Welcome To Nauru, The Most Corrupt Country You’ve Never Heard Of

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Nestled in a cluster of islands in the central Pacific Ocean is Nauru, a small country with a totally insane story.

Nauru

In 1980, the island nation was considered the wealthiest nation on the planet; in 2017, BusinessTech listed it as one of the five poorest countries in the world.

This is a story of a country that journeyed from rags to riches and back to rags. It’s a cautionary tale of what happens when a nation exploits its natural resources at the expense of people’s lives…

Odd One Out?

While you’re tucking in to your turkey tomorrow and the jokes and puzzles in your crackers are failing to impress, here’s a little riddle to share with your dinner guests:

Which is the odd-one out: gypsiesturkeysfrench fries, or the Kings of Leon?

Gypsies, a Turkey, a pan of French Fries, and the Kings of Leon
If you answer “turkey, because it’s the only one that’s a bird,” then you’re somewhat missing the point.

In order to save you from “accidentally” reading too far and spoling the answer for yourself, here’s a picture of a kitten to act as filler:

A ginger and white kitten.
Aww.

Want a hint? This is a question about geography. Specifically, it’s a question about assumptions about geography. Have another think: the kittens will wait.

A Persian cat.
Interestingly, this Persian cat could easily be another candidate for the odd-one-out.

Okay. Let’s have a look at each of the candidates, shall we? And learn a little history as we go along:

Gypsies

The Romami are an ethnic group of traditionally-nomadic people, originating from Northern India and dispersing across Europe (and further) over the last millenium and a half. They brought with them some interesting anthropological artefacts of their culture, such as aspects of the Indian caste system and languages (it’s through linguistic similarities that we’ve been best-able to trace their multi-generational travels, as written records of their movements are scarce and incomplete), coupled with traditions related to a nomadic life. These traditions include strict rules about hygiene, designed to keep a travelling population free of disease, which helped to keep them safe during the European plagues of the 13th and 14th centuries.

The migration of the Romanies
The migration of the Romanies. The arrows show that they stopped in France for some French Fries before continuing to Britain.

Unfortunately for them, when the native populations of Western European countries saw that these travellers – who already had a reputation as outsiders – seemed to be immune to the diseases that were afflicting the rest of the population, their status in society rapidly degraded, and they were considered to be witches or devil-worshippers. This animosity made people unwilling to trade with them, which forced many of them into criminal activity, which only served to isolate them further. Eventually, here in the UK, laws were passed to attempt to deport them, and these laws help us to see the origins of the term gypsy, which by then had become commonplace.

Consider, for example, the Egyptians Act 1530, which uses the word “Egyptian” to describe these people. The Middle English word for Egypian was gypcian, from which the word gypsy or gipsy was a contraction. The word “gypsy” comes from a mistaken belief by 16th Century Western Europeans that the Romani who were entering their countries had emigrated from Egypt. We’ll get back to that.

Turkeys

When Europeans began to colonise the Americas, from the 15th Century onwards, they discovered an array of new plants and animals previously unseen by European eyes, and this ultimately lead to a dramatic diversification of the diets of Europeans back home. Green beans, cocoa beans, maize (sweetcorn), chillis, marrows, pumpkins, potatoes, tomatoes, buffalo, jaguars, and vanilla pods: things that are so well-understood in Britain now that it’s hard to imagine that there was a time that they were completely alien here.

A wild turkey
Gobblegobblegobblegobble.

Still thinking that the Americas could be a part of East Asia, the explorers and colonists didn’t recognise turkeys as being a distinct species, and categorised them as being a kind of guineafowl. They soon realised that they made for pretty good eating, and started sending them back to their home countries. Many of the turkeys sent back to Central Europe arrived via Turkey, and so English-speaking countries started calling them Turkey fowl, eventually just shortened to turkey. In actual fact, most of the turkeys reaching Britain probably came directly to Britain, or possibly via France, Portugal, or Spain, and so the name “turkey” is completely ridiculous.

Fun fact: in Turkey, turkeys are called hindi, which means Indian, because many of the traders importing turkeys were Indians (the French, Polish, Russians, and Ukranians also use words that imply an Indian origin). In Hindi, they’re called peru, after the region and later country of Peru, which also isn’t where they’re from (they’re native only to North America), but the Portugese – who helped to colonise Peru also call them that. And in Scottish Gaelic, they’re called cearc frangach – “French chicken”! The turkey is a seriously georgraphically-confused bird.

French Fries

As I’m sure that everybody knows by now, “French” fries probably originated in either Belgium or in the Spanish Netherlands (now part of Belgium), although some French sources claim an earlier heritage. We don’t know how they were first invented, but the popularly-told tale of Meuse Valley fishing communities making up for not having enough fish by deep-frying pieces of potato, cut into the shape of fish, is almost certainly false: a peasant region would be extremely unlikely to have access to the large quantities of fat required to fry potatoes in this way.

Friet Museum, Bruge
They may find it hard to prove that they invented fries, but the Belgians certainly hold the claim to the world’s only museum dedicated to the food.

So why do we – with the exception of some confusingly patriotic Americans – call them French fries. It’s hard to say for certain, but based on when the food became widely-known in the anglophonic world, the most-likely explanation comes from the First World War. When British and, later, American soldier landed in Belgium, they’ll have had the opportunity to taste these (now culturally-universal) treats for the first time. At that time, though, the official language of the Belgian army (and the most-popularly spoken language amongst Belgian citizens) was French. The British and American soldiers thus came to call them “French fries”.

The Kings of Leon

For a thousand years the Kingdom of Leon represented a significant part of what would not be considered Spain and/or Portugal, founded by Christian kings who’d recaptured the Northern half of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors during the Reconquista (short version for those whose history lessons didn’t go in this direction: what the crusades were against the Ottomans, the Reconquista was against the Moors). The Kingdom of Leon remained until its power was gradually completely absorbed into that of the Kingdom of Spain. Leon still exists as a historic administrative region in Spain, similar to the counties of the British Isles, and even has its own minority language (the majority language, Spanish, would historically have been known as Castilian – the traditional language of the neighbouring Castillian Kingdom).

The Kingdom of Leon (circa 1210)
Leon, sandwiched between the other kingdoms of the 13th century Iberian Peninsula.

The band, however, isn’t from Leon but is from Nashville, Tennessee. They’ve got nothing linking them to actual Leon, or Spain at all, as far as I can tell, except for their name – not unlike gypsies and Egypt, turkeys and Turkey, and French fries and France. The Kings of Leon, a band of brothers, took the inspiration for their name from the first name of their father and their grandfather: Leon.

The Odd One Out

The Kings of Leon are the odd one out, because while all four have names which imply that they’re from somewhere that they’re not, the inventors of the name “The Kings of Leon” were the only ones who knew that the implication was correct.

The people who first started calling gypsies “gypsies” genuinely believed that they came from Egypt. The first person to call a turkey a “Turkey fowl” really was under the impression that it was a bird that had come from, or via, Turkey. And whoever first started spreading the word about the tasty Belgian food they’d discovered while serving overseas really thought that they were a French invention. But the Kings of Leon always knew that they weren’t from Leon (and, presumably, that they weren’t kings).

And as for you? Your sex is on fire. Well, either that or it’s your turkey. You oughta go get it out of the oven if it’s the latter, or – if it’s the former – see if you can get some cream for that. And have a Merry Christmas.

Disaster Analysis

Scientists investigating this week’s catastrophic lunchquake in the Dan’s Lunchbox region have released a statement today about the techtonic causes of the disaster.

Analysis of the lunchquake.

“The upheaval event, which reached 5.9 on the Tupperware Scale, was probably caused by overenthusiastic cycling,” explained Dr. Pepper, Professor of Lunchtime Beverages at Tetrapak University.

“The breadospheres ‘float’ on soft, viscous eggmayolayers. Usually these are stable, but sometimes a lateral shift can result in entire breadosphere plates being displaced underneath one another.”

This is what happened earlier this week, when a breadospheric shift resulted in catastrophic sinkage in the left-side-of-lunchbox area, eggmayolayer “vents”, and an increase in the height of Apple Mountain.

No lives were lost during the disaster. However, two jammie dodgers were completely ruined.

Recent emissions in the ring of fire area is unrelated to this recent lunchquake, and are instead believed to be associated with excessive consumption of spicy food at lunchtimes.

Finding my Geographic Centre

Have you come across GeoMidpoint? This web service will help you find the midpoint between any number of geographical points. They’ve got all kinds of proposed uses for it, like finding a convenient restaurant that’s equidistant from each of you and your friends, but one of the more frivolous activities you can enjoy using it for is to find your home “centre of gravity”. Put in everywhere you’ve lived (and, optionally, how long you lived there for, as a weighting factor), and it’ll show you the centre point.

I gave it a go. Here’s where I’m centred.

Dan's centre point (the green 'M' pin).

Okay, you think – it’s not so surprising that the centre point is near Preston: I spent over a decade living there. But here’s the quirk: my addresses weren’t weighted by how long I’d lived there. All I did is put in everywhere I’d lived for six months or more, and let these places all have equal weight.

Curious, then, that the centre point comes to within a quarter hour’s drive of either of my parents’ houses, in Preston.

I suppose there are some balancing factors, here: places that cancel one another out quite nicely. The Northern bias of Scotland is counteracted by the comparative Southernness of Aberystwyth, Oxford, and Surrey. The strong Western bias of the many different places I lived in Aberystwyth are invalidated by quite how far East Aberdeen and London are. But still, it seems to be a quirky coincidence to me that the centre point would be so close to where I did most of my growing up, despite how much I’ve moved around.

New Earth, where we'll be moving later this year

This observation comes only a little while after the other Earthlings and I have finished signing the paperwork on what is later this year to become our new home, New Earth. It’s still in the Oxford area, but provides us with some nice things that we’re looking forward to, like more space (something we never seem to have enough of!). And any of you who’ve visited by car will probably appreciate how much more accessible the driveway is…

We’ll be moving this Summer, and in doing so we’ll pull my little green triangle over into Chorley. Better that, I think, than out in the Irish sea, which is where it’d be if I weighted where I’d lived by the amount of time I’d spent there!

Roadspotters

Recently, I learned that the roads in Great Britain are numbered in accordance with a scheme first imagined about ninety years ago, and, as it evolved, these road numbers were grouped into radial zones around London (except for Scotland, whose road numbering only joined the scheme later). I’d often noticed the “clusters” of similarly-numbered roads (living in Aberystwyth, you soon notice that all the A and B roads start with a 4, and I soon noticed that the very same A44 that starts in Aberystwyth seems to have followed me to my home here in Oxford).

Road Numbering Zones of the United Kingdom

Who’d have thought that there was such a plan to it. If you’re aware of any of the many roads which are in the “wrong” zone, you’d be forgiven for not seeing the pattern earlier, though. However, seeing all of this attempt at adding order to what was a chaotic system for the long period between the Romans leaving and the mid-20th century makes me wonder one thing: are there “roadspotters”?

There exist trainspotters, who pursue the more-than-a-little-bit-nerdy hobby of traveling around and looking at different locomotives, marking down their numbers in notepads and crossing them off in reference books. Does the same phenomena exist within road networks?

It turns out that it does; or some close approximation of it does, anyway. One gentleman, for example, writes about “recovering” road signs formerly of the A6144(M), which – until 2006 – was the UK’s only single-carriageway motorway. A site calling itself The Motorway Archive has a thoroughly-researched article on the construction history of the M74/A74(M) from Glasgow to Carlisle. Another website – and one that I’m embarrassed to admit that I’d visited on a number of previous occasions – reviews every motorway service area in Britain. And, perhaps geekiest of all, the Society for All British and Irish Road Enthusiasts (SABRE) maintains a club, meetups, and a thoroughly-researched wiki of everything you never wanted to know about the roads of the British Isles.

From what started as a quick question about British road numbering, I find myself learning about a hobby that’s perhaps even geekier than trainspotting. Thanks, Internet.

Traveling In Time(zones)

Just when you think you’ve got them figured out (and the application you’re working on is coping correctly with daylight saving time), something comes along and blows your little mind. Like this, for example:

Suppose you’re chilling out in Hawaii on some lazy Sunday. Cocktail in hand, you check your watch – it’s midday. Midday on Sunday – that means you’ve got a ‘plane to catch: you’re about to fly due South to the research station on Palmyra Atoll, part of the Line Islands. Palmyra Atoll, like Hawaii, is part of the United States, so you don’t even need your passport, but you pause for a moment to try to work out whether you need to adjust your watch…

A timezone map of the mid-Pacific Ocean, showing the islands in question.

When it’s midday on Sunday in Hawaii, what time is it in Palmyra Atoll (which is at essentially the same longitude)?

It’s midday… on Monday! The Line Islands are uniquely considered to be in the timezone UTC+14:00 (and Hawaii is in UTC-10:00), so despite the fact that the Line Islands are, on the whole, East of the Hawaiian islands, the whole cluster of them are an entire day ahead of Hawaii. Even those which are managed by the U.S. are closer to New Zealand (chronologically) than they are to any other U.S. terrirory (even though they’re more distant geographically). It’s no wonder people get confused by things like the International Date LineMagellan was apparently so confused by the fact that his ship’s log was a day out upon his return from a round-the-world trip that he wrote a letter to the Pope about the oddity.

Similarly, when the sun rises on the Line Islands, it marks the beginning of the day after the date that it rises on Hawaii, ten minutes later.

I find this particular quirk even more interesting than the similar one on the Diomede Islands (a pair of islands in the Bering Strait), sometimes called “Tomorrow Island” and “Yesterday Island”. The Diomedes are clearly separated in an East-West configuration, whereas the Line Islands are clearly to the South (and North) of islands which are still stuck in “yesterday”.

The Diomede Islands

In practice, apparently, the 4 – 20 scientists living at any given time on Palmyra Atoll work at UTC-11:00: only an hour from Hawaii – presumably so that they maximise the period that their work week lines up with that in the rest of the United States: but this only serves to exaggerate the phenomena: this means that you can hop from, say, Palmyra Atoll to nearby Teraina (population 1,155, about 150 miles away) and have to wind your watch forward by a massive 25 hours (or just one hour, I suppose).

By the time you’re living on a South Pacific island paradise, I suppose these things don’t matter so much.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palmyra_AtollPalmyra Atoll