An Ode to South Korea

One has to appreciate and admire the courage and perseverance of the people of South Korea, who in the span of four decades transformed one of the world’s poorest and most authoritarian nations into one of its wealthiest and most democratic (indeed, by some measures, its growth and development was record breaking in human history).

The country’s capital, Seoul, is not only one of the largest and richest cities in the world, but it is located just 35 miles away from the demilitarized zone bordering North Korea. More than half of all South Koreans live within firing range of a hostile neighbor (although there are credible doubts about the North’s military capabilities in this regard). Yet the vast majority of them go about their day-to-day lives like people in any other city.

A vibrant culture, widespread material prosperity, low crime, a lively civil society, and an effective and stable democratic system are all difficult enough to achieve in so little time, let alone in the face of an existential threat next door. South Korea is hardly a paradise of course, but given the circumstances, it had every reason to remain an oppressive dictatorship under the pretense of security. It truly is a remarkable country and worthy U.S. ally.

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India Surpasses U.K. As Sixth Largest Economy

In an achievement as symbolic as it was substantive, India’s economy has overtaken that of the United Kingdom, its former colonial master, to become the sixth largest in the world by GDP, after the United States, China, Japan, Germany, and France. The last time its economy was larger than the U.K.’s was 150 years ago, when it was the second largest in the world after China. (Indeed, the two Asian giants were for centuries the biggest economies in the world prior to the age of European exploration and colonialism.) Continue reading

The Hermit Life of Modern China

The challenges of modernity — in terms of alienation, empty consumerism, and over-stimulation — are becoming a universal problem (which, in fairness, is in some sense a good thing, since it means more parts of the world are industrializing and being lifted out of poverty and deprivation). Few nations are struggling with these issues more than China, which has been thrown into modernity at remarkable speed, thrusting hundreds of millions of citizens into the bittersweet life of material abundance.

An eleven-minute documentary, Summoning the Recluse, by Beijing-based filmmaker Ellen Xu, follows several young, middle-class Chinese who are embracing  meditation, spiritual quests and monastic asceticism in an effort to find peace and meaning in a difficult and more complex world. They are tapping into a millennia of rich spiritual, philosophical, and lifestyle traditions — such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism — that have long sought to address these issues. Their relevance today speaks volumes about the inherent struggle of the human condition.

I can’t embed the video here, so click here to view it. I felt more peaceful just watching it. Plus, I’m reminded of how much amazing Chinese philosophy and thought I need to brush up on.

Credit: Aeon

The World’s Largest Radio Telescope

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Credit: NPR/STR/AFP/Getty Images

Pictured above is the  largest radio telescope in the world, which officially opened this past Sunday and is based Pingtang County in southwest China. The Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, is, as the name suggests, 500 meters in diameters, which is 40 percent larger than its predecessor and now runner up, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

FAST will be utilized primarily to observe pulsars, the imploded, highly magnetic cores of old stars that emit intense radiation. Locating and understanding pulsars can yield a lot of important information about the universe. FAST is reportedly sensitive enough to detect radio waves from a pulsar 1,351 light-years away; for a point of reference, a single light-year is 9 trillion kilometers, or 6 trillion miles. So, needless to say, this is an impressive display of technological ingenuity, especially from a country that only relatively recently joined the exclusive (though ever-expanding) club of space exploring nations.

As NPR reports, FAST’s incredible capabilities will be applied to more than just pulsar:

Like radio telescopes in other parts of the world, FAST will study interstellar molecules related to how galaxies evolve. For example, this summer a team using data from the Very Large Array, a collection of radio antennas in the New Mexico desert, picked up what scientists describe as “faint radio emission from atomic hydrogen … in a galaxy nearly 5 billion light-years from Earth.” In the paper describing their findings, the team writes that the “next generation of radio telescopes,” like FAST, will build on their findings about how gases behave in galaxies.

As for FAST’s final use, studying interstellar communication signals, it could be more simply referred to as searching for intelligent extraterrestrial life. “In theory, if there is civilization in outer space, the radio signal it sends will be similar to the signal we can receive when a pulsar … is approaching us,” Qian told Chinese state media, according to the science news website Phys.org.

[…]

In an interview with the BBC, the deputy project manager for the new Chinese telescope, Peng Bo, said the project was exciting for Chinese scientists. “For many years, we have had to go outside of China to make observations — and now we have the largest telescope,” he told the BBC.

FAST is only the latest demonstration of China’s scientific prowess in astronomy. In addition to being able to launch its own satellites via domestically designed and build rockets, it is only the third country to send a human into orbit and is also third in independently developing and launching a space station (the second of which was recently and successfully launched). China also has plans for another, more permanent space station by 2020; a manned mission to the Moon, which is to be followed by a permanent lunar base; and  a rover expedition of Mars, to name but a few projects.

China’s contributions towards advancing our understanding of the universe is a welcomed one. As I have noted before, we should set aside nationalist sentiments — however much they are motivating such endeavors — and welcome as many different participants in space exploration as possible, if not for higher ideals of human cooperation than out of a sober acceptance that such efforts require all the resources, capital, and knowledge humanity can pool together.

The Untold Legacy of the Mongols

When someone on Quora, a discussion forum, asked “What was the greatest empire in world history?”, one history enthusiast named Balaji Viswanathan made a detailed and comprehensive case for the Mongols. Far from bloodthirsty conquerors — though they were certainly that — the humble nomads founded one of history’s most extensive, advanced, and influential empires in human history, one whose legacy remains to this very day.

First, we begin with the Mongols’ better known achievement: conquering everyone that stood in their way, including some of the most powerful states of the time. Continue reading

Rats Are Saving Lives in Cambodia

From Colombia to Afghanistan, millions of landmines from conflicts past litter the land and continue to wreak havoc on unsuspecting civilians, particularly children. But one group has hit upon a fascinating solution to this grim problem. I highlighted the program here before, but as NPR reports, it is starting to cover more ground — literally.

A Belgian nonprofit called Apopo began harnessing the rodents’ olfactory prowess 15 years ago. (The group also trains rats to detect tuberculosis). The organization set up a breeding program and training center in Tanzania and began deploying rats to post-conflict countries, first to Mozambique and Angola. Apopo’s Cambodia program began in April, in partnership with the Cambodian Mine Action Center.

“The idea was very strange,” says operations coordinator Theap Bunthourn. “Cambodian people kill rats, don’t like rats. But they’re cost-efficient, they’re easy to transport, they’re easy to train, and they don’t set off the mines because they’re too light.”

That’s an advantage over mine-sniffing dogs, also used in Cambodia. And unlike with dogs, says field supervisor Hulsok Heng, bonding is not an issue. “The rat does not belong to anybody, it can work with anyone, not like [a] dog. If [a] handler is sick, [a] dog cannot work with other people. If the dog does not recognize you, it won’t work with you. But rat, no problem.”

Fifteen rats arrived in Cambodia from Tanzania in late April. Since it’s hotter in Cambodia than in Tanzania, Hulsok says, they’re put to work before the sun comes up. By midday, it’s too hot for them.

With 4-6 million unexploded landmines, bombs, and grenades, this Southeast Asian country could definitely use the help. Neighboring Laos and Vietnam are just as badly affected, so hopefully this field run will prove fruitful enough to expand to those nations as well.

The process of detecting hidden ordnance by rat is pretty fascinating, to say the least.  Continue reading

How Vietnamese View The Vietnam War

As hard as it is to believe, just forty years after millions of Vietnamese and over 58,000 Americans died in a vicious and protracted conflict, most Vietnamese — who are under 40, and thus too young to remember their “American War” — hold a favorable view of the U.S., as Elisabeth Rosen in “How Young Vietnamese View the Vietnam War” The Atlantic.  Continue reading

Nepal Before The Earthquake

In addition to the thousands killed and the many more left injured and homeless, Nepal has irreparably lost much of its rich cultural heritage, from recognized World Heritage sites, to otherwise religious or historically significant buildings.

NPR shares photos from Vermont native Kevin Bubriski, who travelled the country over the span of forty years, compiling a portfolio of its people, customs, and sites. Most date back to the 1980s. Here is a small sampling:

Meanwhile, the New York Times presents a more contemporary comparison of Nepal before and after the earthquake. It show the horrific extent to which the country has been physically damaged, to say nothing of the human cost.

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Though many Nepalis lament the loss these religious and culturally significant sites, this issue is obviously the last thing on their minds, especially as they lack the resources to do anything about it:

…in the meantime, in many places, the detritus of centuries-old temples and palaces has been left unguarded, diminishing chances to eventually rebuild one of the world’s largest clusters of cultural heritage sites. Pedestrians, possibly for sentimental value, are walking away with bricks from the 19th-century Dharahara Tower, which crashed to the earth on Saturday, trapping at least 40 people inside.

On Monday, after a citizen called an official in Nepal’s department of archaeology to report having thwarted an attempt to steal a bronze bell from the roof of a temple here in the capital, the authorities took some first steps to guard against looting. A notice was printed in a local newspaper on Tuesday, warning that anyone taking artifacts will be punished.

Happy Chinese New Year!

Also known as the Spring Festival, this forty day event runs from New Year’s Eve, the last day of the last month of the Chinese calendar, to the Lantern Festival, which takes place on the 15th day of the first month. Because the Chinese calendar is lunisolar (taking into account moon phases as well as the solar year most Westerners are familiar with), and because this day is recognized as the New Year in other cultures (such as Tibet, Mongolia, and Korea), this day is also known as the Lunar New Year.

Chinese New Year celebrations are among the oldest, largest, and longest events in the world. The vast corpus of traditions, foods, rituals, and other practices it entails varies from region to region and even by individual communities (throughout both China and the world). An article in The Guardian captures the sheer scale of it:

3.6 billion passenger trips (slightly fewer than three trips for every Chinese citizen) will turn China’s roads, airports and train stations into congestion hotspots over the 40-day period, according to government predictions. The annual Chunyun, or “spring festival transport”, is the largest human migration in the world. Major cities empty, sleepy villages spring to life, and traffic jams on major roads stretch for miles.

In the context of a globalized economy, the impact of this event will be as wide reaching as ever, with factories shutting down, supply chains subsequently disrupted, and product markets booming in response to holiday related spending by hundreds of millions of Chinese.

See some wonderful photos of this colorful occasion here, here, and here. To learn more about the Chinese New Year, click here. To any celebrants out there, I wish you a safe and happy time!

 

The An Lushan Rebellion

On this day in 763, the devastating An Lushan Rebellion against the Tang Dynasty of China came to an end. Sanning seven years and three emperors, the revolt was led by General An Lushan, who declared himself emperor and established the rival Yan Dynasty in the north. The scale of the conflict was beyond the norm for most of the medieval world, involving the mobilization of 800,000 to 1 million troops in total.

Estimates of the death toll vary wildly, from 13 million to 36 million; because China accounted for about a third of the world’s population at the time, the higher figure — which is admittedly controversial — would represent one-sixth of all humans, making the An Lushan Rebellion proportionally the deadliest conflict ever (and even in absolute terms it remains in the top ten).

The world’s second-bloodiest conflict in total loss of life is another Chinese civil war, that of the Three Kingdoms era, which spanned almost one hundred years during the 2nd and 3rd century. Anywhere from 36-40 million people were killed, a number that would not be surpassed until WWII in the mid-20th century (though some estimates put the Mongol Conquests of the 13th-14th century at around the same amount as the Three Kingdoms).

A contemporary list of history’s biggest wars is dominated by China, including WWII (in which the country suffered 14-20 million casualties, second only to Russia), the aforementioned Mongol Conquests, the Taiping Rebellion of the mid-19th century (20-100 million deaths), and the 17th century conquest of the Ming Dynasty by the Qing (25 million).