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Surviving Managua’s Government Crackdowns and Torrential Rains

By | November 15, 2017

On an overcast afternoon, Julio Baldelomar carries his metal ring of bagged chips past a new tourist attraction called Paseo Xolotlán, named for the nearly Los Angeles-sized lake on Managua, Nicaragua’s north side. Families flock to the high-walled complex to see a miniature replica of old Managua and walk on the waterfront promenade. But 31-year-old Julio is not allowed to enter while he’s hawking the …

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American Populism Shouldn’t Have to Embrace Ignorance

By | November 14, 2017

Public ignorance is an inherent threat to democracy. It breeds superstition, prejudice, and error; and it prevents both a clear-eyed understanding of the world and the formulation of wise policies to adapt to that world.
Plato believed it was more than a threat: He thought it characterized democracies, and would lead them inevitably into anarchy and ultimately tyranny. But the liberal democracies of the modern …

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We Shouldn’t Rely on Politicians to Memorialize Our Fallen Soldiers

By | November 10, 2017

Five U.S. infantry soldiers died on June 21, 2007, when their 30-ton Bradley tracked vehicle hit a deep-buried bomb in Adhamiyah, Iraq.
I was embedded as a reporter with their unit when they died, and I watched as the men who served with them rallied.
They reached out to the mothers and fathers and wives, offering and seeking comfort, but also saying what they believed needed to …

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The Origins of Burma’s Old and Dangerous Hatred

By | November 8, 2017

In a recent interview with a Guardian journalist, the Burmese monk U Rarzar expressed his country’s rationale for fearing and repressing its Muslim minority. “[The] Ma Ba Tha is protecting people from terrorists like ISIS,” U Rarzar told the British newspaper. “Muslims always start the problems, such as rape and violence.” While U Rarzar’s comments might seem shocking, they repeat a script that Burmese Buddhists …

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How Fishing Created Civilization

By | November 7, 2017

Of the three ancient ways of obtaining food—hunting, plant foraging, and fishing—only the last remained important after the development of agriculture and livestock raising in Southwest Asia some 12,000 years ago.
Yet ancient fisher folk and their communities have almost entirely escaped scholarly study. Why? Such communities held their knowledge close to their chests and seldom gave birth to powerful monarchs or divine rulers. And …

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The Role of War and Sacrifice in Russia’s Mythic Identity

By | November 3, 2017

If you want to understand Russia better, think of war. But not the one in eastern Ukraine or the frightening possibility of a conflict with NATO.
Go back instead to Russia’s 1945 victory over Nazi Germany. That triumph is the greatest event in Russia’s thousand-year history. In the largest war ever, Russia led the Soviet Union in crushing absolute evil and thereby saved the world …

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How Don Quixote’s Battles Predicted Piracy in the Digital Age

By | November 1, 2017

Although Don Quixote wasn’t the first great novel (that honor belongs to the Tale of Genji, written by an 11th-century lady-in-waiting at the Japanese court), it was the first to do something important: capture a new world of print.
That world had begun when Johannes Gutenberg improved upon Chinese printing techniques and combined them with paper, itself an invention that had arrived from China via …

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How the Evolution of the Human Brain Led Us to God

By | October 31, 2017

The human brain is the most intriguing object in the universe, populated with 100 billion neurons connected by nerve fibers, which, if laid end to end, could circle the earth four times. British neurologist Macdonald Critchley spoke of “the divine banquet of the brain … a feast with dishes that remain elusive in their blending, and with sauces whose ingredients are even now a secret.” …

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The Greatest Story Ever Told About Hyperbole, Humbug, and P.T. Barnum!

By | October 27, 2017

In 1835, Phineas Taylor Barnum was down on his luck and anxious to find an “amusement” that would attract paying customers. One lucky day a stranger came into the shop where Barnum worked and told him that he possessed half-ownership of a “curiosity”: a woman named Joice Heth who, the stranger claimed, was the 161-year-old slave who raised George Washington.
Barnum examined Heth and the …

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How Tea Became a Weapon in Darjeeling’s Ethnic Struggle

By | October 25, 2017

Darjeeling tea is a world-renowned product that reliably flows from India’s highlands, where it has been grown for more than a century. But since early this summer, none of it has reached global markets.
A newly revived independence movement has cut tea exports, stopped the region’s tourism, and shut down schools. The Gorkhaland movement asks for independence from the state of West Bengal. Activists have …