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Archive for the 'History' Category

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

The Problem with History

Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure

“Think of official history as a book. A book comes into view; it seems to suggest that it has no blank spaces, no margins. But it does, it contains blank spaces. In those spaces I cram my own notes, copious notes that are not yet articulated thoughts, and in the end weave a new book solely from the notes in the margins.” — Hideo Furukawa

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a focus on Zhu Wen’s Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure: A Tale That Begins with Fukushima, translated by Doug Slaymaker with Akiko Takenaka.

Hideo Furukawa is in New York this week with Monkey Business for the PEN World Voices Festival (along with other fantastic writers, editors, and translators), and will be participating in a number of events: April 27 (Wed.), New York University, 6:30pm; April 28 (Thur.), Kinokuniya Bookstore, 6pm; April 29 (Fri.), BookCourt, 7pm; and April 30 (Sat.), Asia Society, 2pm (Ticket purchase required)! And now, on to the post:

Five years ago, on March 11, 2011, the town of Fukushima, Japan, was struck by a devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident. Over 20,000 people died.

The reconstruction has been swift. ‘The incident is about to be forgotten, or they pretend nothing has happened,’ Japanese writer Hideo Furukawa said about his hometown. For Furukawa, careful examination is the only route to healing. One must investigate one’s nation and its past and present. His new book, Horses, Horses, In the End the Light Remains Pure: A Tale that Begins with Fukushima, is a mix of fiction, history, and memoir, as one can see in this short excerpt.

The Problem with History
Hideo Furukawa

Our history, the history of the Japanese, is nothing more than a history of killing people.

I am not sure of the best way to phrase things, given that rather inflammatory start. I will explain things as simply as I can. We live within the echoes of the Warring States period. For example, bushō, the term for military leaders, circulates as a commodity in contemporary society, and, thus, it continues to echo in everyday Japan. By the “Warring States period” I include the Azuchi Momoyama period right up to the beginning of the Edo period (1573–1603). I am not sure if the Azuchi Momoyama period is still taught as a single historical period in schools (elementary, middle, and up through high school). But I am quite sure that everyone learns that there was a period when Oda Nobunaga and then Toyotomi Hideyoshi ruled supreme. For example, we consume these two men as commodities all the time. When I say we “consume” them as commodities, I mean how we see them as “heroic” and think of them positively. Why would that be? (more…)

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

A Post for 4/20: Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter on Pot Smuggling

In recognition of 4/20, we are re-posting Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter’s appearance on HuffPost Live to discuss their book Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade In the interview, Maguire and Ritter discuss drug smuggling in Thailand in the 1960s and 1970s. Also joining them was Jim Conklin, the DEA agent who busted Mike Ritter for smuggling.

As the three explained, surfers began smuggling marijuana from Thailand but in relatively small quantities, driven by a spirit of adventure as much as a thirst for profit. Initially, neither Thai or U.S. officials paid much attention to the smugglers, who were generally nonviolent and “laid-back”. It was only later in the 1970s when professional criminals became involved and the amounts began to grow that the drug crackdown began.

After discussing this fascinating history, the three consider current drug policy and the dangers of synthetic opiates:

Tuesday, March 15th, 2016

Brawn in Civilization — A History of Virility

A History of Virility

“For muscle is everywhere. It jumped over the walls of the stadium and the ropes of the ring a long time ago. It reigns absolute on screens large and small…. The claim on muscles has been democra­tized, the practice of bodybuilding now tends to be widespread, and anatomical power is displayed as a continuous, obsessive, universal spectacle.”—Jean-Jacques Courtine

In his chapter “Brawn in Civilization” (see below), in A History of Virility, Jean-Jacques Courtine examines the phenomenon of body building and hyper-masculinity. Beginning with the creation of Muscle Beach in Venice, California, to today’s ubiquitous GNC, Courtine examines the social, political, and economic contexts that shape our understanding of muscle and what it means for our understanding of masculinity:

Monday, March 14th, 2016

Book Giveaway! Win a Free Copy of “A History of Virility”

This week we are featuring A History of Virility, edited by Alain Corbin, Jean-Jacques Courtine, Georges Vigarello; and translated by Keith Cohen.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of A History of Virility to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Wednesday, March 16th at 1:00 pm.

For more on the book, here is the chapter “Working-Class Virility,” by Thierry Pillon:

Thursday, March 10th, 2016

The American Prism

Why America Misunderstands the World

“A nation’s culture—which itself has been shaped by all of the physical, political, and historical circumstances that have made that nation what it is—powerfully influences its citizens’ perceptions. A culture determines much of what the people who are part of that culture take to be factual knowledge. American culture and everything that has gone into it constitute a prism that slants, distorts, and colors how Americans see what is around them. Sometimes the distortion is so great that they fail to see some things at all.” — Paul Pillar

This week, our featured book is Why America Misunderstand the World: National Experience and Roots of Misperception, by Paul R. Pillar. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from the first chapter, “The American Prism,” in which Pillar discusses how “the distorting and coloring prismatic effects of being an American … extend to how [Americans] perceive the world outside their national borders.”

Wednesday, March 9th, 2016

The American View of War

Why America Misunderstands the World

Why America Misunderstands the World examines how this process applies to the United States—the sole superpower, with a history and circumstances especially unusual among nations—and to how Americans tend to view and interpret foreign policy problems of today.” — Paul Pillar

This week, our featured book is Why America Misunderstand the World: National Experience and Roots of Misperception, by Paul R. Pillar. Today, we are happy to present a guest post from Pillar in which American experiences of World War II have shaped subsequent American foreign policy decisions.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Why America Misunderstands the World!

The American View of War
By Paul R. Pillar

A nation’s history can explain a lot about how citizens of that nation, including its leaders, view today’s problems. With nations just as with individuals, past experience colors the way current happenings are seen and interpreted. The coloring often involves distorting and obscuring. The influence of a nation’s particular history and circumstances causes misperception. The misperception in turn leads to errors and troubles that might otherwise have been avoided. Why America Misunderstands the World examines how this process applies to the United States—the sole superpower, with a history and circumstances especially unusual among nations—and to how Americans tend to view and interpret foreign policy problems of today.

Many distinctive circumstances and experiences have shaped the distinctive American worldview, including ones involving the expansion of the United States across a richly endowed continent and its rise to unparalleled global power. But to illustrate the connection between past experience and current ways of thinking, consider America’s past experience with foreign wars. Wars are especially salient chapters in any nation’s experience and especially likely to have an impact on later ways of thinking. To narrow the illustration down even further, consider the American experience with World War II. That war, the bloodiest and most widespread armed conflict in human history, also was America’s biggest and costliest foreign war. Winning it was the greatest achievement of what came to be called America’s greatest generation. The war became the archetype in American minds for how a war ought to be conceived and fought, creating a mold for thinking about later conflicts. But later conflicts have not always fit that mold. (more…)

Tuesday, March 8th, 2016

The Role of Shared National Experience in Foreign Policy

Why America Misunderstands the World

“Americans’ shared national experience heavily influences the way Americans perceive the outside world, which in turn has a major influence on U.S. foreign policy.” — Paul Pillar

This week, our featured book is Why America Misunderstand the World: National Experience and Roots of Misperception, by Paul R. Pillar. To kick off the week’s feature, we have an excerpt from Pillar’s preface, in which he discusses the genesis of and his goals for his book.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Why America Misunderstands the World!

I have spent most of a lifetime interpreting the actions and perspectives of foreign nations or managing others whose job it is to perform such interpretation. This experience has included a career with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and later work as an academic and independent scholar writing about foreign policy and international relations. The interpretations have not always been correct, but the effort to make them teaches some lessons that involve knowing oneself better by getting to know others. In this context, “self ” and “others” can apply to nations as well as to individuals. Two lessons in particular are relevant.

One is that to understand a nation’s decisions and behavior requires understanding the perspectives that the people in that nation, including its decision makers, have acquired through their shared national experience. The nation’s triumphs and tragedies and the rest of its history color the images that its people and its leaders have of the rest of the world, and those images in turn guide how that nation behaves toward the rest of the world.

The other lesson is that the portion of the U.S. bureaucracy in which I formerly worked is not the principal guide for major decisions in U.S. foreign policy. The images of the world abroad that have influenced U.S. policy the most have come from other sources.

Putting those two lessons together leads to a third: that Americans’ shared national experience heavily influences the way Americans perceive the outside world, which in turn has a major influence on U.S. foreign policy. In an earlier book, I described how and why the intelligence bureaucracy is not the main place to look for images that have guided major U.S. foreign-policy decisions. The present book addresses one of the places we do need to look for those images. The premise is that the distinctive circumstances and history of the United States yield distinctive, important, and policy-relevant ways that Americans perceive the rest of the world.

This book unavoidably has a downbeat message in that any discussion of how perceptions are shaped by the perceiver’s attributes is in large part a discussion of misperception and error. This fact does not imply, however, an overall negative outlook about the American experience or about many of the traits and attitudes that flow from it. In the course of many years of studying the troubles and flaws of other nations, I have repeatedly been reminded of why I am glad and proud to be an American.

Knowing oneself is a virtue, for nations as well as for individuals. This book has been written to add modestly to collective American virtue by helping Americans become more aware of the twists that they habitually impart to their view of what lies beyond their borders and of why they impart those twists. It also is written in the hope that such awareness will help lead in some small way to a less twisted and more accurate understanding of the world and thus to better-informed U.S. foreign policy.

Monday, March 7th, 2016

Book Giveaway! Why America Misunderstands the World, by Paul Pillar

Why America Misunderstands the World

“A formidable and influential scholar offers a fresh and distinctive take on the idea that U.S. foreign policy is ultimately an expression of ‘us’ rather than ‘them.’” — Andrew Bacevich, Boston University

This week, our featured book is Why America Misunderstand the World: National Experience and Roots of Misperception, by Paul R. Pillar. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Why America Misunderstands the World. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, March 11th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Monday, February 22nd, 2016

Umberto Eco on Language and Lunacy and the Force of Falsity

Umberto Eco

We were very saddened to learn of the recent passing of noted linguist and novelist Umberto Eco. We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to publish Serendipities: Language and Lunacy, one of Eco’s works, which The Atlantic called “Erudite, wide-ranging, and slyly humorous…. The literary examples Eco employs range from Dante to Dumas, from Sterne to Spillane. His text is thought-provoking, often outright funny, and full of surprising juxtapositions.”

In the book, Eco unlocks the riddles of history in an exploration of the “linguistics of the lunatic,” stories told by scholars, scientists, poets, fanatics, and ordinary people in order to make sense of the world. Exploring the “Force of the False,” Eco uncovers layers of mistakes that have shaped human history, such as Columbus’s assumption that the world was much smaller than it is, leading him to seek out a quick route to the East via the West and thus fortuitously “discovering” America. Like his other other works, Serendipities is a masterful combination of erudition and wit, bewildering anecdotes and scholarly rigor.

Below is the book’s first chapter, “The Force of Falsity”:

Friday, February 19th, 2016

The First Financial Commandment for the 21st Century: “Thou Shalt Not Plead Total Investment Ignorance”

Investment: A History

“If people knew their history, they would marvel at the sheer range of investment opportunities now available to them. The idea that investing has become democratic probably feels alien to most people, but investing is extremely democratic today compared to past eras. So it is incumbent on the average person to learn enough to be his or her own best advocate in taking advantage of all this new-found opportunity.” — Norton Reamer

This week, our featured book is Investment: A History, by Norton Reamer and Jesse Downing. For the final post of the week’s feature, Reamer and Downing explain their first financial commandment for today’s investors: “Though Shalt Not Plead Total Investment Ignorance!”

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Investment: A History! You can also learn more about the book and its authors on the Investment: A History webpage and Youtube channel!

The First Financial Commandment for the 21st Century: “Thou Shalt Not Plead Total Investment Ignorance”

For thousands of years, the only people who qualified as “investors” were wealthy and politically connected landowners. Investment opportunities were few and accessible only to the elite. Yet in the blink of an eye, historically speaking, that world has been replaced by one full of investment opportunities for “everyman,” from stocks and bonds, to mutual funds, to life insurance, to pension plans, to real estate, and many other vehicles for investment.

“If people knew their history, they would marvel at the sheer range of investment opportunities now available to them,” says Norton Reamer, co-author of Investment: A History. Reamer is also the founder of United Asset Management and former CEO of Putnam Investments. “The idea that investing has become democratic probably feels alien to most people, but investing is extremely democratic today compared to past eras. So it is incumbent on the average person to learn enough to be his or her own best advocate in taking advantage of all this new-found opportunity.” (more…)

Thursday, February 18th, 2016

Savvy Investors Look Back at the History of Investment for Lessons for 2016

Investment: A History

“The key is that successful investors throughout history have stuck to a few basic principles. As complex as investing can be, it is, at the same time, possible to avoid some obvious mistakes.” — Norton Reamer

This week, our featured book is Investment: A History, by Norton Reamer and Jesse Downing. As they explain in today’s post, Reamer and Downing wrote Investment: A History in part to provide investors with a historical perspective that could help them find smarter ways to invest.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Investment: A History! You can also learn more about the book and its authors on the Investment: A History webpage and Youtube channel!

New Year’s Resolution for Savvy Investors: Look Back at The History of Investment for Lessons for 2016

Thinking about how to improve your portfolio in 2016? Don’t forget the last three thousand.

A healthy understanding of investment history is a true bonus for investors – lay and professional alike – to avoid pitfalls and to be the best advocates for their own financial interests. Whether it’s running a personal retirement account or a university endowment, ancient history has lessons for portfolios today.

That’s according to Norton Reamer and Jesse Downing, co-authors of Investment: A History. Reamer is also the founder of United Asset Management and former CEO of Putnam Investments, and Downing is an investment professional in Boston. The book traces the history of investment, from the ancient world to the present day, and draws lessons for today’s investors at all levels.

Reamer and Downing note that for thousands of years, the only people who qualified as “investors” were wealthy and politically connected landowners. Yet in the blink of an eye, historically speaking, that world has been replaced by one full of investment opportunities for average people – stocks and bonds, mutual funds, life insurance, pensions and real estate.

“The key is that successful investors throughout history have stuck to a few basic principles,” says Reamer. “As complex as investing can be, it is, at the same time, possible to avoid some obvious mistakes.”

Reamer and Downing have identified four guideposts that can help investors in 2016:

1. Focus on what’s “real” – Don’t get distracted by the form of an investment (e.g., a stock certificate or a bond note). Make sure you understand the real asset behind the piece of paper, such as the company behind the stock you are buying, or the public works project issuing the bond. When buying a mutual fund or other packaged investment the same rule applies: make sure you understand the fund manager’s criteria for buying and selling securities in the portfolio. Focusing on what’s “real” should always be the priority.

2. Focus on fundamental “value” – In its simplest form, the value of an investment today is determined by the present value of its future cash generation – that is, the future cash that the investment will produce over its lifetime. Don’t be distracted by market gyrations. Take a long-term perspective and understand that markets go up and down, often for reasons other than fundamental value. Investors often forget this basic rule and allow emotion to guide their decisions – and make mistakes as a result.

3. Consider the intelligent use of leverage – Excessive leverage is dangerous, but most of the great fortunes in history were built using moderate and smart amounts of leverage. For example, a home mortgage is a sensible form of leverage for most families. On the other hand, taking out a second mortgage to fund a speculative investment is probably foolhardy.

4. Allocate your capital – Every investment is an “allocation” of capital. That is, it’s a choice between competing priorities and opportunities. Make informed, deliberate choices and tradeoffs as you decide where to put your money – especially when the choice is between saving, spending, and investing. Think through your needs. Do your best to be accountable to yourself. Set some objectives and stick to them.

“Investment is one of humanity’s most fundamental activities, and in the modern world it’s open to more people than ever before,” adds Downing. “We encourage everyone to learn some basic investment principles and take full advantage of this unprecedented opportunity.”

Thursday, February 18th, 2016

Five Archetypal Investing Mistakes That Have Bedeviled Investors Through the Ages

Investment: A History

“Decade after decade, we see markets collapse and fortunes vanish for the same basic reasons. Most of the time the root cause is not some complex technical error. It’s just some new flavor of poor judgment.” — Norton Reamer

This week, our featured book is Investment: A History, by Norton Reamer and Jesse Downing. In today’s post, Reamer and Downing break down the five investing mistakes that they see repeated again and again throughout the history of investing.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Investment: A History! You can also learn more about the book and its authors on the Investment: A History webpage and Youtube channel!

Five Archetypal Investing Mistakes Have Bedeviled Investors Through the Ages

For thousands of years, investors have been making the same mistakes over and over. So true financial literacy should include not just understanding the history of investment successes, but also investing failures. Unfortunately, the recent history of the financial crisis and Great Recession indicate that many investors—even professionals—have not learned those lessons.

“Decade after decade, we see markets collapse and fortunes vanish for the same basic reasons,” says Norton Reamer, co-author of the new book, Investment: A History (Columbia Business School Publishing, February 2016). “Most of the time the root cause is not some complex technical error. It’s just some new flavor of poor judgment.” Reamer is the founder of United Asset Management and Asset Management Finance, and he is the former CEO of Putnam Investments. His co-author, Jesse Downing, is an investment professional in Boston.

Mistake #1: Not diversifying enough

“In plain language, diversification means not putting all your eggs in one basket,” says Reamer. “One of the biggest advancements of the last few hundred years has been the ability to truly diversify one’s investments. Diversification is what makes modern investment portfolios tick.”

As a historical reference point, Reamer points to 14th-century Italy, before there was such a concept as “too big to fail.” Two major Florentine banking houses, the Bardi and the Peruzzi, poured a great deal of their capital into the wartime exploits of England’s King Edward III. When Edward defaulted, both banks failed.

According to Reamer, the goal of diversification is to ensure that even if one asset in the portfolio is underperforming, other assets are still potentially delivering gains. Both the Bible and Shakespeare reference diversification, and despite how ancient the wisdom may be, it can be hard to follow. Many homeowners have a significant portion of their wealth tied up in a single asset, such as a home, company-granted stock, or even a single asset class. To weather the inevitable vagaries of the market, one must diversify. (more…)

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016

The Investment Challenge

Investment: A History

“This book is not about how to manage investments; rather, as a history of investment and the activities related to it over the centuries, it adds vital perspective to issues in investment management. It traces the development of investment from the earliest civilizations where agricultural land, lending, and trade activities were the economic foundation; to the creation of basic financial, collective, and charitable investment forms; and through the innovation of a vast array of specialized vehicles and funds extending into the twenty-first century.” — Norton Reamer and Jesse Downing

This week, our featured book is Investment: A History, by Norton Reamer and Jesse Downing. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from “The Investment Challenge,” Reamer and Downing’s Introduction to Investment: A History.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Investment: A History! You can also learn more about the book and its authors on the Investment: A History webpage and Youtube channel!

Tuesday, February 16th, 2016

A conversation with Norton Reamer and Jesse Downing, authors of “Investment: A History”

Investment: A History

“[T]he basic principles of investing are timeless, even as the economic and social stakes grow higher. The challenge will be to harness all that increasing sophistication to further push the democratization of investment, and in that regard we are optimists.” — Norton Reamer and Jesse Downing

This week, our featured book is Investment: A History, by Norton Reamer and Jesse Downing. In the first post of the week’s feature, we are happy to present an interview with Reamer and Downing in which they discuss their goals for the book, important changes in the history of investing, and what the future holds for investors.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Investment: A History! You can also learn more about the book and its authors on the Investment: A History webpage and Youtube channel!

What will readers find in Investment: A History?

The book explains key elements in the long history of investment. Each chapter includes important stories and lessons that are intended to illustrate crucial dimensions of the investment world, as they have developed over the centuries. Our goal is to increase understanding of the investment practices and opportunities of today by understanding the history of investing.

In broad scope, what are the most important findings in the book?

Most people will be surprised to find out how remarkably uncomplicated it is to be a sensible investor, and in that regard we identified four basic investing principles. First, look at every investment as “real.” That is, when you invest, you own the underlying asset—e.g., with stocks you are buying a piece of a corporation. Don’t be distracted by the paper form of the investment. Understand the basics of whatever entity you are buying.

Second, it’s all about fundamental value, where “value” is determined by the value today of future cash flows that the investment may produce over its lifetime. Third, intelligent use of financial leverage is a legitimate tool for investors; in fact, it has helped build most of the great fortunes of history. Of course, excessive leverage can be extremely dangerous because all leverage will multiply returns—either positively or negatively. Finally, the most basic management skill is resource allocation: i.e., the effective allocation of capital and human resources.

Investing did not always exist in its current form. What were the precursors to the current investment landscape?

With ancient and pre-modern investment, we emphasize three areas: the basic investment vehicles of early history; the extreme inequality in the distribution of investment opportunity and benefit; and the surprising sophistication of some early investment vehicles, strategies, and purposes.

We believe that, to grasp the reality and significance of investment as a fundamental human activity, it’s necessary to begin in ancient times and understand the roles of agricultural land, lending and trade in the ancient world. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that by today’s standards, it took an astonishing amount of wealth and power to even qualify to be an ‘investor.’ Finally, we felt it was essential to understand that in some respects—despite a lack of investment diversity and the absence of equality—investment even in those early days had features that were remarkably sophisticated and prescient. (more…)

Monday, February 15th, 2016

Book Giveaway! Investment: A History, by Norton Reamer and Jesse Downing

Investment: A History

“Norton Reamer and Jesse Downing have delivered a truly impressive history of investments and the investment-management business, starting from its earliest origins in the ancient world to its most recent and innovative forms, for example, the hedge funds, private-equity pools, and other forms of alternative investments in the twenty-first century. It is not only a complete history but a well-organized and analytical one, built with continual reference to the important principles of business and investing.” — Jay Light, dean emeritus, Harvard Business School

This week, our featured book is Investment: A History, by Norton Reamer and Jesse Downing. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its authors on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page. You can also learn more about the book and its authors on the Investment: A History webpage and Youtube channel!

We are also offering a FREE copy of Investment: A History. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, February 19th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Friday, February 12th, 2016

The Wheel: A Great Innovation?

The Wheel

“Wheeled transport is not an obviously good idea. People who insist that it was truly revolutionary ignore the fact that many societies that became aware of wheeled vehicles over the centuries chose not to use them. It took so many other innovations over a long period of time to make the wheel useful.” — Richard Bulliet

This week, our featured book is The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions, by Richard W. Bulliet. Today, for the final day of our feature, we are happy to present “The Wheel: A Great Innovation,” an article by Richard Bulliet that was originally published in the Innovation in Practice Blog.

People who believe that the wheel is the greatest invention ever assume two things: That it was wholly new when it was invented, and that is was so wonderful that people adopted it immediately. Historically, neither is true.

What is true is that three different types of wheels evolved over time, but none of them were as great as sliced bread.

The concept of a wheel emerged a long time ago. Archaeologists uncovered evidence that Olmec children in southern Mexico played with toy dogs on wheels 3000 years ago. But their parents never transferred the wheel idea to carts or wagons. How could anyone who understood the concept of the wheel not have used it for transportation?

Here’s why. Ancient Mexicans lacked domestic animals to hitch to a wheeled vehicle. There was no advantage over human porters. A more important question: Was the wheel such a good idea that building a toy dog on wheels should inevitably have transformed a transportation system?

Evolutionary biologists tell us that modern humans have not improved their basic store of physical or intellectual capacities for 100,000 years. So when we migrated out of Africa to people the globe, we did it without the benefit of wheels. And we kept on walking and carrying the “stuff” that George Carlin would later poke fun at on our backs for the next 90,000+ years. We could divide up our stuff into manageable loads that were light and compact enough to carry. Finally, some 10,000 years later, we started loading some of our stuff onto the backs of animals.

This solution satisfied the transportation needs of most of the world down to the invention of the internal combustion engine, even though by that time some peoples had been using wheeled vehicles for over 5000 years. But carts and wagons weren’t all that common. So long as roads were seas of mud in rainy weather people thought twice about whether to entrust their stuff to a wheeled vehicle.

Wheeled transport is not an obviously good idea. People who insist that it was truly revolutionary ignore the fact that many societies that became aware of wheeled vehicles over the centuries chose not to use them. It took so many other innovations over a long period of time to make the wheel useful.

You can read the blog post in it’s entirety at Innovation in Practice.

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Years: Striking Images From Richard W. Bulliet’s THE WHEEL

The Wheel

“Tracking the wheel from 4000 B.C.E to the present, Bulliet argues that the traditional myth falsifies history by melding three kinds of wheel into one. Rather than a “viral” tool that changed the world, different wheels serviced particular niches–mine-cars, children’s toys, parade floats, furniture casters–before emerging as the means by which today’s trains, automobiles, and shopping carts move.”

Visualizing the spectacles, particularities, and innovations that pepper human history can be difficult–especially when we are sometimes forced to recognize our own points of visual reference as being utterly foreign to those historical snapshots we’d like to imagine. Throw out, for good measure, the basic assumptions that frame our modern understanding of how both people and things function and relate to the world, and the picture falls further out of focus.

And so today we’d like to thank art, archaeology, and mechanical design for helping to illuminate the myth of a singular “Eureka!” moment for the wheel with just the kind of visual aid modern reader’s need: an imgur page created by Richard W. Bulliet (so thanks to him, too!) showcasing some of the most compelling photographs, renderings, and artwork from his book The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions.

Here’s a quick look:

Olmec toy
Potters in southern Mexico produced wheeled toys, but the Western Hemisphere never developed large-scale wheeled transport.

1885 Benz Automobile
Tricycle design indicates that Ackermann steering was still not understood to be the best design for a motor vehicle.

Ancient mining operation Basket being used to collect ore prompter miners in the Carpathian Mountains to design baskets on wheels.

That's it for today! Be sure to take a look at the rest of the pictures here. Throughout the week, we will continue to feature content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Short Selling. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, February 12th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

Reddit AMA With Richard W. Bulliet

The Wheel

The Wheel brings a fresh perspective to an old and extremely important subject. Among other things Richard Bulliet shows how the invention of the wheel and its many applications to transportation occurred over thousands of years and was influenced by socio-cultural and psychological as well as economic and political factors. In doing so, his revisionist history recasts our understanding of an invention that literally changed the world.” — Merritt Roe Smith

We continue today our weekly feature of Richard W. Bulliet’s The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions with a Reddit AMA (“As Me Anything”) starring the author himself. In a real-time interaction between Professor Bulliet and the enthusiastic history community on Reddit, the author answers questions regarding his new book, his research, and of course the history of the wheel itself. Here’s a few excerpts from the thread:

One of the biggest things I always hear about the Aztecs and the Mayans are about how they did all their work and built their monuments ‘without ever having invented the wheel.’ It seems to me that this must be some sort of like the telephone game. Was it more that they had no need of it due to climate or was it a case where they simply didn’t think to use it for transportation?

Many people including Jared Diamond have argued that the lack of large domestic animals in the Western Hemisphere prevented wheeled vehicles from being invented. But humans can pull carts, and we have pictorial evidence for this in the Old World back to the third millennium BCE.

As for working on large monuments, wheels were never a crucial technology for this. The pyramids in Egypt and Stonehenge were built without wheels. The earliest wagons were not strong enough to carry really heavy stones, nor was the harnessing technology up to the task.

It is commonly argued that wheels evolved from rollers used to move heavy stones. But we don’t have any evidence for this. Skids rather than rollers were used to distribute the stone’s weight over a wide surface. If rollers had become worn enough for their ends to function as wheels, the wheel-like ends would have had to bear all the weight. Thus the advantage of the roller would have been lost. Inclined planes, skids, and large team of human pullers were more useful for monumental building with big stones than either rollers or wheels.

In terms of how we do history on something so seemingly pre-historic, can you outline some of the methodology you use to make assumptions about the earliest “appearances” of the wheel, and the delicate balance between empirical discovery and imaginative speculation/extrapolation?

For many historical questions, material evidence is better than textual evidence; but it is best when you have both. Nevertheless, the earliest wheel evidence is necessarily pre-textual because we have no writing that goes back far enough.

Evidence for the earliest use of the wheel consists of images on ancient artifacts, the artifacts themselves, particularly if their age and origin can be determined with some precision, and archaeological reconstructions of the relevant societies to determine what they might have used wheels for.

Conjecture comes in when you get all your ducks in a row, in terms of images, dates, and artifacts, and then try to make sense of them. The problem with the wheel is that homo sapiens sapiens carried their stuff around without using wheels for over 90,000 years, and then shifted them onto the backs of domestic animals. This means that they knew exactly how to divide their normal loads up so they could be carried. My conjecture here is that the wheel was invented when a new and challenging type of load was confronted. Many people think that challenge came from moving stones for pyramids, but the Egyptians and other pyramid builders didn’t use wheels.

My thought is that copper mining presented the challenge of moving large amounts of very heavy ore through a narrow mine corridor and out to the smelter. In many, perhaps most, early copper mines, the miners slid baskets and trays along the floor. But in the Carpathian Mountains someone thought of putting a basket on wheels.

The physical evidence for this consists of over 100 clay models of smallish four-wheeled cars, some of them clearly designed as drinking mugs. Carbon-14 dating of associated materials makes them the earliest depictions of wheeled vehicles (as opposed to wheeled toys). I believe that these models played an iconic role in rituals of some sort that celebrated the contribution of mining to the local society. That is a conjecture.

Conjectures work best when they line up with other factors and evidence. In this case, the fact that mine cars in Europe, and then America, remained fairly small and hand-pushed down to 1900 is one such factor. Another is the fact that these mine cars continued to use wheels that were fixed to the ends of their axles and thus could not be steered since the wheel-axle-wheel combination turned as a unit.

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Monday, February 8th, 2016

Book Giveaway! The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions, by Richard W. Bulliet

The Wheel

“An extraordinary account, with novel interpretations that might generate debate among the experts, but also fantastic details that any reader can enjoy. Bulliet examines histories and geographies from across the world, all seen with the eye of the wheel, thereby often rendering the familiar strange.” — Saskia Sassen

This week, our featured book is The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions, by Richard W. Bulliet. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Short Selling. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, February 12th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Friday, January 22nd, 2016

Shirley Hazzard’s Introduction to Geoffrey Scott’s THE PORTRAIT OF ZÉLIDE

We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think

“Zélide’s wit and beauty, her prodigious intelligence are not without arrogance. For most of her life, however, pride will be countered by a disarming honesty of self-appraisal. Her Gallic rationality is similarly moderated by cordiality. Among her finest attributes is simplicity of conduct: springing from people disposed to take themselves seriously, she has little taste for self-solemnity.” — Shirley Hazard

This week, our featured book is We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected Essays, by Shirley Hazzard, edited with an introduction by Brigitta Olubas. For the final post of the feature, we have excerpted Hazzard’s introduction to Geoffrey Scott’s classic biography, The Portrait of Zélide.