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I still can’t get to the text version of the articles on the website despite, again, being logged in.

Riding the Rubber Boom, by Charles C. Mann, photographs by Richard Barnes

So, earlier today, I was reading an Atlas Obscura article on the American Geographical Society library at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  One of the maps that they have is of Fordlândia, a town that was set up by Henry Ford to grow rubber for his automobile manufacturing operations. The article describes it as a “lost jungle utopian city,” so I had to check it out.  The Wikipedia article on Fordlândia said that the town failed in part because of the development of synthetic rubber.  So, armed with that little bit of knowledge, I began reading Riding the Rubber Boom, which is about farming natural latex rubber in Southern Asia.  If synthetic rubber caused the failure of Fordlândia in the early 20th century, then wouldn’t there be even more difficulty making a living from farming rubber today?

Well, as the saying goes, it’s more complicated than that.  Latex is as big as it ever was.  We still need it for things like car tires and, even more crucially, for airplane tires.  We also need it for latex gloves and condoms.

As for Fordlândia, the site chosen was too far north and too dry for growing rubber trees, for one.  They also had a nice monoculture going, where all there was was rubber trees.  And, as I’ve mentioned before, monocultures of trees are vulnerable to pests and diseases because they can easily move from tree to tree.  If there are other species of tree in between, though, it becomes more difficult for the pest or disease to travel across the space between the trees.  The pest or disease in question here is a fungus called Microcyclus ulei, which damages the leaves of the tree, killing it.  Fordlândia got infected by M. ulei, so it was just a matter of time.

The rubber farms in this article have a relatively new variety of rubber tree that are more cold-tolerant, so at least they will avoid that failure on the part of the developers of Fordlândia.  However, the farms are also monocultures, but since M. ulei is native to South America, the trees are, so far, safe from it.  However, it will only take one spore being introduced at the wrong time to doom entire farms. The UN has recommended that anyone who has been in the area where M. ulei is present for the previous three weeks and who has arrived in Southeast Asia be inspected, but, at least as of press time, none of the countries in question have followed through on the suggestion.

Kingdom of Girls, by Jeremy Berlin, photographs by Karolin Klüppel

Kingdom of Girls focuses on Klüppel’s photographs of the girls of Mawlynnong, India.  For some reason (no one is apparently sure what), Mawylnnong has a female-dominated culture.  Property passes from mother to daughter, rather than from father to son.

So, no sooner did I start getting my act back together on posting than my hard drive went out.  So here I sit with my brand-new hard drive, which has a one-year warranty, so I should be set for a while. While I was gone, I read one (November 2015) and two halves (April 1889 and September 2013) of National Geographic issues, so now I just have to recap the one that I’m done with and finish the other two issues and recap them and I’m in business.

We set up a new password for our National Geographic account, so I can continue reading the issues online, rather than having to balance a magazine on my lap while I type.  That’ll help me get this done a lot faster. Now on to November 2015, which is the Climate Change issue.

The Will to Change, by Robert Kunzig, photographs by Luca Locatelli

The Will to Change is about what Germans refer to as the energiewende (should that be capitalized or not?  It’s a noun, and German nouns are capitalized, but I’m writing in English.  Kunzig and his editor opted not to capitalize it, but that seems wrong to me).  After the Fukushima power plant disaster, Germany increased its commitment to renewable energy. Angela Merkel promised to close all of Germany’s nuclear reactors by 2022 and she seems on track to do just that.  Germans are picking up the slack left by the nuclear power plants with wind farms and what what is known in the United States, at least, as net energy metering.  “Net energy metering” is when entities other than the power company generate their own power and sell any excess to the power company.  Generally, credits are issued and used to pay back the power company for any power drawn from the grid.  I’ve heard of some ambitious individuals who end up owing nothing to the power company and it is even theoretically possible to make a little profit at it.

There is a downside to the energiewende (still sticking with Kunzig’s choice here), however.  Since Germany is shutting down their power plants, the needed energy that is not generated by energiewende projects have to come from somewhere. And that “somewhere” is coal-fired plants.  The energiewende is driving down the cost of power, so they have priced themselves out of hard coal entirely and are left with lignite coal, the cheapest fossil fuel there is.  Lignite coal is dirtier than hard coal, meaning that it produces more carbon dioxide than hard coal.

Hopefully, over time the energiewende will reach a point where the lignite coal can be phased out, but even if it can never be completely weaned from coal, Germany is definitely on its way to a cleaner future.

A Blueprint for a Carbon-Free America, by Craig Welch, graphics by Jason Treat

I’m not overly fond of the term “carbon-free.”  Recently, Domino launched “carbon free” sugar, which is, um, well, water, since table sugar is C12H22o11.  Take out those 12 carbon atoms and what you have left are twice as many hydrogen atoms as oxygen atoms, which is water.  A carbon-free America would be one with no life left in it, since all Earth-based life forms are more or less made from carbon. A lot of dirt is carbon, as well. We’d have some metal left — iron (but not steel, since steel is iron and carbon), calcium (which is what is left over when you take the carbon out of limestone), a lot of sand and other silicon-based things like quartz (but no diamonds because, well, carbon).

I know that’s not what “carbon-free” really means.  “Carbon-free” is a shorthand way of expressing the idea of ending carbon dioxide emissions from coal, natural gas, and oil.  It’s imprecise, though, and that irks me.

This is just a short little blurb about replacing things that have carbon dioxide emissions with hydroelectric, solar and wind power.  The graphs are nice and show, among other things, how much wind could be generated by both onshore and offshore wind farms.

Power to the People, by Michael Edison Hayden, photographs by Rubén Salgado Escudero

Throughout the developing world (India, Uganda, and Myanmar are the examples given here), people are enjoying new freedom through the use of portable solar lights.  At the moment, one of the biggest players in the field is a company called Simpa, which charges around $0.35 per day to rent the light.  That can be a lot of money for someone who makes only a few dollars a day, but it also, for example, allows shopkeepers to stay open later to get more customers and, thus, more money.  And the solar lights are more convenient for the people using them than the old battery-operated lights some had before.  When the battery ran down they would have to travel to get a new battery. With the solar lights, when the battery runs down, they just put it in the sun for a few hours, which saves time and wear and tear on their shoes and joints.

Tracking Ivory by Bryan Christy photographs by Brent Stirton

Generally, for these posts I read the hard copy and then pull up the Internet version of the issue to refresh my memory while I write the article. In this case, I had to refer back to the issue, because the title at the top of the webpage was How Killing Elephants Finances Terror in Africa, and my first response was, “That’s not a National Geographic article. That’s a term paper.” And, yes, the title of the article in the actual hard copy is Tracking Ivory, which is the name given to the entire section of the website where the article can be found.

The National Geographic Society is starting a Special Investigation Unit and Tracking Ivory is the first article on the work of this unit. Christy was an attorney, but he is now a journalist. In Tracking Ivory, he hires a world-class taxidermist to make fake elephant tusks. These fake tusks look and feel exactly like the real thing and also have a hidden compartment where Christy hid a transmitter. Using this, Christy hoped to be able to track the path that the fake tusks will take.

Curbing poaching of elephants is important for two reasons. The most obvious, and most pressing, is that the population of elephants is dropping quickly — about 30,000 elephants are killed every year. The second reason is that the proceeds from the sales of these tusks is being used to finance terrorism. The Lord’s Resistance Army, the terrorist group headed up by Joseph Kony, is one of the primary traffickers in ivory.

Christy brings his fake tusks into Africa (and is detained by police along the way, which gives him hope that the traffickers will fall for his fake tusks) and gets the tusks to the traffickers. Along the way, we hear the stories of some of Kony’s victims.

At the article’s end, the tusks are in a house in Sudan, likely buried in the yard, because the tusks are in an environment that is cooler than the local air temperature. I have looked to see if Christy has posted any kind of update on their position, but have been unable to find anything.

Point of No Return, by Mark Jenkins, photographs by Cory Richards

Right up front, I’m going to tell you that the photograph on pages 88 and 89 is a spoiler for the ending. If you want to be kept in suspense, I recommend that you take a paperclip and ever-so-carefully paperclip the pages together so that it goes directly from page 87 to page 90.

Point of No Return follows Jenkins and Richards and the rest of their team of climbers as they attempt to be the first to take a GPS reading of the height of Hkakabo Razi in Myanmar, which may be the highest mountain in Southeast Asia. It was long thought to be the highest until another team of climbers reached the top of Gamlang Razi and used GPS to measure that mountain as 19,259 feet, which is higher than the most recent figures on Hkakabo Razi.

Jenkins is one of the last survivors of an adventuring group formed in 1993. The original group was four young men, two of whom are now dead. The fourth has stopped having these types of adventures, so Jenkins was climbing Hkakabo Razi, one of the most challenging mountains in the world, not just for him, but in memory of his late friends.

The climbing team consisted of five people, three men and two women, but ultimately only the three men attempted the final ascent. One of the women was insistent on going, but ultimately she makes what Jenkins describes as “the correct decision” and chooses to send one of the men instead. Unfortunately, we just have Jenkins’s word that it was the correct decision.

Ultimately, the climb is harrowing and I was very happy indeed to be sitting calmly at my sideline job on a balmy 70-degree day in South Texas, rather than attempting that climb myself.

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.