Coffee or Tea — What is the World’s Drink of Choice?

The two beverages have ancient roots, but only over the last couple of centuries have they become truly global commodities. The following map from The Economist shows which countries and regions favor which drink. (You can find the interactive version here.)

Coffee vs. Tea

There is a clear East-West divide: among nearly all Western countries — with the notable exception of the United Kingdom — coffee trounces tea, despite the latter beverage’s increasing popularity. Meanwhile, across most of Africa and Asia, tea is the drink of choice, with the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand being clear outliers.

Other countries such as Australia, Chile, New Zealand, and Saudi Arabia remain divided. Guatemala stands out as being the most overwhelmingly favorable towards coffee (99.6 percent) while Kenyans are the most enthusiastic for tea (99.2 percent). Overall, most countries prefer coffee, though tea probably has the most total drinkers, given its popularity in big nations like China, India, and Nigeria.

Wikipedia’s Rival, And What It Teaches Us About Expanding Human Knowledge

As many of you know, I am a big fan of, and regular contributor to, Wikipedia. I love it as much for its immense breadth information as for its ambitious mission to help make the entirely of human knowledge accessible to all. But I also absolutely love another website with a similarly audacious goal; the only encyclopedia that actually gives Wikipedia a run for its money when it comes to being an accessible and reliable source: the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Spanning almost 1,500 entries, the SEP manages a respectable one million views a month, which as Quartz writer Nikhil Sonnad notes, is quite an achievement, “given how many entries there are with titles like Tibetan epistemology and philosophy of language or Peirce’s theory of signs.” According to the American Library Association, it is “comparable in scope, depth and authority” to the biggest philosophy encyclopedias in print. And did I mention that it is free?

Most crucially, the SEP has managed to accomplish the one thing that Wikipedia struggles with most of all: being a consistent and reliable source on all the topics it covers (although in fairness, Wikipedia spans a lot more pages and materials — close to five million in its English edition alone). Continue reading

The Benefits of Coffee

Well, besides the obvious caffeine-induced boost to energy, mood, and concentration. In honor of National Coffee Day here in the U.S., I present a multitude of scientific research (courtesy of the New York Times) that finds coffee to not only be safer to drink than once widely assumed, but even downright beneficial.

First, an important caveat: these studies are referring to black coffee, e.g. not the high-calorie, sugar-infused beverages that have comparatively little coffee in them; a coffee drink loaded with sweets is not going to be as healthy as the purer stuff, for obvious reasons. So by no means come away believing that a latte or caramel mocha is beneficial to your health (not that most people think that anyway).

With all that said, here is some encouraging news for fellow coffee lovers concerned about their habit. Continue reading

The Value of Imitation

Originality is overrated. Yes, novel ideas have often accounted for tremendous advancements in human knowledge and conditions; but as Kat McGowan of Aeon writes, the ability to copy one another, and make incremental improvements along the way, has been much more consequential.

The history of technology shows that advances happen largely through tinkering, when somebody recreates a good thing with a minor upgrade that makes it slightly better. These humble improvements accrue over generations, so that the Bronze Age straight pin becomes a toga fastener becomes a safety pin. Money begins as seashells, evolves into metal coins, diversifies as paper, and eventually becomes virtual as bitcoins and abstruse financial derivatives. In this way, technologies arise that no one person could possibly invent on his own. When Isaac Newton talked about standing on the shoulders of giants, he should have said that we are dwarves, standing atop a vast heap of dwarves.

Researchers dub this iterative process ‘cumulative cultural evolution’: just as organisms evolve via repeated small changes in genes that provide a survival advantage, each human generation makes small modifications to the technology and traditions it inherits. This idea is most clearly articulated by the anthropologist Robert Boyd, of the Santa Fe Institute and Arizona State University, and the biologist and mathematical modeller Peter Richerson, of the University of California Davis. ‘When lots of imitation is mixed with a little bit of individual learning, populations can adapt in ways that outreach the abilities of any individual genius,’ they write in their book Not By Genes Alone(2005).

Lots of copying means that many minds get their chance at the problem; imitation ‘makes the contents of brains available to everyone’, writes the developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello in the Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (1999). Tomasello, who is co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, calls the combination of imitation and innovation the ‘cultural ratchet’. It is like a mechanical ratchet that permits motion in only one direction – such as winding a watch, or walking through a turnstile. Good ideas push the ratchet forward one notch. Faithful imitation keeps the ratchet from slipping backward, protecting ideas from being forgotten or lost and keeping knowledge alive for the next round of improvement.

It turns out that creating something new is the easy part. What’s difficult – and what’s really important – is maintaining what we already know through copying. Luckily, we are very good at it.

In essence, human achievement at both the micro and macro level have been the result of multiple parties, often spanning generations and culture, having their go at an existing idea, invention, or concept. Progress is less about coming up with something immediately unique and earth-shattering, and more about looking around at what we know and how best to improve upon it.

Aside from giving clever and well-meaning imitators their due credit, the lesson here is that progress is a collective and collaborative effort, involving lots of contributors willing to do the humble and thankless work of tweaking what we already have, so that over time, with the help of other tinkerers, the world reaps the benefits.

This might be too much of a romantic take on what many would consider mere copying, but I think it reflects the inherent pragmatism of the human species: whether in art, science, or philosophy, go with what already seems to work and see where that gets you. Give it time, and who knows where that will get us.

The Origin of the Zombie

The now ubiquitous and popular concept of the zombie (first spelled “zombi”) originated in the fusion of African folklore with the particularly brutal form of slavery practiced in French-ruled Haiti (then called Saint-Domingue). The precise genesis of the concept is unknown, but as one could imagine, its emergence is a long and painful story.

The life of a Haitian slave was one of never-ending fear and suffering. Hunger, extreme overwork, and cruelty were everyday occurrences. Slaves did not eat enough to have children, and those few who were born usually died. The sheer labor intensity required to cultivate and produce sugar – one of the most profitable commodities in the 17th and 18th centuries – required literally working people to death. In the cold logic of plantation masters, the breeding of slaves was a waste of resources: it was better and more cost-effective to work them to death and just bring in more from Africa.

[Note that this is why people of African descent living in former Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonies – from Louisiana and Haiti to Cuba and Brazil – have generally retained more of their African heritage, in the forms of Creole, Voodoo, Santeria, and so on. Unlike in the English colonies, where deaths rates were comparatively lower and birth rates higher, new Africans kept being brought in to replenish the labor force. Thus, by the time these colonies became independent, there were enough African-born individuals who retained some form of their language, folklore, religion, and so on.]

Given the constant agony of slave life, many slaves sought solace in the idea of going back to their homeland, which they called lan guinée – literally “Guinea” or “West Africa”. It says a lot that in Haitian Creole, this phrase is now synonymous with heaven, since the only conceivable way out of slavery was death. Though African slaves feared death like anyone else, they also wished for it. Suicide was common, as it not only offered an escape, but served as the sole means of asserting freedom – to take back control over the body your master owned and exploited. It was also the only way the slave could defy their master, through deprivation of their labor, without punishment.

[Slaves generally committed suicide through homemade poisons, and this handiness with toxins made some plantation masters fearful of being targeted in this covert manner. The cultural trope of the African or Voodoo witch doctor may have stemmed in large part from this concern.]

This is where the zombie mythos emerges. In traditional Vodou belief, the zombie is a dead person who cannot go to lan guinée. Rather, the zombie is fated to remain mindless and without control – a slave for eternity. To get to the final resting place of Africa, you needed to be transported by Baron Samedi, a loa, or spirit, of the dead. Among his roles is to dig a person’s grave and welcome him to the other side. But if for some reason one has offended Baron, the god will not allow that person to reach guinea upon death, thus leaving them behind as a zombie (which in some variations can be controlled by someone else, such as a bokor, akin to a witch or sorcerer).

Needless to say, becoming a zombie was a slave’s worst nightmare: it meant that the only path to liberation was gone, and you would continue to be enslaved. It is believed that Africans developed this concept to instill hope: keep being a good and pious person, and avoid offending Baron and other spirits, and soon you would be free. However, many slave drivers also exploited this fear, invoking it to keep slaves motivated and to discourage them from acting out or committing suicide.

Though it originates in the folklore of Haitian Vodou (which itself is a descendent and variation of the original African religion of Vodou), contrary to popular belief, zombies are not part of any formal religious practice.

Moreover, the idea of reanimating corpses or wandering souls is fairly common in mythologies and religions around the world. But the zombie concept that has become popularized in the West seems to stem mostly from Haitian and Louisianian Vodou (which in the former’s case was to the transmitted to the U.S. through our occupation of Haiti in the early 20th century).

Source: New York Times

The Art of Bus Stops

The Soviet regime might have been repressive and stultifying in a lot of areas, but one place where it exercised a considerable amount of boldness and innovation is public infrastructure — including the humble bus stop.

Source: Foreign Policy / Christopher Herwig

Source: Foreign Policy / Christopher Herwig

The photos were taken by Canadian photographer Christopher Herwig, who has spent over a decade travelling through most of the former Soviet Union to document these neglected architectural marvels. You can see a larger version of each photo by clicking here.

With their unusual colors, shapes, and themes, these otherwise functional structures look more like art installments than bus stops. As Foreign Policy explains:

The Soviet Union ascribed an outsized importance to public transportation. Buses, trains, and metro lines were a sign of progress; they were also a powerful symbol of connection and unity, as the Politburo worked to build a communist society throughout 15 ethnically diverse republics that covered a landmass stretching from the Baltic Sea to the shores of the Pacific. Perhaps the most famous legacy of this Soviet fixation on transport is the Moscow Metro system, with its glittering chandeliers and its elaborate murals depicting scenes of proletariat glory. But Moscow was dressed up in order to be shown off — to serve as a demonstration of socialist power and might for visiting foreign dignitaries. Most citizens lived outside the capital, and for them, buses were the predominant means of transportation, accounting for nearly 44 percent of traffic throughout the country by the mid-1980s. What makes the extravagant, eye-catching nature of the common Soviet roadside bus stop all the more surprising is that these were often tucked away in hidden corners of the empire, far from the eyes of foreigners.

Soviet architecture is best known for its overpowering conformity and functionality: The term conjures up images of rows of low-slung buildings and mass-produced apartment blocks. These bus stops, however, were an unlikely outlet for creative expression. Local artists were given unprecedented freedom to experiment with design, color, and material. Many of the designs were commissioned at the local level, which allowed for artists and architects to reflect the character and history of their individual republics. What came about was thousands of unique creations, covering a range of shapes and sizes.

Artists still worked within the confines of Soviet art, employing communist imagery of peasants in wheat fields and relying on austere, minimalist structures. But the more flamboyant bus stops reimagined this aesthetic, twisting standard outlines and incorporating local elements into their design. For instance, a bus stop modeled after the Silk Road-era Arystan Bab mausoleum in Aralsk, Kazakhstan sports a minaret and crescent moon, while one in the Black Sea coastal town of Gagra takes the shape of a breaking wave, decorated with purple mosaic tiles.

These are just some of the amazing examples from Herwig’s collection. You can find more in his newly published “Soviet Bus Stops“.

Mural of the Mexican Independence, by Juan O’Gorman. Courtesy of

Mexico — Rising Global Power?

In honor of Mexican Independence Day, a hard-fought achievement that absolutely did not happen on Cinco de Mayo, I present some facts to counter the country’s warped and narrow image in the United States (most resoundingly apparent in the cycle of hysteria around illegal immigration).

For starters, overall immigration from south of the border has, as of 2013, declined by 80 percent since 2007, the lowest at any point since 1991. Not only does the number of Mexicans returning home outnumber those leaving the country, but more Americans have left for Mexico than the other way around, an underreported trend that has surged since 2005. (Subsequently, our southern neighbor hosts over one million U.S. citizens, the most of any country in the world.)

Moreover, this trend is likely to be permanent, since Mexico is actually doing far better than most people realize, despite its many pressing social and political problems. Following the recession, the Mexican economy has grown twice as fast as America’s, and was among the fastest growing in the world in some years (albeit from a much lower base). Depending on the metric used, Mexico has the 11th to 15th largest economy in the world, and is predicted by groups like Goldman Sachs and the World Bank to become the fifth to seventh largest economy by 2050 – around the level that France, Germany, and the U.K. are at today.

A few analysts have gone even further by suggesting that Mexico could become an influential global power in its own right. This is not as far fetched as it may initially sound: in many areas, such as infrastructure and business climate, the country is at least comparable, if superior, to Brazil, China, India, Russia, and other identified emerging powers; it has even earned coveted classification as one of several economic powerhouses to look out for — see the MINT group or the Next Eleven.

These accolades are well deserved. Since the mid-1990s, the majority of Mexicans have joined a rapidly growing middle-class, warranting the county’s official classification as a newly industrialized nation (NIC), a distinction only a handful of developing countries have achieved. Mexico’s average life expectancy and poverty rate is comparable to the U.S. (thanks in part to its universal healthcare system), while one-third of Mexican states have a violent crime rate equal to or even less than that of many U.S. states.

To be sure, Mexico is still enduring many problems, namely one of the worst rates of violence and income inequality in the world. Its political system, while free and robust by developing-world standards, is nonetheless rife with corruption and venality. Many intractable challenges face the country, but it is not the dystopia that popular culture and news media make it out to be, and it certainly has a lot of potential.

So Mexicans have a lot to be proud of this independence day. Despite the grim present circumstances, their long and rich history demonstrates a seemingly boundless capacity for perseverance, resourcefulness, and hope. Here is hoping that our good neighbor to the south continues steadily along the path to progress.

Photo courtesy of and

How English Sounded Five Centuries Ago

As a reminder of English’s Germanic roots and profound French and Norse influence, enjoy the following reading of a 16th-century poem, spoken in the common language of the day, Middle English. (You can find a transcript here.)

You likely recognize certain words and pronunciations from modern English, as well as the distinctively sing-songy Nordic accent. It is pretty fascinating to hear firsthand how much the language has changed.

Via Encurious.

Why Can’t Men Cry

Like so many men across generations and cultures, I was made to believe, by both culture and social conditioning that crying in all forms was “unmanly” and something only girls and babies do (which also says a lot about our warped views and expectations towards women). Whether it was inconsolable sobbing or merely shedding a tear, any manifestation of weeping was to be discouraged, ridiculed, or even shamed.

But as Sandra Newman of Aeon writes, this largely unquestioned norm is highly anomalous by historical standards. From the accounts of the Ancient Greeks and the Bible, to Medieval European romances and Japanese epics, men cried on every occasion and circumstance.

Historical and literary evidence suggests that, in the past, not only did men cry in public, but no one saw it as feminine or shameful. In fact, male weeping was regarded as normal in almost every part of the world for most of recorded history.

Still more remarkably, there’s no mention of the men in these stories trying to restrain or hide their tears. No one pretends to have something in his eye. No one makes an excuse to leave the room. They cry in a crowded hall with their heads held high. Nor do their companions make fun of this public blubbing; it’s universally regarded as an admirable expression of feeling.

As a love of history, it used to always surprise me how many powerful male figures — generals, kings, and conquerors — were reported to openly weep without shame or criticism. It was pretty much a given that crying was something all people did, period, and none of the manly men of history were an exception.

So when and why did this change? Well, as with so many other dramatic changes in social and psychological norms, it is not entirely clear, but there is one interesting leading theory. Continue reading

Map: The Most Popular Website By Country

As the Internet rapidly becomes a global phenomenon — already accessed by about half of the world’s population — it is worth looking at which websites have developed a foothold in certain countries, particularly as more and more people continue to join the truly worldwide wide.

Courtesy of Imgur and BuzzFeed.

As one can plainly see, American Internet giants — namely Google and Facebook — dominate the global market. Yahoo! has surprisingly managed to maintain a hold in Japan, Taiwan, and (of all places) the African nation of Gabon.

This dominance is due partly to the competitive and technological edge of U.S. tech companies, and also because of the prevalence of the English language (particularly among the well off and educated people more likely to have Internet access; hence why one does not see a lot of Hindi or Swahili on the Web). Continue reading