Today in History

March 10th 2020

St. Patrick’s Day will soon be upon us, and for many that’s an occasion to wear green and drink a Guinness. But I’m using the occasion to recommend books by Irish writers.

Not that there’s anything wrong with green clothes. Or Guinness.

Given Ireland’s history, imperialism is a compelling subject to many Irish writers. Booker-winner J. G. Farrell wrote extraordinary novels that explore the human costs of colonialism:  The Troubles, The Singapore Grip and The Siege of... Read Post

July 31st 2019

This week the Discovery Channel holds its annual celebration of all matters shark-related. Without a doubt, sharks are fascinating: two-thirds of their brains are devoted to their sense of smell; they grow up to 50,000 teeth in a lifetime; shark embryos sometimes devour each other in the womb—what’s not to love? But for people in the Boston area, sharks are of more than just academic interest: 17 great white sharks have been seen in the waters off Cape Cod in the past week. 

Sharks... Read Post

March 9th 2018

Daily savings time ends this Sunday, March 11; so on Saturday night (or very early Sunday morning) everyone should set their clocks ahead one hour. Many (quite reasonably) wonder why we set our clocks back an hour during the fall in the first place. The idea behind it is conserving resources. If everyone gets up an hour later (when it’s lighter) during the winter months we’re supposedly saving energy. Supposedly Benjmain Franklin first proposed daylight saving time (DST) as a way to save... Read Post

October 30th 2017

On the evening of October 30, 1938, CBS radio broadcast an adaptation of H. G. Well's War of the Worlds, the 1898 novel about a Martian invasion of Earth, as part of the radio drama series Mercury Theatre on the Air. Written and directed by Orson Welles (left), the program was mostly in the form of simulated news bulletins. For decades stories have been told about the panic that ensued when many listeners jumped to the conclusion they were listening to an actual news broadcast.

The... Read Post

June 13th 2017

June is LGBT Pride Month, when we celebrate the LGBT Community and recognize their history and present struggles. During this month some posts on this blog will commemorate significant dates in LGBT history.

On June 13, 1995, after the Justice Department refused to become engaged in the legal fight against a Colorado amendment that denied civil rights protections for LGBT people, the Clinton Administration established the first White House liasion to the LGBT communities.... Read Post

March 20th 2017

On this day in 1778, King Louis XVI of France recieved at court two representatives of the newly declared United States, Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin. Their reception by an absolute monarch was an astonishing coup for a fledgling nation rejecting the very notion of monarchy, but Louis' hatred of Great Britain trumped concerns about encouraging rebellion againts kings. The fact that one of the emissaries was Benjamin Franklin made Louis' decision easier: Franklin was the equivalent of a... Read Post

May 13th 2016

Friday the 13th. The unlucky day. But why do people think Friday 13th is unlucky? No one really knows. Why would anyone even think a particular day is unlucky?

Stuart Vyse, the author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, says that superstitions stem out of a desire for control over our lives: so if we think there is a particular day on which the universe is out to get us, we're going to be more careful.

And if something bad happens to you on Friday... Read Post

June 26th 2015

It's been a big week at the Supreme Court: the Affordable Care Act upheld, gay marriage bans struck down, and a blow struck against housing discrimination.

The Supreme Court's rulings have had a profound impact on American society: their decision in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) ultimately ended legal school segregation; New York v. Sullivan (1964) established certain protections for the press. The profundity of the Court's influence is ironic given that... Read Post

March 26th 2015

On November 18, 1985, people across the country opened their newspapers (this was back when most people read newspapers) and met a sandy-haired six-year old named Calvin and his stuffed (but sentient) tiger Hobbes.  Calvin was every babysitter's nightmare, the bane of his teachers, Dennis the Menace on speed (but with a much better vocabulary and a more interesting mind). He was a source of nonstop stress for his parents and a constant torment to his neighbor Susie. Of course... Read Post

August 13th 2014

Since Monday's post on Shark Week, I've received quite a few comments about the Discovery Channel's sensationalist and inaccurate Shark Week programming. And rightly so. Shark Week producers have actually lied to scientists to get them to appear in programming, and Discovery airs documentaries in which most of the material is made up.

So don't watch Discovery Channel. And whatever you do, don't let Shark Week stop being about the sharks

The National Geographic Channel has... Read Post

August 11th 2014

"Mr. Vaughn, what we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It's really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that's all." --Hooper in Jaws

Those are great lines from a scary movie, and you know what? They're true. Sharks have existed for at least 450 million years.

That's almost twice as long as dinosaurs. And five major mass extinctions have occurred in the past 439 million years. Sharks survived... Read Post

July 5th 2014

A six-year-old is attacked by a tiger daily when he gets home from school.  He tries to get out of homework by faking amnesia.  At night he battles the bathtub suds monster as his tyrannical parents force him to adopt their bourgeois hygiene standards. He has marvelous adventures as he transforms himself into a pteranodon, Spaceman Spiff, or a bloodthirsty deity demanding human sacrifice, all the while accompanied by his combative tiger companion, who...strangely....looks like a child's... Read Post

February 3rd 2014

American stage and cinema suffered a profound loss yesterday. Philip Seymour Hoffman, arguably the best character actor of our time, was found dead in his apartment yesterday. He was only 46.

I first saw him in the Todd Solondz film Happiness, in which he played the thoroughly creepy Allen, who makes disgusting anonymous phone calls to women, particularly to his lovely neighbor Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle). What made this performance noteworthy was Hoffman's ability to show the brutal,... Read Post

January 21st 2013

Today we honor the memory of one of the greatest Americans ever, a man whose courage, wisdom, and determination changed this country forever. In the twelve years between his leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and his murder at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Martin Luther King did more to advance racial justice than had been accomplished in the previous century since emancipation.

The finest work I know on King's life and work is Taylor Branch's three-volume America in the King... Read Post