Towards a Global Postal Union

On this day in 1874, the Treaty of Bern was signed establishing the General Postal Union (now the Universal Postal Union) to create a coherent global mailing system.

Prior to the founding of the UPU, a country would need a separate postal treaty for each country it wanted to exchange mail with; senders were burdened with having to calculate the postage for each country their mail would travel though, and would even need to obtain a given country’s stamps (something that would be difficult enough to do today, let alone in the 19th century). If you wanted to send mail directly to a nation that had no treaty, you would need to find dedicated mail forwarders in a third country that had a treaty with the recipient. In a rapidly globalizing world, this arrangement could not last.

At the urging of the United States, an “International Postal Congress” was held in 1863 to hash out a streamlined global postal system. The Germans, led Heinrich von Stephan, spearheaded the effort and created the UPU framework, which created a standard flat rate to mail a letter anywhere in the world; required government to give equal treatment to foreign and domestic mail; and provided that stamps of one nation are accepted anywhere along the route.

The UPU is still based in Switzerland as a U.N. agency. As one of the oldest international organizations in history, it helped usher in the era of globalization — and all its attending conveniences — that we now take for granted. Such global standards and forums not only saved time and money, but in the case of maritime and aviation law, have arguably saved lives. (Imagine what international travel would be like without a uniform safety or communication framework!)

Advertisements

The Woman Who Fell From the Sky and Survived

Vesna Vulovic was a Serbian flight attendant who holds the Guiness World Record for surviving the highest fall without a parachute: 33,330 feet (10,160 meters). Her fall occurred in 1972 after an explosion brought down a Yugoslav airliner, killing everyone else on board.

20914300_10159177853425472_4850833641719141709_n

Although she broke multiple bones (including a totally crushed vertebra), sustained severe brain damage, and was in a coma for ten days, she suffered only partial and temporary paralysis, and made an almost full recovery within a year (she continued to walk with a limp for the rest of her life, owing to the spinal damage). Vulovic attributed her recovery to her “Serbian stubbornness” and “a childhood diet that included chocolate, spinach, and fish oil”. Continue reading

Colombian Independence Day

On this day in 1810, Colombia became one of the first countries in the Western Hemisphere to declare independence from a colonial power. Inspired both ideologically and strategically by the earlier American, Haitian, and French revolutions, a series of independence movements and rebellions erupted across the continent, with Colombia securing recognition in 1819 as “Gran Colombia”, a state that encompassed what is today Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, and parts of Peru, Brazil, and Guyana. (Hence why the flags of Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, which formed the core of the new country, are similar.)

Continue reading

Africa’s Art Deco Capital

Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, has just been designated as a World Heritage Site for its unique collection of Art Deco buildings, which UNESCO calls “an exceptional example of early modernist urbanism at the beginning of the 20th century and its application in an African context”. (And for which the city is sometimes called “Africa’s Miami”.)

Asmara’s architecture is a legacy of Italian rule, which stretched from 1889 until the end of the Second World War. Italy’s determination to be a colonial power, like its stronger European rivals, drove it to pioneer new and radical styles far from the constraints of European sensibilities (indeed, many of these structures were heavily criticized at the time). It became known as a paradise for bold Italian architects, and by the 1930s the capital had the nickname of “Little Rome” because half of its residents were Italian.

Unfortunately, Eritrea’s government is among the most repressive and totalitarian in the world, and there is much concern about its capacity to preserve these structures, to say nothing of the treatment of its citizens.

Info and photos courtesy of the New York Times and UNESCO

Why “Mom” Sounds the Same in Most Major Languages

In almost every language on Earth, no matter how distantly related, the word for mother is more or less a variation of “ma” or “mama”; this is one of the few instances of a word being near-universal across distinct cultures.

It is hypothesized that this is because these are some of the earliest sounds that infants make, and thus every culture associated them with the mother. Russian linguist Roman Jakobson proposed that infants make these sounds nasally while nursing.

Read more about this fascinating phenomenon at The Atlantic

If Only We Listened to De Gaulle

In 1934, Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces and the French Resistance during the Second World War, wrote Vers l’Armée de Métier (Toward a Professional Army), which formulated how France should organize its military. It was ahead of its time in advocating for a professional army based on mobile armored divisions, namely mechanized infantry and tanks. Not only did he propose this as a way to keep Germany in check, but he saw it as a means of enforcing international law.

Unfortunately for France and its allies, the book did extremely poorly in its home country: only 700 copies were sold. However, it sold ten times as many copies in neighboring Germany, where even Adolf Hitler himself reportedly studied it. Sure enough, Germany employed a very similar approach to du Galle’s, with its panzer units and mobile infantry sweeping through the country in the invasion of France in 1940.

At the time, de Gaulle, who had served with distinction in the First World War, remained a colonel, due to his bold views antagonizing France’s conservative military leaders. He nonetheless implemented many of his theories and tactics as commander of a tank regiment, and during an offensive against German armor at Montcornet on May 17th, he managed to temporarily turn back enemy forces without the benefit of air support. While this ultimately proved inconsequential in slowing the invasion, it was one of the few victories France enjoyed prior to its rapid capitulation just one month later.

Whereas French collaborators and traitors would blame French society for the fall of the country, de Gaulle – who refused to surrender and extolled his countrymen to continue fighting – took the reverse stance, blaming French military and civilian leaders while believing the French people had the courage and moral stamina to keep resisting. Given the sheer size and strategic value of the French Resistance, as recognized by Allied leaders like Eisenhower, his point was validated. If only his prescient book and ideas had been heeded, or at the very least he be placed in the higher ranking he earned. World War Two may have gone very differently, if at all.

H/T to  Jean Lacouture‘s DeGaulle: The Rebel 1890-1944 (Vol. 1)

Continue reading

The Mother and Father of Bombs

One has to appreciate, with a degree of gallows humor, how amusing our rivalry with the Russians can be.

The GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast — a.k.a. the “Mother of All Bombs” — was developed in 2003 and remains the most powerful non nuclear bomb in the U.S. military; it has a blast radius of 1,000 feet and a yield of nearly 44 tons of TNT.

Four years later, the Russians developed the Aviation Thermobaric Bomb of Increased Power, which is reportedly four times stronger than the MOAB (though this is disputed by some outside analysts) and of course they decide to name it the “Father of All Bombs”.

Something similar happened during the Cold War, in which the Russians developed and tested what remains the most powerful human-made explosion in history: the RDS-220 hydrogen bomb, code name Ivan and known in the West as the Tsar Bomba.

The three stage bomb had a yield of 50 megatons, which is equal to about 1,570 times the combined energy of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, ten times the combined energy of all the conventional explosives used in World War II, and 10 percent of the combined yield of all nuclear tests to date. And to think that theoretically, it could have had almost double this power, were it not for its builders deciding to put a tamper to limit nuclear fallout.

 

 

The kicker? The bomb was named “Kuzma’s mother” by its builders, which is a Russian idiom equivalent to “We’ll show you!”, and a possible reference to Nikita Khrushchev’s statement of same to the U.S. just one year before. Moreover, since it lacked any strategic application by virtue of its weight and size, some believe the whole point of the test was just to show up the U.S., which had earlier announced without warning that it was going to resume testing.

H/T Atomic Heritage Foundation

International Women’s Day

The earliest Women’s Day commemoration took place on February 28, 1909, in New York City. It was organized by the Socialist Party of America, which was a rising force in U.S. politics, and was intended to honor a strike the year before by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, one of the largest labor movements in the country and one of the first with primarily female membership.

In 1910, an International Women’s Conference was held in Copenhagen, Denmark with 100 women from 17 countries in attendance. They discussed various social and political issues affecting women and society as a whole — from suffrage to public education — and agreed on holding more rallies and demonstrations across the world to bring attention to women’s universal rights.

The following year, on March 19, 1911, the first International Women’s Day was held, involving over a million people across Europe. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, one of the most patriarchal and authoritarian countries at the time, saw 300 such rallies alone. Among other issues, women demanded that they be given the right to vote and to hold public office and for the end to sex discrimination in the workplace.

The breakout moment for IWD was March 8, 1917 in the capital of the Russian Empire, Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg). Women textile workers spontaneously managed to take over the whole city in demand for “Bread and Peace” – an end to the First World War (which Russia was badly losing), an end to food shortages, and an end to czarism. Seven days later, Emperor of Russia Nicholas II abdicated and the provisional government that followed granted women the right to vote.

IWD was predominantly celebrated by the socialist movement and communist countries until it was adopted in 1975 by the United Nations, where it has since taken on a broader political and social context.

World War Three?

I think people are too quick to invoke World War Three after every diplomatic scuffle, arms race, or rising tensions.

Over the last two centuries, since the advent of the international system, there have been literally hundreds, if not thousands, of potential flash points for global war. Only twice did it result in global conflict, and each of those were interrelated and stemmed from the intersection of factors unique to that time and place. Plus, it is obviously easier to notice the wars that occurred rather than the numerous potential wars that were averted or preempted.

Granted, those two wars killed over 70 million people and unleashed a level of destruction and barbarity that still remain incomprehensible. So, fear of something like that happening again is perfectly justified, and we mustn’t be complacent – war has long been the natural state of humanity, and the last few decades have been unusual in their relative peacefulness.

But we should be measured in our caution and tone down the apocalyptic rhetoric, which all too often feels dangerously fatalistic, if not eager (there is a subset of people, generally religious, who seem to welcome world-ending events).

What are your thoughts?