The Lake that turns animals into stone

Nature really keeps on surprising us. It is always funny to read a news and realise that what is nowadays explained by science, would certainly be associated with curse in the past. Indeed, we discovered what would definitely be called a doomed lake i.e. the Lake Natron, a saline lake in northern Tanzania, close to the Kenyan border. Less than three meters deep, the Natron lake can reach temperatures of 60°C and reach a pH level of 10.5. In other words, animals that come in contact with the lake’s water have their skin completely burn, die and than mummify into stone. As National Geographic explains here, the harsh conditions of the lake are due to its proximity to the volcano Ol Doinyo that spreads alkari-rich natrocarbonatites that end up in the lake. Surprisingly, despite the difficulties to survive in such an environment, the lake is the home of no less than 2 million lesser flamingos that choose the lake as their breeding ground, due to the fact that predators avoid the area. British photographer Nick Brandt, known to photograph exclusively in Africa went to photograph this lake that turns animal into stone. He published the book “Across the Ravaged Land” which photos you check here.

The horrors brought by cults: Jonestown collective suicide

On November 18th 1978, 909 American men, women and children committed a collective suicide in the community of Jonestown, in Guyana. This atrocity aimed to be called “the Revolutionary Suicide”, took place amongst the cult known as the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project. The project had been founded by Jim Jones (1931 – 1978), a man from Indiana, who was not only highly religious, but also a firm defender of the marxist ideology and an affiliate of the Communist party. He founded his first church in the 1950’s in Indianapolis, and was known for accepting people from all races, a rare feature in those times. His congregation became know as the Peoples Temple, and eventually, Jones relocated it to California in 1966. Nevertheless, as his ambition was to create a “socialist paradise” where the community could live thanks to its agriculture auto-sufficiency, he relocated the group to the South American nation in 1974.

In 1978, pressured by a group called “Concerned Relatives”, US Congressman Leo Ryan traveled to Guyana to learn more about the Temple’s activities. Tensions arose as 15 members asked to return with the congressman, and loyalists to Jones opened fire at the airport causing the death of 5 people including the Congressman. Following the airport murder, the horror begun. Jones gathered his followers and convinced them to commit “the revolutionary suicide” with cyanide as he said that either way they would all be killed. Poison drink was distributed and survivors explain that people actually had no option to refuse as those who did not drink the poison, got shot. The tragedy of Jonestown is considered as the largest mass suicide in modern History. Check out this testimonial video of those who lived and witnessed the birth and death of the People’s Temple and this excellent piece in Time magazine.

In the quest of understanding sex: meet Masters and Johnson

Recently, one of our friends advised us to watch a new TV show called Masters of Sex. Entertaining and featuring good actors, the best of this American show was the fact that it actually made us discover the interesting story of the Masters and Johnson research team. They started working together in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology of the Washington University in St Louis. Composed by Dr. William H. Masters (1915-2001) and research assistant, Virginia Johnson (1925-2013), the team (who also became a couple) was a pioneer in research regarding sexual responses and dysfunctions from 1957 to the early 1990s. In 1964, at a time where the will to understand human sexuality was still a taboo -even in the medical world-, the team created the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation in order to independently study human sexuality and revolutionise medicine.

They were the first doctors to work on sexual activity in ageing persons and found out that there was absolutely no age limit for one to be sexually active. Regarding female sexuality, they proved that the clitoral and vaginal stimulation produced physiologically identical effects and thus that women were capable of having multi-orgasms. They were also revolutionaries in what regards the study of sexual dysfunctions. Although previously dysfunctions such as impotence or premature ejaculation were especially treated by psychoanalysis, the team provided a new approach, involving couples instead of treating the patients uniquely with personal therapy.

Although several doctors have criticised the Master and Johnson’s methodology and even refuted some of their findings, this team was certainly revolutionary as it open the door to an unprecedented field in medical studies.

Curious Facts about JFK’s Death

You might have heard that Friday, 22nd of November, the world marked the 50th anniversary of president John F. Kennedy’s death. Or better yet, the world remembered his murder and the shots that made him a legend. It is hard to distance oneself from those images and most political analysts agree that the myth created around the 35th President of the United States has been largely exaggerated because of that.

As a journalist I had to write some pieces on Kennedy and, in my research, I found some curious facts that, I believe, can account for at least some of the mysticism that surrounds the family that after the event became “America’s Royal Family”. Here’s my “10 facts you probably did not know about JFK’s assassination”. A very original title, I know.

1) When Kennedy was shot, assassinating the President was not considered a federal offense. If charged with the assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald would have been trialled in Texas.

2) It was the fourth presidential assassination in the history of the United States. The first since the Secret Service began protecting presidents.

3) The assassination was one of the first major events reported on television. It became the longest uninterrupted news event on American television until the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Networks had to cancel four days of shows. Lee Harvey Oswald’s murder was the first one ever to be broadcast live.

4) John F. Kennedy’s only accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, died two days after the President was shot. Oswald denied killing JKF and his death gave the impression that he was silenced. It was the first spark that ignited the blaze of conspiracy theories that surround the murder.

5) Adding to that weird coincidence, Oswald’s killer, Jack Ruby, a local club owner, was found to have several ties to organized crime. He was convicted of Oswald’s murder in 1964 and died in January 1967 of lung cancer.

6) John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald died at the same hospital and were assisted by the same doctor in their final moments. Jack Ruby also died at Parkland Hospital.

7) Lee Harvey Oswald’s troubled childhood, defection to Russia and the fact that he was a self-declared Marxist made him fit the role of Kennedy’s murder perfectly. The official government account of the event (known as the Warren Commission findings) suggests he fired 3 shots in 5.6 seconds from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. Forensic scientists have questioned these conclusions because of the angle of the wounds, the time frame and the capabilities of someone like Lee Harvey Oswald. Theories that question the official version suggest the existence of a second shooter and some say the total number of shots fired was four.

8) The secrecy that surrounded the whole investigation was key in sparking these theories and it is still present today. Although most Kennedy files have been declassified, 3 per cent still remain sealed for national security purposes. They will become public in 2017, unless the acting president decides otherwise.

9) Adding to the mysticism and frenzied curiosity, the suit and Jackie Kennedy’s accessories from that day have since been preserved in the National Archives. The suit will not be made public, however, until at least 2103, as stipulated by Caroline Kennedy (JFK and Jackie’s daughter).

10) JFK’s death has been questioned since the President died but a curious fact has been common. Alternative theories are always in sync with the popular mood at the time. In the 1960s, during the epitome of the Cold War, the American public believed it was the Soviets. In the 1970s, it was the CIA, as they distrusted their own government. In the 1980s, with the rise of mob related movies, it was the Mafia. John F Kennedy’s killer has always been whoever the nation is most afraid of at the time. Today, one could expect the President’s death to be linked with Islamic extremism (however unlikely that may seem).

John F. Kennedy’s death populates the imaginary of the American public mostly because of its mysticism, easily understandable given all the secrecy and unanswered questions surround his death. It might have been just the government or his family’s way of preserving the Kennedy’s privacy. It is what made these theories justifiable. That and the unfortunate fact that his supposed assassin was killed two days later by a man, who died a few years later.

The public loves “Greek tragedies” and Kennedy’s assassination has all the ingredients of one. While some facts remain hidden, the public will continue to try to connect the dots. I myself do not know what to believe but these facts do make me wonder.

In-Yer-Face Theater

“In-yer-face theater is the kind of theater which grabs the audience by the scruff of the neck and shakes it until it gets the message”; that is the definition given by the movement itself. Although quite unknown to the general public, ‘In-yer-face theater’ emerged in Great Britain in the 1990s and is an artistic movement easy to remember. Deeply influenced by the “Theatre of Cruelty” of the French writer and director Antonin Artaud, ‘In-yer-face theater’ is born from the will of the authors and directors to affect the audience as much as possible. Its pieces are characterized by their harsh vocabulary and by the taboo themes which they develop, i.e. mainly sex, violence and consumerism. Curiously, the majority of ‘in-year-face’ plays are “experiential” in the sense that they intend to make the audience feel the same extreme emotions that are shown on stage to the point that the spectator might actually want to get on stage and stop the action happening. The most notorious authors of this movement are Mark Ravenhill, Anthony Neilson and Sarah Kane. They were repeatedly accused of confusing subversion with gratuitous violence. Yet, they claim that it was only through controversy and provocation that real criticism of society could be dressed. You can learn more about it here!

The School of Palo Alto

Paul Watzlawick, an Austrian-American therapist and psychologist, defended the view that there is no non-communication, meaning that you cannot not communicate. As weird as this may sound, it is very true. From the moment that you are not alone, everything you do, every move you make, everything you say, you are communicating. This doesn’t mean that the person with whom you are trying to communicate with is understanding the message that you are trying to convey, or even the intentions behind your gestures; just that whether you want it or not, you are communicating (according to a study by UCLA, 93% of communication passes by the non-verbal, i.e. body language).

Communication is technically a simple process. There needs to be at least two subjects, a sender and a receiver. Throughout the years, several people have tried to theorize communication and its strategies. At the beginning, there were simple “sender” theories, that supported that from the moment that you, as a sender, told something to your receiver, he would understand it because you had told him your message. This couldn’t be further from the truth, since it is not because you are speaking that the other is necessarily understanding what you are saying. Then, there were also “receiver” theories, that admitted that from the moment the receiver had understood the message, communication would have worked. Surprisingly, these theories forgot to take into account the extreme importance of interpretation in human relations. As human beings, we interpret everything, whether we want it or not.

Then came along an interesting theory, developed by what is today called the “School of Palo Alto”, in California. Paul Watzlawick and several of his colleagues, like Gregory Bateson, developed the “interactional” theory. They inspired themselves in cybernetics (defined by Norbert Wiener, “father” of cybernetics as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine.”), that heavily relied on the notion of feedback. The Palo Alto School came to say that communication depends not only on interpretation but also on relations. Indeed, for every message that you try to convey, there will be a different interpretation according to the context in which it is given, but also according to the person that will be giving it to you (within a family, your parents may tell you the same thing but you might not interpret it the same way). Indeed, while we are communicating, we tend to “speak” different languages. That is why feedback is so important. Indeed, this theory defends that when giving a message, one should always ask for feedback, because the other person may be interpreting, and thus understanding, something completely different.

When communicating, either verbally or not, we should always practice this exercise: asking for the feedback of our receivers is of extreme importance, because a lot can be lost in simple words and gestures. There would be a lot less misunderstandings, if we all accepted that we don’t understand things in the same way, and that we will never do.

Remembrance Poppy

It has become a familiar sight on the weeks before Armistice Day (November, 11th) to see British officials, politicians, policeman and generally all sorts of people wearing poppies on their lapels. But what does the poppy stand for? “It’s to support the troops” – that is the most common answer and it is, usually, accurate enough, but here at The J.R. Chronicle we like to dig a little deeper.

As mentioned, the Poppy is mostly worn on the weeks preceding Armistice Day, which marks the date (and time, 11 a.m.) when, after four years of incessant fighting, guns stopped on the western front. It marks the end of the First World War.

Armistice Day has been remembered ever since it happened, with the first celebrations taking place in 1919. The poppy, however, only came a year later and its origin can be traced back to a poem.

While fighting in Flanders, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian physician, witnessed some of the most gruesome battles in human history. During World War I, as you may know, both sides resorted to the use of chemical weapons. McCrae fought in the second battle of Ypres, where the German launched one of the first chemical attacks in the history of warfare, using chlorine gas.

His position was amongst the ones attacked and suffered heavy losses. McCrae had to perform the burial service for one of his companions and he noticed that poppies quickly grew around the graves of those that had fallen. The sight stuck with him and inspired him to write about it:

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae, 1919

Soon after, inspired by McCrae’s poem, the American Legion started using the poppy as an item to show support for those who had died in World War I, with the red symbolizing the blood they spilled for their country. The poppy tradition soon spread to other Commonwealth countries and, today, it is mainly used in the United Kingdom and Canada.

Its meaning has evolved as well, honoring not only soldiers that died in World War I, but also other conflicts in which the UK or Canada have taken part it. In addition, today’s poppies are mostly made of plastic and are sold by The British Legion in a fundraising campaign known as the Poppy Appeal. These poppies are designed so that workers with a disability, such as wounded veterans, can easily assemble them, a principle that has been in place since 1922. Poppies are then sold until November 11th (Armistice or Remembrance Day) and the proceedings are used to support the Legion’s welfare work with the Armed Forces community.

It is a noble initiative that is one of the best ways of saying “thank you” to those that fight for us. Ideally, we would not have to fight and there would be no wars. That idea, however, seems utopian, at least today.

South East Asia Education Obsession

Although we often hear and talk about how disciplined south East Asians are with regards to their studies, we were shocked to read the Financial Times description of the days during which South Korean students were taking the university entrance exams. According to the FT, “traffic was diverted away from exam halls, airline schedules were tweaked to avoid distractions and police cars were put at the disposal of students who risked arriving late for their exams”. More than discipline, it seems that some countries witness a national phenomenon of obsession when it comes to education. Indeed, as several researches have shown, throughout South East Asia, parents invest huge amounts of money so that their children enter prestigious universities.

A BBC article reveals that in South Korea, households spend up to 70% of their incomes in private education. In China, this phenomenon is growing as well, as even lower-class families are indebting themselves in the hope of some social mobility for their children. Surely, we were taught that education is the best investment. Nevertheless, these kids grow up under a pressure that we definitely don’t know. They grow up knowing that not attending university would be an act of betrayal towards their families. And is it just a coincidence that South Korea has the highest suicide rate in OECD countries? 40 South Koreans kill themselves every day.  Like every obsession, the education one can be destructive, not only for children but also for their families.

Libya’s Uncertain Future

In an interesting video, Zahra Langhi, an activist and co-founder of the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace (LWPP) remembers her grandmother’s words: “Son, Resist Gaddafi. Fight him! But don’t you ever turn into a Gaddafi-like revolutionary”. Her grandmother would most certainly burst into tears looking at her country’s situation today with the State falling apart and rebels who definitely became Gaddafi-like fighters.

Two years have passed since the Libyan revolution ousted the 42 year-long dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi. Yet, it seems that since its beginnings, the revolution was doomed. First, because the fact that Gaddafi was overthrown thanks to a foreign intervention (i.e. NATO), had terrible consequences for the Libyans. Each militia claims it is responsible for the victorious revolutions but none was able to organize itself into a political actor. A power vacuum thus remains as the government is completely incapable of controlling the dozens of militias. Civil war between Gaddafians and the rebels may have ended two years ago, but the environment that replaced it, strongly resembles its belligerent predecessor.

Strangely, the rest of the world seems to ignore this. Only the killing of the US ambassador Chris Stevens in September 2012 made the headlines of our newspapers. Yet, not only the ambassador and his guards were not the only foreigners who were murdered, as everyday Libyans wake up to the tragic news of their compatriots’ assassinations. Police officers, militaries and public servants are the everyday target of militias. To worsen the situation, many say that the South of the country is becoming the “new Mali”, i.e. a haven for terrorist organizations to proliferate.

Is the lack of information that actually reaches us concerning Libya a consequence of our Western guilt for intervening in the civil war and leaving it without a solution?