Calouste Gulbenkian (1869 – 1955)

Virtually every Portuguese knows “Calouste Gulbenkian”, or at least the foundation he left behind, one of Portugal’s most important art centers. Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian was born in Constantinople (Istanbul), while the Ottoman Empire was still in place, and was the descendent of a princely Armenian family. His family was known for being a patron of the arts and social welfare. His father dealt with the oil business, and Calouste followed his footsteps. Educated in London, he studied petroleum engineerings. With his family, he was forced to flee to Egypt at the end of the 19th century, due to the Armenian genocide, where he was able to meet influential people in the oil industry. Back in London again, he helped creating the Royal Dutch/Shell company, of which he retained 5% of the shares, and later, he was at the forefront of Iraqi’s oil exploitation, where he helped in the foundation of the Turkish Petroleum Co. (later the Iraq Petroleum Co.), from which he also retained 5%. That gave him the name of “Mr. Five-Per-Cent”, but also made him one of the world’s wealthiest men, and allowed him to gather an amazing art collection. After living in Paris for a few years, he decided to immigrate to the United States in 1942. Intending to make a quick stop in Lisbon, he ended up by spending the last years of his life in that city (from 1942 to 1955). In his will, he left a portion of his fortune to his family, collaborators and to several Armenian purposes. However, following the path of his family, Gulbenkian, the philanthropist, left the majority of his fortune and art collection in Lisbon. He wished that a Foundation be built in his name, that might benefit “humanity”, and unite people from different parts of the world. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, which promotes education, arts and sciences, is a landmark in the Portuguese capital, without which, the country and the world would be poorer.

Yemen’s Torture Camps

This week, BBC issued an impressive documentary, about the terrible journey that Ethiopians face to escape from the lack of opportunities they have back home. Fleeing from misery, they buy a passage for around $200 to cross the Red Sea until Yemen, in order to reach Saudi Arabia and find a job. They go on boats so crowded that some of them suffocate. Most of those who arrive in Yemen, fall victims to bands of kidnappers, who torture, rape, and hold these people captive in torture camps. These criminals demand that the families back in Ethiopia pay enormous amounts for ransoms, in order to let them go. However, many times, even when the families pay, they are not let go. When they are, they still have to walk for 500 km, to reach Saudi Arabia. Of course, this traffic of people generates huge amounts of money in the failed State of Yemen. Many people, and allegedly also Yemen’s militaries, receive money along this horrible chain of crime. Fortunately, some of these Ethiopians are able to reach refugee camps. However, their dreams are completely shattered since the moment they start their voyage to find a better life. Even when they get to the border with Saudi Arabia, they have to face barbed wires and militaries, preventing them from completing their journey. Watch this amazing documentary by Yalda Hakim, that reminds us how lucky we are.

The Athlete’s Dilemma

Last week, gold sprinters Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell tested positive for “banned substances”. And although no one is accusing Chris Froome, this year’s Tour de France star, his performance at Mont Ventoux did raise some questioning about his potential use of drugs. Professional sport is filled with drug taking. Yet as this interesting article asked, knowing that if you get caught you are probably banned for life, why do athletes carry on doing it? The article explained that by following a branch of mathematics called game theory, one can see that like in the prisoner’s dilemma, both players will be better off if neither takes drugs. Nevertheless, because they don’t trust each other, they both take them to make sure they have a chance to win. Of course, the drug-use could be solved by introducing regular inspections. Yet this has not happened. According to the Economist, the main obstacles for regular inspections and clean races are fans and sponsors. “It is better to test sparingly, and expose from time to time what is apparently the odd bad apple, rather than do the job thoroughly and find the whole barrel is spoiled and your sport has suddenly vanished in a hailstorm of disqualifications”. For us the questions remain: Who decides what is a food supplement and what is a drug? Is there really a justification for banning enhancing-drugs in sports? If health is the answer, don’t the majority of athletes already “destroy” their bodies when they become pros?

Optimism Bias: We All Have It

Optimism bias is a cognitive illusion that 80% of us have. We overestimate the likelihood of good events and underestimate the likelihood of the bad events. For instance, on average, we all have 30% of chances to get cancer in our life. Yet, we choose not to think about it. A great example of it was the fact that British government asserted that optimism could increase the length and costs of projects. They actually adjusted the olympics budgets to the optimism bias. In her research, Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist studies why our brains are biased towards this optimism. Here team discovered that our brains do not respond with the same intensity to good and bad news: when they are good, the neuro-responses are much more intense than when they are bad. It’s a physical reaction: we are biased towards positive information. We think that bad things happen to others, not to us. In a very interesting TED talk, Sharot explains that this bias is not bad: without it we would undoubtedly all be more depressed. Moreover, optimism has a lot of benefits, its leads to success in sports, in politics, and even in health. The truth is that to make any kind of progress, we need to imagine another reality and thus be optimistic.

Detroit, Abandoned and Bankrupted

It is official. Detroit, the birthplace of the American automobile industry, which has already been one of the United States’ most populous cities, filed for bankruptcy this week. The city’s debt is estimated at around $19 billion, making it America’s biggest municipal bankruptcy. There is not an isolated cause for this situation, but it is bound to affect many people, specially public employees and retirees, who received pension funds from the city, creating a whole of $3.5 billion that the city was not able to pay. This seemed inevitable in a city that lost half of its population since the 1960‘s and where businesses had a hard time prospering.

"The Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit skyline", by Zach Fein
“The Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit skyline”, by Zach Fein

Detroit has thousands of abandoned buildings and crime is a real issue. In the past years, Detroit has become a ghost city. However, this has given way to incredible works of art. Photographers such as Zach Fein or Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, have photographed the city’s ruins, and these images are truly shocking. They tell the story of a city which has progressively been dying. Hopefully, if the bankruptcy goes forward, the city will be able to restructure itself and rise from the ashes.

Desmond Tutu (1931-)

Desmond Tutu (1931-) is a South African Anglican cleric and social rights activist. In the early 1950s, although he dreamed of becoming a doctor, his financial situation forced him to follow his father’s steps and become a teacher. Yet in 1953, following the Bantu Education Act, a law that made it legal to establish racially separated education facilities, Desmond Tutu resigned as a protest. He then started studying theology, was ordained priest in 1960 and left the early 1960 to received a Master’s degree at King’s College London.  By the end of the 1960’s Tutu was back in Africa, giving lectures that denounced the situation of his country. Indeed, he became the spokesperson for the rights of Black South Africans during the apartheid.  He strongly opposed to Reagan’s  “constructive engagement” doctrine to South Africa, and asked the world’s leaders not to invest in his country as long as the apartheid regime existed. In 1984, he was awarded with the Peace Noble Prize. Ten years later after the fall of apartheid, he headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – the legal body responsible to restore justice in South Africa. Nelson Mandela once said “sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid and seldom without humour, Desmond Tutu’s voice will always be the voice of the voiceless”. You can hear one of his inspiring videos here!

Africa: From the hopeless continent to its rise

For many decades, Africa was the hopeless land. In the late 1980s, one would think of the continent picturing a starving orphan child in a refugee camp or an AIDS patient lingering on a hospital’s bed. Yet today it seems that we imagine Africa by thinking about booming cities with crazy traffic and loads of business opportunities. Mozambique is in this aspect a great example, rising from one of the poorest countries in the world to one that has a 7.5% annual growth rate.

Today Africa is the world’s fastest growing continent and recently, the World Bank reported that “Africa could be on the brink of an economic take-off, much like China was 30 years ago”. It is time for us to recognise the emergence of a new Africa.Yet, indisputably, there are huge obstacles for a bright and shinny future. Of the 20 least competitive countries in the world, 14 are African. More than 50% of total African exports are on minerals, which bring an immense vulnerability to the economy. Indeed, as the OECD reported, a one percentage point decline in the GDP of OECD member countries causes Africa’s export earnings to decline by about 10%. There is thus an over dependency on commodities that could really hit the continent’s stability.

Bottom line? Africa disposes of an immense and enviable potential. It will growth. It will witness loads of wealth creation in the next fifty years. The question is if its people are going to profit from it. As Fareed Zakaria points out in this video, “if Africans get the right access to education, healthcare, good governance and jobs, Africa will be a power house. If not, the population growth is a curse, not a blessing”.

Happiness and Loneliness

We don’t know if you saw or read the story of Christopher McCandless, the American adventurer whose life was portrayed in the 2007 movie Into the Wild. Chris was found dead after 119 days living in the Alaskan wilderness, while on a journey to “find himself” away from civilisation.  Yet, “Happiness is only real when shared”, his story showed. in  2010, French writer Sylvain Tesson, lived alone for six months in a forest cabin in Siberia. He published his diary called “Consolations of the Forest”. Indeed, happiness seems only to be real when shared. We need socialisation to fell joy. We need to feel “sympatheia” to be truly conscious that we are living (together) a moment. The core of our happiness thus does not depend on us. If we realise this, maybe we will be happier with our own lives and enjoy more both company and solitude. This post ain’t gonna bring you information nor random facts that will enrich your culture. It is just a small reflexion how we should appreciate the ones we love everyday. After all, happiness is only real when shared.