National Geographic July 2016, Part 1

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=>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.

National Geographic March 2013, Part 2

Return to River Town, by Peter Hessler, photographs by Anastasia Taylor-Lind

Hessler was a Peace Corps volunteer in Fuling, PRC in the late 1990s. He wrote three books about his experiences in China, the first of which was named River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, whence this article gets its name.

Fuling is, again, as the title of Hessler’s book implies, on the Yangtze River. It is, in fact, near the Three Gorges Dam, one of the largest dams in the world, and the one that produces by far the most electricity.

In Return to River Town, Hessler chronicles some of the changes that have come to Fuling since the publication of his books. He also takes us to the Baiheliang (White Crane Ridge) Underwater Museum, which protects an archaeological site that was submerged when the dam was built.

The Left Bank Ape, by David Quammen, photographs by Christian Ziegler

I’m unclear on the use of “Exclusive” in the subtitle on this article: An Exclusive Look at Bonobos. Maybe I’ve read the covers of too many gossip magazines in my day, but to me this sounds like the bonobos gave some kind of interview to Quammen that they didn’t give to anyone else. Maybe “Exclusive” means “on just bonobos and no other animals”? I guess I’ll probably never know.

I have to admit that I read this article first. Some of my friends idealize bonobo culture, and I really wonder what’s going through their heads when they say that having sex with an aggressor sounds more pleasant to them than fighting with the aggressor. I finally had to speak up and say that I find anger to be a definite turnoff and submitting sexually to someone who’s angry sounds, well, kind of like rape to me.

Over these past few years, as a result, I have a kind of knee-jerk reaction to the very word “bonobos,” so since I’m dedicated to reading absolutely everything, I figured I’d pull the metaphorical “adhesive bandage” off quickly and read this one first.

And Quammen tells us that things are different for bonobos in the wild than the ones in captivity that gave them their reputation. In the wild, bonobos do fight and it’s apparently not expected for the combatants to have sex with each other. It seems that the excessive sex-focus of bonobos is largely an artifact of captivity. In their natural habitat, in fact, the males have relatively high levels of cortisol, a hormone that increases during times of stress.

As to the title The Left-Bank Ape, bonobos are less likely to engage in outright violence than chimpanzees, however, and spend less time eating meat and more time eating plant-based foods than chimpanzees. Scientists attribute this to the lack of gorillas on their side of the Congo River. The lack of competition from gorillas has led to the lifestyle of the bonobo being, while not completely free of stress, less stressful than that of its cousins across the river.

National Geographic September 2013, Part 2

Untamed Antarctica, by Freddie Wilkinson, photographs by Cory Richards

I frequently tell people that I want to go “everywhere.” And I really do.  However, if going to places like Kenya and India and the Netherlands and Australia mean that places like the Wohlthat Mountains end up being squeezed out, i won’t be too disappointed.

Wilkinson, Richards, and two other adventurers, Mike Libecki and Keith Ladzinski, went off to the unclimbed mountains of Queen Maud Land in Antarctica with the goal of summitting as many mountains as they could.   We accompany the team up a spire that they name Bertha’s Tower, named apparently for Libecki’s grandmother.  They take two weeks to climb Bertha’s Tower, and at one point, Wilkinson has to spend the night outside of their shelter in just a sleeping bag.

Untamed Antarctica was a very quick read, and I found it fascinating, but the desire to follow in their footsteps just wasn’t there.

Kinshasa, Urban Pulse of the Congo, by Robert Draper, photographs by Pascal Maitre

We’re back in Africa again, only there’s not so much unrest this time. Rather, Kinshasa, Urban Pulse of the Congo, is about the art scene in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  We meet painters and sculptors and performers, seeing how they express their fears and concerns and, sometimes, their hopes.

All is, of course, not rosy.  This is the Democratic Republic of the Congo here.  Draper has to deal with street children and corrupt officials.  But Draper makes it through and even gets to comission a painting of his dog from one of the artists profiled.

We will see/have seen the team of Pascal and Maitre in October 2015, when they travel up the Congo River to Kisangani.

Failure is an Option, by Hannah Bloch

Failure is an Option is a meditation on failure and the importance of failing.  Failure is an important, and possibly even necessary, part of progress.  Before you learn what you can do, you sometimes have to learn what you can’t.

My own favorite meditation on failure, by the way, is the 2007 Disney movie Meet the Robinsons.  As Billie Robinson says, From failing, you learn.  From success, not so much.

National Geographic October 2013, Part 1

The Power of Photography, by Robert Draper

This isn’t so much of an article as just the text to go along with the fold-out pages of photographs for the cover story.  It’s mostly praise for the hard work that National Geographic photographers do, but there’s a side-order of “hey you kids get out of my yard” that makes this slightly uncomfortable reading for me.  Then there’s the line “global cacophony of freeze-frames” that me wonder what my high school sophomore year English teacher would say about it.

The Price of Precious, by Jeffrey Gettleman, photographs by Marcus Bleasdale

The Price of Precious chronicles the travel of Gettleman and Bleasdale into the Congo, where they investigated the ongoing war and the way that trafficking in precious metals has been supporting that war. It is likely that some of the precious metals in my computer, and in whatever device you are reading this on is, and probably the server that will host this file once I finish writing it, came from the Congo.

Thanks to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, some manufacturers of electronics are weeding the conflict out of their precious metals.  At the time this went to print (over two years ago now) some of the groups that were funding violence with precious metals had seen their profits drop 65% and the Congolese government were starting to inspect mines to ensure that they were not funding violence.

Meltdown, by Robert Kunzig, photographs by James Balog

This is another short page-length bit of text to accompany photographs, this time Balog’s photographs of glaciers of Alaska and Iceland.  Kunzig discusses glaciers in Montana, Switzerland.  And in the years since this was published, the glacier in Switzerland, the Rhône, has retreated so far that the Belvedere Hotel, which used to be open to house visitors to the glacier has closed.

National Geographic October 2015, Part 2

Lifeblood, by Robert Draper, photographs by Pascal Maitre

In this article, Draper and Maitre take the Congo River from Mbandaka to Kisangani (interestingly, Firefox’s spell-check likes “Kisangani.”).  This is not where the journey was supposed to start.  It was supposed to start in Kinshasa, at the lower edge of the navigable Congo River.  However, the first boat they had paid to take, the Kwame Express, ended up not working out (to say the least) so Draper and Maitre arranged alternative transportation on a barge, which required that they fly from Kinshasa to Mbandaka (my fingers totally don’t want to type “Mbandaka.” I think it’s the “Mb.”).

We meet some of the people on the barge and see their motivations for traveling this way and watch people along the river take smaller boats, called pirogues, out to the barge to buy goods, some of which are declared, but much of which is black market merchandise.

When they arrive in Kisangani, Draper and Maitre take a day trip up the Lomami River, one of the tributaries of the Congo.

It is hard to see the passage of time in this article, unfortunately, but at the beginning of the journey, Draper tells us that it is February, and they spend the day on the Lomami in November, so the trip took eight months (a number verified by a confusingly worded caption on a photograph of the Kwame Express).

I know that I said once that I want to go “everywhere,” but after reading this article, I think that traveling up the Congo River on a barge has now been moved pretty close to the bottom of the list.  If I end up with the time and money to do this after pretty much everywhere else (including most of Africa), I’ll consider it.

Lure of the Lost City, by Douglas Preston, photographs by Dave Yoder

The “Lost City” of the title is a reference to the Ciudad Blanca, a mythical city that is rumored to have once existed somewhere in the Mosquitia region of Honduras.  For a long time, the consensus of historians and archaeologists was that there were no cities at all in that region.  However, the imaging technique known as LIDAR (LIght Detection And Ranging) showed that there was an area in the rainforest that was consistent with the markings of an ancient city.  The city that they found was a large one, with terraced fields in its outskirts and ten public plazas within the city.

And what the archaeologists found was amazing.  Apparently when the city was abandoned, no one ever disturbed it again.  Most of the buildings had been biodegradable and they are gone now, but there are a large number of stone artifacts that were found in near perfect condition.  And, to archaeologists, more important than the artifacts is the context — the location where the artifacts were found and how that location relates to the locations of other artifacts.  If I am reading this article correctly, the context of these artifacts is perfect.