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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

This Week:


One of the core principles of this weblog is that there are plenty of important and interesting things happening in the world that you won't find on television or the front pages of newspapers. The June issue of Wired and the July/August issue of the Atlantic Monthly bear this out. Both are devoted to emerging trends and important dynamics of our complex world that deserve more attention. Together they form a sort of new atlas—a revision of the way we look at the world and measure its boundaries and dimensions.

This week, items from Wired's geography of changing space that fit traditional atlas categories or describe physical characteristics of the globe. Next week, Wired on artificial and virtual aspects of the world.

We tend to think of cities as the embodiment of modernization and primitive rural life as typical of the Two Thirds World. Wired, with the AMO (presumably the Association of Municipalities of Ontario) points out some startling facts about urbanization worldwide. "At the start of the 20th century, 10 percent of the earth's population lived in cities. By the end of this decade, 50 percent will be urban dwellers."

Not only that, but the fastest urban growth is happening in the Two Thirds World.

"By 2015, there will be 58 metro areas with more than 5 million inhabitants each—48 outside the developed world." The brilliant graphics from this issue don't translate well online, but here is a version of Wired's map of urban growth. (Note also the map of youth in the world, which shows much of Africa and the Middle East to have a median age of less than 20.)


Two ways in which the globe could be redrawn to reflect the power of multinational corporations: First, we could use a map that enlarges those tiny, quiet seats of economic power—the island tax havens where corporations stow their assets to protect them from taxation. (See second item here.) Second, we could use a map of globalization that ditches the old-fashioned method of country names, colors and boundaries in favor of corporate ones, showing where corporations have their offices around the world. (See fourth item here.)


You hear a lot of talk about the bullying "American Empire," but much less about the European Union's unique political experiment in subtle sovereignty. As the EU swells in size to 25 nations, swallowing up member nations motivated by economic reform, its below-the-radar bureaucracy gains little notice but a lot of power. "Although the EU legislates up to half of its member states' laws, most of their trade, and many policy decisions—from agriculture to economics—it's practically invisible," writes Foreign Policy Centre director Mark Leonard in Wired. "There are no European courts, legislative chambers, or business regulations on display in London. Instead, just as a virus takes over a healthy cell, the EU operates through the shell of traditional political structures." Unlike the U.S., which uses its military to enact surface changes in other countries, "Europe's invisibility allows it to spread its influence without provocation. … This new type of power means that Europe effects change from the inside out." Full story

-Unanswered Question: It can be said that the U.S. is weak politically but strong culturally; the world may not be fond of the U.S. agenda for "regime change" and other policies, but it loves our movies, fast food, and brand-name clothes. By contrast, what Leonard doesn't address is that while the EU has a firm political grip on its member nations, it has no unifying culture. It is, to paraphrase a Brussels bureaucrat quoted in Building Europe, "Europe without Europeans." What would Leonard say is the significance of this difference, and will the EU successfully create a mass popular culture in the twenty-first century?


Borders, like bridges, may bear more metaphorical than physical power—they loom in the minds of citizens as symbols of limits and control. "The border between two lands is more than a line; it reinforces the hopes and fears of the nations that share it," writes Wired's Jeff Howe. He highlights six of the world's contested borders, with an eye toward technology's role in smoothing or stopping flow among them. They include:

-The Strait of Gibraltar, the rather ambiguous line between Spain and Morocco. The EU helped fund Spain's construction of fences and surveillance systems around its two cities that lie in recently independent Morocco: Ceuta and Melilla. (See also this map of the region from Africa-Map.net and these pictures of Melilla by Internet journalist Tore Kjeilen.)

-The desolate but mine-filled (and ill-named) Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, which Bill Clinton once called "the scariest place in the world."

-The Ferghana Valley in Central Asia, a fertile plain fought over by Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Howe calls it "The Pointless Border." If the three nations could stop lining their borders with land mines long enough to cooperate and open lines of trade across the valley, they could coax life from their dormant economies.

-Kashmir, which India and Pakistan have wrestled over for more than 50 years, despite its lack of strategic and agricultural importance (and its altitude, which has killed thousands of soldiers in falls and avalanches). But being both inconvenient and irrelevant didn't stop Kashmir from nearly hosting a nuclear war in 1999. Full story

(see also the New York Times on tourism in Kashmir*)


This is what you don't see on traditional maps: land with no ownership, citizens without a country. The temporary holding space of the world's more than 35 million refugees—"Limbo" land, as Wired calls it—is getting tighter. "Even as the need for relief grows, humanitarian space is shrinking—in the physical realm of camps as well as the conceptual arena of neutral conditions," writes Thomas Keenan of the Human Rights Project. Full story


More than 2,500 courses were built in the United States during the 1990s, a threefold increase from the decade before (Orange County alone now has 60 courses). Especially in the American Southwest, these courses are not places to get away from it all—they're actually in the middle of it all; in a break from traditional grid patterns for housing tracts, the courses anchor housing developments that surround them. Full story (see also the last item below on the future of lawns)

-Unanswered Questions: What does urban planner R.E. Somol mean when he writes in Wired that golf "grants people the power to venture ever inward—manifest destiny in reverse"? Does he mean that golf—either the courses or the game—physically and civically isolates people? How does this contrast with Turner's Frontier Thesis about American society?


In cylindrical pods perched among rust-colored rocks in a Martian landscape, scientists do experiments and adjust to space station life. Sound like the set of a new sci-fi movie? The scene is reality in the Utah desert, where NASA operates its Mars Desert Research Station (in addition to a similar settlement in the Arctic) to prepare scientists for an eventual journey to the Red Planet. Wired interviews a NASA chief in Utah. Full story

-Unanswered Question: With the moon, the question was how to land on it and what to do when we got there. But Mars' sheer distance from Earth may be the most daunting aspect of a possible journey there. Is current Mars talk too preoccupied with the first two questions, and not enough on how human beings could function for nine months in a transport vehicle? At such a distance, in such small a space, with such Type A people as NASA tends to attract, is psychology our biggest obstacle, as this fascinating Discover magazine cover story suggested?


From the New York Times:

COPENHAGEN—Ever since a group of squatters took over an abandoned military fortress in the heart of this intimate, orderly city 32 years ago, their "Free Town," Christiania, has caused the government untold heartburn. What began as a social experiment in communal living now draws hundreds of thousands of tourists. Hashish is sold freely on Pusher Street and smoked openly, despite the Danish law forbidding both activities. Houses built mostly without official permission are not bought and sold, but loaned to kindred spirits selected by other residents. There are no roads, and thus no cars. Problems are solved in-house; residents meet, and meet, until they reach consensus, whether on sanitation or schooling. … [This] does not sit well with the ruling Conservative Party, which took power in 2001 on a law-and-order platform and vows to rid Copenhagen of Christiania. Full story*
BUENA PARK, Calif.—Parishioners can commune with the Almighty, then put faith to the test on the diabolical Xcelerator, a roller coaster that hurtles to 80 miles an hour in 2.3 seconds. This is the Church of Reflection at Knott's Berry Farm here, the only place in the nation where the spiritual and the secular meet in this particular way. … Most who attend this church pass on the rides, either because they work at the park or because amusement is not what they seek. It is the word within that beckons. … Perhaps the 1880's boom town atmosphere and employees who attend service in period costume have added to [Rev. Sheldon] Perrine's folksy magic, as has the whitewashed rustic church itself, built by Baptists in nearby Downey during Gold Rush days and moved to the park in 1955 by Walter Knott. … When Knott saved the church from demolition and added it to his theme park, his main intention was to provide employees with a place for worship. Full story*


For links with an * you can log in with member name and password of "bcread"

  • The jetliner had been parked for over a year in Luanda, the capital of Angola. Then one afternoon in late May, it suddenly started rolling down the runway and took off. The control tower was stunned and radioed the cockpit to see what was going on. No response. For a month and half now, the 153-foot, 200 ton Boeing 727 has simply vanished from the face of the earth, says the Washington Post. Worst-case scenario: it's in the hands of terrorists for a suicide mission. In any event, it sure is strange. "I haven't come across this before in 22 years in the business," said one aviation security analyst. Full story
  • The Yangtze River is the backbone of ancient settlements along its banks, but what happens when the backbone bends? Last month, the Chinese government commenced phase one of its monumental project to dam the Yangtze in the Three Gorges. You can see the effects in the region already, writes Peter Hessler, former English teacher in the region, in an engrossing profile in the New Yorker. By the time the Three Gorges Dam is completed in 2009, it will be sixty stories high and five times as wide as the Hoover Dam, cost more than twenty billion dollars, displace over one million people, and drown certain pockets of ancient architecture. Hessler captures the relationship between water, the government, and people. Full story

-China halts the Yangtze, from the Washington Post.

-Web watchdog ThreeGorgesProbe.org monitors the dam's environmental and social effects.

-Map of the region from Ibiblio.org

  • Call it Constantine's crater. A team of geologists in central Italy has been studying a football field-size crater carved out by a meteorite, and may have linked it to the former Roman emperor, says the BBC. As history has it, Constantine was about to meet Maxentius to square off for control of the Roman Empire in 312 A.D when he had a vision of a blazing cross in the sky. He proceeded to win the battle and converted to Christianity, and became the first emperor to legitimize Christianity. Now, geologists say that radiocarbon dating at the crater in Italy suggests Constantine could have seen the streaking meteor that formed it. Full story It's an interesting article, although it strangely suggests that Constantine "saved Christianity." Not only was that not up to Constantine, but, as Barry Harvey of Baylor University suggests in Another City, Christianity was in some ways scrappier and more compelling before the "Constantinian shift" to institutionalization—a marriage of Christianity and power that would eventually necessitate the Reformation (and is still evident in the incongruous "In God We Trust" inscription on our coins).
  • It's tempting to blame a bad economy and pop music when giving cash-strapped orchestras a checkup these days. But the roots of the problem stretch deep into history, writes Bernard Holland in the New York Times. Funding symphonies used to be a priority for wealthy donors, a good way to gain recognition and attract settlers and workers to your civic center. But with a profusion of causes for philanthropists, and the decline of the city as a place to live and work, symphonies have struggled to capture the wealthy and their wealth. Meanwhile, confining themselves to experimental, art-for-art's-sake music alongside endless revisitations of Beethoven, symphonies fail to demonstrate their relevance, Holland says. It's a formula for failure, past and future. Full story* What Holland leaves unaddressed is this: If the tourist-oriented, so-called experience economy has indeed replaced the industrial economy in cities, and places a premium on cultural attractions, aren't symphonies actually more important to donors, politicians, and consumers now than they were before?
  • Who owns Harry? There aren't five Harry Potter stories in existence; there are tens of thousands if you turn to the Internet for collections of fan fiction, says the Washington Post. Readers' own adventures involving the boy wizard, Luke Skywalker, and other characters from books and movies enhance the aura that surrounds the original works. But is fan fiction a form of plagiarism?Full story
  • New advances in agriculture are giving us a glimpse of the future of lawns, says Discover magazine. The U.S. has seen something of a grass revolution in the last half-century, as we've turned massive amounts of farmland (dare we say lots of it?) into neatly manicured parcels. We now have some 50 millions lawns, 700,000 athletic fields, and 14,000 golf courses, and the water needed to keep up with them is staggering (270 billion gallons a week for those lawns alone). Tinkering with the genetics of grass has already produced different varieties of turf, and foreshadows a day when our grass is in better balance with our environment, Discover says. Full story The piece implies, but could have borne out, why watering lawns is inferior to irrigating farmland; presumably, lawns require more water and, unlike farms, are decorative rather than functional.
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Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant at Books & Culture.

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