Should Americans Be Celebrating the Second of July?

It may not roll of the tongue as well as Fourth of July, but technically, the legal separation of the Thirteen Colonies from Great Britain – e.g. independence – did not occur on this day in 1776, but two days earlier, when the Second Continental Congress voted to approve formal independence. (Note that the American Revolutionary War had already begun over a year before we got around to formally declaring independence!)

A draft of the declaration had already been commissioned almost a month earlier: on June 11, the Committee of Five – comprised of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston – was appointed to get to work on such a document for a future vote. After discussing the general outline of the document, the Committee decided that Jefferson should write the first draft, which was subsequently amended in some parts by Adams and Franklin (the Committee, including Jefferson himself, had wanted Adams to write the draft, but the latter convinced them otherwise and promised to work closely with Jefferson). Continue reading

On This Day, July 1st…

In addition to Canada Day — of which I wish a happy one to my friends in the Great White North — today is the anniversary of several important and/or interesting events. [All photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]

First, a shoutout to Canada Day: it commemorates the “British North America Act” of 1867 (officially the “Constitution Act”), in which most of Britain’s remaining North American colonies — Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Province of Canada — were united into a federation of four provinces (the Province of Canada being divided into Ontario and French-dominated Quebec). This new “Dominion of Canada” was a largely independent constitutional kingdom in its own right, though it remained under nominal and limited British governance, the last vestiges of which were ended in 1982 with the Canada Act (though such powers had long since been mostly symbolic).

In 1874, after a slow and inauspicious start, the Remington No. 1 typewriter, designed by American inventor Christopher Latham Sholeswent, went on sale, becoming the first commercially successful typewriter. Its ability to facilitate rapid correspondence and communication helped expand industrialization and modernity. The typewriter’s proliferation was met with anxieties we could relate with today, such as people opting for cold and impersonal communication, and privacy being jeopardized by so much information going around (hence why it took time to be adopted.

The typewriter also unwittingly advanced the social and economic prospects of women, since it was marketed with attractive women as tradeshows (a now novel advertizing approach) and was presented as being simple enough for a woman to do. Sexist as this is by our standards, it nonetheless meant women could enter the relatively more respectable clerical industry, opening the door into greater financial and professional opportunity.

Painting by Jan Matejko.

In 1569, the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania signed the Union of Lublin, merging into a single state: the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Lasting until the late 18th century, the multiethnic empire was one of the largest in both population and size in European history. Its complex and comparatively free political system featured proto-concepts of democracy, federalism, constitutional governance, and individual liberty (known collectively as “The Golden Liberty). Until the emergence of the United States and Republican France – ironically around the time of its demise – the Polish-Lithuanian state would be one of the most sophisticated and free political entities in the world.

In 1915, World War I German fighter pilot Kurt Wintgens became the first person to shoot down another plane in aerial combat using a synchronized machine gun (e.g. a gun engineered to shoot through a spinning propeller without the bullets striking the blades). Prior to this achievement, plans were strictly for reconnaissance, with pilots at most having to use personal armaments to shoot at each other (imagine that sight). For better or worse, this event marked the beginning of militarized airplanes and aerial combat as we know it.

In 1935, Grant Park Music Festival was kicked off in Chicago’s Grant Park, remaining the only annual, free, and outdoor classical music concert series in the U.S. The ten-week series began as an effort to lift the spirits of residents during the Great Depression. It has since become a nonprofit and a staple in Chicago and its iconic urban park.

Finally, in 1999 the Scottish Parliament gained legislative governance over Scotland, solidifying the region’s increasing autonomy within the United Kingdom. This process of devolution means that Scotland’s democratically elected legislature has almost full control over matters such as education, public health, agricultural policy, and justice (things such as defense, foreign policy, social security, and other national concerns remain the purview of the British Government).

To Understand Russia, Read Its Literature

If you are both a Russophile and lover of literature, you will appreciate James Stavridis’ piece for Foreign Policy,  which recommends several Russian books across the last 150 years that offer a look into the nation’s soul, psyche, and condition. Whether or not you care to learn more about this enigmatic — and still highly consequential culture — the following literary works are well worth considering for their value alone.

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

It is the blackest of black humor, a story in which a mysterious businessman moves through the Russian countryside “buying up souls” (i.e., taking away a tax burden from the estate owners). It is an absurdist construct, and the novel functions as a satiric portrait of the dysfunctional Russian landowner society that eventually fell in the 1917 revolution. It tells us that Russians see the world as somewhat absurd and contradictory, and hardly a place where overarching humanist value systems triumph. For a nation whose leader struts around the world stage without a shirt on, plays with a pet Siberian tiger, and flies in a motorized mini-plane chasing white storks, there is a certain appeal to the absurd. It is a novel that evokes the most skeptical and cynical in the human condition and appropriately ends abruptly in mid-sentence — a signal of the inability to predict a coherent future.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

…shows us how the Russians think about their ability to fight, and illuminates the deep patriotism that fuels today’s nationalist tendencies. Tolstoy makes clear the largest landmass under national sovereignty in the world is literally unconquerable, even by the brilliance of Napoleon. Moscow might burn, but the Russian military will never give up. Tolstoy also debunks the 19th-century theory of world events once-called “the great man” approach, arguing instead that events are driven by the collision of thousands of small events coming together. And when it comes to leaders, Russians throw the cosmic dice: One time they get an Ivan the Terrible, the next a Peter the Great. They know that eventually the dice will roll again, and a new leader will emerge. The bad news is that what comes after Putin may be even worse, given the growing xenophobia and ultra-nationalism. As we look at Putin’s dominance, we should remember that the dice will roll again. The Russians do.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (my personal favorite)

…a tale that captures the Russian sensibility perfectly: A deeply troubled protagonist chooses to kill, but then is haunted by guilt and — encouraged by the good people around him — eventually confesses. He is then purified and ultimately achieves redemption. The central character, Raskolnikov, is a largely sympathetic figure, full of tragic contradictions, who strays into a brutal crime but is redeemed through punishment and faith. While it is hard to see Putin as a Raskolnikov, perhaps there is a touch of that pattern of redemption in the life and times of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch turned political opposition leader, who was jailed and then finally released. The next chapter of his journey will be an interesting one. Russians have a deep belief in their own goodness and justness, recognizing mistakes will be made along the road to righteousness. They believe in both crime and punishment in a very literal sense.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Think the Russians will crack under sanctions? [The] protagonist, a convict in a Siberian gulag, finds a hundred ways to scrape through the day, dealing with the petty corruption, laughing at the predicaments, occasionally reveling in the harsh conditions of his imprisonment, and powerfully exhibiting the ability to overcome adversity. Like Denisovich, Russians will find an ironic pleasure in overcoming the pain of sanctions, and we should not put too much faith in our ability to break their will through imposing economic hardships.

One Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko.

It’s a foot soldier’s memoir set in Chechnya during the height of the war there in the 1990s waged by the Russian conscript military against the rebellious population. This is counterinsurgency turned upside down — the Russians aren’t trying to win the hearts and minds; they are quite content with putting a bullet into each. The book is a good view into the mind of any conscripted force sent to Ukraine — which explains why it is the Spetsnaz special forces, not regular troops, who are operating across the border. There is much to learn here about the Russian military’s operational approach: The Russians have learned from their mistakes in Chechnya and in Afghanistan, and the new so-called hybrid war is full of lessons they took away. In Ukraine, the use of social media, strategic communications, humanitarian convoys, insurgent techniques, and cyber dominance all come from the Chechnya experience.

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

…To understand the view of the Russian émigré, the brilliant Russian-American novelist … captures the post-Soviet space better than any book of nonfiction. Set in Moscow and a thinly disguised Azerbaijan (a former republic of the USSR, in case you forgot), it serves up a portrait of Russian “capitalism” with a huge dose of black humor. It echoes Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a magical realist novel written in the 1930s, in its evocation of the Russians’ ability to exist quite happily in a world where everything is half a beat off the music.

While these represent a mere fraction of the vast body of Russian literature out there (indeed, the country is the fourth-largest publisher of books in the world), they are a great way to understand what shapes one of history’s most significant civilizations. The literature, art, and creative expression of any culture can go a long way in helping us bridge the gap between different languages, perspectives, and conditions.

How Politeness Can Be Seen As Rudeness

Many outsiders, particularly from the West, tend find Chinese to be too direct and terse, interpreting this as rudeness. But as an article in The Atlantic reveals, the opposite is true: in China, too many pleasantries are seen as denoting a lack of familiarity and closeness (a sentiment that applies to other cultures as well, such as India).

…among good friends, the contrasts between the politesse of what you do and the bluntness of what you say can seem baffling. At a restaurant with friends, a delicate choreography will have one person carefully select a few choice morsels from the common bowl and place them on a neighbor’s plate. It is a small, perfect gesture. Another person will pour tea or beer for everyone else before even considering pouring his own. And then another will announce “Gei wǒ yan!”, literally “Give me salt!” with no sign of a please or thank you involved. I’m always taken a little aback and bite my tongue to stifle a “Say please!” after so many years of training children in Western table manners.

My Chinese friends say they notice that Westerners use lots of pleases (qǐng) and thank yous (xiexie) when speaking Chinese. And actually, they say, we use way too many of them for Chinese taste. A Chinese linguist, Kaidi Zhan, says that using a please, as in “Please pass the salt”, actually has the opposite effect of politeness here in China. The Chinese way of being polite to each other with words is to shorten the social distance between you. And saying please serves to insert a kind of buffer or space that says, in effect, that we need some formality between us here.

It makes some intuitive sense: compare how you interact with your closest loved ones versus distant relatives, acquaintances, or strangers. Though some cultures and societies are more imbued by this logic than others — hence the comparative dearth of niceties in their languages — the foundations of it seem intuitive.

This is important to keep in mind whenever you find your interactions with someone of another culture to be awkward or abrasive. It might simply be that they are coming from a totally different worldview shaped by language and custom. It might be an obvious point, especially in this increasingly globalized world, but it is still commonly overlooked.

The Right to Draw

Cartoonist Gavin Aung Than of Zen Pencils has produced another excellent short comic highlighting the plight and bravery of 28-year-old Iranian artist Atena Farghadani, who was recently sentenced to almost thirteen years in prison for drawing a cartoon that “[spread] propaganda against the system” and “[insulted] members of parliament through paintings”. As with all his works, it is both emotionally impactful and inspirational in its simplicity.

The quote used in the comic is taken from the speech Atena gave at her trial, the entirety of which you can read here.

Unfortunately, the harrowing events portrayed in the comic are not symbolic: as Zen Pencils notes, twelve members of the elite Revolutionary Guard came to Atena’s house, blindfolded her, and took her to the infamous Evin Prison in Tehran, where many other young activist are detained and often torture. According to an Amnesty International report:

While in prison last year, Atena flattened paper cups to use them as a surface to paint on. When the prison guards realised what she had been doing, they confiscated her paintings and stopped giving her paper cups. When Atena found some cups in the bathroom, she smuggled them into her cell. Soon after, she was beaten by prison guards, when she refused to strip naked for a full body search. Atena says that they knew about her taking the cups because they had installed cameras in the toilet and bathroom facilities – cameras detainees had been told were not operating.

After being released last November, the Atena gave media interviews and even posted a YouTube video detailing her horrific experience. For speaking out she was shortly after rearrested and remains in prison. Following a hunger strike to protest the horrible prison conditions, she suffered a dramatic decline in health culminating in a heart attack; she was thereafter forced to eat again.

As of today she has only has two weeks to lodge an appeal. With enough international pressure, it is possible that the Iranian government will relent in its brutal treatment (that is certainly not unprecedented). More from Zen Pencils:

Michael Cavna, comic journalist for The Washington Post, has launched a campaign appealing to artists to help bring awareness to Atena’s case by creating their own artwork in support of Atena and using the hashtag #Draw4Atena. Can a bunch of artists and a hashtag really make a difference and put pressure on the Iranian Government to release Atena? Probably not. But just remember that Atena is currently in prison enduring terrible conditions, and if her appeal isn’t successful, she will be there for another twelve years. FOR DRAWING A CARTOON AND POSTING IT ON FACEBOOK. Don’t we owe it to her to at least try?

At the very least, we can demonstrate some measure of solidarity with someone daring to be expressive and open-minded in a regime brutally opposed to both.

How Indigenous People Beat Back Pain

Back pain is one of the most common afflictions in the developed world. The majority of Americans will experience it at some point, especially as they grow older, and an incredible one-third of them will suffer the chronic variety, for which treatments will not work.

But what is basically a given experience in the U.S. and other industrialized countries is a rarity among many indigenous cultures, namely those that have continued to live a traditional way of life. NPR follows Esther Gokhale, an acupuncturist and chronic back pain sufferer who travelled the world to study societies that seemed to lack this problem. Though I do not put much stock in the practice of acupuncture, her observations are worth noting:

If you look at an American’s spine from the side, or profile, it’s shaped like the letter S. It curves at the top and then back again at the bottom.

But Gokhale didn’t see those two big curves in people who don’t have back pain. “That S shape is actually not natural,” she says. “It’s a J-shaped spine that you want.”

In fact, if you look at drawings from Leonardo da Vinci — or a Gray’s Anatomy book from 1901 — the spine isn’t shaped like a sharp, curvy S. It’s much flatter, all the way down the back. Then at the bottom, it curves to stick the buttocks out. So the spine looks more like the letter J.

“The J-shaped spine is what you see in Greek statues. It’s what you see in young children. It’s good design,” Gokhale says.

In case you are wondering what a J-shaped spine looks like, here is a sample:

Not that the statue’s back is nearly flat until the bottom, where it curves so the buttocks are behind the spine; this is preferable to an S-shaped spine as far as back pain is concerned. Via NPR.

While the hypothesis seems to make sense, there is yet to be any scientifically rigorous study or documentation of indigenous peoples’ spines and whether their shape has anything to do with back pain. Hopefully this idea will spur such well-needed research, especially as back pain becomes more common.

But there’s a whole bunch of reasons why Americans’ postures — and the shape of their spines — may be different than those of indigenous populations, he says. For starters, Americans tend to be much heavier.

“If you have a lot of fat built up in the belly, that could pull your weight forward,” Mummaneni says. “That could curve the spine. And people who are thinner probably have less curvature” — and thus a spine shaped more like J than than an S.

Americans are also much less active than people in traditional cultures, Mummaneni says. “I think the sedentary lifestyle promotes a lack of muscle tone and a lack of postural stability because the muscles get weak.”

Everyone knows that weak abdominal muscles can cause back pain. In fact, Mummaneni says, stronger muscles might be the secret to Gokhale’s success.

In other words, it’s not that the J-shaped spine is the ideal one — or the healthiest. It’s what goes into making the J-shaped spine that matters: “You have to use muscle strength to get your spine to look like a J shape,” he says.

In essence, a J-shaped spine and the subsequent lack of back pain is a symptom of greater physical activity and well-developed core muscles, so the lack of both is what accounts for greater back pain in developed societies like the U.S.

In any case, back pain — not to mention other common but seemingly inexplicable pain like that of the knees — is a consequence of being bipedal. It has a natural basis that can nonetheless be mitigated through greater physical activity and less caloric intake, both of which were once the norm for humanity for millennia.

As someone who once suffered from chronic back pain, due mostly to growing up obese and sedentary, I can attest to the efficacy of building up muscle and being more active. The following tips from Gokhale are well worth considering for those of us who work desk jobs:

1. Do a shoulder roll: Americans tend to scrunch their shoulders forward, so our arms are in front of our bodies. That’s not how people in indigenous cultures carry their arms, Gokhale says. To fix that, gently pull your shoulders up, push them back and then let them drop — like a shoulder roll. Now your arms should dangle by your side, with your thumbs pointing out. “This is the way all your ancestors parked their shoulders,” she says. “This is the natural architecture for our species.”

2. Lengthen your spine: Adding extra length to your spine is easy, Gokhale says. Being careful not to arch your back, take a deep breath in and grow tall. Then maintain that height as you exhale. Repeat: Breathe in, grow even taller and maintain that new height as you exhale. “It takes some effort, but it really strengthens your abdominal muscles,” Gokhale says.

3. Squeeze, squeeze your glute muscles when you walk: In many indigenous cultures, people squeeze their gluteus medius muscles every time they take a step. That’s one reason they have such shapely buttocks muscles that support their lower backs. Gokhale says you can start developing the same type of derrière by tightening the buttocks muscles when you take each step. “The gluteus medius is the one you’re after here. It’s the one high up on your bum,” Gokhale says. “It’s the muscle that keeps you perky, at any age.”

4. Don’t put your chin up: Instead, add length to your neck by taking a lightweight object, like a bean bag or folded washcloth, and balance it on the top of your crown. Try to push your head against the object. “This will lengthen the back of your neck and allow your chin to angle down — not in an exaggerated way, but in a relaxed manner,” Gokhale says.

5. Don’t sit up straight! “That’s just arching your back and getting you into all sorts of trouble,” Gokhale says. Instead do a shoulder roll to open up the chest and take a deep breath to stretch and lengthen the spine.

The Katskhi Pillar, Georgia

The Hermit Monk of the Katskhi Pillar

Maxime Qavtaradze is a Georgian monk in his early sixties who has literally taken his piety to new heights: for over 20 years, he has been living in almost complete solitude atop a 131-foot natural column outside the town of Chiatura, Georgia (the country).

Monk Maxime is continuing the ancient practice of the stylites, also known as pillar-saints, Christian ascetics who lived on pillars to avoid worldly temptation and be closer to God. It was first practiced over 1,500 years ago, with the monastery on the Katskhi pillar dating back to the ninth or tenth century. Continue reading

The Science-Backed Benefits of Travel

It has long been observed that traveling somewhere different is good for the soul. New experiences, relationships, and ideas help to enrich life and inspire creativity. Modern science is backing up what philosophers, writers, artists, and other creative types have long advocated. More from The Atlantic:

In recent years, psychologists and neuroscientists have begun examining more closely what many people have already learned anecdotally: that spending time abroad may have the potential to affect mental change. In general, creativity is related to neuroplasticity, or how the brain is wired. Neural pathways are influenced by environment and habit, meaning they’re also sensitive to change: New sounds, smells, language, tastes, sensations, and sights spark different synapses in the brain and may have the potential to revitalize the mind.

“Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms”, says Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School and the author of numerous studies on the connection between creativity and international travel. Cognitive flexibility is the mind’s ability to jump between different ideas, a key component of creativity. But it’s not just about being abroad, Galinsky says: “The key, critical process is multicultural engagement, immersion, and adaptation. Someone who lives abroad and doesn’t engage with the local culture will likely get less of a creative boost than someone who travels abroad and really engages in the local environment”.

In other words, going to Cancun for a week on spring break probably won’t make a person any more creative. But going to Cancun and living with local fishermen might.

Continue reading

The Kenguru: The First Car Exclusively Designed For Wheelchair Users

Over at Big Think, Teodora Zareva introduces a revolutionary new car that will give wheelchair users much needed mobility and independence: the Kenguru, designed by a Hungarian company of the same name and manufactured by the Austin, Texas-based Community Cars.  This clever vehicles is the first of its kind, the product of an international partnership between Texas lawyer and wheelchair user Stacy Zoern, and Kenguru chief executive Istvan Kissaroslaki.  Continue reading