Back-to-school specials

One of the best ways to find dynamic lecturers speaking on interesting subjects is to browse the back-to-school programs for visiting alumni on iTunes U. Stanford University’s Classes without Quizzes (iTunes) is a case in point. Here are a couple of lectures I recently enjoyed.

Iraq Then and Now: Lessons from Empires Past, Priya Satia (iTunes)
Historian Priya Satia looks back to the British occupation of Iraq in the 1920s, and finds some uncomfortable parallels to today’s conflict. She looks closely at the justifications and actual operation of the “air control regime” which was supposed to keep order in the desert kingdom by bombing and strafing insurgent towns and villages. Local British intelligence operatives claimed to be able to fathom the “Arab mind,” and thus picked the bombing targets out of intuition rather than actual information. After each bombing raid, assessing the effectiveness of the bombing was mainly a matter of guesswork and body counts, and in the end probably increased local hostility rather than leading to pacification.

Why the West rules – For now, Ian Morris (iTunes)
With a healthy dose of humor, historian Ian Morris ponders how Europeans and Americans came to rule the planet during the 19th and 20th centuries. He notes that theories about this question tend to come in two flavors: those that credit Western cultural superiority beginning with the ancient Greeks, and those that credit geography and accident. He explains why he falls into the latter camp, and how technology interacts with geography to produce economic advantage. For example, Spain and Britain’s position in the north Atlantic became an advantage only after the invention of oceangoing vessels, which allowed them to be the first outsiders to be able to exploit the riches of the Americas.

Technical note: the Stanford lectures are available only in video format. If you want to convert them to audio format for easier loading into a portable player, consider the free RealPlayer, which comes with an easy to use file converter.

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