The Haunting Paintings of Zdzisław Beksiński

This Halloween, I want to highlight the creepy and captivating works of Polish painter, photographer, and sculptor Zdzisław Beksiński (24 February 1929 – 21 February 2005). Describing his style as ‘Baroque’ or ‘Gothic’, the first and most well-known period of his work — from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s — consisted largely of surreal, post-apocalyptic environments and/or very detailed scenes of death, decay, and deformity.

Beksiński stated, “I wish to paint in such a manner as if I were photographing dreams”, and was known for his meticulous attention to detail. He claimed music, namely the classical genre, was his main source of inspiration, and that he was not influenced by literature, film, or other artists.

Despite the grimness of his work, he saw them as humorous and even optimistic, though he also noted that even he did not know their meaning. In fact, he was uninterested in possible interpretations and subsequently refused to provide titles for any of his drawings or paintings, going so far to often avoid the openings of his own exhibitions.

Although shy and low-key, Beksiński was known to be a pleasant and gregarious person with a great sense of humor and keen love of conversation.

The Greatest Threat to the World?

There seems to be no shortage of candidates for greatest threat to the world (by which we usually mean humanity specifically) — climate change, world war, nuclear weapons, a pandemic, an asteroid, or maybe even a combination of these factors. As it turns out, however, where you live determines what you consider to be most dangerous to the rest of the world.

That is the conclusion of a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, which asked 48,643 respondents in 44 countries what is the greatest danger to the global community (note, this took place before the breakout of Ebola but after events like the Syrian Civil War and the showdown between the West and Russia over Ukraine).

As Mic.com reports:

In the United States and Europe, income inequality came out on top. In the Middle East, religious and ethnic was considered the biggest threat. While Asia listed pollution and the environment, Latin America cited nuclear weapons, and Africa chose AIDS and other diseases.

Unsurprisingly, the concerns fell largely within geographic and regional boundaries. The United States and Europe are home to some of the largest and most advanced economies in the world, so it’s somewhat expected — if ironic — that they’re worried about income inequality. Asia is home to 17 out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, and, as of 2012, sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 70% of the world’s AIDS cases.

In other words, all of us appear to have an exceptionally narrow view of the world: We see the biggest threats to our region as the biggest threats to everyone else, too.

Here is a visual representation of that data, also courtesy of Mic.com:

Moreover, the perception that religious and ethnic hatred poses the greatest threat to the world has seen the most growth over the past seven years, no doubt due to numerous high-profile sectarian conflicts across the planet.

Courtesy of The Atlantic is a color-coded map of the world that better shows how these great threats are geographically and culturally spread out:

A few other observations of the data from The Atlantic piece:

  • Other than Japan, the countries that saw nuclear weapons as their biggest danger included Russia (29 percent), Ukraine (36 percent), Brazil (28 percent), and Turkey (34 percent).
  •  The U.K.’s greatest concern was religious and ethnic hatred (39 percent), putting it in the same group as India (25 percent), Israel (30 percent), the Palestinian territories (40 percent), Lebanon (58 percent), and Malaysia (32 percent).
  • People in France were equally divided on what they consider the biggest threat, with 32 percent saying inequality and the same percentage saying religious and ethnic hatred.
  • Likewise in Mexico, nuclear weapons and pollution were tied as most menacing, at 26 percent.

It is also important to point out that in many cases, no single fear was dominant: in the U.S. for example, inequality edged over religious and ethnic hatred and nuclear weapons by only a few points. And in almost every region, anywhere from a fifth to a quarter of respondents expressed fear towards nuclear weapons (which I feel can be taken to mean war among states where the use of nukes is most likely). The survey observed that in many places, “there is no clear consensus” as to what constitutes the greatest danger to humanity, as this graph of all countries shows:

These results are very telling: as the earlier excerpt noted, you can learn a lot about a country’s circumstances based on what its people fear the most. Reading backwards from the results, it makes sense that what nations find the most threatening is what they have been most imperiled by presently or historically.

It is also interesting to note how societies, like individuals, view the world through their own experiential prism: because we are obviously most impacted and familiar with what immediately effects us, it makes sense that we would project those experiences beyond our vicinity. Just as our own individual beliefs — be they religious, political, social, etc. — are colored by personal life experiences, so too do entire nations often apply their most familiar concerns and struggles to the world at large.

Of course, this varies by country as well as by the respondents who represent said country; in many cases, participants are more likely come from higher educational and socioeconomic backgrounds, and thus reflect their class views rather than that of their wider society. (Admittedly, I am not sure if that applies to this particular Pew survey, as the respondents were interviewed by phone or face-to-face, with no indication as to their background.)

For my part, I personally put the most weight behind climate change, especially as it can exacerbate a lot of existing issues over the long-term (clashes among ethnic/religious groups over strained resources, refugees fleeing crop failures and placing strain upon host countries, etc.). What are your thoughts and opinions regarding the world’s greatest threat?

An Ottoman Map of North America

As long-time readers know, I love maps, especially the vintage kind. There is something aesthetically pleasing about them, especially when the reflect an interesting snapshot of what their makers (and thus society at large) knew about the world at the time.

Courtesy of Slate is an interesting map that shows our part of the world from a perspective that is rarely given much acknowledgement: the once mighty Ottoman Empire, formerly at the center of global affairs, with dominance over major swathes of three continents.

'The Country of the English People' ('İngliz Cumhurunun Ülkesi'), an 1803 map of the U.S. by the Ottoman Empire. Various Native American tribes are also identified

“The Country of the English People” (‘İngliz Cumhurunun Ülkesi’), which depicts the United States in 1803. Neighboring Native American nations and tribes are also identified. Click to view a large, zoomable version.

As the Slate article points out, the Arabic-inspired script used for Turkish at the time works particularly well on maps, because it allows cartographers to label wide regions by elongating the lines connecting individual letters. I can definitely concur, especially given the artistry and aesthetic beauty of Arabic and Islamic calligraphy.

At the time this map was drawn, the Ottoman Empire was already well on its way to becoming the “sick man of Europe“, shrinking precipitously in territory and influence since its peak during the late 16th century. It was declining just as the U.S. was beginning to rise, though the Eternal State would endure for over another century before expiring after six centuries of existence.

Slate offers some more interesting historical background:

This appears to be the first Ottoman map of the United States, but Ottoman maps of North America have a much longer history. The first were the 16th-century nautical charts of the famous Ottoman cartographer Piri Reis. Some of the last, drawn before the new Turkish Republic switched to Latin script in 1928, show air routes spanning the continental U.S.

American relations with the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century were either commercial or missionary. American missionaries to the empire first tried to win Christian converts. But after meeting with little success, they turned to creating schools to spread the much more popular American gospel of English fluency and engineering excellence.

At times, the mercantile and missionary impulses came into conflict, such as when Greek Christians rebelled against the Ottoman sultan. Many Americans felt their government had a moral duty to stand with co-religionists against a Muslim despot. The U.S. government, however, felt a more pressing duty to stand with its merchants and sea captains, who’d been doing brisk business with the sultan. Supposedly, it was in recognition of U.S. support of the establishment that the empire later sided with the Union during America’s own civil war.

In addition to its scholarly significance, for sheer aesthetic reasons, I would love to have a map like this my room or study.

Global Spotlight: Chefchaouen, Morocco

Do not let the difficult name (for English-speakers anyway) intimidate you: this friendly town is well worth paying a visit to. Not only is it in close proximity to the Spanish coast, but with over 200 hotels and numerous mom-and-pop restaurants and shops, it is very accommodating.

Of course, as you will see, the main draw is the collection of distinctively blue-tinged buildings, which add an aesthetic, if not whimsical, vibe (click the images to make them larger).

[Note: I did not take any of these photos, and with only a few exceptions, none of them are sourced or watermarked. If anyone recognizes these, please feel free to let me know so I can credit their respective photographers].

In any case, I cannot wait to take some photos of this lovely town myself some day.

 

Altruism: It’s In Our DNA

Although, like most people, I have my cynical and misanthropic moments, I broadly consider myself to be an optimist with regards to human nature and our species’ capacity to improve itself and the world (arguably, I would be a poor humanist if I did not believe in the positive potential of humanity). The ability to practice concern for the welfare of others, without any want of reward or gain, represents one of the key virtues that will lead to a better world.

Much of my confidence stems from my own broadly beneficial experience with my fellow humans: I am fortunate to have experienced and witnessed so much kindness, compassion, and understanding. While my intimate study and exposure to the worst of humanity, past and present, has no doubt tempered my faith, I remain committed to the idea that humans are not in any sense fundamentally evil or violent, as many would believe.

Indeed, whatever moral and cognitive failings seem innate to our species seems offset by an inherent, evolutionary capacity to transcend such faults. Aside from ample anecdotal evidence of humans (as well as other primates) demonstrating selfless behavior, there is a large and growing body of research proving that selflessness and conscientiousness is a fundamental aspect of being human.

One of the most recent studies to explore the origins of human altruism was conducted by a team from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, which examined groups of primates — including humans — and how they each develop concepts of selflessness and cooperation. As reported in IFScience:

The researchers designed a test in which a food treat was placed on a sliding board. The individual moving the board can bring the treat within reach of others within the group, but will not be able to get the food themselves.

The experiment was carried out in 24 groups across 15 species of primates, including 3 groups of human children who were 5-7 years old. The food selection was tailored for each group, in order to test whether or not the primate would willingly give up a desired treat. The researchers found that species who most often utilized the “it takes a village” style of cooperative breeding were also more likely to help someone else get a treat, even though they didn’t get one themselves.

“Humans and callitrichid monkeys acted highly altruistically and almost always produced the treats for the other group members. Chimpanzees, one of our closest relatives, however, only did so sporadically,” Burkart explained in a press release.

The researchers also examined possible relationships between giving a treat to a friend and other cooperative behaviors, such as group hunting and complex social bonds, as well as relative brain size. Cooperative breeding was the only trait that showed a strong linear correlation and was the best metric for predicting altruistic behavior.

“Spontaneous, altruistic behavior is exclusively found among species where the young are not only cared for by the mother, but also other group members such as siblings, fathers, grandmothers, aunts and uncles,” Burkart continued.

However, cooperative breeding is likely one of many factors that could have influenced the evolution of altruism among humans. Over the evolutionary history of our ancestors, living in cooperative groups may have benefited greatly from high cognitive abilities, especially regarding things like language skills.

Burkart concluded: “When our hominin ancestors began to raise their offspring cooperatively, they laid the foundation for both our altruism and our exceptional cognition.”

In other words, being altruistic comes as natural to us as any other trait we consider to be quintessentially human (language, higher thinking, etc). Not only is it a virtue in itself, but it serves a pivotal role to our survival and flourishing. Working in tandem with the other characteristics of higher sentience, altruism helped grow and solidify social bonds, which in turn facilitates the cooperation and organization that is so vital to an otherwise defenseless and vulnerable species.

In fact, without our high cognitive capacity — our ability to share and develop new ideas, to invent, to coordinate and work together — we would not have survived against the harsh elements and the many physically superior predators that inhabited it. In the aggregate, every individual act of welfare and assistance to others helps create a stronger and more robust society that can better survive and prosper.

Shortly after the IFLS piece, NPR also published an article on the subject of altruism and its roots in human biology. It was inspired by the case of Angela Stimpson, a 42-year-old woman who donated a kidney to a complete stranger without any credit or reward. She cited a sense of purpose as her motivation, echoing many other altruists who claim to derive meaning from being kind and doing good deeds.

So what is the psychological basis of this position?  That is what Abigail Marsh of Georgetown University,a leading researcher on altruism, set out to discover:

Marsh wanted to know more about this type of extraordinary altruism, so she decided to study the brains of people who had donated a kidney to a stranger. Of the 39 people who took part in the study, 19 of them, including Angela Stimpson, were kidney donors.

Marsh took structural images to measure the size of different parts of their brains and then asked the participants to run through a series of computer tests while their brains were being scanned using functional MRI. In one test, they were asked to look at pictures of different facial expressions, including happiness, fear, anger, sadness and surprise.

Most of the tests didn’t find any differences between the brains of the altruistic donors and the people who had not been donors. Except, Marsh says, for a significant difference in a part of the brain called the amygdala, an almond-shaped cluster of nerves that is important in processing emotion.

These findings are the polar opposite to research Marsh conducted on a group of psychopaths. Using the same tests as with the altruists, Marsh found that psychopaths have significantly smaller, less active amygdalas. More evidence that the amygdala may be the brain’s emotional compass, super-sensitive in altruists and blunted in psychopaths, who seem unresponsive to someone else’s distress or fear.

The amygdala is part of the brain’s limbic system, the area that primarily houses our emotional life, and that plays a large role in forming memories and making decisions. Neither the study nor articles delves into the causality of the relationship between amygdala size and altruism: is it a large amygdala that leads one to become more selfless? Or does engaging in enough altruistic act over time cause the amygdala to grow larger? There is still much to learn about this area of the body.

But one thing is for certain: for all the negative behaviors and habits we associate with human nature, we must not overlook or understate just how intimately tied our humanity is with acts of kindness and compassion. From our biology to our neurology, humans, for the most part, have an instinct to be kind whenever and however possible. The key is to build upon these foundations, cultivate them in others, and figure out how to correct any naturalistic imbalances that may undermine. A difficult and long-term goal, but certainly a worthy and ultimately human one.

Cantino Planisphere

Another featured photo from Wikipedia: the Cantino planisphere, a map completed by an unknown Portuguese cartographer in 1502, during the European Age of Discovery. It depicts the world as it became known to the Europeans after voyages to the Americas, Africa, and India.

It is considered one of the most valuable cartographic documents of all time, displaying a remarkable degree of accuracy for its period, and being the oldest surviving map to show Europe’s early geographic discoveries. It provides us with unique historical information about the way maritime exploration was conducted and how nautical cartography evolved.

It is now kept in the Biblioteca Universitaria Estense, Modena, Italy.

Forgotten Hero: Henning von Tresckow

The whole world will vilify us now, but I am still totally convinced that we did the right thing. Hitler is the archenemy not only of Germany but of the world. When, in few hours’ time, I go before God to account for what I have done and left undone, I know I will be able to justify what I did in the struggle against Hitler. God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if only ten righteous men could be found in the city, and so I hope for our sake God will not destroy Germany. No one among us can complain about dying, for whoever joined our ranks put on the shirt of Nessus [a source of misfortune from which there is no escape]. A man’s moral worth is established only at the point where he is ready to give his life in defense of his convictions.

Last words of Henning von Tresckow, a Generalmajor in the German Wehrmacht who organized German resistance against Adolf Hitler, most famously the Valkyrie plan to overthrow the Nazis (known as the July 20 Plot).

Born into a Prussian noble family with 300 years of military tradition, he was the youngest lieutenant in the German Army during the First World War, earning the nation’s highest military honor — the Iron Cross — for outstanding courage and independent action against the enemy.

The young Tresckow (Wikimedia Commons).

A worldly man well versed in poetry, foreign languages, economics, and law, Tresckow nonetheless remained a career soldier, rising to the General Staff after graduating best in his class in 1936. He opposed many of Hitler’s military and foreign policies, such as the Anschluss with Austria and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, even predicting that Germany would fall from an overly aggressive foreign policy.

Although once an enthusiastic supporter of Nazism due to its opposition to the harsh Treaty of Versailles, he became quickly disillusioned following the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, when the nascent SS murdered numerous political opponents and rivals. He regarded the infamous Kristallnacht, the state-sanctioned pogrom against Jews, as personal humiliation and degradation of civilization. He immediately sought out civilians and officers who opposed Hitler, proclaiming to a loved one that “both duty and honor demand from us that we should do our best to bring about the downfall of Hitler and National Socialism to save Germany and Europe from barbarism”.

During the campaign against the Soviet Union, he became further appalled by Nazi brutality, including the treatment of Russian prisoners of war and the mass shootings of Jewish women and children. When he learned about the massacre of thousands of Jews at Borisov, Tresckow appealed passionately to a fellow officer: “Never may such a thing happen again! And so we must act now.”

Thus, as the chief operations officer of Army Group Center, he took great risk to seek out other officers who shared his views and place them in key positions to build up a strong base for internal resistance. He tried to persuade other high-ranking officers to join his conspiracy, to little avail (notably, all those he did manage to recruit cited the massacre of Jews and others as the catalyst for their opposition to Hitler and the Nazis).

Ultimately, he teamed up with several dozen fellow resisters — chief among them Ludwig Beck, Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, Colonel Hans Oster, General Friedrich Olbricht, and Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg — and devised the Valkyrie plan to kill Hitler, seize control of the government from the Nazis, and make peace with the Allies. A few days before the coup attempt, Tresckow confided to a friend that “in all likelihood everything will go wrong”, and when asked whether the action was necessary nonetheless, he replied, “Yes, even so”.

Unfortunately, as we all know, it did go wrong, with many of the plotters later being caught and executed. When Tresckow, who was stationed on the Eastern Front, learned of this failure, he opted to commit suicide after issuing the last words quoted above to his liaison. In order to protect his co-conspirators from suspicion, he staged his death to look like an enemy attack, firing several bullets from his pistol before detonating a grenade beneath his chin. His words from months before ring true to this day, if unfortunately forgotten:

The assassination must be attempted at all costs. Even if it should not succeed, an attempt to seize power in Berlin must be made. What matters now is no longer the practical purpose of the coup, but to prove to the world and for the records of history that the men of the resistance dared to take the decisive step. Compared to this objective, nothing else is of consequence.

It is a shame that his story, like that of so many other resisters to the Nazis, remains widely unknown outside Germany (recent attempts by Hollywood notwithstanding).

Tresckow c. 1943 (Wikimedia Commons / German Federal Archives).

 

 

The World’s Most Livable Cities

Which cities are the best places to live? The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has set out to answer this question with its livability survey, which asses 140 cities based on such factors as overall stability (25% of total score), health care (20%), education (10%), infrastructure (20%) and culture and environment (25%) — the sorts of things most people agree are fundamental to individual and collective quality of life.

Here are the results for 2014, courtesy of Mic.com:

For the fourth year in a row, Melbourne took the top spot with a total score of 97.5 out of 100. The impressive score can be partially attributed to their perfect scores in the health care, infrastructure and education classifications. Several of Melbourne’s fellow Australian cities filled out much of the top 10, along with a handful from the Great White North. Combined, Australia and Canada scored big, claiming 7 out of the top 10 cities.

The remaining three cities were Vienna, Austria (2nd place), Helsinki, Finland (8th), and Auckland, New Zealand (10th).

As the article notes, while these top ten performed well in all the indicators measured, health care had a particularly strong impact:

A common factor of these livable cities was a high score in the health care category. The top nine spots all garnered scores of 100 in that category. To determine health care, the EIU looked at the availability and quality of private health care, availability and quality of public health care, availability of over-the-counter drugs, and general health care indicators.

Canada, Australia and New Zealand offer a variety of very livable cities, thanks in large part to their great health care, education, culture and environment, affording the countries general stability. Plus, as all English-speaking countries, they’re especially attractive destinations for any Americans considering a move.

Not only does being healthy have the obvious benefit of improving an individual’s mood, comfort, and longevity — all vital to life satisfaction — but in the aggregate, it improves entire communities. Healthy individuals are likelier to be more economically and socially productive, helping businesses and societies at large. They will be less burdensome to more expensive emergency services, and will have more disposable income on hand, since pooling the costs of health care through socialized insurance is less costly then spending a lot per person on expensive treatments.

But this study also highlight that there is more to quality of life than the bare necessities. Each of these cities offer an abundance of recreational and leisure options — well-kept green spaces, cultural centers, community events and facilities — that enliven individual lives and cultivate a sense of shared community. Good infrastructure provides access to these areas and events while helping to create more cohesion and interaction between various neighborhoods and enclaves. It is also telling that all the top cities are medium-sized, which suggests that being too big could present challenges to accommodating residents optimally.

All of this should be pretty obvious. But unfortunately, not enough municipal governments in the world, including in the U.S., have the vision and/or finances to make it happen, and too many city residents are apathetic, disenfranchised, or lack the community spirit to come together. Sub-national and national governments could be doing more to help local communities as well, especially as most countries, and the world at large, are either highly urbanized or becoming rapidly so. As cities begin to house more of the world’s population, and become the main drivers of economic, social, and cultural life, we need to work on making them as ideal for the human condition as possible. We have much to learn from the like of Melbourne, Vancouver, and other successful polities.

Melbourne, Australia — by some accounts, the best city in the world to live. Source: Getty Images / Mic.com

Restless Americans

To add insult to the injury of a stagnating economy, a report by economists Dan Hamermesh and Elena Stancanelli found that Americans are not only working longer than before (partly because they are making less per hour), but are increasingly more likely to toil outside of work hours, particularly at night and on weekends. As The Atlantic reported:

They found that on a typical weeknight, a quarter of American workers did some kind of work between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. That’s a lot, compared with about seven percent in France and the Netherlands. The U.K. is closest to the U.S. on this measure, where 19 percent work during night hours. On the weekends, one in three workers in the U.S. were on the job, compared to one in five in France, Germany, and the Netherlands.

All of this adds up: According to the OECD, the U.S. leads the way in average annual work hours at 1,790—200 more hours than France, the Netherlands, and Denmark. That works out to about 35 hours a week, but a recent Gallup poll found the average to be much higher than that—at 47 hours weekly. And perhaps that’s not surprising, when 55 percent of college grads report that they get their sense of identity from their work.

As usual, technology serves as the double-edged sword: in many respects, it has made work a lot easier, not to mention all the new leisure activities (video games, Netflix, game apps, etc). But technology also allows work to be more accessible from home or even while on vacation, making it harder for employees to ignore emails, calls, and assignments — and easier for employers to expect, if not demand, such extra labor.

The consequences of such a work-centered culture are dire: strained social life, reduced sleep, frayed romantic and sexual activity, increased stress and, with all that, worsening mental and physical health. With the boundaries between work and leisure increasingly blurring, will jobs come to dominate our lives in the same way they once did during the early Industrial Era (when child labor, 12-hour workdays, and other such practices were the norm)?

If that is the case, then the solution is more or less the same now as it was then: more solidarity and activism among workers in all the relevant spheres — economic, public, and political. There is no sense in making people work more for less, especially when employers themselves stand to lose a lot in terms of reduced productivity, moral, and health among their employees.

We also need a serious assessment of how our business culture — and culture at large — operates counter-productively for human flourishing. It is becoming accepted practice, once again, for companies to squeeze out more and more from their beleaguered workers while simultaneously offering little to nothing to recompense (on the contrary, the trend is for ever-meager benefits, raises, and upward mobility).

More distressingly, it seems that far too many Americans consider this arrangement to be, at the very least, tolerable, if not acceptable. Ours is a work-obsessed culture that celebrates sacrificing leisure and even health for the sake of being productive at some task, even if it is for a company we hate and for benefits that do not make up for it. I can devote a whole other blog to assessing why it is that the U.S. seems especially enthusiastic about toiling at our own expense, but for now I ask that we at least question what it is we value in terms of quality of life; separating work from leisure is the very least we can do to that end.