Despite a less then wonderful experience studying history and “social studies” in middle and high school, it remains a strong interest of mine.
Present historical study activities include:
A Brief History of Humankind
I have been slowly, on an occasional basis, making my way through this pretty interesting Coursera course on human history from pre-modern human species to the present offered by a professor from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I find his outlook kind of extra-pessimistic at times, but it is still pretty interesting. Probably the three most interesting (speculative) ideas I’ve taken so far are:
- The direct evolutionary pathway between humans’ bipedalism as cause, and social-lifestyle and cognitive adaptability as effects, due to younger births being necessary to deal with narrowing of hips with walking upright
- The fundamental importance of the “domestication of fire” to humans domination of the food-chain, through allowing them to be greatly more powerful than their slight stature, and also the extent to which cooking allowed for greater energy expenditure on cognitive function rather than digestion.
- The idea that development of tools allowed early humans to fulfill the niche of eating marrow, which without an easy ability to crack bones, other scavenging animals left behind.
A People’s History of the United States
I recently decided to undertake Zinn’s well-respected, class-focused history of the United States. I have only made it up to the Revolutionary war so far, but it is definitely an interesting perspective different from the ones I got in school. If you were so inclined, you can follow my progress and possible commentary on Goodreads.
(As a largely irrelevant aside, it is interesting to note that Zinn is the father-in-law of Kabat-Zinn who wrote the book at the center of my currently developing meditation practice. Notably, Kabat-Zinn took the hyphenation upon marrying Zinn’s daughter. I find this an interesting thing to do. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if it was simply a reasonable gesture of egalitarianism in marriage, but I also could imagine it was motivated by a) desire to associate himself with this Zinn and his work, b) to create a punned “zen” quality to his name)
Internet History, Technology, and Security
Due to the combination of my interest in history broadly, my education and livelihood as a computer scientist, and the profound impact of the accelerating information technology on our world, I’ve always had a special interest in the history of computing. To this end I highly recommend the fantastic early computing history book Hackers by Steven Levy, as well as the somewhat less-well-written, somewhat more sensationalized volume focused on the west coast parts of the story, What the Dormouse Said.
While I have previously studied the beginnings of computing, I have not previously focused as much on the Internet. I am partially remedying this by presently taking Dr. Charles Severance’s Coursera class Internet History, Technology, and Security. While a lot of the information is stuff I know, the course is interesting in that the videos contains a lot of interviews with pioneers of the Internet and the Web, some conducted recently and some conducted contemporaneously to their work.
I have also been enjoying this pretty cool podcast on the major ideas and history of philosophy, Western and Eastern. It is independently produced as a labor of love by a young, American man who otherwise works in a warehouse. It is pretty great. I recommend it. I have learned a lot from him (Stephen West).