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Monday, September 29, 2014

Old Man River, Get Off My Lawn

I did not think I was going to actually find a professional research paper on this, but I will happily take it. If you look at a map, a lot of the political borders you see- state lines, national borders- are human-made. The straight lines, the zig-zagging from land grabs and ethnic separations. But other borders are purely geographical: the ridge of a mountain range, following a river, or the coastline (or middle) of a particular body of water.

This generally works pretty well, because nobody's expecting a mountain to move itself anytime soon. But rivers do move. Have you ever sent a little stream of water from a faucet down a flat surface, maybe a pan? You ever see streams of rain dance around on your windshield? Rivers do that, just a lot more slowly because they have all that dirt to dig through. They'll make little burrows into a patch of ground somewhere and go thataway instead of (or in addition to) the thisaway they'd been going beforehand. Older rivers will show this because they'll have a ton of little islands showing the places where the river changed direction over the years.

This happens on a timescale short enough to where, if you live on a border designated by a river, it is entirely possible that one day you will wake up one day to find yourself on the other side of the border. Because the border follows the river. As NPR illustrates, one place that has seen a particularly large amount of grief over this is the Rio Grande, separating El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. The river's changed course multiple times since the Civil War, and at one point in the 1960's caused a forced relocation of the residents of a region called the Chamizal, which was occupied by El Paso residents but which the river said was now part of Ciudad Juarez.

The river has since been encased in concrete. Not that everybody thinks that'll be a permanent solution.

Internally within the United States, this comes up once in a while, but the stakes aren't quite that high. The borders between Texas and Oklahoma, and between Georgia and Tennessee, have had this come up in recent years, but when it's between states, it can often be more about the pride of having the land than any kind of thing they plan to do with it.

And as John W. Donaldson of Durham University in the UK notes (there's that paper I mentioned!), there are rivers in other countries too, and their moving is often going to make for a national border dispute. Some settle the dispute by arranging to lock in one particular line as the boundary and no longer caring what the river thinks of it. But as this might reduce one nation's access to water, that's not always the solution sought. It depends on what's more valued, the land or the water. It can end in some agreement or other, it can end in arbitration by the International Court of Justice, or it can just simply not end at all and spur bouts of occasional violence between the locals.

Not that the river cares.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Ferguson. Again. (sigh)

Here is what we know:

*An officer has been shot somewhere in the general vicinity of Ferguson, MO. The officer was shot in the arm and is expected to recover.
*Residents of Ferguson and the area police departments are at each other's throats again in response to said shooting.

Here is what we don't know, given the Twitter feed I've been following:

*Whether that officer was actually in Ferguson or not. Some accounts are placing the shooting in nearby Dellwood.
*Whether the officer is male or female.
*Whether the shooting had anything to do with the whole Michael Brown affair; some accounts place it as part of an unrelated burglary attempt.
*Whether the suspect is alive or dead. The Ferguson PD says the suspect- a black male, of course- is alive and still at large as of this writing. The protestors on scene are after all that has led up to now disinclined to believe a single word out of the Ferguson PD's mouth and are proceeding as if the suspect is dead.
*Whether or not additional shots have been fired.

The situation is ongoing as we speak. Lot of misinformation and disinformation flying around.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Islamic Art Update: North America Now Has Some

Back in July, I made a note of my then-recent visit to the Milwaukee Art Museum, and more specifically, the overwhelming tendency towards American and Western European art, largely and sometimes completely to the exclusion of wide swaths of the rest of the planet. Oceania and the Middle East, at least the day I was there, were utterly absent any representation. I figure most category-unspecific art museums are similar: concentrate on domestic art and the 'classical' artists out of Europe, bonus points if it's someone people know, and kind of just... forget about the rest of the world. All the world creates art, but only certain parts of the world see their art fawned over in great numbers.

I bring this up because Toronto is doing something about that. The Aga Khan Museum opened on September 18, North America's first museum dedicated specifically to Islamic art. (I wouldn't click on the links in that Al Jazeera article. For some reason they made them all links usable only by employees of Al Jazeera.) There is, of course, an Islamic community in Toronto or else it wouldn't have been placed there, but there is, as you might expect, a large selection from the Arab world proper, and that is the focus. The collection shown on the official website displays works from Afghanistan, China, Egypt, Morocco, India, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Turkey, Spain, Syria and Yemen (none of them contemporary).

Seriously. There wasn't a single Islamic-specific art museum on the entire continent until now.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Just In Case You Forgot

There was another police/protestor clash in Ferguson today- Thursday, rather, since it's after midnight and technically Friday now. There was also one on Tuesday.

So that isn't over. It's just happening without swarms of media around now.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Things Learned On The Playground

In 1989, the Exxon Valdez crashed off Prince William Sound in Alaska. The environmental effects of that crash still linger today; most of the wildlife populations monitored for damage in the aftermath have yet to recover and some look like they never will. Much of the oil is still there continuing to pollute the sound.

And also to this day, Exxon is still in court disputing their legal financial liability, even after the US Supreme Court weighed in in 2008.

It appears that the prospect of an oil company fighting to avoid having to pay out money for damage caused by an oil spill is not unique to Exxon, because BP is putting itself in the same category with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. In 2012, BP did agree to pay out damages to people affected by the spill, but it didn't cover fines from the Clean Water Act that at the time the New York Times article we're linking to was written were pegged at around $21 billion, which BP opted to keep fighting. Total exposure at one point was estimated at about $40 billion, but as the settlement damages were uncapped, that wasn't a hard and fast number.

That total liability appears now to be nearing $50 billion and climbing, and not only is BP still fighting those, in order to get their overall payouts down, they attempted to reclaim some of the money already paid out in the settlement between August 2012 and October 2013, after judge Carl Barbier found the formula to calculate payments was incorrect and altered it accordingly in June. The problem for BP is that when the claimants agreed to drop their suits, they themselves agreed that no future court action could alter those payouts. BP could dispute future payments, but money already paid out is paid out. And that is what's now coming back to bite them, as Barbier is back at the gavel to say, in essence, no backsies.

If ExxonMobill's example is any indication, though, BP will be attempting to get those backsies one way or another for decades to come. And when they finally let the matter drop, the oil will still be sitting on the Golf Coast.

Mario Was A Leisure Jogger

Staying on the whole premise of Desert Bus- you play a video game in marathon form for charity- let's go back to one of the early legends of the game industry, Super Mario Bros. 1. You know, 8 worlds, 4 stages, 7 times you're told the princess is in another castle. It's long been established as a classically frustrating 'how many more castles do I have to bust into' gaming gag.

But how much running around is Mario actually doing? That's the question Nick Greene of Mental Floss was asked by a reader, and so he set out to determine exactly how far Mario travels in the game. As it turns out, it isn't very far at all. Scaling Mario to the environment and an average human build in his basic, pre-mushroom phase (which, well, okay, if you say so), and taking into account his stance, Nick measured out the total area of the maps Mario traverses and determined that he travels 17,835 feet from 1-1 giddy-up to 8-4 woah, which translates to only 3.4 miles, or 5.4 kilometers. If you toss in bonus areas, up it to 3.7 miles.

As he alludes to, this is a good way to think about that 5K color run you've been planning.

Or Desert Bus, which features a route of 360 miles, which Mario could complete by saving the princess 105.88 times. (That 106th princess might be a tad disappointed.)

Monday, September 22, 2014

Things You Can't Import Into Countries

I'm going to credit a stray Twitter rant from Tally Heilke (@tallystreasury; I linked to her site once here and here it is again) for what's about to happen here. See, around this point of the year, Tally gets wrapped up in preparation for the annual run of Desert Bus For Hope, the 8th annual edition of which commences November 14th at noon Central (10 AM Pacific, given that it is conducted in Victoria, British Columbia). She is the prizes and sponsorship coordinator, handling the myriad objects that come in to be auctioned off and used for giveaways (think raffles) during Desert Bus, many of which she has solicited herself through a "Craft-Along", in which people apply (to her) for the right to make crafts projects to be used to raise money. And it also requires juggling all the various sponsors of the event, many of which generate their own items to be given out.

This all requires a workload ranging from crippling to apocalyptic. You will note that in the list of the 16 main Desert Bus crew members, Tally is one of only five given an e-mail address to handle, and the only one to be handling two of them. (Most of those people will be actually driving the eponymous bus during the telethon, taking a 12-hour shift apiece. For the last two runs, Tally has been one of them.)

A fair-sized chunk of this work requires heavy use of the Canadian mail system, Canada Post. This, I wager, is how she found herself shuffling through Canada Post's directory of instructions for shipping to international locations. Specifically, she found herself fascinated by the kinds of items various places prohibit the import of through the mail. (The American equivalent directory is here.)

Soon I did too. Damn it, Tally.

As she noted, "There must be sensible and/or historical reasons behind most of these, but without context some are very strange." She noted ice as an example, which among other places is banned from being imported into Afghanistan, Albania, Antigua and Barbuda, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Croatia, Ethiopia, Fiji, Liberia, Moldova, Mongolia, Namibia, Nepal, Nigeria, Oman, Russia, Serbia, Seychelles, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Zambia and Zimbabwe. I never found the reason myself (it'll drive me nuts not knowing), nor did I manage to find most of the others. Context-free is how they'll have to remain. But that having been said, and noting that there are absolutely things I've missed along the way (and also noting that we are not looking at restricted items but only ones that are banned outright):

*Canada bans margarine or butter substitutes. They also ban beekeeping apparatuses- a lot of countries are concerned enough about bees and bee paraphernalia to ban its import; considering the threat of killer bees and invasive species, nothing really unusual there- but Canada Post specifies that it's used beekeeping tools that are banned.
*Being American, I might not note anything unusual in the American list, but Tally, being Canadian, latched onto "knife, gaff, or any other sharp instrument attached, designed, or intended to be attached to the leg of a bird for use in an animal fighting venture" and "written, printed or graphic matter advertising or promoting animals for use in animal fighting ventures in any way." She knows why- boo to dogfighting and cockfighting and whatnot- but it struck her as odd that we'd go so far out of our way to specify that.
*France, in the same way, got my attention for banning the mailing in of "dura mater (the tough fibrous membrane covering the brain and the spinal cord and lining the inner surface of the skull)".
*Serbia bans "diplomatic mail". Which is a thing that carries legal protections from being tampered with, diplomatic immunity in fact, even if sometimes that protection gets abused by someone using it to smuggle drugs (and oh yes that happens). You open that stuff and whatever country owned it will be instantly pissed off, such as here, when the United Kingdom was angered at one of their pieces of mail being opened by Spanish police at the border with Gibraltar. And it's right here in Canada Post writing that you can't mail it to Serbia.
*Austria, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain ban "Rubber erasers that are similar in appearance to food products that are easily ingested".
*Belgium bans you from mailing in chain letters. People still do those outside of Facebook?
*Many countries, most in fact, make some sort of restriction on mailing in currency, or checks, or other kinds of financial instruments such as credit cards or even lottery tickets. Mongolia, meanwhile, just goes ahead and bans "pulp of wood". Which basically means anything made of paper.
*Russia bans the import of birth, death or wedding certificates. (Among soooooooo many other things. For instance, you may not send information about subsoils to someone for personal use.)
*Kenya bans the import of maps. Peru scales it back to "cartographic or geographic items misrepresenting Peru and its borders" (which makes slightly more sense as countries do tend to get rather uptight about what land they consider to be theirs and bristle when someone else begs to differ).
*Peru also bans "drinks manufactured under the brand name "Pisco".
*Brazil bans mailing in writing material. So you can write the letter, but don't you dare include the pen.
*Namibia bans the import of sports equipment.
*Mexico bans the mailing in of massage appliances. ...yes. That's what they're used for. Massages. Sure.
*Please do not mail piranhas to Brunei.