The Elegant Skull

The political cartoon that became a Mexican memento mori.

In 1910, towards the end of General Porfirio Díaz’s rule of Mexico, the country was unknowingly on the verge of civil war. The Porfiriato period enriched a minority elite ruling class (as well as foreign investors), while the majority of Mexicans remained poor rural laborers. In this time of social and economic unrest José Guadalupe Posada used satire for political change.

Calaveras & Memento Mori

José Guadalupe Posada was a 19th and 20th century pro-revolutionary Mexican illustrator & political cartoonist. He produced historical, religious, and satirical illustrations but he’s best remembered for his calaveras (“skulls”) work.

Posada’s calaveras work used skeletons to satirize Mexican society.

Posada’s calaveras are illustrations of Mexican life featuring skeletons in place of living people. They are frequently lively, smiling, skeletons engaged in normal activities. By using skeletons Posada used the idea of memento mori (as well as to some degree Danse Macabre) to remind his audience that, rich or poor, people from all walks of life will die and that there’s a comedic futility to many of the preoccupations of daily life. His most memorable calaveras were his satirizations of the wealthy class, the most famous of which is La Calavera Catrina (“the Elegant Skull”).

La Catrina is Posada’s most famous calavera.

La Catrina is a female skeleton in an elaborate flowery hat. She’s Posada’s commentary on the upper class women of the time who turned their backs on their Mexican heritage in favor of European fashions. She is also reminiscent of Santa Muerte (“Saint Death”), the pre-Catholic deity of death who has a long tradition in Mexican culture.

Over the years La Catrina has become an iconic part of Mexican culture. She is the central figure in Diego Rivera’s 1947 mural Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (“Dream of a Sunday Afternoon at Alameda Central Park”). Today she is seen in the art and costumes of Día de Muertos festivities.

Trader Joe's taco sauce
Posada’s work can be found in a variety of places today, in this case on spicy taco sauce from Trader Joe’s.

Rednecks & Hillbillies

The terms redneck and hillbilly both come from rebellious 17th century Scottish protestants.


In 17th century, King Charles I pushed for greater religious uniformity across the British Isles. Scottish Presbyterians disapproved as these reforms were increasingly Catholic in style & organization. In 1638 thousands of Scots signed the National Covenant (sometimes using their own blood as ink), signifying their preference for a Presbyterian Church of Scotland and their refusal to accept the reforms made by Charles. Going one step further, some of these “Covenanters” took to wearing red cloth on their necks as an outward sign of their resistance. These dissenting Scottish religious rebels were the original “red necks”.

Looking closely at The Signing of the National Covenant in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh by William Allan you can see the man signing the Covenant at the center is having his blood drawn by a dagger for him to use as ink.


Political and religious tension continued around the British Isles throughout the late 17th century which led to the 1688 Glorious Revolution. On the one side of this revolution was Catholic King James II and those who supported a strong monarchy, on the other were Protestants & Parliamentarians. Afraid of a Catholic dynasty and that James would leave the throne to his Catholic son James Francis Edward, seven influential English nobility invited the protestant Dutch Prince William of Orange to invade England and take the throne.

Around the same time, Scottish Presbyterian leader Richard Cameron was preaching a message of rebellion against the English. Being a religious nonconformist, Cameron took to being a field preacher and spread his radical message outdoors away from Scottish towns. His followers (the Cameronians) were given the nickname “hillmen” due to their outdoor religious gatherings.

As William of Orange easily invaded England, and successfully took the throne, he was supported by Scottish Protestants. The Scottish living in Northern Ireland at the time fought against the Jacobite supporters of King James. William of Orange was nicknamed “King Billy” and his Ulster Scots Protestant supporters were nicknamed “Billy boys”. Eventually these two Scottish Protestant rebel nicknames of “hillmen” and “Billy boys” got combined to form “hillbilly boys” and then just “hillbilly”.

Ulster Scot supporters of William of Orange became known as “Billy Boys” which, when combined with the Scottish Cameronian nickname of “hillmen”, eventually became “hillbilly”.

American Rednecks & Hillbillies

Despite their successful support for William many Scottish were still oppressed for being Presbyterians and for being Scottish. Searching for greater religious & personal freedom they began to emigrate in larger numbers from Ulster to the British colonies in North America. An estimated 200,000 Ulster Scots (aka Scotch-Irish) emigrated to the American colonies between 1717 and 1775. Settling up and down the East coast and throughout Appalachia, these Scottish protestants brought with them their religion, their rebelliousness, as well as their nicknames.

Over the centuries the meanings of both “redneck” and “hillbilly” have changed. During the “Redneck War” of 1920-21 “redneck” was used to label the unionizing coal miners (many of whom were Scotch-Irish) who wore red bandanas in solidarity. The term has also been used to describe early 20th century southern Democrats as well as more literally to describe poor farmers with sunburnt necks. Hillbilly also took on a more literal interpretation to describe the people who settled the rural hilly areas of Appalachia and the Ozarks. Today both terms are generally used as derogatory slurs for poor rural whites.

Roses Instead of Cocaine

Most roses sold in the United States come from Colombia.

Most of the Valentine’s Day roses sold in the United States come from Colombia. Roses from Colombia make up around 60% of US florist rose sales and they account for most of the roses sold in supermarkets (and supermarkets make up about half of US flower sales).

In the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, Colombia ships about 150 million roses to the United States. Walmart alone purchases about 24 million Colombian roses for the holiday. Upwards of 30 to 35 flights take off from Bogota each day filled with flowers, flying mostly to the United States.

Sniff Flowers, Not Cocaine

Between 1990 and 2018 American grown roses lost 95% of their market share, from 545 million roses sold to less than 30 million. So what happened? In 1991 the US government passed the Andean Trade Preference Act with Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru. This eliminated tariffs on certain products including cut flowers. The legislation was a carrot (as opposed to the stick) approach to encourage cocaine producing countries to produce & export something that wasn’t cocaine and make money in the process.

The system has had questionable success in curtailing the production of cocaine, but it’s been a big success for Colombian roses. Colombia now grows 20,000 acres of flowers across over 300 industrial farms. The flower industry directly employs around 90,000 Colombians and indirectly employs 40,000 more in adjacent industries. The biggest loser in this agreement has been the American cut flower industry. The American companies still in operation have transitioned to growing higher-end roses that sell for more money intended for weddings and other special events.

Conspiracy Theories

Belief in conspiracy theories comes from a desire to make sense of complex or troubling events. They try to reduce the anxiety and confusion generated by things that are hard to understand and/or don’t fit with one’s world view.

The Jews of Medieval Europe were often believed to have committed a variety of nefarious plots. From being responsible for the death of Jesus, to poisoning water wells during the Black Death, to a sinister association with money (which serves as a foundation for later conspiracy theories) … the Jews have been victims of conspiracy theories for thousands of years.

Scapegoating marginalized peoples is common in conspiratorial thinking. Solving why conspiracy theories are so attractive to so many people is complicated.

Out of Control

Conspiracy theories are a way of making sense of events that are hard to understand. Humans dislike uncertainty, so having an explanation (however flawed) is more attractive than doubt. Uncertainty generates anxiety and stressful times only serve to increase the number of people turning to conspiracy theories as a way to alleviate their anxiety.

For example, there are numerous conspiracy theories surrounding coronavirus – it was engineered by the Chinese government, or it was engineered by Bill Gates, or it’s being spread by 5G cell phone towers. The 1889 global influenza pandemic (the “Russian flu”) was blamed on electric lights, telegraph poles, and even just electricity in general. What’s old is new again. People are afraid of a deadly virus that isn’t fully understood and so they blame a new technology that they also don’t fully understand.

Fighting the 1889 influenza pandemic, or fighting the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, for years medical professionals have also had to fight conspiracy theories.

The world is largely out of our control and major world events can remind us of how little control we have. Conspiracy theories give a feeling of control to people who feel anxious about a situation they can’t control. Many events are the complex result of a confluence of factors, and sometimes things just happen at random. Neither of these make people feel good. Complexity is not the soundbite people want. Instead it is much more attractive to believe in a simplistic fictional narrative where there are clearly defined good guys and bad guys and you can blame the bad guys for what’s happening. People like easy to understand stories rather than complicated chaos. In having a target to blame, a conspiracy theory believer can take action and have some degree of control rather than being powerless to a complicated abstract concept.

Humans are also pattern recognition machines. Unfortunately we also imagine patterns where there are none. Gamblers and sports fans see streaks and patterns where mathematically there is nothing more than normal chance. People who see non-existent patterns in normal life are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. In conspiracy theories people construct connections and see patterns where there are none in an attempt to create a story that feels better than uncertainty.

Humans are pattern recognizing machines, but sometimes we find patterns that don’t exist.

All Kinds

While people who believe in conspiracy theories come from all economic levels, genders, political affiliations, and racial backgrounds, there are a few patterns that exist. For one, people who believe in one conspiracy theory are statistically more likely to believe in additional unrelated theories. Also, belief in conspiracy theories is fueled by the anxiety of not understanding why things happen, and the people who are most likely to not understand things are the less educated.

While conspiracy theories range from the small to large, major world events are more likely to be the focus of conspiracy theories because the effects of such events are so impactful. People want big meaningful events to have equally big and meaningful explanations. This is proportionality bias. The JFK assassination is the focus of numerous conspiracy theories, but the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan is not. Even though both events are similar in nature, for most people nothing really resulted in the failed assassination of Reagan and so a simple explanation was sufficient. For the JFK assassination however, the idea that one deranged person could cause so much chaos wasn’t a big enough answer for such a big event.

On the Inside

Ultimately believing in conspiracy theories is about belief – it is not about facts. People who believe in conspiracy theories have an insular and circular logic that shields them from the real world. Facts that contradict a conspiracy theory are met with suspicion and are thought of as part of the conspiracy. People like information that feels right, not necessarily is right. Further, the absence of proof to support a conspiracy theory can be seen as proof of the conspiracy theory. It’s an echo chamber shielded from reality.

In 2016 Dr. David Grimes created a formula for how long a conspiracy could realistically stay a secret before being exposed to the public. The more people involved, and the more time that passes, the more likely that someone will say something. For example, the moon landing involved around 411,000 NASA employees. As of today it is extremely unlikely that the moon landing was a hoax because it would have meant that almost half a million people were sworn to secrecy and not a single one of them ever let anything slip for decades. Grimes’s formula demonstrates just how unlikely it is for most conspiracy theories to be true. Information wants to be free. But belief in conspiracy theories continues.

The QAnon conspiracy theory started around 2017. It has since grown into a wide-reaching network of beliefs including a pedophile ring run by celebrities & liberals who are controlling the media, secret deep-state government operations, aliens, human sacrifice, and (wouldn’t you know it) the only person who can stop it all is Donald Trump.


Conspiracy theories are contradictorily both known and unknown. The believer has secret knowledge but also lacks any real evidence. That a conspiracy could have been partially leaked but no real evidence is revealed is very unlikely. But believers are not deterred because conspiracy theories aren’t about facts.

In an age of unprecedented access to information some people have sought emotional refuge in baseless fictional narratives. Conspiracy theories are a symptom, but not the cause, of ignorance. It is easier to prevent a conspiracy theory from taking hold than to change someone’s mind once they believe. It is much harder to unlearn something than learn something new. One way to prevent the adoption of conspiracy theories is an idea called “Pre-bunking” or more formally as attitudinal inoculation. In Pre-bunking people learn some of the techniques used to manipulate them into believing things that aren’t true, arming them to be ready when they encounter misinformation. For those who already believe, psychologists say it is better to treat the root cause of a believer’s ignorance than to try and dissuade them from a particular conspiracy theory.

So whether it’s the suspicion of witches, the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, the Communist red scare, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Illuminati, crop circles, water fluoridation, Area 51, the Royal Family assassinated Princess Diana, 9/11 was an inside job, chemtrails, Obama wasn’t born in America, QAnon, flat earth theory, the deep state, anti-vaxxers, or that coronavirus is being spread by cell phone towers … knowledge from reliable sources and improving critical thinking skills are the best ways to reduce belief in conspiracy theories.

That Mitchell and Webb Look satirize conspiratorial thinking.

Thai Restaurants & Culinary Diplomacy

The dramatic increase in the number of Thai restaurants is driven by a culinary diplomacy program of the Thai government

Between 2001 and 2019 the number of Thai restaurants worldwide tripled. In the United States the number of Thai restaurants went from around 2,000 to over 5,000. Meanwhile at around 300,000 people Thai Americans only make up around 0.09% of the 330 million Americans. By comparison there are around 37 million Mexican Americans and around 54,000 Mexican restaurants around the US. That’s one Mexican restaurant for every 650 Mexican Americans but one Thai restaurant for every 55 Thai Americans. That’s a lot of Thai restaurants compared to so few Thai Americans. So other than tasting great, what has driven this explosion in Thai restaurants?

Culinary Diplomacy

In 2001 the Thai government formed the Global Thai Restaurant Company, Ltd. whose goal has been to spread Thai food and Thai culture around the world. This government-supported program offers generous loans to Thai nationals living abroad to open restaurants. They offer training in the cooking of standardized Thai dishes, they award “Thai Select” certificates for restaurants that are of high quality, and they have created A Manual for Thai Chefs Going Abroad to help train new Thai restaurateurs. They also offer predesigned restaurant packages to create Thai restaurants at different price points.

Thai predesigned restaurant packages include:

Elephant Jump: the lower-priced experience aimed at $5 to $15 per customer
Cool Basil: the mid-tier offering at $15 to $25 per person
Golden Leaf: the higher-end culinary experience at $25 to $30 per person

Some Thai restaurants are even named after these packages – they didn’t even bother to come up with their own names. These Thai restaurant packages are like a government sponsored version of the “Irish pub in a box”.

thai basil
Thai Basil restaurant in Manchester, Vermont didn’t even come up with an original name, keeping instead one of the predesigned restaurant package names.

The Thai government’s efforts fall under what is known as culinary diplomacy, or gastrodiplomacy – it’s soft diplomacy. Through food you can introduce your culture to other countries, winning hearts and minds through stomachs. As a result of Thailand’s success other countries are creating similar programs including Peru, South Korea, and Taiwan among others. Culinary diplomacy can generate revenue through increases in exports and tourism. Indirectly, these programs can create favorable impressions of a country, its culture, and its people.

Culinary diplomacy can also improve the relations of people within a country. Mustafa Nuur is a Somali refugee living in Lancaster, PA who runs the Bridge program. Bridge is a cross-cultural experience which allows you to book a meal with a local immigrant family to share stories and eat the food from their home country. This helps create bonds between new immigrants and their neighbors, all through sharing a meal.

Calvin and Hobbes (the real ones)

The characters of Calvin and Hobbes are named after a theologian and a philosopher.

The comic strip Calvin and Hobbes features a six year old boy named Calvin and his sometimes anthropomorphic stuffed tiger Hobbes. The two are named after 16th century protestant theologian John Calvin and 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. The characters of Calvin and Hobbes are decidedly a lot more fun than their namesakes.

John Calvin

Born in France in 1509, John Calvin trained to be a lawyer but moved to Geneva, Switzerland and became a major figure in the protestant reformation that was spreading across Europe at the time. Unlike Martin Luther, who looked to work with Catholic doctrine but make some changes, Calvin threw it all out and started from scratch creating an entirely new school of Christian thought. Among other things his new theology taught that we can’t know anything about God except what God chooses to reveal to us, that because of Original Sin we are driven to sin unless God steps in to help us, that you only partially have free will because God has predetermined your fate to end up in Heaven or Hell so you’re going to end up doing what it takes to merit the one you are destined for, and that there is nothing you can do about any of this.

The Catholic Church used to name heretical movements after the founder (such as Lutheranism). Similarly, this is how Calvinism was born. Calvin’s ideas for reformation became influential with a host of protestant groups including the Presbyterians, the Puritans, and the Huguenots. Calvin also believed that “… the human heart is a perpetual idol factory”, and that religious art was a distraction. This is why Calvinist churches are so plain and without statues or other ornamentation. Until this time the Catholic Church had been a lucrative source of work for artists, but because of the reformation movement’s austere aesthetic, to earn a living artists were forced to either produce more secular art or move to other cities or countries where the reformation hadn’t taken hold as strongly. This simple aesthetic applied to Calvinist clothing as well (such as the simple styles and Sunday black clothes of the Puritans).

In politics Calvin believed in the separation of church and state, but he also believed that politicians & royalty were in positions of power because God willed it. As such authority figures should be submissively obeyed even when said figures are unworthy of such deference (except if they are leading you astray from God). Which is kind of like Thomas Hobbes …

Thomas Hobbes

Born in 1588, 24 years after Calvin’s death, Thomas Hobbes’s world view was strongly influenced by the destruction brought about by the English Civil War. From this he produced Leviathan, which is his 1651 treatise of social contract political theory. In short, he believed that, when left on our own and without government, humans are violent and selfish. He believed we need government to help us rise above our base instincts. Without a political community he said that the life would be “… solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Similar to Calvin’s view that humans are compelled to selfishness & sin, Hobbes’s political philosophy was that without a government, the default “state of nature” for humans is chaotic and violent.

This is the basis for his argument that we not only need government but that we also must obey authority figures even when said figures leave a lot to be desired. In his mind, an abusive dictatorial government was still better than no government at all. There was almost no place for political revolution in Hobbes’s version of the social contract.

It’s worth noting that the foundation for Hobbes’s argument, the belief that without government “uncivilized” humans would engage in constant bickering & violence and would always be looking over their shoulder for attacks from others, isn’t necessarily true. The philosophical novel Ishmael by Daniel Quinn partially explores this assumption and how the competition for greater wealth is what incites violence. Many early tribal groups living within their means were able to live in relative stability. It has also been argued that, as humans became more sedentary in civilizations, warfare increased because humans couldn’t move away from one another to avoid conflict.

Even keeping to 17th century social contract philosophy there are arguments against Hobbes’s ideas. John Locke also believed in the benefits of having a strong government, but he believed that if that government was jeopardizing your natural rights to “life, liberty, and property” you had the right of revolution to overthrow the government. Thomas Jefferson later copy & pasted Locke’s ideas for the Declaration of Independence.

Calvin & Hobbes

Ultimately both Calvin and Hobbes had fairly dim views of humanity. They believed that without an authority figure (be it God or be it a political leader) humans were by default mean and unable to make better lives for themselves. Fortunately the fictional Calvin and Hobbes are a lot more positive than their namesakes.

Calvin and Hobbes crossing a log bridge appeared in the The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book. It was later parodied by Nina Matsumoto showing the actual Calvin and Hobbes as Calvin and Hobbes crossing the log, and has since become a much parodied meme.