The United States’ Fascinatingly Uneven Population Distribution

It is easy for us Americans to underestimate just how big our country is, both geographically and demographically. At a little over 320 million people, only China and India (each with over a billion inhabitants) have larger populations. And in terms of territorial size, only Russia, Canada, and (by some measurements) China are bigger.

Along with Japan, the U.S. is the only developed country with over 100 million people, and also among the few developed countries to be so big territorially; only fellow Anglophone nations Canada and Australia are both highly developed and fairly large by global standards. The norm is for most industrialized societies to be small or medium range in population and size.

The sheer sense of living space is all the greater when one realizes how unevenly distributed the U.S. population is. The following maps by dadaviz user Jishai, obtained view Headlines and Mental Floss really help to put these things in perspective. Though lacking the sort of international comparisons I started off with, they should how vast the disparities are even within the U.S. itself. Take note that for every map, the red and orange represents roughly equal population sizes.

Unsurprisingly, most of the biggest counties are concentrated among the top ten states in terms of population. Which leads to the next map. Continue reading

New Study Finds Romantic Kissing Absent from Many Societies

While kissing is considered an indelible part of romantic and sexual relations in most of the Western world, it appears that the practice is far from universal. According to a worldwide study conducted by researchers at the University of Nevada and Indiana University, fewer than half of the world’s cultures kiss in a romantic way; indeed, many cultures find smooching to be weird or downright gross. More from The Washington Post:

The researchers studied 168 cultures over the past year and found evidence of romantic kissing in 77 societies, or 46 percent, but none in 91 others.

“It’s a reminder that behaviors that seems so normative often do not occur in rest of the world. Not only that, but they might be viewed as strange”, Justin Garcia, the study’s co-author who teaches gender studies at Indiana University, told The Washington Post. “It’s a reminder of romantic and sexual diversity around the world. It shows how human biology interacts with different cultures to explain various behaviors humans engage in”.

The researchers found romantic kissing to be the norm in the Middle East, with the practice established in 10 out of 10 cultures studied. In Asia, 73 percent enjoyed romantic kissing; in Europe, 70 percent; and in North America, 55 percent. No smoochers were found in Central America.

“No ethnographer working with Sub-Saharan Africa, New Guinea, or Amazonian foragers or horticulturalists reported having witnessed any occasion in which their study populations engaged in a romantic-sexual kiss”, the researchers wrote in the study.”

Here is a visual representation of the results:

As someone born and raised in the U.S., and of Middle Eastern descent, it is pretty fascinating to think that kissing is virtually nonexistent among wide swathes of humanity, or that it manifests in different ways.

Across Europe, a peck on the cheek is a common cultural greeting; one on the lips is indeed a romantic gesture. In India, Bangladesh and Thailand, it’s a private practice. Still, some societies do not consider kissing romantic at all.

The Oceanic kiss, for example, involves passing open mouths over each other — without actual contact, according to news.com.au. It’s not that these cultures aren’t sexual, the researchers said, but that the kiss is not seen as a sexual expression. For instance, some consider smelling a partner’s face to be sexual because it allows them to learn more about each other.

“The Aka pygmies talk about their ‘night’s work’, researcher Volsche told news.com.au. “This is the euphemism they use for sexual contact. They admit that it is enjoyable, the main purpose is to conceive a child. Where we in the West may brag about the quality of foreplay or the length of an individual interaction, the Aka focus on how many times in a night they ‘worked.'”

So even though the kiss may, in fact, be an evolutionary adaptation, it doesn’t appear to be a cross-cultural one, Garcia said.

Such anthropological observations really help to put things in perspective. The practices, customs, and ideas that we take as a given for humanity — e.g. what is “normal” or “common” — are just reflective of one particular worldview or cultural experience among a multitude of others. Even something as “typical” as kissing manifests in a range of different ways, if at all.

The Man With the $10 Million African Art Collection

Brooklyn native Eric Edwards has amassed a collection of over 1,600 pieces of art from all 54 countries of Africa. Needless to say, as an aficionado of history and African culture, I am quite jealous — and not just because it is worth an estimated $10 million.

Check out the four-minute video by Mark Zemel, courtesy of The Atlantic. (Click to see full-screen version; sorry, WordPress cannot imbed certain videos.)

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Where People First Started Eating Chickens

While chicken is the leading meat of choice among most Americans, and second only to pork globally, consuming them is actually a fairly recent practice in human history. Hence why the discovery of chicken bones that appeared to have been prepared for food was somewhat groundbreaking.

As NPR reports, the emergence of chickens as a food source seems to be marked by an over 2,000-year-old site in present-day Israel. Called Meresha, the former trade city presents a turning point in our relationship with the now universally-domesticated poultry. Continue reading

The Town Where Guns Are Mandatory

Since 1982, the town of Kennesaw, Georgia, U.S. has required the head of every household to own a working firearm with ammunition. In this 12 minute short film, Canadian photographer and filmmaker Nicolas Lévesque profiled the small town of about 30,000 and captured their perspectives about the intersection of guns, culture, and American identity.

Click below to see the fullscreen version, or click here. (Sorry, videos sometimes do not embed properly.)

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Courtesy of The Atlantic.

The English Language Explained in 25 Maps

If you want a comprehensive but easy-to-read guide to the world’s most widespread language, checkout this colorful article by Vox.com. For those who love visual data (especially maps) alongside dense but digestible factoids, it is a pretty good source, covering everything from English’s origin to how it is changing to this day.

I found this particular fact to be especially fascinating:

Here’s how the English language got started: After Roman troops withdrew from Britain in the early 5th century, three Germanic peoples — the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes — moved in and established kingdoms. They brought with them the Anglo-Saxon language, which combined with some Celtic and Latin words to create Old English. Old English was first spoken in the 5th century, and it looks incomprehensible to today’s English-speakers. To give you an idea of just how different it was, the language the Angles brought with them had three genders (masculine, feminine, and neutral). Still, though the gender of nouns has fallen away in English, 4,500 Anglo-Saxon words survive today. They make up only about 1 percent of the comprehensive Oxford English Dictionary, but nearly all of the most commonly used words that are the backbone of English. They include nouns like “day” and “year,” body parts such as “chest,” arm,” and “heart,” and some of the most basic verbs: “eat,” “kiss,” “love,” “think,” “become.” FDR’s sentence “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” uses only words of Anglo-Saxon origin.

And for both native and foreign speakers perplexed by some pronunciation contradictions — why “slaughter” and “laughter” sound so different despite having the same words — here is an interesting explanation.

If you think English spelling is confusing — why “head” sounds nothing like “heat,” or why “steak” doesn’t rhyme with “streak,” and “some” doesn’t rhyme with “home” — you can blame the Great Vowel Shift. Between roughly 1400 and 1700, the pronunciation of long vowels changed. “Mice” stopped being pronounced “meese.” “House” stopped being prounounced like “hoose.” Some words, particularly words with “ea,” kept their old pronounciation. (And Northern English dialects were less affected, one reason they still have a distinctive accent.) This shift is how Middle English became modern English. No one is sure why this dramatic shift occurred. But it’s a lot less dramatic when you consider it took 300 years. Shakespeare was as distant from Chaucer as we are from Thomas Jefferson.

Pretty neat stuff.

The Philosophy of Albert Camus

Open Culture, an excellent source on intellectual and educational media, has an excellent article on French absurdist philosopher Albert Camus, one of my all-time favorite figures. Camus has greatly influenced my approach to life, addressing the very common modern problem of finding happiness and meaning in a seemingly uncaring world.

Among the great videos featured in the article is one by philosopher Alain de Botton, whose School of Life project is an excellent resource on all sorts of relevant social, moral, and philosophical topics. It offers a pretty great rundown of Camus’ life and philosopher in under ten minutes.

I find Camus’ solution to existential challenges to be spot on. Life may be meaningless, and the universe cold and unloving, but so what? That is all the more reason to live this one life we have to the fullest, to make the most of our hopes, dreams, relationships, and experiences. Camus presents a rare beacon of hope and encouragement in what is an often cynical and despairing quest for meaning. What do you think?

To see more great videos on other philosophers and ideas, visit the School of Life’s YouTube channel here.

A History of the World in Maps

The Atlantic has brought to my attention a book that definitely piques my interest as both a map aficionado and history buff: Jerry Brotton’s A History of the World in 12 Mapswhich catalogues maps that reflect key periods and developments in the human understanding of the world. You can learn a lot about a time, place, or culture by the sorts of maps it produces.

And setting aside their historical, these maps are absolutely beautiful. They may not be the most elegant or accurate, but there is something visually intriguing and deeply appreciable about humanity’s efforts to understand this big and difficult-to-grasp world of ours.

From the works of the father of geography, to the latest satellite-graphed maps, here are just some of the cartographic endeavors that span civilizations across centuries (courtesy of The Atlantic). Continue reading

The Countries That Love and Hate America the Most

A country as big, powerful, and globally consequential as the United States is sure to attract a lot of attention and scrutiny. For better or worse, America has had considerable impact on world events for at least the past century — if not from its very foundation — and the mixed legacy of U.S. foreign policy, culture, and ideals continues to impact millions of people across the globe to this day.

So it is not surprising that the latest results from the Pew Research Center’s study on America’s global reputation are so mixed. The reputable polling group asked respondents in 39 different countries whether or not they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the U.S. The results, courtesy of this graph by Business Insider, might surprise you. Continue reading

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