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Enigma, Georgia: Mystery of the South's Circular Towns
So Cheney Lavonia has a job for me. In Thailand. Could I email her back? The message is spam and the name is fake, but the pseudonym is both mellifluous and intriguing. It seems haphazardly soldered together from a roster of vice presidents and an atlas of vanished kingdoms. Perhaps someone somewhere is getting this from Gore Burgundy or Agnew Aragon.
Lavonia, Lavonia... Wasn't there a duchy of that name once in the Baltics? And are there any cool maps of it floating around the internet? At Strange Maps HQ, even unsolicited email can be an excuse for a good old maphunt – after all, spam is maps spelled backward.
As it turns out, the Baltic region is called Livonia – it was mentioned in passing in #576. But that doesn't mean Lavonia isn't out there. That name too has a solid toponymical ring to it. If it doesn't exist, it should. And... it does. The Google search returns a hit: a small town in the US state of Georgia. The results page includes a map of the town. And this is where things get weird. Something funny is going on with Lavonia's municipal borders.
On the map, Lavonia looks like a manta ray. Or a space ship. The tail of territory bending in sync with State Route 17 somehow suggests movement, and various flappy bits could be fins, or turrets. But the remarkable thing is the body of the burg to which all these parts have been attached. It is eyecatchingly clear that Lavonia's original town plan, before all those bits and bobs were added, was a perfect circle.
Circular borders are rare – boundaries tend to shadow natural features, reflect historical divisions or follow straight lines. Almost all US state lines, for example, are either squiggly or straight. Only one follows an arc: the so-called Twelve Mile Circle, marking the border between Delaware and Pennsylvania (discussed in #67). This border also shows the peculiar problems circular borders can cause – in this case: a disputed area called the Delaware Wedge, between the Circle and the next straight line (see #68).
But in Lavonia's neck of the woods, round borders are anything but rare. Zoom out of the town and into other municipalities in the northeast corner of Georgia, and it looks like most have circular town plans, many even more pristine than Lavonia's.
To the east, Hartwell also has sprouted addenda in all four directions, but is still recognisably circular in origin. Bowersville, to the south, has remained perfectly round but for a couple of dents at its northern edge, as if a neighbouring town took a bite out of it. Canon, just down the road, has lost and gained some ground, but for the rest is as round as a cannon ball. Carnesville and Royston are two other circular towns in the neighbourhood – and there are more.
Circular town plans are not limited to northern Georgia. The town of Plains, closer to Florida's state capitol in Tallahassee than to Georgia's in Atlanta, is perfectly circular but for a recent excrescence to the west, encompassing the Sumter Retirement Village and part of the National Historical Site dedicated to its most famous native son, Jimmy Carter, the 39th US President.
So there definitely is something rotund in the state of Georgia. Zipping over the state in Google Earth, with the City Boundaries option selected (in Layers, under More, then US Government), circular town and city borders are superabundant – if you include the ones that have been altered, but still are visibly round in origin, there are dozens of them, perhaps hundreds.
Take for instance the neighbouring towns of Leslie and De Soto, on State Route 30 west of I-75: two circles together looking like an old-time penny-farthing bicycle. Leslie is the bigger wheel, with a radius of exactly three quarters of a mile. De Soto is the smaller one, with a radius of half a mile.
Considering that the surface of a circle is pi (approximately 3.14) times the radius squared (A= πr2), that gives Leslie an area of almost 1.77 sq. mi. De Soto would cover an area of about 0.78 sq. mi, but it is less of a perfect circle than its bigger neighbour. It has a small extrusion on its western edge, that on Google Maps almost but not quite kisses Leslie. If you're a border hunter, you could go stand on the 50 feet or so of Holley Street that separate the the two towns, and the hair on the back of your neck would probably stand up thanks to the static energy generated by the proximity of these two circularities. If that's not a good enough reason to swing by, you could then drive into Leslie to visit the Georgia Rural Telephone Museum. Or you could just stay at home and think: Leslie De Soto – good spam name!
The town of Zebulon, south of Atlanta, is surrounded by a host of other souped-up circles, making the area look like a spaceship convention.
A comparable gathering on the edge of Athens shows a motley crew of modified disks, one being particularly puzzling: Winterville looks like the merger of two half circles: a larger one where it is surrounded by Athens (radius: three-quarter mile), a smaller one on the other side (radius: half a mile). How did this happen?
Leaving the next-level weirdness of Winterville to one side, both group portraits indicate that most circular towns come in either of two sizes: with a half-mile or a full-mile radius. As confirmed by this map of Eatonton and surroundings, between Athens and Macon, resembling an aerial view of the English county of Wiltshire at the height of the crop circle season.
Talking about crop circles: this view of Donalsonville and Iron City, near the Georgia-Alabama-Florida tripoint, not only neatly shows the contrast between the square and circular shapes of both towns, but also how Iron City's roundness is much more in tune with the region's circular agriculture.
There are plenty of Georgia towns that are perfectly round, as for example Oliver, near the Savannah River that forms the state's border with South Carolina: as circular as its own initial.
But is roundness a lack of ambition? This map, a bit north of Oliver, shows the contrast between Hiltonia, small and still perfectly round, and Sylvania, bigger to start with, and by now sprouting several appendages that are the hallmark of municipal ambition.
Darien, at the mouth of the Altamaha, demonstrates how not all municipal circles are platforms for growth: it's been reduced to a pitiful half-disk. This is somewhat reminiscent of Washington DC: another perfectly geometrical figure vandalised by a river.
As this map of places with circular limits (1960) shows, it's safe to say that Georgia is the ground zero of the O-shaped town, but not the only place where circular municipalities occur. There are quite a few across the border in South Carolina.
Like this little cluster, halfway between Greenville and Columbia, showing the perfectly round towns of Cross Hill and Silverstreet, and the post-circular city of Newberry.
South Carolina even has a world-class example of circular weirdness in the twin towns of Livingston and Neeses: the former is perfectly – by now we can say: ordinarily – round, but it seems to leak that roundness south to envelop the latter. The southern border of Neeses indicates that it too must have been round once. Why did it cast the edges of its roundness upward, in perfect alignment of the edges of Livingston, turning that town's circularity into a kind of bat signal projected onto the map?
A cursory flyover of other states seems to indicate that it is absent in many regions of the country (e.g. New England and out West) and very rare elsewhere – but not unknown. Like in Alabama, where the round town of Oakman lies near the town of Parrish, with its more conventionally boxy borders.
Rural Settlement Patterns in the United States, a National Academy of Sciences study from 1956, simply notes that “circular town boundaries [are] a feature quite typical of southeastern United States”, but does not elaborate or explain. So where does this curious Zone of Roundness come from? It's a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an... Is it a coincidence that one of Georgia's circular towns is called Enigma?
The Atlas of Georgia (1986) states that circles were used because of “[...] the advantages of explicit verbal clarity, directional impartiality, and ease of adoption”.
In layman's terms: defining the town limits as a circle bigger than its centre means you have clear borders without actually having to demarcate them. But that still doesn't answer two fundamental questions: If circular towns are so practical, why are they so rare? And if they are so rare, why are they so typical of town planning in Georgia and adjacent areas?
Without arriving at a definitive answer, here are a few attempts:
* Linearity has defeated circularity – again. The American victory of the grid system (from square city blocks to rectangular states) is a repeat of a similar struggle in Antiquity between round and square. Circular cities are hinted at by the astronomer Meton in Aristophanes' play The Birds, In Plato's Laws, the philosopher proposes a circular plan for the ideal city. Later, the Roman architect Vitruvius also prescribed the circle as the ideal shape for cities. For the circle symbolises perfection and the sacred. This would explain why Stonehenge and similar neolithic sites were round. But few if any ancient towns actually have circular city plans, and if so, seemingly more by accident than design. In the end, Roma Quadrata won out: the standard city plan exported by the Romans across the Empire was a square, divided in quarters by two main roads meeting in the centre. Roman centuriation (dividing larger territorial units into squares) was an inspiration for what would become the US Land Survey System.
* The idea of a circular layout for ideal cities would resurface in the Renaissance, when such cities were planned (Sforzinda) and even built (Palmanova). The chimera of the perfect circle as the perfect city would resonate all the way into the 20th century, with Ebenezer Howard and the Garden City movement (see also #234), but also with Mussolini and the construction of Littoria, the 'ideal city' of Italian fascism.
* An early indication of circular town planning in America dates from 1822, when the town limites of Madison, Georgia were extended to include “all land within one-half mile of the public square”, and to a full mile in 1849. The mid-19th century was the heyday of circular town plans. It lasted at least until the 1880s, when towns like Lavonia and Plains were incorporated.
* Could it be that this fashion for circularity, limited in time and place, was religious in origin? Nikolaus Zinzendorf, a leader of the Moravian Church in the mid-18th century, had proposed the construction in North Carolina of Unitas, a circular city, as “a perfect “marriage of mathematics and art”, but the plans were abandoned after his death. Unitas became Salem, North Carolina – a non-round town.
* Or did European colonists borrow the round shape of their towns from the land's original inhabitants? Certain Native American towns in Virginia were round, and it is at least thinkable that this inspired the local custom of thinking in circles rather than squares.
However it may be (and your theories are more than welcome), not everybody holds the ideal of the circular city in high esteem. As William V. Spanos writes, in America's Shadow: An Anatomy of Empire, he decries “ […] the military and disciplinary use to which the paradigm of the circular city was put after the Renaissance as the betrayal of the ideal envisaged by the humanists […] Inscribed by their humanist perspective on the circle, they fail to see, as Foucault does not, that this architectural model of beauty is also the model of domination”.
Strange Maps #655
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Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
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Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.
How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.