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Posts Tagged ‘geography

“Without geography you’re nowhere”*…

Finding meaning in maps…

You may not know it, but you’ve probably seen the Valeriepieris circle – it’s that circle on a map of the world, alongside the text ‘There are more people living inside this circle than outside of it’. The name ‘Valeriepieris’ is from the Reddit username of the person who posted it and in 2015 the circle was looked at in more detail by Danny Quah of the London School of Economics under the heading ‘The world’s tightest cluster of people‘. But of course it’s not actually a circle because it wasn’t drawn on a globe and it’s also a bit out of date now so I thought I’d look at this topic because I like global population density stuff. I’ll begin by posting a map of what I’m calling ‘The Yuxi Circle’ and then I’ll explain everything else below that – with lots of maps. As in the original circle, I decided to use a radius of 4,000 km, or just under 2,500 miles. Why Yuxi? Well, out of all the cities I looked at (more than 1,500 worldwide), Yuxi had the highest population within 4000km – just over 55% of the world’s population as of 2020…

More– including fascinating comparisons– at “The Yuxi Circle,” from Alasdair Rae (@undertheraedar)

* Jimmy Buffett


As we ponder population, we might recall that it was on this date in 1995 that the day-time soap opera As The World Turns aired its 10,000th episode. Created by Irna Phillips, it aired for 54 years (from April 2, 1956, to September 17, 2010); its 13,763 hours of cumulative narrative gave it the longest total running time of any television show. Actors including, Marissa Tomei, Meg Ryan, Amanda Seyfried, Julianne Moore, and Emmy Rossum all appeared on the series.

The 1956 cast


“Resistance to the organized mass can be effected only by the man who is as well organized in his individuality as the mass itself”*…

Thomas R. Wells on something to remember in these times of international conflict…

As any map will show you, the world is divided by political borders into spaces called countries. People and things can live in, come from, or go to these places.

But countries are not any more than that.

Firstly and most obviously, countries are merely a social construction. They are collectively produced fictions (like money, or religions) rather than mind-independent objects (like stones). Being fictional does not mean that countries do not matter, but it does mean that they only exist so long as enough people agree to act as if they do.

Secondly and more significantly, countries are places not agents. Places on a map cannot have interests or goals or take actions to achieve them. To think otherwise is to confuse the properties of one kind of thing with another. This category error infects not only general talk, but also much otherwise careful journalism and even academic analysis. For example, the influential Realistschool of international relations is founded on the axiom that countries do (or ought to) act only in their national interest. This trades on two category errors: that countries (rather than governments) can act and that they have interests. The result is confusing and unfalsifiable nonsense about buffer zones, access to resources and so forth that is about as helpful for understanding, predicting, and managing conflicts as an astrological map.

What lies behind this error is the eliding of spaces on a map with the organisations that rule them. Organisations are collective agents like armies or corporations in which groups of human individuals are converted into a hierarchically coordinated and powerful actor in their own right. Unlike countries, organisations are a kind of collectively produced fiction about which it does make sense to attribute interests and which can actually do things, often very significant things. What we call governments are a particular kind of organisation, one that has achieved the power to make and enforce rules over the inhabitants of a country, for example by hurting those who dare to disagree with it and by preventing outsiders from entering. In Max Weber’s famous definition, it “successfully claims a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence”. This power is called sovereignty and it is an attribute of governments, not countries.

People live in countries and are ruled over by governments. It is important to keep each of these three elements distinct and clear so that we can prevent the relentless category errors that confuse public discussion of international affairs. In particular, we should pay more credence to actual people and less to the organisations who claim to be their legitimate representatives merely because they have the power to hurt them. There are many tyrannical governments in this world. Their leaders may declare that they act in the name of the populations and territories they rule but they remain the ones responsible, the ones who should be held to account…

Being careful in how how we apportion blame in these fraught geopolitical times: “There Is No Such Thing As Countries,” from @Philos_Beard in @3QD. Eminently worth reading in full.

* Carl Jung


As we steer clear of stereotypes, we recall that it was on this date in 1602 that Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC, or The Dutch East India Company, as it’s known in the Anglophone world) was born.  Generally considered the world’s first trans-national corporation and the first publicly to issue stocks and bonds (and the first company to be ever actually listed on an official stock exchange), it began with a 21-year monopoly on the Dutch spice trade.  The VOC also prefigured the mega-corporation of today in that it had quasi-governmental powers, including the ability to wage war, imprison and execute convicts, negotiate treaties, strike its own coins, and establish colonies.  Considered by many to be the greatest corporation in history, the VOC eclipsed all of its rivals in international trade (and many nations in power) for almost 200 years.


“I almost die for food, and let me have it!”*…

Explore a database of 1,000 unique foods…

We’re talking everything from North Carolina’s green-gilled oysters to a Bolivian volcanic-rock soup and a liqueur that only two silent monks know how to make

Black apples, green oysters, hallucinogenic honey, and 997 other curious comestibles: “Explore Unique Food & Drink,” in @atlasobscura.

* Shakespeare, As You Like It


As we sample, we might recall that it was on this date in 1883 that A. Ashwell, of Herne Hill in South London, received a patent for the “vacant/engaged” door bolt for lavatory doors… presumably a relief to the folks who had been using the public restrooms that had been introduced in London in 1852.



“‘It’s magic,’ the chief cook concluded, in awe. ‘No, not magic,’ the ship’s doctor replied. ‘It’s much more. It’s mathematics.’*…

Michael Wendl (and here) dissects some variants of the magic separation, a self-working card trick…

Martin Gardner—one of history’s most prolific maths popularisers [see here]—frequently examined the connection between mathematics and magic, commonly looking at tricks using standard playing cards. He often discussed ‘self-working’ illusions that function in a strictly mechanical way, without any reliance on sleight of hand, card counting, pre-arrangement, marking, or key-carding of the deck. One of the more interesting specimens in this genre is a matching trick called the magic separation.

This trick can be performed with 20 cards. Ten of the cards are turned face-up, with the deck then shuffled thoroughly by both the performer and, importantly, the spectator. The performer then deals 10 cards to the spectator and keeps the remainder for herself. This can be done blindfolded to preclude tracking or counting. Not knowing the distribution of cards, our performer announces she will rearrange her own cards ‘magically’ so that the number of face-ups she holds matches the number of face-ups the spectator has. When cards are displayed, the counts do indeed match. She easily repeats the feat for hecklers who claim luck…

All is revealed: “An odd card trick,” from Chalkdust (@chalkdustmag). 

* David Brin, Glory Season


As we conjure, we might spare a thought for Persian polymath Omar Khayyam; the mathematician, philosopher, astronomer, epigrammatist, and poet died on this date in 1131.  While he’s probably best known to English-speakers as a poet, via Edward FitzGerald’s famous translation of the quatrains that comprise the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Omar was one of the major mathematicians and astronomers of the medieval period.  He is the author of one of the most important works on algebra written before modern times, the Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra (which includes a geometric method for solving cubic equations by intersecting a hyperbola with a circle).  His astronomical observations contributed to the reform of the Persian calendar.  And he made important contributions to mechanics, geography, mineralogy, music, climatology, and Islamic theology.


“The Earth is what we all have in common”*…

Ancient Gateway, Angkor, Cambodia

There’s a pervasive notion in our society that nature is something outside, over there, other, from what we are as humans. From religious texts teaching that God provided humans with dominion over Earth, to futuristic literature pitching nature as our past and human ingenuity and technology as our future, the narrative that humans are beyond – or even superior to – nature is deeply entrenched.

This separation, this othering of nature, has arguably enabled our rampant destruction of the rest of the living world, and even led some to claim that our human nature is incompatible with nature itself.

Now a huge international study involving geography, archeology, ecology, and conservation adds to the wealth of sciences that exposes this idea as the lie it is.

Researchers found that for most of our history, humanity has lived in equilibrium with our world, despite us having altered most of Earth’s terrestrial surface far sooner than we realized. “Societies used their landscapes in ways that sustained most of their native biodiversity and even increased their biodiversity, productivity, and resilience,” said University of Maryland environmental systems scientist Erle Ellis.

Analyzing reconstructions of historic global land use by humans and comparing this to global patterns of biodiversity, the researchers found that by 10000 BCE humans had transformed nearly three-quarters of Earth’s land surface – you can view an interactive map of their findings here.

This upends previous models that suggested most land was still uninhabited as recently as 1500 CE. “Lands now characterized as ‘natural’, ‘intact’, and ‘wild’ generally exhibit long histories of human use,” University of Queensland conservation scientist James Watson explained.

“There’s a paradigm among natural scientists, conservationists, and policymakers that human transformation of terrestrial nature is mostly recent and inherently destructive,” said Watson.

In recent times, it’s certainly appeared that way, but clearly this hasn’t always been the case – humanity’s presence hasn’t always caused the life around us to wither away. The researchers note that in many areas, mosaics of diverse landscapes managed by people were sustained for millennia.

They used strategies like planting, animal domestication, and managing the ecosystems in a way that made the landscape not just more productive for us, but helping to support high species richness too. “Our study found a close correlation between areas of high biodiversity and areas long occupied by Indigenous and traditional peoples,” said Max Planck Institute archeologist Nicole Boivin.

“The problem is not human use per se, the problem is the kind of land use we see in industrialized societies – characterized by unsustainable agricultural practices and unmitigated extraction and appropriation.”

“We need to recognize that some types of human activity – particularly more traditional land management practices that we see in the archaeological record or practiced today by many Indigenous peoples – are actually really supportive of biodiversity. We need to promote and empower that,” said Bovin.

University of Maine anthropologist Darren Ranco noted that while indigenous people manage around 5 percent of the world’s lands that currently contain 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, they have been excluded from management and access in protected areas like the US National Parks.

These findings make it clear that we need to empower Indigenous, traditional, and local peoples who know their lands in ways science is only just beginning to understand, explained Ellis. While no one is suggesting we revert to technology-less societies of our past, the idea is to learn from different ways of living that have proven track records of longevity.

From there, we can find new and better ways forward with the help of our advanced technologies, and a big part of this is recognizing that we are part of nature just as nature is a part of us.

Learning from our ancestors: “Humans Shaped Life on Earth For 12,000 Years, And It Wasn’t All Doom And Destruction.” Read the research in full at PNAS.

By way of an illustration of the issue, “Climate crisis has shifted the Earth’s axis, study shows“:

In the past, only natural factors such as ocean currents and the convection of hot rock in the deep Earth contributed to the drifting position of the poles. But the new research shows that since the 1990s, the loss of hundreds of billions of tonnes of ice a year into the oceans resulting from the climate crisis has caused the poles to move in new directions.

Indeed, we’ve moved the poles 4 meters since 1980…

And for a look at just how much the earth has changed, “Google Earth Now Shows You The Consequences of Climate Change For The Past 37 Years.”

[TotH to the ever-illuminating “Nothing Here“]

* Wendell Berry


As we find balance, we might spare a thought for Jean Nicot de Villemain; he died on this date in 1604. A diplomat and scholar, he introduced tobacco to the French court (and thus, into wide usage in Europe). In 1560, while serving as ambassador in Portugal, he was shown a tobacco plant in the garden of Lisbon botanist Damião de Goes, who claimed it had healing properties. Nicot applied it to his nose and forehead and found it relieved his headaches.

Nicot sent home seeds and leaves of tobacco, recommending its marvelous therapeutic value. He then sent snuff to Catherine de Medici, the Queen of France to treat her migraine headaches. She was impressed with its results, and became an advocate.

The tobacco plant, Nicotiana tabacum, and its active substance, nicotine, derive their names from his.

Nicot also compiled one of the first French dictionaries, Thresor de la langue françoyse (1606).


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