Germany, The World’s Moral Leader

The Economist observes how the refugee crisis has highlighted the German nation’s exemplary moral leadership, starting with this poignant statistic:

Whereas most nations struggle to accept even a handful of refugees, the Germans seem broadly enthusiastic about the idea, owing in part to their history. Continue reading

A (Rightly) Unsettling Holocaust Memorial

Designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, officially known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, is intended to evoke a chaotic, cold, and uneasy atmosphere — which I feel it accomplishes quite effectively, even based on this photo by Gerd Ludwig.

Source: National Geographic

According to Eisenman himself, “The sculpture represents a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.” One critic noted that the memorial “is able to convey the scope of the Holocaust’s horrors without stooping to sentimentality — showing how abstraction can be the most powerful tool for conveying the complexities of human emotion”.

Moreover, it stands out for lacking the symbolism that is typical of traditional memorial designs, although many have argued that the sculpture resembles a cemetery (which in any case is still an effective invocation in my opinion).

I personally could not think of a more apt approach to representing the senselessness and wanton cruelty that characterized one of history’s largest genocides. The scale of the memorial, which is better captured in the photo below, must make it a powerful experience (one that I hope to understand when I visit Berlin one of these days).

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.

The Stutthof Diaries Collection — A Worthy Kickstarter Project

Whether you are a lover of history, a World War II buff, or enjoy unique and powerful literature, you will have an interest in helping me support the Stutthof Diaries Collection on Kickstarter. Its aims are as valuable as they are captivating:

The Stutthof Diaries Collection are actual diaries and interviews with Norwegian police imprisoned during the Nazi occupation of Norway. The Nazi leadership, under Reichskommissar Joseph Terboven, became intolerant of the Norwegian police and set out to determine the disloyal element in the police and therefore a security threat. That opportunity came with the arrest of Oslo Police Chief Gunnar Eilifsen, for refusing to arrest several young girls who did not show up for mandatory labor. Terboven demanded Eilifsen’s execution and on the morning of August 16th, 1943 Eilifsen was executed for insubordination. He had the opportunity to neither contact his family or a defense lawyer. On the same morning of August 16, police all over Norway were arrested and forced to declare their loyalty to the Nazi Regime. Failure to do so would result in imprisonment or execution. Hundreds of police refused to declare their loyalty. My father was one of them. He was deported, along with 270 other police men, to a concentration camp in northern Poland called Stutthof. There the police kept personal diaries of their experience hidden from their captors. The Stutthof Diaries Collections are diaries, memoirs and interviews collected over the last dozen years which are a treasure trove and describing how personal sacrifice can triumph over purposeless greed and violence.

As of this post, the project is just six days away from its funding deadline, and so far it has sadly garnered only a fraction of the money it needs ($2,181 out of $15,000). I have seen many projects reach their goal despite the most unlikely circumstances, so while it is a tall order, it can be done.

If this endeavor interests you, give what you can or spread the word. These valuable but largely unknown perspectives need to be known. Thankfully, the creator has expressed the intention to publish these diaries one way or another in 2015, but either way he can certainly use the help. Learn more by visiting the official Facebook page here.

Cantino Planisphere

Another featured photo from Wikipedia: the Cantino planisphere, a map completed by an unknown Portuguese cartographer in 1502, during the European Age of Discovery. It depicts the world as it became known to the Europeans after voyages to the Americas, Africa, and India.

It is considered one of the most valuable cartographic documents of all time, displaying a remarkable degree of accuracy for its period, and being the oldest surviving map to show Europe’s early geographic discoveries. It provides us with unique historical information about the way maritime exploration was conducted and how nautical cartography evolved.

It is now kept in the Biblioteca Universitaria Estense, Modena, Italy.

An Excellent Summary of the Tragedy of WWI

As the centennial of history’s first world war falls further behind us, so too will the necessary ruminations and analyses that remain relevant in our fragile international system. While there are nor shortage of well-written and deeply-reflective pieces on the subject, the following one by Burt Solomon of The Atlantic is one of my favorite. Although this excerpt stood out the most, I strongly recommend reading the whole thing — it is succinct but on point.

And for this, more than 16 million men went to their slaughter, many of them in cruel and creative ways. In trenches that stretched an unbroken 475 miles from the North Sea to the Swiss border, the Germans constructed walls using corpses, so that French troops who captured a trench hung canteens from protruding ankles. Along the Somme River, in northern France, more than 1 million men were killed or wounded in 1916 for an Allied advance of seven miles. Poisonous gas filled a quarter of all the artillery shells fired on the western front in 1918. More than a third of German males born between 1892 and 1895 died in the course of the war. The killing spread to civilians in England and France attacked by German zeppelins. War was no longer noble, even as some of the men who fought it were noble beyond compare.

It was a sad, pointless war, for which we’re still paying a price. A hard-hearted peace treaty and a ravaged economy produced a “lost generation” of young Germans and led directly to the rise of Hitler and an even uglier worldwide conflagration. The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement reached by Britain and France in 1916 drew arbitrary boundary lines across the postwar Middle East—around Iraq, for instance—that are returning deadly dividends to this day. The toppling of the Russian monarchy and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire created a balkanized Europe that, as recently as the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over strife-torn Ukraine, pains us still. The world was a nastier place after the war than before it.

All wars tell us something about the basest regions of human nature, the First World War (caustically named in 1918 by an English journalist who thought it would not be the last) more than most. About the nature of covetousness, the perils of insecurity, the ease of losing human control over human events.

We’ve come a long way in many respects, but only up to a point. Complacency with regards to a seemingly stable and prosperous future had also proceeded the First World War. This isn’t intended to be alarmist — I am well aware that the world is a far more peaceful place than it has ever been, relatively speaking — but it is a reminder that peaceful coexistence and the overcoming of our basest motives for violence and cruelty require tremendous vigilance and an understanding of the mistakes from the past. That is pretty much the only good thing to take away from such a horrifically pointless but deadly conflict.

Chart: A ranking of European countries by how much couples argue over household chores

Interesting research. I wonder what, if anything, does this say about sociocultural attitudes towards gender roles, relationships, romantic expectations, or other factors that may contribute to conflict between partners. I’d be curious to see research like this involving other countries across the world.

Forty Maps That Explain World War I

Credit: Wikipedia

Today is the centennial of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, whose death at the hands of Serbian revolutionaries set off the chain reaction that lead to history’s first (though sadly not last) global war.*

Few conflicts have been more pivotal to the course of human history; not only did the Great War, as it was originally called, help pave the way to another massive and world-changing conflict just two-and-a-half decades later, but its influence can be seen today in the political, cultural, demographic, national psyches of the nations involved.

While I wish I had more time to engage in proper reflection about this very worthy topic, my chronic shortage of time leaves me with this nonetheless informative substitute: forty maps (courtesy of Vox) that help explain the lead up to the war, its major events and innovations, and its subsequent consequences. I highly recommend you check them out to get a firmer understanding of just why this long-overshadowed conflict is making something of a comeback in public and academic consciousness.

*While there had technically been previous conflicts fought between European powers across the world (namely the fierce colonial competition between France and Britain), these hardly reached the scale and scope of the First World War.

Happy 540th Birthday to Nicolaus Copernicus

Happy 540th Birthday to Nicolaus Copernicus (19 February 1473 – 24 May 1543)

A name well-known to students across the western world, Copernicus (19 February 1473 – 24 May 1543) was a Renaissance mathematician and astronomer who formulated a comprehensive heliocentric model, which as opposed to the prevailing geocentric model of the time, placed the Sun, rather than the Earth, at the center of the universe. The model was also one of the first to describe the system’s mechanics in mathematical terms.

Just before his death, Copernicus published is magnum opus, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), which is considered a major event in the history of science. It began the Copernican Revolution and contributed importantly to the subsequent emergence of the Scientific Revolution.

In addition to his achievements in mathematics and astronomy, Copernicus was one of the great polymaths of the Renaissance — he was quadrilingual, a jurist with a doctorate in law, physician, classics scholar, translator, artist, Catholic priest, governor, diplomat and economist.

Daily News Wire 07/11/12

The global economic crisis is taking a toll on Europe’s already low fertility rates. Like many wealthy countries, the nations of Europe have experienced rapidly aging populations that are putting a strain on their public finances (due to higher social security costs) and their economies (due to fewer young people in the labor force). Things were starting to turn around until recent economic troubles forestalled many couple’s plans to start a family (or to even marry in the first place).

The only countries that have managed to maintain what’s known as replacement fertility – which ensures stable population growth – are Iceland, Ireland, the UK, and France (though others like the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden come close). With France (so far) being the only large country on the continent that is growing steadily, will the balance of power shift from shrinking (though still dominant) Germany?

And although the US still has a healthy fertility rate, one wonders how long it will last in the face of persistent economic malaise. Will the current crisis lead to a similar plummeting in the birth rate? How will this bode for the future, in which more retirees will put continued pressure on our public finances?

And while we’re on the subject of a recession, what exactly makes a country wealthy? For decades, the gold standard for determining a nation’s prosperity has been Gross Dom estic Product (GDP), which measures the market value of a country’s final goods and services. When in it’s measured in a per-capita basis – in other words, divided by a country’s population – it gives a rough estimation of a given society’s standard of living. Alternative or complementary measurements include the Human Development IndexGross National Income, and the recently developed Better Life Index (none of which I have the time to elaborate on, sadly).

Each of these metrics is imperfect or incomplete in its own way, but they provide the best idea of what a country’s overall wealth and prosperity is. Aside from the technical difficulties in measuring wealth, there’s also the wider philosophical problem of how we define it: is the worth of a country’s goods and products an accurate indicator of its population’s standard of living? Does it accurately convey the resources available to everyone?

The United Nations has recently introduced another metric – inclusive wealth – which measures wealth as a total of three resources: people (namely their education and skills), physical asset (roads, machinery, buildings, etc), and natural resources (land, minerals, and the like). Needless to say, the results are interesting: some countries that rank highly in GDP are much lower in inclusive wealth (although only 20 nations have been studied this far). The same can be said when comparing the other tools listed above: some countries that rank low in GNI nonetheless have a higher rate of human development for example.

I personally prefer to put all these tools side-by-side and compare where a given country lies overall, since the variations are usually not all that drastic. To make things more complicated, there is a nascent movement to measure “Gross National Happiness” – which opens up a whole other can of worms. If we can’t even figure out what makes a nation rich or prosperous, finding an objective and universal marker for happiness will be even more challenging. It’s fitting that figuring out what makes us happy or wealthy is so elusive.

Finally, The Nation challenges the popular notion – resurrected by Mitt Romney’s campaign – that business experience has any bearing on one’s effectiveness as President of the United States. I for one have grown weary of this argument. There’s no doubt that the presidency should (ideally) entail numerous skills and experiences.

But running a business is very different from running a country. It’s tempting to think that ties to the private sector will somehow inform your economic policy, but economics and business are two very different disciplines, and what’s good for businesses may not be good for the average American. After all, most corporations are making record profits, or at the very least performing healthily, but that hasn’t had much effect on our stagnating incomes, anemic job growth, and meager benefits.