of the Monocle show pages and click on “subscribe in iTunes”):

More Saeed Ahmed:
Brain Dichotomies,
Taking courses with Saeed Ahmed,
Optimizing Brain Fitness,
Wittgenstein,
Political and current affairs podcasts,
International Political Economy.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Stephen Fry reads Eugene Onegin (Pushkin)

Russian literature translated into rhyming English - that could go wrong a million ways. In 1832 Alexander Pushkin published the final version of his novel about the eternal bachelor Eugene Onegin. The novel is comprised of eight chapters written in stanzas of iambic tetrameter with a unique rhyming scheme. The book has been translated many times and the James Falen translation is now available as an audio book, greatly performed by Stephen Fry. The files can be downloaded in two ways Fry Reads Onegin Zip and Fry Reads Onegin from iTunes. Delightful and exquisite. I wish I could compare it to the original.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Along the ancient road to Kaifeng - CHP

Whenever the Yangtze would rise and flood the city of Kaifeng, the residents would salvage their property, if possible in advance, and return after the river had fallen again. Then they would rebuild their structures until the next time. Thus also did the Jewish community of Kaifeng and in that way they lost and rebuilt their synagogue for some seven centuries. All the while they maintained their traditions, in spite of being (nearly) completely isolated from Jewry on the whole. By 1810, the last Chinese Rabbi died and in 1866 the synagogue was destroyed for the last time.

The China History Podcast in it's 112th episode gives us a riveting 38 minutes about the Kaifeng Jews. This is yet another unmissable edition in this magnificent series, by Laszlo Montgomery. (feed)

In 1163 CE the Jews of Kaifeng got official permission from the Chinese emperor to build a synagogue. From here on they have a well traceable history and Laszlo tells a couple of fascinating stories about it. For example how the Jesuits found them and there was a mutual attempt to co-opt the other. Or how when decline set it and the Jews lost their Hebrew, they'd display the Torah Scrolls in the market, hoping to run into someone who could read them. But he does not simply begin in 1163 and end in 1866. This podcast spans nearly a thousand years.

How did the Jews get there in the first place? And what was done and is done until this day to rekindle Judaism in Kaifeng? Such questions take us from the ancient Silk Road (one of my favorite history subjects) to the effects of the Boxer rebellion and the Second World War. All is told in the relaxed, yet thoroughly engaging Laszlo Montgomery style.

More China History Podcast:
Getting the Silk Road
Deng Xiaoping,
Chronology of Dynasties,
China History Podcast.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Neither orderly nor humane - NBIH

Population transfers are of all ages and although they are considered a crime against humanity these days, or at least bordering on it, there is a rich history of transfers and they were mostly regarded as legitimate at the time. I was aware of big transfers between Turkey and Greece in the 1920s and between India and Pakistan in 1947. I knew of the transfers in Europe after the Second World War, but had no idea that the transfer of Germans that took place was the largest in history. This is what we are told in a recent issue of New Books in History, when Marshal Poe interviewed Ray Douglas about his 10 year research project into this transfer, resulting in the book Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War (Yale University Press, 2012). (feed)

Vae Victis, woe to the vanquished, could have been another title for the book. Nazi Germany lost the war, and after all its own demographic scheming to benefit the ethnic Germans, the ethnic Germans got to taste the reverse. What Ray Douglas adds to what we'd already know about this history is the sheer size of the transfer: up to 14 million Germans were transferred from Poland, Czechoslovakia and other places in Eastern Europe. The transfer was premeditated and sanctioned way in advance by the Allies. The swiftness of the transfer necessarily implied that the transfer was carried out neither orderly nor humanely as was originally the goal. And the Germans underwent it without resistance.

The operation added such a huge number of Germans to the other displaced multitude that was roaming about Europe at the time, that relief aid became a political hot potato - aiding the displaced persons, would imply aiding, mainly, the Germans, the vanquished. It would be a follow-up question whether this finding of Douglas's implied that for example this is another reason why the displaced Jews, were not helped at all?

I also assumed that these displaced Germans were integrated pretty well, but as Poe brings this issue up, Douglas suggest otherwise, however without much detail. More than the measure to which integration was successful, I was more surprised again by the numbers: Douglas claimed that about 20% of Germans today are transferred Germans or their offspring.

Many more surprising issues arise during this riveting interview.

More New Books in History:
Big History, Big Lands and Big Men
Hans Kundnani about Germany's left after the war,
Ottoman Age of Exploration,
The mysteries of whites and of mass,
A Soviet Memoir.