The Most Metal Thing I Have Ever Heard

According to CityLab, London almost had a “Death Pyramid” — a towering mausoleum that would have interred around 5 million residents.

In the 1820s, the architect [Thomas Wilson] proposed to build a colossal pyramid called the Metropolitan Sepulchre. Sited for Primrose Hill, today a park area in North London, the necropolis was designed to alleviate the overpopulation of London’s graveyards while adding a looming monument to mortality to the city’s skyline.

With the Metropolitan Sepulchre, Wilson envisioned a honeycomb of catacombs, each one capable of holding up to 24 coffins. The whole structure would have occupied a plot 18 acres in area; at more than 90 stories tall, it would have easily eclipsed St. Paul’s Cathedral.

While it may have been inspired by the Great Pyramid at Giza, this necropolis was meant to be a true city of the dead, not just a palace for a pharaoh. The British pyramid would have served as the final resting grounds for some 5 million Londoners had the city gone with Wilson.

As the article notes, such “vertical cemeteries” are catching on throughout the world’s fast-growing cities, from Mexico City and Paris to Mumbai and Tel Aviv. As humanity continues to urbanize like never before, perhaps we can expect more audacious necropolises bestriding our modern skyscrapers.

The Merry Cemetery

The Merry Cemetery, located in the Romanian village of Săpânța, stands out for its colorful and sometimes whimsical tombstones, which depict scenes from the departed’s life alongside poems. The paintings display everything from the individual’s profession, to major events or just routine images of everyday life; a few show how they died.

The origins of this practice, which diverges from the prevailing European notion that death is as somber occasion, are said to stem from Stan Ioan Pătraş (1908-1977), a local artist and woodsculpter who is responsible for constructing the 700 or so epitaphs.

On a deeper level, some have speculated that the Orthodox Christian cemetery draws inspiration from the Zalmoxis religion of the Dacians, who lived in the area prior to the arrival of the Roman. They believed in the immortality of the soul and the subsequent idea that death was a moment that should be filled with joy and anticipation for a better life.

Whatever its origins and one’s views on death, the Merry Cemetery is definitely an interesting location, with an ambiance that is far more jovial than most graveyards.

Poppy Field

My thoughts and reflections related to Veterans Day, and on war in general, have not changed much since the last time I shared them. This year’s post will not be any less somber, however: as the one hundredth anniversary of the end of history’s first (but sadly not last) “Great War”, the commemorations are especially solemn and reflective.

To mark this grim centenary of the First World War, an independent project called Poppy Field was launched to visualize just how devastating this conflict was — a reminder we sadly never need enough of, given how many other horrific conflicts have transpired since the “war to end all wars”.

Using the opportunity to highlight the brutality and tragedy of war as a whole, the project moves beyond WWI to show every conflict that has every occurred in the 20th century onward, from the lesser-known civil conflicts of Colombia and the Philippines, to the present strife in Syria, Ukraine, and the Central African Republic (notice how most of these wars tend to occur within states rather than between them).

The infographic is as beautiful as it is informative, creatively displaying the length, fatality, and location of each recorded war through the use of stylized poppies (the flower became a symbol of commemoration because it was among the first plants to emerge from Europe’s devastated battlefields after WWI, with its blood-red color and resilient yet delicate nature evoking war).

screenshot-poppyfield.org 2014-11-11 13-00-35

There are several patterns to note here. As mentioned before, most wars have become “internal” in nature — usually fought between governments and rebels, among different ethnic or religious groups, or between breakaway regions and a central power; tellingly, these types of conflicts are especially common in post-colonial Africa and Asia, a legacy of ancient grievances combined with the arbitrary borders that ignored such histories and diversities imposed by European powers.

It also seems that wars have become more frequent since the mid-20th century, although comparatively less deadly than the two great wars that dominated the earlier half (and that for most people serve as a common point of comparison, despite their anomalous nature in terms of scale). Modern wars also appear to last much longer, often drawing out into what are known as “low intensity” or “fourth-generation ” conflicts, in which the lines are blurred between civilians and combatants, and fighting is conducted in such a scope as to become normalized.

In any case, war’s every changing nature in terms of tactics and characteristics does little to change the awful human cost. Looking at these beautiful poppies and the data attached to each of them, it is easy to forget that they represents millions of full, individual lives snuffed out just this past 114 years alone. Especially from this physical and psychological distance.

Brief Reflections on a Holocaust Execution

Execution of Jews near Ivanhorod by German Einsatzgruppe during World War II. A woman is attempting to protect a child with her own body just before they are fired on with rifles at close range. This now iconic photograph was mailed from the Eastern Front to Germany and intercepted by a member of the Home Army Polish resistance.

British journalist Robert Fisk declared it “one of the most impressive and persuasive images of the Nazi Holocaust.” It was featured in numerous books, and at photo-exhibits both in Poland and Germany, as “precious and terrible evidence” of “the Nazi cruelties in Eastern Europe.” It’s disturbing to think that this horrific tragedy was but a small fraction of the atrocities that were going on throughout the duration of the war.

I wonder what is going through the minds of not only the victims, but their murderers; what kind of a person could take human life this easily? What state of mind would you have to be to do something so heinous, especially if you have no prior history of such cruelty (as many such men didn’t)? How does one not pause at the sight of a mother shielding her child? If the perpetrators survived the war, how did they go through the rest of their lives? Did they rationalize these actions, eventually regret them, or tried to forget?

It’s difficult to come to grips with how normal people are capable of such remarkable evil given the right circumstances. Most genocides and other mass-scale injustices require the participation or tacit approval of many people, far more than could be deemed insane or criminal. It’s disturbing how relatively easy it is for certain societies to acquiesce or take part in barbarity they couldn’t previously concede to. It’s definitely something to keep in mind.

 

Gustav Klimt’s Death and Life

“Death and Life”, by Gustav Klimt. Begun in 1908 and completed in 1916.

This painting is unique in that it portrays death with a sense of hope and acceptance — instead of feeling threatened by the figure of death, the humans seem unconcerned. Even the personification of death doesn’t seem particularly menacing, comparatively speaking.

Klimt was near the end of his life at the time — he would pass away two years later — and the painting has been interpreted as reflecting his acceptance of mortality. Indeed, he chose to depict moments of pleasure, beauty, youth, and serenity among his subjects.

Casualties of the First World War

Although long overshadowed by the far more destructive Second World War, it was World War I (then known as the Great War) that first gave humanity a bloody taste of large-scale, industrialized warfare. Indeed, the unresolved conflicts of the First World War is what largely gave rise to the second.

All that aside, the amount of death wrought by this aptly proclaimed “War to End All Wars” is staggering, as the following chart from The Economist soberingly displays. I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves.

An entire generation was ground up in a senseless war that everyone thought would be over in no time. Every single one of those men was a distinct human being with his own identity, personality, dreams, fears, and loved ones. It’s hard to believe tens of millions more would join them just two decades or so later — and many more have since, albeit in far less visible conflicts.

 

Death in the Social Media Age

Social media has allowed average people to establish a persistent and indefinite presence on the internet, namely through profiles like Facebook. It’s strange to imagine that after we pass away, all these photos, posts, and other means of expression will otherwise remain permanently recorded. It can also be eerie when someone has died unexpectedly, leaving you with a timeline of last words and activities.
 
I’ve also seen the profiles of deceased people become shrines of sorts, with many loved ones browsing through them to capture the essence of their departed. I’m not sure of what to make of that — on the one hand, it’s nice to be able to retain so much of a person long after they die; but on the other hand, it may make it more difficult to let go.
 
I can imagine that very soon, it may become common for someone to mention in their will what should be done with their various social media profiles.

What are your thoughts and experiences with this?

 

Slideshow: Cherry Season in Aleppo — The Struggle For Normalcy Amid Civil War

Foreign Policy has another great but sobering slideshow, this time showcasing the plight of Syria’s beleaguered civilians, namely those in its largest and most contested cities, Aleppo. While we’ve heard much about the back-and-forth between the various warring factions, as usual, the fate of those in the middle is somewhat understated (which in some sense is to be expected, given that they’re passive elements in the grand scheme of the war, at least for the time being).

The article’s introduction puts it pretty well:

Aleppo has been under siege for over nine months — ever since the Free Syrian Army (FSA) stormed the city limits in mid-July. More than 94,000have died throughout Syria, and close to 11,000 have died in Aleppo alone. While the international community dawdles and deliberates, while each side fights for the survival of its reality, civilians here must grapple with the fact that their old lives are gone and their future lives are unknown, and that life must somehow go on between now and then.

So people adapt and cope. The blasts of mortars and artillery fire blend into the background, the threat of snipers becomes a reality to grit your teeth through as you walk home, and dark humor seeps into the daily milieu, calming nerves with a white-knuckled laughter that holds tears at bay. Groceries must be bought, money must be made, bellies must be filled, and days must have some sort of meaning.

The reality of a civilian in war is that life must be risked in order to live. Day-to-day acts can become small feats of rebellion. Risking sniper fire on the walk to work becomes not only a testament to human resilience and our ability to adapt, but sometimes a statement: You can take my life, but you can’t take my choice to live it.

I hope this vicious bloodletting ends soon, and to the benefit of the Syrian people. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely for now: the intractable nature of this grinding war of attrition, as well as the growing sectarianism, makes it difficult to imagine that even a relatively pacified Syria will be stable for long.

RIP Robert G. Edwards

Robert G. Edwards, pioneer of in-vitro fertilization, passed away yesterday, April 10, at age 87. The British physiologist, in collaboration with obstetrician and gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe (who died in 1988), successfully pioneered conception through IVF, which led to the birth of the first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, on July 25, 1978. For this he was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

As of today, over 4 million babies have been born through IVF. Louise Browns had said that “his work, along with Patrick Steptoe, has brought happiness and joy to millions of people all over the world by enabling them to have children.” His work was motivated by his belief that “the most important thing in life is having a child.”

Watch a video portrait of his life and achievement here.

On Counterfactual Thinking and Negativity Bias

It seems that humans can’t help but think about the inevitable “what ifs” that we encounter in life — how things would have turned out  “if only” some factor or another was different. This is known as counterfactual thinking, and it is often problematic not only because we wrack our brains with  regret for having not taken a different path, but also because tend to only apply this train of thought to unfortunate circumstances.

Thus, counterfactual thinking works in tandem with another apparent human predisposition: a negativity bias that focuses more on the bad things that happen to us rather than the good. We’re less inclined to wonder how things could have been worse, because we’re more than happy with the results and would much rather milk the good fortune and move on.

All this makes sense: we dwell on the absence of something because our advanced cognition inclines us to wonder about such mysteries. And we focus on the negative because what hurts us is far more impactful than what doesn’t (with respect to applying this bias to news reports,  it works the same way: what tugs at our negative emotions is going to be more profound).

While there are many explanations for this tendency towards focusing on the negative, the point is, we can’t seem to help it. The bad things stand out the most, and subsequently, our regret at their occurrence makes us struggle with all the ways we — as individuals or as a species — could have prevented them.

But I believe we must make it a habit to notice the bad things that didn’t happen; to acknowledge that the absence of negativity is something to be cherished and pointed out, rather than taken as the default condition. What about making it home in one piece, when you could have very well gotten into a car accident? What about having your loved ones or your health, when the existence of both is ever so fragile? Indeed, the very fact that you’ve managed to live another day is something to be appreciated.

It is a tragedy of human nature — one very much observed throughout our history — that it takes something awful to happen to us to appreciate what life is like in the absence of that awfulness. Terrible things await all of us; inevitably, loved ones will die, hard times will come, and we will suffer and eventually expire. It can be a terrifying thought, but it’s all the more reason that we must stop and be mindful of the good times and precious moments while they last. The finiteness and fragility of life, and what is good, is precisely what makes those things so precious.