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Thursday, January 21 at 9.21 p.m. This was the twenty-first minute of the twenty-first hour of the twenty-first day of the twenty-first year of the twenty-first century.

I would say that the chances are good that I will not be around for 10.22 p.m. on January 22, 2122. Nor am I venerable enough to remember January 20, 1920, so it seems safe to say that such an auspicious moment will not be repeated in my lifetime nor I suspect in most of yours.

At this point, I should point out that I am a historian…

After months of pandemic restrictions, you may want to ask: how risky is it to do the things we are now allowed to do? Life is a risky business, but all agree that the risk of serious injury, or worse, falls away precipitously once you are dead.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Mordant humour aside, an entire business sector — insurance — has its foundation in risk assessment. There are computational charts that enable risk assessors to “price” the scale of risk and its probability. Typically, one axis measures the gravity of the risk from minor to catastrophic, while the other measures its likelihood of…

Photo by Daniele D'Andreti on Unsplash [the plea for dog owners not to leave “it” behind is made in many languages]

Let’s give a cheer for the people who clean up after their dogs. I doubt it will match the fervour with which we curse those who do not. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately in a local park, and I can tell you that there is more to scooping the poop than you might expect.

Photo by Randy Tarampi on Unsplash

When I asked my daughter for her thoughts on irony, she directed me immediately to Alanis Morrissette. Her 1996 hit “Ironic” triggered an instant outcry because her examples — rain on a wedding day, the fly in your Chardonnay — seemed more unfortunate than ironic, and I recall that on the UK stand-up circuit, several comedians, notably Ed Byrne, devoted part of their act to the irony that the song “Ironic” just didn’t get irony. But let’s go a little deeper.

To reference another Irish wit: Oscar Wilde once described Britain and America as two nations divided by a…

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Joe Biden’s first 100 Days have sped by and even on the other side of the Atlantic and with a global pandemic raging, one can hear the sighs, mainly of relief. But have things changed?

Certainly, mornings are no longer governed by the late night angry tweet. However, it seems frankly bizarre that Biden is already being mentioned alongside FDR, the only president to win four elections and whose first 100 Days was marked in 1933 by a Congress eager to pass a flood of major legislation. Biden has no such Congress and definitely can’t match FDR’s electoral record. I…

Photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash

Donald Trump has wrapped himself in scandal with the same grace and enthusiasm that he once showed when embracing the American flag. I am writing a history of presidential scandals from Nixon to Trump and now that I have reached the “Donald,” I need to go back to basics and ask: what does it take to make a scandal?

My publisher had suggested that I tackle the major political scandals in American history, but I managed to persuade her that this would require a multi-volume encyclopedia. I also pointed out that most scandals occurred at the local level, and rarely…

Photo by visuals on Unsplash

Historians, like me, feel especially at home in archives, although plenty of other scholars also use them. We look forward to our visits and get frustrated when they aren’t possible (like now!) While there are catalogues and finders’ guides to assist us, part of the fun is that you don’t know what you will find. Below are a few examples of archival surprises that I have had in my time.

Using trustworthy contemporaneous sources is basic to historical research, but it’s easier said than done. For historians of the distant past, the records that remain can be scant and partial…

Photo by davide ragusa on Unsplash

PLUG INTO YOUR NETWORK: Social Capital and the Pandemic

Do you know your network? Not your mobile phone or internet provider or your digital TV company. It’s your social network I’m interested in. Even the anonymous crowd at a sports event is actually a tangle of social networks. Take a moment to write on a piece of paper a list of all the people to whom you have talked today. Consider the list and then add the names of anyone whom you talked to yesterday, and so on, until you have your social contacts for the week. Now, identify those…

February 12 was the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. He would have been 212 years old, no age at all in Darwinian terms. He remains a major figure, but as you will see, hardly a bundle of laughs.

I once heard a professor of intellectual history declare that the Victorian era produced three giants with whose ideas modern man had still to wrestle: Marx, Freud, and Darwin. One can argue for others to be added, but these three are hard to displace. Each is more cited than read, and quite often misunderstood. It is famously reported that when Karl Marx…

Mask wearing has become the “new normal” in Italy in these new plague days. The rules are that you wear them outside the home. If someone has to enter your home, it is recommended that you and they wear masks. In light infection zones (Zona Gialla) where you are permitted to carry passengers who are not immediate members of your household, both driver and passengers have to be masked. Of course, you also wear masks on public transportation and in shops and other public places. This Italian approach contrasts sharply with the slow acceptance of mask-wearing in the Anglophone world…

Peter Ling

Historian and biographer but thankfully with a sense of humor

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