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Decipher History

Decipher Media

The history show about how and why!

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Top 10 Decipher History Episodes

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Roland Emmerich and Mel Gibson and historical rigor (or lack thereof).

Period technologies

Rocking chairs! Pushing the edge of period chair technology. Actually a relatively new thing, so you could see why Mel might have been having some trouble. Smooth-bore firearms and the eventual transition to Longrifles. Militias vs armies and the frequency of rifled weapons between them. Reload times. Minié balls, loading speed, and rifle accuracy.

Banistre Tarleton

Maybe the name was too deliciously posh and British? So they changed it to William Tavington. Maybe kind of a jerk, but clearly not the caricature we see in the film. Blowing your inheritence on women and gambling vs buying hundreds of horses. Buying your military commissions whether you deserve it or not.


Should we even try to approach the legitimacy of the “hero?” Humans: always flawed through some lens and operating within their time and experience.


Militias vs armies. The problem in modern armies of humans not really wanting to kill other humans.

War crimes

Ungentlemanly conduct. Continental congress early investigations for propaganda. Zero documented mass-slaughter church-burnings.


Do not be misled: it was happening during this period. Especially in South Carolina. Promises (lies) of post-war freedom. Numbers on the British and Patriot sides.

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Creating the dialects, idolects, and accents of the five points. Historical Language sleuthing. Daniel Day Lewis’ vocal performance.


“A drama, not a documentary.” The overstatements of the loose source book “The Gangs of New York.” Compressed timeframes. Framing the story of the “gangs of New York” through the lens of the Italian mobs of the early 20th century.


“The Great Famine” and “The Potato Famine.” Blight: not a fungus! Actually non-photosynthetic algae. Living on only potatoes: pretty doable! How the blight was delivered from America and was able to flourish under the seasoncal conditions in Ireland.

Coming to America

Migration of Irish into (mostly) New York City. Staying where you land because you lack the resources to move on. The conditions on the long boat ride over.

Old New York

New York: like now, but smaller and mostly woods and marshes etc. Draining and filling the stinky sewage lake to make a place for the five points. American growth and the spoilage of nature.

The Five Points

Not as crimey as you heard! But, maybe just as grimey. Discerning quality of life in the five points from archaeology, correspondences, censuces, bank records, and other sources. Common people, eating meat; for every meal! Chain immigration.


Using the Irish vote. Competitive firefighting. Tweed’s truly impressive corruption.


Bill the Butcher. 19th century gang names. The dueling origin stories of the “Dead Rabbits.” Inter-linguistic phono-semantic matching.

Draft riot

History washing over local squabbles. Lynchings. Violently protesting the purchasability of draft vexceptions. Thge New York Times offices and machine guns and molten lead.

  1. The Gangs of New York by Herbert Asburt: Internet Archive
  2. The Rogue's Lexicon by George Matsell: Project Gutenberg
  3. Five Points and 19th Century New York: YouTube
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Isaac Meyer’s History of Japan Podcast!!

Japan post-isolation

Tokugawa rule. Can historical economics be interesting? The introduction of tightly-controlled Dutch trade in Japan preceeding the Meiji restoration. Western opposition. Fighting over western presence and figuring out how much Western influence Japan can tolerate while still being Japanese. The return of the Emperor.

Europeans in Japan

Recognizing the relative militrary reputations of Britain, France, Germany, and the US at the time. French military advisors in irl Japan during the Meiji restoration. Jules Brunet as the closest real-life analogue to Tom Cruise’s Algren. Spheres of influence.


War basically between and within the Samurai class. Samurai with side jobs. Disbanding the social class with the swords. Samurai civil war armor and its increasing disutility as firearms improve. The point of the elaborate headpieces.

Samurai with a Katana c. 1860 Felice Beato, public domain Saigō Takamori

The irl analogue for Ken Watanabe’s character. Trying to fight Korea. Accidentally creating revolutionaries. Takamori’s last stand after his forces ran out of bullets. “The Last Samurai” and the ease of Japanese punning.

Saigo Takamori before 1877 Edoardo Chiossone, public domain Foreign samurai

English-born “Samurai” and how/whether a foreigner could actually become a real samurai. The (probably) African-born “samurai” Yasuke, working as personal bodyguard for daimyō Nobunaga.


Creating your warrior narrative after your period of real marshall utility. Analogy with European chivalry. The carrying of Bushido culture from Samurai time into WWII Japan. The circumstances where ritual suicide begins to seem like a reasonable option.


Arqebuses all over the joint before the period of the film. Samurai gun-kata. Wooden cannons, howitzers, and artillery classification.

  1. The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori by Mark Ravina: iTunesAmazon
  2. Stand Up For Your Rights by History of Japan Podcast: Part 1Part 2
  3. Bushido Blade: Wikipedia
  4. Japanese Milk Bread: NYT Cooking via Google page cache
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One Small Step

Worrying the minimum amount about your speech. The difficulty of quoting noisy radio transmissions.

Because it is haaaahd

Recognizing the small temporal distance from the first powered flight to the first moon landing. The cutting edge of the early space program. Test piloting. Gemini.

The edge of space

Defining the edge of space. The “Karman Line”: transition from atmospheric lift to orbital velocity. Complications and redefinition of where “space” begins. Geopolitics, ruining everything since forever.

The “right stuff”

Badass engineer pilots. Moving fast and breaking things. Selection testing. Giving prospective astronauts ice-water wet willies. The importance of simulation in the early space program and the difficulty of simulating things we haven’t actually ever done or seen up close.How hard it really is to stay conscious under high-g stress.

Moon landing

Monocular depth cues. Light and shadow, unfamiliar objects, and depth perception. Equatorial noon on the equinox when stuff looks creepy: Lahaina Noon.

Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment

Retroreflectors and really really powerful lasers. Tiny photonic returns: 1 out of every 1017 photons shot at the moon mirror make it back for our detection. Multi-mile laser beams. Confirming relativity ftw.


... from the moon! And some regolith to boot. Vacuum transport for moon samples and how we work with them on Earth’s surface without contaminating. The difficulty of maintaining a a very strong vacuum vs nonreactive gasses. Detecting the provenance of proposed moon rocks. NASA’s moon-rock cataloguing system.

Moon-landing video

Viewership numbers. NASA’s custom video encoding and the incredibly analog conversion methods employed to bring it to television.

What if

What if it didn’t work out? The Nixon speach made ready just in case. “In Event of Moon Disaster.”

What now

Why we have no rockets now to match the power of the Saturn V. Loss of engine-production expertise. Looking at near-future Moon and Mars missions.

  1. Where does NASA keep the Moon Rocks? by Smarter Every Day: YouTube
  2. Apollo Television by Bill Wood: NASA
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This film

Zach Snyder’s strengths in creating comic book panels on film. Slo-mo blood spatter. Abs and glistening man-meat.

Western civilization

Ancient Greece and “western civilization.” The birth of “democracy” in nearby Athens. Juxtaposing your historical culture with the “other.” Like George Washington crossing the Delaware but with way less man-meat. And 100% less codpieces.


The dawn on the Spartan state. The nature of the Helot slave class. “Land-bonded” slavery vs chattel. Ancient Greek and Spartan combat methods. Heavy infantry. Training by doing crunches Ancient combat analogues with early UFC.

The Persian Invasions

Greece as a poor backwater on the edge of the Persian Empire. The Ionian Revolt, The Battle of Marathon, The Battle of Thermopylae, Battle of Plataea.

Professional soldiering

The incredible change that was the development of the professional standing army. Modern soldiers and modern combat compared and contrasted with ancient. Dying gloriously. Army sizes at Thermopylae as recorded closer to the time vs modern estimates.

Modern understanding of Sparta

Ancient sources and the lack of writing from the actual place and time. “The Spartan Mirage,” and the crafting of the Spartan image. Any training as a unit is better than none.


The universality of shield walls and spear hedges, aka the “spiky steamroller.” Strategically busting out in individual slow motion. Spear-length evolution. Learning whether “dragoons” are at all related to dragons.

  1. Josh's show's on LSG Media: The X-Files Podcast (always)Science Fiction Film Podcast (sometimes)
  2. Hardcore History - King of Kings, by Dan Carlin: Part 1Part 2Part 3
  3. Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield: iTunesAmazon
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Versions! So many versions. The best version of the film: The Ultimate Cut.

Setting the scene

Ancient Greece after 300. The Peloponnesian War (which Ryan is in the middle of on his show!). The rise of Philip. Olympias.


Putting Macedon at center stage in ancient Greece. Technical and logistical innovations. Planning the invasion of Persia right before his suspiciously untimely death.

The purge

Alexander and Olypmias. Purging royal competition in the ancient world. Plutarch and gossip about “powerful women” in antiquity.


The loss of contemporary sources and the reliability of what remains. Plutarch’s gossip column.

“The Great”

What makes an historical figure “The Great,” instead of “The Terrible” or just forgotten? So many Alexandrias! Conquest, culture, and Hellenization.

Manly love

“Homosexuality” in the ancient world and different norms of power and masulinity. Alexander and Hephaestion. Achilles and Patroclas.


Heavy Macedonian drinking and Alexander’s downward spiral. Conflicting reports and also modern interpretations of possible causes of death. Indeterminate succession. Alexander’s body floating around for centuries.

  1. Ryan's Show!: The History of Ancient Greece Podcast
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Costly! The costs of vising the wreck twelve times for research and footage, not to mention the cost of the film production overall. The extreme profitability of this film and James Cameron in general.


First, second, and third class on the same ship. Titans of industry. Runaway capitalism. The class divide and point of view before The Great War. The modern “royalty” by virtue of their wealth.


The pace of technological development in industries, especially intercontinental travel by steamship. Comparing the early 1900s to other periods of technological progress like the 1980s and 1990. Noting the nature of the automobiles in the film: literally the design of a “horseless carriage.” The cutting-edge wireless technology aboard the ship.

The ship

Three engines! Of two varieties. Steam-driven piston engines and steam-driven a turbine. Note: you cannot reverse a turbine. Peak power: 46,000 horsepower. 600 tons of coal daily. An anecdote about Mr. Diesel.

A collection of small problems

The nature of many disasters, probably including Titanic: a series of small problems, adding up to a catastrophic failure under the rigt (wrong) circumstances. Rich people hogging the Marconi wireless. Out of date lifeboat regulations. Loading lifeboats (badly). The reality of “women and children first.” Avoiding chaos until it’s too late.


The inquiries from shortly after the event, and the great surprise you may experience when realizing that the company men consistently pushed blame back up the chain of command. Modern evidence changing our conception over time. Actually ultimately coming to the consensus that this particular ship on this particular voyage was mostly operated in a way that was totally normal in almost all respects and simply got very unlucky.

All told, it does seem that Titanic was really really well-engineered and did remarkably well under the circumstances.

  1. [4K,60Fps,Colorized] Titanic, First and Last Voyage, April 1912 AI Recovery, added sound: YouTube
  2. RMS Titanic Survivors True Accounts of The Sinking: YouTube
  3. RMS Titanic: Fascinating Engineering Facts by the Engingeering Guy: YouTube
  4. Titanic - Alternate Ending: YouTube
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The movie

It was really good! One-shot gimmicks of the past and appreciating the technical complexity of what was done here.


The demographic makeup of the British military. Young average infantryman age. “Pals battalions” and serving alongside your friends.

The Great War

The scale of WWI versus what came before. Rising contemporary appreciation for the study of this conflict. How much was the war a “modern war” and how much did it help usher in the modern world? Horses and tanks.

Trench warfare

The shovel as a tool of war for millenia. How do we wind up with stalemate trench warfare? A hint of trench warfare in the American Civil War. Really impressive trench engineering. Tanks, tech, strategy, and the eventual end of trench warfare. Rats - yuck! Rats in the trenches.


Barbed wire. Mechanized warfare. Horses in WWI and WWII. Tanks! Really slow and not very great tanks. Radio reliability. Hard-line comms. Sending messages by foot, radio, or... dropping it out of a plane? Medical infrastructure and what modern medicine owes to WWI.

  1. A Prussian Landwehrmann tanning rat skins in a dugout, WWI: Reddit
  2. Josh's show's on LSG Media: The X-Files Podcast (always)Science Fiction Film Podcast (sometimes)
  3. Gallipoli: Prime VideoiTunes
  4. They Shall Not Grow Old: iTunesAmazonYouTube
  5. They Shall Not Grow Old: film restoration, persistance of vision, and vfx: Decipher SciFi
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