One of the earliest and most effective mass communications system ever developed was the “kalliu” relay system of the Neo Assyrian Empire in the Middle East. The Assyrians formed one of history’s first empires in the 10th millennium B.C.E., perfecting many strategies and institutional of imperial rule that set the standard for other empires. Chief among these was their mass relay system, which allowed the empire to span 540,000 square miles and last over 300 years.
Rather than have one trusted envoy to deliver a message through a direct route, Assyrian rulers relied on multiple riders to stop at purpose-built stations where they would pass the message to another rider who was ready with a fresh mount. The stations were carefully positioned at regular intervals along the imperial highway system. Mules were used for their sturdiness and speed in rough terrain and climates. The system was maintained by the military and used only by the state: about 150 officials known as “Great Ones” held a copy of the Assyrian royal seal — depicting the king fighting a lion — which they stamped on messages to identify their authority, since it was recognized throughout the empire. Only letters with this seal could be mailed.
Because messages did not require one rider who would need to rest, the kalliu system offered unprecedented communication speed at the time. One estimate suggests that a message traversing 430 miles through rough terrain would take less than five days. Little wonder that later empires like the Persians adopted this technique for their massive territory. Even the United States used it as the basis for the famed Pony Express in the 19th century. Indeed, the use of a series of anonymous messages along different relay systems remain the basis of modern postal systems worldwide — to think it all began with an Iron Age Mesopotamian state nearly 3,000 years ago.
Though they are in charge of an organization that represents virtually all of humanity, Secretary-Generals of the United Nations — described variably as the “world’s moderators” and the “chief administrative officers” of the U.N. — have never been household names. Not many could name or recognize the current officeholder, António Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal, let alone any of his eight predecessors.
Yet one of these men, a self effacing and bespectacled diplomat from Burma named U Thant* not only served with distinction as a capable administrator — of what was then a young, bold, and largely untested institution — but true to his role as the “world’s mediator”, he saved humanity from one of its closest calls with armageddon: the Cuban Missile Crisis. Continue reading →
South Korea is the only country in the world where all living former leaders (six in all) have either been convicted of corruption offenses, or are being tried or investigated for such crimes, including two former dictators from the 1980s and 1990s. Just last year, one of these leaders was unseated following what may have been the largest peaceful mass demonstration in modern history (and which received support from the legislature and judiciary). Three deceased leaders have also been touched by posthumous corruption scandals or investigations.
Observers once noted that corruption was a “feature rather than a bug” of Korean politics, yet the Korean people — less than two decades into being an full fledged democracy — are doing everything possible to change that. This isn’t to say that these actions are totally free from political self interest and the like — although it is worth noting that the vast majority of Koreans support these actions regardless of their political affiliation.
Korean voters have since elected, Moon Jae In, a refugee from the Korean War who was once jailed for protesting against South Korea’s dictatorship, and was a human rights lawyer before he went into politics. He is so famously “clean” that he avoids having any private or professional meetings with friends to avoid even a hint of corruption. He is subsequently one of the most popular leaders in the world, with over 70 percent approval.
Bangladesh — the world’s eighth most populous country with 162 million inhabitants — has made tremendous and inspiring strides in reducing child mortality. This is despite the fact that it is a very poor country, with half the GDP per capita of not-particularly-rich neighbors India and Pakistan.
Less than two decades ago, the rate of death for children under five was 54% higher than the global average — now, it is 16% lower than the world average, and less than even its comparatively wealthier neighbors. Child deaths from diarrhea and other enteric diseases (e.g. those from bacterial contamination of food and drink) have declined a whopping 90%; whereas in 1994, 14% of Bangladesh children in surveyed households had suffered some sort of serious enteric illness, by 2014 that number halved to 7%.
China is marking its entrance onto the world stage as a great power in an unprecedented way: the $4-6 trillion One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, an extensive network of infrastructure — railways, roads, pipelines, and energy grids — that will link China with 65 countries across Asia, Africa, and Europe. By the time it is completed in 2049, OBOR will span 62% of the world’s population and 40% of its economic output.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the relatively under-reported fact that over the summer, China and India — nuclear-armed states with nearly 3 billion people and 4 million troops between them — mutually disengaged from a military standoff along their contested border that was quickly escalating towards war (as happened once before, in 1967). Although the underlying border dispute remains unresolved, it is encouraging to see a cooler-headed precedent prevail (a similar incident in the 1980s was also descalated by both countries).
For all the awful conflicts that have transpired just in our lifetimes, let alone throughout history, it is worth acknowledging and celebrating the conflicts that never happened. Fortunately, this is becoming a trend:
One has to appreciate and admire the courage and perseverance of the people of South Korea, who in the span of four decades transformed one of the world’s poorest and most authoritarian nations into one of its wealthiest and most democratic (indeed, by some measures, its growth and development was record breaking in human history).
The country’s capital, Seoul, is not only one of the largest and richest cities in the world, but it is located just 35 miles away from the demilitarized zone bordering North Korea. More than half of all South Koreans live within firing range of a hostile neighbor (although there are credible doubts about the North’s military capabilities in this regard). Yet the vast majority of them go about their day-to-day lives like people in any other city.
A vibrant culture, widespread material prosperity, low crime, a lively civil society, and an effective and stable democratic system are all difficult enough to achieve in so little time, let alone in the face of an existential threat next door. South Korea is hardly a paradise of course, but given the circumstances, it had every reason to remain an oppressive dictatorship under the pretense of security. It truly is a remarkable country and worthy U.S. ally.
In an achievement as symbolic as it was substantive, India’s economy has overtaken that of the United Kingdom, its former colonial master, to become the sixth largest in the world by GDP, after the United States, China, Japan, Germany, and France. The last time its economy was larger than the U.K.’s was 150 years ago, when it was the second largest in the world after China. (Indeed, the two Asian giants were for centuries the biggest economies in the world prior to the age of European exploration and colonialism.) Continue reading →
The challenges of modernity — in terms of alienation, empty consumerism, and over-stimulation — are becoming a universal problem (which, in fairness, is in some sense a good thing, since it means more parts of the world are industrializing and being lifted out of poverty and deprivation). Few nations are struggling with these issues more than China, which has been thrown into modernity at remarkable speed, thrusting hundreds of millions of citizens into the bittersweet life of material abundance.
An eleven-minute documentary, Summoning the Recluse, by Beijing-based filmmaker Ellen Xu, follows several young, middle-class Chinese who are embracing meditation, spiritual quests and monastic asceticism in an effort to find peace and meaning in a difficult and more complex world. They are tapping into a millennia of rich spiritual, philosophical, and lifestyle traditions — such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism — that have long sought to address these issues. Their relevance today speaks volumes about the inherent struggle of the human condition.
I can’t embed the video here, so click here to view it. I felt more peaceful just watching it. Plus, I’m reminded of how much amazing Chinese philosophy and thought I need to brush up on.