What’s wrong with what3words?

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In his latest video, Andrew provides a highly-accessible and slick explanation of all of the arguments against what3words that I’ve been making for years, plus a couple more besides.

Arguments that he makes that closely parallel my own include that what3words addresses are (a) often semantically-ambiguous, (b) potentially offensive, (c) untranslatable (and their English words, used by non-English speakers, exaggerates problem (a)), and (d) based on an aggressively-guarded proprietary algorithm. We’re of the same mind, there. I’ll absolutely be using this video to concisely explain my stance in future.

Andrew goes on to point out two further faults with the system, which don’t often appear among my arguments against it:

The first is that its lack of a vertical component and of a mechanism for narrowing-down location more-specifically makes it unsuitable for one of its stated purposes of improving addressing in parts of the developing world. While I do agree that what3words is a bad choice for use as this kind of addressing system, my reasoning is different, and I don’t entirely agree with his. I don’t believe that what3words are actually arguing that their system should be used alone to address a letter. Even in those cases where a given 3m × 3m square can be used to point to a single building’s entryway, a single building rarely contains one person! At a minimum, a “what3words”-powered postal address is likely to specify the name of the addressee who’s expected to be found there. It also may require additional data impossible to encode in any standardisable format, and adding a vertical component doesn’t solve this either: e.g. care-of addresses, numbered letterboxes, unconventional floor numbers (e.g. in tunnels or skybridges), door colours, or even maps drawn from memory onto envelopes have been used in addressed mail in some parts of the world and at some times. I’m not sure it’s fair to claim that what3words fails here because every other attempt at a universal system would too.

Similarly, I don’t think it’s necessarily relevant for him to make his observation that geological movements result in impermanence in what3words addresses. Not only is this a limitation of global positioning in general, it’s also a fundamentally unsolvable problem: any addressable “thing” is capable or movement both with and independent of the part of the Earth to which it’s considered attached. If a building is extended in one direction and the other end demolished, or remodelling moves its front door, or a shipwreck is split into two by erosion against the seafloor, or two office buildings become joined by a central new lobby between them, these all result in changes to the positional “address” of that thing! Even systems designed specifically to improve the addressability of these kinds of items fail us: e.g. conventional postal addresses change as streets are renamed, properties renamed or renumbered, or the boundaries of settlements and postcode areas shift. So again: while changes to the world underlying an addressing model are a problem… they’re not a problem unique to what3words, nor one that they claim to solve.

One of what3words’ claimed strengths is that it’s unambiguous because sequential geographic areas do not use sequential words, so ///happy.adults.hand is nowhere near ///happy.adults.face. That kind of feature is theoretically great for rescue operations because it means that you’re likely to spot if I’m giving you a location that’s in completely the wrong country, whereas the difference between 51.385, -1.6745 and 51.335, -1.6745, which could easily result from a transcription error, are an awkward 4 miles away. Unfortunately, as Andrew demonstrates, what3words introduces a different kind of ambiguity instead, so it doesn’t really do a great job of solving the problem.

And sequential or at least localised areas are actually good for some things, such as e.g. addressing mail! If I’ve just delivered mail to 123 East Street and my next stop is 256 East Street then (depending on a variety of factors) I probably know which direction to go in, approximately how far, and possibly even what side of the road it’ll be on!

That’s one of the reasons I’m far more of a fan of the Open Location Code, popularised by Google as Plus Codes. It’s got many great features, including variable resolution (you can give a short code, or just the beginning of a code, to specify a larger area, or increase the length of the code to specify any arbitrary level of two-dimensional precision), sequential locality (similar-looking codes are geographically-closer), and it’s based on an open standard so it’s at lower risk of abuse and exploitation and likely has greater longevity than what3words. That’s probably why it’s in use for addresses in Kolkata, India and rural Utah. Because they don’t use English-language words, Open Location Codes are dramatically more-accessible to people all over the world.

If you want to reduce ambiguity in Open Location Codes (to meet the needs of rescue services, for example), it’d be simple to extend the standard with a check digit. Open Location Codes use a base-20 alphabet selected to reduce written ambiguity (e.g. there’s no letter O nor number 0), so if you really wanted to add this feature you could just use a base-20 modification of the Luhn algorithm (now unencumbered by patents) to add a check digit, after a predetermined character at the end of the code (e.g. a slash). Check digits are a well-established way to ensure that an identifier was correctly received e.g. over a bad telephone connection, which is exactly why we use them for things like credit card numbers already.

Basically: anything but what3words would be great.

Heatmapping my Movements

As I mentioned last year, for several years I’ve collected pretty complete historic location data from GPSr devices I carry with me everywhere, which I collate in a personal μlogger server.

Going back further, I’ve got somewhat-spotty data going back a decade, thanks mostly to the fact that I didn’t get around to opting-out of Google’s location tracking until only a few years ago (this data is now also housed in μlogger). More-recently, I now also get tracklogs from my smartwatch, so I’m managing to collate more personal location data than ever before.

Inspired perhaps at least a little by Aaron Parecki, I thought I’d try to do something cool with it.

Heatmapping my movements

The last year

Heatmap showing Dan's movements around Oxford since moving house in 2020. There's a strong cluster around Stanton Harcourt with heavy tendrils around Witney and Eynsham and along the A40 to Summertown, and lighter tendrils around North and Central Oxford.
My movements over the last year have been relatively local, but there are some interesting hotspots and common routes.

What you’re looking at is a heatmap showing my location over the last year or so since I moved to The Green. Between the pandemic and switching a few months prior to a job that I do almost-entirely at home there’s not a lot of travel showing, but there’s some. Points of interest include:

  • The blob around my house, plus some of the most common routes I take to e.g. walk or cycle the children to school.
  • A handful of my favourite local walking and cycling routes, some of which stand out very well: e.g. the “loop” just below the big blob represents a walk around the lake at Dix Pit; the blob on its right is the Devils Quoits, a stone circle and henge that I thought were sufficiently interesting that I made a virtual geocache out of them.
  • The most common highways I spend time on: two roads into Witney, the road into and around Eynsham, and routes to places in Woodstock and North Oxford where the kids have often had classes/activities.
  • I’ve unsurprisingly spent very little time in Oxford City Centre, but when I have it’s most often been at the Westgate Shopping Centre, on the roof of which is one of the kids’ favourite restaurants (and which we’ve been able to go to again as Covid restrictions have lifted, not least thanks to their outdoor seating!).

One to eight years ago

Let’s go back to the 7 years prior, when I lived in Kidlington. This paints a different picture:

Heatmap showing Dan's movements around Kidlington, including a lot of time in the village and in Oxford City Centre, as well as hotspots at the hospital, parks, swimming pools, and places that Dan used to volunteer. Individual expeditions can also be identified.
For the seven years I lived in Kidlington I moved around a lot more than I have since: each hotspot tells a story, and some tell a few.

This heatmap highlights some of the ways in which my life was quite different. For example:

  • Most of my time was spent in my village, but it was a lot larger than the hamlet I live in now and this shows in the size of my local “blob”. It’s also possible to pick out common destinations like the kids’ nursery and (later) school, the parks, and the routes to e.g. ballet classes, music classes, and other kid-focussed hotspots.
  • I worked at the Bodleian from early 2011 until late in 2019, and so I spent a lot of time in Oxford City Centre and cycling up and down the roads connecting my home to my workplace: Banbury Road glows the brightest, but I spent some time on Woodstock Road too.
  • For some of this period I still volunteered with Samaritans in Oxford, and their branch – among other volunteering hotspots – show up among my movements. Even without zooming in it’s also possible to make out individual venues I visited: pubs, a cinema, woodland and riverside walks, swimming pools etc.
  • Less-happily, it’s also obvious from the map that I spent a significant amount of time at the John Radcliffe Hospital, an unpleasant reminder of some challenging times from that chapter of our lives.
  • The data’s visibly “spottier” here, mostly because I built the heatmap only out of the spatial data over the time period, and not over the full tracklogs (i.e. the map it doesn’t concern itself with the movement between two sampled points, even where that movement is very-guessable), and some of the data comes from less-frequently-sampled sources like Google.

Eight to ten years ago

Let’s go back further:

Heatmap showing Dan's movements around Oxford during the period he lived in Kennington. Again, it's dominated by time at home, in the city centre, and commuting between the two.
Back when I lived in Kennington I moved around a lot less than I would come to later on (although again, the spottiness of the data makes that look more-significant than it is).

Before 2011, and before we bought our first house, I spent a couple of years living in Kennington, to the South of Oxford. Looking at this heatmap, you’ll see:

  • I travelled a lot less. At the time, I didn’t have easy access to a car and – not having started my counselling qualification yet – I didn’t even rent one to drive around very often. You can see my commute up the cyclepath through Hinksey into the City Centre, and you can even make out the outline of Oxford’s Covered Market (where I’d often take my lunch) and a building in Osney Mead where I’d often deliver training courses.
  • Sometimes I’d commute along Abingdon Road, for a change; it’s a thinner line.
  • My volunteering at Samaritans stands out more-clearly, as do specific venues inside Oxford: bars, theatres, and cinemas – it’s the kind of heatmap that screams “this person doesn’t have kids; they can do whatever they like!”

Every map tells a story

I really love maps, and I love the fact that these heatmaps are capable of painting a picture of me and what my life was like in each of these three distinct chapters of my life over the last decade. I also really love that I’m able to collect and use all of the personal data that makes this possible, because it’s also proven useful in answering questions like “How many times did I visit Preston in 2012?”, “Where was this photo taken?”, or “What was the name of that place we had lunch when we got lost during our holiday in Devon?”.

There’s so much value in personal geodata (that’s why unscrupulous companies will try so hard to steal it from you!), but sometimes all you want to do is use it to draw pretty heatmaps. And that’s cool, too.

Heatmap showing Dan's movements around Great Britain for the last 10 years: with a focus on Oxford, tendrils stretch to hotspots in South Wales, London, Cambridge, York, Birmingham, Preston, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and beyond.

How these maps were generated

I have a μlogger instance with the relevant positional data in. I’ve automated my process, but the essence of it if you’d like to try it yourself is as follows:

First, write some SQL to extract all of the position data you need. I round off the latitude and longitude to 5 decimal places to help “cluster” dots for frequency-summing, and I raise the frequency to the power of 3 to help make a clear gradient in my heatmap by making hotspots exponentially-brighter the more popular they are:

SELECT ROUND(latitude, 5) lat, ROUND(longitude, 5) lng, POWER(COUNT(*), 3) `count`
FROM positions
WHERE `time` BETWEEN '2020-06-22' AND '2021-08-22'
GROUP BY ROUND(latitude, 5), ROUND(longitude, 5)

This data needs converting to JSON. I was using Ruby’s mysql2 gem to fetch the data, so I only needed a .to_json call to do the conversion – like this:

db = Mysql2::Client.new(host: ENV['DB_HOST'], username: ENV['DB_USERNAME'], password: ENV['DB_PASSWORD'], database: ENV['DB_DATABASE'])
db.query(sql).to_a.to_json

Approximately following this guide and leveraging my Mapbox subscription for the base map, I then just needed to include leaflet.js, heatmap.js, and leaflet-heatmap.js before writing some JavaScript code like this:

body.innerHTML = '<div id="map"></div>';
let map = L.map('map').setView([51.76, -1.40], 10);
// add the base layer to the map
L.tileLayer('https://api.mapbox.com/styles/v1/{id}/tiles/{z}/{x}/{y}?access_token={accessToken}', {
  maxZoom: 18,
  id: 'itsdanq/ckslkmiid8q7j17ocziio7t46', // this is the style I defined for my map, using Mapbox
  tileSize: 512,
  zoomOffset: -1,
  accessToken: '...' // put your access token here if you need one!
}).addTo(map);
// fetch the heatmap JSON and render the heatmap
fetch('heat.json').then(r=>r.json()).then(json=>{
  let heatmapLayer = new HeatmapOverlay({
    "radius": parseFloat(document.querySelector('#radius').value),
    "scaleRadius": true,
    "useLocalExtrema": true,
  });
  heatmapLayer.setData({ data: json });
  heatmapLayer.addTo(map);
});

That’s basically all there is to it!

The Coolest Thing About GPS

I’m currently doing a course, through work, delivered by BetterOn Video. The aim of the course is to improve my video presentation skills, in particular my engagement with the camera and the audience.

I made this video based on the week 2 prompt “make a video 60-90 seconds long about something you’re an expert on”. The idea came from a talk I used to give at the University of Oxford.

The Race to Win Staten Island

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Possibly CGP Grey‘s best video yet: starting with the usual lighthearted and slightly silly look into an interesting piece of history, it quickly diverges from a straightforward path through the Forest of All Knowledge (remember No Flag Northern Ireland?) and becomes an epic adventure into fact-checking, healthy scepticism, and demonstrable information literacy. Speaking admittedly as somebody who genuinely loved the Summer of Grey Tesla Road Trip series of vlogs, this more-human-than-average Grey adventure is well-worth watching to the end.

The Search for England’s Forgotten Footpaths

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Nineteen years ago, the British government passed one of its periodic laws to manage how people move through the countryside. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act created a new “right to roam” on common land, opening up three million acres of mountains and moor, heath and down, to cyclists, climbers, and dog walkers. It also set an ambitious goal: to record every public path crisscrossing England and Wales by January 1, 2026. The British Isles have been walked for a long time. They have been mapped, and mapped again, for centuries. But that does not mean that everything adds up, or makes sense. Between them, England and Wales have around a hundred and forty thousand miles of footpaths, of which around ten per cent are impassable at any time, with another ten thousand miles that are thought to have dropped off maps or otherwise misplaced. Finding them all again is like reconstructing the roots of a tree. In 2004, a government project, named Discovering Lost Ways, was given a fifteen-million-pound budget to solve the problem. It ended four years later, overwhelmed. “Lost Footpaths to Stay Lost,” the Daily Telegraph reported. Since then, despite the apparent impossibility of the task, the 2026 cutoff has remained on the statute books, leaving the job of finding and logging the nation’s forgotten paths to walkers, horse people, and other obsessives who can’t abide the muddled situation.

A couple of days into the New Year, with the deadline now only seven years off, I met Bob Fraser, a retired highway engineer, in a parking lot a few miles outside Truro, in Cornwall, in the far west of England. Fraser grew up in Cornwall and returned about thirty years ago, which is when he noticed that many footpaths were inaccessible or ended for no reason. “I suppose that got me interested in trying to get the problem sorted out,” he said. Since he retired, seven years ago, Fraser has been researching and walking more or less full time; in the past three years, he has applied to reinstate sixteen lost paths.

If Doggerland Had Not Drowned

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by Lee Rimmer

Doggerland

As well additional land around our familiar coastlines, the lower sea level reveals a low lying 9,000 square mile landmass called Doggerland – named after Dogger Bank, the large sandbank which currently sits in a shallow area of the North Sea off the east coast of England (dogger being an old Dutch word for fishing boat).

Doggerland had a rich landscape of hills, rivers and lakes and a coastline comprising lagoons, marshes and beaches.  It had woodlands of oak, elm, birch, willow, alder, hazel and pine.  It was home to horses, aurochs, deer, elks and wild pigs.  Waterfowl, otters and beavers abounded in wetland areas and the seas, lakes and rivers teemed with fish.  It was probably the richest hunting and fishing ground in Europe at the time and had an important influence on the course of prehistory in northwestern Europe as maritime and river-based societies adapted to this environment.

I love a bit of alternative history fiction, and this is a big one, going all the way back to prehistoric times. What if the period of global warming that took place thousands of years ago, “sinking” Doggerland and separating the formerly-connected British Isles from one another and from the European mainland? The potential impact is massive, affecting geography, history, and politics indefinitely, and it’s fun to think – and read – about.

@RespectableLaw on North Sentinel Island

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There’s been a lot of talk about the missionary killed by the natives of North Sentinel Island. They’re probably so aggressive because of this weirdo, Maurice Vidal Portman. So here’s a big thread about this creep and some facts from my decade-long obsession with the island.
The Sentinelese are often described as “uncontacted,” but this not strictly true. They had a very significant contact in 1880 with Commander Portman.
Portman, the black sheep third son of some minor noble, was assigned by the English Royal Navy to administer and pacify the Andaman Islands, a job he pursued from 1880-1900 with the full measure of his own perversity.
Portman was erotically obsessed with the Andamanese, and he indulged his passion for photography by kidnapping members of various tribes and posing them in mock-Greek homoerotic compositions.
During his 20 years in a sexualized heart of darkness, Portman measured and cataloged every inch of his prisoner’s bodies, with an obsessive focus on genitals.
Just imagine being a Neolithic person spending a few weeks in this guy’s rotating menagerie.
Portman spent most of his time in the greater Andaman Islands, but in 1880, he landed on North Sentinel. The natives fled, and his party ventured inland to find a settlement which had been abandoned in haste.
But they located an elderly couple and a few children they were able to abduct. The couple quickly died, likely from ailments to which they had no immunity.
The children spent a few weeks with Portman doing god knows what, after which he returned them to the island. Portman returned on a couple occasions, but the Sentinelese hid from him each time.
The story related by the children was certainly passed down among the 100 or so inhabitants of the island, and even today, Portman’s fatal kidnapping is just beyond a human lifetime.
So when the Indian government attempted contact with anthropologists in the 1960s and 70s, the Sentinelese were understandably hostile to outsiders. The Indian government soon gave up.
In 1981, a cargo ship named The Primrose ran aground on the coral reef surrounding North Sentinel. The crew radioed for assistance and settled in for a long wait. But in the morning they saw 50 men with bows on the beach, building makeshift boats.
The crew called for an emergency airlift and were evacuated, and not a moment too soon. Rough waves had thwarted the Sentinelese in their attempts to board, but the weather was clearing.
The ship and its cargo were left at the island, awaiting discovery by Neolithic eyes. Today you can still see the gutted remains on The Primrose on Google Earth.
Imagine climbing on board that ship. A completely alien vessel filled with alien things. Imagine seeing simple machines for the first time. A hinge. A latch. A wheel. Things that would instantly make sense in a satisfying way. Others would be so incomprehensible to avoid notice.
I have never been able to find out what cargo was on The Primrose in all my years of reading. There was about 100 tons of some sort of consumer product on board, and I’m curious what it was. But even absent the cargo, think about all the things that must have been on that ship.
In the 1990s, when anthropologists returned to the island to make new attempts at contact, they were met with a different attitude. Not friendly, exactly. But they were willing to accept gifts. Many would wade into the water with smiles to accept coconuts.

Here is a video of one of those encounters:

And in those videos, you can see that these pre-iron age people now had metal weapons, like the knife carried by this man. They had scavenged metal from the Primrose and cold-forged it into tools.
After collecting gifts for a few minutes, a few members of the tribe would approach and make menacing gestures, signaling that it was time for the outsiders to leave. They have never lost their desire for isolation, despite the gifts.
And they remained consistent in their intolerance against intruders. In 2006, two fishermen were killed after drifting into the island when their anchor detached while they were sleeping.
The Sentinelese are lucky they were so effective at preventing contact. The neighboring Jawara weren’t so fortunate. The tribe went from 9,000 to a couple hundred from lack of genetic immunity and only forestalled annihilation due to aggressive segregation. Their future is bleak.
Yet on North Sentinel, they’ve maintained a small community for 60,000 years which is by all indications happy. There is no way to integrate them into the modern world without wiping out nearly every member of their tribe.
And their aggressiveness is not the mark of savagery. It just that their conception of outsiders is mostly framed by some foot-faced English pervert who murdered some old people and did weird things to their kids. So let’s do them a favor and leave them alone.

The peculiar history of the Ordnance Survey

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The history of the organisation known as OS is not merely that of a group of earnest blokes with a penchant for triangulation and an ever-present soundtrack of rustling cagoules.

From its roots in military strategy to its current incarnation as producer of the rambler’s navigational aid, the government-owned company has been checking and rechecking all 243,241 sq km (93,916 sq miles) of Great Britain for 227 years. Here are some of the more peculiar elements in the past of the famous map-makers.

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…

Fun fact: Brazil is the only country in the world named after a tree [details in comments]

This link was originally posted to /r/MegaLoungeBrazil. See more things from Dan's Reddit account.

When Portugese explorers landed in the area of South America we now call Brazil in the year 1500, they discovered the caesalpinia echinata tree growing there. They noticed that this tree had a similar red-coloured wood as the related Sappanwood (caesalpinia sappan) tree, native to Asia, and that a similarly-useful red dye could be extracted from this wood, so they gave the newly-discovered species the same name that they used to describe its Asian relative: pau-brasil. Pau means ‘wood’ and brasil probably derives from brasa, the Portugese word for “ember”, so pau-brasil best translates as “emberwood”. The colour of its wood was clearly known to the natives, too, who called it ibirapitanga – Tupi for, literally, “red wood”.

At this time, the Portugese called the area Ilha de Vera Cruz (“Island of the True Cross”), after the holy day on which the Portugese captain Pedro Álvares Cabral landed there. On his return trip, he discovered that Brazil was not an island but connected to a much larger continent, and renamed it Terra de Santa Cruz (“Land of the Holy Cross”). Another common name in the years that followed was come up with by Italian merchants who met with members of Cabral’s crew – Terra di Papaga (“Land of Parrots”) – which I personally think would have been an awesome name for the country.

Anyway: a group of merchants moved over to the new Portugese colony in the first decade of the 16th century in order to harvest the wood of the caesalpinia echinata trees. You see, it turned out to be even better as a source of red dye than the previously commercially-exploited caesalpinia sappan. Prior to this time, this particular kind of red dye was very popular in Europe, and could only be imported via India (which was very expensive). By being able to produce an even higher-quality dye at lower cost made the colonial Portugese merchants very rich.

The Portugese had a habit at the time of coming to name their colonies after the commercial product they exploited there: see, for example, the Ilha da Madeira, or “Maderia Island”, which literally translates as “Island of Wood”. This habit continued in their new colony too: the São Francisco River (the longest river whose entire length is in Brazil and the fourth-longest in South America) was labelled on a 1502 map as Rio D Brasil (“River of Brasil”), which was clearly a reference to the great quantity of pau-brasil trees that could be found there. By 1509, the general term for the land had become terra do Brasil daleem do mar Ociano (“land of Brazil beyond the Ocean sea”), and in 1516 the name received official recognition with the appointment by the Portugese king of the first “governor of Brasil”.

A clue to this history appears today in the name of inhabitants of Brazil, who call themselves Brasileiro: the -eiro suffix means ‘worker’, similar to putting -er on the end of an English word to get e.g. baker or hunter – clearly this refers to the use of the Tupi tribes by the Portugese as woodcutters during their colonial era (the usual Portugese suffix for ‘person who lives in’ is not -eiro but -ano).

So there you have it: the nation of Brazil is almost certainly named after a type of tree, and is the only nation in the world for which this is the case. Hope you enjoyed your history lesson, and that you continue to enjoy your stay in /r/MegaLoungeBrazil!

tl;dr: 16th century Portugese colonists and subsequent merchants named Brazil after pau-brazil, the name they gave to a type of tree that grew there, which was in turn named after a related Asian tree of the same name. When this new tree became economically valuable, they began referring to the whole area by that name, as was Portugese tradition at the time.

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.