Tag Archives: History

Why Innovators Should Study the Rise and Fall of the Venetian Empire

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Most organizations would be happy to last for centuries, as the Venetian Republic did. From 697 to 1797 AD, Venice’s technological acumen, geographic position, and unconventionality were interlocking advantages that allowed the Most Serene Republic to flourish. But when change comes suddenly, it can turn strengths into weaknesses and sweep away even thousand-year success stories.
Venice’s military technology and the city’s pivotal location on the main trade routes of the time gave Venice several strong, mutually reinforcing advantages.

The Arsenal, an advanced naval munitions factory that anticipated by several centuries the production-line method of manufacture, was the beating heart of the Venetian naval industry. From the thirteenth century on, the Arsenal nurtured creativity and spurred innovation and entrepreneurship in the construction of its galleys.

The city’s geographic location helped it to defend itself from both land- and sea-based invaders. This location, consisting of a series of islands in a marshy lagoon, also pushed it to develop a (then unusual) trading and moneylending economy, since there was little land to support agriculture. And its position at the top of the Adriatic Sea allowed it to become a vital trading hub, connecting the East with the West via the Mediterranean.

If, as Michael Porter wrote, competitive advantage stems from how “activities fit and reinforce one another….creating a chain that is as strong as its strongest link,” then strategic fit is something that the Venetian Republic had in spades.

But, like a lot of successful entities, Venice reached a point where it focused more on exploitation than exploration: Venetian traders followed existing paths to success.

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Ivan Pavlov in 22 surprising facts

  • Pavlov didn’t use a bell, and for his real scientific purposes, couldn’t. English-speakers think he did because of a mistranslation of the Russian word for zvonok (buzzer) and because the behaviorists interpreted Pavlov in their own image for people in the U.S. and much of the West.

  • He didn’t use the term and concept “conditioned reflex,” either – rather, “conditional,” and it makes a big difference. For him, the conditional reflex was not just a phenomenon, but a tool for exploring the animal and human psyche – “our consciousness and its torments.”

  • Unlike the behaviorists, Pavlov believed that dogs (like people) had identifiable personalities, emotions, and thoughts that scientific psychology should address. “Essentially, only one thing in life is of real interest to us,” he declared: “our psychical experience.”

  • As a youth, he identified worriedly with Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov – fearing that his devotion to rationality might strip him of human morality and feelings – but also believed that science (especially physiology) might teach humans to be more reasonable and humane.

    Daniel P. Todes - Pavlov 2
    Ivan Pavlov. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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For the Public Good: The Shameful History of Forced Sterilization in the U.S.

The shocking history of forced sterilizations that occurred in the United States, and the story of victims in North Carolina.

One

Willis Lynch lives just outside Littleton, North Carolina, in a trailer set close to a quiet road that runs between tobacco and cotton fields. Retired from a career that included military service, farming, plumbing, handyman work, and auto repair, Lynch still does all the work himself on his 1982 Ford EXP, a car he modified to improve its gas mileage, adding Plexiglas panels to make the recessed headlights more aerodynamic and lowering the radiator to keep the engine cooler. It gets 40 miles to the gallon, according to Lynch, and has traveled more than 700,000 miles.

“People around here know me for being smart, for knowing how to fix a lot of things,” he tells me the first time I meet him, not long before he shows me the paperwork that suggested he was unfit to father children. In 1948, when he was 14 years old, Lynch was sterilized on the recommendation of North Carolina’s Eugenics Board, a state-run organization that targeted thousands of men and women for vasectomies, hysterectomies, salpingectomies (removal of the fallopian tubes), ovariectomies (removal of the ovaries),  and even castrations. He has lived most of his life with the knowledge that he would never have biological children.

I’d gotten in touch with Lynch after reading some of his frank public comments on North Carolina’s sterilization program, recounting, in just a few sentences, a life that turned out differently from the one he once imagined. My husband and I had been trying to conceive a child for four years when I first met Lynch, and I knew from experience already how involuntary childlessness made you an outsider in places others took for granted as welcoming, how difficult it could be to get through a day without dwelling on your invisible loss. I thought I understood something that the politicians who had been fighting over compensation for victims like Lynch did not: it is not possible to forget. But I wondered, is it possible to recover?

Sitting in his small kitchen, I tell him that I don’t have children either, that I know a little of what it’s like to miss people who don’t exist.

“You can’t have kids?” he asks gently.

“I don’t think so,” I say, sparing him the details.

“It stays on your mind,” he agrees.

Lynch is still in good health, able to walk a mile-and-a-quarter — his daily exercise — in 21 minutes. Most of his contemporaries are enjoying grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but every day he wonders: What would my kids be like? How many would I have had? Would they favor me? He wonders if a child of his might have inherited his talent for singing and playing guitar — he is an avid fan of country music, particularly Jim Reeves and Hank Williams tearjerkers, and every Friday, he performs a few of the 60 or 70 songs he knows by heart at the VFW hall in nearby Norlina.

“Some people think they have to wear boots, belt buckles, and britches like they’re in Nashville,” says Lynch, who prefers the same work pants and button-downs he wears any day of the week. “I go as I am.”

At the VFW, he’s friendly with the other musicians, the couples who come to dance, but he stands slightly apart from them, drinking bottled water alone in the kitchen and stepping outside during breaks. Things might have been different if Lynch had had children of his own. He might have had a lasting marriage, someone to take out on Friday nights. His child, too, might have been a part of things. He wonders if she’d have come hear to him sing, if he’d be someone Lynch could be proud of.

He shakes his head at the clumsily typed, tersely written documents he shows me, now decades old, which he keeps in a plain clasp envelope. An operation of sterilization will be for the best interest of the mental, moral, and physical well-being of the said patient, and/or for the public good, the Order for Sterilization or Asexualization reads. “I never figured out why they did that to me.”

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Does It Help to Know History? By Adam Gopnik

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About a year ago, I wrote about some attempts to explain why anyone would, or ought to, study English in college. The point, I thought, was not that studying English gives anyone some practical advantage on non-English majors, but that it enables us to enter, as equals, into a long existing, ongoing conversation. It isn’t productive in a tangible sense; it’s productive in a human sense. The action, whether rewarded or not, really is its own reward. The activity is the answer.

It might be worth asking similar questions about the value of studying, or at least, reading, history these days, since it is a subject that comes to mind many mornings on the op-ed page. Every writer, of every political flavor, has some neat historical analogy, or mini-lesson, with which to preface an argument for why we ought to bomb these guys or side with those guys against the guys we were bombing before. But the best argument for reading history is not that it will show us the right thing to do in one case or the other, but rather that it will show us why even doing the right thing rarely works out. The advantage of having a historical sense is not that it will lead you to some quarry of instructions, the way that Superman can regularly return to the Fortress of Solitude to get instructions from his dad, but that it will teach you that no such crystal cave exists. What history generally “teaches” is how hard it is for anyone to control it, including the people who think they’re making it.
Roger Cohen, for instance, wrote on Wednesday about all the mistakes that the United States is supposed to have made in the Middle East over the past decade, with the implicit notion that there are two histories: one recent, in which everything that the United States has done has been ill-timed and disastrous; and then some other, superior, alternate history, in which imperial Western powers sagaciously, indeed, surgically, intervened in the region, wisely picking the right sides and thoughtful leaders, promoting militants without aiding fanaticism, and generally aiding the cause of peace and prosperity. This never happened. As the Libyan intervention demonstrates, the best will in the world—and, seemingly, the best candidates for our support—can’t cure broken polities quickly. What “history” shows is that the same forces that led to the Mahdi’s rebellion in Sudan more than a century ago—rage at the presence of a colonial master; a mad turn towards an imaginary past as a means to equal the score—keep coming back and remain just as resistant to management, close up or at a distance, as they did before. ISIS is a horrible group doing horrible things, and there are many factors behind its rise. But they came to be a threat and a power less because of all we didn’t do than because of certain things we did do—foremost among them that massive, forward intervention, the Iraq War. (The historical question to which ISIS is the answer is: What could possibly be worse than Saddam Hussein?)

Another, domestic example of historical blindness is the current cult of the political hypersagacity of Lyndon B. Johnson. L.B.J. was indeed a ruthless political operator and, when he had big majorities, got big bills passed—the Civil Rights Act, for one. He also engineered, and masterfully bullied through Congress, the Vietnam War, a moral and strategic catastrophe that ripped the United States apart and, more important, visited a kind of hell on the Vietnamese. It also led American soldiers to commit war crimes, almost all left unpunished, of a kind that it still shrivels the heart to read about. Johnson did many good things, but to use him as a positive counterexample of leadership to Barack Obama or anyone else is marginally insane.

Johnson’s tragedy was critically tied to the cult of action, of being tough and not just sitting there and watching. But not doing things too disastrously is not some minimal achievement; it is a maximal achievement, rarely managed. Studying history doesn’t argue for nothing-ism, but it makes a very good case for minimalism: for doing the least violent thing possible that might help prevent more violence from happening.

The real sin that the absence of a historical sense encourages is presentism, in the sense of exaggerating our present problems out of all proportion to those that have previously existed. It lies in believing that things are much worse than they have ever been—and, thus, than they really are—or are uniquely threatening rather than familiarly difficult. Every episode becomes an epidemic, every image is turned into a permanent injury, and each crisis is a historical crisis in need of urgent aggressive handling—even if all experience shows that aggressive handling of such situations has in the past, quite often made things worse. (The history of medicine is that no matter how many interventions are badly made, the experts who intervene make more: the sixteenth-century doctors who bled and cupped their patients and watched them die just bled and cupped others more.) What history actually shows is that nothing works out as planned, and that everything has unintentional consequences. History doesn’t show that we should never go to war—sometimes there’s no better alternative. But it does show that the results are entirely uncontrollable, and that we are far more likely to be made by history than to make it. History is past, and singular, and the same year never comes round twice.

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