Saturday, February 28, 2009

Global Piracy Map

Via the excellent BLDGBLOG, here is a map of pirate incidents from around the world.

The map is published by the International Chamber of Commerce's Commercial Crime Services Agency. It shows all the piracy and armed robbery incidents reported to the International Maritime Bureau during 2009. (Reports for the last four years are also available.) You can click on the thumbtacky marker thingies to get the incident details. Details like this:
12.02.2009: 0448 LT: Posn: 01:18.86N - 104:14.42E, Off Tanjung Bulat, Malaysia.

Five robbers in a wooden boat approached a bulk carrier at anchor. One of the robbers boarded the ship and attempted to steal ship's stores. Duty crew noticed the robber and informed bridge who raised the alarm, sounded ship's horn and informed ships in the vicinity via VHF Ch.16. The robber jumped overboard and escaped empty handed with his accomplices.
Or this:
22.02.2009: 0400 UTC: Posn: 12:33.98N - 047:01.32E, Gulf of Aden.

Armed pirates attacked a bulk carrier underway. They boarded the ship, took hostage crewmembers and hijacked it to an undisclosed location. Further details are awaited.
Or this:
21.02.2009: 1900 UTC: Posn: 14:31.1N - 053:43.1E, Gulf of Aden.

Pirates in an unlit high-speed boat chased a general cargo ship underway. The boat came close to the ship and attempted to board. Master raised alarm, increased speed, took evasive manoeuvres, crew switched on additional lighting and activated fire hoses. The pirates aborted the attempt due to the evasive manoeuvres taken by the ship.

The ICC's CCS's IMB reports do make for some entertaining reading. What you can sort of infer is that there are two classes of pirates: most of these scalliwags and buccaneers are sort of opportunistic or hapless - they're just engaging in glorified muggings-at-sea. And then there are the dudes working the Gulf of Aden. As you can see, this is where the lion's share of incidents have occurred. And it's the only area that's seen actual hijackings in 2009 (and it's had some really high-profile ones over the last few months, too). This situation seems to be quite different from a few years ago. In 2005, the waters off Somalia were a nettlesome area, but by far the most action was in Indonesian waters and the Strait of Malacca. Given the essentially governmentless condition of Somalia, it's not surprising that piracy has skyrocketed there. But I wonder why it has fallen so much in Southeast Asia.

For more, this report summarizes the state of piracy in the world today.

Friday, February 27, 2009

A Map of Global Warming

A team of MIT researchers has just come out with a new projection of climate change over the course of the 21st Century.

Is this a map? I guess it's both a map and a graph. Anyways, it's a little tricky to read it at first, but look at it this way: every point on the map/graph represents a particular latitude and a particular year; the color of that point represents how much warmer it's likely to be at that given place and time. So, for instance, a location at 40 degrees north latitude (e.g., New York, Madrid, Beijing) is forecast to be about 2C warmer in 2050 and about 6C warmer in 2100. No doubt lots of local effects will come into play, but these temperatures would represent the latitudinal average.

What's immediately striking is how much greater warming is forecast to be near the poles, and especially the north pole. Temperatures there could be more than 10C warmer by the end of the century, a mind-boggling number. And a special added bonus effect of a dramatically warmer acrtic is that the melting of tundra could cause even more greenhouse gases to escape into the atmosphere, instigating a vicious cycle.

The projections are warmer than those made using the same model in 2003. As the paper's abstract says:
the median surface warming in 2091 to 2100 is 5.1°C compared to 2.4°C in the earlier study. Many changes contribute to the stronger warming; among the more important ones are taking into account the cooling in the second half of the 20th century due to volcanic eruptions for input parameter estimation and a more sophisticated method for projecting GDP growth which eliminated many low emission scenarios. However, if recently published data, suggesting stronger 20th century ocean warming, are used to determine the input climate parameters, the median projected warning at the end of the 21st century is only 4.1°C. Nevertheless all our simulations have a very small probability of warming less than 2.4°C
And what would a 4-5C rise in temperature look like?
Globally, a 4C temperature rise would have a catastrophic impact.

According to the government's 2006 Stern review on the economics of climate change, between 7 million and 300 million more people would be affected by coastal flooding each year, there would be a 30-50% reduction in water availability in Southern Africa and the Mediterranean, agricultural yields would decline 15 to 35% in Africa and 20 to 50% of animal and plant species would face extinction.
That's one of the somewhat optimistic scenarios in the MIT report. And the image above depicts a middle-of-the-road model for both climate change and economic development. But there's been a tendency for observed changes in climate patterns and sea ice to push the upper bounds of what scientists have been predicting. If that continues to be the case, then a merely catastrophic outcome may be the best that we can hope for.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Endangered Languages

UNESCO has just come out with a fascinating new resource: an Interactive Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger.

The atlas lists some 2,500 languages worldwide, including 230 that have gone extinct since 1950. Languages are rated on a scale from unsafe to extinct, according to these criteria:

Safe: language is spoken by all generations; intergenerational transmission is uninterrupted
Unsafe: most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g., home)
Definitely Endangered: children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home
Severaly Endangered: language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves
Critically Endangered: the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently
Extinct: there are no speakers left

As you might expect, the coutries with the most endangered languages tend to be those with the greatest linguistic diversity. They also tend to be the areally largest countries, especially those with diverse indigenous populations that are under pressure from homogenizing cultural forces. India has the most endangered languages, with 196, followed closely by the United States with 191, and Brazil with 190. Indonesia, Mexico, China, Russia, and Australia all also have more than 100, and linguistic powerhouse Papua New Guinea has 98.

But what is striking to me is just how widespread the distribution of endangered languages is. There are endangered languages is places I would never have expected them - Western Europe, for instance, has dozens of endangered languages, from Griko to Walloon to Sorbian; Italy alone has 31.

Languages are always coming and going, of course, and probably will continue to do so as long as there are people. But due to the forces of urbanization and globalization, more have been going than coming lately. Since Columbus showed up in the New World, for instance, 115 languages have died out in what is now the United States out of an original 280 - most recently Eyak, a native Alaskan language which Marie Smith Jones took with her to the grave in 2008.

As with the disappearance of a species, there's something heartbreaking about the loss of a language. It represents an irreversible diminution of the diversity and fecundity of the human cultural legacy; languages are the conduits for the traditions and wisdom which are collectively held by a people, and when a language blinks out from the world, those things die along with it. The site captures something of this poignancy, and the challenge to the identities of endangered language speakers, with a poem by Alitet Nemtushkin, an Evenki poet:
If I forget my native speech,
And the songs that my people sing
What use are my eyes and ears?
What use is my mouth?

If I forget the smell of the earth
And do not serve it well
What use are my hands?
Why am I living in the world?

How can I believe the foolish idea
That my language is weak and poor
If my mother’s last words
Were in Evenki?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Renewable Energy and the Electrical Grid

Matt Yglesias posts a simple but interesting map of the United States' high-voltage electricity grid.

Yglesias quotes Bracken Hendricks, who says in an article for the Center for American Progress:
Although the United States has vast onshore wind resources—more than enough to supply 20 percent of the nation’s electricity demand by 2030, according to a recent Department of Energy study—the best of these wind resources are located primarily in remote regions of the country. These areas are generally located far from major centers of electricity demand and have little or no access to the “backbone” extra- high-voltage transmission lines that would be required in order to transmit power efficiently from these regions to major electricity markets.
Indeed, if you compare the power lines to the areas with wind and solar energy potential, it almost looks like they were trying to avoid those areas, especially the windy ones, as these maps from Hendricks' article show:

Of course, the people who built the grid weren't trying to avoid those areas - renewable energy production just wasn't a concern back then. This is a problem the United States has in a lot of areas - it was a world leader at building infrastructure back in the day, but all that once-state-of-the-art stuff is now getting old and obsolete. But instead of just throwing up a whole new infrastructure, like China can do in many cases, the US has to work with and around all the stuff that's already there. It's like learning to dance in middle age: the process is clumsy, slow, and generally awkward for everyone involved.

UPDATE: Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag just said this at a press conference:
In energy, reduce dependency on foreign oil and improve operational efficiency of gov't by 25% by 2013. $15 billion/year in energy efficiency investments, including creating an electricity superhighway that would allow transportation of wind energy from the Dakotas to the population centers that need the energy. This expenditure would be financed through cap-and-trade, in a "market-friendly" way.
You see the sort of influence this blog has?

Google Earth Map of CO2 Emissions in the US

This is a bummer:
A NASA satellite to track carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere failed to reach its orbit during launching Tuesday morning, scuttling the $278 million mission.

“It’s a huge disappointment to the entire team that’s worked very hard over years and years and really did their best to see it through,” said Charles P. Dovale, the launch manager. “The reason not everyone is able to do this is it’s hard. And even when you do the best you can, you can still fail. It’s a tough business.”
On the bright side, NASA and some Purdue scientists, working on something called the Vulcan Project, just launched a new Google Earth map that lets you see the amount of CO2 being emitted in the United States every hour. (The Purdue folks are the ones who put together this impressive map animation.) Here is a demonstration flyover:

It shows information about emissions at the state and county levels, and even gives information on specific source points, such as airports. It also breaks down emissions by sector, showing relative contributions from air traffic, electricity production, industry, commercial, transportation, and residential sources. It really does a good job of helping the viewer visualize carbon emissions - a sort of nebulous and abstract thing to try to think about - and that may prove to make it a very valuable tool in public efforts to decrease those emissions. You can download the Google Earth map at this site (though it ran a bit slow for me). And by the way, kudos to the Purdue folks for picking a badass name for their research project. You gotta know how to market this stuff, people!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Temperature Anomalies and Global Warming

Weather Underground updates this map every month.

It shows the temperature anomalies around the globe for January 2009 relative to the average between 1961 and 1990. As has usually been the case over the last ten or fifteen years, the global average temperature was above average for the month; it was the 7th warmest January on record, in fact. (And look at Siberia: it's been looking like that a lot lately - the climate seems to be changing there really dramatically.) However, among the few areas of the world that were below average were Western Europe and the Northeastern and Midwestern United States. For the US as a whole, it was only the 59th warmest January out of the last 114. (Note, too, the coolish temperatures over the central Pacific: a symptom of La Nina.)

One inevitable consequence of cold snaps during the winter is that global warming skeptics will say sarcastic things about the weather. And some people become more receptive to denialist claims - claims by people like George Will who recently wrote a denialist editorial that was pretty much entirely composed of falsehoods. But of course the fact that the temperature of the planet is gradually rising doesn't mean there will never again be any temperatures anywhere that are below average - and you can see clearly enough that a significant cold snap in some of the densely populated parts of the industrialized world is perfectly consistent with the world having temperatures somewhere in the neighborhood of the 5% warmest ever.

Ricky Rood makes a related point at his blog on Weather Underground, where he shows these maps of the continental US temperature anomalies from the Januaries of 2008 (top) and 2009. It so happened that in 2008, most of the big cities in the US were warmer than average, and this year they were colder (the major exception being the cities on the west coast). Overall, though, the months were similar for the country as a whole, and near average. But for two reasons, the denialists have had more fodder this year: 1) the colder weather disproportionately hit the places where lots of people live - if the map were a cartogram (which would make no sense) it would be overwhelmingly blue, including in big media centers where opinions tend to get amplified; and 2) the colder weather this year hit places that are naturally colder, which makes it seem more dramatic. Record lows in Oregon are gonna be chilly for the folks there, but not freezing; it's a lot more startling when it hits -40 degrees in Maine. As Rood says, "I don’t remember a lot of rhetoric that 'global warming is spurious' coming out in 2008, from say, Seattle."

Well, these points probably seem obvious to most people. And for that committed minority who don't believe in anthropogenic global warming, there is an entire industrial-media apparatus (of which George Will is obviously a card-carrying member) designed to confirm their views, and no amount of data is likely to win them over. But maps like these are still a good corrective to the impulse we all have to extrapolate global trends from the anecdotal events we read about in the news.

Mapping the News

Some dude named Chris found a cool screensaver that maps the news in real time. He discusses it here.

The screensaver is billed as "an indispensable tool for the global newsjunkie!" It's sort of a cross between the crawl at the bottom of BBC news broadcasts and the light-bright background of the Larry King show. You can get it here.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Place of the Week: Nauru

The possibly misguided continuation of the Place of the Week series takes us this time to an erstwhile paradise in the South Pacific: the Micronesian microstate of Nauru.

Status: Independent Republic
Area: 21 sq. km.
Population: 13,770
Unemployment rate: 90%
Rank, in GDP, among the world's nations in the early 1980s: 2
Rank today, according to the CIA World Factbook: 141

The tragic story of the island nation of Nauru begins in the digestive tracts of countless generations of sea birds. Those were the production facilities of what would become one of the world's most valuable commodities: bird shit. Or at least, it would become very valuable after being deposited in copious quantities over millions of years and reacting with the uplifted coral that formed the structure of the island to become phosphate, from whence comes phospohorus, which has many industrial and agricultural uses, including as a key component of fertilizer.

Turns out that the combination of Nauru's geology and its ecology allowed the island's phosphate deposits to become some of the largest and highest-quality deposits in the world. Mining began in the early 20th Century, when Nauru was a colony of Germany. The island would go through periods as a possession of Australia, Japan, and the UN before becoming the world's smallest independent nation in 1968 - and all the while, the mining continued.

It was an absolute bonanza. The small population of the island gained enormous wealth from its phosphate exports. By the early 1980s, the country had the second-highest per capita income in the world, after the United Arab Emirates. And, like the UAE today, the country was not ashamed to spend the wealth it derived from its natural resources. People chartered planes to go on international shopping trips around the Pacific Rim. The country imported fancy sports cars, even though the entire nation can be circumnavigated by bicycle in an hour and a half and the highest speed limit on the island is 25 mph. The nouveau riche Nauruans were living the good life and profiting from a natural bounty that seemed to be a limitless gift from God.

Unfortunately, the island's good fortune did not extend to its investments of that wealth, to the extent that investments were even made:
"We just didn't know how to handle it all," a barefoot islander told me as he played his guitar beneath a tree.

"Hardly anyone thought of investing the money. Dollar notes were even used as toilet paper," his friend told me. "It's true," he insisted seeing my look of disbelief. "It was like every day was party day."
The world's most dubious investors - from the nefarious to the clueless - saw in Nauru a likely target for their financial schemes. One advisor to the Republic of Nauru convinced the government to invest in Leonardo the Musical: A Portrait of Love, a West End production that would go down as one of the most spectacular flops in the history of the London stage. The country also made various real estate investments around the world that would be gradually vaporized by corruption and mismanagement. And when the nation finally took a break from its decades-long party to look around itself, it made a discovery: the phosphate - the source of all the good times - was nearly gone, and so was the money.

The country has tried other means to keep its financially foundering fortunes afloat. It went the route of other island nations by trying to make it as a tax haven and money laundering center, though pressure from the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering quickly scotched that plan. And in 2001, a Norwegian boat carrying a cargo of human refugees, including some from Afghanistan, was diverted from Australia to Nauru; in exchange for keeping the refugees in a detention center on the island, Australia threw Nauru a lifeline of financial aid. Australia decided to close the facility in 2008, and its unclear how the island will deal with the consequent shock to its now refugee detention-based economy.

Meanwhile, mining has left the once pristine nation comprehensively denuded. A thin limn of foliage clings to the edge of the island, but almost the entire interior - 90% of the island - has been rendered a wasteland. The country, having squan- dered its resources and its wealth, is now left without even a healthy natural environment from which to rebuild.

Nauru's tale is the story of a population whistling past the graveyard as it gradually depletes the finite resource on which its economy and its society depends, preferring to live extravagantly without considering what might happen when that resource inevitably disappears.

Feel free to draw your own lessons.

UPDATE: NPR's This American Life had a really good episode a little while back about Nauru. Here's the link.

Gas Prices in the US

Gas Buddy has an interactive map of gasoline prices for every county in the 48 most important states in the US.

You can also zoom in to see even more fine-grain data, like this. Handy! You can know just what neighborhood, and even what specific gas station in town to go to to get the cheapest gas. At the broader scale, you can clearly see the effect state-level policies have on the price of gas - something that not a few New York drivers who live close to the New Jersey state line are keenly aware of. As usual, the West Coast leads the way on priciness, thanks mostly to higher taxes in those states (though those of you in Europe will chortle at $2.20/gallon being considered "pricey" - it generally costs several times as much in England, for instance).

And, while prices are barely half of what they were last summer, before the global economy (and therefore global demand) did it's coyote-over-the-cliff impersonation, they're starting to creep up again. Weirdly, though, this is despite the fact that oil prices continue to fall. What gives? This, evidently:
The benchmark for crude oil prices is West Texas Intermediate, drilled exactly where you would imagine. That's the price, set at the New York Mercantile Exchange, that you see quoted on business channels and in the morning paper.

Right now, in an unusual market trend, West Texas crude is selling for much less than inferior grades of crude from other places around the world. A severe economic downturn has left U.S. storage facilities brimming with it, sending prices for the premium crude to five-year lows.

But it is the overseas crude that goes into most of the gas made in the United States. So prices at the pump will probably keep going up no matter what happens to the benchmark price of crude oil.
Even oil drilled in North Dakota and Canada is going for about $10 more per barrel than the stuff from Texas, which accounts for the higher prices in the northern Great Plains.

Of course, the prices paid at the pump are only the direct costs of gasoline. There are also the indirect costs of a massive military apparatus which is necessary to maintain access to oil supplies in the middle east; the cost to human development of oil-funded rights-suppressing governments from Africa to Asia; and the long-term and incalculable costs of the global warming processes that are being furthered every time we fill up our tanks. Those costs don't mount on a spinny little dial right before our eyes, so we tend not to count them, of course. But they are very real, and growing with every passing year.

Having said that, gas in the US is still extraordinarily cheap. Consider:

Refined gasoline costs less than bottled water. (UPDATE: see comments for a different take on this point) Prices have a lot of room to grow. And with a commodity as inherently valuable as oil, the chances are near to certain that, in the long run, they will.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

More Human Evolution Maps

Love this graphic from Mike Rosulek. He has a few other designs, too. And they're purchasable - you can buy the t-shirt! He's donating revenues from the sales to the NCSE, which is committed to "defending the teaching of evolution in public schools." Of course, if you're a creationist, you might try something else... maybe a portrait of Jesus Christ with the title "Maverick"? Hmm, that could probably sell, come to think of it. Maybe I ought to open a Zazzle account...

Anyways, to the maps. These again come from from the Washington Post via Kelso's Corner: a graphic, put together by Patterson Clark, recounting some of the changes in the human genotype over the past few thousand years. It ran on Darwin's birthday, according to KC, though this might be an intricate deception as I can't actually find the link at the Post's website. Regardless, the maps are pretty interesting.

There's more at Kelso's Corner, including a map showing the evolution of lactose tolerance.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

"Obama's War"

Kelso's Corner points to this graphic (pdf) from the Washington Post detailing what it calls "Obama's War": the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan to which Obama has committed to add troops, even as he moves to remove them from Iraq. Here's an inset:

The graphic, by Gene Thorp and Patterson Clark, has lots of graphs and charts which describe the all-around quagmirriffic situation there. It's striking how much worse the situation has gotten in Afghanistan over the years. Why, it's almost as if going to war in Iraq distracted the US from the fight against the actual people who were responsible for the September 11th attacks.

But it's far from obvious that throwing more troops at Afghanistan will be enough to resolve the problems there. It seems likely to me - and bear in mind that I'm a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and also the editor of Foreign Policy - that in the long run, the war in Afghanistan is as unwinnable as the one in Iraq. The US and NATO have a moral responsibility to limit the suffering and ensure the maximum freedom of the people there, as well as a profound security interest in seeing that Al Qaeda is kept in check. But delivering actual long-term security and stability in the region, with democratic, pro-western governments in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, may be a bridge too far. What, then, should the goals be? I'm not really sure, but hopefully Obama et al. are acting on some pretty clear and concrete conception of what they want the outcome to be. Otherwise Afghanistan could degenerate into Iraq II. And that would be awful for about thirty billion different reasons.

Thank you for joining me for another edition of "pontificating on subjects I know next to nothing about."

By the way, there's been very little military action in the area around Parachinar, Pakistan. Don't they know that that's where bin Laden is hiding?

A Phantasmagoria of Economic Data

This title exaggerates. I just wanted to be the first person in the history of the English language to write that phrase. Still, the dismal scientists who put together this interactive web tool from the OECD have found a way to present an awful lot of information about the economies of OECD nations. Here's an image from their map of Europe:

It's mostly interesting in that you can compare intranational regions internationally, if you see what I'm saying. Like, in the image above, you can compare per capita GDP in Bretagne not just to GDP in other regions of France, but to Yorkshire, Calabria, and Istanbul as well. Its graphics for Europe are especially interesting, since there's such a broad range of development among European nations - broader than you might think - and also the sub-national territories are mostly small, so the data is pretty fine-grained. You can also roll over all those various regions, bundeslander, and voivodeships to get a raft of demographic and economic data, and you can do so for the other OECD regions as well: Canada/US/Mexico, Japan/S. Korea, and Australia/New Zealand. Also: scatter plots - and that's all I'm going to say about that.

The OECD, in case you were wondering, is a group of 30 nations that are characterizzed by a high level of economic and human development, and a general commitment to democratic principles. If you were wondering further how it is that countries like Mexico and Turkey finagled their way into the group while Argentina, Chile and Brazil were left out - well, I'm sorry. I can't help you. I can't explain it. But I can report that, according to Wikipedia, in 2007 "the OECD Ministerial Council decided to open accession discussions with Chile, Estonia, Israel, the Russian Federation and Slovenia." One or two of those countries strike me as having less than a hearty commitment to democratic principles, but what do I know.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Water on Mars? Eh, Maybe So. Plus: Exoplanets!

Some pictures taken last May by the Mars Phoenix Lander may show water droplets on the leg of the craft:
Phoenix landed near Mars's north pole last May, and several "self portraits" taken to assess the craft's health show material spattered on the legs.

This substance is probably saline mud that splashed up as the craft landed, study leader and Phoenix co-investigator Nilton Renno of the University of Michigan told National Geographic News.

Salt in the mud then absorbed water vapor from the atmosphere, forming the watery drops, Renno said.

Of course, it was already known that there was water underground on Mars, as shown in this detailed map of "water-equivalent hydrogen," based on data from the Mars Odyssey. This map ought to roughly correspond to amounts of water in the Martian soil.

In other astromapping news, I just found out about the Kepler mission - a NASA project that's scheduled to launch on March 6th. It's going to be looking for earth-sized planets in a large chunk of the milky way (and by large, I mean small - it will only be a narrow sector of one arm of the milky way; and by small, I mean unimaginably vast - because even this small slice of the galaxy contains over 100,000 stars). This galaxy map shows the Kepler search space (as well as our location in the milky way, in case you were curious). The mission will be using the transit method - watching for fluctuations in the brightness of stars that would indicate an Earth-sized planet is passing in front of the star. For this to work for a given star, that means the planet has to be orbiting on a plane that's lined up with the Kepler craft; otherwise a planet might be there and Kepler'd never see it. The odds of a planet lining up in this way for a given star are about 1 in 210. So...
the 1 in 210 probability means that if 100% of stars observed had Earth-like terrestrial planets, Kepler would find about 480 of them. The mission is therefore ideally suited to determine the frequency of Earth-like planets around other stars.
In other words, if this project works out, we ought to be able to determine roughly how many other Earths are out there. Fun stuff.

Biogeographers Find Osama bin Laden

He's right here - in Parachinar, Pakistan:

Now, admittedly, they only found him in theory - island biogeographic and distance-decay theories, in fact. John Tierney discusses it all here. The finding is described in a paper (pdf) by some UCLA geography professors. Tierney quotes the paper's explanation of the relevance of geographical theory:
Distance-decay theory states that as one goes further away from a precise location, there is an exponential decline in the turnover of species and a lower probability of finding the same composition of species. The theory of island biogeography states that large and close islands will have higher immigration rates and support more species with lower extinction rates than small isolated islands.

These theories can be applied over varying spatial scales to posit bin Laden’s current location based on his last reputed geographic location. Distance-decay theory would predict that he is closest to the point where he was last reported and, by extension, within a region that has a similar physical environment and cultural composition (that is, similar religious and political beliefs).
Basically, it's more likely for a species (or an individual) to be found close to where they were previously found, and more likely to be found in a more closely connected and regionally integrated location.

A doubt comes to mind - a thought that this biogeographic method might not be the most translatable to the situation of an internationally-wanted terrorist and political icon. After all, bird species on islands generally aren't trying to hide from NATO military forces. But the researchers argue that bin Laden needs decent access to resources, including electricity for his dialysis machine, so a town is a more likely hiding place. (It's true that a house or a barn is as good as a cave for hiding from satellites and drone aircraft.) And they expect that it would be a larger town "rather than a smaller and more isolated town where the extinction rate would be higher." They use the distance-decay model to narrow it down further:
When we applied a distance-decay model to his last known location from 2001, the FATA – or Federally Administered Tribal Area – of Kurram had the highest probability of hosting bin Laden (98%) (Figure 3). There were 26 city islands within a 20-km radius of his last known location in northwestern Kurram. Parachinar figured as the largest and the fourth-least isolated city (Figure 4). Nightlight imagery also shows that Parachinar is the closest city to his last known location and by far the brightest city by nightlight intensity in Kurram

You can see Parachinar here - it's that little dab of light just south of the red dot marking the last place bin Laden was known to have been.

The geographers even go on to suggest specific buildings based on bin Laden's "life characteristics" - he's tall (needs high ceilings), needs a dialysis machine (electricity), prefers high walls (bit of an agoraphobe), needs several rooms (bodyguards), and likes shady trees (satellites, you know). The most likely candidate turns out to be:

See, CIA? That wasn't so hard.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Walkability of US Cities

The very nice site Walk Score not only lists the 40 largest US cities by walkability, it provides heat maps of all of them so you can see where the most walkable neighborhoods are. Here, for instance, is Seattle:

And this is what the walk scores mean:

* 90–100 = Walkers' Paradise: Most errands can be accomplished on foot and many people get by without owning a car.
* 70–89 = Very Walkable: It's possible to get by without owning a car.
* 50–69 = Somewhat Walkable: Some stores and amenities are within walking distance, but many everyday trips still require a bike, public transportation, or car.
* 25–49 = Car-Dependent: Only a few destinations are within easy walking range. For most errands, driving or public transportation is a must.
* 0–24 = Car-Dependent (Driving Only): Virtually no neighborhood destinations within walking range. You can walk from your house to your car!
Seattle, by the way, is the 6th most walkable city in the US. Top honors go to San Francisco, followed, not unpredictably, by New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia; Washington, DC is seventh and Portland is 10th. More surprising, maybe, is that Long Beach and Los Angeles come in at 8th and 9th respectively, despite the latter's epitomization of car-centric development. And the least walkable city in America? Jacksonville, Florida. (By the way, I have a pet theory that Jacksonville doesn't actually exist.)

The methodology does have one flaw, though. The rankings are based on an average within a city's borders, which introduces an element of arbitrariness. For instance, San Francisco actually has a pretty tiny land area; the urban conurbation extends well beyond its political borders, and almost all of the measured area is part of the urban core. Whereas El Paso, for instance - though it wouldn't be ranked high by any measure - is given an even worse ranking due to the fact that much of the area within its city limits is actually comprised of an uninhabited mountain range, driving down its walkability average. (UPDATE: Oops - turns out I was wrong about this. From Walk Score's methodology page: "We weight the Walk Score of each point by population density so that the walkability rankings reflect where people live and so that neighborhoods/cities do not have lower Walk Scores because of parks, bodies of water, etc." However, using city limits still does introduce some level of arbitrariness, since city limits of older and denser cities, like San Francisco and Boston, tend to be smaller, encompassing only the urban core; whereas a lot of younger Sun Beltish cities, like Houston or, indeed, El Paso, have incorporated suburbs. And that drives the walkability average up for the older, denser cities (which are the most walkable anyway, by and large) and drives it down for the (already less walkable) newer, sprawlier cities. So there you go.)

Still, the maps are great; I think it might be the single best measure of the success of urban communities, simply because it measures the extent to which cities are built for people, rather than for cars - and people are, you know, sort of the raison d'etre of urban environments. Now if only they had maps for cities in other countries - the comparisons would be fascinating.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Freeway Dreams: Failed Efforts to Destroy Urban America

It's well known that in the middle of the 20th Century, the US went on an absolute binge of freeway construction. It's been good for commerce and the construction industry, but the unintended consequences for cities have been severe: the destruction of vibrant urban communities to make way for freeways; the inexorable spread of suburban placelessness; traffic jams; pollution. Particularly pernicious were the frequent instances of low-income or minority neighborhoods being leveled to make way for these high-speed commuter roads out to the suburbs. If you have urbanist tendencies, you probably see the freeway system as the greatest crime committed against urban design in the last century. Seen from this perspective, it's easy to look back at the 1950s and '60s as a time when the freeway builders, and their urban planning patrons such as Robert Moses, had unchecked power to will the demolition of whole neighborhoods.

But there were actually all sorts of concerted efforts to stop the bulldozers in those days; and what's more, these freeway revolts even succeeded on occasion, as discussed at Greater Greater Washington. See, for instance, this plan to thoroughly cross-hatch San Francisco with freeways. In the face of public pressure, which began as early as 1955, more than 80% of these roads never got built:

In fact, San Francisco continues to tear down what freeways it does have within its city limits; its the only major city to lose freeway miles since 1990.

There was a major plan to build an inner ring in Boston, too:

Public opposition put the kibosh on that one in the early seventies. (The only portion of the plan that was completed - the Central Artery - became a notorious eyesore, and was itself demolished in the nineties and re-built underground in a project known as the Big Dig, which project was itself an enormous debacle for all sorts of reasons. So you see that the original freeway plan set off a sort of catalytic chain of fiascos.)

Other places weren't so fortunate; in Houston, among many other cities, an inner ring was built around the central business district, coincidentally enough running right through some of the city's most historic black neighborhoods. Funny how that always seemed to happen with these freeway plans. Though even some minority neighborhoods mounted successful efforts to fight off the highwaymen, even in Houston itself, where the Harrisburg Freeway, which would have bisected the city's mostly Hispanic East End was scuttled. And the campaign in Washington, DC that spawned this announcement was also a success:

Jane Jacobs led the fight against freeways in New York, though her great urbanist screed, The Death and Life of Great American Cities,wasn't published until 1961, and the tide didn't turn against Robert Moses & co.'s freeway plans for NYC until they had mostly been enacted. Only the finishing touches on the city's freeway sytem - the dashed lines in the map below, plus the Lower Manhattan Freeway that would have obliterated most of SoHo and the Lower East Side - were halted.

Despite Moses' success in re-building the city as a place for cars rather than people, New York is still the most thoroughgoingly urban city in North America, with the largest and arguably most successful public transit system. That is either a testament to New York's resilience in the face of efforts to re-shape it, or an indictment of the rest of America's cities for failing to provide successful urban environments for their people.

: A commenter links to a map of Portland's thwarted freeways. The city, which had commissioned none other than Robert Moses to design its highway plan, was definitely at the vanguard of the freeway revolt movement. The author of that post makes a good point:
We’re lucky to have escaped the fate of many other cities — but I hope we are not getting ready, with the Columbia River Crossing project and all the stimulus spending in our near future, to make some of the same mistakes that we avoided forty years ago.

Real Estate Prices in NYC

And what the hell - here's one more map of Gotham. This one, from Curbed, shows property prices in New York City per square foot.

Notice that three-fourths of Manhattan is essentially uninhabitable by any sort of normal person. Note too, though, that these prices are from 2006, before the real estate bubble popped. And Wall Street bankers are not doing quite so well these days. It'd be interesting to see what the map would look like today.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Growth of the NYC Subway

It's New York City day here at The Map Scroll! Here's a link to an animated map that shows the growth of the NYC subway over time, from Appealing Industries (via Spacing Toronto).

Unfortunately there's no time legend, which would have seemed like a no-brainer to include. Still a very interesting animation, though. And if you want to see about eleventy billion more maps from throughout the history of the NYC subway, go here.

And as a bonus, here's another one from Spacing Toronto of Toronto's own (admittedly less exciting) subway map.

Killer Circles Invade New York City

The Digital Atlas of New York City, put together by William A. Bowen of California State University, Northridge, has a bunch of interesting maps of the Big Whatsit. This, for instance, is from the map showing the distribution of the black population in NYC:

(By the way, does that pattern look familiar?) The atlas also has maps showing income, education, and ancestry - you can see which parts of the city Dutch or Dominicans have settled in, for instance. The only drawback is that it's a bit dated. It's a problem for demographic maps for the US in 2009: the decennial census is a year away, so everything's based on data that's 9 years old.

Ah, and just now I notice that Bowen has similar atlases of Seattle, DC, Boston, Chicago, Honolulu, LA, San Francisco, San Diego, and Sacramento, as well. And also a bunch of other maps. So there you go.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Place of the Week: Sealand

It's another edition of the possibly inadvisable series, Place of the Week. Today I give you: the littlest and most oxymoronically named (micro-)nation on Earth, Sealand.

Status: ambiguous
Form of government: constitutional monarchy
Founded: 2 September 1967
Area: 0.06 sq. km.
Population: 27
Sex ratio: 4.4 males/female
Per capita GDP, if you take their word for it: $22,200 US

In 1967, Paddy Roy Bates was just another run-of-the-mill Army major-cum-fisherman-cum-pirate radio operator, minding his own business and blithely disregarding British broadcasting law. But the British - sticklers for things like laws (especially British ones) - were none too keen on Bates' activites, and they convicted him on a charge of radio piracy. Now, it's common knowledge that getting tried and convicted in a court of law leaves a man with two clear options: 1) go to jail; or 2) abscond to an abandoned WWII-era naval defense platform in international waters, claim you've founded a new nation and declare yourself royal prince. It takes a certain sort of person to determine that, of these two options, the latter is clearly superior. And Bates was that sort of person.

The HM Fort Roughs was a pontoon base dropped onto a sandbar by the UK military in international waters off the coast of Essex. The unmellifluously-named base continued to serve as perhaps the least exotic outpost of the waning British Empire until 1956, when the Brits evidently just lost interest in it and left. This was all to the good for Bates of course, who, 11 years later, would find in Fort Roughs an inviting sanctuary from his legal troubles, not to mention a likely platform for continuing his pirate radio operations. (And never mind that the place had already been occupied by a rival crew of radio pirates; Bates physically evicted the squatters, apparently with no great effort.)

It isn't clear that Bates knew right away what he had. But after talking to a lawyer, he determined that the UK government's abandonment of the installation in international waters constituted a dereliction of sovereignty. The (perhaps bemused) British military sought to suppress this minor kerfuffle in 1968, sending out a vessel to politely re-enfold Sealand into the apron of its empire. Bates' son Michael fired a warning shot at the craft, and by and by Roy was arrested when next he set foot on English soil. He argued that the court had no authority to bring charges, as he was a sovereign entity in international waters and, charmingly, he won his case.

From that point on, Sealand pursued a course of nation-building. A constitution was enacted in 1975; a flag was designed and an anthem was written; postage stamps, currency, and passports were issued. And Sealand chose a motto: E Mare Libertas - from the sea, freedom.

Of course, in international relations, peace is never more than an interregnum between wars, and it wouldn't be long before the tranquillity of the young and absurdly small nation would be tested. In the summer of 1978, Roy and his wife were enticed to Austria by the prospect of a business deal with a group of Dutch and German diamond dealers. The meeting never materialized, however, and meanwhile a group of nefarious Dutchmen were abducting Michael and dropping him off, sans passport and pennies, somewhere in the Netherlands; they were assisted by Alexander G. Achenbach, the turncoat prime minister of Sealand who had been appointed by Roy Bates. Following this disastrous turn of events, it was clear what the Bateses had to do:
The Bates family enlisted armed assistance, including a helicopter pilot who had done some work on James Bond movies, and headed back to Sealand to storm the fortress and take back their country. When they arrived, Michael slid down the rope onto the deck armed with a shotgun, and fired a shot. The intruders quickly surrendered, and were held as prisoners of war until their home countries petitioned for their release.
Achenbach was subsequently held for treason, and wasn't released until a visit by a German diplomat (which visit, Bates argued, constituted de facto recognition by the German government). Achenbach would go on to establish a government-in-exile in Germany, claiming the title "Chairman of the Privy Council."

Times have been fairly quiet since the War of '78. Roy and his wife, Princess Joan, have retired to Spain, though Roy maintains his status as sovereign, along with his son Michael. Plans for an online casino are afoot. Challenges to the sovereignty of Sealand are occasionally levied, such as this one by one 'King Marduk' of Germany. But more than 40 years after its founding, the greatest micronation in the history of the world persists.

For more information, visit the official website of Sealand.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Geography of Economic Tumult

The Atlantic has put up a series of interactive maps that let you track the relative economic power and influence of US cities over time.

The maps accompany an article by urbanist and pop sociologist Richard Florida. He makes a bunch of interesting predictions about the effects the economic meltdown will have on the geography of the United States. He thinks, for instance, that New York is positioned to come out okay - better than a lot of places, at least - thanks to its economic and cultural diversity. (Despite being the epicenter of the financial collapse, only 8% of New York's jobs are in finance; compare that to 18% in Des Moines, Iowa.) Indeed, he writes:
While the crisis may have begun in New York, it will likely find its fullest bloom in the interior of the country—in older, manufacturing regions whose heydays are long past and in newer, shallow-rooted Sun Belt communities whose recent booms have been fueled in part by real-estate speculation, overdevelopment, and fictitious housing wealth. These typically less affluent places are likely to become less wealthy still in the coming years, and will continue to struggle long after the mega-regional hubs and creative cities have put the crisis behind them.
The Rust Belt - the cities built on manufacturing in the 19th and 20th centuries, from Buffalo to St. Louis - is especialy likely to take it on the chin, and perhaps to never fully recover. More surprising is that the Sun Belt might get hit pretty hard as well. The vast arc of fast-growing states in the south and west will have some winners, like Charlotte and Austin, which have been adding jobs in the "creative class" sector. But the growth of other cities, like Las Vegas and Phoenix, has been mostly driven by construction and real estate - essentially, their growth has been based on their growth, which is not the most sustainable model in a recession.

Florida also makes prescriptions for the future, arguing that the suburban model of urban growth is past its prime and ill-suited to the developing creative economy; that homeownership should not be a goal of public policy; and that we should be cultivating growth in the burgeoning megaregions and the creative centers within them. Ultimately, he foresees this:
What will this geography look like? It will likely be sparser in the Midwest and also, ultimately, in those parts of the Southeast that are dependent on manufacturing. Its suburbs will be thinner and its houses, perhaps, smaller. Some of its southwestern cities will grow less quickly. Its great mega-regions will rise farther upward and extend farther outward. It will feature a lower rate of homeownership, and a more mobile population of renters. In short, it will be a more concentrated geography, one that allows more people to mix more freely and interact more efficiently in a discrete number of dense, innovative mega-regions and creative cities. Serendipitously, it will be a landscape suited to a world in which petroleum is no longer cheap by any measure. But most of all, it will be a landscape that can accommodate and accelerate invention, innovation, and creation—the activities in which the U.S. still holds a big competitive advantage.
Sounds good to me.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


Good news for fans of high-speed rail. According to Transportation for America, the final economic stimulus bill approved by the US Congress includes $8.4 billion for mass transit, $1.3 billion for Amtrak, and a whopping (and unexpected) $8 billion for the nation's woefully under-developed high-speed rail system. Those are funds that weren't present in either the original House or Senate bills, so it's a big improvement, and something of a surprise. What's more, President Obama himself evidently weighed in to get those funds included, so it looks like it's going to be a priority for his administration.

Now, hopefully, the US will make some progress in developing its ten designated high-speed rail corridors:

Of these ten corridors, only the northeast corridor (aka, the 'Acela') is already up and running. (In California, voters last year approved a $10 billion dollar bond to develop their high-speed rail service, so that combined with some federal funds ought to make the California corridor particularly ripe for progress.)

By contrast, here's Europe's HSR system:

The colored sections indicate service of 200-350 km/hr. (By dreary contrast, the average speed of the Acela is 140 km/hr.) And Japan, of course, has long been a pioneer in high-speed rail.

Meanwhile, look what China is doing:

In 2007, they opened 6,000 km of high-speed rail all at once, instantly making it the most extensive system in the world - larger, even, than all of Europe's networks combined. Seen in this light, the US system is decades behind international standards. But hopefully the US just took a big step towards catching up.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Water on the Moon? Eh, Not So Much

Another astro-map from Universe Today. This one's of the moon:

It's a topographical map, recently put together with data from Japan's Kaguya satellite. It shows the crests and dales of the moon's surface, from the Dirichlet-Jackson Basin near the equator (11 km high) to the Antoniadi crater near the south pole (9 km deep). (Is it official policy, by the way, that place names on the moon be unpronounceable?)

But besides mapping the moon's topography, the Japanese researchers did a neat trick. They measured the roughness of the moon's surface, which allowed them to figure out if there's water underground. See, if there is water there, then it would act as a sort of lubricant, and the surface would exhibit more flexibility. But if there's no water, then the surface will be more rigid, just like the rough, rigid surface of a desiccated fruit. And the moon? Turns out it's pretty rigid. So: no water. Bummer.

What's that, David Byrne? You have something to say on the topic of water underground? A-and the moon, too?

Thank you, David. Thank you for that.