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The Joy of Sad Place Names
The scattered toponyms that delight us by their unvarnished expression of downheartedness, defeat and despond.
Victors don't just write the history books. They make the atlases too. Places are named and cities are founded by strong-willed go-getters. They've seeded our maps with the rush of exploration and the joy of conquest.
Toponymy generally isn't the province of the melancholy or the morose. They would make terrible explorers and conquistadores. Most days, they don't even make it out of the house — let alone to that nameless continent across the horizon.
That's why the register of global place names is skewed toward optimism and progress. Yet there is a small, scattered number of toponyms that delight us by their unvarnished expression of downheartedness, defeat and despond.
One Instagram account, appropriately named @sadtopographies, is uniquely and solely dedicated to collecting these sad place names, pinning their Google Maps likenesses on the webpage like so many depressed butterflies.
All by itself at the end of a road, Alone seems a test case in self-reference. Except that it is in Italy, and you probably should pronounce it a-LOH-nay. Which does sound a bit more cheerful.
This cove isn't even good at being bad. It's just unfortunate, as if it's the one slight disappointment in a family of rather adequate, merely sufficient coves.
None of these four Sorrow Islands is even visible. Perhaps they drowned in their own tears?
The Slough of Despond is a figure of speech. But there really is a Mount Despair, in Montana. Perhaps a nice destination for your next team-building weekend. Or perhaps not.
Not likely that this was the original, official name. But sometimes those are crowded out by particularly appropriate colloquialisms, however blunt.
Does this lead to the Suicide Bridge?
No buried treasure here. Nor sandy beaches. And no palm trees either.
Samuel Beckett's favourite holiday destination.
The Instagram page lists quite a few more sad place names, such as Gloomy Lake (Ontario), Melancholy Waterhole (Australia) and Uncertain (Texas). But there must be more sad topographies out there. In fact, Toon Wassenberg, who sent in the link to a story on the above Instagram account, also shared one he found himself.
Casing the joint on Google Street View, Tristesse, not far from Cork in Ireland, appears to be an ordinary bungalow on an unremarkable road, surrounded by a wild hedge. What goes on behind those walls?
And here are a few we found:
Defeated, Tennessee. The town sign should read: "Now completely spoils-free."
Morose Street, in an otherwise generally sunny and cheerful Lemon Grove (California).
Slap bang in the centre of Berlin, this Niederlagstraße – "Defeat Street."
Update 13 October
We've received a few interesting additions to the selection above – many in the comments section below (my favourites: the Antarctic islands of Inexpressible and Reluctant). Also: Niederlagstrasse apparently doesn't quite mean 'Defeat Street', as one or two German-speaking readers have pointed out.
"Niederlagstraße in Berlin does not refer to Niederlage (defeat) – would have been spelled with one more e – but to Niederlag (literally, though archaic: “to lay down”). This is a historic term for a place where merchants had (or were allowed) to put down their wares", writes Folkard Wohlgemuth. Okay, I will admit my Niederlage. Without further ado: more sad topographies!
David Slauenwhite pointed out not one, but two examples of a Skunks Misery Road, one in Millerton in upstate New York (pictured; possibly continuing into nearby Pine Plains), the other in Locust Valley, a hamlet of Oyster Bay (on Long Island). In fact, there are two more roads commemorating musteline misfortune: in Franklin, Vermont and Templeton, Massachusetts.
Stephen McCavour refers to Mount Misery, on the Kingston Peninsula in New Brunswick (Canada). There are in fact a few other topographical features also called Mount Misery, one in Voluntown, Connecticut and another one in Pemberton Township, New Jersey. Oh, and yes, all you Tolkienistas, there is also a Mount Doom. Or at least a Doom Mountain, in Brooks Peninsula Provincial Park on Vancouver Island, British Columbia (Canada).
Leif G. Malmgren mentions Verdens Ende, Norwegian for 'World's End' – a tourist attraction at the end of a peninsula south of Oslo. “Once, it was a small world”, he says. Indeed. There are plenty of other World's Ends, no less than eight in the UK (plus three pubs, plus a movie named after such a pub), two in the U.S., and one in Australia and Sri Lanka each.
Anton Sherwood points to Leidig Court in Hayward, California. 'Leidig' is German for 'sorrowful'. Fortunately, you only have to cross West Tennyson Road to get to Lustig ('joyful') Court.
Damien Rudd, who runs the @sadtopographies Instagram account mentioned in the blog, was kind enough to say thanks for the article – and to point out that there really is a literal Slough of Despond, in Georgian Bluffs, Ontario.
Marc A. Criley reports that in Alabama, there is a Dismals Canyon, “the only known habitation of the dismalites, a fly whose larval form emit a bright blue-green light to attract food and mates”.
From Austria, Paul Herzberg (“I live fairly near Windpassing, though that's not particularly sad”) points out the existence of Äußere Einöde ('Outer Wasteland'), not far from Einöde bei Villach ('Desolation near Villach'). I suppose that makes the first, Villach-less desolation the more desolate of the two.
In Australia, says Shane McEwan, there is a Cape Grim, overlooking Suicide Bay. The story attached to both names is quite grim, though nothing to do with suicide: “Suicide Bay got its name after European shepherds massacred an Aboriginal tribe and threw their bodies off the cliff. They named the site of the massacre Victory Hill. A fine example of history (and cartography) being written by the victors”.
Also in Australia, sent in by Andrew Brown: Lake Disappointment, so named by the explorer Frank Hann in 1897. He noticed creeks in the area flowing inland, but found salt flats instead of a freshwater lake.
From a salty setback to a foggy one: “Cape Disappointment at the mouth of the Columbia River on the Washington side is the foggiest place in North America as well as having a sad name”, says SounderBruce.
Jorge sent in Useless Bay ('Bahia Inutil') in Chile, as well as a few other sad, strange places – a Futile Lake in Canada, and Nameless Place ('Bezimyane') in Donetsk oblast, Ukraine.
Lowell G. McManus lives less than two miles from Desolation Row, in Radar Base, Texas.
Karin Hosking reveals the existence of a Doubtful Sound in New Zealands's South Island – balanced out by a Doubtless Bay on the North Island.
Finally, Andrew Porter points us in the direction of the Canadian town of Porters Lake, Nova Scotia, where you'll find This Street, That Street and The Other Street. While that does not sound as bad as some of the other names above, imagine living there, and having to provide directions to your house.
Update 18 October
Even more sad toponyms!
"You missed this wonderful confluence of toponymic and cartographic sad place names", says Tom Williams, referring to Mount Disappointment, in the San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles. He quotes its interesting history:
Mount Disappointment has a summit elevation of 5,963+ feet (1,818+ m). It was named "Disappointment" in 1894 when USGS surveyors sighted it from the Santa Susana Mountains, believing it to be the highest point in the immediate area, decided to use it as their next triangulation point. When they reached the summit, however, they discovered that San Gabriel Peak half a mile (0.8 km) to the east was 167 feet (51 m) higher and so moved there instead.
A Nike missile site was located there in 1955 and the summit was flattened to accommodate it. The missile site was abandoned in 1965. The mountain top is now an important telecommunications site for both commercial and government organizations.
"Having been to both locations mentioned below, I can say that San Gabriel Peak is definitely more satisfying".
James Williams – any relation? - has some info on another area in California: "In the course of a long work project on the history of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, I came to discover that it was a region bursting with odd/baffling/amazing place names. An artificial watercourse called Telephone Cut, for instance. (…) My favorite is Widows Island, which is now a body of water encircled by the levees that used to maintain the island as dry-ish land. A few miles to the northeast is Disappointment Slough, just around the corner from Hog and Spud islands".
Sara Byrd points to Boring, Tennessee – a toponym so joylessly stale that it almost makes you want to go have a look at all that municipal misery. Other kinds of misfortune are to be found at Yucky Run Road in Moorefield, West Virginia and Smelley Road in Longview, Texas, she says.
Update January 2017 - even more sad(-ish) place names:
“There is a very short street in North Little Rock, AR called Endsquick Court”, writes Billy BobX.
“Similar to the streets of Porters Lake, Nova Scotia, Lake Jackson, TX has a variation of the same theme”, says David Karesh, pointing out This Way and That Way on a local map.
How could you miss Death Valley in California, ask Cynthia and Mark Hall-Patton. “As the local county museum administrator, I am also particularly taken with Forlorn Hope Spring in Southern Nevada, near Boulder City”, adds Mark, Administrator at the Clark County museum system.
Jennifer Roberts has a peculiar story from eastern Québec: “This cape was named Cap d'Espérance (Cape Hope) by Jacques Cartier, and had a rather capricious naming history. Its name was shortened to Cap Despera, then mistranslated into English as Cape Despair and again into French as Cap Désespoir (Cape Despair) until the end of the 19th century. The village was then named Cape Cove and Anse-du-Cap until the Geographical Commission adopted the toponym Cap d'Espoir in 1953”.
The pithiest contribution is by Dave Johnson, who simply writes: “Pity Me, County Durham, UK”.
Got any more? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Strange Maps #744
The idea of 'absolute time' is an illusion. Physics and subjective experience reveal why.
- Since Einstein posited his theory of general relativity, we've understood that gravity has the power to warp space and time.
- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Place one clock at the top of a mountain. Place another on the beach. Eventually, you'll see that each clock tells a different time. Why? Time moves slower as you get closer to Earth, because, as Einstein posited in his theory of general relativity, the gravity of a large mass, like Earth, warps the space and time around it.
Scientists first observed this "time dilation" effect on the cosmic scale, such as when a star passes near a black hole. Then, in 2010, researchers observed the same effect on a much smaller scale, using two extremely precise atomic clocks, one placed 33 centimeters higher than the other. Again, time moved slower for the clock closer to Earth.
The differences were tiny, but the implications were massive: absolute time does not exist. For each clock in the world, and for each of us, time passes slightly differently. But even if time is passing at ever-fluctuating speeds throughout the universe, time is still passing in some kind of objective sense, right? Maybe not.
Physics without time
In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.
"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"
So, why do we perceive time as flowing forward? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.
Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.
"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the Financial Times. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."
"Entropy growth orients time and permits the existence of traces of the past, and these permit the possibility of memories, which hold together our sense of identity. I suspect that what we call the "flowing" of time has to be understood by studying the structure of our brain rather than by studying physics: evolution has shaped our brain into a machine that feeds off memory in order to anticipate the future. This is what we are listening to when we listen to the passing of time. Understanding the "flowing" of time is therefore something that may pertain to neuroscience more than to fundamental physics. Searching for the explanation of the feeling of flow in physics might be a mistake."
Scientists still have much to learn about how we perceive time, and why time operates differently depending on the scale. But what's certain is that, outside of the realm of physics, our individual perception of time is also surprisingly elastic.
The strange subjectivity of time
Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.
Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.
"If you're thinking about how time is currently passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told Gizmodo. "The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely not having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."
One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with The Guardian, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.
"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."
It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.
"What we call time is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told Physics Today. "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."What is an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
A new study suggests that reports of the impending infertility of the human male are greatly exaggerated.
- A new review of a famous study on declining sperm counts finds several flaws.
- The old report makes unfounded assumptions, has faulty data, and tends toward panic.
- The new report does not rule out that sperm counts are going down, only that this could be quite normal.
Several years ago, a meta-analysis of studies on human fertility came out warning us about the declining sperm counts of Western men. It was widely shared, and its findings were featured on the covers of popular magazines. Indeed, its findings were alarming: a nearly 60 percent decline in sperm per milliliter since 1973 with no end in sight. It was only a matter of time, the authors argued, until men were firing blanks, literally.
Well… never mind.
It turns out that the impending demise of humanity was greatly exaggerated. As the predicted infertility wave crashed upon us, there was neither a great rush of men to fertility clinics nor a sudden dearth of new babies. The only discussions about population decline focus on urbanization and the fact that people choose not to have kids rather than not being able to have them.
Now, a new analysis of the 2017 study says that lower sperm counts is nothing to be surprised by. Published in Human Fertility, its authors point to flaws in the original paper's data and interpretation. They suggest a better and smarter reanalysis.
Counting tiny things is difficult
The original 2017 report analyzed 185 studies on 43,000 men and their reproductive health. Its findings were clear: "a significant decline in sperm counts… between 1973 and 2011, driven by a 50-60 percent decline among men unselected by fertility from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand."
However, the new analysis points out flaws in the data. As many as a third of the men in the studies were of unknown age, an important factor in reproductive health. In 45 percent of cases, the year of the sample collection was unknown- a big detail to miss in a study measuring change over time. The quality controls and conditions for sample collection and analysis vary widely from study to study, which likely influenced the measured sperm counts in the samples.
Another study from 2013 also points out that the methods for determining sperm count were only standardized in the 1980s, which occurred after some of the data points were collected for the original study. It is entirely possible that the early studies gave inaccurately high sperm counts.
This is not to say that the 2017 paper is entirely useless; it had a much more rigorous methodology than previous studies on the subject, which also claimed to identify a decline in sperm counts. However, the original study had more problems.
Garbage in, garbage out
Predictable as always, the media went crazy. Discussions of the decline of masculinity took off, both in mainstream and less-than-reputable forums; concerns about the imagined feminizing traits of soy products continued to increase; and the authors of the original study were called upon to discuss the findings themselves in a number of articles.
However, as this new review points out, some of the findings of that meta-analysis are debatable at best. For example, the 2017 report suggests that "declining mean [sperm count] implies that an increasing proportion of men have sperm counts below any given threshold for sub-fertility or infertility," despite little empirical evidence that this is the case.
The WHO offers a large range for what it considers to be a healthy sperm count, from 15 to 250 million sperm per milliliter. The benefits to fertility above a count of 40 million are seen as minimal, and the original study found a mean sperm concentration of 47 million sperm per milliliter.
Healthy sperm, healthy man?
The claim that sperm count is evidence of larger health problems is also scrutinized in this new article. While it is true that many major health problems can impact reproductive health, there is little evidence that it is the "canary in the coal mine" for overall well-being. A number of studies suggest that any relation between lifestyle choices and this part of reproductive health is limited at best.
Lastly, ideas that environmental factors could be at play have been debunked since 2017. While the original paper considered the idea that pollutants, especially from plastics, could be at fault, it is now known that this kind of pollution is worse in the parts of the world that the original paper observed higher sperm counts in (i.e., non-Western nations).
There never was a male fertility crisis
The authors of the new review do not deny that some measurements are showing lower sperm counts, but they do question the claim that this is catastrophic or part of a larger pathological issue. They propose a new interpretation of the data. Dubbed the "Sperm Count Biovariability hypothesis," it is summarized as:
"Sperm count varies within a wide range, much of which can be considered non-pathological and species-typical. Above a critical threshold, more is not necessarily an indicator of better health or higher probability of fertility relative to less. Sperm count varies across bodies, ecologies, and time periods. Knowledge about the relationship between individual and population sperm count and life-historical and ecological factors is critical to interpreting trends in average sperm counts and their relationships to human health and fertility."
Still, the authors note that lower sperm counts "could decline due to negative environmental exposures, or that this may carry implications for men's health and fertility."
However, they disagree that the decline in absolute sperm count is necessarily a bad sign for men's health and fertility. We aren't at civilization ending catastrophe just yet.
A year of disruptions to work has contributed to mass burnout.
- Junior members of the workforce, including Generation Z, are facing digital burnout.
- 41 percent of workers globally are thinking about handing in their notice, according to a new Microsoft survey.
- A hybrid blend of in-person and remote work could help maintain a sense of balance – but bosses need to do more.
More than half of 18 to 25 year-olds in the workforce are considering quitting their job. And they're not the only ones.
In a report called The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work – Are We Ready?, Microsoft found that as well as 54% of Generation Z workers, 41% of the entire global workforce could be considering handing in their resignation.
Similarly, a UK and Ireland survey found that 38% of employees were planning to leave their jobs in the next six months to a year, while a US survey reported that 42% of employees would quit if their company didn't offer remote working options long term.
New work trends
Based on surveys with over 30,000 workers in 31 countries, the Microsoft report – which is the latest in the company's annual Work Trend Index series – pulled in data from applications including Teams, Outlook and Office 365, to gauge productivity and activity levels. It highlighted seven major trends, which show the world of work has been profoundly reshaped by the pandemic:
- Flexible work is here to stay
- Leaders are out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call
- High productivity is masking an exhausted workforce
- Gen Z is at risk and will need to be re-energized
- Shrinking networks are endangering innovation
- Authenticity will spur productivity and wellbeing
- Talent is everywhere in a hybrid world
"Over the past year, no area has undergone more rapid transformation than the way we work," Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says in the report. "Employee expectations are changing, and we will need to define productivity much more broadly – inclusive of collaboration, learning and wellbeing to drive career advancement for every worker, including frontline and knowledge workers, as well as for new graduates and those who are in the workforce today. All this needs to be done with flexibility in, when, where and how people work."
Organizations have become more siloed
While the report highlights the opportunities created by increased flexible and remote working patterns, it warns that some people are experiencing digital exhaustion and that remote working could foster siloed thinking. With the shift to remote working, much of the spontaneous sharing of ideas that can take place within a workplace was lost. In its place are scheduled calls, regular catch-ups and virtual hangouts. The loss of in-person interaction means individual team members are more likely to only interact with their closest coworkers.
"At the onset of the pandemic, our analysis shows interactions with our close networks at work increased while interactions with our distant network diminished," the report says. "This suggests that as we shifted into lockdown, we clung to our immediate teams for support and let our broader network fall to the wayside. Simply put, companies became more siloed than they were pre-pandemic."
Burnout or drop out
One of the other consequences of the shift to remote and the reliance on tech-based communications has been the phenomenon of digital burnout. And for those who have most recently joined the workforce, this has been a significant challenge.
The excitement of joining a new employer, maybe even securing a job for the first time, usually comes with meeting lots of new people, becoming familiar with a new environment and adapting to new situations. But for many, the pandemic turned that into a daily routine of working from home while isolated from co-workers.
"Our findings have shown that for Gen Z and people just starting in their careers, this has been a very disruptive time," says LinkedIn Senior Editor-at-Large, George Anders, quoted in the report. "It's very hard to find their footing since they're not experiencing the in-person onboarding, networking and training that they would have expected in a normal year."
But it is perhaps the data around quitting that is one of the starkest indications that change is now the new normal. Being able to work remotely has opened up new possibilities for many workers, the report found. If you no longer need to be physically present in an office, your employer could, theoretically, be located anywhere. Perhaps that's why the research found that "41% of employees are considering leaving their current employer this year".
In addition to that, 46% of the people surveyed for the Microsoft report said they might relocate their home because of the flexibility of remote working.
A hybrid future
In looking for ways to navigate their way through all this change, employers should hold fast to one word, the report says – hybrid. An inflexible, location-centred approach to work is likely to encourage those 41% of people to leave and find somewhere more to their tastes. Those who are thinking of going to live somewhere else, while maintaining their current job, might also find themselves thinking of quitting if their plans are scuppered.
But remote working is not a panacea for all workforce ills. "We can no longer rely solely on offices to collaborate, connect, and build social capital. But physical space will still be important," the report says. "We're social animals and we want to get together, bounce ideas off one another, and experience the energy of in-person events. Moving forward, office space needs to bridge the physical and digital worlds to meet the unique needs of every team – and even specific roles."
Bosses must meet challenges head on
Although the majority of business leaders have indicated they will incorporate elements of the hybrid working model, the report also found many are out of touch with workforce concerns more widely.
For, while many workers say they are struggling (Gen Z – 60%; new starters – 64%), and 54% of the general workforce feels overworked, business leaders are having a much better experience. Some 61% said they were 'thriving', which is in stark contrast to employees who are further down the chain of command.
Jared Spataro, corporate vice president at Microsoft 365, writes in the report: "Those impromptu encounters at the office help keep leaders honest. With remote work, there are fewer chances to ask employees, 'Hey, how are you?' and then pick up on important cues as they respond. But the data is clear: our people are struggling. And we need to find new ways to help them."
Buildings don't have to be permanent — modular construction can make them modifiable and relocatable.