Good Reads: Amazon mysteries, Africans step up, state of the states, knowing voters

This week's round-up of Good Reads includes a look at elusive and isolated Amazon tribes, signs of progress across Africa, the well-being of Americans, and the savvy of US voters.

Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman/AP
A couple runs at dusk along the shore of Lake Hefner, outside Oklahoma City.

The Amazon Basin is often cited as a global repository of biodiversity. But it’s also the last bastion, perhaps, of human cultural diversity. In Smithsonian magazine, Joshua Hammer recounts the recent spotting of what may be the last two isolated tribes in the Colombian Amazon: the Yuri and the Passé. They were spotted from airplanes by experts seeking to confirm their existence and to strengthen protections against outside intrusion.

Mr. Hammer points out that the common term “uncontacted tribes” is not strictly accurate. These tribes first encountered Spanish explorers seeking gold some 500 years ago. They fled deeper into the jungle to avoid slave traders. Around 1900, the rubber boom brought new slave traders into the rain forest and the tribes fled farther.

They were thought to be extinct, but when a jaguar hunter and his guide disappeared in 1969, the search party ran into a village of people painted with zebralike stripes. None of the native guides could recognize their language, but an expert in the United States identified them as Yuri. Then they disappeared again.

Ironically, for governments to protect the privacy of these native peoples, they must know where they are. Roberto Franco, the Colombian historian who was in the airplane that spotted the Yuri and Passé settlements, says: “We must respect their decision not to be our friends – even to hate us.”

Where Africans make strides

Meanwhile, one continent over, Africa has been shedding its isolation posthaste. The Economist takes a survey of the growing dynamism in the region that still populates the bottom of development rankings.

Life expectancies have increased by 10 percent. Foreign investment has tripled in the past decade. In the next 10 years, consumer spending is expected to triple. Average growth of gross domestic product is running about 6 percent, more African children than ever are in school, cellphones are everywhere, and the countries hit worst with the AIDS crisis have seen infections fall by three-quarters.

The Economist gives the main credit to African people themselves. “They are embracing modern technology, voting in ever more elections and pressing their leaders to do better. A sense of hope abounds.”

One sign that governance is improving, too: The correspondent visited 23 African countries to research the survey and wasn’t once asked for a bribe – “inconceivable only ten years ago.”

‘Hey America, how ya doin’?’

Back in these United States, every year Gallup asks hundreds of thousands of Americans to rate their own well-being from emotional and physical health to their work environment and overall life evaluation. The top-ranked state? Hawaii, for the fourth year in a row. (And Gallup didn’t even ask about the weather. The next two states, after all, are Colorado and Minnesota.) Hawaii residents were most likely to “experience daily enjoyment and least likely to have daily worry or stress,” says Alyssa Brown in Gallup’s new report. They also most often rated their lives as “thriving.”

West Virginians were the least “thriving” in the nation, and ranked lowest in overall well-being. Hawaiians also rated their work environments more highly than did residents of any other state. The lowest? Rhode Island. When it comes to healthy eating, getting exercise, and not smoking, Vermont rules and Kentucky takes the hindmost position. For access to basic services, from affordable food to a safe place to exercise, Massachusetts leads and Mississippi lags.

What the pundits don’t know

If you are tempted to argue with TV political pundits, you’re in good company. Morris Fiorina, a prominent political scientist at Stanford University, says his wife hates political season because of his running argument against what he sees as misinformed cable commentators. In The Forum, a political science quarterly, Professor Fiorina outlines what he, as a political scientist, wishes media talking heads could learn:

•US voters are not becoming more polarized. Congress is. Cable TV and talk radio are. But the moderate middle among voters is not shrinking. “Most Americans are not ideologues and do not hold extreme views.” Voters have re-sorted themselves: Conservatives have left the Democratic Party for the GOP and liberals have fled the other way. But that’s a shift of parties, not a shift of views.

•The US electorate is closely divided, but there is little evidence that the divide has grown deeper. Fiorina suspects that when the data is available, the 2012 election will prove to have been less intensely divided than the elections in 2008 or 2004.

•The hundreds of millions of dollars spent on political advertising “probably does not make much difference.” You would never know it from watching TV, but scholars find little evidence of any impact.

•Finally, voters are not stupid. They may be often uninformed and distracted. “Yet the collective electorate manifests a degree of knowledge and wisdom that gives those of us who have studied that electorate for decades some cause for optimism.”

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