Brazil’s Forgotten WWII Contribution

Fun history fact: Brazil actively participated in the Second World War, and in some respects played a relatively significant role. Joining the Allied cause in 1943 — one of the few independent states outside of Europe or the European sphere of influence to do so — Brazil assembled a force of over 25,000 men and women to fight in the Mediterranean Theater under U.S. command: the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (BEF). Continue reading

Thirty Fun Facts About Russia

Business Insider has compiled a list of some interesting facts about Russia that are sure to delight fellow russophiles.

Some of my personal favorites:

  • Russian doesn’t need a subject and a verb to complete a sentence. Therefore “Dog.” or “Was walking.” are both complete sentences
  • Russians use the same word to say “get healthier” and “get fatter.”
  • One super-popular Russian meal — called “holodets” — contains meat suspended in salted gelatin.
  • Russians don’t put eyes on smileys when typing. They are ) or ))))) but never : ) The more parentheses you add, the more you like something.
  • Legend has it that Russians chose Christianity over Islam back in 988 AD in part because they didn’t want to give up alcohol.
  • There are no Russian words for “fun” or “privacy”.
  • Under the Soviet Union, the distribution of Beatles albums was forbidden by the government, so some medical students would burn Beatles songs onto old X-rays.

The World’s Biggest Alcohol Drinkers

The world’s drinkers of alcohol by national average are Belarus, Moldova, and Russia, which consume 15-18 liters (3.9-4.7 gallons) per adult annually.

However, these figures take into account all adults, including those that abstain from alcohol, which brings down the averages. When teetotalers are excluded, the results are very different, as this chart from The Economist shows.

Alcohol Consumption By Country

By this measure, it is mostly in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East — places where alcohol is not especially popular — where actual drinkers down the most. The African nation of Chad, where nearly 90 percent of adults abstain from alcohol, takes the lead: its 780,000 drinkers annually consume almost 9 gallons of alcohol each. (On the usual ranking, it would come 115th out of 190 countries.)

Note that most of the top ten countries are places where most adults do not drink; in essence, the minority that do drink are more than making up for the majority that do not. Also note where the usual heavy hitters in alcohol consumption, like the top three mentioned above, rank when you subtract their abstainers.

Articles of Interest — Ancient Mega-Temples and Vital Whale Feces

An incredible 6,000-year-old mega-temple is discovered in an unlikely place…

Sci-News reports that the ancient site belonged to the Trypillian culture, which lasted from approximately 5,400-2,700 B.C. and extended from the Carpathian piedmont to the Black Sea. The culture was complex, boasting early advancements in metallurgy, pottery and textiles.

According to researcher Mikhail Videyko, the temple was likely two stories tall, the largest of its kind on the site, and may have been the “center of a complex plan” as the “central temple of the whole village community.” Each single-habitation Trypillian settlement appears to have been burnt to the ground after about 60 to 80 years of continuous occupation for reasons unknown to current researchers, including the temple site.

The unexpected importance of whale waste provides a valuable lesson about complex ecosystems…

[T]he whales fertilise the plant plankton on which the krill and fish depend. This effect, known as the “whale pump” has been hypothesised for several years. But now there is some experimental evidence to support it. A team of scientists at the University of Tasmania collected some pygmy blue whale poo (who knew that marine biology was so rich with possibility?) and grew plankton in water containing varying concentrations of it. They found that the richer the mix, the greater the productivity. No surprises there.

Separate research, in the Gulf of Maine, estimates that whales and seals, by defecating at the surface and recycling nutrients there, would, before their numbers were reduced by hunting, have been responsible for releasing three times as much nitrogen into those waters as the sea absorbed directly from the atmosphere. The volume of plant plankton has declined across much of the world over the past century, probably as a result of rising global temperatures. But the decline appears to have been been steepest where whales and seals have been most heavily hunted. The fishermen who have insisted that predators such as seals should be killed might have been reducing, not enhancing, their catch.

But it doesn’t end there. Plant plankton, when they die, slowly descend into the abyss, taking with them the carbon they have absorbed from the atmosphere. It is hard to quantify, but when they were at their historical populations, whales are likely to have made a small but significant contribution to the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The recovery of the great whales, which werereduced by between two-thirds and 90%, but whose numbers are slowly climbing again in some parts of the oceans, could be seen as a benign form of geoengineering.

This should not be the only, or even the main, reason why we should wish them to return, but the way in which whales change the composition of the atmosphere provides yet another refutation of the idea that we can manipulate the living world with simple, predictable results.

Random chance is biggest factor in two-thirds of cancer cases…

“This development has some rather striking implications. Improving certain lifestyle factors like weight, tobacco use, or alcohol consumption can certainly contribute to the prevention of some specific cancers, such as lung cancer. However, for other cancers that are more likely to be influenced by unpredictable cell mutations, the lifestyle choices might not make that much of a difference. This could warrant the need to more aggressively pursue ways to identify cancer in the earliest stages, when it can more easily be dealt with.”

“This study shows that you can add to your risk of getting cancers by smoking or other poor lifestyle factors. However, many forms of cancer are due largely to the bad luck of acquiring a mutation in a cancer driver gene regardless of lifestyle and heredity factors. The best way to eradicate these cancers will be through early detection, when they are still curable by surgery,” concludes Vogelstein.

Just for fun: nine interesting facts about flatulence, such as…

Modern society views flatulence as a negative. This is unfortunate, because in most cases, it’s the byproduct of a beautiful thing — the intricate ecosystem of bacteria living in your intestines.

“It’s a complex ecology, with various organisms coexisting and thriving,” Kashyap says. “When a complex carbohydrate reaches your colon, some bacteria will break it down first, and then some of their byproducts will feed other bacteria. The whole community benefits from a single carbohydrate that you consume.”

What’s more, you also benefit. Scientists are still unraveling the role of the microbiome in digestion, but it’s known that the same bacteria that produce gas also generate vitamins and fatty acids that help maintain our colon lining, and may support our immune systems.

Articles of Interest: Somali Bananas, Bibliophile Americans, and More

Somalia experiences an unlikely resurgence in an unlikely way…

Somalia elected a new president and adopted a constitution in 2012, bringing some stability, and attracting pledges of aid from international donors. Somali pirates, who once threatened international shipping in the Indian Ocean, have largely been contained and the Shabab have lost their grip over many towns.

“By any measure, Somalia today is in a better situation than it has been for the past 23 years,” said Nicholas Kay, the United Nations’ special representative for Somalia.

That stability has allowed farmers like Mr. Nasir, who studied agriculture at Mogadishu University, to return to a business that has been in his family for four generations.

How have Roman monuments endured all these centuries…?

In a new study, researchers drilled down into the chemistry of Roman concrete to find out what makes it so resilient. As suspected, the key ingredient is the specific blend of limestone and volcanic ash used in the mortar, says Gail Silluvan for the Washington Post.

Mixing mortar according to the recipe of 1st century Roman architect Vitruvius, the scientists’ analyses unveiled that the mortar included “dense clusters of a durable mineral called strätlingite.”

“The crystals formed because of a reaction that took place over time between the lime and volcanic matter in the mortar,” says Sullivan, and “helped prevent the spread of microscopic cracks by reinforcing interfacial zones, which researchers called ‘the weakest link of modern cement-based concrete.'”

The reasons why Pakistan and India are in perennial conflict…

Pakistan’s military leaders have known since the 1960s that they cannot take Kashmir by force. Why, then, have they persisted? The answer is simple: political solutions haven’t been forthcoming. India holds the balance of power, and for all its repression in Kashmir, the world sees no evil. For the Pakistani Army, confrontation has become the only way to keep the issue alive, forcing the world’s attention. India’s brutal counterinsurgency might not make news, but a shootout between two nuclear powers gets everyone’s attention. As long as the deadlock over Kashmir remains, Pakistan’s need for confrontation will persist.

Americans love books more than ever despite the Internet…

In 1957, not even a quarter of Americans were reading a book or novel. By 2005, that number had shot up to 47 percent. I couldn’t find a more recent number, but I think it’s fair to say that reading probably hasn’t declined to the horrific levels of the 1950s.

All this to say: our collective memory of past is astoundingly inaccurate. Not only has the number of people reading not declined precipitously, it’s actually gone up since the perceived golden age of American letters.

So, then why is there this widespread perception that we are a fallen literary people? I think, as Marshall Kirkpatrick says, that social media acts as a kind of truth serum. Before, only the literary people had platforms. Now, all the people have platforms. And so we see that not everyone shares our love for Dos Passos. Or any books at all. Or reading in general.

Celebrating Fourth of July? You’re Either Two Days Late or One Month Early

Fourth of July factoid: the legal separation of the Thirteen Colonies from Great Britain technically occurred on July 2, when the Second Continental Congress voted to approve a formal resolution of independence, which had first been suggested a month earlier.

The Declaration of Independence was hammered out two days later to explain this decision and subsequently signed July 4. Since what occurred July 2 was private, the American people saw the day that the public announcement was signed as the true day of independence — although John Adams allegedly preferred July 2 as the date. As he wrote on July 3:

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

It gets more interesting: despite the claim of the Founding Fathers, many historians believe that the Declaration was actually signed nearly a month after its adoption, on August 2, 1776. Coincidentally, both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson – the only signers of the Declaration who would later serve as Presidents – died on the same day: July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration (moreover, although not a signer of the document, James Madison also died on July 4).

Anyway, have a safe and happy Fourth of July.

Source: Wikipedia, Quartz

The First Restaurants

The first known restaurants in history were the thermopolia (singular thermopolium) of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, which literally meant “a place where something hot is sold”. These diner-bars consisted of a small room with a distinctive L-shaped counter in the front. Embedded in this counter were earthenware jars (called dolia) used to store food that could be eaten quickly or on-the-go. Fancier venues often included decorative frescoes or ornaments. 

Here are some photos for reference (sorry for the poor quality in the first one):

A Roman Thermopolium in Pompeii

A Roman Thermopolium in Pompeii II

A fancier Roman thermopolium in Pompeii

These establishments were popular due to the lack of kitchens in most homes; in fact, unlike nowadays, eating out regularly was seen as an activity of the lower classes, since the wealthy could afford private kitchens. But like today, thermopolia were considered very important aspect of socializing and leisure. Well-preserved ruins of thermopolia can be seen in Pompeii and Herculaneum, the cities famously preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. In the former alone, 158 thermopolia have been identified, located mostly along the main axis of the town and the public spaces.

China saw the emergence of more sophisticated eateries, including the first known food caterers, in the 11th century, centered mostly around Kaifeng, the first capital of the Song Dynasty (960–1279). These likely grew out of the tea houses and taverns that catered to travelers (as in Europe, most places to eat and drink outside the home were exclusively inns and lodges). These restaurants blossomed into an industry in their own right, offering menus, different styles of cuisine, price brackets, and religious requirements. One interesting account from 1275 describes the restaurant business in terms that could apply today:

The people of Hangzhou are very difficult to please. Hundreds of orders are given on all sides: this person wants something hot, another something cold, a third something tepid, a fourth something chilled; one wants cooked food, another raw, another chooses roast, another grill.

The modern concept of a restaurant — as well as the term itself — originated in Paris, France in the late 18th century. The word comes from the French verb restaurer, meaning “to restore”, which reflected the fact that restaurants were originally founded for health reasons — namely to provide healthful foods and remedies. Below I’ll post some images of preserved thermpolia to give you a better picture (I sadly could find no account of historical Chinese restaurants).

The First Handshake

The first recorded handshake in human history is depicted in the Monument of Kalhu (in what is today northern Iraq), which shows the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III shaking hands with Marduk-zakir-sumi I of Babylon in a public display of diplomatic friendship.


Handshaking was also practiced in Ancient Greece as far back as the fifth century BCE, as evidenced by several relief inscriptions like the following:

It is believed that the handshake developed a gesture of peace because it demonstrated that the hand holds no weapon. Furthermore, gripping another person’s hand leaves both individuals momentarily vulnerable, thereby further solidifying the sense of trust between them (some forms of bowing have similar origins — in the process, your hands are shown to be free of weapons while your posture leave you vulnerable). A handshake also symbolizes balance and equality, as both parties interact in a similar way (again, a parallel can be seen with some forms of bowing).

Handshake etiquette varies widely across cultures. In some parts of the world, such as Russia and the Middle-East, it is uncommon for men and women to shake hands with each other. In many countries, such as China, Japan, Korea, and Turkey, weaker handshakes are preferred and/or seen as more respectful; conversely, other places like Norway and the United States, prefer firmer handshakes. Of course, globalization has lead to some changes in these customs.

Enemy Mine

Contrary to popular belief, the expression “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” (also known as enemy mine) is not an Arab proverb, nor does it have any origins in the Middle-East. Instead it comes from the Indian philosopher and teacher Chanakya (also known as Kautilya or Vishnu Gupta), who was a royal advisor to the Mauryan dynasty in the fourth century BC.

Known as the “Indian Machiavelli”, he is considered a pioneer in political science and economics, making contributions to both areas long before they were formal fields of study. His seminal work was the Arthashastra, one of the first books in history to discuss statecraft, diplomacy, economic policy, ethics, and military strategy. The original wording of the phrase went the following way:

The king who is situated anywhere immediately on the circumference of the conqueror’s territory is termed the enemy.

The king who is likewise situated close to the enemy, but separated from the conqueror only by the enemy, is termed the friend (of the conqueror).

Chanakya also took some progressive views as well, advocating for the fair treatment of women and peasants, land reform, environmental protection, and disaster relief. His main advice on governing could be summed up in the following statement:

In the happiness of his subjects lies the king’s happiness, in their welfare his welfare. He shall not consider as good only that which pleases him but treat as beneficial to him whatever pleases his subjects.