Enigmatic Estonia

It might have a picturesque mix of medieval architecture and stomach-churning TV towers, but Estonia isn’t your average ex-Soviet country.

Concerned about Brexit? Why not become an e-resident of Estonia
And that’s the opportunity, because Estonia is working on linking its tax office with its counterparts in other regions of the world. The Estonians want to offer the option for, say, UK citizens to run their UK companies through the Estonian system, which would in turn, in the background, with no extra work for the user, make sure that the UK tax office receives all the money it is legally due. A UK-based entrepreneur, they hope, will decide to open her business in Estonia, use an Estonian bank and pay for some Estonian services, even if the company was only going to be trading in the UK, because she would find Estonia’s national infrastructure far easier to deal with than the UK’s. In other words, a nation is now competing with its neighbours on the basis of the quality of its user interface. Just as you might switch your bank to one with a better mobile app, the Estonians hope you’ll switch your business to a country with an infrastructure that is easier to use.

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Innovative in other areas, too.

Estonia to become the world’s first free public transport nation
Who is profiting the most from free buses, trams and trains in Tallinn?
“A good thing is, of course, that it mostly appeals to people with lower to medium incomes. But free public transport also stimulates the mobility of higher-income groups. They are simply going out more often for entertainment, to restaurants, bars and cinemas. Therefore they consume local goods and services and are likely to spend more money, more often. In the end this makes local businesses thrive. It breathes new life into the city.”

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It had its own tiny, imaginary kingdom for a while, due to an unseen clerical error.

Kingdom of Torgu, Laadla, Estonia
500-odd people who lived in the area were surprised by this negligence, but soon decided to take advantage of the mistake. They came up with the idea of starting their own country, and calling it a kingdom. The throne was offered to a journalist and political activist named Kirill Teiter, who accepted it and became the first (and only) monarch to reign over the newly formed Kingdom of Torgu. The kingdom has its own flag, a coat of arms with a “snail-dragon” as the emblematic animal, and its own currency in coins, the “kirill,” with the worth of 1 kirill fixed to the price of a half-liter of local vodka.

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But what really caught my eye was this article on its language (the summary is from The Browser).

“Did you eat the whole cake?” On learning Estonian
Estonian is popularly known as a difficult language to learn. Much of its vocabulary is unfamiliar, as the only other national languages it’s related to are Finnish and, more distantly, Hungarian. It’s even been described as the most difficult Latin-alphabet language for a native English speaker, and some of its features have assumed an almost mythical status.

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I loved the exasperation in The Browser‘s summary of that last article.

How to learn Estonian. You have to grow up in Estonia, pretty much. The complexities of the language have an “almost mythical status” among scholars. Estonian nouns decline through fourteen or more cases, each with a singular and a plural. The essential cases — nominative, genitive, partitive — are also the most irregular, often involving changes in the stem of the noun. Verbs come in 149 varieties, each with five moods. But there are only two basic tenses, past and present. The future has rules of its own.

Goodness me. And I thought learning French at school was hard.

Where is everybody?

Each six months Andy Kirk of Visualising Data highlights some of the significant developments in data visualisation. It’s a great collection, but this one in particular caught my eye.

10 significant visualisation developments: July to December 2018
2. ‘Human Terrain’: A genuinely captivating project from Matt Daniels of ThePudding, ‘Human Terrain’ is a staggeringly detailed, explorable prism map of the world’s population that can trap you into browsing for far longer than you can realistically afford. It evokes memories of a classic graphic from 2006, created by Joe Lertola for Time magazine. There is also a wonderful companion piece, ‘Population Mountains‘, where Matt walks through ‘a story about how to perceive the population of cities’.

When you fly from one part of the world to another, it becomes very quickly apparent just how crowded some places must be, compared to others.

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Human Terrain: visualizing the world’s population, in 3D
Kinshasa is now bigger than Paris. Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Shenzhen are forming an epic, 40 million-person super city. Over the past 30 years, the scale of population change is hard to grasp. How do you even visualize 10 million people?

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It puts those incredibly dense housing schemes in Hong Kong I mentioned earlier into context, doesn’t it?

Population growth, like charity, starts in the home, so here’s an animated chart on family sizes in the US.

How many kids we have and when we have them
The chart above shows 1,000 timelines, based on data from the National Survey of Family Growth. Each moving dot is a mother. Age is on the horizontal, and with each live birth, the dot moves down a notch. The green bubbles represent the total counts for a given age.

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It’s interesting to watch the chart populate. You’ve got to wonder about the stories behind those outliers though.

What’s in a name? #3

I mentioned earlier, in a post about the first map to include the name America, that people should be more aware of the names of places used by the first people to live there. Well, here’s a map that can help with that.

Indigenous geographies overlap in this colorful online map
For centuries, indigenous peoples and their traditional territories have been purposefully left off maps by colonizers as part of a sustained campaign to delegitimize their existence and land claims. Interactive mapping website Native Land does the opposite, by stripping out country and state borders in order to highlight the complex patchwork of historic and present-day Indigenous territories, treaties, and languages that stretch across the United States, Canada, and beyond.

What’s in a name? #2

It looks strange now, but this Waldseemüller map from 1507 was cutting-edge in its day, incorporating the very latest reports from voyages of discovery that were taking place at the time. Not everyone agreed with the reports from a certain Amerigo Vespucci, however.

The epic story of the map that gave America its name
Contrarily, according to a letter dated 1504 from Vespucci to Duke Renè that was reprinted in Introduction to Cosmography and describes his four voyages from 1497 to 1504, he reached the mainland a year earlier than Columbus. Historians have called the authenticity of this letter into doubt, but Waldseemüller and Ringmann took Vespucci’s letter at face value, basing their naming of the new continent on its contents.

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You could say that every country has at least two names — an exonym and an endonym; what outsiders call a place, and what the people that actually live there call their place. They were arguing about the former without bothering to ask about the latter.

It’s a gorgeous map, though, regardless of its accuracy and arrogance. Here’s another remarkable map of America, this time of just one of its rivers.

This 11-Foot ‘ribbon map’ puts the whole Mississippi River in your pocket
It wasn’t just a marketing gimmick, though. By choosing this particular form, Coloney and Fairchild leaned into a particular depiction of the Mississippi that took shape during the Civil War. “There was this idea that because the river went from north to south, it was a great unifier for the country,” Luarca-Shoaf says—that it tied the divided North and South together like, well, a ribbon. At the same time, they took pains to include important battle sites, like Vicksburg. That these sites made it onto the map just a year after the war ended “shows that the war had marked the landscape in more than physical ways,” she says. “It had become part of the history of the place.”

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What’s in a name?

The difficulties of dealing with the past.

The cost of changing a country’s name
“African countries, on getting independence, reverted to their ancient names before they were colonised,” His Royal Highness, King Mswati III told those gathered there. At that moment he was still king of Swaziland – but Swaziland was to be no more. “So, from now on the country will be officially known as the Kingdom of eSwatini.”

Reminded me of the mountain of work Kazakhstan is undertaking, changing its official alphabet. There’s always a huge cost, as Darren Olivier, a South Africa-based intellectual property lawyer, goes on to explain.

“There’s value in that, there’s intrinsic value in that identity and what it means for the people,” he points out. “Yet at the same time there’s a cost – a physical cost in changing the identity.”

Like many, Olivier has wondered exactly what the price tag for eSwatini will be. Shortly after King Mswati III’s announcement, Olivier published a blog in which he estimated that it will cost the country $6 million to change its name.

How to see 4000 years at once

A timeline of global power, from 2000BC to the 1900s.

The entire history of the world—really, all of it—distilled into a single gorgeous chart
The 5-foot-long Histomap was sold for $1 and folded into a green cover, which featured endorsements from historians and reviewers. The chart was advertised as “clear, vivid, and shorn of elaboration,” while at the same time capable of “holding you enthralled” by presenting: “the actual picture of the march of civilization, from the mud huts of the ancients thru the monarchistic glamour of the middle ages to the living panorama of life in present day America.”

It’s from the 1930s, so the terms it’s using are rather dated. And I can’t find Africa anywhere, Eygpt notwithstanding. Has there really been no history there, these last four millennia?

I’d love see this expanded another couple of inches, to chart where we are today. That should be simple enough, surely?

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