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

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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.

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

What is Christianity? An Interview With Bart Ehrman

This is a really good interview with Bart Ehrman, a scholar with degrees from three prominent biblical and theological colleges who specializes in textual criticism of the New Testament, the historical Jesus, and the development of early Christianity.

He points out a lot of interesting facts, such as evidence that Jesus’ teachings and behavior suggest he was a Jewish reformer with no intention of creating a new religion; that the spreading the faith to non-Jews (and ultimately the world) was an innovation of Paul that was strenuously opposed by Peter; and that early Christianity and Judaism may have been “henotheistic“, in that they did not rule out the existence of other gods but simply argued that only one of them should be worshiped ahead of the others.

Regardless of your religious persuasion or lack thereof (I am a secular humanist), the two hour interview is well worth checking out just from an academic point of view. (Ehrman is a former born again Christian who during his studies became agnostic, but he takes a fairly charitable view of Christians overall.)

Let me know  what you think and feel free to share your thoughts.

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.

Slain Hero of El Salvador’s Poor and Oppressed to Be Made Catholic Saint

As a thoroughly secular person, I do not put much stock into things like sainthood. But if anyone deserves to be given accorded a status revered by over a billion people worldwide, it is Archbishop Oscar Romero, who died on this day in 1980 for standing up against a murderous (and U.S. backed) regime.

When he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador in 1977, the country was embroiled in bloody civil unrest resulting from decades of military misrule; the subsequent conflict would claim over 75,000 lives in a country of just 4.6 million.  Continue reading

A Cannibal’s Thoughts on WWI

During the First World War, the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski had a conversation with a tribesman in Papua New Guinea who practiced cannibalism.

The cannibal asked Malinowski how the Europeans could possibly be managing to eat the millions of people being killed in the war.

Malinowski replied that they did not eat them at all, as such a practice was neither customary nor acceptable.

The cannibal was shocked, remarking that the Europeans must be barbaric to kill so many people without any intention of eating them. What was the point of all that slaughter?

The Visible World in Pictures

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The Orbis Sensualium Pictus (Visible World in Pictures) is a textbook for children written by Czech educator John Amos Comenius and published in 1658. It was the first widely used children textbook with pictures, covering a broad range of topics ranging from simple physics to social studies. Its comprehensive material and unique combination of visual and lexical (written) education made it revolutionary for the time, quickly spreading across Europe and setting the standard for children’s textbooks for centuries.

Comenius was one of the the earliest champions of universal education, including for women and the poor. He promoted a dynamic approach to teaching that went beyond the common and dull emphasis on memorization. He is thus regarded as the father of modern education.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

What Exactly is National Identity?

We take the ideas of citizenship, nationality, and countries for granted, but the vast majority of our history, none of these concepts ever existed.

Indeed, if one thinks about it, the sense of being part of a nation or country is a little strange and counterintuitive: you and all these other strangers within an artificial border have some sort of baseline commitment to one another based on a shared identity. But where does this identity come from?

The New York Times has a great five-minute video explaining the origin of national identity, its pros and cons, and where its future lies in an increasingly globalized world. It is well worth checking out below!

The Greek Approach to Love

In modern English, the word love almost exclusively invokes the image of romantic relationships that involve sexual and emotional intimacy. The ancient Greeks divided love into several categories, each pertaining to a wide range of individuals, relationships, or life stages. All were important to a well-rounded life. While, it is always tricky to translate complex concepts from one language to another, here is a rough – and I caution, layman – breakdown:

Eros (Sexual Passion) – Appropriately named after the Greek god of fertility, we might consider this to be lust, infatuation, or strong desire. Eros was seen as something primal and overpowering that could take hold of you and make you lose control. Thus, while the Greeks could certainly enjoy the experience (as do most people in most places) they recognized it as risky, irrational, and thus potentially damaging to both partners.

Philia (Close Friendship) – Various defined as “affectionate regard” or “love between equals”, philia goes beyond the base feeling of sexual desire and concerns a deep camaraderie. In the context of the ancient world, this was usually (though not exclusively) developed between men who fought together in war. It is thus characterized by loyalty, self-sacrifice for one’s comrades, and an openness to sharing one’s feelings.

Storge (Familial Bond) – Sometimes considered a subcategory of philia, this represents the instinctive, deep seated bond between family members, especially a parent to a child. It is a natural love that is based around loyalty, empathy, and commitment. Storge necessarily, if not ideally, required patience, tolerance, and acceptance.

Ludus (Playful Love) – The Greeks applied this to the affection one sees between children or young lovers, which is often naïve, innocent, and sometimes idealistic. It encompasses flirting, jokeful teasing, and the various other “games” we now associate with modern courtship. It is thus a fleeting and immature type of love, albeit not in a bad way: it was (and is) seen as something nearly everyone experiences and must learn from, including in the early stages of a romantic relationship.

Pragma (Long-Lasting Love) – This is the love we associate most with long-term relationships and married couples, especially older ones. It is a love centered not on sexual desire or even just friendship, but on a sense of commitment, dedication, and compromise that allow the love to move past the temporary pull of sexual attraction or playfulness. Pragma is thus sometimes interpreted as a practical, rational, and duty-bound love – though too much of it could turn one’s relationship into a more transactional experience.

Philautia (Self-Love) – The Greeks were pretty conflicted about this one, since it could come out in diametrically opposed ways. On the one hand, there is unhealthy self-love – what we might call narcissism – in which you became self-absorb, focused on material gain, and had an unrealistically high view of yourself. At the other end, there was the type of self-love that we might associate with self-confidence or self-esteem: recognizing your strengths and your potential and applying yourself accordingly.

Indeed, the Greeks (like the Buddhists) believed that if you loved yourself in a healthy way, you would become secure, well-adjusted, and thus able to give plenty of love to others. Basically, love for others begins with love for yourself. This can best be understood from a quote by Aristotle’s quote in the Nicomachean Ethics “All friendly feelings for others are an extension of a man’s feelings for himself.”

Agape (Love for All / Charitable Love) – A fairly broad and complex type of love, agape could be directed to almost any class of persons from loves and relatives, to one’s whole community or distant strangers. Its key defining characteristic is that it is selfless: you get nothing out of it, and the recipient is not expected to give you anything in return (not even love). Hence why the origin of the word charity is agape’s Latin translation, caritas.

Early Christians – who emerged most strongly in the Greek speaking and Greek influenced part of Room – took the term as a description of God’s boundless, universal love for all creation.

To my mind, the lesson from the Greeks would be to recognize the existence of different types of love, realize their importance, and cultivate them as best we can.

What are your thoughts?