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Pandemic resurrects old Australian border dispute
Victorians want to rectify 19th-century surveying error – and become South Australians.
- A 19th-century surveying error created a complicated tripoint on the Murray River in eastern Australia.
- Officially, the dispute about the zigzag border between South Australia and Victoria was settled in 1914.
- COVID-19 is making life so difficult for the locals that now they want to switch sides again.
Straight, but with a little swerve
Sunset in South Australia's Riverland, close to the zigzag border with Victoria and New South Wales.
Image: Yuri Obst – CC BY-SA4.0
South Australia's eastern border looks like one of those unswervingly straight lines that zip through deserts and other thinly settled parts of the world without the slightest deviation. And indeed, it starts at the 26th parallel as it ends 833 miles further south, on the sandy shores of the Southern Ocean: straight as an arrow.
But swerve it does. Zoom in on the place where that border meets the Murray. That mighty river flows into South Australia from the east, where it forms the border between New South Wales (NSW) to the north, and Victoria to the south. Here, South Australia's eastern border hitches a ride of about three miles downstream before it resumes its southward plunge.
The result is a zigzag border – a wonderful anomaly, if you're into that kind of thing. But if you're local, that border is nothing but trouble. And with the coronavirus further complicating things, many now want the anomaly gone. Quite a few local Victorians want the border drawn as was intended by South Australia's founding document, almost two centuries ago. That would make them citizens of South Australia, the state where they do most of their business anyway.
In 1836, the Letters Patent that established what was initially known as the colony of South Australia declared that its eastern border would be the 141st meridian east of Greenwich.
At that time, South Australia had only one neighbor to the east: NSW. But not for long. In 1839, NSW south of the Murray River became the District of Port Phillip, and in 1851 that district became the separate colony of Victoria. The new colony inherited its western border from NSW. However, back in the 19th century, defining a border on a map was one thing; demarcating it on the ground, in the Australian Outback no less, was quite another.
In 1839, surveyor Charles Tyers left a giant arrow made out of limestone rock just east of the mouth of the Glenelg River, at a spot he had calculated as being the 141th meridian. Tyers' Arrow, on the Southern Ocean, was supposed to be the starting point of an inland surveying expedition.
Owen Stanley, captain of HMS Britomart, made sure that would never happen. Visiting the location some time after Tyers' expedition, he estimated that the latter's mark was 2.25 miles east of the 141st meridian. This is where the trouble started, because Stanley's correction was due to faulty equipment. And Tyers had, in fact, been right.
Half a pint of horse blood
South Australia's northern border is the 26th parallel south, which is also the starting point of its eastern border, at the 141st meridian east – but only until the Murray River.
Image: Wikimedia Commons & Ruland Kolen
By the mid-1840s, land disputes between sheep farmers in the area between the Murray and the sea necessitated a demarcation of the border between South Australia and the District of Port Phillip. In 1847, surveyor Henry Wade laid down 123 miles of border in a straight south-north line – starting from the point established by Stanley instead of Tyers.
Due to harsh conditions, difficult terrain and broken equipment, Wade had to give up surveying about 155 miles south of the Murray River. Nevertheless, both South Australia and NSW soon accepted his line as the boundary between both territories.
In 1849, Wade's co-surveyor Edward White completed demarcating the boundary north to the Murray – but in conditions even harsher than on the previous expedition. After just two weeks in the waterless Big Desert, his men had mutinied and two of this three horses had died. When the last one lay down, White drank half a pint of its blood, "which was thick, black and unhealthy-looking and had the same bad smell as his breath," he later wrote in his diary. Whether or not thanks to that drink, he managed to stagger on for two more miles – reaching the Murray and completing the survey.
By that time, it was already clear that the Wade-White line wasn't the true meridian. However, both sides having accepted the line for what it was, the new state of Victoria upon its establishment in 1851 inherited the mistake in its favor.
In 1868, it was time to demarcate the border north of the Murray. By then, better instruments were available. So, for the border between South Australia and NSW, it was agreed to revert to the 141st meridian, as per the original definition.
As a result, South Australia's eastern border follows the Wade-White line south of the Murray, and the 141st meridian to the river's north. Hence the zigzag at the tripoint with NSW and Victoria, which is called MacCabe Corner.
MacCabe Corner is one of five named state border junctions in Australia. Surveyor Generals Corner is at the tripoint of Western Australia (WA), South Australia (SA) and the Northern Territory (NT).Poeppel Corner is at the tripoint of NT, SA and Queensland (QLD).Haddon Corner is where the SA-QLD border takes a 90° turn south.Cameron Corner is at meeting point of SA, QLD and New South Wales (NSW).MacCabe Corner is at the tripoint of SA, NSW and Victoria (VIC).
Image: Yarl, Papayoung & Summerdrought - CC BY-SA 3.0
For South Australia, that zigzag was a stark reminder of what it had lost: a strip of land between the Murray and the sea, 2.25 miles wide and 280 miles long – in all, more than 500 square miles.
For decades, South Australia disputed Victoria's ownership of the strip, and tried to reclaim it (or at least get compensated for it). But that was like trying to close the barn door long after the horse had bolted: by 1849, the District of Port Phillip had already sold or leased out 47 percent of the disputed land.
Due to the dispute, the contested strip of land continued to be a bit of a grey zone, legally. In a 1901 referendum, one local cast his vote as a Victorian one day, and as a South Australian the next.
The grey zone was finally erased in 1914, when the Privy Council in London pronounced in favor of Victoria. The court acknowledged that a surveying mistake had been made; but the erroneous border had been accepted by both sides, and that was that.
End of story? Well, not quite. Not if it's up to the good people of Lindsay Point, an almond-growing community just south of the tripoint, entirely within Victoria – but mainly west of the 141st meridian.
The nearest Victorian cities are more than 100 miles to the east. Most farmers and other locals are oriented towards the Riverland region in South Australia, where they go to school and do all of their business. Conversely, many properties in and around Lindsay Point are owned by South Australians. Even the power comes in from South Australia.
Irrelevant and inconvenient
Close-up of the zigzag border near MacCabe Corner, the tripoint where South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria meet, on the Murray River.
Image: Google Earth & Ruland Kolen
That level of cross-border economic integration came under pressure in recent months, when Australia's states started imposing restrictions on interstate travel, due to COVID-19. Specifically, a border lockdown preventing Victorians from entering South Australia has cut off Lindsay Point from its natural hinterland.
With that state border irrelevant in the best of times, and bloody inconvenient in the worst of times, many locals are dusting off the old territorial dispute. Increasingly, they are convinced that the Privy Council's verdict should not be final, and that it should be settled in favor of the side that lost the first time around.
If it ever does, the result will surely count as the longest, narrowest strip of territory ever to change hands.
More on the low rumblings of secessionism in Lindsay Point in this ABC News story.
Strange Maps #1040
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
- Map: 'The West' is the world's biggest gated community - Big Think ›
- Strange Maps ›
- Atlas of the world's unusual borders - Big Think ›
A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
A machine learning system lets visitors at a Kandinsky exhibition hear the artwork.
Have you ever heard colors?
As part of a new exhibition, the worlds of culture and technology collide, bringing sound to the colors of abstract art pioneer Wassily Kandinsky.
Kandinsky had synesthesia, where looking at colors and shapes causes some with the condition to hear associated sounds. With the help of machine learning, virtual visitors to the Sounds Like Kandinsky exhibition, a partnership project by Centre Pompidou in Paris and Google Arts & Culture, can have an aural experience of his art.
An eye for music
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his painting. Seeing yellow summoned up trumpets, evoking emotions like cheekiness; reds produced violins portraying restlessness; while organs representing heavenliness he associated with blues, according to the exhibition notes.
Virtual visitors are invited to take part in an experiment called Play a Kandinsky, which allows them to see and hear the world through the artist's eyes.
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his 1925 painting Yellow, Red, Blue.Image: Guillaume Piolle/Wikimedia Commons
In 1925, the artist's masterpiece, "Yellow, Red, Blue", broke new ground in the world of abstract art, guiding the viewer from left to right with shifting shapes and shades. Almost a century after it was painted, Google's interactive tool lets visitors click different parts of the artwork to journey through the artist's description of the colors, associated sounds and moods that inspired the work.
But Google's new toy is not the only tool developed to enhance the artistic experience.
Artist Neil Harbisson has developed an artificial way to emulate Kandinsky by turning colors into sounds. He has a rare form of color blindness and sees the world in greyscale. But a smart antenna attached to his head translates dominant colors into musical notes, creating a real-world soundtrack of what's in front of him. The invention could open up a new world for people who are color blind.
A new study suggests that private prisons hold prisoners for a longer period of time, wasting the cost savings that private prisons are supposed to provide over public ones.
- Private prisons in Mississippi tend to hold prisoners 90 days longer than public ones.
- The extra days eat up half of the expected cost savings of a private prison.
- The study leaves several open questions, such as what affect these extra days have on recidivism rates.
The United States of America, land of the free, is home to 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prisoners. The cost of having so many people in the penal system adds up to $80 billion per year, more than three times the budget for NASA. This massive system exploded in size relatively recently, with the prison population increasing by six-fold in the last four decades.
Ten percent of these prisoners are kept in private prisons, which are owned and operated for the sake of profit by contractors. In theory, these operations cost less than public prisons and jails, and states can save money by contracting them to incarcerate people. They have a long history in the United States and are used in many other countries as well.
However, despite the pervasiveness of private contractors in the American prison system, there is not much research into how well they live up to their promise to provide similar services at a lower cost to the state. The little research that is available often encounters difficulties in trying to compare the costs and benefits of facilities with vastly different operations and occasionally produces results suggesting there are few benefits to privatization.
A new study by Dr. Anita Mukherjee and published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy joins the debate with a robust consideration of the costs and benefits of private prisons. Its findings suggest that some private prisons keep people incarcerated longer and save less money than advertised.
The study focuses on prisons in Mississippi. Despite its comparatively high rate of incarceration, Mississippi's prison system is very similar to that of other states that also use private prisons. Demographically, its system is representative of the rest of the U.S. prison system, and its inmates are sentenced for similar amounts of time.
The state attempts to get the most out of its privatization efforts, as a 1994 law requires all contracts for private prisons in Mississippi to provide at least a 10 percent cost savings over public prisons while providing similar services. As a result, the state seeks to maximize its savings by sending prisoners to private institutions first if space if available.
While public and private prisons in Mississippi are quite similar, there are a few differences that allow for the possibility of cost savings by private operators — not the least of which is that the guards are paid 30 percent less and have fewer benefits than their publicly employed counterparts.
The results of privatization
The graph depicts the likelihood of release for public (dotted line) vs. private (solid line) prison inmates. At every level of time served, public prisoners were more likely to be released than private prisoners.Dr. Anita Mukherjee
The study relied on administrative records of the Mississippi prison system between 1996 and 2013. The data included information on prisoner demographics, the crimes committed, sentence lengths, time served, infractions while incarcerated, and prisoner relocation while in the system, including between public and private jails. For this study, the sample examined was limited to those serving between one and six years and those who served at least a quarter of their sentence. This created a primary sample of 26,563 bookings.
Analysis revealed that prisoners in private prisons were behind bars for four to seven percent longer than those in public prisons, which translates to roughly 85 to 90 extra days per prisoner. This is, in part, because those in private prison serve a greater portion of their sentences (73 percent) than those in public institutions (70 percent).
This in turn might be due to the much higher infraction rate in private prisons compared to public ones. While only 18 percent of prisoners in a public prison commit an infraction, such as disobeying a guard or possessing contraband, the number jumps to 46 percent in a private prison. Infractions can reduce the probability of early release or cause time to be added to a sentence.
It's unclear why there are so many more infractions in private prisons. Dr. Mukherjee suggests it could be the result of "harsher prison conditions in private prisons," better monitoring techniques, incentives to report more of them to the state before contract renewals, or even a lackadaisical attitude on the part of public prison employees.
What does all this cost Mississippi?
The extra time served eats 48 percent of the cost savings of keeping prisoners in a private facility. For example, it costs about $135,000 to house a prisoner in a private prison for three years and $150,000 in the public system. But longer stays in private prisons reduce the savings from $15,000 to only $7,800.
As Dr. Mukherjee remarks, this cost is also just the finance. Some things are a little harder to measure:
"There are, of course, other costs that are difficult to quantify — e.g., the cost of injustice to society (if private prison inmates systematically serve more time), the inmate's individual value of freedom, and impacts of the additional incarceration on future employment. Abrams and Rohlfs (2011) estimates a prisoner's value of freedom for 90 days at about $1,100 using experimental variation in bail setting. Mueller-Smith (2017) estimates that 90 days of marginal incarceration costs about $15,000 in reduced wages and increased reliance on welfare. If these social costs were to exceed $7,800 in the example stated, private prisons would no longer offer a bargain in terms of welfare-adjusted cost savings."
It is possible that the extra time in jail provides benefits that counter these costs, such as a reduced recidivism rate, but this proved difficult to determine. Though it was not statistically significant, there was some evidence that the added time actually increased the rate of recidivism. If that's true, then private prisons could be counterproductive.