America has thrived despite a long history of ignorant voters making questionable decisions and unqualified elected officials implementing abysmal policies.

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By: Danny Oppenheimer and Mike Edwards

It’s hard not to feel pessimistic about America right now. Politics are polarized. Corruption abounds. Factual reporting is being drowned out by fake news and media bias. Race relations are downright toxic. If you were to judge by social media posts or media punditry, you would think that America is at its nadir. But that’s just not true. …

After bungling the 1890 census in San Francisco, economist Carl Plehn was tapped to run the Red Cross’s registration department in the wake of the city’s tragic earthquake.

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Public health and emergency relief efforts in San Francisco. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley.

By: Megan Finn

On April 18, 1906, a magnitude 8.0 earthquake shook buildings in San Francisco to the ground, breaking many of the pipes that carried water and gas in the city. Fires that started as a result of the earthquake raged for four days, leaving approximately half the city’s population homeless and destroying at least two-thirds of the built-up area, including the business district.

Because the earthquake and fire destroyed so much of the city, thousands of people scattered all over the Bay Area, and each person’s social geography shifted. Friends, family, and places of work were suddenly in different places. For people who did not own land, this relocation was possibly permanent. People updated each other with their new locations by telegram, if the telegraph was working, or mail, if they knew where to send the letters. Displaced people registered with newspapers and other groups to update people with their new location. …

Lin Yutang’s MingKwai typewriter is perhaps the most well-known — and most poorly understood — Chinese typewriter in history.

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By: Thomas Mullaney

“We learn with mingled emotions — transcending dismay and yet appreciably milder than despair — that Dr. Lin Yutang, our favorite oriental author … has invented a Chinese typewriter.” So began a 1945 article in the Chicago Daily Tribune that revealed to an American reading public the quixotic new pursuit of a celebrated cultural commentator, and beloved author of the bestselling titles “ My Country and My People” and “ The Importance of Living.” So allergic were they to this startling news, the authors explained, that at first they simply did not believe it. The news would have been “incredible,” they stressed, if it had not come directly from Lin’s publisher. …

In order to preserve nihilism as a meaningful concept, it’s necessary to distinguish it from pessimism, cynicism, and apathy.

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By: Nolan Gertz

Nihilism, not unlike time (according to Augustine) or porn (according to the U.S. Supreme Court), is one of those concepts that we are all pretty sure we know the meaning of unless someone asks us to define it. Nihil means “nothing.” -ism means “ideology.” Yet when we try to combine these terms, the combination seems to immediately refute itself, as the idea that nihilism is the “ideology of nothing” appears to be nonsensical. …

If certain areas of science appear to be quite mature, others are in the process of development, and yet others remain to be born.

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Even in our own time, science is often built on the ruins of theories once thought to be indestructible. Image: Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Wikimedia Commons

By: Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Here is a false concept often heard from the lips of the newly graduated: “Everything of major importance in the various areas of science has already been clarified. What difference does it make if I add some minor detail or gather up what is left in some field where more diligent observers have already collected the abundant, ripe grain. …

Where you stand when you talk to someone is reflexive and varies widely depending on your culture.

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Developed by anthropologist Edward T. Hall in the 60s, proxemics is the study of how we use space when we communicate. Image: Cristina Gottardi, via Unsplash

By: Roger Kreuz & Richard Roberts

It happens so naturally that most people never even think about it, but the amount of space that they maintain between each other is not random. It depends in large measure on where you’re from and who you’re talking to. Furthermore, these distances vary from culture to culture. If you run into an acquaintance on the street and stop to ask her how her new job is going, you’ll unconsciously choose to stand a culturally specific distance from her. For Americans, it would be considered quite disconcerting to hold this sidewalk conversation with only an inch or two separating your bodies. At the other extreme, it would be strange to stand several yards away, raising your voice so that the other person can hear you. …

Dreidel isn’t just a game of simple luck; it’s a practical lesson in discovering the value of fairness both to oneself and to others.

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Image: Robert Couse-Bakervia, Flickr CC

By: Eric Schwitzgebel

Superficially, dreidel looks like a simple game of luck, and a badly designed game at that. It lacks balance, clarity, and meaningful strategic choice. From this perspective, its prominence in the modern Hanukkah tradition is puzzling. Why encourage children to spend a holy evening gambling, of all things?

This superficial perspective misses the brilliance of dreidel. Dreidel’s seeming flaws are exactly its virtues. Dreidel is the moral world in miniature.

The platform is taking care of the problem of meaning in life by getting rid of any time to wonder.

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It is time to understand the enormous opportunity Facebook is giving humankind. Image source: Neonbrand via Unsplash

By: Robert Simanowski

What is easier than criticizing Facebook? It takes gossip for friendship, voyeurism for solidarity, and trivia for information. It has industrialized sharing and generates huge revenues from it. It is a permanent assessment center and an incredible waste of time. Yes, sure, of course. But, don’t people see the real benefit of Facebook? Don’t they realize how effectively it answers a basic social problem in a technical way? Does nobody remember the famous saying by Blaise Pascal? …

The MIT Press Essential Knowledge series offers accessible, concise, beautifully produced books on topics of current interest. In Recycling, author Finn Arne Jørgensen provides an overview of recycling as an activity and a process, following different materials through the waste stream.

Recycling aims to eliminate waste; conversely, without waste there is no recycling. But what is waste? We can go to the European Union for one definition: waste is “any substance or object which the holder discards or intends or is required to discard.” Such institutional definitions are important for setting international policy goals. While we will see throughout this book how such a definition is somewhat limited, it is also useful in that that it involves not only the discarded matter, but also the one who discards. Furthermore, the act of discarding is not a done deal in this definition — it is potentiality, a process, and ultimately a choice. This openness, the understanding that waste can become something else, is critical to under- standing recycling. …

Urbanization and the spread of artificial light are transforming life for all of earth’s species, bringing about a host of unintended consequences.

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By Christopher Preston

In 1800, only two percent of the human population lived in cities. A century later, that portion grew to 15 percent. Then, sometime in 2007, a person was born in a city somewhere on the globe who tipped the proportion of Homo sapiens that lives in cities over the 50 percent mark. Despite the fact that cities cover only two to three percent of terrestrial surface area, more than half of humanity is now urban-dwelling. …


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