America’s Troubling Firebombing of Japan

Prior to the better-known atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (which have also been subject to controversy and ethical discussion), the United States executed a series of “firebombings” against Japanese cities that claimed more lives in a single night — over 100,000 civilians, mostly women, children, and the elderly — than the more infamous atomic strikes that followed months later.

Jacobin examines the various problems with the campaign, on both a strategic and ethical level (e.g. there were little to no military or economic targets, virulent anti-Japanese racism may have motivated the attacks, etc.)

In January 1945 — two days before Franklin Roosevelt was to meet with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in Yalta — the Japanese were offering surrender terms almost identical to what was accepted by the Americans on the USS Missouri in the Japan Bay on September 2, 1945.

The Japanese population was famished, the country’s war machine was out of gas, and the government had capitulated. The Americans were unmoved. The firebombing and the nuclear attacks were heartlessly carried out. If anyone is guilty of disregarding the “context” of the firebombing of Tokyo, it’s the sycophantic and biased American historians who deride these critical facts.

What little criticism that exists of the firebombing is attacked for failing to put the bombing in proper context and not providing alternate solutions for ending the war. These attacks are also riddled with “they did it too” justifications.

World War II was carried out with brutality on all fronts. The Japanese military murdered nearly six million Chinese, Korean, and Filipino civilians by the end of it. However, to argue that Japanese civilians deserved to die — that children deserved to die — at the hands of the U.S. military because their government killed civilians in other Asian countries is an indefensible position, in any moral or ethical framework.

One can see parallels with the equally controversial Allied bombings of Dresden, which killed 22,000-25,000 civilians for little strategic merit.

What are your thoughts on these largely undiscussed (at least in popular discourse) actions? I recommend reading the whole article to get a wider picture of the positions for and against this decision, and whether the usual justifications have any merit.

Today’s Google Doodle Honors Emmy Noether

Google’s iconic doodles have a great track record of highlighting important but often obscure figures in science, social justice, and other human endeavors. Today’s colorful doodle casts a well-needed spotlight on Emmy Noether, an influential German mathematician who made groundbreaking contributions to abstract algebra and theoretical physics.

Some of the greatest minds of the time, including Albert Einstein himself, owed a debt of gratitude to her pioneering work. As the Washington Post notes:

“In the judgment of the most competent living mathematicians”, penned [Einstein], “Fräulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.”

After a lifetime of being discouraged and disallowed, underpaid and unpaid, doubted and ousted, Emmy Noether had reached the pinnacle of peer respect among her fellow giants of mathematical science.

“In the realm of algebra, in which the most gifted mathematicians have been busy for centuries”, Einstein continued in his letter, “she discovered methods which have proved of enormous importance in the development of the present-day younger generation of mathematicians”.

Read more about her delightful doodle, as well as the accomplishments it highlights, here.

The Meteorologist Who Helped Discover Plate Tectonics

Courtesy of the New York Times comes a delightful seven-minute animation about Alfred Wegener, the German meteorologist who provided one of the most fundamental theories in Earth science.

The video does not seem to embed here for some reason, so view it here.

This is the third video in the Op-Docs series “Animated Life”, a collaboration between Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s BioInteractive and The New York Times: there is “The Animated Life of A.R. Wallace”, which brings attention to the lesser-known figure who independently thought of natural selection, and a “Seeing the Invisible,” about the father of microbiology, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. It is a wonderful series that I cannot wait to see more of.

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 Confederates of Brazil

Nostalgia for the “Old South” is alive and well not just in the southern United States but, in of all place, Brazil (and to a lesser degree other parts of Latin America). That is because thousands of Confederates opted to leave the country to continue keeping their culture and practices alive in places where slave-based agriculture persisted.

As an interesting piece at Vice reports, the legacy of these southern transplants persists to this day:

For miles around the graveyard, unfiltered sun beat down on sugarcane fields planted by the thousands of Confederates who had rejected Reconstruction and fled the United States in the wake of the Civil War—a voluntary exile that American history has more or less erased. Their scattered diaspora has gathered annually for the past 25 years. The party they throw, which receives funding from the local government, is the family reunion of the Confederados, one of the last remaining enclaves of the children of the unreconstructed South.

Almost everyone had come to the festa dressed as an American—in jeans and boots, Johnny Cash T-shirts and camouflage. Visitors haggled at a booth stocked with Southern paraphernalia: aprons, quilts, commemorative glasses, a used copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. An amplified voice called the crowds to pull their chairs up to the main stage—an enormous concrete slab with a flag painted across it and the words XXVI FESTA CONFEDERADA emblazoned at its top. The mayor of the nearby town Santa Bárbara d’Oeste surveyed his assembled constituents and welcomed the state representatives in attendance. “It’s the first time I have the honor being here as mayor,” he beamed, leaning over the microphone as descendants in homemade hoop skirts and sewn Confederate grays standing behind him hoisted flags up long, thin wooden poles. “But I’ve been here many times as a spectator, a fan.” The banners of São Paulo, Brazil, Texas, the United States, and the Confederacy flapped languidly in the breeze. “North American immigration has helped build our region, has helped build Santa Bárbara d’Oeste, has helped build the city of Americana,” he proclaimed. “That’s what we celebrate today.”

By and large, the thousands of Texans and Alabamans and Georgians who sailed to Cuba and Mexico and Brazil failed. They folded into cities and set up doomed plantations on rain-forest plots. But not the town of Americana. Led by an Alabaman colonel, its settlers introduced cotton and turned the town into an industrial textile powerhouse. For generations their children spoke English with a drawl. Today the city of 200,000 boasts Latin America’s largest cowboy-rodeo arena. The festa brings it great pride

It is a long and intriguing read, which also touches upon Brazil’s struggle to come to terms with its own history of slavery (which was outlawed only in 1888) and its continued fight against the practice of de facto slavery, which mostly involves the invisible migrant workers from neighboring Bolivia, Peru, and Paraguay (a familiar problem in America).

Lessons On Modern Corporate Malfeasance From The British East India Company

We still talk about the British conquering India, but that phrase disguises a more sinister reality. It was not the British government that seized India at the end of the 18th century, but a dangerously unregulated private company headquartered in one small office, five windows wide, in London, and managed in India by an unstable sociopath – Clive.

In many ways the EIC was a model of corporate efficiency: 100 years into its history, it had only 35 permanent employees in its head office. Nevertheless, that skeleton staff executed a corporate coup unparalleled in history: the military conquest, subjugation and plunder of vast tracts of southern Asia. It almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history. For all the power wielded today by the world’s largest corporations – whether ExxonMobil, Walmart or Google – they are tame beasts compared with the ravaging territorial appetites of the militarised East India Company. Yet if history shows anything, it is that in the intimate dance between the power of the state and that of the corporation, while the latter can be regulated, it will use all the resources in its power to resist.

When it suited, the EIC made much of its legal separation from the government. It argued forcefully, and successfully, that the document signed by Shah Alam – known as the Diwani – was the legal property of the company, not the Crown, even though the government had spent a massive sum on naval and military operations protecting the EIC’s Indian acquisitions. But the MPs who voted to uphold this legal distinction were not exactly neutral: nearly a quarter of them held company stock, which would have plummeted in value had the Crown taken over. For the same reason, the need to protect the company from foreign competition became a major aim of British foreign policy.

– , “The East India Company: The original corporate raiders“, The Guardian

A lot of relevant lessons to this day. While modern big companies are not as brazen or blatant in their exercise of power, they most certainly prey open societies where rule of law is weak or easy to co-opt. Even in the most developed democracies, such private entities hold tremendous sway, with their policies and personnel often interchangeable with those of the public sector.

…The corporation – a revolutionary European invention contemporaneous with the beginnings of European colonialism, and which helped give Europe its competitive edge – has continued to thrive long after the collapse of European imperialism. When historians discuss the legacy of British colonialism in India, they usually mention democracy, the rule of law, railways, tea and cricket. Yet the idea of the joint-stock company is arguably one of Britain’s most important exports to India, and the one that has for better or worse changed South Asia as much any other European idea. Its influence certainly outweighs that of communism and Protestant Christianity, and possibly even that of democracy.

Companies and corporations now occupy the time and energy of more Indians than any institution other than the family. This should come as no surprise: as Ira Jackson, the former director of Harvard’s Centre for Business and Government, recently noted, corporations and their leaders have today “displaced politics and politicians as … the new high priests and oligarchs of our system”. Covertly, companies still govern the lives of a significant proportion of the human race.

The 300-year-old question of how to cope with the power and perils of large multinational corporations remains today without a clear answer: it is not clear how a nation state can adequately protect itself and its citizens from corporate excess. As the international subprime bubble and bank collapses of 2007-2009 have so recently demonstrated, just as corporations can shape the destiny of nations, they can also drag down their economies. In all, US and European banks lost more than $1tn on toxic assets from January 2007 to September 2009. What Burke feared the East India Company would do to England in 1772 actually happened to Iceland in 2008-11, when the systemic collapse of all three of the country’s major privately owned commercial banks brought the country to the brink of complete bankruptcy. A powerful corporation can still overwhelm or subvert a state every bit as effectively as the East India Company did in Bengal in 1765.

Corporate influence, with its fatal mix of power, money and unaccountability, is particularly potent and dangerous in frail states where corporations are insufficiently or ineffectually regulated, and where the purchasing power of a large company can outbid or overwhelm an underfunded government. This would seem to have been the case under the Congress government that ruled India until last year. Yet as we have seen in London, media organisations can still bend under the influence of corporations such as HSBC – while Sir Malcolm Rifkind’s boast about opening British embassies for the benefit of Chinese firms shows that the nexus between business and politics is as tight as it has ever been.

The East India Company no longer exists, and it has, thankfully, no exact modern equivalent. Walmart, which is the world’s largest corporation in revenue terms, does not number among its assets a fleet of nuclear submarines; neither Facebook nor Shell possesses regiments of infantry. Yet the East India Company – the first great multinational corporation, and the first to run amok – was the ultimate model for many of today’s joint-stock corporations. The most powerful among them do not need their own armies: they can rely on governments to protect their interests and bail them out. The East India Company remains history’s most terrifying warning about the potential for the abuse of corporate power – and the insidious means by which the interests of shareholders become those of the state. Three hundred and fifteen years after its founding, its story has never been more current.

The Whimsical Bookwheel

The bookwheel (sometimes called a reading wheel) is a rotating bookcase that allows one person to easily read a variety of heavy books in one location. The books rotate in a manner similar to a water wheel, rather than on a flat table surface (the Chinese apparently invented the horizontal variety over a thousand years ago).

The first and most well-known bookwheel design was featured in a book by 16th century Italian engineer Agostino Ramelli (which was delightfully titled “The Various and Ingenious Machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli”). Other inventors like Nicolas Grollier de Servière proposed their own variation this concept. Interesting, while his design inspired other bookwheels, Ramelli himself never constructed his own. Below is his original illustration.

Bookwheel (Agostino Ramelli)

Ramelli’s concept was deliberately complex, utilizing all sorts of gears and mechanics previously found only in clocks; this was because he wanted to display his mathematical and engineering skill. Ramelli described his invention as a “beautiful and ingenious machine, very useful and convenient for anybody who takes pleasure in study, especially for those who are indisposed and tormented by gout [a form of inflammatory arthritis especially common among the wealthy].” However, it is disputed to what extent it was purchased for its practical purposes rather than its unusual and aesthetic properties.

In any case, the bookwheel was an early attempt to solve the new problem of managing printed works, which were emerging in greater numbers due to the rapid spread of the printing press (books back then were far larger and heavier). Thus it is considered one of the earliest “information retrieval” devices – akin to modern technologies like hypertext and e-readers – that allow readers to store and cross-reference large amounts of information.

Nowadays, the bookwheel is valued for its historical importance, decorative appeal, and symbolic significance, making the rise of mass data and media. I would certainly love one as well.

Ramelli Bookwheel

A modern-day recreation by Léa Lagasse (Photo by Stroom Den Haag).

The Untold Story of Buddhism’s Struggle in America

Buddhism’s presence in the United States is seen as a very recent, if not trendy, phenomenon, becoming most visible starting from the 1960s and 70s. But like other minority religions, Buddhism has been around far longer than our public consciousness suggests, and its history here has not always been a pleasant one.

A recent article in The Atlantic discusses the tribulations of Buddhists in the context of Japanese internment during World War II. Because a large number of early American Buddhists were of Japanese ancestry, the legal and social problems faced by adherents were inextricably tied what Japanese citizens and residents faced as a whole.

73 years ago this week … President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the evacuation of all of those of Japanese descent from the West Coast to ten war relocation centers—often called “concentration camps” before that term came to have other connotations.

For the most part, the wartime fears that led to the relocation of Japanese­-born immigrants and their American­-born children were justified on racial rather than religious grounds. Those forced to leave behind homes, farms, and businesses in states bordering the Pacific were not of a single faith. There were Buddhists among them, and many maintained Shinto rituals that provided spiritual connections to their homeland, but there were also Christians of various denominations, as well as those with no particular affiliation.

Religion was not ignored, however. When the FBI set about compiling its list of suspect individuals after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they naturally included members of various American Nazi parties and groups with political ties to Japan. Yet they also paid particular attention to Buddhist priests.

J. Edgar Hoover’s Custodial Detention List used a classification system designating the supposed risk of individuals and groups on an A­B­C scale, with an “A” ranking assigned to those deserving greatest scrutiny. Ordained Buddhists like Reverend Fujimura were designated “A­1,” those whose apprehension was considered a matter of urgent concern.

The priests became the first of a relocation effort that would soon detain more than 110,000. Many within this larger group, having heard of the sudden arrests and harsh interrogations endured by Buddhist community leaders, sought refuge in Christianity, hoping—in vain, it turned out—that church membership might shield them from such treatment.

Those who did not go this route were called “Buddhaheads,” an epithet often applied to the Japanese Americans of Hawaii, but more broadly used to suggest a resistance to assimilation. Within the Japanese community, Buddhists were more likely than Christians to maintain their native language, as well as the customs and rituals performed in that language. They were also more likely than Christians to read publications concerned with Japanese political affairs. Subscription rolls of such publications provided the FBI with a natural starting point for building its “A” list of suspects.

Because of the connections and the traditional knowledge Buddhist temples helped maintain, to be a Japanese Buddhist in America during the 1940s was to be considered a greater risk to the nation.

I recommend reading the rest of this piece, which conveys the struggles of Buddhists and Japanese through the experiences of Reverend Fujimura, and looks at a little-known fight to get Buddhist troops due recognition of their faith on their memorials. Very informative look at one of the many neglected chapters of American history.

Happy Languages

It seems that most humans are inclined towards pessimism and negativity: look at how we enrapt by the awful occurrences we encounter day to day (from gossip to car accidents), or how sordid and scandalous news spreads like wildfire (especially when compared to more positive developments, which are more likely to get no reporting in the first place).

But a recent study suggests that contrary to popular belief, or indeed to our frequent reactions to negativity, our fundamental means of communication is rife with a “universal positivity bias”. As The Atlantic reports:

This bias was first posited in 1969, when a pair of psychologists wrote a paper called “The Pollyanna Hypothesis,” named for the fictional orphan girlwith a propensity to look on the bright side. The original study had high school boys, who belonged to different cultures and spoke different languages, do word association tasks, and then ranked whether the pairs were positive or negative. More often, they were positive.

In the new PNAS study, researchers analyzed texts from Google Books, Twitter, the New York Times, a Google Web Crawl, subtitles from movies and TV shows, and music lyrics. They measured how frequently words were used in each language (English, German, Chinese, Korean, French, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Arabic, Russian, and Indonesian), and had native speakers rate how negative or positive they felt upon hearing those words.

In every language, on every platform, the median happiness score was higher than five—five being a totally neutral word—as seen in the chart below. The yellow is the “above-neutral” portion, and the blue is the “below-neutral.”

Below is the aforementioned chart. In total, over 100,000 words spanning ten languages were examined.

Given that these languages cover a large proportion of the world’s population (especially when you count non-native speakers), it is safe to say that most humans communicate in a language that leans towards positivity. Moreover, there are some nuances between languages:

Spanish and Portuguese were the most happy, in this study. For some languages, it really depended what kind of text the researchers were looking at—in English, music lyrics were significantly less positive than books, the New York Times, or even Twitter.

So all the languages studied tended to use happy words more often, but overall, languages also contained more happy than unhappy words. The researchers also measured “average word happiness” and found it to be high, regardless of how frequently those words were used in the text. So even lesser-used words were more often positive than negative.

As someone who is not a scientist, let alone linguist, I am not sure what to make of these results or their implications. The responses to the article seem skeptical or at least neutral, with one commentator pointing out something that also came to my mind:

The study does not cover words used in everyday interpersonal speech by everyday people, only the mere existence of the word types and writing, which is done by professional and political individuals to show off in one way or another. Maybe the study proves language bias accurately, but not the bias of language users in everyday life.

I would be curious to know how positive languages are when used in an everyday, colloquial context among average people. Were such a study possible, it would yield more comprehensive results. But given the recentness of this study, perhaps we can expect that in the future. For now, I am inclined to agree with the article’s conclusion:

“Words, which are the atoms of human language, present an emotional spectrum with a universal, self-similar positive bias,” the researchers write. While individual texts—books, songs, tweets—may skew negative, all in all, it looks like language is a positive tool.

What are your thoughts on this?

The Launching of a Space Milestone: Mir

On this day in 1986, the Soviet Union launched Mir, the first continuously inhabited long-term research station to orbit Earth. Assembled during orbit from 1986 to 1996, it had greater mass than any previous spacecraft at the time, and remained the largest satellite in orbit until 2001, when it was succeeded by the International Space Station (ISS).

Mir

The station served as a microgravity research laboratory where crews conducted experiments in biology, human biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology and spacecraft systems. The goal was to develop technologies that would further permanent human occupation of space.

Mir set the record for the longest continuous human presence in space at 3,644 days, until it was surpassed by the ISS in 2010. It hosted the record for the longest single human spaceflight: Valeri Polyakov spent over 437 days on the station between 1994 and 1995. Mir had the capacity to support a resident crew of three, or larger crews for short term visits.

Polyakov really loves what he does.

Mir was launched as part of an effort to maintain a long-term research outpost in space. While the vast majority its crew was Russian, several international programs made it host to astronauts from the United States, Canada, Japan, and several European nations; the first Syrian and first Afghan in space were Mir visitors. These collaborative efforts were the precursor to the development of the ISS, which evolved from separate U.S., European, and Russian projects.

Following the collapse of the USSR, Mir came under the operation of the new Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos). Although the station was fairly resilient, as evidenced by its impressive lifespan, its age was showing, and Russia at the time could not afford to update it. The station was subsequently decommissioned and deorbited in 2001.

The first of many successors.