Life in a microcosm

Stephen_Jay_Gould_by_Kathy_Chapman

 

The human species has inhabited this planet for only 250,000 years or so-roughly.0015 percent of the history of life, the last inch of the cosmic mile. The world fared perfectly well without us for all but the last moment of earthly time–and this fact makes our appearance look more like an accidental afterthought than the culmination of a prefigured plan.

Moreover, the pathways that have led to our evolution are quirky, improbable, unrepeatable and utterly unpredictable. Human evolution is not random; it makes sense and can be explained after the fact. But wind back life’s tape to the dawn of time and let it play again–and you will never get humans a second time.

We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a ‘higher’ answer — but none exists. This explanation, though superficially troubling, if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating and exhilarating. We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers ourselves — from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way. – Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), an American evolutionary scientist

 

Browse more for what cultural icons define about the meaning of life in Brain Pickings.

‘We want our country’

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Of all British colonies in 20th century, Southern Rhodesia (later known to be Rhodesia, and lastly, after 1980, Zimbabwe) was considered one to be politically ‘very defiant’, in that other than adopting a system of majority rule, it unilaterally violated the agreement, reinstated a new government dominated by white settlers, and fought a costly, and uneasy, guerrilla war with black African combatants for nearly two decades, which would later significantly hamper its economic and social progress.

This was Rhodesia. When it proclaimed its Unilateral Declaration of Independence, abbreviated as UDI, in 1965, its population hardly exceeded 4 million. White settlers were even a smaller minority, with a number barely surpassing 220,000 (in a climax, it once reached slightly above 300,000, as many Britons migrated there in hope of more promising incomes, but now, under Mugabe’s terms, the figure is hardly above 50,000). An apartheid-like system was afterwards implemented in nearly all aspects of the country, with exclusive preferences for white people. Economy was nearly completely controlled by white-owned enterprises and commercial farms scattered across the country. Despite the  sanctions imposed by United Kingdom, United States, and numerous other UN member-states, Rhodesia remained an economically thriving nation, but one with extremely fragile social stability, thanks to its close relationship with apartheid-era South Africa at that time.

Nevertheless, Rhodesia suffered its first blow when Mozambique, its neighboring country, and also its strategic export-import location, announced secession from Portuguese rule, which later suffered from decades-long civil war. South Africa, its long-time trading partner, already worsened by its own internal problems after waves of sanctions, refused to assist the country any longer. Guerrilla war became increasingly deadly, with many white settlers’ commercial farms being their primary targets for ambushes. Many whites were killed in the middle of the battlefields fought between Rhodesian army and the rebels. It changed after 1980 election, by which Robert Mugabe, who, as they had long feared of his possible retaliation, became the president of the country later renamed as Zimbabwe. And it turns out Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is even, in countless times, much worse than Rhodesia had ever been.

 

This Time article, released in November 1965, provided us an in-depth understanding about Rhodesia, and the underlying problems resulting since its establishment. You can read the article in British Empire, a history blog specially dedicated to the history of the world’s largest colonial empire.

 

Excerpt:

 

The Rhodesians are determined that the blacks will never rule. Deep in their hearts, they believe that the first African government would murder them in their beds and drive them off the land. As Africa’s former colonies have been granted their freedom, the settlers have shaken their heads in dismay. They talk of the violence of the Congo, of the autocracy of Ghana, of Communist penetration everywhere, and of the fate of their cousins in Kenya. If the blacks get more freedom in Rhodesia, says one leading supporter of Smith, “there will be a Mau Mau here.”

The white man’s fate in the new black African nations has not been all that bad. Kenya’s Mau Mau terrorism stopped at the first signs that independence would be granted, and the brutal slaughters of the Congo are so far the exception in Africa rather than the rule. The initial period of white panic and black exultation is past –a period that saw wholesale departures of colonial civil servants who took their “lumpers” (severance pay) when their jobs were “Africanized,” or the thousands of European farmers who pulled up stakes and fled, out of some misbegotten sense of guilt and impending bloodshed.

The fact is that the whites who have remained are still working and raising their families in every one of Africa’s 29 new black states–if for no other reason than that they are needed. For all his anticolonialist bluster, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah depends heavily on the 5,000 Britons (and scores of Americans) who live in his country, engineering dams and power projects, running factories and keeping trade channels open. Despite the horrors of the past, there are now 60,000 Belgians spread throughout the Congo (which once had 90,000), and the nation’s industries, commerce and transport systems could not work without them. Last week the Congo’s President Joseph Ka-savubu went out of his way to assure “all foreigners living in the Congo” that “this is their country; they have their investments here.”

Throughout Africa, many departed whites have returned, or else have been replaced by newcomers from Europe. British railway workers, fired by the Kenya government at the demand of its labor unions, were back on their jobs a year later at much higher pay; too many trains had been going off the tracks. In the Congo’s fertile Kivu region, deserted Belgian farmlands have been snapped up by eager Italians who are now making money hand over fist. Attracted by high salaries and a booming, open economy, the French population of the Ivory Coast has doubled in the past five years.

 

Bonus: I’ll include an additional profile of Ian Smith, founder, and prime minister of Rhodesia (1965-1979). Read it in Wikipedia.

Is Enrique Peña Nieto saving Mexico?

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A Vice journalist goes in-depth in assessing a recent Time article which, he criticizes, is actually doing something like a ‘paid advertorial’ about Mexico’s current president, Enrique Peña Nieto. And it turns out many in the country agree with him, though.

At the very least, however, the president is giving a try.

Read the full article here

 

Excerpt:

 

No idea why the president of a large globalized economy like Mexico’s would regard being at a desk at 9 PM on a February night as anything less than “deadly serious business,” or as most other big-time presidents say, just another day at the office. But I’m sure he knows what he’s talking about, so let’s listen in!

Five years ago, drug violence was exploding, the Mexican economy was reeling, and a Pentagon report likened the Aztec nation to the terrorist-infested basket case Pakistan, saying both were at risk of “rapid and sudden collapse.” As Barack Obama prepared to take office in 2008, one of his senior foreign policy advisers privately nominated Mexico the most underappreciated problem facing the new U.S. Administration.

This is serious, guys. We’re talking “basket-case” states here.

Crowley continues.

Now the alarms are being replaced with applause. After one year in office, Peña Nieto has passed the most ambitious package of social, political and economic reforms in memory. Global economic forces, too, have shifted in his country’s direction. Throw in the opening of Mexico’s oil reserves to foreign investment for the first time in 75 years, and smart money has begun to bet on peso power. “In the Wall Street investment community, I’d say that Mexico is by far the favorite nation just now,” says Ruchir Sharma, head of emerging markets at Morgan Stanley. “It’s gone from a country people had sort of given up on to becoming the favorite.”

Wait a second. Did this reporter just fly in for this story and fly out? Apparently he did. Hm.

 

A big untruth named Mamuro Samuragochi

japanese beethoven

 

Duping a whole nation – and possibly the whole planet – to believe that you are a miracle, that you can write music without literally hearing, that you proclaim to the whole world you mastermind the musical notes by your own, and that you proudly present yourself as ‘modern-day Beethoven’, will be undeniably one of the most outrageous forms of deception, as well as humiliation, you are inflicting to yourself.

This is what happens precisely to Mamoru Samuragochi, the so-called Japanese Beethoven who, as his ghost composer, Takashi Niigaki, confesses, didn’t even know classical music.

Read these two Time articles about Japanese Beethoven, the former written in 2001, and the latter this year. And compare them.

Excerpt:

 

Former – Mamuro Samuragochi: Songs of Silence

Born in Hiroshima, Samuragochi was so precocious that, at age 5, as his mother tells him, he was creating compositions for the marimba. Samuragochi himself remembers composing his own music at age 10. Although he studied piano as a child, he didn’t have much formal training and taught himself to compose. He is a traditionalist, a student and an admirer of such Western composers as Beethoven and Mozart, and he is dismissive of modern, atonal music. “I like harmony,” he says. “Sometimes I think I was born at the wrong time.”

With his flowing auburn hair and a predilection for wearing black, Samuragochi fashions himself as an outsider in Japan, where conformity rules. The country is now getting better at assimilating people with physical disabilities like deafness into mainstream society. But Samuragochi struggled in obscurity for many years. Instead of composing music for TV dramas that he considered unwatchable, he supported himself by working part time as a video-store clerk and a street sweeper. He finally broke through with the chance to compose the score for a TV film, Cosmos, and then for a video game, Bio Hazard.

Latter – Deaf Japanese Composer Admits He’s Not Actually Deaf, Didn’t Write His Own Music

The composer has now admitted that he hired a ghostwriter to compose his music starting in the 1990s after his career took off and his hearing problems worsened, he says. He didn’t write any of his seminal works—including the Hiroshima symphony. The real composer was Takashi Niigaki, a part-time lecturer at a music college in Tokyo who came forward about the deceptions just before the Japanese figure skater Daisuke Takahashi was set to skate at Sochi to Samuragochi’s “Sonatina for Violin.”

An algorithmic method to win Oscars (or Razzies, I fear)

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Ambitious enough to win an Oscar? This Time Entertainment’s algorithmic system can let you build any possibilities.

Taking over 240 Best Picture winners and nominees from 1970s to present, altogether with over 12,000 different tags (as found on Internet Movie Database, or IMDB), this so-called ‘Random Oscar Winner Generator’ enables you to imagine billions, even trillions, of possible plot twists resulting from the combination of all those different tags, although some results may turn out to be irrational (or more possibly, Golden Raspberries-worthy), for example:

1. Genocide, sex, and writing collide for a gay lover in 17th century Brooklyn

2. Love, sex, and sadism collide for an evil emperor and a German gay general in 1940s Washington, D.C. (like something out of a gay porn, I suspect?)

3. Anti-semitism, friendship and prejudice collide in England for an American prime minister, a Jewish witness and an African-American

But some results are pretty much Oscar-worthy, for instance:

1. A piano player in 1950s Rome faces existentialism, infidelity, and unfaithfulness

2. Hope, honor and self discovery resound in Rome for a warden, a prisoner and a mistress

3. Hate, death and love confront a Chinese-American domineering father and a child in peril in the 1960s

Start the game here: The Random Oscar Winner Generator

With billions and trillions of probabilities, I wish you sincere good luck!