The War that Never Happened

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the relatively under-reported fact that over the summer, China and India — nuclear-armed states with nearly 3 billion people and 4 million troops between them — mutually disengaged from a military standoff along their contested border that was quickly escalating towards war (as happened once before, in 1967). Although the underlying border dispute remains unresolved, it is encouraging to see a cooler-headed precedent prevail (a similar incident in the 1980s was also descalated by both countries).

For all the awful conflicts that have transpired just in our lifetimes, let alone throughout history, it is worth acknowledging and celebrating the conflicts that never happened. Fortunately, this is becoming a trend:

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The World’s Largest Radio Telescope

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Credit: NPR/STR/AFP/Getty Images

Pictured above is the  largest radio telescope in the world, which officially opened this past Sunday and is based Pingtang County in southwest China. The Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, is, as the name suggests, 500 meters in diameters, which is 40 percent larger than its predecessor and now runner up, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

FAST will be utilized primarily to observe pulsars, the imploded, highly magnetic cores of old stars that emit intense radiation. Locating and understanding pulsars can yield a lot of important information about the universe. FAST is reportedly sensitive enough to detect radio waves from a pulsar 1,351 light-years away; for a point of reference, a single light-year is 9 trillion kilometers, or 6 trillion miles. So, needless to say, this is an impressive display of technological ingenuity, especially from a country that only relatively recently joined the exclusive (though ever-expanding) club of space exploring nations.

As NPR reports, FAST’s incredible capabilities will be applied to more than just pulsar:

Like radio telescopes in other parts of the world, FAST will study interstellar molecules related to how galaxies evolve. For example, this summer a team using data from the Very Large Array, a collection of radio antennas in the New Mexico desert, picked up what scientists describe as “faint radio emission from atomic hydrogen … in a galaxy nearly 5 billion light-years from Earth.” In the paper describing their findings, the team writes that the “next generation of radio telescopes,” like FAST, will build on their findings about how gases behave in galaxies.

As for FAST’s final use, studying interstellar communication signals, it could be more simply referred to as searching for intelligent extraterrestrial life. “In theory, if there is civilization in outer space, the radio signal it sends will be similar to the signal we can receive when a pulsar … is approaching us,” Qian told Chinese state media, according to the science news website Phys.org.

[…]

In an interview with the BBC, the deputy project manager for the new Chinese telescope, Peng Bo, said the project was exciting for Chinese scientists. “For many years, we have had to go outside of China to make observations — and now we have the largest telescope,” he told the BBC.

FAST is only the latest demonstration of China’s scientific prowess in astronomy. In addition to being able to launch its own satellites via domestically designed and build rockets, it is only the third country to send a human into orbit and is also third in independently developing and launching a space station (the second of which was recently and successfully launched). China also has plans for another, more permanent space station by 2020; a manned mission to the Moon, which is to be followed by a permanent lunar base; and  a rover expedition of Mars, to name but a few projects.

China’s contributions towards advancing our understanding of the universe is a welcomed one. As I have noted before, we should set aside nationalist sentiments — however much they are motivating such endeavors — and welcome as many different participants in space exploration as possible, if not for higher ideals of human cooperation than out of a sober acceptance that such efforts require all the resources, capital, and knowledge humanity can pool together.

Rats Are Saving Lives in Cambodia

From Colombia to Afghanistan, millions of landmines from conflicts past litter the land and continue to wreak havoc on unsuspecting civilians, particularly children. But one group has hit upon a fascinating solution to this grim problem. I highlighted the program here before, but as NPR reports, it is starting to cover more ground — literally.

A Belgian nonprofit called Apopo began harnessing the rodents’ olfactory prowess 15 years ago. (The group also trains rats to detect tuberculosis). The organization set up a breeding program and training center in Tanzania and began deploying rats to post-conflict countries, first to Mozambique and Angola. Apopo’s Cambodia program began in April, in partnership with the Cambodian Mine Action Center.

“The idea was very strange,” says operations coordinator Theap Bunthourn. “Cambodian people kill rats, don’t like rats. But they’re cost-efficient, they’re easy to transport, they’re easy to train, and they don’t set off the mines because they’re too light.”

That’s an advantage over mine-sniffing dogs, also used in Cambodia. And unlike with dogs, says field supervisor Hulsok Heng, bonding is not an issue. “The rat does not belong to anybody, it can work with anyone, not like [a] dog. If [a] handler is sick, [a] dog cannot work with other people. If the dog does not recognize you, it won’t work with you. But rat, no problem.”

Fifteen rats arrived in Cambodia from Tanzania in late April. Since it’s hotter in Cambodia than in Tanzania, Hulsok says, they’re put to work before the sun comes up. By midday, it’s too hot for them.

With 4-6 million unexploded landmines, bombs, and grenades, this Southeast Asian country could definitely use the help. Neighboring Laos and Vietnam are just as badly affected, so hopefully this field run will prove fruitful enough to expand to those nations as well.

The process of detecting hidden ordnance by rat is pretty fascinating, to say the least.  Continue reading

How Vietnamese View The Vietnam War

As hard as it is to believe, just forty years after millions of Vietnamese and over 58,000 Americans died in a vicious and protracted conflict, most Vietnamese — who are under 40, and thus too young to remember their “American War” — hold a favorable view of the U.S., as Elisabeth Rosen in “How Young Vietnamese View the Vietnam War” The Atlantic.  Continue reading

Nepal’s Citizens Step Up To Heal Nation

An often unreported part of almost any disaster response is the pivotal role played by the victims themselves. Whether directly impacted or not, citizens from all overall the affected country come together to help one another and recovery.

NPR highlights how the beleaguered people of Nepal, long misgoverned and impoverished, have persevered through collaboration and generosity against one of the deadliest disasters in their nation’s history. Continue reading

Nepal Before The Earthquake

In addition to the thousands killed and the many more left injured and homeless, Nepal has irreparably lost much of its rich cultural heritage, from recognized World Heritage sites, to otherwise religious or historically significant buildings.

NPR shares photos from Vermont native Kevin Bubriski, who travelled the country over the span of forty years, compiling a portfolio of its people, customs, and sites. Most date back to the 1980s. Here is a small sampling:

Meanwhile, the New York Times presents a more contemporary comparison of Nepal before and after the earthquake. It show the horrific extent to which the country has been physically damaged, to say nothing of the human cost.

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Though many Nepalis lament the loss these religious and culturally significant sites, this issue is obviously the last thing on their minds, especially as they lack the resources to do anything about it:

…in the meantime, in many places, the detritus of centuries-old temples and palaces has been left unguarded, diminishing chances to eventually rebuild one of the world’s largest clusters of cultural heritage sites. Pedestrians, possibly for sentimental value, are walking away with bricks from the 19th-century Dharahara Tower, which crashed to the earth on Saturday, trapping at least 40 people inside.

On Monday, after a citizen called an official in Nepal’s department of archaeology to report having thwarted an attempt to steal a bronze bell from the roof of a temple here in the capital, the authorities took some first steps to guard against looting. A notice was printed in a local newspaper on Tuesday, warning that anyone taking artifacts will be punished.

Video: How Cinnamon is Harvested

Like so many other staple foodstuffs, cinnamon (also known as cassia) is taken for granted. Most people have no idea that two-thirds of the world supply comes from Indonesia, specifically the Kerinci Valley on the island of Sumatra.

This short two-minute video shows how this sustainable crop is harvested, in traditional means unchanged for centuries.

There is a lot of artistry involved in the whole process, not to mention a tremendous amount of time and hard work. In addition to making me crave cinnamon (which may have several positive health benefits to boot), the video made me appreciate how much human labor goes into all the food, spices, and other commodities we see as plentiful and widely accessible.

Hat tip to Gizmodo for sharing the video.

Iran’s Ancient Ice Houses

A yakhchal (“ice pit”) is an ancient type of cooler invented in Iran around 400 B.C.E. to store ice for the summer. The ice would either be brought in from nearby mountains during the winter, or more commonly would be channeled through a qanat (aqueduct) that would run along a wall built close to the yakhchal.

Credit: John Moore / Getty / Business Insider

During the cool winter season, the shadow of the wall would freeze the water more quickly, and the ice would be taken to the yakhchal, which had thick walls composed of a special mortar call sarooj (composed of specific proportions of sand, clay, egg whites, lime, goat hair, and ash). This substance was resistant to heat transfer and almost impenetrable to water. Some yakhchal had windcatchers built at the top to bring down the temperature inside on hot days.

The stored ice would be used to chill treats make a special dessert called faloodeh, one of the world’s earliest kinds of ice cream (made of thin corn starch noodles mixed in a semi-frozen syrup made from sugar and rose water, sometimes with lime or ground pistachios added).

As a testament to their superb engineering, many yakhchal built hundreds of years ago are still around today, like the one pictured above from the town of Abarqu, or the following from Meybod.

Credit: Wikimedia

Two Photo Tours That Present An Unseen Afghanistan

Business Insider has two different collection of photos that each show sides of Afghanistan few outsiders know exists.

The first set is by New York-based photographer Frédéric Lagrange during his travels through Afghanistan’s rugged, mountainous east in 2012. Compared to other parts of the country, this region has been largely untouched by conflict, and for that matter remains largely secluded from the world in general.

The Wakhan Corridor is a narrow strip of land in the far northeast of Afghanistan, bordering Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Western China. The harsh, beautiful landscape, bounded by the Hindu Kush mountains on the south, was once used as a major trading route for those traveling the Silk Road to China.

For three weeks, Lagrange and a team of locals made their way up the Hindu Kush mountains to the shores of Lake Chaqmaqtin. Along the way, Lagrange photographed the local peoples, who survive on the edge of civilization by raising and herding cattle.

The photos show the sheer scale of the country’s environment, as well as the hardscrabble perseverance of its people, made up mostly of persecuted minorities that have nowhere else to go.

More of Lagrange’s photos can be seen at his official website here.

The other set of images are by Marieke Van der Velden, who visited Kabul in 2013 with the explicit aim of showing the everyday lives and experiences of average urban Afghans.

“It’s important to talk to and show normal people on a normal day, not just right after a bomb attack,” Van der Velden told Business Insider. “The people I photographed are in the middle of a 30-year-old war, but they have no part of it.”

For all the people Van der Velden met, she decided to ask them a simple question: “What is your favorite place in the city?” Finally given a voice to talk about something other than war, her subjects lit up and showed her a side of Kabul few Westerners ever see.

A family picnic at Bagh-e Babur Gardens, a historic park built in 1528.

Many schools and gyms are encouraging women to participate.

The beautiful Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif, a city north of Kabul, is a favorite spot.

Bayanihan

Bayanihan is a concept in the Philippines that refers to a spirit of communal unity and cooperation, usually centered on members coming together to help one of their own. It has its origins in rural towns, where members help a family move to a new place by volunteering to physically transport the entire house to a specific location. This is usually followed by a celebration to express gratitude to the volunteers.

Bayanihan practiced in its original form. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Bayanihan persists to this day in both rural and urban communities, especially in slums. Examples include raising money to help one member pay for medical treatment, helping new arrivals get situated, and rebuilding any homes lost to natural disaster. Even the poorest citizens manage to pool their resources and capital together to ensure one of their own is looked after.

In its most dramatic manifestation, bayanihan was utilized in the capital city of Manila to form a successful grassroots movement, which influenced the government to help establish better housing and infrastructure for poorer residents.