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

Advertisements

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.

1024px-orteliusworldmap1570

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.

1024px-map_of_assyria

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.

Iran Opens One of the World’s Largest Book Centers

Iran rarely features positively in any news reports. Yet the nation of over 80 million is young, cosmopolitan, and freer-thinking than its regime (or its enemies) make it out to be. Just one case in point — on top of centuries of rich cultural heritage — is the opening last year of what may be the largest educational complexes of its kind. As reported in Newsweek: Continue reading

Superheros in a Globalized World

One of my long-running creative side projects since college has been building a superhero universe that is set in a globalized world with an international cast and multicultural flavor. (Which is one reason I love Overwatch so much.) One of the key themes I want to explore is how international relations and cultural clashes come into play in a world of superpowered beings.

What would happen if a Superman-style hero landed in Bolivia, Tajikistan, or the Congo? Suddenly the poorest and least influential countries in the world are major superpowers in their own right, able to project their values or interests, deliberately or incidentally, on the global stage. The world’s premier guardian would be shaped by a completely different culture, religion, or ethos, perhaps with certain universal principles, like fairness and compassion, still present but expressed in different ways.

How would linguistic, religious, cultural, and political disputes come into play when heroes respond to crises that know no borders or affiliations? How would they cooperate or clash? What do superheroes do in countries where governments are not representative of the people — would they be vigilantes outside the law, or work within the circumstances they are dealt? (I envision a bit of both.) What about in places where there are deeply entrenched sectarian, ethnic, and/or ideological divisions? Would they rise above the fray or remain parochial?

For example, I have in mind that superheroes in Germany would operate with far more transparency (including have their names and addresses publicly available) and far more restraint than elsewhere, for obvious reasons. This is common with the way their security and intelligence forces currently operate.

In the U.S., I would imagine a very complicated state versus federal dynamic at play, as far as jurisdictional issues, funding, etc., as well as a larger issues of whether government and taxpayers should get involved in the process at all. (Not a new idea of course, given Marvel’s Civil War, but still a relevant and interesting one.)

I recall the comic arc wherein Superman renounces his U.S. citizenship due to a widespread perception that he is an instrument of American policy. Though seen by many fans as an audacious gimmick, I think it touched on increasingly topical themes of identity, patriotism, and nationalism amid a globalized world. As Comics Alliance explained:

Superman replies that it was foolish to think that his actions would not reflect politically on the American government, and that he therefore plans to renounce his American citizenship at the United Nations the next day — and to continue working as a superhero from a more global than national perspective. From a “realistic” standpoint it makes sense; it would indeed be impossible for a nigh-omnipotent being ideologically aligned with America to intercede against injustice beyond American borders without creating enormous political fallout for the U.S. government.

While this wouldn’t be this first time a profoundly American comic book icon disassociated himself from his national identity — remember when Captain America became Nomad? — this could be a very significant turning point for Superman if its implications carry over into other storylines. Indeed, simply saying that “truth, justice and the American way [is] not enough anymore” is a pretty startling statement from the one man who has always represented those values the most.

It doesn’t seem that he’s abandoning those values, however, only trying to implement them on a larger scale and divorce himself from the political complexities of nationalism. Superman also says that he believes he has been thinking “too small,” that the world is “too connected” for him to limit himself with a purely national identity. As an alien born on another planet, after all, he “can’t help but see the bigger picture.”

This is the sort of issue I hope to explore in my own superhero universe someday, in addition to giving readers across the world heroes they can relate with or who reflect their unique cultural, political, religious, or historical experiences.

Mexico’s Forgotten World War Two Posters

Mexico hardly comes to mind when one thinks of the Allied powers. But it was one of dozens of countries that joined together to defeat the Axis, doing so just months after the United States.

Following the losses of several ships — most notably the Potrero del Llano and the Faja de Oro, which are referenced in the propaganda — to German U-boats, Mexico declared war on the Axis on May 22, 1942 Though most of Latin America joined the Allied cause, Mexico was one of only two Latin American countries (along with Brazil) to send troops overseas to fight the Axis.

According to SplinterNews.com, like most countries that participated in the conflict, Mexico sought to mythologize its role with hundreds of posters and political cartoons. To that end, the government commissioned an existing artistic, Taller de Gráfica Popular, which had been founded in 1937, to glorify its role in this just war.

The most famous Mexican contribution was “Escuadrón 201“, also known as the Aztec Eagles, a group of more than 300 volunteer pilots who trained in the United States to fight against Japan. It was the first Mexican military unit trained for overseas combat, and it partook in close to 100 combat missions and nearly 800 sorties.

Mexico also signed a series of agreements with the U.S., known as the Bracero Program, which sent much-needed Mexican labor to the U.S. to support the war economy.

Even though its contributions were small in the grand scheme of things, the efforts of Mexican artists were creatively outsized.

Lessons from Bangladesh in Reducing Child Mortality

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%.

Continue reading