National Geographic

Small, Small World, by Nathan Wolfe

Wolfe is a microbiologist, and so in this article he introduces the readers to some of the natural wonders that we cannot see, particularly what is known as the microbiome, which are the bacteria which live within our bodies. There’s a nifty graphic illustration of just how much of our body is made up of bacteria, as well.

Now for the National Geographic post I had attempted back on the 12th:

Restless Genes, by David Dobbs

At first, I thought that this would be a rehash of what we covered back on June 29, 2016 or that the magazine would cover again in June of 2013, depending on your perspective. The thesis in that issue was that people take risks because they get a dopamine rush from it.

Instead, though, we talk about the possible genetic impetus and benefits of exploration. Dobbs discusses how unusual homo sapiens sapiens is for our desire to explore and to cover new territory. Other species may travel with us (rats and cockroaches, for example), but it’s doubtful whether those species would have spread out that far without us. Even our other homo sapiens cousins (such as the Neanderthal) didn’t spread out and conquer the world like we did.

We start out with one gene, DRD4, which controls dopamine (this is where I thought the two articles would overlap). A variant called DRD4-7R seems to correlate highly with exploration. But for all of the studies that seem to make that correlation, there are others that refute it.

One of the scientists who discovered the 7R variant believes that it is a collection of genetic changes, not just that one, that leads humanity to explore. We are better-suited than our primate cousins to walk far distances, and our brains take longer to develop but end up larger than theirs are. And even the long time it takes us to mature may help. Our long childhoods lead us to develop imaginations, which feed our curiosity and lead children to naturally become scientists and explorers. Some of us retain those tendencies into adulthood.

And explorers tend to breed new explorers. A community in Quebec spread out into the wilderness and as they progressed farther into the wilderness, the communities they founded had different traits. They married younger and had more children, and those children married younger and had even more children. Lawrence Excoffier, a population geneticist, believes that this sort of sorting happened over and over throughout human history, leading explorers to perhaps have had more children, and thus had a stronger impact on the human genome in general.

We start and end the article, and possibly also the story of human migration, with the population of the South Pacific. These peoples were the descendants of some of the first to leave Africa. Once they reached the end of the continent of Asia going westward, they started moving from through the islands in small canoes, always within sight of another island. But when they reached the end of the chain of islands that were “intervisible,” they stopped until centuries later, when people from somewhere else, perhaps Taiwan, brought a larger boat that could travel farther distances. And after that, nothing stopped them from conquering that entire part of the world.

Crazy Far, by Tim Folger photographs by Stephan Martiniere

We begin this article with a discussion of the NERVA project, which was an attempt to get humans to Mars in a nuclear-powered spaceship. The original plan was to leave for Mars in 1981. Obviously, we never got there.

In this article, we discuss the technology that could, someday, bring that old dream back to life, including nuclear fusion or a giant sail that would catch solar winds (Hey! I was just reminiscing about that Classic Doctor Who episode!)

The article concludes with the idea that before we can build a starship, though, we will need to build a society that will build a starship. That seemed like a good prospect in 2013. In 2017, I think we’re likely to take a big step backwards before we can even start on that project.

Smartphone Americana, story and photographs by David Guttenfelder

Guttenfelder spent 20 years living abroad working as a photojournalist. He returned to the United States in 2014 and began to explore the country of his birth as if he were a new immigrant. Rather than using the expensive cameras he used in his years abroad, however, he chose to use his smartphone.  He says that he “want(s his) images to be imperfect and immediate, to capture something both fleeting and timeless about the America that (he is) rediscovering.”

And the pictures he took really are stunning. I think that my personal favorite is the tail end of an RV with mountainous scenery as it drives past a view of the Badlands in South Dakota.

Great White Mystery by Erik Vance, photography by Brian Sherry

We think we know the great white shark. After all, didn’t Richard Dreyfuss tell us everything we need to know in Jaws? Actually, not so much. Vance lists some of the things we don’t know about the great white shark, including such things as the life expectancy, gestation period or the age at which a great white undergoes puberty (or whatever passes for puberty among sharks). This information was why my first thought about posting a link to my Amazon Associates account wasn’t for Jaws but for Deep Wizardry, the second book in Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series.* The whole “we don’t know where they come from or where they go” part of this article reminded me of a great white shark whose very long name the kids shorten to “Ed” in Deep Wizardry.

The article goes on to talk about some of the things we do know about great white sharks, like their anatomy and the areas of the ocean where they are seen most frequently. And the article ends by asking whether the great white shark is a healthy or threatened population. The answer is, as of the publication of this article, as yet unknown

Greece, Gods, and the Great Beyond by Caroline Alexander, photographs by Vincent J. Musi and David Coventry

This is a little bit of text on the evolution of religion in Ancient Greece, from propitiating the gods that were believed to cause good and bad thing to befall them and with a fear of death and the underworld through the mystery cults that eventually informed the religion that became Christianity.

The photographs are of Greek sacred sites, including the Erechtheion in Athens and, in an interesting choice, the Temple of Athena in Delphi. The Temple of Apollo was much more famous, being where the Oracle did her oracle-ing. I wonder if the photograph didn’t turn out as well as the one of the Temple of Athena (which is a lovely photo).

There is also a two-page illustration of what Samothrace looked like at its peak, including where the famous statue of Nike was located. This page also has a reconstruction of what Nike probably looked like before she lost her arms and head.

If you want to see Nike, by the way, and don’t have the time or money to go to the Louvre, a cement reproduction of the statue can be seen at Miraflores Park on Hildebrand in San Antonio. Miraflores Park is still, a decade after the city took possession of it, not open to the public, but you can see the statue from the street.

*As threatened previously, I also need to include a link to the first book, So You Want to Be a Wizard.

 

Beyond Reasonable Doubt, by Veronique Greenwood, photographs by Max Aguilera-Hellweg

This article talks about the latest developments in forensic science. One of the techniques covered is what’s called genetic phenotyping, where they can now take a DNA sample and pull out hair, eye, and skin color and, often traits like whether the source of the sample had freckles. They can even sometimes get a general idea of the shape of the person’s face.

Of course, the hair thing might not be foolproof, as (totally aside from the existence of hair dyes), people do lose their hair sometimes and hair does eventually gray. In fact, I knew two young men in my youth who lost their hair at very young ages. It’s likely that there might be some kind of genetic component to the hair loss, but statistically speaking, in their teens or 20s the reconstructions would probably have shown them with full heads of hair.

We also talk about some of the mistakes made through older versions of forensic science, including Kirk Odom, whose hair was supposedly “microscopically indistinguishable” from a hair found at the crime scene. Turns out that the scientists never examined the hair under a microscope and that even if they had, <a href=https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/about-us/lab/forensic-science-communications/fsc/july2000/deedric1.htm>it looks to me like they can determine things like the species of the source of the hair and, if human, the race of the source of the hair, but it is not possible to narrow it down to an individual.</a>

The photograph of the photographer, by the way, was created by DNA phenotyping. There’s an interactive feature on the website where you can compare that image to actual photographs of actual photographers to see if you can figure out which was is Max.

The Battle for Virunga, by Robert Draper, photographs by Brent Stirton

Well, it’s been a while since we’ve had some unrest in Africa, so I guess we’re due. And since we’re talking about parks in the magazine this year, this article is a “twofer,” part of the Power of Parks series and about unrest in Africa.

Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the oldest national park in Africa. It is also part of some kind of turf war between at least two militias. The Battle for Virunga covers some of this recent history and discusses some of the things that the (at the moment) current director, Emmanuel de Merode, is doing to improve the park. One of these things is that they are building hydroelectric power plants in the park, hoping that the electricity being produced will (a) cover the park’s expenses into the future and (b) give potential entrepreneurs the chance to begin to develop businesses in the region that will give the children of the area something to aspire to besides joining a militia.

I’m in a quandary. Remember how I said that I was probably going to start putting Amazon Associates links in my posts if they seemed appropriate?

Well, the next National Geographic post that I’m going to write (I’m three posts ahead right now (not counting what I hope will be another link dump thing for New Year’s Day) so this is my post for January 7 or so that I’m talking about) is going to be on an article about great white sharks. And I’ve got, like, four things that I can link to.

But I don’t want it to look spammy to Google, even though all four things are on-topic. Two are the book and movie versions of Jaws and the third is the second Young Wizards book, Deep Wizardry, but in order to make that book make sense, one would need to read the first Young Wizards book, So You Want to Be a Wizard. I really love the stuff about sharks in Deep Wizardry far more than the movie of Jaws, so I’m really leaning towards that.

Maybe National Geographic has done/will do some other articles on great white sharks in the past and I can link Jaws when I get there. That won’t look too spammy, will it?

Stranded on the Roof of the World, by Michael Finkel, photographs by Matthieu Paley

In this article, we visit the Kyrgyz of the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan. The Wakhan Corridor runs from a low of about 10,000 feet to a height of about 16,000 feet. That puts the entirety of these people’s world above the tree line. Many of them have never even seen a tree. At the time this was written, there were no doctors and no roads. The closest road to their territory was  a three-day hike away.

Their entire lifestyle revolves around their livestock. They live too high to grow crops, so they raise sheep and yaks and goats both to eat and to use as currency. They have been able to enter something like the 21st century by trade as well. They have solar-powered batteries and use them to charge cell phones, which they use to play music and take pictures. They cannot use them as phones, however. There’s no service that high up.

So far, however, it looks like that is as far as modernization has gone. They still lack basics like plumbing, roads, schools, and medical clinics.

Joy Is Round, photographs by Jessica Hilltout, text by Jeremy Berlin

Hilltout traveled to Africa and took photographs of African youths playing soccer (football to the rest of the world) and posing with their homemade soccer balls both to chronicle the development of the youth soccer leagues of these countries but also, from what I can tell, to convince people to donate money to a project that would buy real equipment for these leagues. As she traveled through Africa, she swapped the homemade balls for real balls that she carried in her car. Included in this article are the photographs she took of those balls.

While researching Hilltout’s project, I found Futbol Friends International’s website. They are raising money for soccer-related projects in Africa. I looked to see if they’re on the up-and-up and so far have found that Charity Navigator has a page for them, but hasn’t rated them because they are too small to have to file the form that Charity Navigator gets their information from. If you’d be interested in donating, however, their website is at Futbol Friends International.

The Sultans of Streams, by Adam Nicolson, photographs by Charlie Hamilton James

The Sultans of Streams, in addition to getting an old Dire Straits song stuck in my head, is about the decline and resurgence of otters in England (their numbers never declined much in Scotland). Industrialization and DDT caused the decline of otter habitat to only 6 percent of streams in the 1970s. Since then, however, they have been making a comeback. As of 2010, otters were present in 59 percent of streams and the numbers have probably increased even farther since then (I cannot find anything definitive).

New Old Libya, by Robert Draper, photographs by George Steinmetz

As we go farther and farther back, the “ripped from the headlines” nature of some of these articles is blunted a bit. Can’t wait until we take a “look forward” at what will happen to Cuba under Castro and things of that nature. Today we look back at the developments in Libya after the 2011 death of Muammar Gaddafi.

Prior to Libya’s independence in 1950, Libya had previously been run by the United Nations, then prior to that, by Italy, and then prior to *that* by the Ottoman Empire and then prior to that by Rome. In fact, emperor Septimius Severus had been born in Libya, in a city known as Leptus Magna. When Gaddafi took power in 2011, he disdained all of this history, particularly the parts where the country had been ruled by Rome and Italy.

In this article, we see a picture of Libya in very late 2012 as a country that is moving both toward its future while trying to recapture the past that Gaddafi tried to suppress. We see the unrest that still existed in late 2012, but we also see people going on with their lives, hopeful that they will have a future.

And, of course, as we know now, the first war in 2011 that led to the fall and death of Gaddafi, was followed by a second war that continues, well, at least until I’m writing this in 2016. Now Libya his hemorrhaging people, with thousands of people fleeing every year.

I’m hoping to start studying Vietnamese in 2017, because it’s one of the languages that I have to use the translation service for most in my job. It looks like I may also need to learn Arabic because immigrants from Arabic-speaking nations are on the rise here, as well. My side of town is where groups like Catholic Charities like to resettle the refugees because services are easy to access in this area.

The Bite that Heals, by Jennifer S. Holland, photographs by Mattias Klum

In The Bite that Heals, Holland takes us to speak with scientists who are making medication from venom. We start in Mexico, where a man named Michael was healed of his ankylosing spondylitis apparently by a scorpion sting. At the time this article went to press, about a dozen medications had been developed from venom, including the blood pressure medication captopril. The web page of Zoltan Takacs, one of the scientists that Holland speaks with, has a list of (at this time) around 15 medications that are currently being sold that are derived from venom. This list has an additional five that are in clinical trials.

This finishes off this issue. In other news, now that the summer heat is over (or is it?), I’m back to walking the greenways, which means that I’m back to listening to the issues from the 1800s. And they are just as gripping as always. I’m counting down the issues until 1915, when National Geographic starts to appeal to a more general audience.

Also, as of the day I’m writing this (November 26), I’m finally caught up on my steps (nothing like waiting until the last minute!). I’m actually a bit ahead. I’m done with today’s steps already. And, finally, I’m sticking to the Duolingo thing. I’m averaging 4.7 lessons per day, and I plan to invest this money in the stock market as I save up enough to buy shares of stock (probably a share every nine months or so). This certainly won’t make me rich, but it won’t hurt, either.

Swimming with Tigers, by Glenn Hodges, photographs by Brian Sherry

Swimming with Tigers is the first story in a three-part Summer of Sharks series. Hodges admits that he was afraid of sharks, but that when he was given the assignment to write this article, he decided not just to research tiger sharks, but to actually get in the water and swim with them.

Additionally, Hodges was not an experienced diver. In fact, the tiger shark experience was his first dive ever. We accompany him and watch the tour operators feed the sharks to make sure that they aren’t hungry when the divers get in with them. We also see a frightening moment when an angelfish swam into their group followed by smaller sharks. Then, after the swim, Hodges goes to Hawaii to visit with a scientist who studies tiger sharks.

Juárez Returns to Life, by Sam Quinones, Photographs by Dominic Bracco II

Despite having lived in San Antonio for nearly a quarter of a century, I have only been to Mexico once. When my former in-laws were visiting, they had one day that they hadn’t made plans for. We offered them a choice of a water park or of visiting Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. They opted for Mexico. We went down and ignored the panhandlers (of which there were many) and did a little shopping. What’s funny is that I was the least not-impressed of the four of us and yet my former mother-in-law goes down there regularly now (she is decorating her house with things she’s bought in Mexico).

And I admit that Mexico would definitely be a good place for me to explore for my blog. However, there’s the War on Drugs going on in Mexico right now, and while our War on Drugs has been largely metaphorical, the war in Mexico . . . isn’t. Travel Blogger Wounded in Drug Shootout isn’t really the kind of attention I’d like to garner. And until the State Department’s Travel Warning for northern Mexico becomes a Travel Alert (or even better goes away completely), I think I’m going to stay out of that area. This does not rule out travel farther into the country, by the way, Alex and I visit a volcano in even-numbered years and a trip to Mexico City and Popocatépetl sounds like it might be in the cards for the 2020s.

All is not lost for Norther Mexico, however. In this article, we watch the rebirth of Juárez Mexico, once considered the most dangerous city in Mexico and possibly in the world. There’s a nifty chart showing the spike in killings  in Juárez in 2010, how it increased, and how killings have declined in the years since.

The Art of Solar Energy, by Jamey Stillings

This is another in the ongoing Photographer’s Journal series, in which Stillings shares with us some of the photographs he has taken of the Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Plant in Nevada.

Peru’s World Apart, by Emma Marris, photographs by Charlie Hamilton James

We return to the Power of Parks series with Manu National Park, a park in Peru that is home to “uncontacted” tribes of indigenous people, including (but not limited to) the Mashco-Piro and the Matsigenka. I put “uncontacted” in quotes because that is how they are generally referred to, but some of the indigenous tribes that had previously been keeping to themselves (and, by policy, outsiders were forbidden to initiate contact with) are starting to reach out to the outside world.

Of course Peru and Brazil are two different countries with different policies, despite their proximity to one another. Brazil’s ban on contacting their indigenous people dates back to the 1980s. Peru’s only goes back to 2006. One of Marris’s guides, Glenn Shepard, has been living with the Matsigenka for “30 years,” so before the limits on contact were put in place.

There is a lot on the history of the area and also on the geography, geology, and natural history of the area. Natural history is, of course, not really history as we think of it. It’s the study of the flora and fauna of a place (we get another of those strange trap camera photos that make the animal look more like taxidermy than like life, this time of an ocelot). And we get some idea of the llifestyle of the Matsigenka. We go along as Marris goes monkey hunting with them, for example.

Plundering the Past, by Tom Mueller, photographs by Robert Clark

Mueller takes us into the world of illegal artifact trafficking. We are introduced to the mummy of Shesep-amun-tayesher (who, for some unknown reason, loses her hyphens after the first time she’s named) and as we watch how her mummy got transported from Egypt to Birmingham, Alabama, we also see how the business of trafficking works with other artifacts as well.

We also see the conflict that museum curators and others who work with these artifacts are trying to deal with. You see, a lot of these artifacts are being trafficked by terrorists and so, by dealing with them, the collectors and the museums and other institutions are probably supplying terrorists with money. However, if ransoming these artifacts weren’t lucrative, there’s a good chance that the terrorists would just destroy them, or that the artifacts would be “collateral damage” of the wars in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question, and there probably never will be, until some farflung future date when the terrorism in the Middle East finally stops.