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All posts for the month August, 2015

I have just shown myself that I can, in fact, read and write up an entire issue before I ran out of writeups from my old blog. I am writing this, for what it’s worth, on August 15, 2015, several weeks before it will go live on my blog. Following my old pattern, I should write up April 2014 next, but I cannot find that issue at the moment. Therefore, I will go on to March 2014 next.


It’s Time for a Conversation, by Joshua Foer, photographs by Brian Sherry

It’s Time for a Conversation follows several researchers into dolphin language. Dolphins vocalize and some believe that these vocalizations are a language. For example, when two dolphins at the Roatan Institute for the Marine Sciences are given a signal that means “tandem,” the two dolphins are to do a behavior in unison. The dolphins will go under the water and whistle at each other, then they will do the same behavior together. Are they playing a very sophisticated game of “follow the leader,” or are the sounds they exchange actually communicating a plan?

So far, scientists have not been able to find much in the way of meaning in the chirps and whistles of dolphins. They have been able to determine that dolphins give themselves names while they are calves. For the rest of their lives, if one dolphin uses the call that the dolphin chose as his or her name, that dolphin will respond. Beyond that, there has not been much progress.

It is possible that their intelligence is so different from ours that we will never be able to learn to “speak dolphin.” However, if it is possible for us to learn their language, someone, somewhere is bound to figure it out.

This article has one of my favorite photographs so far in this project. The opening image, on pages 30 and 31 of the issue, there is a photograph of spinner dolphins in Hawaii. The water is perfectly clear and what I assume is the bottom of the ocean is white, and looks more like clouds than sand. This is fairly disorienting, in a pleasant way, and gives me the impression that they are not swimming, but flying. Or, maybe they are flying.

Taking Back Detroit, by Susan Ager, photographs by Wayne Lawrence

In Taking Back Detroit, Ager writes about the attempt of some brave souls to bring the dying city of Detroit back to life. We start out with Anthony Hatinger, who is setting up a tilapia farm in a former liquor store. The Tilapia live in the basement and the water is pumped upstairs, where the fishes’ waste feeds the plants of an indoor garden. The garden consists largely of green leafy vegetables. Once the waste has been removed by the plants, the now-clean water flows back down to the fish in the basement.

And he is just one of many people who are breathing new life into the city. Ager is a journalist who grew up in Detroit and spent the first 25 years of her career there, so this topic is very personal to her.

The fate of Detroit is not nearly as important to me as it is to Ager. In a global sense, Chicago and Detroit are in the same region, but in a practical sense, they are really very far apart and I have only ever been to Detroit twice, once in the 1981 and once in 1987. My mom and I were appalled by the decline in such a short amount of time. So, for me, reading about Hatinger, and about John Hantz, who invested four million dollars in improving the lives of Detroiters by buying up empty lots and planting trees in them, were heartening to me. Green space is an issue dear to my heart anyhow (you will see a lot of posts on parks and other green spaces in my writing. Green space is important to the psychological well-being of people, and the people of Detroit need things that are helpful psychologically.

The work is just starting however. The schools of Detroit are still not performing as well as they should, and Detroit still has a disgraceful level of unemployment. And yet, people are moving into the city and helping to bring jobs and money into the city. And hopefully, with those jobs and money, what was once known as “The Paris of the Midwest” will someday, perhaps even someday soon, have a Renaissance of its own.

Quest for a Superbee, by Charles C. Mann, photographs by Anand Varma

In this era of colony collapse disorder many are worried about the future survival of the honeybee. Colony collapse disorder. is not one problem, but many. Some colonies die off because of the increase in chemical pesticides, but others are killed by disease, and still others by pests. Some colonies don’t die at all, but habitat loss causes them to move elsewhere.

This is not the first time bee colonies have died off in large numbers. Most recently, exactly 100 years ago this year, a virus wiped out hundreds of bee colonies. A young monk known as Brother Adam traveled the world looking for bees and eventually bred was became known as the Buckfast Bee. The problem is more complex now, since there are so many other causes, but if Brother Adam was able to breed a bee that would survive the virus, it may well be possible to breed, or genetically engineer a bee that will survive current threats.

Quest for a Superbee outlines some of the projects being done, in breeding, in genetic engineering, even the possibility of robotic bees — tiny drones that will fly into a field and pollinate the flowers. Some, however, think that nature will find a way and that, despite more significant losses, bees will become naturally resistant to the threats that are killing them off today. I say that so long as the new bees are tested properly in a closed environment before setting them loose in the outdoors, any and all possible solutions are welcome. If genetically engineered bees are what we need to get through until the honeybee evolves enough to survive current threats, then that is what we should do.

Harnessing the Mekong or Killing It? by Michelle Nijhuis, photographs by David Guttenfelder

Over the last 20 or so years, the nations that the Mekong River flows through, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, have been damming the river in hopes of increasing the prosperity of these nations through the generation of electricity. And the “generating electricity” part seems to be working. The “increasing prosperity part” could use some work.

You see, the people who have lived along the Mekong for generations rely on the river for food, including fish and rice, and the number of fish in the river has dropped from levels that existed prior to the dams being built. Added to this is the threat of flooding. When it rains heavily upstream, the water has to go somewhere, and that “somewhere” is the villages alongside the river.

The lack of prosperity doesn’t end there. The governments and companies that have been building the dams are making lots of money by selling the power generated to other countries. Very little of the power generated is used by those in their own countries. Almost no one in Cambodia has electricity because the power generated in a way that will basically be free once the dam is paid for, is too expensive for the populace.

Can anything be done? Water experts and other ecologists would like to see development of the dams slowed down and planned better. Dams are being built haphazardly by each nation without regard for what the nearby nations are doing. There are places that the dams could be put where it would have minimal impact on those who live in the area, but it looks unlikely that the governments will work together for the good of their citizens any time soon.

Walking the Way, story and photographs by Michael George

Walking the Way is words and photographs about George’s trip down the Way of St. James (Camino de Santiago, in Spanish), a route that goes from France through Spain to Santiago de Compostela, a cathedral in Spain which is rumored to hold the remains of the Apostle James the son of Zebedee (as distinct from James the son of Alphaeus and also James the brother of Jesus).

The Way of St. James was originally a purely religious pilgrimage, but in modern times, 60 percent of those who walk it walk for nonreligious reasons, such as to get space from their daily lives or to contemplate a change in their lives.

For some reason, George specified that he walked the Way in the summers of 2012 and 2013. I had to dig up more information on this. Did George take the trip in two parts (which seems like cheating) or did he do it twice? Apparently, he did the walk twice. The first time, he was just out of college and facing a change in his life status and so he did the walk as a pilgrim. Then he returned a year later to meet the people and photograph his journey. The results of this second trip are largely what we see in this article.

When my parents and I went to New York City in 1988, we spent part of one day in Central Park. As I recall, we walked up the west side of the park to about 79th Street, then walked across the park.  We thought about going into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but decided against it because the recommended entrance fee was too steep.  Then we went to a Czech restaurant (I think it was Vasata, which is now closed) and then back down the east side of the park and back to our hotel.  This little bit of exposure to the park (which was not nearly as frightening as books and movies of the 1970s and early 1980s had led me to believe it should have been) only whetted my appetite to explore the whole thing.

As a result, when we went on our 2015 vacation, I set aside one whole day to explore the park. On the walk from our hotel, I gave Alex just a smidge of the history of the park.  I talked about how Frederick Law Olmsted started with smaller trees, with a view towards how they would look when they became bigger trees.  We had just seen some more of Olmsted’s work in 2013, when we went to the Biltmore Estate (more on that in what will probably be a couple of weeks when I get to our past North Carolina trips).  I also told him that they’ve filmed a bunch of movies, television shows, and commercials in the park and that it’s likely that he’s already seen parts of Central Park but was unaware that was what he’d seen.

My plan was to walk up the west side of the park, visit The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, and then walk down the eastern side of the park.  As fate would have it, however, Alex was not feeling 100%, so we ended up having to change our plans a bit.

We started out at Columbus Circle.  My original hope was to make it all the way around before the zoo closed and then visit the zoo.  My top walking speed is around four miles (6.44 kilometers) per hour, but about two miles (3.21 kilometers) per hour is a good, comfortable, walking speed for me.  If we were able to keep it around two miles per hour, we could do the entire park, or at least the outer edge, in around three hours.  With stops, that might go to four or five hours.  If we started at around 10:00 a.m. we’d be back to the zoo by 4:00 p.m. easily, even taking an hour off to explore the church.  That would give us at least an hour to explore the zoo, which would be more than enough time.

Once we started out, though, Alex ended up wanting pretty frequent rests.  So we bumped the zoo up to the beginning of the day, since I didn’t think we’d get around to the other side of the park at all that day, and certainly not before the zoo closed.  So we walked a path parallel to 65th Street and went to the zoo (which will get its own entry).

After the zoo, we walked a path on the other side of 65th Street, along the Sheep Meadow, on the way back to where we started from, and then took a break to have lunch.  I in no way felt like I looked good enough to go into the Tavern on the Green, but they have this little Green to Go carry-out place with its own little patio.  We ordered their version of a BLT (though without either mayonnaise or avocado, since neither of us like them), which comes on ciabatta bread.  We then had a nice lunch on the patio before heading out into the park again.

We made a very serendipitous wrong turn at the intersection of West Drive and Terrace Drive.  I missed the part where West Drive goes back north and we ended up by the Bethesda Fountain.  I love the movie “Godspell,” so I always have a special fondness for the Bethesda Fountain and the lake, which are the locations of the baptism scenes. I spent the rest of the day “God Save the People” stuck in my head.

There were some kind of street performers doing a thing there, and Alex wanted to watch for a while.  Once we were done at the fountain, we took Terrace Drive back west and caught West Drive going north again.  At about 85th Street, we took a path that led out of the park.  Turns out Alex was just about done with the park, so I negotiated a compromise.  I really wanted to visit St. John the Divine, so I offered that if we took the street level those last 24 blocks and did the cathedral, we could take the subway back to the hotel.  He agreed to this and so we stayed on the street until we reached 110th Street.

Our final full day in New York was a sort of flex day, when we were able to catch up on things that we had missed the rest of the week.  We returned to cover the east side of the park on that day.  It was unseasonably hot (the heat index was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 Celsius) and we had already done the Circle Tour (more on that later, as well) in the early part of the afternoon, so we needed to go back to the hotel to cool down for an hour or so.  I also knew that I wouldn’t feel much like walking from our hotel and the park then the length of the park to get to 110th Street and then walk that same distance all over again in that heat, so we once again hit the subway.  We took the 2/3 train to 110th Street and then walked around the north side of Harlem Meer and then south down the paths that paralleled Fifth Avenue.  As the day got later, I was more reluctant to get too far from Fifth Avenue.  The park is safer than it was back in the 1970s, but I was not enthusiastic about being in there too long after dark.  As it turns out, we emerged at 59th Street just about sunset, so we still had quite a bit of sunlight left for me to take a few final pictures before we headed back to our hotel.

Along the way, we passed the Untermeyer Fountain, the Conservatory Gardens, the reservoir (I took pictures while Alex once again rested).  We saw the Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but both were closed when we were there.  This was actually fortunate.  There is no way that we would have had the energy to do either museum justice, so since they were closed, I feel no guilt about passing them up.  We took pictures of the obelisk that is one of the three known as “Cleopatra’s Needle” (I have now seen all three of them)  and stopped for a while at Conservatory Water (the model boat pond) and the Alice in Wonderland and Hans Christian Andersen statues.  As we left the park for the day we passed, once again, the zoo.  The zoo was also closed, so it was nice that we went to the zoo that first day.

 

Cleopatra's Needle -- Central Park

Central Park’s version of Cleopatra’s Needle

We also noticed that the gates of the Park have names.  We first noticed this at the Engineers’ Gate (which is where Alex rested while I took pictures of the reservoir), and then again when we passed the Artist’s Gate.   It turns out that the gates had always had those names, given to them to reflect the people who would hopefully make use of the park, but that no signs had been put up reflecting these names until the 1990s.

I wish I could say that I got enough of Central Park in those two days, but I didn’t.  I still have never seen the northwest corner or the center of the park.  Fortunately, Central Park is not going anywhere. I will get back someday and then, finally, I may have seen enough of Central Park.  For the first time, at least.

With this post, I will pretty much run out of National Geographic posts from my old blog.  I am going to attempt to keep posting entire issues, but I may go back to the pattern I originally set up on the old blog, where I generally posted two articles at a time.  If I were to keep posting entire issues, it likely would slow me way down on my reading.  The magazines just seem to go faster when I read two and review two, rather than reading the entire issue.

The “pretty much” is because I do have three National Geographic posts left, but two are from the October 1888 issue, which I am still plugging away at slowly.  National Geographic didn’t start trying to attract a general audience until around 1905, so those first 17 years of issues will be slow going.


A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World, by Jonathan Foley, photographs by George Steinmetz and Jim Richardson

Over the next 35 years, from 2015 to 2050, the food needs of the world will likely double.  This is due not only to population increase, but also to the increase in prosperity of formerly impoverished nations.  These developing nations are now demanding more in terms of meat, milk, and eggs, as well as of produce.  As a result, scientists need to come up with new ways to feed these people while not wrecking the environment in the process.  Foley led what he refers to as “a team of scientists” who have studied this very question and they came up with five steps that may help with this.

These five steps are to freeze agriculture’s footprint, to grow more on farms we’ve got, to use resources more efficiently, to shift diets (to less meat-intensive diets, for example), and to reduce waste.

These goals seem to be pretty obvious to me.  Further, while this article gives a few examples of how these goals might be achieved, it then ends with “we already know what we have to do; we just need to figure out how to do it.”  I felt sort of underwhelmed by this conclusion.  I guess I should count it as a good thing that scientists are thinking about this topic at all.

Digging Utah’s Dinosaurs, by Peter Miller, photographs by Cory Richards

In Digging Utah’s Dinosaurs, we meet the Miller brothers, Ian and Dane, who are paleobotanists.  We join the Miller brothers on an expedition at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, where they are searching for signs of the lost continent of Laramidia.

90 million years ago, the area which is now North America was two separate continents, Appalachia to the east and Laramidia to the west.  The Western Interior Seaway lay between them.  The Miller brothers, along with other scientists, are searching for the species of dinosaur who lived in this area and trying to figure out why the dinosaurs of northern Laramidia were so different from those in southern Laramidia. It is possible that there was a physical barrier of some sort, but they have not yet found any evidence of such a barrier.  Instead, the going theory is that the area, much of which is now desert, was a tropical rainforest.  This means that the herbivorous animals would not have had to have gone very far in search of food.  This also means that any carnivorous animals in the area also would not have had to wander very far.  The result would be a less dramatic version of how isolation caused divergence in Australia and Madagascar.  The species would have had different pressures causing different traits to be selected for, resulting in very different species.

Finally, I noticed that the writer, Peter Miller, shares a surname with the Miller brothers.  Miller is a very common name in the United States (the sixth most common, as of the 2000 census), so it is not impossible that this is a coincidence.  However, it is also not impossible that all three Millers are related in some way.  I have been unable to determine which of these it is.

The Ship Breakers, by Peter Gwin, photographs by Mike Hettwer

Oceangoing ships have a lifespan of 25 to 30 years. After that, it becomes so expensive to insure them that their only value is for scrap. Ships are not just made of steel. There are other substances involved, such as asbestos and lead. In most developed countries, the safety measures necessary for such work would eat into the profits from recycling the recyclable bits, such as the steel. As a result, “the bulk of the world’s shipbreaking” takes place in countries with lower safety standards, such as Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan.

In The Ship Breakers, Gwin takes us to one of the shipbreaking yards in Bangladesh.  In Bangladesh, the shipbreaking yards recycle around 90% of each ship and, overall, make a profit of three to four million dollars a year.  The yards used to be open to tourists, but a while ago, they closed the yards to visitors.

Gwin and Hettwer show us some of the process of shipbreaking in Bangladesh, in which these elderly ships are taken apart by hand. We also hear from an activist who wants the process of shipbreaking to be done in a cleaner, safer way.  At the moment, the shipbreakers risk their lives daily and allow toxic chemicals to leach into the environment.  Hopefully, someday the shipbreaking yards will find a cleaner, safer way to do their work without putting people out of their jobs.

The Generous Gulf, by Rob Dunn, photographs by David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes

When the European colonists arrived in North America, they were overwhelmed by the variety of life, and number of fish, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  This was for two good reasons.  First, their own waters back home had been overfished and second, the Gulf of St. Lawrence had an unusually high number of lifeforms because of its position.  The waters of several rivers collect organic matter which becomes food for smaller lifeforms, which then become food for larger ones until you have cod, and herring, and sturgeon, and even whales and walruses.  The Europeans seemed to think that the supply of fish and other animals was infinite and immediately set about overfishing the Gulf.

There is a new threat to the Gulf as well.  Oil has been found under the Gulf and the oil company executives are making plans to begin drilling.  This runs the risk of leaking into the Gulf and causing ecological damage.  Hopefully the oil companies that are planning this well will be careful with the ecosystem that they are about to venture into.

Love and Loss on the Seine, by Cathy Newman, photographs by William Albert Allard

Love and Loss on the Seine is a series of vignettes of life on the Seine, the river that flows through the heart of Paris.  We meet people who have chosen to live on barges in the river.  We see workers setting up for Paris Plages, a summer festival in which the expressway along the right bank of the river is blocked off and turned into a beach with sand and portable palm trees.  People discuss the color of the Seine with Newman.  We see the history of Les Berges, a sort of River Walk for Paris, where the expressway along the left bank has been closed in favor of parks and restaurants.  We visit a homeless shelter on a barge on the river.  Newman discusses breaking the law on the Seine (no swimming or wading, no protests, no banners and so forth) with a police officer.  We see people fishing on the Seine (a difficult task considering the embankments that have been there since the 1700s).  We see Paris at 3:00 in the morning.  We visit a mental hospital on a barge on the Seine (there is little to no aggression in the patients in this hospital; no one is sure why).

Overall, Love and Loss on the Seine is very quick, easy reading, and helped me see more of a city that I have only visited for one very pleasant day in 2002.

(originally posted in July and August 2015)

Where to start?

Well, the obvious place is 1972, my first visit, but I was awfully young and don’t remember a whole lot.  I remember taking the monorail from the parking lot to the park.  My mom wanted to take the ferry boat, but I refused (more on my old fear of boats later). I also remember some of the kiddie rides, like the Dumbo ride and the Teacup ride (which was my very favorite for probably entirely too long).  I remember, without a great deal of enthusiasm, the food.  I think that was the visit where we ate at Pinocchio Village Haus restaurant with a German name, which is exceedingly odd for a restaurant that takes its theme from a movie based on a book that’s set in Italy.  Casa di Pinocchio would be more appropriate, I would think.

Sadder than the German theme was the food, if I recall.  I seem to remember fast-food type hamburgers and not much else.  I don’t think there were chicken nuggets.  The chicken nugget had been invented, but no one had heard of them yet.  That was still a good eight years in the future.

My parents and cousin went on the Haunted Mansion ride.  I don’t think I went on the Haunted Mansion on that trip yet.  I was still pretty little and very imaginative.  Even though it was all in fun, I probably would have had problems with some of it, like the head in the crystal ball. That would have totally freaked me out.  I do wonder who watched us, though.  The oldest child in our group would only have been nine at the time. Maybe my cousin’s husband watched us.

We didn’t take many, if any, photographs at Walt Disney World that trip.  I seem to recall all of the Disney World pictures in that photo album as being postcards.  Our old Swinger camera was pretty bulky and really didn’t travel very well.

This was the first of many trips to Walt Disney World.  We originally did it as a day trip from my cousins’ house, but one year my family stayed in a hotel in Orlando.  If I recall, that hotel was the first time any of us ever saw a digital hotel room lock.  I think that was the 1974/1975 school year.  Since they reprogrammed the lock for every visitor, they let us keep the key and I brought the room key back to show in school.  My most recent trips were in 1982, 1992, and 2003.  I will likely be back to discuss them in those years.

And why do I refer to Walt Disney World as being “more or less” in Orlando?  Because the resort is not actually in Orlando.  Walt Disney World is actually southwest of the city limits. Most of it is in Bay Lake, Florida, and the rest is in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.  But the popular perception is that it is in Orlando, so I figured I’d better reference that, rather than putting either of the other two cities as the location.

(originally posted June 24, 2015)

The Dogs of War, by Michael Paterniti, photographs by Adam Ferguson

The Dogs of War is about the Marine Corps use of dogs to find improvised explosive devices (IEDs).  I was less enthusiastic about this article than I might otherwise have been because I don’t like war.  I’m one of those people who thinks that the best way to support the troops is to bring them home.  And that goes for the dogs, as well.

Paterniti takes us to Afghanistan, where we meet Jose Armenta and his dog, Zenit.  Zenit is a German shepherd.  And when I say “his” dog, neither Paterniti nor I am using this word in a way that you would expect.  I have read articles about how most police dogs are socialized to live with humans and trained only to be aggressive on command.  As part of their training, they live with the police officers’ families more or less as a pet would.  I expected that to be the way that military dogs are kept as well.  It was kind of startling to find that while Jose lives in the barracks, Zenit lives in a kennel.

Though I should put that last sentence in the past tense.  We find out what happens, in the end, to Jose and Zenit and it’s a bittersweet ending.

Untouched, by Heather Pringle, photographs by Robert Clark

El Castillo de Huarmey is a tomb built into the side of a large rock formation in northern Peru.  The area around El Castillo had been used as a burial ground and had been violated by tomb robbers many times over the centuries.  As a result, when Polish archaeologists decided to explore El Castillo, which looked more or less like a step pyramid, no one but the archaeologists expected to find anything.

What the archaeologists found was the undisturbed tomb of one of the rulers of the Wari, a people who ruled this area of northern Peru for around 500 years.  One of the chambers contained what looked like a stone throne.  There were mummified guards, as well, all of whom were missing their left feet.  No one now living knows why their feet were removed.

In one chamber, the bodies of sixty women were found.  It appears that three or four of them were royalty and some 54 of the others may have been nobility.  These women were found wearing jewelry and fine clothing, then wrapped in cloth that left a roughly egg-shaped form.  There were also some other unmummified women found in the chamber, and it is possible that they may have been sacrifices.  Other goods, fabrics, vessels, boxes, and so forth, were found in the tomb as well.

And yet, with all of the bodies and materials and the throne, no sign of a king has been found yet.  The archaeologists are still searching, but while looking for other information on the Wari, I found a page at Archaeology Magazine’s website called “A Wari Matriarchy?”  And it occurred to me that why not?  Maybe the archaeologists will never find the “king” because there is no king to find.  Perhaps the highest-ranking woman, with the finest jewelry and clothing, was the ruler.

Puffin Therapy, photographs by Danny Green, text by Tom O’Neill

Before we get to the meat of this article, I find the way this article was credited interesting.  Generally, it’s the title, then after a few pages of photographs, when the text starts, the writer and photographer are credited in that order, and then the text starts.  In Puffin Therapy, the photographer credit is by itself where the writer and photographer credits normally go, and the writer’s credit is stuck at the very end of the text section, following a dash.  I wonder why they did it this way?  My first instinct is to say that perhaps Green was supposed to have written the text, but he had some kind of prior obligation that kept him from being able to do so and so they enlisted O’Neill at the last minute.

The text is largely about the mating behaviors of puffins.  The common image of puffins with their bright orange beaks is their appearance during mating season.  The rest of the year their faces and beaks are darker.  In fact, one photo that I found when searching for what puffins look like the rest of the year looks more or less like the puffins that we’re used to seeing right after a vacuum cleaner bag blew up in its face — all gray and sooty looking.

It wouldn’t be a National Geographic article without a mention of global climate change.  There is some concern that the change in climates may have a deleterious effect on the puffin population.  Puffins in some locations have had almost no offspring in some years.  Puffins are long-lived and can afford to miss a year or two of breeding, but this trend may be increasing and the puffin may end up being threatened as a result.

The title comes from Iain Morrison, who takes visitors to see the puffins.  He says that spending time with puffins makes the visitors happy and refers to it as “puffin therapy.”  And looking at Green’s photographs, I can definitely believe it.

How to Farm a Better Fish, by Joel K. Bourne, Jr., photographs by Brian Skerry

It should come as no surprise that an article called How to Farm a Better Fish would be about fish farming.  This installment of the Future of Food series focuses on the growth of the fish farming industry and how fish farmers and scientists are attempting both new and older methods in the industry.

As a general rule, fish is one of the most efficient forms of protein there is.  Where chicken takes around 1.7 pounds of feed to produce a pound of meat, and the ratios are 2.9 for pigs and 6.8 for cattle, for fish, the ratio is close to one pound of feed per pound of meat.  Additionally, more people are eating fish than ever before.  As a result, there is more growth in the fish farming industry than in most other areas of agriculture.

We look at a number of farms, including the farm of Bill Martin, who  is attempting to develop carbon-neutral onshore fish farming.  We also see several offshore farms, including one eight miles offshore which raises cobia.  The man who developed this farm, Brian O’Hanlon, has put the farm so far offshore so that the currents will take away the waste. And, indeed, researchers have yet to detect any waste outside of the fish pens.  And one researcher, Stephen Cross, is attempting what is called polyculture, where many different edible species live in a sort of symbiotic relationship.  In Cross’s case, he is raising sablefish and then down the current from the fish, he is raising mollusks.  Down the current from the mollusks are kelp, and further down are sea cucumbers.  These three other species filter the water and remove waste from the sablefish.  Cross says that the biological filtration system that he is using could be fitted onto any fish farm and, since all of the species he is using for filtration are edible, the filters themselves can be harvested and sold.

The final farm we see is a kelp farm.  The owners of the farm, Paul Dobbins and Tollef Olson, grow three species of kelp that can grow up to five inches a day.  They then sell the kelp to restaurants, schools and hospitals.  Dobbins and Olson have increased their farm has increased to ten times its original size in the past five years and the kelp is cleaning the water in the area as it grows, a win/win for both the farmers and the environment.

I love seafood.  I was visiting a friend who was a vegetarian and he tried to convince me to go vegetarian.  I admitted that vegetarianism holds some appeal for me, but that I don’t think I could ever give up seafood.  And this article made me feel even better about seafood and its future as a source of food for the planet, than I felt before I read it.

Train for the Forgotten, by Joshua Yaffa, photographs by William Daniels

In 1974, the government of the Soviet Union began an ambitious project to showcase what they believed was Soviet superiority over nature.  They started work on a rail line connecting Lake Baikal to the Amur River in northern Siberia.  Around half a million people worked on the rail ine and on the towns that they had to build to connect it.  The original homes for the workers were wooden barracks in the woods, and as time passed, they erected prefabricated buildings to live in.

Then when the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the construction project.  Since 1991, the people of this region, known as the Baikal-Amur Mainline (“BAM”) have been isolated and left with no regular health care.  In an effort to remedy this situation, the Russian government runs a medical train along the tracks.  The train, named for Russian health-care pioneer Matvei Mudrov, has exam rooms and medical personnel and visits each village on average every six months.  This may be okay for many of the residents, but for those who are sick or injured, it is not nearly often enough.  There are no urgent care facilities and people die of conditions that are treatable in the world outside the BAM.

Yaffa takes us into the world of the BAM, seeing how isolated the people are and how desperate their medical situation can be.  He show us the slowly crumbling buildings and infrastructure (where anything besides a dirt road exists; some of the villages don’t even have running water) of the villages along the BAM.  The story out of Russia is that the Russian government intends to use the BAM to ship containers, but none of that is seen here.  All we see is the slow decay of what started out as an audacious (in both senses of the term) project.

(originally posted July 2015)

While researching my post on our day in Philadelphia, I stumbled across a new “must see” travel goal:  the moon trees.

When Apollo 14 went to the moon, the astronauts took tree seeds with them.  Upon the return of Apollo 14 to Earth, scientists attempted to germinate the seeds, resulting in over 400 seedlings (some of which were produced from cuttings).  The resulting trees were planted all over the nation and some were given to other countries, including Brazil and Japan.

NASA’s website has an article on the moon trees.  The page includes a list of some trees believed to be moon trees (unfortunately no official list was kept).  The list of locations is a strange one, including four trees in Alabama, for example, but the only one identified as being in Texas is at a “private residence” in Westlake.  I intend to ask around to see if by some miracle there is a moon tree here in San Antonio.  It would seem that out of hundreds of trees, more than that one should be in Texas.

At any rate, as Alex and I travel over the next few years, I will see how many moon trees I can see.  It looks like I can fit one into our 2018 vacation.  We’re planning to go to Seattle and take a side trip to the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon.  It looks like there is a Douglas Fir at the State Capitol in Salem, which is only half an hour from McMinnville.  That sounds doable to me.

When I went to New York City with my parents in 1988, we visited the Empire State Building.  I not only enjoyed the view of the city, I was very impressed by the detail that went into the building.  This was a building that exists not just to be a place of business, but also to impress its visitors.  And it does this very well indeed.  So, when I started planning Alex and my 2015 vacation, I knew that I had to visit the Empire State Building again.

Additionally, my 1988 visit was in the evening and I took a picture of the shadow of the building stretching out over Manhattan.  I wanted to duplicate that photo on this trip, as well, so as to see how the city has changed over the last 27 years.

We went the same day as our trip to the Intrepid Museum and needed to get some rest and cool off a bit after all of the walking we’d done that day.  As a result, we ended up arriving at the observation deck of the Empire State Building about an hour later than it had been when we had been there in 1988.  I got the picture, though.  The 1988 picture was pretty overexposed, and so I attempted to fix it.  I’m still really new at this, so it’s probably not the best job ever, but it’s not too bad for a beginner.  I think.

Empire State Building, August 16, 1988, 5:00 p.m.

The view from the Empire State Building at around 5:00 p.m. on, near as I can figure, August 16, 1988.

Empire State Building, July 16, 2015 6:00 p.m.

The view from the Empire State Building at around 6:00 p.m. on July 16, 2015.

The groundbreaking of the Empire State Building was held on March 17, 1930 and the building was officially opened on May 1, 1931.  An additional 200 feet of height were added to the building so that it could serve as a docking station for airships (zeppelins, blimps, and similar craft).  However, as fate would have it, the airship was supplanted by another technology — the jet airplane — and the closest any airship ever got to docking at the Empire State Building was when an airship tied to the mast for three minutes in a high wind.  And, when it comes down to it, that was the downfall of the plan to use the Empire State Building as a docking station for airships.  The wind is too strong at that height.  However, the Empire State Corporation did get their extra 200 feet, and for over 40 years, from the opening of the building until September of 1973, when the Sears Tower opened, the Empire State Building was the tallest building in the world.

The Empire State Building is open from 8:00 a.m. until 2:00 a.m.  Visiting the Empire State Building Experience website will give you the estimated time from the front doors to the 86th floor.  Visitors are required to take the elevator to and from the 80th floor, but from that point, visitors have a choice between taking the elevator and walking the last six stories.  My son and I chose to climb the stairs, and I think we may have climbed the stairs in 1988 as well.  For all I know, you get chilled champagne and a mani-pedi on the elevator between the 80th and 86th floors.  I don’t think I’ve ever been in it.

The Empire State Building is wheelchair-accessible.  There are areas of the 86th Floor observatory where the walls have been lowered to allow wheelchair users to enjoy the view.  As of this writing, the walls of the 102nd Floor observatory are high, but they are attempting to remedy that shortcoming.

The Hunt for Life Beyond Earth, by Michael D. Lemonick, photographs by Mark Thiessen

The Hunt for Life Beyond Earth is pretty much just like it says:  it’s about scientists’ attempts to find life on other planets.  Needless to say, Mars is one of the planets they are considering as home for this extraterrestrial life, but Mars is too close.  Rocks travel back and forth between Earth and Mars periodically.  As a result,  the discovery of life on Mars would not prove that said life developed there.  It could be terrestrial life that made the trip between the two planets.

Based on the premise that life should be develop in places with liquid water, we are also looking at two of Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus, as possible sites of life.  Saturn’s moon Titan also has liquid, but that liquid is methane and not water.  As a result, scientists who are looking for life haven’t ruled Titan out, but they are uncertain what kind of life would develop in liquid methane.

Then there is the possibility of life beyond our solar system.  In 1961, an astronomer named Frank Drake created what is now known as the Drake Equation, which is an equation to calculate how many extrasolar civilizations we should be able to contact.  The equation included the number of sunlike stars in our galaxy, the number of those stars that had planetary systems, the number of planetary systems that have planets capable of sustaining life, the number of planets that actually do develop life, the number of those whose residents develop intelligence, and the number of those who develop radio signals that we could detect.  We are just now starting to be able to apply numbers to these variables.

As someone who has read and watched entirely too much science fiction for her own good, I think that the Drake Equation may understate the number of planets that we might be able to communicate with.  What if a society jumped right to television?  Or used some other form of radiation that we cannot yet detect to communicate?  Or evolved while orbiting a sun completely different from ours?  The Drake Equation might be a good estimate, but there are no guarantees that it is the only way for life to develop.  It’s just the way that our life developed.

The Next Breadbasket, by Joel K. Bourne, Jr., photographs by Robin Hammond

The Next Breadbasket is another installment in the Future of Food series.  For this installment, we travel to Africa to watch the various ways that the fertile land, and those who work it, are being both used and exploited by agribusiness.  In too many African countries, the government allows the agribusiness entities to run people, some of whom have been farming this land for generations, off of their land.  Bourne names names, both of the companies that have treated the indigenous people well and those who have treated the people poorly.

So far, two of the ones that Bourne seems to support are a company called African Century Agriculture which uses an “outgrower” model, in which African Century provides soybeans, weeding, and training in conservation agriculture to small farmers. The farmers then sell the soybeans that they grow back to African Century, which deducts the costs of their services from the payment.  This way, the small farmers get to keep their land and also get education in the latest agricultural techniques.

Another company that Bourne seems to me to think well of is Bananalandia, the largest banana farm in Mozambique.  The owner of Bananalandia, Dries Gouws, pays his workers at least 110% of the Mozambican minimum wage and he also has done things to improve the lives of the people in the surrounding villages, including paving roads, providing electricity, building a school, and making improvements to the sewage system.  I know well that 110% of minimum wage is in no way going to raise these people out of poverty, but I feel that the other improvements in the quality of life that Gouws has made are not insignificant either.

The Wells of Memory, by Paul Salopek, photographs by John Stanmeyer

In The Wells of Memory, the second installment of Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk series, Salopek is walking up the western coast of Saudi Arabia, through an area known as the Hejaz.  The Hejaz was added to what is now Saudi Arabia in 1925. Both Mecca and Medina are in the Hejaz, so until the era of airplane flight, most of the pilgrims coming from around the world had to pass through the Hejaz. Jeddah, also in the Hejaz is the burial place of Eve, according to legends.

Salopek focuses in part on the wells that are spread, a day’s walk apart, through the Hejaz.  The wells date back to the Caliphate of Caliph Umar in 638.  There were also guesthouses, forts, and hospitals along the route, courtesy fo the Caliph.  Today, in addition to the ancient wells, there are asbila, outdoor electric water coolers along the route these days.

Salopek is one of the first, if not the first, Westerner to travel this route in close to a century, but this is the route taken by other Westerners in the past, including Lawrence of Arabia.

As with nearly all National Geographic stories, The Wells of Memory is punctuated by photographs.  However, some of the photographs in this story were taken with a smartphone and then edited to look like vintage, sepia-toned photographs with an app called Hipstamatic.  Stanmeyer chose this approach to reflect his feeling that he “had one foot in the present, and the other had stepped back a hundred years.”

Big Fish, by Jennifer S. Holland, photographs by David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes

For the past 25 years, the Altantic goliath grouper has been a protected species.  Once sport fishermen would catch them by the dozen, but goliath groupers are long-lived and reproduce slowly.  This meant that the fish were not able to replace their numbers as quickly as they were being harvested.  This resulted in the species being granted legal protection as an endangered species.

Now, some fishermen believe that their numbers have rebounded enough that it should be safe to start catching them again.  In part they want the trophies, but these fishermen also believe that the goliath grouper is eating fish that the fishermen should legally be able to catch, thus reducing the numbers of legal fish even farther.

Holland seems unswayed by these fisherman’s arguments.  She has spoken with scientists who are studying goliath grouper and who believe that the population is still too low.  Goliath groupers tend to stick to one area, and until they start to overpopulate that area, they will not spread elsewhere in their range.  Additionally, according to Holland, there are a number of studies (she doesn’t tell us which ones) that show that there is not much overlap between the targets of the fishermen and those of the goliath grouper.  If the fishermen are finding it difficult to find fish to catch, it is not the fault of the goliath grouper.

Additionally, just because their numbers are rebounding now does not mean that this will continue indefinitely.  Goliath grouper juveniles live in mangrove swamps, and the mangroves in their home range are being decimated.  To make matters worse, due to mercury levels, goliath grouper are coming down with lesions in their livers.  This may also have an impact on their population numbers in the long term.  It also makes goliath grouper unsafe to eat, so fishermen who catch them would need to throw them back, or use them only for trophy purposes, which would be wasteful.

Empire of Rock, by McKenzie Funk, photographs by Carsten Peter

Alas, Empire of Rock has nothing to do with popular music.  It is, in fact, about the karst caves underneath Guizhou, China.  This part of China was once covered by a sea.  Over the centuries, the mollusks left their shells behind, which compressed into a  limestone formation known as karst.  Karst is limestone which is punctured by holes.  Water seeps down into the holes, which wears the holes away until they join together and eventually form caves.  This area is relatively unique in that this process has taken place over so many centuries that there are entire mountains of karst on the surface.  Have you ever seen photographs or Chinese paintings of large, steep stone mountains, usually surrounded by mist?  Those are karst mountains.

Funk accompanied a group of scientists and cavers who were attempting to measure the volume of one of the largest cave chambers in the world, the Hong Meigui chamber.  Though Funk’s eyes we watch them descend into the chamber and see their laser scanners, which Funk tells us is about the same size as a human head, measure the volume of the cave.  Funk and her hosts also visit other caves and karst formations in the area.

“Hong Meigui,” by the way, is the word that inspired me make my last post, on my experiences with foreign language.  “Hong Meigui,” depending on the tones, can mean “red rose.”  And I suspect that may be the meaning here, since there is a caving organization called the Hong Meigui Cave Exploration Society and the characters for the name of that group are the “hong,” “mei,” and “gui” of “red rose.”  Another chamber mentioned is the Miao Room, and my first instinct was that the “miao” in question is “temple,” but, when looking at a list of other “miao”s, it could also be the “miao” that means “infinity,” or any of a number of other Mandarin words that can be transliterated as “miao.”  I just don’t know.  To make things more frustrating, Funk does imply one translation when he tells us that the Yanzi cave is named for the swallows that live in the walls.

Two months after the cover date on this magazine, in September 2014, the title of the largest cave in the world was granted to the Miao Room.

(originally posted June and July 2015)

I was thinking that my next My Travel Memories post would be the start of what will likely turn out to be a bunch of posts on Walt Disney World, but I just looked at a map, and apparently the Kennedy Space Center is ever-so-slightly farther north than Walt Disney World.  So, in accordance with my north-to-south (to the extent I can piece my earliest memories together) literary itinerary, the Kennedy Space Center is next.

The Kennedy Space Center is the place that all of the manned space flights since 1972 launched from.  This means that every space shuttle launch took off from Kennedy.  When my folks retired to Florida, they could see the space shuttle launches from the beach near their house. I never visited during a launch, though, so I didn’t get to see them. I don’t know if I would have wanted to have seen it, either.  After the Challenger disaster in 1986, any time a space shuttle launched, I watched metaphorically through my fingers.

I’ve needed to do some research into when I went to the Kennedy Space Center.  It was definitely before the space shuttle era.   I am virtually certain that it was still Cape Kennedy at the time because I can remember telling an adult that we went to Cape Kennedy and the adult was confused at first because she knew it only as Cape Canaveral.  So that means that it was most likely in or before 1973, because they changed the name of the cape from Cape Kennedy back to Cape Canaveral on October 9, 1973 and we always went on vacation before October.

I suspect if I went back today there would be things that would trigger sense memories in me, but from here, sitting in my breakfast nook in Texas, the only thing that seems to have made a really lasting impression on me was what I am pretty sure was the Apollo 14 command module.  I remember it because it was less shiny and silver than I was expecting.  It was actually a rather unattractive shade of brown.  Apollo 14 was in 1971, so that narrows the date even farther, to sometime between 1971 and 1973.

Edited to Add:  I found our 1972 Florida trip album and there is no mention of the Kennedy Space Center in it.  Since we basically went to Florida every year during my early childhood, it looks like 1971 or 1973 are likely to be our target year.

(originally posted July 6, 2015)

You know that 52-week money challenge thing that goes around once in a while, particularly towards Christmas?  Well I use a similar approach to save up for bigger trips.  The 330 weeks I mention in the subject line is how long it will take me from my start just about a year ago to save up the money for a planned trip to China in 2021.  I started studying Mandarin in 2007 in hopes of one day taking a trip to China, but it never worked out, so I have tentatively scheduled this long-awaited trip for 2021. At the moment, I have two other trips planned that I am using a similar approach, one to Germany and one to New Zealand, between now and 2021.

And before you ask, I’m not ever going to put $330 aside in one week. The plan goes something like this.  For a trip to China, I figured that $10,000 should do it (and checking Expedia, it looks like I can do it much more cheaply than that, but you never know what will happen to prices over the next five years).  So I counted the weeks between the date I started and the end of December 2020 (since I want to book the trip around six months in advance, plus I made this calculation using San Antonio and Shanghai as my endpoints and I hope to do a bit more traveling around the country than that, which will raise the cost) and got 330 weeks.  Dividing $10,000 into 330 weeks gives me an average amount of just a little more than $30 per week, so my first week will be $1 and my final week should be $60 (though it won’t, as we will see).  Since 330 divided by 60 is 5.5, I will round down and start at $1 the first five weeks and go up $1 every five weeks after that.  This will mean that my final five weeks will be $66, rather than $60.  At the end of those 330 weeks, I will have a little more than $11,000.

And you know what?  If my trip to China doesn’t end up costing me $11,000, then I can use that money on another trip.  I want to return to Naples (I loved Naples — more on that later) to see the blood miracle of San Gennaro in the early 2020s as well, so that seems like it might be a good use of any extra money.

Additionally, in practice, it doesn’t always work out so perfectly, since sometimes money is a little tighter than others and I end up having to carry that week’s amount forward another week or two to tide me over.  But, in theory, I should have plenty of money to do whatever travel I want to do in China saved up in plenty of time for the trip I hope to make.

I am also doing a reverse version of this to save up for smaller trips.  I chose a dollar amount as a maximum and I am counting down in reverse from that amount, decreasing every two or three weeks, depending on my financial state that week.  This money added up quickly and if I suffer some kind of financial setback, the money is already there for me to use on a smaller weekend trip sometime in the future. The thought occurs that I should go to Mexico at some point, speaking of travel to countries where I speak the language. Mexico is, after all, right there. I went to Nuevo Laredo once in the 1990s, but have never been farther into the country than that.