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. 

Happy Chinese New Year!

Also known as the Spring Festival, this forty day event runs from New Year’s Eve, the last day of the last month of the Chinese calendar, to the Lantern Festival, which takes place on the 15th day of the first month. Because the Chinese calendar is lunisolar (taking into account moon phases as well as the solar year most Westerners are familiar with), and because this day is recognized as the New Year in other cultures (such as Tibet, Mongolia, and Korea), this day is also known as the Lunar New Year.

Chinese New Year celebrations are among the oldest, largest, and longest events in the world. The vast corpus of traditions, foods, rituals, and other practices it entails varies from region to region and even by individual communities (throughout both China and the world). An article in The Guardian captures the sheer scale of it:

3.6 billion passenger trips (slightly fewer than three trips for every Chinese citizen) will turn China’s roads, airports and train stations into congestion hotspots over the 40-day period, according to government predictions. The annual Chunyun, or “spring festival transport”, is the largest human migration in the world. Major cities empty, sleepy villages spring to life, and traffic jams on major roads stretch for miles.

In the context of a globalized economy, the impact of this event will be as wide reaching as ever, with factories shutting down, supply chains subsequently disrupted, and product markets booming in response to holiday related spending by hundreds of millions of Chinese.

See some wonderful photos of this colorful occasion here, here, and here. To learn more about the Chinese New Year, click here. To any celebrants out there, I wish you a safe and happy time!

 

Mary Edwards Walker — Only Female Medal of Honor Recipient

Mary Edwards Walker (1832 – 1919) was an American feminist, abolitionist, and surgeon who became the only woman, and one of only eight civilians, to receive the Medal of Honor.

Mary Edwards Walker I

She worked as a teacher to pay her way through Geneva Medical College (now Hobart College), where she graduated as a medical doctor in 1855, the only woman in her class. She married fellow medical school student Albert Miller set up a joint practice in Rome, New York. It failed to take off, largely because female physicians were generally not trusted or respected at that time. Walker briefly attended Bowen Collegiate Institute (later named Lenox College) in 1860, until she was suspended after refusing to quit the all-male school debating society.

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The An Lushan Rebellion

On this day in 763, the devastating An Lushan Rebellion against the Tang Dynasty of China came to an end. Sanning seven years and three emperors, the revolt was led by General An Lushan, who declared himself emperor and established the rival Yan Dynasty in the north. The scale of the conflict was beyond the norm for most of the medieval world, involving the mobilization of 800,000 to 1 million troops in total.

Estimates of the death toll vary wildly, from 13 million to 36 million; because China accounted for about a third of the world’s population at the time, the higher figure — which is admittedly controversial — would represent one-sixth of all humans, making the An Lushan Rebellion proportionally the deadliest conflict ever (and even in absolute terms it remains in the top ten).

The world’s second-bloodiest conflict in total loss of life is another Chinese civil war, that of the Three Kingdoms era, which spanned almost one hundred years during the 2nd and 3rd century. Anywhere from 36-40 million people were killed, a number that would not be surpassed until WWII in the mid-20th century (though some estimates put the Mongol Conquests of the 13th-14th century at around the same amount as the Three Kingdoms).

A contemporary list of history’s biggest wars is dominated by China, including WWII (in which the country suffered 14-20 million casualties, second only to Russia), the aforementioned Mongol Conquests, the Taiping Rebellion of the mid-19th century (20-100 million deaths), and the 17th century conquest of the Ming Dynasty by the Qing (25 million).

America’s Muslim Heritage

Although widely seen as a new — and in some circles, invasive — presence in the United States, Islam has been a part of the nation’s history since colonial days, if not earlier. The New York Times highlights just a few of the known examples:

In 1528, a Moroccan slave called Estevanico was shipwrecked along with a band of Spanish explorers near the future city of Galveston, Tex. The city of Azemmour, in which he was raised, had been a Muslim stronghold against European invasion until it fell during his youth. While given a Christian name after his enslavement, he eventually escaped his Christian captors and set off on his own through much of the Southwest.

Two hundred years later, plantation owners in Louisiana made it a point to add enslaved Muslims to their labor force, relying on their experience with the cultivation of indigo and rice. Scholars have noted Muslim names and Islamic religious titles in the colony’s slave inventories and death records.

The best known Muslim to pass through the port at New Orleans was Abdul-Rahman Ibrahim ibn Sori, a prince in his homeland whose plight drew wide attention. As one newspaper account noted, he had read the Bible and admired its precepts, but added, “His principal objections are that Christians do not follow them.”

Among the enslaved Muslims in North Carolina was a religious teacher named Omar ibn Said. Recaptured in 1810 after running away from a cruel master he called a kafir (an infidel), he became known for inscribing the walls of his jail cell with Arabic script. He wrote an account of his life in 1831, describing how in freedom he had loved to read the Quran, but in slavery his owners had converted him to Christianity.

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Apple Nation

The rise of Apple Inc as a dominant global force in the 21st century could not be better pronounced than with the news that it is currently worth an incredible $700 billion, with $178 billion in profit as of the latest quarter. If the company were a country, it would be the 55th richest in the world, on par with New Zealand and bigger than Vietnam, Morocco, and Ecuador (nations that together have well over 120 million people).

The Atlantic, my source for this news, puts this into perspective:

These sort of comparisons help underscore just how much money Apple has, but they’re not entirely nuanced. For instance, although Apple has made history with its earnings, there have been countries just as rich—and richer—once you adjust for inflation. In that case, Apple still hasn’t hit Microsoft’s high-water mark in 1999. (Microsoft was worth $620 billion then; which would exceed $870 billion in today’s dollars.) But what does that tell us, really, other than how quickly tech fortunes can change? After all, Apple today is worth more than twice as much as Microsoft ($349 billion). In 1999, though, Apple was perhaps notable for making colorful iMacs that dotted high-school computer labs, but not much else.

It is astounding that a private company could accrue enough wealth to rival entire nations, or to give every American $556. I see it as a troubling development, insofar as it is indicative of a wider trend of global inequality, with more wealth becoming concentrated among a small cohort of the population — mostly the shareholders, executives, and financiers involved in the trading and investing of these big companies.

Apple’s beleaguered workers, namely those subcontracted in the developing world, certainly deserve some sort of bonus for helping to make these record-breaking profits possible. If such compensation is a way to reward success, and to encourage productivity and performance, as businesspeople alleged, than does that logic not apply to average people? Or are only the rich who helm the top of these companies entitled (or apparently in need of) such motivation?

It is scary to think that this is hardly an unprecedented development either:

No modern tech company has approached the value of trading companies of the 1700s, though, and the Dutch East India Company trumps them all. The shipping juggernaut was the world’s first publicly traded company. At its height,according to several estimates, it was worth the equivalent of more than $7 trillion in 2015 dollars. That’s a seven with 12 zeros after it—or Apple’s valuation today 10 times over.

The Dutch East India Company was ultimately undone, at least in part, by the weight of corruption and venality among its personnel. It seems a common fate for institutions that become swept up in unchecked growth and the subsequent expectations for more and more. This is not a sustainable model for any organized system, whether it is a government or a tech firm.

China’s Forgotten Contributions to World War II

Like the Soviet Union, China played a large but understated role in history’s greatest conflict, essentially doing to Japan what the Russians did to its German ally: draining Axis troops and resources through a constant and ferocious battle of attrition, all while the Western Allies opened up another invasion route. China had been fighting Japan long before the world war had even broken out, and its experiences were by far among the longest and bloodiest of any participant.

Yet this vital contribution is barely acknowledged among the more prevailing U.S.-centered version of events. At most, the Chinese — again, like the Russians — are footnoted as allies who did do some fighting, yet are not accorded due credit for the sheer scale and strategic importance of their contributions (not always purposefully, although the Cold War did not endear us to giving the Communist enemy much credit for helping end the war of all wars).

Oxford historian Rana Mitter has endeavored to resolve this problem with the new book Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945which explores the full breadth of China’s experience of the war, from the Japanese invasion that took place years before, to the political chaos the followed the conqueror’s expulsion.

Judging from an interview with the author on Pacific Standard, the book seems both comprehensive and balanced, revealing modern China’s own complex relationship with its past (unlike the other Allies, the Chinese remain comparatively more reserved about their World War II experience, for reasons the article touches on).

I plan on reading the book soon, and I recommend you all check out the interview hyperlinked in the preceding paragraph. It really sold me on why this is such an important effort, especially the following quote:

The scale of China’s involvement in the war was massive. Chiang, for example, fielded four million troops at the Nationalist’s height, while China as a whole lost an estimated 14 million in the war. Had China folded, Japan’s capacity to fight the U.S. or even the Soviets would have been vastly amplified.

For point of reference, the U.S. suffered total of over 420,000 combat deaths in the entire war — a sobering contrast to China’s very different experience in the war (especially as half to two-thirds of Chinese deaths were civilians).