Category Archives: Good Use Of History

Five Thirty Eight – How We Categorize Tragedies Like Orlando

I know that this is unusual for what I usually post here, but this is an interesting article. Looking at the data of the media and why certain words are said is highly interesting to me. Whether it come from George Carlin or Norm Chomsky, it is interesting to look at euphemistic language as a way to identify the problems of political policy. However, what is important here is that the Five Thirty Eight group make an attempt to show that the use of different terms is vague and often done with great deliberate thought. Additionally, Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations is used here and aptly described as to why invoking him is so dangerous.


The day after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, we discuss the many layers of tragedy, the political response, and how we categorize incidents like this.

Top5s – Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster

Most of you out there know, at least if you’re smart enough to spend your time following a history blog, that most of the Internet is rife with BS passing itself off as fact. YouTube is simultaneously the best and the worst this. While the ability for it to upload countless hours of speeches, primary documents, and well thought out information makes it one of the most powerful resources for teachers and researchers alike, so much of it is conspiratorial and poorly thought out that it sickens me. Fake documentaries that update every time they are disproven, like Loose Change only encourage the kind of distrust that makes honest people seem like criminals. So when there is something that is well researched and well done on YouTube I hope to lot it so that it gets the credibility and encouragement it deserves.

One of the most terrifying things of the last half-century is a Chernobyl disaster. By mentioning nuclear power, I’m already going to mobilize several groups of people. This is not meant to be a screed against nuclear power, which with our current consumption needs is probably going to be part of the equation for years to come, it is also meant to show what can happen if such power goes unchecked and unregulated. However, as a teacher of the Cold War era is sometimes difficult to help kids get into the mindset of that era.

Top5s is a YouTube page that often deals with the macabre, who like Rob Dyke, generally focuses on how terrifying real life can be, however Top5s (whose name and identity are hidden, so I will refer to him only as Top5s), does the occasional documentary on real life events. In particular, his discussion of Chernobyl is particularly interesting and chilling.

Planet Money – Episode 693: Unpayable

For those of you who don’t know, Planet Money is an amazing podcast on economics that is a spin-off of the juggernaut that is This American Life. For those of you who further don’t know, economists and historians don’t always get along. Generally, this boils down to two things quantification and motivation. In economics, with the possible exception of behavioral economics, people are thought of as homo-economicus. This means that people act via incentive and economic (financial) motivation or given knowledge people will act in their economic self-interest at all times. Historians (again, generalizing) acknowledge more passionate, social, and societal reasons for action. The second issue of quantification is more tricky, Historians like to find stories and movements, but often have to conflate impact. Economists deal in terms (especially in macroeconomics, but in micro as well) in trends and bigger spaces (more generalizations, but not in necessarily a negative way). Finally, historians look to the past and make linkages to the present, economists look at trends and try to predict the future.

I find that I use economics as a tool in my historical tool belt often, student seem to relate to it to an extent. However, I think it is interesting when current events take over. Planet Money is really good at linking past to present and in this case they are quite good. While Congress is waffling (at least upon writing this) and conservatives are digging in, this podcast does a good job explaining why Puerto Rico is in the financial crisis it is in and what comes next.

The Atomic Cafe (1982)

The Atomic Cafe is an amazing documentary like no other. Made by Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty and Pierce Rafferty, it takes footage from Defense Department propaganda, declassified military footage, news reports, and commercial entertainments/ads to show the scope and terror of the Atomic Age. At the moment, it is up in full on Vimeo. I have shown this to both High School and College Students. It is scary, funny, and overall enjoyable. Watch it while it is still free!


The Atomic Cafe from koba on Vimeo.

iTunes U Course – The Hebrew Bible

A Harvard University Course by Shaye J. D. Cohen

Much like my last post on Dale Martins course on the New Testament, this is a course that I got into because of my interest in ancient scriptures and while it would make sense to post these in reverse order however, this is the version I listened to them in.

Shaye J. D. Cohen is a professor in the Hebrew Scriptures at Harvard University. Like mentioned in my last post, I do have a fairly good understanding, at least in introductory understanding, (better than most gentiles) of the Hebrew texts. I took a few courses on them, but again these were years ago and in high school setting. Therefore, I was intrigued to listen to a historical criticism of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is worth note the complexity of these documents. While that is not to say that there isn’t in the New Testament, the scope and scale of time is important here. Like Martin, Cohen makes an effort to start the course with some basics including maps and a timeline chronology.

As a Gentile growing up, I learned that the Scriptures of the Old Testament are divided into four parts the Torah, the historical books, the wisdom books, and the prophetic books. Cohen does a good job at the beginning of describing the differences between the Protestant books and Catholic books, and then comparing these the Jewish books. Even going into why the Catholics have seven more books in the Old Testament then either Jews or Protestants. (For those interested, this has to do with what language the books were originally written. If the book was originally written in Greek, despite the importance to the Jewish faith, it is not included in the Hebrew Scriptures, but often kept alive in the rabbinic tradition of people named Cohen (Coen) and the Levites. This means that the Catholics have the Song of Songs and the books about the Maccabean revolt (ie The story of Chanukah) while the Protestant and Jewish scriptures to not do not).

However, Cohen plays devil’s advocate much more. He admits that oftentimes we just don’t know certain things. Now, he does this playfully. What this means is that he looks at say rules in numbers, talks about the fact that the 10 Commandments in Exodus is different than the one that shows up later in Deuteronomy, or that certain kosher laws are explained, but then not really explained. He talks about parts of the Hebrew Scriptures that he finds uncomfortable like God’s demand that the Israelites commit genocide on the Canaanites. That being said, he explains this in an interesting way (that the Israelites were most likely Canaanites themselves), but not in a way that is in the text, more of a way that we understand thanks to archaeology. This course does an excellent job of explaining the history of the text and why it is different than the interpretation of the text. Additionally, he makes the arguments about where Judaism actually comes from. Which is very tricky.

Ultimately, this is an interesting piece because it allows for a new kind of interpretation, while introducing for example the documentary method which is so well understood. In fact my New American Bible, the standard Catholic of edition, includes Joshua, Ruth, Samuel and the histories, because they’re all clearly written by the deuterocanonical author. It is an impressive course and one that should be enjoyed by people interested in the text. It goes much further than the traditional easy criticisms like contradictions in Genesis chapters 1 and 2. I think, unlike Martin, this course ebbs and flows. Overall the course is excellent, and the last lecture specially is incredibly well done, and would have none of the power if you had not listen to his other lectures.

Like last piece, I want to make it clear here that this is a lecture series on the historical interpretations of the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures). I’m not here trying to change your faith, I just think this is an interesting interpretation. Cohen even seems to struggle at times with parts of what historians are saying, but still makes sure to say it. Overall I think this is an excellent podcast, and I am doing additional research.


iTunes U Course – Introduction to the New Testament History and Literature

An iTunes University course from Yale by Dale Martin

While studying for my PhD comprehensive exams, there reached a point where I was so mentally exhausted from rereading the same arguments over and over again that I needed a break. While many out there of you will not necessarily think of taking an online course as a break, I knew I needed to refocus myself by listening and thinking about something else, but I also wanted to be historical in nature.

Generally, as someone who studies US history, I realize that most of you think of US history as the only history that you need to know. However, as an academic in the field, it’s a little bit more complicated than that. When I think of academic history, I think of tweed jackets and elbow patches maybe a pipe, but when I think of that, I don’t think of them teaching US history. Generally, I think of them teaching Rome, ancient Greece and Persia. When I think of teaching US history, I bang my head against the wall because people don’t seem to relate to the fact that this is almost like civics. Teaching American history is still to explain the current election in context. With this in mind, studying classics of Western Civilization and the books that fundamentally founded in a historical context is right up that alley.

For those of you who have not taken an iTunes U course before, it’s quite simple. A series of audio or videos of lectures, a syllabus and all readings that are not copyrighted. Thus in this case, lists of Bible readings and a recommended textbook for purchase, additionally assignments are given but are not graded either for chose to read this much more like a podcast on a non-fiction topic.

Prof. Martins course is fantastic. As someone who is been interested as a Catholic in both Canon and the history of the church for historical reasons for a long time, this is really a boon. For example, I have read many Bart Ehrman’s books, and took standard Catholic synthesis and new and Old Testament courses, but those were primarily at the high school level and Bart Ehrman’s books are good, but written for a mass audience. Martin here addresses us as undergrads, but with an academically rigorous nature appropriate for Yale.

The course, to Prof. Martins own admittance, starts off rather slow, but interesting as he depicts Rome at the time of the Christian scriptures and Judaism at the time of the Christian scriptures and slowly builds. He starts out tracking the Gospels and following the books in order, but makes the story much more complex than that. Talking about how we know the synoptic Gospels are connected versus the Gospel of John, talking about how we know that Luke is part one and ask is part two of the same story, how we know that Paul wrote seven of his letters for sure, several are we are 50-50 on, and several we are sure our written by others in his name. He goes to great lengths to talk about how the early church looked, and why the Paul in Acts is different from the Paul of the letters. Additionally, he is one of the most interesting explanations of revelations I’ve heard.

While this is in no way to insult my high school education, in fact, for a Catholic high school they were very neutral on the historiography of the Bible impressively enough. I, for example, knew there were contradictions in the New Testament, and that it was assembled over time, with Mark being written first within 30 years of Jesus’s death, Luke and Matthew being based on Mark and a mysterious Q document filled with the quotes of Jesus, then finally John written about 100 years or so after Jesus’s death. However, Martin does an excellent job and creates a very interesting class. Something you should listen to for people who are really interested in the New Testament.

Finally, a caveat. Please note, Prof. Martin and I have no interest or really care about your faith. Martin makes clear that he is a religious man and of himself, but that does not change the canonical point of view versus the historical point of view. This is an iTunes University course on the historical interpretations of the Bible. Historical criticism tries to contextualize and use historical evidence for the Bible you can still look at the work as a solid text without contradictions, and he is not out inherently to disprove anyone’s religious beliefs, but know that if you believe that the Bible is without contradiction or without flaw, you will be frustrated.

iTunes U – The Introduction to the New Testament History and Literature

The Dollop – Disco Demolition Night

For those of you who don’t know, The Dollop is an American History podcast wherein Dave Anthony (stand-up comedian, writer, and actor) tells a story about American History to Gareth Reynolds (also a stand-up and writer) and Gareth improvises, does impressions, and generally is shocked by his lack of knowledge of American History. I will do an full write up on the value of the Dollop in the future, but for the moment I want to share one of the funniest episodes in a long time, the history of Disco Demolition Night

Also if you liked that, you should listen to the episode on Cleveland’s Ten Cent Beer Night.

99% Invisible – The Grand Dame of Broad Street

I have long struggled with what to do with this blog. On one hand, I want to make it a picture of my historical acumen, but on the other hand I want to make sure that I have been functioning website. This is a struggle because I do a lot, like most academics, and sometimes self-aggrandizement is difficult because it comes in the way of actual work. So in order to make sure that I keep updating this site, I am going to start doing an idea that I learned from’s political podcast. The statistics based website and podcast starts with what they call their “good use of polling and bad use of polling.” In that vein I think I will begin my good use of history to value some history where at least once a week I will make an effort to publish a small thing that I think it’s a good historical document or use of history. With that in mind, here’s my first submission

99% Invisible is an amazing podcast starring Roman Mars and a cadre of reporters. It dabbles in a fascinating aspect of history which is the built environment. Mars himself refers to it as a podcast on design, but it is so fundamental at times that it really becomes a podcast about everything. It is truly impressive. So why did this particular episode motivate me to write for the first time on such topic, Well, it has to do with the fact that this is effectively my field. I do epidemiological and medical history. This story not only tells a fascinating yarn about the CDC and a beautiful building, but how we find where diseases come from. This tracks the fantastic story of Legionnaires’ disease and how disease detectives were able to track it down. Worth a listen.

99% Invisible – Episode 211 – The Grand Dame of Broad Street