Lovely Wikipedia Gong Map of Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia Gong Culture MapA Google image search of “culture map” returns some interesting images. A striking Wikipedia map that comes up high in the search depicts three “gong and chime” culture areas in Southeast Asia: gamelan, kulintang, and piphat. The gamelan percussion orchestras of Java and Bali are relatively well known globally, but the same cannot be said for piphat or kulintang, both of which deserve wider recognition. As mentioned in the Wikipedia article on the topic, tuned “pot gongs” are an extremely important part of the musical traditions of Southeast Asia.

Kulintang, found in the southern Philippines and eastern Indonesia, is the least well-known Southeast Asian gong tradition. As described by the Wikipedia:

Like the other two, kulintang music is primarily orchestral with several rhythmic parts orderly stacked one upon another. It is also based upon the pentatonic scale. However, kulintang music differs in many aspects from gamelan music, primarily in the way the latter constructs melodies within a framework of skeletal tones and prescribed time interval of entry for each instruments. The framework of kulintang music is more flexible and time intervals are nonexistent, allowing for such things as improvisations to be more prevalent.

Several excellent kulintang videos are found on YouTube; my favorite shows young musicians in a seemingly impromptu setting, found here.

Gong music is found over a much wider area of Southeast Asia than is visible on the map. Many local gong-dependent musical styles, however, lack the complexity of gamelan, kulintang, and piphat. In the 1980s, I lived in a tribal village in northern Luzon for over a year, and simple gong beating was an essential part of indigenous religious festivities. The gongs used here were made of bronze, and had been imported from China long ago.  The great Yale anthropologist Harold Conklin made a detailed study of the gongs used by tribal groups in northern Luzon, as discussed in this article.

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French Wine Consumption and Other Intriguing Maps from Vintage Printables

Wine Consumption France 1873 MapIn conducting a simple internet search for geopolitical maps, I was surprised to see multiple returns of a map of French wine consumption in 1873. The map in question is found on a site called “Vintage Printable,” which aims to:

provide free, public domain/out-of-copyright images for you to print or download. Most of the images are vintage naturalist or scientific illustration, but there are loads of other images, too. Navigate with the gallery buttons above for many more images. Images are free, downloadable and printable.

Cider Beer Consumption France 1873 MapThe site’s images are divided into a number of categories, including medieval, botanical, animal, and portrait. The maps are placed under the geopolitical label, even though most of them are not actually geopolitical in orientation.  Still, a number of handsome and useful maps are found on the site.

The French wine map of 1873 is one of a number of maps on Vintage Printable depicting alcohol consumption and abuse in the country at the time. As can be seen from the two maps presented here, France was strongly divided into wine-, cider-, and beer-drinking areas in the late 1800s. Wine consumption was correlated with wine production, as can be seen by looking at the Wikipedia inset map of wine production areas, which I added to the image, originally found here.





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Election Returns and Economic Development in Italy

Italy Per Capita GDP by Region MapIn considering the recent Italian election, it might instructive to compare the regional returns with levels of economic development. In order to do so, I constructed a map of Italian per capita Gross Domestic Product by region. The information is dated: the most recent I could easily find is from 2008, courtesy of the Wikipedia. But as the Italian economy has been relatively stagnant over the past five years, an up-to-date GDP map would probably look much the same.

As mentioned in the yesterday’s GeoCurrents post, most of northern Italy has habitually voted for the right, central (or perhaps central-northern) Italy has opted for the left (especially Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna), whereas the rest of the country is more mixed, although several southern regions usually favor the right. Economically, as is well known and as can be seen in the map, northern Italy is much wealthier than southern Italy.  (Lazio, in the center, forms an exception to this pattern.) Yet there is no real correlation between level of economic development and voting behavior. The richest region (by this measurement), South Tyrol/Alto Adige, tends to vote for regionalist parties, the second richest region, Lombardy, usually opts for the right, and the third richest region, Emilia-Romagna, is a stalwart of the left. In the south, Basilicata tends to lean more to the left than neighboring regions, but it does not stand out on the electoral map.

Regional factors, rather than narrowly economic ones, seem to guide Italian electoral geography.

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Norwegian and Other Sovereign Wealth Funds

Al Arabiya News recently announced that Norway just surpassed Abu Dhabi in possessing the world’s richest sovereign wealth fund, reporting that “Norway’s Government Pension Fund stood strong at $656.2 billion in October while Abu Dhabi Investment Authority’s assets held a total of $627 billion.” The claim is somewhat misleading, however, in that Abu Dhabi is not a sovereign state, but rather a constituent part of the United Arab Emirates. If the UAE’s other sovereign wealthy funds are included, the country as a whole still outranks Norway. According to the Wikipedia, however, China surpasses both countries by a healthy margin, with sovereign wealth funds valued at 1,189.4 billion U.S. dollars, which does not even include the $293.3 billion sovereign wealth fund held by Hong Kong.

As the Wikipedia explains, a sovereign wealth fund is:

[A] state-owned investment fund composed of financial assets such as stocks, bonds, property, precious metals or other financial instruments. Sovereign wealth funds invest globally. Most SWFs are funded by foreign exchange assets.

Although “sovereign wealth funds” are by definition held by states, they need not be held by sovereign states, as the Abu Dhabi and Hong Kong examples show. The considerable sovereign wealth funds of the United States are all held by constituent states. Examples here include the Alaska Permanent Fund, the Texas Permanent School Fund, and the Alabama Trust Fund. Such funds, as is the case across much of the world, derive largely from royalties derived from fossil fuel exploitation.

On a per capita basis, Norway and the UAE are in a league of their own as far as sovereign wealth funds are concerned.  The gargantuan Government Pension Fund of Norway (which is actually two separate funds) generates controversy. Some critics contend that more of the state revenue extracted from country’s oil business should be used to support the national budget, whereas others think that some of the investments made by fund managers are too risky or not adequately ethical. The fund’s Advisory Council on Ethics, however, has disinvested from a large number of firms. Most of the excluded firms were placed on the list for dealing in tobacco.

In recent month’s Norway’s sovereign wealth fund has been moving assets out of European bonds and into other areas, including London real estate. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported:

The fund cut holdings of French and Spanish debt in the July-September period and stocked up on U.S. and Japanese government bonds, NBIM said. It also bought currencies of emerging-market nations including South Korea, Russia and Mexico.


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The World’s Most Expensive Cities?

Mercer’s annual worldwide cost of living survey is widely used by corporations to help determine compensation levels for executives posted abroad. I have mapped the fifty most expensive cities according to the 2012 Mercer Report. The size of the stars indicates the level of expense: as such, the five most expensive cities (Tokyo, Luanda, Osaka, Moscow, and Geneva) are depicted with the largest symbols. The Mercer survey, it should be noted, uses New York City as its benchmark, and relies heavily on currency exchange figures.

The patterns on the map are intriguing, as they bear little resemblance to those found on maps of general economic development. Expensive cities are found in the some of the world’s richest countries (Switzerland, Japan), some of the poorest  countries (Chad, Central African Republic), and in a number of mid-income countries as well (Brazil, Russia). As far as the general pattern is concerned, the world’s most expensive cities—as reckoned by Mercer—are found in Europe, greater west Africa, maritime eastern Asia, and Australia.

The paucity of such cities in North America is notable, with only New York making the list. Considering its exorbitant cost of housing, San Francisco places surprisingly low.

Forthcoming GeoNote will examine inexpensive cities on the Mercer list, as well as other methods of measuring the cost of living in cities across the world.


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Diagramming the Area of French Sovereignty

In diagramming the area of French sovereignty, I was not sure what to call the region constituted by the regular departments of France (both those in “Metropolitan France” and those located overseas); in the end I opted for “France Proper,” but it seems that there must be a better term. Some sources, including Wikipedia, place Corsica within “l’Hexagone,” but such a classification seems geometrically incorrect to me.  

I am fond of the term “sui generis collectivity” for New Caledonia, which is scheduled to hold a referendum on independence between 2014 and 2018. New Caledonia now has a system of dual national symbols, with one set representing its position within the French Republic, and the other looking toward independence. As a result, I have placed it in the outermost layer of French sovereignty. I do not, however, expect independence to come easily to New Caledonia

Comments and criticisms are again welcome.

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Diagramming the “Greater U.S. Realm”

As promised, I have posted a diagram of the “greater U.S. realm.” It is a little less map-like than the diagram of “greater UK” posted last week, as it does not differentiate east from west in regard to the placement of labels.

I was uncertain as to how to classify Guantanamo Bay. I have included it, alone among U.S. foreign military bases, because it is “perpetually leased,” giving it a degree of permanence that other bases lack.

Comments and criticism are again welcome.

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Diagramming the Realm of Queen Elizabeth II

While contemplating Seth Jackson’s post on the lands of the British Crown, it occurred to me that a map-like diagram would be helpful for visualizing the geopolitical complexity that he described. I have posted here an attempt to do so. Feedback is welcome.

I have put a heavy black line around the “area of British sovereignty” to stress that this is the essential geopolitical unit as far as international relations are concerned, as areas of common sovereignty are widely viewed as the basic building blocks of the global geopolitical order. I am not happy, however, with the label “area of British sovereignty,” which seems much too weak. I have put a heavy dashed line around the United Kingdom in deference to the fact this unit looms largest in the public imagination.

Seth and I have wondered whether the other members of the Commonwealth of Nations should be included as a vague outer unit, as Elizabeth II is the official head of the organization. But the diagram seems busy enough as it is.


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The Crown Dependencies: What Exactly Are They?, By Seth Jackson

Dear Readers,

Although GeoCurrents does not normally accept guest posts, I was so taken by this piece by Seth Jackson that I decided to make an exception. One of the main themes of this website is geopolitical complexity, and here we have it in spades!

Martin W. Lewis


The Crown Dependencies: What Exactly Are They?

By Seth Jackson

We often hear that the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey are not part of the United Kingdom, but are instead classified as Crown Dependencies.  The question then arises about the possession of their sovereignty.  If the U.K. doesn’t maintain sovereignty over the islands, who then does?  Is the Crown a separate entity from the U.K.?  If the Crown Dependencies are outside the territorial scope of the U.K., then why are they not considered to be independent countries in their own right?

Sovereignty over the Crown Dependencies and the United Kingdom are vested in the Crown.  Indeed, the reigning monarch is the Sovereign.  All powers of sovereignty symbolically emanate from his or her person.  The Government of the United Kingdom is formed in his or her name, and likewise the autonomous governments of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands operate and function in the name of the Sovereign.

Each government defines the Crown differently.  The Isle of Man describes it as the “Crown in right of the Isle of Man” and declares it as separate from the “Crown in right of the United Kingdom.”  Jersey defines it as the “Crown in right of Jersey”, whereas Guernsey does so as the “Crown in right of the république of the Bailiwick of Guernsey”.  Likewise each of the 16 independent Commonwealth realms defines the Crown in a similar fashion, such as the “Crown in right of Canada” and the “Crown in right of Tuvalu”.

As a result, the Sovereign, currently Elizabeth II, is officially known by different titles in each jurisdiction, such as Queen of the United Kingdom, Queen of Canada, and Queen of Tuvalu.  In the Crown Dependencies, her titles are more unusual.  She is the Lord of Mann while in or acting on behalf of the Isle of Man, and in the Channel Islands she is known as the Duke of Normandy.  She is perhaps the only woman to hold the titles of Lord and Duke, as opposed to the female equivalents of Lady and Duchess.

Is there one crown that represents all the Commonwealth realms and its dependencies, or does each realm and dependency have its own separate, unique crown?  In other words, is Elizabeth II queen of 16 realms, or is she simultaneously 16 different queens?  The Statute of Westminster 1931 granted each realm its own crown that is a separate legal personality from that of any other crown.  However, does this mean the “Crown in right of the Isle of Man” is a separate legal entity from that of the “Crown in right of the United Kingdom”?  It seems that the answer is “no”: the Isle of Man, Jersey, and Guernsey are dependent upon the British Crown, or the “Crown in the right of the United Kingdom”, but this in no way implies that they are part of the United Kingdom.

This seems to suggest that the independent country of the United Kingdom is really only a subset of something larger – the British Crown.  The Crown contains within it the sovereignty of four national governments: the United Kingdom, the Isle of Man, Jersey, and Guernsey.  In addition, the U.K. itself consists of four non-sovereign yet increasingly autonomous countries (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland), as well as several overseas territories.  Perhaps the relationships of the Crown Dependencies to the United Kingdom most closely resemble those of states in free association, such as the relationship of the Cook Islands and Niue to New Zealand.

The Crown Dependencies are outside the European Union, and have limited engagement in international organizations.  However, as the economies of the Crown Dependencies have grown the last several decades, especially in the financial sector, there have been elevated discussions on how to define their individual “external personalities” within the international community.  Will this eventually result in a change of their political status as Crown Dependencies? We shall see.

How does one interpret the sovereignty of the Crown Dependencies and their place within the British Crown? The question is not easily answered. Although conventional opinion regards the global geopolitical community as a straightforward assemblage of mutual recognized sovereign states, the actual situation is vastly more complicated.


1. There are some who claim Orkney and Shetland are Crown Dependencies, or more specifically Crown Trust Dependencies, and are not legally part of Scotland or the United Kingdom, owing to their history of being pawned by King Christian I of Denmark to King James III of Scotland in 1468/9, as security against the dowry in the marriage of Christian’s daughter to James III.  The assertion is that this act of pawning did not transfer sovereignty, as the pawn can technically be redeemed (although previous attempts to do so have been unsuccessful), and as such, the islands have remained a trust asset of the Crown ever since.  The islands were openly recognized as Scottish Crown Dependencies prior to the Acts of Union 1707, when the independent Kingdoms of Scotland and England joined together to form the Kingdom of Great Britain.  Today, there is a movement for greater autonomy for the islands, with the small Shetland island of Forvik going so far as to declare itself a Crown Dependency in 2008, and an independent country in 2011.

2. The Sovereign is also the lord paramount of all soil in the United Kingdom and the Crown Dependencies.  The Crown assumes title through the process of escheatment of any lands that are declared to have no other owner, such as in cases of bankruptcy or the dissolution of companies.

3. However, since Canada and Australia are both federations, each province and state has a direct relationship with the Crown as well.

4. We often hear Elizabeth II titled the “Queen of England”, but this term is inaccurate.  The Kingdom of England ceased to exist with the Acts of Union 1707, when England and Scotland merged their kingdoms to form the Kingdom of Great Britain.  Later, following the merging with the Kingdom of Ireland in 1801, it became known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and finally, when three-fourths of Ireland seceded and formed the Irish Free State in 1922, the U.K. gained its current name: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  Presently, Elizabeth II is known as the Queen of the United Kingdom while representing that realm.

5. Although, Queen Victoria was styled as the Lady of Mann during her reign.

6. The Queen is also referred to as the Duke of Lancaster during formal settings in Lancashire, England or within her duties pertaining to the Duchy of Lancaster.

7. The United Kingdom, however, is responsible for the defense and foreign relations of the Crown Dependencies as matter of tradition and convention.  Each dependency pays the U.K. an annual fee for these services

The Crown Dependencies: What Exactly Are They?, By Seth Jackson Read More »

Exploring Mesoamerican Ruins with Google Street View

Google Maps’ Street View has long been a wonderful tool for exploring urban environments from afar. Now Google, in a partnership with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, has taken Street View to the ruins of thirty ancient Mesoamerican cities, and hopefully up to sixty more within the next year. Viewers can explore a number of Classical Mayan sites, from the massive Temple of Kukulkan in Chichen Itza, to the stunning seaside ruins of Tulum. The project also features sites further north in the Valley of Mexico, including the city of Teotihuacan. Google gathered the footage using a 360-degree camera mounted on a specialized tricycle.

Chichen Itza. (all photos are screenshots of Google Street View)

This is not the first time Google has taken Street View beyond the confines of public road networks. Street View cameras have gone over mountain passes, floated down the Amazon River, explored the inner reaches of art museums, toured the narrow streets of medieval European cities, and much more. Clearly Street View is no substitute for actually visiting ruins, but it can still give users an interesting introduction to ancient Mesoamerican cities and the many differences between them.

For example, viewers can easily see that Teotihuacan (top picture) was built with a specific urban form in mind. The city is arranged orthogonally around a great central street known as the Calzada de los Muertos, with two major pyramids as well as many smaller buildings fitting into the pattern. Mayan cities, by contrast, clearly lack this kind of spatial orientation. Rather than streets, Mayan cities like Palenque tend to focus in on a central open space surrounded somewhat haphazardly by impressive temples. Unlike Teotihuacan, there is little evidence of stone buildings used for non-ceremonial purposes.


No doubt this new tool should please Michael E. Smith, an Arizona State Archaeologist and expert on Mesoamerican cities. Smith analyzes the evolution of Mesoamerican city planning on his blog, Wide Urban World, and draws a clear distinction between the layout of Teotihuacan and what he calls the “basic Mesoamerican urban plan.” The basic plan focuses on central plazas with a dense concentration of tall ceremonial structures and unplanned satellite residential areas. Teotihuacan “made several major innovations in urban layout”, including not only the grand central avenue but also the planned residential areas that are not readily visible in Street View.

Not all the Latin American cities making recent debuts on Google Street View are ancient. Several Brazilian cities including Fortaleza, Brasilia, Natal, Recife, and Salvador, headline the other additions. As the city that helped to define a generation of planned capitals, Brasilia almost cries out for a comparison to its Mesoamerican counterparts. Plazas and wide roads feature prominently in Brasilia, though instead of being a central focus, they actually seem to constitute most of the city. A viewer clicking through Brasilia could be forgiven for feeling that despite suffering between one and two millennia less decay than its Mesoamerican counterparts and being far larger, the city lacks the kind of immersive views that make the ancient cities so enchanting. In short, though Google Street View is a 21st Century technology, it sometimes works best when operating in decidedly less modern environments.

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Geographical Illiteracy in Civilization V

Since 1991, the Civilization series of computer games has been the best product on offer for the historically or geographically inclined gamer. The latest incarnation of the game, Civilization V, features dozens of unique playable “civilizations” that include broad linguistic or ethnic groups like the Celts and Polynesians, long-gone empires like Babylonia and Carthage, and modern states like the Netherlands. Each civilization has unique elements such as a leader (e.g., Boudicca or Nebuchadnezzar II) and a distinct play style that help it to achieve one of several victory conditions. The game also features innumerable scenarios, both official and fan-made, that allow players to immerse themselves in—and attempt to alter—historical events like the fall of the Western Roman Empire or the Japanese invasion of Korea. While the game is generally excellent, there are a number of historical and geographic mistakes in its ubiquitous loading-screen maps that are shown to well over one million unwitting pairs of eyes, and are thus worthy of correction.

When loading a game, players are presented with a map of their chosen civilization’s territory at the time the leader chosen for the game held power. Sometimes the game’s artists simply get carried away, showing Attila’s Hunnic Empire (if one can call it that) controlling all of Denmark. Most likely Attila—a horse-riding nomad who never even went further north than modern Cologne—didn’t even know such a place existed. A similar problem concerns the map of the Maya, which implies that Pacal the Great ruled all of the Mayan city-states in the 7th Century C.E. rather than just Palenque and its immediate hinterland. In contrast, the realm of Harold Bluetooth, a 10th Century Danish King and the namesake of the eponymous wireless technology, actually appears to be understated. Denmark at the time controlled much of Scandinavia, a fact not represented by the map.

A rather humorous error concerns the distinction between the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes and the ancient Greek city of Thebes. In the map of Ramses II’s Egypt in the 13th Century B.C.E, Thebes, Egypt is not included. Rather, Thebes appears in Greece, a place that would not see an actual city named Thebes for several hundred years. On the map of Greece during the time of Alexander the Great, the artists have another chance to get the Thebes question right, but alas they fail once again. This time, Thebes, Egypt is shown while Thebes, Greece—arguably the most important Greek city at that time—disappears.

One of the most elegant features of Civilization V is the experience of negotiating with other leaders who speak in their native languages. For example, the game’s Hiawatha simulation speaks to the player in Mowhak, and the Theodora simulation speaks to the player in Medieval Greek. Designers even gave long-dead languages a shot, having Nebuchadnezzar II speak Akkadian. Nevertheless, it is somewhat disappointing to see Ramses II speaking modern Arabic when Middle and Late Egyptian are relatively well known. Languages also help highlight the incongruous nature of some “civilizations,” such as that of the Celts. The game’s Celtic leader, Boudicca, ruled an ancient tribe known as the Iceni in what is now Norfolk in Eastern England. The game’s Boudicca speaks modern Welsh, and then goes ahead and builds a capital city named Edinburgh.

Despite its many small mistakes and a one-size-fits-all definition of “civilization” that forces pretty much every kind of human grouping into the nation-state framework, Civilization remains a fantastic diversion with this author’s highest recommendation. Here’s hoping that the artists for Civilization VI spend a few more minutes on Google before drawing their maps.




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Mongolia’s Three Manly Skills, the Olympics, and Genghis Khan

In anticipation of future posts exploring the geography of Olympic medals, this post will focus on the sporting fortunes of one country in particular—Mongolia. Mongolia tends to perform very well in on the basis of medals won weighed by population or GDP. In 2012, Mongolia earned two silver and two bronze medals, placing it third in total medals per dollar of GDP and tenth in total medals per capita. Since Mongolia’s first summer Olympics in 1964, all of the country’s medals have come from just four sports: wrestling, boxing, judo, and shooting.

The sporting scene in Mongolia has remained remarkably stable for hundreds of years. The traditional Three Manly Skills of Mongolia—horseback riding, archery, and wrestling—remain the country’s most popular sports to this day. The cultural niche filled in the U.S. by the Super Bowl in in Europe by the UEFA Champions League is in Mongolia filled by the three-day Naadam festival (picture at left from Wikipedia). Most Mongolian communities have their own Naadam festival, but the national festival in Ulaanbaatar always takes center stage. At the festival, contestants gather to showcase their horsemanship, test their skill with a bow, and grapple in the traditional Mongolian wrestling style known as Bökh. The aim of Bökh is quite simple: to knock one’s opponent to the ground (picture at left from). Though wrestling is always the most anticipated event, the trick horsemanship on offer at the festival is extremely popular and immensely impressive.

Champions, or “Titans”, as Bökh winners are known in Mongolia, tend to transition fairly easily to foreign wrestling venues. Many have gone on to have successful careers in Japanese Sumo-Wrestling while others become the Olympic medalists that catapult Mongolia to its lofty position in the per capita medal rankings. Mongolia’s high position thus isn’t much of a mystery when one considers that a country’s per capita success in a sport will depend heavily on the share of its youth who are exposed to that sport. What is rather strange, then, is Mongolia’s inability to compete internationally in horse-based events.

The warriors of Genghis Khan practically lived on their horses. They could ride for days, gaining sustenance by cutting the veins of their cold-numbed horses and drinking as much blood as they could without physically compromising their mounts. In battle, they shot arrows with deadly accuracy no matter which way their horses happened to be running. The Mongols of today may not drink much horse blood, but many are still excellent riders, and riding maintains its place as a central experience in Mongolian life, especially outside of Ulaanbaatar. Horses in Mongolia outnumber people, and the winners of wrestling competitions often receive horses as a prize. According to Wikipedia, a well-known Mongolian military figure picked up coins from the ground while riding a horse at full speed. It seems that Mongolia’s relative failure in equestrian Olympic sports as well as non-Olympic thoroughbred racing is not due to a lack of horsemanship, but rather to huge differences between its style of horse competitions and those of the rest of the world.

Unlike skill in Bökh, which carries over well to more international forms of wrestling, Mongolian horsemanship spurns the kind of courses that define dressage and similar Olympic events. Mongolians have little use for horses that excel at jumping or sprinting, though those events are practiced to some degree. Instead, Mongolians today seek the same quality in horses as their ancestors did: endurance. To Genghis Khan’s rivals in China and Europe, Mongolian horses looked weak, slow and haggard compared to their well-fed counterparts. Mongolian horses usually triumphed in the end, however, as their supreme endurance allowed armies to move quickly and fight in the most favorable locations. During battle, Mongolian horses could run back and forth constantly without tiring, allowing fresh troops to fire wave after wave of arrows at confused enemies who usually mistook this maneuvering for a full retreat.

Mongolia’s most popular distances for horse racing are 25 kilometers or more, distances that utterly dwarf those of the rest of the world. Mongolians also do not coddle their horses, which live outside in temperatures as cold as -40°C. Though often mistaken for ponies due to their diminutive size, Mongolian horses are arguably the toughest in the world. Currently, Olympic equestrian sports are set up to represent a Western, upper-class conception of horsemanship that features fancy costumes and multi-million-dollar animals jumping over short fences. Perhaps a more balanced formulation of equestrian sports that included endurance events would allow Mongolia supplement its medal haul from wrestling and judo.


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Geographical Illiteracy in the New York Times

Today’s New York Times features a major article on labor strife in the Bangladeshi apparel industry. The article itself is interesting and, in general, well reported and well written. The accompanying map, however, is laughable. The map purports to show the location of the Ishwardi Export Processing Zone, which it depicts as sprawling over roughly the western third of Bangladesh. A zone of this size would cover roughly 5 million hectares. In actuality, the Ishwardi Export Processing Zone encompasses all of 125 hectares (309 acres). Official documents describe its location as: “Pakshl, Pabna. 3.7 kms from Pakshi Bridge through by pass road, 10.60 kms from Ishwardi Airport.” Through the use of shading, the New York Times depicts the zone as covering not only all of Pabna District, but virtually the entire extent of three Bangladeshi divisions. The line that the map uses to indicate to the zone, moreover, is highly inaccurate as well, pointing to an area well to the south of the actual Ishwardi Export Processing Zone.

If the New York Times wants to maintain its claims to being the country’s newspaper of record, it might want to consider hiring a competent geography editor.

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A Global Decline in Religiosity?

New global poll on religion and atheism by WIN-Gallup International has been receiving some attention. The poll, which covered 57 countries containing a solid majority of the world’s population, shows a clear decline in religiosity between 2005 and 2011. Globally, the number of adults claiming to be religious* evidently declined by 9 percent, with the number of atheists increasing by 3 percent.

The report itself highlights the especially striking decline of religious sentiments in Ireland, where the percentage claiming to be religious dropped from 69 to 47 of the adult population in this six-year span. Intriguingly, the number of self-professed atheists in Ireland dropped from 13% to 10% in the same period. These declines were made up by the large rise in the number of people claiming to be merely “non-religious,” which jumped from 25% to 44% of the Irish population. According to the WIN-Gallup data, Vietnam showed an even larger drop in the degree of religiosity during this period, from 53% to 30% of the adult population. The decline of religious belief in Ireland is often related to the sexual scandals of the Roman Catholic Church: those of Vietnam are much more difficult to explain. It is notable, however, that several other countries (Switzerland, France, South Africa) registered somewhat similar drops in religious belief.

Mapping the WIN-Gallup data reveals some interesting and unexpected patterns. Most striking is the low level of religious belief in Turkey; if the poll’s findings are to be accepted, 73 percent of Turks describe themselves as non-religious. The report itself finds such a situation difficult to credit, noting that:

Turkey … show[s] notable change since 2005. These changes are not from a faith to atheism but a shift from self- description of being ‘Religious’ to ‘Not Religious’. We have requested researchers … to investigate reasons which might explain this extra-ordinary shift.

I suspect that this mystery stems from changes in the manner in which the question is interpreted by respondents: even if one fully accepts the tenets of a given religion, one might still consider oneself to be, relatively speaking, “not a religious person” if one is regularly exposed to other people who are far more devout. Many signs indicate that marked religious devotion has been increasing among certain segments of the Turkish population, which may account for the seeming drop in religiosity for the population as a whole.

A similar slippage in the understanding of what it means to be “a religious person” may also explain the fairly low religiosity figures recorded for the Palestinian Territories (65%) and even Saudi Arabia (75%), areas that, like Turkey, show low levels of atheism. Surprisingly, however, the poll indicates that the level of atheism in Saudi Arabia is essentially the same at that of the United States: 5%.

More expected is the poll’s discovery of pronounced irreligion in China and Japan, with 47% of Chinese respondents claiming to be “convinced atheists” and only 14% marking themselves as religious. In Japan, the corresponding figures are 31% and 16%. But despite these figures for China, much evidence suggests that religious practices are increasing in many areas of the country.

In regard to global patterns, the poll indicates an especially high level of religious belief in sub-Saharan Africa, although the data here are very spotty. This finding fits well with the report’s more general claim that “religiosity declines as worldly prosperity of individuals rises.” As the map shows, religious belief tends to be more pronounced in poorer Eastern Europe than in wealthier Western Europe, although the very low level shown for the Czech Republic in Central Europe is an outlier—and one that is also found in other assessments of religious belief. The very high levels of religiosity in Georgia and especially Armenia are also striking. Not surprisingly, the map shows high levels of religious belief in South Asia. The almost equally high level of religiosity indicated for South America is less expected.

*Question: “Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious person or a convinced atheist?”

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Extreme Salt Lakes Around the World

The world has many famous salt lakes. Central Asia’s Caspian and Aral Seas, alongside the Dead Sea between Jordan and Israel, are perhaps the best known. Utah’s Great Salt Lake and California’s Mono Lake and Salton Sea are also by no means obscure. These bodies of water are all fascinating in their own right, but by the standards of the world’s “hypersaline lakes”, they are amateurs. In fact, the world’s most extreme salt lakes are to be found not in a hot Afro-Eurasian desert, but in some of the coldest places of the Earth.

With about 98 percent of its surface buried by around a mile of ice and almost no precipitation of any kind away from its coast, Antarctica is just about the last place one would expect to find bodies of liquid water. Nevertheless, tiny Don Juan Pond (see image at left from Ross Sea Info) in the Antarctic region of Victoria Land manages to remain free of ice year-round through by means of its staggering salinity. Widely considered the saltiest lake in the world, Don Juan Pond boasts salinity twelve times that of ocean water, allowing it to stay liquid at temperatures well below -50°C. Don Juan Pond may be the most extreme Antarctic salt lake, but it is not alone. Much larger Lake Vanda maintains roughly ten times the salinity of seawater. Lake Vanda is the final destination of Antarctica’s largest river, the Onyx, which flows only for brief periods during the summer, and looks more like a small creek than a continent’s mightiest river. Unlike Don Juan Pond, Lake Vanda’s surface remains covered in ice year-round, though during the summer liquid water tends to collect around the edges of the lake.

Compared to the miles of ice that define most Antarctic terrain, Antarctica’s salt-lakes support a veritable cornucopia of life. The algal blooms that occasionally grow in Lake Vanda may not seem like much, but by the standards of inland Antarctica they are quite significant. Salt lakes outside of Antarctica are much more hospitable to life, but their high salinity tends to result in a lack of biological activity relative to freshwater counterparts.

Djibouti’s Lake Assal (source)

The saltiest lake outside of Antarctica is Djibouti’s Lake Assal. Lake Assal is about as salty as Lake Vanda, and its relatively large size makes it the world’s largest reserve of commercially exploitable sea salt. Positioned at the bottom of a volcanic crater, Lake Assal finds itself in an awkward position as both a key pillar of Djibouti’s economy and one of the country’s most prized environmental assets. Only bacteria can survive inside the lake, but there are a few shrubs that manage to grow nearby. Most of the lake’s inflow comes from the Red Sea through subterranean waterways, which makes sense given that the shores of Lake Assal are the lowest land in Africa at 155 meters below sea level.

Though Turkmenistan’s Garabogazköl Aylagy is not technically a lake—it is a lagoon connected to the Caspain Sea by a narrow inlet—it maintains a salt concentration even higher than that of Lake Assal. The hypersalinity of the lagoon is quite remarkable considering that the Caspian Sea itself is only about half as salty as ocean water. Virtually no water enters the lagoon from other sources, which, when combined high rates of evaporation, results in a staggering fast inflow of water from the Caspian (see this picture from Wikipedia). The lagoon was cut off from the Caspian and completely dried out in the 1980s in an effort to maintain the volume of the then-shrinking lake, but the effort backfired when salts from the dried seabed wafted over the surrounding landscape causing health and environmental damage similar to what was experienced around the Aral Sea. The lagoon was restored to its former extent in 1992, when concerns about the Caspian Sea began to fade.

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