Steven Levy ’74g went to New Zealand to report his latest story for Wired—a tale of how Google is trying to bring Internet access to some pretty remote locations using a pretty wild scheme. It involves putting antennas into solar-power balloons and launching them into the stratosphere. Google calls the idea Project Loon, because it’s kind of crazy. But it just might work.
Levy writes that Project Loon could “provide Internet to a significant chunk of the world’s 5 billion unconnected souls, enriching their lives with vital news, precious educational materials, lifesaving health information, and images of grumpy cats.”
Levy’s story is accompanied by some cool photos of the project.
Tina Hay, editor
I mentioned back in April how psyched we were to welcome Marc Kauffman to the magazine staff. Marc joined us after 20 years at Rodale Press, the last six as deputy art director of Runner’s World magazine. We love Marc’s newsstand-magazine experience, his talents, and his good-natured personality … and we also love his Rolodex.
OK, no one actually has Rolodexes anymore. But Marc has a brain that’s just crammed with the names of first-rate photographers, illustrators, and photo-illustrators with whom he’s worked over the years. And he turned to a few of them right away as he designed his first issue for us—our forthcoming July-August issue.
One of those contacts is Aaron Goodman, whom Marc hired to create several photo illustrations for our July-August cover story, on the history of the Nittany Lion mascot. Goodman’s portfolio includes some really cool composite photos, like the one he did for a 2006 Sports Illustrated cover (shown here) called ”A Team for All Time.” Below is the full-length version of the same photo-illustration, which we’re using here with his permission.
(You really should click on that photo to see it bigger. It’s great.)
To get a feel for what was involved in creating that dugout photo—let’s just say there were a lot of body doubles involved—you can read this short article at the Sports Illustrated site. This video from Goodman’s own website, showing how he created a particular ad for Nike, is pretty cool too.
What Goodman did for us for our Lion mascot photo essay and cover wasn’t quite this elaborate. But we like it a lot, and we hope you will too. Maybe we’ll show you a sneak preview next week.
Tina Hay, editor
USA Today has a sweet story online about the death on Monday of Deacon Jones, one of the L.A. Rams’ “Fearsome Foursome” of the 1960s. The story extensively quotes Rosey Grier ’56, who is now the sole living member of that foursome.
“It was a heavy blow for me, like losing a family member,” Grier says of Jones’ death. “We four were family.” Which may seem obvious—but, as the article points out, it was an unusual family for its time: three blacks and a white Mormon. Says Grier: “The four of us set out to prove that it wasn’t about the color of the man, it was about the desire of each individual to work together as a team.”
Something interesting I learned from the story: Despite his nickname, Deacon Jones was not a particularly religious man. It was Grier who encouraged him—even as recently as three weeks ago—to get in touch with his spiritual side.
(We did a cover story on Rosey Grier two years ago; you can read it here.)
Tina Hay, editor
One last note from the Alumni Association’s trip to Bhutan:
Bhutan is a spectacularly photogenic country, from its lush mountains and valleys, to its friendly people, to its Buddhist-inspired architecture. Their ubiquitous stray dogs are pretty cute, too. I asked the trip participants if they’d be willing to share some of their photos with me, and below is a slide show of about 30 or so images they contributed.
Tina Hay, editor
We had our annual alumni reunions here at University Park this past weekend, and the Class of 1963 asked me if I’d be the speaker on Saturday night at the dinner marking their 50-year reunion.
The idea came from Donna Sutin Queeney ’63, who suggested that I present a slide show of images from The Penn Stater over the years, starting with fall of 1959—when she and her classmates arrived on campus as freshmen—and continuing through to the present. It turned out to be a fun and very engrossing project.
Back in 2010, as we prepared for our centennial issue, the magazine staff combed through just about every issue from 1910 to the present. Each person took a decade (or two) and looked carefully at each and every issue from that decade, compiling a list of the stuff that stuck out: stories or photos that looked quaint or goofy in retrospect, or that evoked the mood of the times, or that echoed recurring themes (“The state never gives us enough money”; “Tuition is going up again”; “Paterno says he’ll coach five more years”). I relied heavily on the staff’s notes for guidance, and ended up finding some great stuff. I thought I’d share with you a few of the images that I showed the Class of ’63 on Saturday night.
First, you should definitely click on the aerial photo at the top of the page in order to see it bigger—it shows a very different campus than the one we have today. In the upper left is a big chunk of green space left behind by the relocation of Beaver Field in 1959. To the right of that chunk of green is Hort Woods, which was huge back then but which has since shrunk, giving way to North Halls and a number of arts buildings.
Just to the right of the centerfold you can see the beginnings of East Halls, and way to the right of that, all alone in the distance, is Beaver Stadium.
People at the reunion also got a kick out of this photo from 1961 of football coach Rip Engle and his staff, including a 35-year-old Joe Paterno:
I’ve added the enlarged version of Joe on the right, and here again, you can best get the full effect by clicking on the photo to enlarge it.
While on the subject of football, I thought that these head shots of Galen Hall ’63 and Dave Robinson ’63 as young football players were fun:
Perhaps not surprisingly, when I put the images up on screen, just about everyone in the room could name the players—and several remembered that Robinson went on to be a first-round draft choice of the Green Bay Packers.
Something else that struck me as I paged through the back issues of the magazine was its courage in covering tough subjects. That’s very clearly a tradition with the Alumni Association’s flagship publication, going at least back to 1970, when it was simply called the Alumni News. I had known about the three-part series on “The Black Experience at Penn State” back in 1989, when then-editor Donna Symmonds Clemson ’55 showed a lot of guts in chronicling how difficult life could be for black students here. But I hadn’t realized that nearly 20 years before that, in 1970, the magazine did two separate features—one in January and one in May—on campus unrest. Below is the opening spread from the May 1970 story, about students occupying Old Main:
That kind of unflinching coverage wasn’t necessarily common in alumni magazines at the time, and in some ways it laid the groundwork for what we’ve been able to do in the magazine in more recent years.
Finally, on a lighter note, I came across this item from our July-August 2004 issue, about the birth of sextuplets at Hershey Medical Center:
They were the first sextuplets ever born at Hershey, and the proud parents were “Kate and Jonathan Gosselin of Wyomissing, Pa.” Gee, I wonder whatever became of them?
Tina Hay, editor
Thimphu, Bhutan, is said to be the world’s only capital city to not have a traffic light. In fact, I think it’s safe to assume that there are no traffic lights anywhere in Bhutan, because if the capital city (population: about 75,000) doesn’t have one, the smaller cities elsewhere are even less likely to.
One busy intersection in Thimphu does have a kiosk where a police officer directs traffic in a graceful, almost mesmerizing series of gestures—even if we didn’t exactly understand what his gestures meant. Combine the mysterious hand movements with the fact that people drive on the left side of the road in Bhutan and, well, I think I’d be better off letting someone else do the driving.
Penn State traveler Julie Nelson shot the one-minute video clip below during the Alumni Association’s trip to Bhutan. Note that of all his signals, not one of them seems to say “stop” or “wait.” Yet somehow it works.
Tina Hay, editor
Our Penn State group happened to visit Bhutan at a really interesting time: The country is in the midst of its national primary elections, in which voters will be choosing, among other elected officials, a prime minister. The current prime minister is well known to many Penn Staters: Jigme Thinley ’76g earned his master’s in public administration from Penn State, and the university has honored him as both an Alumni Fellow and a Distinguished Alumnus.
If you saw the 60 Minutes segment on Bhutan back in 2008, you saw Thinley talking about the country’s program of Gross National Happiness. I haven’t been successful in finding an online video of that 60 Minutes piece, but you can read a transcript here.
Actually, it’s not quite correct to call Thinley the current prime minister. The way it works in Bhutan, when the elections roll around, the current government steps down and an interim government is put in place for about three months. So Thinley is out of office while he seeks reelection.
Thinley isn’t the only Penn State connection to the Bhutanese elections. The guy in charge of the whole process—the country’s chief elections commissioner—is Kunzang Wangdi ’80g, and our group had the pleasure of spending an evening with him early in the trip.
The folks in the Alumni Association’s travel office invited Wangdi to our opening-night reception, and despite the fact that this has to be an incredibly busy time for him, he showed up. He sat in the hotel bar with us for an hour or so, munching on snacks and answering our questions about the elections.
Bhutan is a fascinating study because it’s relatively new to democracy. Starting back in 1907, the country was a monarchy, and there have been just five kings in its history—all part of the Wangchuck family, all called the “dragon kings,” and typically referred to simply as “the first king,” the “second king,” and so on.
As I understand it, it was the third king who, back in the 1950s, started transitioning Bhutan from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one, with the establishment of a National Assembly—akin to a Parliament. His son, the fourth king, formed a royal commission to study democracies around the world and pick the best elements of each. Just four years ago, that same fourth king abdicated the throne in favor of his 29-year-old son, in part to help accelerate the move toward a democracy. (Vanity Fair did an interesting article at the time on the coronation of the fifth king.)
In talking with Wangdi, the elections commissioner, we were struck by how much foresight and selflessness the kings had shown over the decades in realizing that their country would be better served by a democratic government than a monarchy. We also were impressed at how Bhutan had learned from other countries’ mistakes in creating its elections policy. The requirement that the incumbents step down at election time, for example, is based on the idea that you shouldn’t be trying to govern and campaign at the same time. And the government funds the elections in full, leaving no room for political action committees and their influence.
You also don’t see the roadsides in Bhutan littered with campaign billboards and yard signs. Instead, every so often you come across an “Election Advertising Board” like the one shown here.
We loved the evening we spent with Wangdi and were so impressed that he took time to visit with us. As if that weren’t enough, on the last day of the trip we received a package from him—a box of Bhutanese gifts for us. A very nice touch.
As for Jigme Thinley, it obviously would have been cool to meet him as well, and my colleague Deborah Marron ’78, ’86g did some advance legwork starting last winter to see if she could get it arranged. But we were visiting the western part of Bhutan at a time when Thinley was campaigning over in the eastern part of the country—and, after spending a few days bumping along at 12 mph on those narrow Bhutanese roads, I fully understood why the distance made that impossible.
Bhutan’s primary election is just days away now—Friday, May 31—and it will narrow the field of prime minister candidates from four down to two, with the general election to follow in July. It’s safe to say that the Penn Staters on this trip will be keenly interested in the results.
Tina Hay, editor
Bhutan’s most famous site by far is called Taktsang—or, more commonly, the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. It’s famous because it’s perched almost impossibly on the side of a sheer cliff, at an altitude of more than 10,000 feet. The only way to get there is by a long, steep trek with an elevation gain of about 2,000 feet.
The legend is that the second Buddha, Guru Rinpochhe, flew to the site on the back of a tigress in the 7th century. He meditated in a cave there for three months. Somewhere along the way the Buddhists erected a monastery and temple on the site; it burned in 1998 and was reconstructed.
Tourists like us typically trek to Tiger’s Nest on the last day of their trip—partly because it’s a high point (no pun intended) of a Bhutan trip, but probably more so to allow time to adjust to the altitude. I suspect also that the guide is taking mental notes on the easier hikes earlier in the trip, noticing who does well and who struggles, and therefore who’s going to need extra time to get up to Tiger’s Nest.
There’s an option to ride horseback up to the halfway point, but Yeshey, our trip director and guide, opposes that. He says it’s more dangerous than hiking, and it’s sinful besides. I’m a little fuzzy on the sinful part, but I think it has to do with respect for animals. Yeshey says that Buddhists believe those who ride horses for transportation won’t fare well at reincarnation time—they may end up coming back as horses themselves and have to carry people on their back up steep hills. (On the other hand, he says, the horses that carry the monks, the royal family, and other important people clearly must have done something right in their previous lifetimes.)
Yeshey did advise us that, when we saw horses coming, we should move to the side of the path to let them pass—and that we should move to the mountain side, not the cliff side. That way, if the horse squeezes you off the path, the results won’t necessarily be, um, fatal.
On our Tiger’s Nest hike, we encountered people from all over: China, Japan, Kolkata, Santa Fe. A group from Thailand came up from behind us on horseback and passed us, looking relaxed and happy and shooting photos of our sweaty selves with their iPhones as they passed.
As is the case everywhere in Bhutan, every visitor or group of visitors hiking up to Tiger’s Nest is accompanied by a Bhutanese guide—almost always male, it seems, and recognizable by their attire, the traditional gho. No tourist explores Bhutan on his or her own, for reasons I’m not sure about. Whether it’s a group of 24 or just a couple or even a single person, a guide goes with them.
The trail is your basic steep mountain path, a combination of dirt and rocks and horse plops, but with an added bonus: Buddhist prayer flags everywhere along the path, strung from one tree to another. They made great photo ops. Yeshey also brought some along (you can buy them in Paro; a bag of five prayer flags costs about five bucks) for us to put up when we got to the monastery.
My goal was to get as far as the cafeteria, which is roughly halfway up. I’d heard there’s a good view of Tiger’s Nest from there, and considering my plantar fasciitis and my general out-of-shapeness, I figured that would be a fine accomplishment.
We got to the cafeteria—and to say I brought up the rear would be a massive understatement—and took a break for tea and crackers. When the rest of the group hiked onward, I followed for about five minutes to another good overlook, then headed back down to the cafeteria to hang out and wait for them. (I was lucky to find a friendly stray kitty who jumped into my lap and slept while I looked at photos on the back of my camera and jotted down some notes on my iPhone.)
When the group came back, they reported that the second half of the climb was way harder and steeper than the first, and that they had to hustle to get to the monastery before it closed at 1 p.m. for the monks’ lunch. They were able to visit three temples in the monastery complex, and at one temple could look through a trap door in the wooden floor to see the cave where the Lord Buddha spent those three months meditating so many centuries ago. No photos allowed in the temples, though, as has been the case at every temple we’ve visited.
The Penn Staters also had the great fortune to meet the head lama of the monastery, who listened as Yeshey showed him our prayer flags and explained to him in the local language what specific wishes were behind them (a safe journey back home to the U.S. and so on). The lama blessed their prayer flags and sprinkled the Buddhist equivalent of holy water on them. Right after that, and I am not making this up, he took a call on his cell phone.
If you ever have a chance to hike to Tiger’s Nest, here are some suggestions:
—It might not be a bad idea to get a prescription in advance for Diamox, as virtually all of the veteran travelers in the Penn State group did. Everything I’ve read says that you have to respect the altitude: 10,000 feet isn’t Mount Everest, but it’s definitely higher than most of us are used to. There’s no predicting who will get altitude sickness, and those in great physical condition can be just as vulnerable as those who aren’t. When the doc I talked to at Penn State explained the consequences—cerebral and/or pulmonary edema, both of which could be fatal—he had my attention in a big way.
—It’s also good to bring a walking stick, or rent a bamboo one from the Bhutanese guy in the parking lot before you go up. Two walking sticks are even better. They really help with your footing, especially if you encounter mud, as we did. Two of the Penn Staters showed me how to inch sideways down the muddy path by using the poles to side-step as you might when walking up or down a ski slope.
—Take lots of water with you, and stop often to drink it. I used the water breaks as an excuse to just stop walking and catch my breath. “I think I’ll stop and drink a little water now,” I’d say, and the others would say, “Oh yeah, good idea,” and I’d think, Yes! 60 seconds of oxygen!
—Be sure to bring lightweight rain gear and good walking shoes or boots with a grippy tread. The weather is so changeable up there: We went from overcast to sunny to sprinkly to pouring rain and back to sunny again. I somehow managed to not grasp the importance of rain gear when reading the pre-trip info, and failed to bring a rain jacket. So when it started to rain—hard—on the way down, I got pretty wet. And when my walking shoes, which are just fine on ordinary surfaces, proved to be no match for the rain-slicked path, I fell. So I got pretty muddy too.
Then again, some people seem oblivious to all the sane advice and somehow get away with it: One of our travelers noticed a family heading up the steep, muddy trail in flip-flops.
Tina Hay, editor
Bhutan is said to be one of the most ecologically diverse nations in the world, and is a paradise for bird lovers, with something like 700 species. Our Alumni Association tour isn’t really focused on birding, but I’ve been keeping my eyes and ears open for birds when I get a chance.
My favorite bird so far, hands down, is a largish one that looks something like an exotic woodpecker with a plume on its head and a long bill. (See photo at right.) There were a pair of them pecking the ground for insects outside our hotel in the Phobjikha Valley, and I asked a few people if anyone knew what they were. At one point I struck up a conversation with a pair of travelers from Bangalore, and I asked: “Are you birders?” One of them said, “Of course,” as if everyone who visits Bhutan is a birder. I described the birds in the lawn and asked what they were, and they told me they’re common hoopoes. A great name, if you ask me, and a great-looking bird.
Otherwise, most of what I’ve seen is fairly similar to what we have back home. I’ve seen a few magpies (common in the western U.S.), a ton of crows and/or ravens, and a lot of sparrows that I can’t identify but that I suspect are not terribly exotic.
We also see a lot of some sort of grackle that’s black with white wings and a tail.
On our hike in the Phobjikha Valley, we heard a cuckoo calling loudly and repeatedly, but didn’t see it. I also heard but didn’t see a bird that, if I were back home, I’d say was a red-bellied woodpecker; they have a very distinctive chirring sound. The bird book at our hotel here in Paro says they have something called a rufous-bellied woodpecker over here, with a similar call, so who knows.
Probably the most famous bird in Bhutan is one that spends its winters here and the rest of the year in Tibet: the black-necked crane. It’s endangered—we watched a documentary that said only 800 of them remain, though I’ve since seen higher estimates. It’s also considered sacred to the Buddhists who make up most of Bhutan’s population. Supposedly the penalty for killing one is life in prison.
The cranes aren’t here right now, alas—their summer breeding grounds are north of here, on the Tibetan plateau in the Himalayas.
As evidence of their special standing among Buddhists, when the cranes fly south to Bhutan’s Phobjikha Valley in November, they circle over the roof of the Gangteng Monastery several times before landing in the valley. And they do the same on their way out of town in March. This isn’t some sort of apocryphal story—we saw some pretty cool documentary footage of them doing it.
There’s an organization here called the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature, an NGO that runs the information center we visited. A few of the Penn State travelers bought some handicrafts in the center’s gift shop, happy to know that a portion of the proceeds will benefit those beautiful cranes.
Tina Hay, editor
I knew going into the Bhutan trip that there would be a few drives of three hours or more—from Thimphu to Punakha, from Punakha to Gangtey, and so on. I pictured at least a two-lane highway, if not four, and I certainly assumed it would be paved. I figured I’d use those bus rides to knit, maybe edit photos on my laptop, or sleep.
Surprise! The “highway” is bumpy, winding, and narrow—practically a one-lane road by U.S. standards. Some sections are paved; others, not so much. The road is also not for the faint of heart: a few feet from our van window lies a precipitous drop-off to the valley below. The guardrails, when they were there, didn’t offer much reassurance=—especially not the brief stretch of guardrails we saw that were made of bamboo. We passed signs announcing an “accident prone zone” and warning of “shooting rocks.”
If you could ignore the sheer cliffs below you, the views out the window were spectacular. Here’s just one example of the scenery through which we were driving:
According to the Altimeter app on my iPhone, we were at about 10,916 feet before we started our descent into the Phobjikha (pronounced roughly like “pope JEE kuh”) Valley. We saw lush green mountains and terraced hillsides, sometimes a white-water river way down below, and occasionally some snow-capped peaks in the distance. At one point on the way back from Phobjikha, we asked the driver to stop so we could get out and shoot photos of a herd of yaks.
I cranked up the ISO on my camera to about 1600 or 2000, so that I could get really fast shutter speeds—like 1/4000th of a second—which, I hoped, would negate the effect of the bouncing bus. I had just a small amount of open window to shoot out of, but eventually I figured out that I could just poke the camera out the window, point in the general direction of the vista, and fire off a few shots. I got a lot of junk, but also a few half-decent ones.
I checked the speedometer several times and it was rarely higher than 20, which I assume is kilometers per hour, which translates to 12 miles an hour. And every time a vehicle approached from the other direction, we’d slow down or even stop, so the two vehicles could safely squeeze by each other. At that rate I can understand why it supposedly takes two days to get from one end of the country to the other—a distance of only a few hundred miles as the crow flies.
Incidentally, we’ve all been impressed with the politeness of the drivers. The etiquette seems to be that when you come up on a slower vehicle from behind, you honk your horn gently, then the other driver turns on his left turn signal, as if to say, “Go for it” (keep in mind that they drive on the left-hand side of the road over here and pass on the right). Once you pass them, you honk again to say, “Thank you.” (Or, as they say in Bhutan, kardenchae la.) Almost never do you hear drivers honk their horns out of frustration or anger—honking here is a nice thing to do.
Our driver, whose name I can pronounce (SEN-tcho) but not necessarily spell, was unbelievably adept at navigating the hairpin turns—and dodging the loose rocks, the potholes, and the seemingly oblivious cows that frequently stood directly in our path.
Apparently this road, bad as it is, is an improvement over what was there before 2008. (Carolyn Welden, one of the Penn State passengers, speculates that until then it was a yak path.) The road was widened for the coronation of the Fifth King at the Punakha Dzong in 2008. Nowadays the locals refer to it as a highway, without a trace of irony in their voices.
Tina Hay, editor