On this day in 1843, A Christmas Carolby English author Charles Dickens was first published (first edition pictured below), arguably influencing Christmas as we know it more than any pagan tradition. In fact, the phrase “Merry Christmas” was popularized by the story!
Dickens was ambiguous about religion; while he was likely a Christian and admired Jesus, he openly disliked rigid orthodoxy, evangelicalism, and organized religion. (He once published a pamphlet opposing the banning of games on the Sabbath, arguing that people had a right to pleasure.)
To that end, a Christmas Carol placed less emphasis on faith and observance and instead focused on family, goodwill, compassion, and joy. Dickens sought to incorporate his more humanist approach to the holiday, constructing Christmas as a family-centered festival that promotes generosity, feasting, and social cohesion. Some scholars have even termed this “Carol Philosophy”.
So when religious and nonreligious folks alike think of loved ones and the “Christmas spirit”, they are basically channeling Dickens’ once-unique take on the holiday. (Though in his time, other British writers had begun to reimagine Christmas as a celebratory holiday, rather than a strictly religious occasion.)
Contrary to popular belief, Siamese fighting fish are fairly intelligent. Research indicates they have complex behaviors, social interactions, and even individualized personalities. Males engage in carefully coordinated combat, dance-like courtship, and the building of “bubble nests”, which they fiercely protect; all this indicates a fairly well developed nervous system. Bettas are even capable of associative learning, meaning they develop and adopt certain responses to new stimuli (think of Pavlov’s famous experiment with dogs, where they learned to associate a bell ring with food).
Having had bettas for over fifteen years—including around 36 at the moment (blame the pandemic!)—I can vouch for this by personal experience. Our bettas are inquisitive, alert, and generally perceptive of their surroundings, watching and exploring anything new that comes their way. They also have varied personalities: Some are nearly always aggressive, tending to flare at us when we walk by; others are more shy and reclusive. They even have distinct tastes in food (which has prompted me to get several different brands and types).
Now, aside from this being anecdotal, I know we humans tend to anthropomorphize animals, especially our pets, attributing human traits, behaviors, and intelligence to their natural behaviors. But there is quite a bit of scientific research backing my impressions (and perhaps those of fellow betta fish keepers).
In fact, Siamese fighting fish are frequently utilized in physiology and psychology studies due to their complex biology; many scientists in these fields consider them “prime models” in understanding how hormones and other hormones affect behavior.
For example, one study found that bettas were affected by antidepressants, specifically fluoxetine, which relies on serotonin transporter pathways to regulate behaviors; in this case, the bettas saw a reduction in their characteristic aggression, which indicates that have a comparable neurological framework. (In fact, bettas can be bored, depressed, and happy; moving them to a bigger tank or placing new decorations will elicit a positive response, with each specific betta having its own preference.)
A more recent study showed that bettas are able to synchronize their behavior during fights—something that has been observed among mammal as well! The longer they fought, the more they could precisely time their strikes and bites, to an extent that surprised the researchers. The study also determined that fights are highly choreographed, with seemingly “agreed on” breaks between each move. Bouts escalated every five to ten minutes, when fish locked onto each other’s jaws to prevent breathing—and thus test who can hold out the longest. The bettas then break apart to catch their breath, and the cycle begins anew—not unlike a boxing match!
Even more surprising, the team found that this synchronicity went down to the molecular level: Certain genes of the combatants were “turned on”, and while it is unclear what they do, this may influence how bettas will engage in future fights. Thanks to the betta’s renowned martial prowess, the researchers claim to have a “new dimension” to studying the relationship between genes and the nervous system in humans.
Given the complex personalities among bettas, and their capacity to feel happy, sad, or bored, they should be given far more than a cup or vase to live in: Not unlike humans, they prefer more space, more decor, and cleaner water, even if they can otherwise tolerate less than ideal conditions.
Geneva, capital of the world, was crowded to capacity today when representatives of nearly half a hundred nations from every corner of the globe gathered to attend the first meeting of the assembly of the League of Nations.
One hundred years ago this week, the first session of the assembly of the newly established League of Nations was held in the Reformation Hall in Geneva. The meeting brought together representatives of 42 countries representing more than half of the world’s population at the time.
Though the League of Nations is better known for its abject failure to prevent World War II—which led to its replacement by the United Nations in 1945—it is difficult to understate its bold and audacious vision: For the first time in our bloody and divided history, there was a sense of cooperation and community among our fractured civilizations. The League set in motion the growing global consciousness and interconnectedness we see to this day (however tenuously). It also brought attention to issues that were long overlooked or dismissed by most societies: poverty, slavery, refugees, epidemics, and more. It thus laid the groundwork for organizations that aid tens of millions of people worldwide.
Ironically, despite its failure to stop the bloodiest war in history, the League’s successor, the UN, has been credited with preventing any large interstate conflicts to this day—in part because it created a League-induced forum for countries to duke it out at the table rather than the battlefield (to paraphrase Eisenhower). We got a hell of a ways to go, but we have to start somewhere, and this 100-year experiment with internationalism and pan-humanism pales to thousands of years of constant war and repression.
Engellau, Volvo’s president and an engineer himself, helped push for a more effective seatbelt, after a relative died in a traffic accident due partly to the flaws of the two-point belt design—which was not even standard feature in cars at the time. This personal tragedy drove Engellau to find a better solution, hiring Bohlin to find a solution quickly.
There were two major problems with the historic two-point belt design, which crosses the lap only. First, because the human pelvis is hinged, a single strap fails to restrain the torso, leaving passengers vulnerable to severe head, chest and spinal injuries; positioned poorly, the belt can even crush internal organs on impact. Second, they were notoriously uncomfortable, so many people chose not to wear them. Bohlin’s innovation was to find a design that resolved both problems at once.
After millions of dollars and thousands of tests through the 1950s and 1960s, Volvo became the first carmaker in the world to standardize the three-point safety belt we now take for granted. More than that, Volvo pushed hard for the seatbelt to be adopted in its native Sweden, which like most places was initially resistant to having to wear seatbelts.
But Volvo didn’t stop there. While it patented the designs to protect their investment from copy-cats, the company did not charge significant license fees to rivals or keep the design to itself to give their cars an edge. Knowing that lives were at stake worldwide, Engellau made Bohlin’s patent immediately available to all. Having sponsored the costly R&D, they gifted their designs to competitors to encourage mass adoption. It is estimated that Volvo may have lost out on $400 million in additional profits, if not more.
Instead, literally millions of people have been spared injury and death by this now-ubiquitous seatbelt we take for granted. All because a couple of Swedes decided to put people over profits (which isn’t to say they didn’t reap any financial incentive, but proved you can do both).
It is odd that Americans are so reluctant, if not hostile, to looking abroad for ideas about how to do things, such as education, voting methods, healthcare, etc. The principles and ideas that underpinned this nation’s founding did not emerge from nowhere: They were inspired by, or even directly drawn from, Enlightenment thinkers from across Europe; certain elements of British law and government (ironically), such as the Magna Carta and English Bill of Rights; and of course the Greeks and Romans, from whom we borrowed specific methods, institutions, terminology, and even architecture. (The U.S. Senate is explicitly inspired by the original Roman Senate, with senatus being Latin for council of elders.)
Americans make up less than five percent of humanity. The U.S. is one of nearly 200 countries. Its history as a nation, let alone as a superpower, is a relative blink in time; as a point of reference, the Roman-Persian wars lasted over 600 years, nearly three times America’s lifespan. Conversely, many countries are much younger, including most of the world’s democracies, providing fresher or bolder perspectives on certain issues not addressed or contemplated by our more conservative system.
Given all that, it stands to reason that someone, somewhere out there, has done something that we have not thought of or figured out, something worth studying or implementing. It is statistically unlikely that we are the only people or nation to know everything, giving our narrow slice of time, humans, and experience. The fact that so many innovators, inventors, and other contributes this country have come from all over the world proves the U.S. has always tacitly accepted the idea that the rest of the world has something to offer.
In fact, this would be in accordance with the vision of most of the nation’s founders, who were far from nationalistic. Their debates, speeches, and correspondences reveal them to have been fairly worldly folks who were open to foreign ideas and perspectives and sought to integrate the country into the international system. From Jefferson’s cherished copy of the Muslim Koran, to Franklin’s open Francophilia and Madison’s insistence that we respect global public opinion and norms, the supposed dichotomy between patriotism and internationalism is a false one at odds with one’s service to the nation.
It is all the more ironic because one of the few schools of philosophy to originate in the United States was pragmatism, which emerged in the 1870s and postulated, among other things, that people promote ideas based on their practical effect and benefit (i.e., regardless of their national or foreign origin). It should not matter where our solutions to certain problems come from it matters that they are solutions, and thus beneficial to our community, in the first place.
America’s presidential system, along with its winner-take-all elections and Electoral College, tends to lead to gridlock and polarization. These mechanisms and institutions were devised before political parties were a thing—or at least as rigid as they are now—and thus never seriously took them into account. Hence, we are stuck with two big parties that are far from representative of the complex spectrum of policies and ideologies.
Rather than the proportional representation you see above, members of Congress are elected in single-member districts according to the “first-past-the-post” (FPTP) principle, meaning that the candidate with the plurality of votes—i.e. not even the majority—wins the congressional seat. The losing party or parties, and by extension their voters, get no representation at all. This tends to produce a small number of major parties, in what’s known in political science as Duverger’s Law.
With the Electoral College, there is a similar dynamic at play: a presidential candidate needs no more than half the vote plus one to win the entire state and its electors. Some states are considering making it proportional, but only Maine and Nebraska have already done so.
This is why you see so many seemingly contradictory interests lumped into one or the other party. In other systems, you may have a party centered on labor rights, another on the environment, yet another for “conventional” left-wing or right-wing platforms, etc. The fragmentation might be messy, but it also forces parties to either appeal to a larger group of voters (so they can have a majority) or form coalitions with other parties to shore up their legislative votes (which gives a voice to smaller parties and their supporters).
Note that this is a huge oversimplification, as literally whole books have been written about all the reasons we are stuck with a two-party system most do not like. And of course, a parliament would not fix all our political problems, which go as deep as our culture and society.
But I personally think we may be better off with a parliamentary-style multiparty system—uncoincidentally the most common in the world, especially among established democracies—than what we have now.
As I see folks share that they voted, I’m reminded of the idea of mandatory voting, in which all eligible citizens are required to vote unless they have a valid excuse.
In ancient Athens, it was seen as the duty of every eligible citizen to participate in politics; while there was no explicit requirement, you could be subject to public criticism or even a fine.
Today, only a few countries require citizens to vote, most of them in Latin America; but of this already small number, only a handful actually enforce it with penalties.
Moreover, just five of the world’s 35 established democracies have compulsory voting: Australia, Luxembourg, Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Belgium (which has the oldest existing compulsory voting system, dating back to 1893.) In Belgium, registered voters must present themselves at their polling station, and while they don’t have to cast a vote, those who fail to at least show up without proper justification can face prosecution and a moderate fine. (To make it easier, elections are always held on Sundays.) If they fail to vote in at least four elections, they can lose the right to vote for 10 years, and might face difficulties getting a job in government (though in practice fines are no longer issued).
The arguments for compulsory voting is that democratic elections are the responsibility of citizens—akin to jury duty or paying taxes—rather than a right. The idea is that making voting obligatory means all citizens have responsibility for the government they choose; in a sense, it makes the government more legitimate, since it represents the vast majority of people.
The counterargument is that no one should be forced to take part in a process they don’t believe in or otherwise don’t want to be a part of; basically, not voting is itself a form of expression. Unsurprisingly, this view is prevalent in the U.S., where many believe compulsory voting violates freedom of speech because the freedom to speak necessarily includes the freedom not to speak. Similarly, many citizens will vote solely because they have to, with total ignorance about the issues or candidates. In many cases, they might deliberately skew their ballot to slow the polling process and disrupt the election, or vote for frivolous or jokey candidates. This is prevalent in Brazil, the largest democracy with mandatory voting, where people increasingly have become cynical about politics, elect joke candidates, and still choose not to vote despite the penalty.
Some have argued that compulsory elections help prevent polarization and extremism, since politicians have to appeal to a broader base (i.e. the entire electorate). It does not pay to energize your base to the exclusion of all other voters, since elections cannot be determined by turnout alone. This is allegedly one reason Australian politics are relatively more balanced, with strong social policies but also a strong conservative movement.
Finally, there is the claim that making people vote might also make them more interested in politics. It’s been shown that while lots of folks resent jury duty for example, once they’re in the jury, they typically take the process seriously. Similarly, they may hate mandatory voting in theory but in practice will find themselves trying to make the best of it.
Today is UN Day, which commemorates the 75th birthday of the United Nations, a deeply flawed and troubled organization that is nonetheless more indispensable than ever—and has accomplished a lot more than most people think.
It was on this day 75 years ago, just months after the end of humanity’s bloodiest war, that the UN Charter came into force after being ratified by fifty countries. The Charter established the organization along with the framework of the international system. An audacious and idealistic document, it articulated a commitment to uphold the human rights and wellbeing of all citizens, addressing “economic, social, health, and related problems,” and “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”. The organization now counts nearly four times as many members, at 193.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, far from a bleeding-heart globalist, once said that the UN “represents man’s best organized hope to substitute the conference table for the battlefield”.
If nothing else, the organization has served as an outlet for frustrations and rivalries that would otherwise manifest on the battlefield. The constant grandstanding between the U.S. and Russia may be frustrating—and has often led to devastating deadlock during crises—but imagine the alternative course of action without an international platform? Many countries on the verge of open conflict have opted instead to take diplomatic shots at each other at the UN—an often sordid display, to be sure, but obviously better than the alternative.
Of course, we Americans know full well how hard it is to get even our one country to work together—imagine close to 200 countries spanning eight billion people and a multitude of languages, religions, cultures, types of governments, and levels of development. The UN is only as effective as its members allow it to be, and its failures and limitations are a reflection of our own as a species.
Moreover, it is worth considering the context of its emergence: A war that had killed over 60 million people (three percent of all humans at the time), following a millennia of endless conflict where violence was the norm and enslavement, rape, looting, and other things we now call war crimes (courtesy of the UN) were just the way of things. For most of our quarter of a million years of existence, we rarely knew about, much less cared, for anyone outside our immediate tribe or band. Human rights and civil liberties were alien concepts that would not have made sense to anyone. The vast majority of people lived in grinding poverty, oppression, fear, and ignorance.
From the ashes of the worst conflict in history emerges an organization trying to cultivate peace, progress, and unity among our species—not just out of idealism, but also based on the sober realism that some problems are too big for any one nation to handle. Needless to say, it has failed in its lofty aspirations time and again, as most of us know all too well—but that’s to be expected given just how bold of an undertaking it is. And for all the failures, there are plenty of successes we take for granted.
Given that most Americans do not even know how their own government works, it stands to reason that few know the workings and complexities of the international system, either.
Few people know that it was the UN Secretary-General, U Thant of Burma, who played a key role in the Cuban Missile Crisis; JFK admitted that the entire world was in the UN leader’s debt, though Thant is scarcely known today.
Many of us take for granted the modern amenities and benefits, let alone realize their origin in the UN. The ability to mail and ship things globally; to access goods and products from around the world; and to travel anywhere with relative ease are all due to UN organizations, treaties, or conferences that established uniform standards and rules for airlines, companies, and governments. Even seatbelts became widespread through deliberate UN policy.
Few know the work of UNICEF, one of the oldest UN organization, which in 2018 alone helped care for 27 million babies born in places with high infant and maternal mortality; treated four million children in 73 countries for severe acute malnutrition; and provided over 65 million children with vaccines against common killers like diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (half the world’s children get their vaccine through UNICEF). Over the last thirty years, it has saved over 90 million children.
The much maligned WHO helped eradicate smallpox, which once killed millions annually throughout history, and is on the verge of eradicating polio as well. It has helped most people with HIV/AIDS get access to treatment, and is currently working on making insulin more available, too. With respect to the recent pandemic, it also used its diplomacy to get China to finally open itself to an international team of scientists—which included two Americans. It recently helped stem the second largest Ebola outbreak in Congo, to little fanfare.
A 1987 conference convened by the UN Environment Programme helped lead to an international treaty that has successfully repaired the ozone layer.
The World Food Programme, along with the Food and Agriculture Organization, provides food and assistance to 90 million people in 88 countries, keeping them from the brink of starvation (and getting a well deserved Nobel Peace Prize for it). FAO also eradicated rinderpest, a deadly livestock disease that is only the second infectious disease in history (besides smallpox) to be eradicated. It also maintains the world’s largest and most comprehensive statistical database on food and agriculture.
The UN Population Fund helps an average of two million women a month with their pregnancies, which could be deadly in most countries.
The UN regularly monitors elections in about fifty countries, which not only ensures a free and fair political process but has prevented numerous civil wars and conflicts.
All these achievements do not undo the very real and tragic failings of the organization, from the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, to the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars. But 75 years is not a long time to undo over 200,000 years of tribalism and disunity. As one UN chief put it, “the United Nations was not created to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell”.
Considering that the average American pays less than two dollars a year to cover the U.S.’ regular dues to the UN, I think it is a bargain worth supporting and improving upon.
On this day in 1956, the Hungarian Revolution began as a peaceful student demonstration that drew thousands while it marched through central Budapest to the parliament building. It soon erupted into a nearly two-week violent uprising against one of the world’s superpowers, laying the seeds of its demise for decades to come.
The student marchers, who began calling out on the streets using a van with loudspeakers, sent a delegation into a radio building to try to broadcast their demands to the country. They included the withdrawal of Soviet troops, the reinstatement of democracy, and the end of Stalinist oppression.
Hungary, which had aligned with Nazi Germany in WWII, was “liberated” by the Soviets, only to come under their domination as a de facto puppet state. Amid deteriorating freedoms, state oppression, and a faltering economies, students and workers increasingly agitated for change.
What began as a peaceful demonstration erupted as a full blown war when the delegation that attempted to broadcast its demands was detained by state authorities. Protestors arrived demanding their release, only to be fired upon by the State Security Police (AVH in Hungarian). Multiple students died and one was wrapped in a flag and held above the crowd. This was the start of the next phase of the revolution, as the news spread and disorder and violence erupted throughout the capital.
The revolt spread like wildfire; the government collapsed. Thousands of ordinary Hungarians organized into militias, battling the ÁVH and Soviet troops. Some local leaders and ÁVH members were lynched or captured, while former political prisoners were broken out and armed. Radical workers’ councils wrested control from the ruling Soviet-backed Hungarian Working People’s Party and demanded political change.
The revolution was initially leaderless, but a new government was formed by Imre Nagy, a committed communist who was nonetheless opposed to Soviet control and authoritarianism. He formally disbanded the ÁVH, declared the intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, and pledged to re-establish free elections. By the end of October, fighting had almost stopped, and the days of normality began to return. Some workers continued fighting against both Stalinist elements and the more “liberal” communists they distrusted.
Soviet leaders, initially appearing open to negotiating a withdrawal of Soviet forces, changed their mind and moved to crush the revolution just as it was calming. On November 4, a large Soviet force invaded Budapest and other regions of the country. The Hungarian resistance continued for another week, claiming the lives of over 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops. Over 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees. Mass arrests and denunciations continued for months thereafter; 26,000 people were brought to trial, 22,000 were sentenced and imprisoned, 13,000 interned, and 229 executed (including Nagy and other political leaders of the revolution and anti-Soviet government). Resistance continued for another year, mostly led by independent workers’ councils and unions.
But by January 1957, the new Soviet-installed government had suppressed all public opposition and reasserted Soviet dominion. These Soviet actions, while strengthening control over the rest of the Eastern Bloc, alienated many Western Marxists, who up until that point had at least nominally sympathized with the Soviet Union. Communist and Marxist parties split and/or lost membership across the world.
The Hungarians had led the largest and fiercest opposition against the Soviets in Eastern Europe, and it would remain one of the biggest revolts to threaten Soviet control. While it initially failed, it weakened whatever ideological currency the Soviet Union would have had abroad. Ironically, by the 1960s, Hungary became “the happiest barracks” in the Eastern Bloc, with relatively more economic and cultural freedom than most Soviet satellites. It quietly pursued reform to human and civil rights into the 1970s; in fact, its opening of the previously-restricted border with democratic Austria in 1989 is credited with hastening the collapse of the Soviet Union—meaning the Hungarians ultimately won in the end.
To many observers, especially in the United States, this year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize may seem uninspired, if not unfamiliar. It is an organization, rather than a person, and its work is probably not as widely known and appreciated as it should be.
Yet the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is no less deserving of the honor (especially since over two dozens entitieshave won the Peace Prize before, including the United Nations itself). It is the largest humanitarian organization in the world, and the largest one focused on hunger, malnutrition, and food insecurity, providing critical food assistance to nearly 100 million people across 88 countries. Tens of millions would starve without its fleet of 5,600 trucks, 30 ships, and nearly 100 planes delivering more than 15 billion rations, at just 61 cents each. Remarkably, WFP does all its work based entirely on voluntary donations, mostly from governments.
Laudable as all that might be, it’s fair to ask what this work has to do with peace? Two-thirds of WFP’s work is done in conflict zones, where access to food is threatened by instability, violence, and even deliberate war tactics. Amid war and societal collapse, people are likelier to die from starvation, or from opportunistic diseases that strike their malnourished immune systems. Since its experimental launch in 1961, WFP has delivered aid to some of the most devastating and horrific natural disasters in history, including the Rwandan genocide, the Yugoslav War and the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. (It became a permanent UN agency in 1965, having proven its worth by mustering substantial aid to earthquake-stricken Iran in 1962, initiating a development mission in Sudan, and launching its first school meals project in Togo.)
As The Economist points out, the focus on hunger is a sensible one: Not only have famine and malnutrition destroyed millions of lives across history, but they remaining pressing concerns in the face of the pandemic, climate change, and renewed conflict.
Governments everywhere are desperate to bring an end to the pandemic. But hunger has been growing quietly for years, and 2019 was the hungriest year recorded by the Food Security Information Network, a project of the WFP, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and other NGOs, which since 2015 has been gathering data on how many people worldwide are close to starvation. The rise was largely a consequence of wars in places like South Sudan, Yemen and the Central African Republic. This year, thanks to the covid-19 pandemic, things are likely to be far worse. Rather than war, this year it is the dramatic falls in the incomes of the poorest people that is causing hunger. There is as much food to go around, but the poor can no longer afford to buy it. The number of hungry people might double, reckons the WFP, from 135m in 2019 to 265m at the end of this year.
Unfortunately, despite the increased (and likely to increase) need for its services—more people face hunger than at anytime since 2012—the agency’s precarious budget, ever-dependent on the whims of donors, is declining. Again, from the Economist:
Last year the organisation received $8.05bn from its donors, by far the biggest of which is the United States. This year so far it has received only $6.35bn. Many countries, such as Britain, link their aid budgets to GDP figures which have fallen sharply. Britain provided roughly $700m of the WFP’s funding in 2019. This year its aid budget will fall by £2.9bn ($3.8bn). Under Mr Trump America had turned away from funding big multilateral organisations even before the pandemic hit, though the WFP has escaped the fate of the WHO, to which Mr Trump gave notice of America’s withdrawal in July. In Uganda food rations for South Sudanese and Congolese refugees have been cut. In Yemen the WFP has had to reduce rations by half.