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,
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.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

How to delete iTunes U files from iPod and other issues

The most read post on this blog is the one (actually there are several) about how to remove iTunesU files from your iPod. Until the recent upgrade to iTunes 11 that was a major problem. The great news is that with iTunes 11, this problem is finally taken care of.

Until now, iTunesU files would simply not show on the iPod, within iTunes and consequently they could not be deleted. Now, iTunesU has received its own -long in coming- folder as shown to the right. In there the files can be found and, provided you manually manage your iPod, can be at will deleted. In case you do not manually manage the pod, naturally the synchronization with iTunes will take care of that - as was one of the previously suggested solutions.

One more thing (or two)...

Of the five previously suggested solutions the two last methods were full-proof and both entailed a certain way of dealing with the iPod and with the subscription. I would like to point out that these approaches are still valid within iTunes 11.

1- Synchronize your iPod to iTunes.
I used to prefer to manually manage the pod, but in order to evade the iTunesU problem I have gotten used to letting iTunes synch my pod. It is still a valid way of dealing with the pod. You have to carefully select as what to synchronize. Generally I would not sync ALL music and not even ALL podcasts and iTunesU, but rather a selection, or a couple of specific playlists I manage centrally on iTunes.

2- Subscribe to iTunesU feeds as podcast
Copy the URL from the iTunesU section and then use the subscribe to podcast by URL method to subscribe. In my humble opinion, iTunesU series are not different from podcasts, so why not have them in that category and organize all of them together? This used to make sense, regardless of the deletion problem and therefore continues to be so. Do you have a problem finding the 'subscribe to podcast by URL' method in iTunes 11? So did I - I'll write about it in my next post.

As a last remark...

I have had an iPod nano since 2006 and have been using iTunes to manage the audio on my pod since. Once upon a time, iTunesU feeds were simply podcast feeds and the management was no different from podcast files. Somewhere around the release of iTunes 8 or 9, iTunesU got its strange state, since when the files are neither completely like podcast files nor completely like music files or audiobook files, for that matter. I first ran into the problem with the removal of those files from the pod early in 2010 and the endlessly requested post I wrote about it dates from August that year. So it has taken Apple two and a half years to solve this issue, which seems way too simple and way too critical to have had to take this amount of time.

This issue is only one of the examples of my frustration with iTunes and I am sure I am not the only one who is a disgruntled iTunes user. Before I go write about what I find wrong with iTunes, I'll have to write about the podcast subscription. Stand by.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Our brain dichotomies - Saeed Ahmed

Here is another guest-post written by Saeed Ahmed:

Have you ever thought about the question “Who am I?” or the question “Why do I do the things I do?”

On the surface, perhaps these seem trivial questions, and yet they have been discussed by philosophers for thousands of years, with no firm answers, and the dialog continues.

Modern neuroscience has reached a point that it can in some ways inform this dialog. Three recent podcast interviews, based on books written for lay audiences, illuminate slightly different aspects of the debate, provide some answers, and raise many more questions.

Two dichotomies are emphasized in these podcasts; conscious and unconscious mental processing, and the functions of the left and right hemispheres.

Each author has been interviewed several times, and I have posted below links for sessions with three very experienced interviewers.

David Eagleman, interviewed by Terry Gross, is a neuroscientist and talks about a competition for attention among the myriad of neural processes (central, peripheral, sympathetic, parasympathetic) that we all possess. Volition and action occur on the basis of which processes “win.” Virtually all of the competition occurs unconsciously. In a way, Eagleman provides an organic basis for what an aspect of “unconscious: may be. In the latter part of the book, he discusses implications of this, including those for our legal systems. Fresh Air - (feed)

Daniel Kahneman, interviewed by Leonard Lopate, is a nobel-prize winner in economics. While this may seem a bit odd (why economics; isn’t that about supply and demand curves, utility functions and mathematical models?), it isn’t really, because aspects of behavior, particularly “non-rational” behavior, are becoming very important in economics research, as it has become more and more apparent that participants in markets often do not act as rationally as traditional models have assumed. Kahneman describes two neural systems: one that operates quickly with virtually no sense of voluntary control and a second that allocates attention to effortful activities. He too speculates about legal implications, e.g. the effect of judicial decisions on whether judges are hungry or have just eaten. Leonard Lopate Show - Feed

Kahneman also wrote an article on the same subject matter as his book for Scientific American, which can be accessed here.

My favorite interview of the three, was of Iain McGilchrist a British psychiatrist, who sat with Phillip Adams of Australia’s Radio National, who discusses the implications of the left-brain/right-brain dichotomy. The left-right dichotomy is just as fundamental as the conscious-unconscious one (although both ultimately are reductionist). Briefly summarized, just as one may hypothesize that the phenomena of perception/conception/volition/action are determined in some way by a competition between multiple unconscious processes, so too may one say that these phenomena occur due to states generated by the cooperative/competitive “discussion” between the two “persons” who exist inside us, and very different persons they are, apparently. McGilchrist goes beyond mechanistic explanations, and it is his foray into the implications of this dichotomy that I found quite compelling, speculative though they might be. The basic hypothesis he puts forth is that due to a predominance of left-dominant thinking, certain tendencies of western civilization have become damaging. In his own words (from his book’s introduction):
“Here I suggest that it is as if the left hemisphere, which creates a sort of self-reflexive virtual world, has blocked off the available exits, the ways out of the hall of mirrors, into a reality which the right hemisphere could enable us to understand. In the past, this tendency was counterbalanced by forces from outside the enclosed system of the self-conscious mind; apart from the history incarnated in our culture, and the natural world itself, from both of which we are increasingly alienated, these were principally the embodied nature of our existence, the arts and religion. In our time each of these has been subverted and the routes of escape from the virtual world have been closed off. An increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness, has come about, reflecting, I believe, the unopposed action of a dysfunctional left hemisphere.”
Right/Left brain speculations, in books and blog posts on the hidden power of the right brain, are becoming quite fashionable, but they sometimes overstate the implications of the evidence they put forth to support their claims. Gilchrist advocates balance between the left and the right hemispheres. It is always hard to judge how far one may speculate, given any line of evidence, and I don’t think Gilchrist went too far, but not everyone may see his suppositions about social and humanistic issues well-grounded in research in this area. But few will fault his effort to reach this far.

More about the three books can be found at Amazon, Wikipedia (thinking fast and slow) (the master and his emissary).

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The playlist these days

While I have virtually stopped blogging about podcasts, I am still listening. There are a couple of podcasts I keep following and here is a list.

The Early Middle Ages - Yale course. (iTunesU)
I have done this course before, but I was caught by it again. The reason I pick up certain history podcasts is because I want to wrap my mind around something. The point that was brought to my attention first by Europe from its origins is that the Roman Empire did not 'fall' in 476. Even if that was clear to anyone who was aware that it proceeded as the Byzantine Empire, which finally fell in 1453, an additional point is how Western Europe kept on developing at the hand of the Church, not being the Roman Empire, but also, in many ways as a continuation of it in its own way. The overall question being, how much western society can be coherently taken as one culture and as such be regarded as Roman.

A new podcast I have taken up is The History of World War II by Ray Harris. This is an amateur podcast which takes on the vast and unwieldy task of telling the entire history of WW2, which professionals do not begin to tackle. The result is very interesting shedding light on some less familiar parts such as Mussolini's rise in Italy. It pays ample attention to the nuts and bolts of the military campaigns in the war, which have to be to your liking of course. (feed)

Other podcasts I stick with are The China History podcast - which just finished a series about the history of Hong Kong (feed) - and David Crowther's History of England (feed). Needless to say, I also persist in listening to each week's issue of BBC's In Our Time (feed).

Apart from having a writer's block (I feel I am repeating myself on the blog and cannot bring myself to continue repeating), I also find that with the latest upgrade of iTunes, a crucial feature has been removed: the advanced subscribing to podcasts. That seems like a minor change, but I find it has great meaning and implication and first of all renders irrelevant almost all of the feed links I have been posting over the past years - 2000+ posts hurt, ouch!

I would like to revive this blog. I love to write about audio on the web, but I have to find a new way of doing it. Feel free to drop suggestions. In the mean time, I'll be silent, but there will be another guest post by Saeed coming up and maybe I'll give in to a rant about iTunes.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Taking courses with Saeed Ahmed

Here is a guest-post written by Saeed Ahmed:

Jean Jacques Rousseau “was a charlatan,” a “moral leach,” who “consciously set out to tickle the fancy of the cultural elite in France.”  Hegel “used technical terminology but wasn’t sure what he meant”; “he thought that the way to greatness was through obfuscation.”   “Nobody invented jargon with the viciousness and vengeance of Kant.” 
Containing such declarations, it is not surprising that Ronald Nash’s course on Modern Philosophy gets mixed reviews on itunes. 
Nash (who died in 2006) was an unapologetic Christian apologetic.  His lectures are full of attacks on moral relativism, modernism, post-modernism, enlightenment thinking, and just about anything that does not conform to his absolute, foundational belief in the Christian God.  
When it comes to worldview, there is virtually nothing that I find appealing in Dr. Nash’s ideas.  Nevertheless I found his course compelling at 3 levels. 
First, he has a surprisingly engaging style; he is not bashful, neutral or balanced.   You know exactly where he is coming from.  His is a full frontal assault on virtual all liberal ideas.  This is strangely refreshing and a change from the nuanced and “balanced” presentations in many lecture courses.  Agree with him or not, he will capture your attention.  His view is a full, undiluted measure of unabashed fundamentalist thought. There are no hidden levers; it’s all visible.  
Second, his summaries of philosophers, while reductionist, are quite pithy and at least to my non-professional view, accurate enough to be good introductions.   His basic approach is often something like “this guy was an idiot, but here are the three points he made” and then he lists them very systematically.  For Kant he summarizes: “Concepts without percepts are empty; Percepts without concepts are blind.”  Further, “Kant integrated rationalism and empiricism…rationalism entered Kant’s system because it encompassed the apriori set of categories with which experience was worked upon “; “With the categories, our minds organize percepts in ways that produce knowledge.”  Kant put “human mind at the center”.  “The reason we are conscious of space and time is not just because we apprehend something out there, but because our minds contribute notions of space and time to what we see.”  “There are 12 apriori categories (such as unity, equality, and causation) that allow the mind to organize and relate ideas.” “Laws of nature are in a way a product of the knowing mind.” “We believe x causes y because our minds force us think in this way.”  “We are never conscious of raw percepts; the moment we become conscious, of a raw percept, it has already been acted upon by the knowing mind; it has been given a structure, organization and a set of relationships.” “We cannot have knowledge of what we cannot perceive, thus we cannot know knowledge of our self” (the unifying transcendental self).
Category (apriori) -> Concept (direct object of human awareness) -> unified coherent field (transcendental unity of apperception). 
Not bad.  I am not a professional philosopher, and I would be very curious to know what people who really know the subject well think of Nash’s summaries.
Third, it is kind of fun to listen to someone who is confident enough to unabashedly bash some of the greatest minds of the last few thousand years.   Wrong or right (and usually wrong, I would submit), this is just plain fun to listen to at times.
If Nash leaves a bad taste in your mouth, and a ringing in your ears, I recommend four  antidotes:  1) Peter Milican’s general philosophy introduction (available in audio and video from Oxford), 2) Mythology by Gail Lavender, 3) episode 328 of Shrink Rap radio featuring an interview with the extremely erudite Dutch Jungian Analyst Robert Bosnak and 4)  and Buddhist Psychology by Eleanor Rosch.
Unlike Nash’s survey course, Dr. Milican’s is much more balanced and accurate.

In Lavender’s course, I particularly direct you to the lecture on psychological theories of mythology, in which she mentions the dictum “dreams are the myths of the individual; myths are the dreams of the race”, then goes on to explain this using concepts developed by Freud and Jung. 

In the Shrink Rap podcast (#328), Bosnak discusses the astonishing Red Book of Carl Jung (that was published in 2009 for the first time) and in a very short time.   He mentions a plausible hypothesis about why religious fundamentalism is so prevalent these days.

In the Buddhist Psychology course, Rosch demonstrates how in many ways, she is the polar opposite of Nash.  Her style is generous, open, non-judgmental, liberal, and compassionate.  She has a very deep knowledge of Buddhist philosophy and modern psychology, so is able to discuss the former, and place the latter in its context, and vice versa.   I would recommend starting this course from the beginning, but if time is limited, then skip ahead and listen first to the third lecture, where a specific form of meditation is introduced.  I have been doing this, and have noticed changes in me after only a few days. 

These courses complement each other.  Listening to lectures from all contemporaneously really blows one’s mind due to the sheer breadth of material that creates conflicts and tensions in one’s understanding and perspectives.  

Saeed Ahmed

More Saeed Ahmed:
Optimizing Brain Fitness,
Political and current affairs podcasts,
International Political Economy,
A podcast on climate, energy and food,
Two podcasts on the brain.