How the World’s Most Livable City Tackles Affordable Housing

According to the latest annual rankings by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Vienna, Austria unseated seven-year titleholder Melbourne, Australia as the world’s most livable city. (Though Melbourne was a very respectable second place.)

The livability index is based on 30 factors including access to health care, education, infrastructure, culture, the environment and political and social stability. As usual, Canadian, Australian and Japanese cities made up most of the top spots: after Vienna and Melbourne were Osaka, Calgary, Sydney, Vancouver, Toronto, Tokyo, Copenhagen and Adelaide, Australia. (Helsinki, Finland is typically in the top ten as well.) Continue reading

As Rich as Croesus

The Iron Age Kingdom of Lydia, located in what is today western Turkey, is hardly a household name, especially compared to its neighboring Greek and Persian contemporaries. Yet as far as we know, the Lydians were the first and only people to invent money as we know it: a standard, universally-accepted medium of exchange whose value is backed by a recognized authority.

Invented sometime in the seventh or sixth centuries B.C.E., Lydian coins were of high quality and stamped with the sigil or image of their ruler, allowing even the illiterate to recognize them as legitimate legal tender. They facilitated commerce between strangers by allowing them to make transactions without needing to barter goods or weigh some commodity like gold. Coins also made it far easier to travel long distances to buy things, rather than lug around cattle, gold, wheat, or some other valuable commodity. Continue reading

Where Most Sporting Goods Are Made

The Pakistani city of Sialkot may not be a household name, but it is the source of the Adidas footballs that are being used in the World Cup (as they had been in the last one).

In fact, Pakistan’s twelfth-largest city — with less than 700,000 residents — is the world’s largest producer of footballs, manufacturing of 40-60 million footballs annually, about 60% of global production. Sialkot is also the world’s biggest maker of surgical tools. Even Germany’s iconic lenderhosen are best crafted by the leather-workers of the city. Unlike many other manufacturing hubs, most of this work is done by family-owned small and medium sized enterprises, often clustering together to pool their resources. Continue reading

When Schizophrenia Isn’t a Mental Illness

Culture may play a huge role in how schizophrenia manifests, according to one study published in a leading British psychiatric journal. It interviewed 60 adults diagnosed with schizophrenia – 20 each from the U.S., Ghana, and India – and found one stark difference between the nationalities: while American subjects were likelier to report violent, sadistic, and hateful voices, most of the subjects from Africa and Asian claimed to hear generally positive voices – which not a single American reported. Continue reading

What Parasites Can Teach Us About Society

Who knew that the workings of a tapeworm could provide some very relevant implications about human nature and social control? Like many parasites, Schistocephalus solidus has a complex life cycle: it reproduces in the guts of waterbirds, from whose droppings its eggs are deposited; they hatch and the larva infect small crustaceans, which are eaten by stickleback fish, which are then eaten by the waterbirds, and…you get the picture.

So far, so typical of parasites. But as The Atlantic reports, the transition from one lifeform to another is facilitated by a pretty insidious form of mind control, which works far beyond the immediately infected animals. Continue reading

Americans: Don’t Forget to Thank Mr. Ding This Fourth of July

Since I’m pressed for time today, I figured I would stick to something light and cheeky: while most people know that the Chinese invented fireworks over a millennia ago, they may not realized that China (perhaps ironically) remains the main source of the fireworks most Americans will be using to celebrate their nation’s independence.

In particular, as the LA Times points out, it is one otherwise obscure Chinese businessman who accounts for the vast majority of fireworks imported into the U.S. Continue reading

The World Cup’s Classiest Countries

Senegal and Japan would seem as far apart culturally as they are geographically: the West African nation of 15 million is poor, highly diverse ethnically and linguistically, and predominately Muslim; the East Asian island nation of 125 million is among the wealthiest and most homogeneous societies in the world, and is heavily influenced by Buddhist and Confucian thought.

Yet this year’s World Cup brought to light one unlikely but endearing similarity: both cultures share an appreciation for cleanliness and etiquette, even amid the highly competitive (and often very messy) environment of federation football.  Continue reading

The Amazing Tulou of China

I have always been fascinated by the architectural ingenuity of humanity, especially in periods or places where resources seem lacking. One case in point is the tulou, a type of large, multi-storied communal home built with wood and fortified with mud walls. Built between the 15th and 20th centuries in China’s subtropical Fujian province in the south, these structures were not only durable — 46 survive to this day — but they conformed with feng shui principles and are cleverly sited to be close to tea, tobacco, rice fields, and lush forests, giving their denizens access to crucial resources and livelihoods.

tulou-fujian-province-china-adapt-885-1 Continue reading

The World’s First Atlas

Today’s Google Doodle is a particular treat for a map lover like me: it commemorates the publication in 1570 of the world’s first atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World) by Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius.

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As Forbes explains, Ortelius’ work was an unusual concept at the time: an expertly-crafted book of similarly-sized maps neatly organized by geography. Continue reading

The Kalliu Relay System

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.

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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.