National Geographic June 2016, Part 1

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.

National Geographic July 2013, Part 2

Last Song, by Jonathan Franzen, photographs by David Guttenfelder

Last Song is about songbird hunting and/or poaching in countries near the Mediterranean (primarily Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Egypt, Croatia, Iraq, Jordan, Kosovo, Morocco, Romania, Spain, and Syria). One of the nice things about this article is that Franzen is against this poaching and he isn’t afraid to admit that he’s emotionally affected by the things he sees in the article.

Albania might be of the worst countries for hunting of songbirds.  At one point, Franzen says that almost none of the songbirds that enter the country ever leave it.  I did a little digging and the government of Albania finally did something about it in 2014, when they forbade all hunting in the country.  It was a pilot program that was supposed to last two years, but in February of 2016, it was extended for another five. While this has lessened the hunting somewhat, it has, obviously, only increased the level of poaching and Albania doesn’t have the resources to really crack down on poaching. Of course, what this means is that eventually only songbirds whose ancestors took migratory routes around Albania will survive to reproduce, and eventually Albania will lose all of its songbirds.

6/13/2016 Note: We went on a road trip yesterday and I finished reading July, 2013 and February, 2016.  I didn’t finish this post last night because I was exhausted when I got back.  I will, however, be able to knock out those three posts pretty quickly once I have some time to sit down and write (some of which will be after I finish today’s road trip). Now on to get started reading June 2013 . . .

The Case of the Missing Ancestor, by Jamie Shreeve, photographs by Robert Clark

In the 18th Century, a hermit named Denis supposedly lived in a cave in Siberia. Around three hundred years later, a piece of a pinkie bone was found in that cave, known as “Denisova.” When the scientists examined the DNA of that bone, they found that the owner of the bone, a girl estimated to have been around eight years old, had been of a species distinct from, but related to, modern humans.  They now call her people the Denisovans.

The Case of the Missing Ancestor goes into the discovery of the phalanx along with the discovery of two Denisovan molars, a Neanderthal toe bone, and part of a stone bracelet that, at press time was deemed probably too recent to have been made by a Denisovan or a Neanderthal, but may actually have been made by a Denisovan after all.

Speaking of things that have changed since press time, Shreeve says that the only living descendants of the Denisovans live in Oceania, including on the Aborigines of Australia and the Melanesians of Papua New Guinea. DNA studies done later indicate that there are also descendants of the Denisovans living in Tibet, including the Sherpa.

National Geographic December 2015, Part 1

As I write this, on April 2, 2016, I am almost done with the June April 1889 issue.  I should finish it tomorrow during my greenway hike.  I haven’t decided which greenway I’m going to hike on.  It’s likely that it’ll be the Leon Creek Greenway, since I’m closer to being finished with that one.  I’ve only walked from about halfway between Huebner Road and Hardberger Park to the point where the trail goes under US 281.

Update, April 3, 2016:  I ended up finishing up the northern end of the Salado Creek Greenway.  Now I can say that I’ve walked that entire greenway north from US-281.

The Virgin Mary: The Most Powerful Woman in the World, by Maureen Orth, photographs by Diana Markosian

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not Catholic.  As a Protestant, I don’t believe that Mary stayed a virgin after the birth of Jesus. The “brothers and sisters” mentioned in verses like Matthew 13:55 & 56 and Mark 6:3 are, well, the children of Mary and Joseph. Not Jesus’s cousins.  Not the children of Joseph and an unnamed first wife.  Therefore, throughout this article, I will strive to always call her just “Mary.” I did grow up in a predominantly Catholic area, so an occasional “Virgin Mary” may slip in.

This article focuses largely on apparitions of Mary.  We start in Medugorje, and make mentions of Fatima, Portugal; Kibeho, Rwanda on our way to discuss the “Virgin of Guadalupe,” the 1531 apparition of Mary to Juan Diego (who was canonized in 2002) on Tepeyac Hill in Mexico City. After Mary appeared to Juan Diego, the bishop wanted some proof, so Mary had Juan Diego fill his cloak with roses. When Juan Diego brought the roses to the bishop, the cloak had the image of Mary on it.  The cloak has been on display in an series of shrines, churches, and finally, a basilica since then.  Orth spends a couple hundred words describing the image, yet there is no picture of it in the article. I took a quick trip down to the Oblate Seminary to visit their Tepeyac Shrine (and also their Lourdes Grotto and the accompanying chapel), then discovered that the Wikimedia photograph I had used as a reference when reading the article was in the public domain, so I’ll be including that (if WordPress will let me upload it.  Grrr.).  I am pretty proud of the picture of the statue that I took, though, so maybe I’ll use that, as well.

Virgin of Guadalupe.
The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the cloak of Saint Juan Diego. A public domain image downloaded from Wikimedia Commons

One turn of phrase had me wondering about Orth’s religious background.  She describes the image on the cloak as perhaps showing Mary “dancing in prayer.”  This is not a common phrase.  In fact, Google has only around 79,000 hits for the phrase, and at least once, there’s a comma in between “dancing” and “in.” Apparently, she is Catholic, so I wish she had elaborated on that phrase.

Orth also discusses the importance of Mary in Islam and we meet Muslim women who go into Christian churches to venerate Mary.  Orth also tells about an apparition of Mary in Cairo, Egypt, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  And then we finally get to Lourdes.  The Song of Bernadette with Jennifer Jones was one of my favorite movies when I was growing up (I seem to recall that they used to show it every Easter on WGN). When we were moving during my childhood, we kept the stuff that we didn’t want the movers to handle in a self-storage place that backed up to I’m-not-even-sure what.  A kind of unkempt marshy area. I used to like to visit it and never quite understood why until my mom pointed out that it looked kind of like the grotto from the movie.  So I quite liked this part, though I was still kind of annoyed at the lack of images of the Virgin of Guadalupe that I didn’t like it as much as I should have.

The Science of Delicious, by David Owen, photographs by Brian Finke

I wasn’t sure what to expect of this article, since I’m a “nontaster.” Stuff like mayonnaise and sour cream tastes nasty to me, as do wine and cilantro.  As a result, I’m far more motivated by texture than by flavor.  I don’t like the texture of fat in my mouth, so when the low-fat diet became a “thing,” it was wonderful.  I could order chicken without the skin or other lean protein choices without seeming like a “picky eater.”  I could order things without the heavy cream sauces or avocado and the waiter would just chalk it up to attempting to be a healthy eater.

Owen assumes that everyone experiences broccoli as bitter, but I don’t. I’m highly motivated by my sense of smell, so while I quite like raw broccoli, I don’t eat cooked broccoli at all. Cooking brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, etc.) releases sulfur compounds which makes them smell bad.  Anything that smells like that will never make it past my nose. I have one co-worker whose daily lunch of microwaved broccoli nearly drove me from our break room more than once.

Aside from the anti-broccoli bias, the article is pretty even-handed.  It mostly talks about the relatively recent discovery that the tongue really has the same kinds of taste buds all over it (as opposed to the mapped out areas that people of my age learned about in school) and that we have two senses of smell — the one that comes through our noses and one that comes up the back of the nasal cavity.  The smells that go up the back of the nasal cavity register in the same part of the brain that registers taste.

Owen talks about sweetness a lot, and this is another place where I am an outlier.  Artificial sweeteners (including sucralose) taste bitter to me.  The only non-sugar sweeteners that taste good to me are the sugar alcohols such as mannitol and xylitol.  Fortunately, I don’t seem to be subject to the digestive distress that some experience from sugar alcohols.

My now-ex, Alex, and I all took an actual test to determine our taster gene status.  I bought testing papers from a scientific supply company and everything (this is why I can say for certain that I’m a nontaster).  Alex is a supertaster and his tastes and mine are much closer than either of ours with his dad (who is a regular taster).  Alex actually prefers things a little blander and lower-fat than I do, even.

I Finally Found It

Inspired by an article from the Cairo Post on the solar alignment of the temple from Abu Simbel yesterday morning (which happened when it was Wednesday night here in Texas), I went back and found the issue of National Geographic that started it all for me.  For almost as long as I can remember, until we had to toss the issue when it got damaged in a flood in our basement, I would go back and reread and/or look at the pictures (from when I was too young to read) of the May 1966 National Geographic.

I was tempted to dig up that information and actually start my reading project with that issue, but I opted instead to start from where I was when I began my reading project, which was January 2015, and then work my way both forwards and backwards.  At the rate I’m going, I may never get to that issue, since it was forty-nine and a half years ago, but I’ll do my best.

National Geographic October 2014

The Next Green Revolution, by Tim Folger, photographs by Craig Cutler

This installation of the “Future of Food” series focuses on technological improvements in food production, including genetic modification.  Folger starts out talking about the original green revolution.  Fears that millions of people in Asia would die of famine led to selective breeding of wheat and rice.  This allowed the volume of food to increase faster than the population, which meant that not only did they prevent the famine, but that the nutrition level of most of the people of Asia actually increased.

Now, we may be facing another potential famine and we, in Folger’s words, “need another green revolution.”  And one of the potential tools for this new green revolution is genetic modification.  Rather than using crossbreeding and taking your chances of developing another lenape potato (which had dangerously high levels of the poison solanin), scientists can identify the genes that contain the desirable traits and transfer them directly.   These transfers can be done across species, as well.  One famous example of this cross-species transfer is golden rice, which has a gene isolated from corn.  This gene allows the rice to produce beta carotene.  Beta carotene is the ingredient that the human body uses to produce Vitamin A.  Getting enough beta carotene will not only save vision, it will save lives.  Somewhere in the neighborhood of one to two million people die from Vitamin A deficiency every year.

The Next Green Revolution discusses genetic modification and the ways it could conceivably help the people of Africa and Asia in particular.  Among others, we see cassava that are being bred to be resistant to brown streak virus and rice that is being bred to be able to survive under water (for use in places that are prone to flooding).

As you have likely guessed by my lack of panic, I am not against genetic modification, particularly where plants are concerned. I am not a trained scientist or anything of that nature, but I speak a little of the language of science.  I am trained as a medical librarian and I work as a pharmacy technician.  I can see value in genetic modification.  Humans have been messing with our food forever.  Just look at teosinte, the ancestor of corn.  Over years and years, humans increased the size, sweetness, and nutition of the teosinte kernels until they became something entirely different. And a number of our food has been similarly changed.  Watermelons are far different from their original ancestors, as well.

Most of these were done through selective breeding, which involves a lot of wasted time and resources.  Let’s say that you are breeding for trait A.  Your parent plants are likely to be Aa, where “a” is an undesirable trait.  Half of your child plants, on average, will also be Aa.  One-quarter will be aa, which won’t help at all, since “a” is exactly what you don’t want.  Only one-quarter of the child plants will have the desired genes of AA.  With genetic modification, you can take the A from another cell, replace the a in the original seed with it, and the plant that results will be AA.  This means that plants with the desired trait can be tested for safety and put into use a lot faster than they would be with selective breeding.

When the Snows Fail, by Michelle Nijhuis, photographs by Peter Essick

In When the Snows Fail, Nijhuis discusses the drought in the southwest United States.  We meet the Diener family who run a small family farm.  In addition to the usual crops, almonds, broccoli, tomatoes, and so forth, the Dieners are experimenting with growing prickly pear cactus.  Not only is the fruit of the prickly pear cactus edible, but so are the pads, which are known as nopales in Spanish.

The Dieners live in the Central Valley of California, which is where most of the fruits and nuts sold for food in the United States is grown.  The Central Valley was chosen as a place to grow such high-water-use crops because of the richness of its soil and the moderateness of its temperatures.  There is only one problem.  The Central Valley has a dry climate.  This means that in order to grow all of the asparagus, carrots, grapes, and pistachios, water must be pumped in.  Some is groundwater pumped up from wells, but the rest must be brought in from reservoirs. These reservoirs are filled by melting snows from the mountains the surround the valley.

Thanks to climate change, the winters are becoming milder, which means less water in the mountains.  Less water in the mountains then, of course, translates to less water for the farmers.  This is requiring the farmers to rethink their water use and, in some cases, like Diener, the crops they grow, as well.

Medieval Mountain Hideaway, by Brook Larmer, photographs by Aaron Huey

Medieval Mountain Hideaway is about an area of the nation of Georgia known as Svaneti.  For a long time, the region of Upper Svaneti was isolated from the outside by the mountains that surround it.  However, from the invasion of the Russians in the 19th Century and into the 20th and 21st Centuries, much of the culture of Svaneti is slowly being lost.  Only the very oldest of the Svans, for example, speak Svan fluently.  The youth of Svaneti are engaged in something of a cultural revival, however, learning the old Svans songs and dances and learning to play the old Svan musical instruments.  However, it is likely the much of the language which is not preserved in these songs will be lost.

Prior to the Christianization of Svaneti in the 4th century, the Svans were sun worshipers and some of those traditions, largely dealing with fire, were imported into the Christian holiday observances of the Svan.

Svaneti is facing two new threats to its culture.  The first is emigration.  Jobs are scares in Svaneti, and there were dangers in the area including bandits on the roads (the bandits were vanquished by security forces in 2004).  Thousands of people have left for the lowlands.  The village of Adishi once had 60 families, but the population dwindled to the point where only four families remained.

On top of this, the goverment is attempting to turn Svaneti into a tourist destination.  The capital of Mesti, in particular, has many guest houses, and there are new ski resorts being built in the mountains around the area. The question that remains to be answered is whether tourism will save or destroy Svan culture.

Mister Big, by Tom Mueller, photographs by Mike Hettwer

Mister Big is the tale of the discovery of Spinosaurus, the largest theropod dinosaur yet discovered.  The earliest bones of Spinosaurus were found in Egypt in the early 20th century by Ernst Freiherr Stromer von Reichenbach, a German paleontologist and aristocrat.  Among the bones of the partial skeleton that Strohmer found were vertebrae with tall spines sticking up from them, presumably supporting a sail of some sort.   Stromer gave this new discovery the name Spinosaurus aegypticus.

Stromer found it odd that so many top-level predators were found in the same area as Spinosaurus, but comparatively few herbivorous dinosaurs were found in that area.  The paleontologist who figured the answer to this question was Nizar Ibrahim.

In 2008, Ibrahim was shown some dinosaur bones, one of which was broken, in purplish sandstone.  He bought the bones, despite their condition.  In 2009, he saw a partial Spinosaurus in a museum in Milan, and it was clear that the bone he had bought was broken off of one of the bones of the dinosaur in Milan.

In 2013, he found the fossil hunter who sold him that first piece of Spinosaurus (and who also sold the bones in the Milan museum). Ibrahim has since found more bones that are likely from that individual and perhaps bones from others as well, in that location.

The current belief is that Spinosaurus spent at least part of its time in the water.  This would explain some peculiarities in the anatomy of the Spinosaurus, including the positioning of its back legs, which would be better for paddling than for walking.  Also, this would explain the relative lack of prey — the valley where the Spinosaurus was found was part of a network of rivers that was inhabited by large aquatic animals, including both fish and turtles.

The Nuclear Tourist, by George Johnson, photographs by Gerd Ludwig

Chernobyl, in Ukraine (it is a real challenge for me to get used to not typing the “the” that used to be in front of “Ukraine”), is the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history.  For some unknown reason, on April 26, 1986 the people operating the reactor at Chernobyl decided to do a safety test with a skeleton staff. As it turned out, the plant was not safe. During the test, the reactor overheated and there were two explosions. Most upsetting of all, it took 36 hours for them to start to evacuate the nearby residents.  In June of 1986, work began on enclosing the building in a steel and concrete enclosure known in English as the “sarcophagus.”  The sarcophagus was completed in November 1986.  However, the sarcophagus was not sealed properly, and so beginning in 2006, construction on another enclosure, called the New Safe Confinement, was begun.   In 2011, Chernobyl was opened for business as a tourist attraction.

The Nuclear Tourist is an account of the one tour group’s trip into the Chernobyl area.  We see, in words and pictures, the damage done by the disaster, by time, and by tourist groups and the occasional vandal. I found particularly interesting how relaxed the tourists became about radiation.  At one point, the tour guide actually led the group into a high-radiation area and the tourists used their radiation meters to see how high it would go.

Speaking of radiation, the one thing that I found confusing about The Nuclear Tourist were Johnson’s references to radiation levels. I spent a bit of time checking his math and referring back to other parts of the article.  He also opens with the statistic that five sieverts of radiation will kill you, then says that the rescue workers were exposed to 16 sieverts.  My initial response was, “Wouldn’t that have killed them?”  I’m still working on that one.  From what I’ve seen in other sources, it looks like they did develop acute radiation sickness but didn’t die until several days later.

(originally posted June 2015)