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1. Food security in the twenty-first century

There are currently about 7 billion people on Earth and by the middle of this century the number will most likely be between 9 and 10 billion. A greater proportion of these people will in real terms be wealthier than they are today and will demand a varied diet requiring greater resources in its production. Increasing demand for food will coincide with supply-side pressures: greater competition for water, land, and energy, and the accelerating effects of climate change.

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2. Where Do Our Baby Teeth Go? By Vilasinee Bunnag | Book Review

Author Vilasinee Bunnag, along with illustrator Yasmin Doctor, have created a wonderfully interactive picture book, Where Do Our Baby Teeth Go?, to help little ones understand, celebrate, and document this rite of passage.

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3. My Librarian is a Camel by Margriet Ruurs

My Librarian is a Camel: how books are brought to children around the world By Margriet Ruurs Boyds Mills Press. 2015 ISBN: 9781590780930 Grades K-12 I went into my local public library and borrowed a copy of this book. In My Librarian is a Camel, author Margriet Ruurs contacted librarians around the world and asked them to share their stories about their efforts to connect books with

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4. Reflections on the 2014 Scottish independence referendum

Scotland was selected as the Oxford Atlas Place of the Year 2014. We invited several experts to comment on the decision and Scotland’s phenomenal year.

Scotland has remained in the media spotlight throughout 2014 for one reason: the referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. This was the most significant event to have taken place in Scotland since the creation of the Union in 1707. But it hardly presented an edifying spectacle to the outside world. Nationalists constantly complained about England, describing every utterance by a Unionist politician as “cack-handed” or “an insult to the people of Scotland”. Celebrities such as Sir Paul McCartney, David Bowie, and J.K. Rowling who publicly backed the Union were subjected to appalling online abuse. Financial projections were produced which might politely be described as misleading. The proposals for an independent Scotland, in preparation since the foundation of the SNP in 1934, were marked by an astonishing lack of detail — voters were not even told what currency the new state was to have. The official Unionist campaign showed a crippling lack of passion; politicians argued for the status quo while pretending not to. Most Westminster MPs, aware of their unpopularity in Scotland, opted to say as little as possible. Three Scottish MPs from the Unionist camp stepped in to fill the vacuum: Jim Murphy, George Galloway, and, very much at the eleventh hour, Gordon Brown. Brown’s passionate speech, the finest of his career, delivered on the day before the vote, left everyone wondering why he had not become involved in the Unionist campaign sooner.

The campaign, indeed, had dragged on for three years. The SNP might have been expected to hold the referendum soon after their election to government in 2011. But the year 2014 appeared propitious: it was the year of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, which could be expected to give a boost to nationalist sentiment, and of the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, at which the Scots had destroyed an English army of invasion, leaving the way clear for retaliatory Scottish raids on England. In the event, the Games were hailed as a triumph for Scotland, but had no effect on nationalism, while the Bannockburn anniversary was greeted with widespread indifference, with thousands of tickets at the commemorative event remaining unsold. The 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, in which Scots and English had fought and died side by side, carried a more meaningful resonance.

When the referendum was finally held, independence was decisively rejected. 1,617,989 Scottish residents voted for independence, out of a voting age population of 4,436,428: that is, 36.47%. The leader of the independence campaign, Alex Salmond, had declared immediately before the vote that the result would settle the matter for a generation; immediately after it, he challenged the result and called for a second referendum to be held as soon as possible. His colleagues in the SNP, meanwhile, floated the idea of a unilateral declaration of independence: the support of a majority of the people of Scotland, not having been forthcoming, was no longer deemed necessary. In the days which followed, the losers formed themselves into a group called “the 45” (44.65 per cent of those who voted had voted for independence). The name “the 45” recalls, of course, the doomed Jacobite rebellion of 1745, in which ordinary Scots were driven by their highland lords into an ill-advised invasion of England, and were roundly defeated, with catastrophic consequences for Scotland.

Sign in Greinetobht in North Uist supporting Scottish independence by John Allan. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Geograph.org.uk.
Sign in Greinetobht in North Uist supporting Scottish independence by John Allan. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Geograph.org.uk.

How does Scotland emerge from all this? The referendum exposed Scotland’s politicians to public view, caused old resentments to be stirred up, and led to the airing of attitudes that would have been better hidden. On the other hand, there was no serious violence and no bloodshed. It is enormously to the credit of the UK government that it permitted such a referendum to be held at all. The UK is now much stronger for having given the nationalists the opportunity to demonstrate that their supporters account for barely more than one in three of the Scottish voting age population.

But what of overseas visitors who may be contemplating a trip to Scotland next year? Do come. Scotland remains a country of unsurpassed natural beauty with a rich and visible history and a warm and welcoming people. By virtue of its membership of the UK, Scotland punches far above its weight in world affairs. Its language is English and its currency remains the pound sterling. The visitor to Scotland will find that there is one particular subject on which its people are united in not wanting to talk about: the 2014 independence referendum.

Headline image: The debating chamber of the Scottish Parliament Building by Colin. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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5. Magical Scotland: the Orkneys

The light in the Orkneys is so clear, so bright, so lucid, it feels like you are on top of the world looking though thin clouds into heaven.

It doesn’t even feel part of the UK: when you sail off the edge of Scotland by the Scrabster to Stromness ferry, you feel you are departing the real world to land in a magical realm.

Nowhere else on earth can you go to a place and see eight thousand years of continuous history in such a tiny space.

Skara Brae is what remains of a neolithic village, older than Stonehenge and the pyramids, kept secret underground until uncovered by a severe storm in 1850. You can walk in and sit down, look around at the stone walls, stone beds, stone cupboards, dressers, seats, and storage boxes. Recognizably human people lived here, seeing this same landscape and coast, feeling the same wind on their faces that you do, their eyes resting on the doors, hearths and toilets (one in each dwelling).

This is ‘stone age’ but talking about such ages is a misnomer in the Orkneys where they had no appreciable bronze age nor iron age so proceeded from the non-use of one metal to the non-use of another in what is now the best preserved neolithic site in Europe.

Skara Brae by Russel Wills. CC BY SA 2.0 via Geograph.

The Orkneys have been so fascinating for so long that even the vandalism needs to be preserved. In Maeshowe burial mound you can see where Viking tourists who came to the monument, already ancient by their time, wrote graffiti about their girlfriends on the walls. They wrote in Norse runes.

The Orkney islands were the headquarters of the Viking invasion fleets, and to this day the Orkneys are the only place in the world besides Norway where the Norwegian national day is celebrated.

The islands are filled with Tolkeinesque place names like the Ring of Brodgar, the Brough of Birsay, the Standing Stones of Stenness. Sagas were born here, like that of the peaceable 12th century Earl of Orkney, treacherously assassinated and now known as St Magnus, after whom the cathedral is named.

Sagas were created here in living memory. This is where the British home fleet was at anchor and the German fleet still lies. The battle fleet of the German Imperial Navy transferred in its entirety to Scapa Flow in 1919 to await a decision on its future. The German sailors could not bring themselves to give up their ships; they opened the seacocks and scuttled them all. At low tide you can still see the rusting hulks of Wilhelmine ambitions to dominate Europe.

If the Orkneys sound bleak and rocky, that would be the wrong impression to leave. They have rich and fertile farming land with green plains rolling on under a pearl sky. People tell folk tales around the peat fires, drinking ginger-flavoured whiskey; an orange cat pads around the grain heaps in the Highland Park distillery, and the islands shimmer under the ‘simmer dim’ of nightless summer days. I should be there now.

Headline image credit: Stromness, Orkney Islands by Geoff Wong. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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6. The Best Nonfiction of 2014

A lot is made of the romance of bookstores. The smell of paper! The joy of discovery! The ancient, cracking leather bindings of books with dated inscriptions! And it's true that bookstores are magical places to browse and linger — just maybe not in the two days before Christmas. Because in the swirling mad hum [...]

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7. Place of the Year 2014 nominee spotlight: Brazil [Infographic]

With the recent announcement of our Place of the Year 2014 shortlist, we are spotlighting each of the contenders. First up is Brazil.

Brazil brought the world’s soccer fans together this year, as it hosted the 2014 FIFA World Cup in 12 different cities across the country. Learn more about this lively country in the infographic below:

Place of the Year 2014 nominee: Brazil

Download the infographic in jpg or PDF format.

Do you think Brazil should be Place of the Year for 2014? Vote below, and keep following along with #POTY2014 until our announcement on 1 December to see which location will join previous winners.

The Place of the Year 2014 shortlist

Headline image: Amazon11. Photo by Neil Palmer (CIAT). CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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8. The Story of Money from bartering to bail out

storyofmoneyThe Story of Money written by Martin Jenkins, illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura is a humorous, wide-ranging tale about the evolution of money, starting with what people did before money was invented, exploring why it came into being and how money systems developed before coming right up to date with a discussion of modern day bank crashes and their consequences.

Although satisfying and curious facts about (for example) money’s relationship to the evolution of writing, the everyday use of official IOUs even in the 21st century and the remarkably tiny total volume of gold that exists on planet Earth pepper the conversational text, Jenkins presentation of these nuggets is unusual; rather than short, sharp fact boxes, or framed individual paragraphs (writing styles which are very common in non-fiction for children), he weaves a story together creating sustained texts over each 2-3 page chapter (each with their own funny title, echoing Victorian novels).

This slim hardback volume, ideal for upper primary aged children, is richly illustrated throughout with Satoshi Kitamura’s quirky and slightly wonky comic strip style images; they bring their own brand of humour to an enjoyable, approachable economics text which manages to make things as foreboding as inflation, deflation and taxation come to life.


The Story of Money is a digestible and entertaining introduction to many aspects of pecuniary history which offers up plenty of starting points for both practical and philosophical discussions about the value of money. An index and short bibliography add to the book’s utility both at home and in the classroom. Prepare to finish it feeling surprised: Surely there aren’t many other economics books which end by reminding us that there’s a great deal more to life than accumulating as much money as possible?


A numismatist was selling low value world currency at a charity table-top sale we recently visited and I took the opportunity to by a bag of coins for £5 (yes, the girls and I did see the irony at using money to buy… money).


I threw in a few chocolate coins for good measure and then we set about investigating where our coins came from.


On a cheap wall map we highlighted the countries we had coins from, noting those countries which we had coins for but which no longer existed (e.g. Yugoslavia), and also those countries who have currencies are now something other than that which we had coins for (for example we had lots of pre-Euro-era European coins). Some coins also opened up new stories in history for the girls; we had several coins from former UK colonies which referred to their ‘Emperor’.


That £5 I spent opened up so much exploration; from what coins are made out of, to the sometimes exquisite art on them, via the history they reflect as well as the geography they open up, I was quite amazed at how much interest and enjoyment we got out of a small coin collection (to say nothing of the very tactile and romantic experience of handling coins that have somehow landed up on your kitchen table even though they were made 1000s of miles away, sometime more than 100 years ago – what stories led them into our hands we wondered?).

Whilst mapping our money we listened to:

  • Money makes the world go round sung by Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey in Cabaret
  • Money for Nothing by Dire Straits (every child’s education ought to include _that_ guitar riff, right?)
  • Money, Money, Money by Abba
  • Money (That’s What I Want) by Barrett Strong (though I also like the Flying Lizzards version)
  • Other activities which go well with reading The Story of Money include:

  • Designing your own coin. The Royal Mint recently ran a UK-wide competition for the design of a new £1 coin. Whilst the competition is now closed you could still use their “Hints and Tips” as a starting point for designing a coin. There was also a recent bitcoin design competition, and a United States Mint competition – just keep your eyes peeled and maybe another such competition which you could enter will turn up.
  • Cleaning coins at the same time as gaining a little bit of scientific knowledge: use electrolysis to make tarnished coins shiny!
  • Creating a Chinese Money Tree, or collecting coins from your birth year.
  • What are your favourite activities for helping your kids learn about money?

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of The Story of Money from the publisher.

    3 Comments on The Story of Money from bartering to bail out, last added: 11/17/2014
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    9. Place of the Year 2014 nominee spotlight: Scotland [quiz]

    As voting on the Place of the Year shortlist continues, we’d like to spotlight a second contender in the race – Scotland. Scotland drew the world’s attention this year as a referendum was held for the country’s independence in September 2014. Test your knowledge of the country by answering the following questions.

    Your Score:  

    Your Ranking:  

    The Place of the Year 2014 shortlist

    Keep voting and following along with #POTY2014 until our announcement on 1 December to see which location will join previous Place of the Year winners.

    Image credit: Largs Pencil by Dave souza. CC-BY-SA-2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

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    10. Windows on the past: how places get their names

    Standing underneath the monstrous Soviet statue of “Motherland Calls” looking out over the mighty Volga River, I could understand why the city should have been renamed, rather unimaginatively, Volgograd “City on the Volga”. Between 1925 and 1961 it had been called Stalingrad, and was site of one of the most ferocious battles in the Second World War. By 1925, Josef Stalin was the Communist Party General Secretary, and the trend to rename cities and towns in his honor had begun. Since he had been chairman of the local military committee which had organized the defense of the city in 1919 against the White Russian armies, why not name this city after him? But in the years following his death in 1953, Stalin began to fall from grace and many places named after him were renamed. So what was Stalingrad called before 1925? Tsaritsyn. Something to do with the Tsar, probably, and given this name when it was founded as a fortress in 1589. This is a tempting assumption, but it is an assumption too far; toponymy is prone to such traps. Tsaritsyn is actually a Tatar name meaning “Town on the (River) Tsaritsa” from the Turkic sary su, “Yellow River.” It was given this name because of the golden sands of the Tsaritsa, at the point where it flows into the Volga.

    So rivers have played a part in two of Volgograd’s names. Rivers attracted people because they provided fish to eat and water to drink, and facilitated movement and communication. People needed to differentiate between their settlements so they began to give them names: “river” (Rijeka in Croatia), “river mouth” (Dartmouth in England), “fast-flowing” (Bystrytsya in Ukraine and Bystrzyca in Poland), “white water” (Aksu in China, Kazakhstan, and Turkey), the “yellow river” (China).

    In due course, something more creative was needed, and somebody trying to curry favor suggested naming their settlement after its leader. Leaders, at all levels, liked this idea and it spread rapidly. It helped to be royal (Victoria appears at least 31 times in 19 different countries), be a person of great power or influence (Washington), someone who had achieved some conspicuous feat (Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut), or explored new territory (Columbus). During the age of colonialism, some senior administrators and generals achieved comparative immortality by having places named or renamed after them, notably in the British Empire (Abbottābād).

    A partial view of Aksu Stream nearby Waterfall Kuzalan in Dereli district of Giresun province, Turkey by Zeynel Cebeci. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
    A partial view of Aksu Stream nearby Waterfall Kuzalan in Dereli district of Giresun province, Turkey by Zeynel Cebeci. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

    Russian and Soviet leaders were keen to project power or to intimidate. So in 1783, Count Paul Potemkin built a fortress at Vladikavkaz, which he called Vladet’ Kavkazom (“To have command of the Caucasus”). The name is now taken to mean “Ruler of the Caucasus”. In the same way, Vladivostok, also founded as a military post, has the name “Ruler of the East”. Founded in 1818 by the Russians to spread fear amongst the Chechens, Groznyy, capital of Chechnya, was given the name “Awesome” or “Menacing”. As recently as 2008 Vladimir Putin, the present Russian president, conferred the name “Peak of Russian Counter-Intelligence Agents” on a previously unnamed peak in the Caucasus Mountains.

    There is no shortage of saints’ or religious leaders’ names throughout the world, particularly in California, Central and South America, and the Caribbean as a result of the earlier Spanish and Portuguese presence. Some may have been founded or sighted on a saint’s feast day (St. Helena), because they were the personal saint of the founder (St. Petersburg in Russia). or because the saint was thought to have been martyred there (St. Albans in England).

    Possibly the three most important elements of toponymy are languages — living and dead — history, and geography. Numerous modern names in Europe are derived from their Latin names, since they were within the Roman Empire, and some of these Latin names had Celtic origins (Catterick and Toledo). Many names appear to have barely changed over the centuries (Lincoln and Civitavecchia) and thus their meaning can be deduced with little difficulty. Others, however, might appear to have an obvious meaning, but in tracing their history, it may be found that the origin or present meaning is not as anticipated (New York). It is sometimes the case that the original and modern forms are almost identical, but the meaning of a word has changed. The modern “field” is taken to mean an “enclosed piece of land” whereas the Old English feld meant “open land”. Place names are a window on the past. For example, Scandinavian names in England indicate where the Norwegian and Danish population was concentrated a millennium ago. Birkby, from Bretarby “Village of the Britons”, shows that this was a village inhabited by Britons rather than Anglo-Saxons.

    The descriptive element of geography has a role: points of the compass (West Indies, East Anglia), the presence of ports, bridges, or fords (Oxford), the color or shape of a mountain (Rocky Mountains), even market day (Dushanbe “Monday” in Tajikistan).

    Toponymy is a bit like astronomy — there is always something more to discover. There is probably no inhabited place on earth without a name. Yet the origin and meaning of some of the best known names are unknown. London is a case in point.

    Some places like to draw attention to themselves by having unusual names: Halfway, Scratch Ankle, Truth or Consequences, Tombstone (all in the USA); or by having a name so long that virtually nobody can either remember it or pronounce it. Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch in Wales has 58 letters, and the Maori name of a hill on the North Island of New Zealand, Taumatawhakatangihangakōauauotamateauripūkakapikimaungahoronukupōkaiwhenuakitanatahu, has 84 letters, the world’s longest place name. Bangkok makes do with Bangkok, but a native of the city might give you its full name, all 60 words of it in English.

    Have you voted for Place of the Year 2014? If not, vote now, and follow #POTY2014 to find out which place wins on 1 December.

    The Place of the Year 2014 shortlist

    Heading image: Monument in Volgograd – Motherland by alex1983. CC0 via Pixabay.

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    11. Place of the Year 2014 nominee spotlight: Ukraine

    With only one more week left until we announce Place of the Year 2014, we’d like to spotlight another one of the places on our shortlist: Ukraine. The country entered the news early in 2014 when a referendum held in Crimea resulted in the peninsula uniting with Russia. As the twenty-first edition of the Atlas of the World notes, Crimea currently remains under Russian control, though this union is not internationally recognized.

    For a little more information about Ukraine, take a look below at the eight facts we compiled about the country’s history, places, and people.

    1. According to OxfordDictionaries.com, the origin of the name “Ukraine” is “from Old Russian ukraina ‘border region,’ from u ‘at, beside’ + kraĭ ‘edge, border.’”

    2. Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, has been an important settlement since the Middle Ages, when it was the capital of early Slavic civilization, Kievan Rus.

    Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, at night. By Anton Molodtsov/Tony Wan Kenobi. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

    3. Out of all the countries in Europe, Ukraine is second only to Russia in geographic size, with an area of 233,089 square miles, or 603,700 square kilometers.

    4. The most common religion in Ukraine is Ukrainian Orthodox.

    Orthodox cathedral in Nova Kakhovka. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

    5. An overwhelming 78% of the country’s population is ethnically Ukrainian, with the next largest ethnic group in the country being Russian (17%).

    6. Prypiat, Ukraine remains a ghost town to this day as a result of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 that left the city uninhabitable.

    Swimming Pool Hall 4 Pripyat by Timm Suess. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
    Swimming Pool Hall 4 Pripyat by Timm Suess. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

    7. Although he is often grouped with Russian authors like Alexander Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, and Anton Chekhov, Nikolai Gogol was born in Velyki Sorochyntsi, modern-day Ukraine, and is ethnically Ukrainian and Polish.

    Nikolai Gogol by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov, 1847. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

    8. Ukraine has been independent since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Currently, Ukraine’s government is a multiparty republic, and Petro Poroshenko is president.

    Do you think Ukraine should be Place of the Year? Cast your vote!

    The Place of the Year 2014 shortlist

    Don’t forget to vote and follow along with #POTY2014 until our announcement on 1 December to see which location will join previous Place of the Year winners.

    Image credit: Flag of Ukraine by UP9. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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    12. Income inequality in the United States

    How has the average American income shifted since the US Census bureau began collecting data in the 1950s? Are median wages rising or falling? Andrew Beveridge, Co-Founder and CEO of census data mapping program Social Explorer, gives us the hard data on income inequality in the United States. In the short video below, Beveridge analyzes decades of income data from the American census to illuminate the factors causing this economic disparity, which has increased significantly over the past four decades. Exploring median average income and wages through time, along with the implications behind these changes, allows for a more complete picture of the increasing wealth gap among modern-day Americans.

    Featured image credit: A man sleeping under a luxury condo sign on the street of The Bowery in Manhattan. Photo by David Shankbone. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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    13. How has World War I impacted United States immigration trends?

    Where did the first Chinatown originate, and how many exist across the country? Where do the majority of the country’s immigrant populations currently reside? Andrew Beveridge, Co-Founder and CEO of census data mapping program Social Explorer, discusses the effects of the First World War on American nativity demographics. Analyzing native and foreign-born populations both during and after the War, particularly around the time of the 1917 Immigration Act, Beveridge shows how you can follow immigration trends over time up to the present day.

    Featured image credit: Jacob Lawrence, 1917-2000, Artist (NARA record: 1981548) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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    14. Looking back at Scotland in 2014

    With the announcement of Scotland as Place of the Year for 2014, we’re looking back at some of the key events that put Scotland in the news this year. News of the Scottish Independence Referendum dominated the headlines, and politicians, economists, and analysts discussed and debated Scotland’s role both in Europe and on the global market. However, a number of other important events also put Scotland in the news this year, including playing host to multiple sporting events, passing a bill that will legalize marriage in December 2014, and seeing the first female First Minister of Scotland take office. Here is a look back at Scotland in 2014, in pictures.

    Heading image: Flag of Scotland by Cayetano. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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    15. Is your commute normal?

    Ever wonder how Americans are getting to work? In this short video, Andrew Beveridge, Co-Founder and CEO of census data mapping program Social Explorer, discusses the demographics of American commuting patterns for workers ages sixteen and above.

    Using census survey data from the past five years, Social Explorer allows you to explore different categories of American demographics through time. Here, Beveridge walks viewers through the functionality of the “Transportation” category, revealing the hard truth of Americans’ car dependency, as well as the true scope of the bike-to-work trend gaining speed across college towns and urban areas. Want to see how your travel time stacks up to the rest of the population’s workers? Use the “Travel Time to Work” category to explore other American commuting trends, or explore the various additional categories and surveys Social Explorer has to offer.

    Whether it is the speed, assumed efficiency and control, or the status-marker of the automobile that makes it so ubiquitous, the numbers don’t lie – for most Americans, “going green” may be only secondary to “catching green” (lights, that is).

    Featured image credit: Charles O’Rear, 1941-, Photographer (NARA record: 3403717) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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    16. An excerpt from Scotland: A Very Short Introduction

    This is an excerpt from Scotland: A Very Short Introduction by Rab Houston. Although the book was published in 2009, long before the Scottish independence referendum, the thoughts Houston expresses in the conclusion on the future of the country certainly proved relevant in the Scotland of 2014.

    What are the implications of the past for Scotland’s future? First, Scots retain a deeply embedded sense of history, albeit a selective one. Like others in the Anglo-Saxon world, they understandably seek identity, empathy, and meaning for their private present by researching family or local history and they want to know about wars and history’s celebrities. They are less interested in the public past that creates the context for the social and political present, including for Scotland a separate national church, a distinctive legal code, and a very different experience of government. This detachment may be linked to any number of factors — a preoccupation with individual personal authority, disenchantment with politics, secularization, and electronic communications — but its effects are clear. Yet Scots still feel themselves touched by history and that awareness is a strong part of their identity. Modern Scotland is solidly grounded on historical foundations and the continuity this provides helps in dealing constructively with change.

    One manifestation of the public past is a firm civic sense, which helps Scotland’s communities to score highly in polls of the most desirable places to live in Britain. Coupled with this is the enduring importance of locality and all the variety and the non-national solidarities it implies. An important reason Scottish devolution has worked so well is that historically Scotland had less centralized government than England and there was an effective civil society: precisely those forms of association below and outside the apparatus of the state, such as churches, communities, and families, mediating between public institutions and private lives, which now so concern the modern West. The notion of civil society empowering citizens has appeal both to the New Right and to left-leaning communitarian ideas of voluntary association, because it insists that people cannot have rights without responsibilities and that individualism has to be tempered by acknowledgement of a common good. Based on their historic experience of government, Scots felt that central authority could and should intervene for benign ends, but that most power should be diffused.

    This appreciation of civil society is not rose-tinted. Scotland’s history has a dark side of greed, social inequality and injustice, the oppression of women, children, and other races, and bigotry towards different faiths, all repulsive to modern sensibilities. In the present too, there has been sleaze (notably in Labour’s ‘one-party states’ in west-central Scotland), there is a legacy of social conservatism that may encourage ignorance and intolerance, and there are problems of drug and alcohol abuse, anti-social behaviour, and crime, like anywhere in Britain. ‘The street’, once indicative of intimacy, has become a by-word for danger. Yet a vivid sense of the past, a firm national identity, and a strong civil society rooted in locality mark out both historic and modern Scotland.

    The crowded tenements of Edinburgh’s Old Town by Hansueli Krapf. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

    History touches modern politics too, for as well as being Scottish, many Scots also feel British. The most important implication is that Scotland’s near-term future is unlikely to involve shunning community with the rest of Britain, because it has for hundreds of years been locked into a British paradigm. That does not mean Scots are always comfortable with their past or present relations with England, and they have never been slow to speak out when they perceive injustice. Less laudably, they have long played a ‘blame game’ against their neighbours. History shows they have a point, but to be a victim is to deny oneself agency. Better to accept how much has been gained from association with England, to recognize what is shared, to take justified pride in what is good about being different, and to change what is not.

    The political implications of Union with England are still being played out three centuries on, albeit in a very different world. The component parts of Great Britain (and Ireland, both before and after independence in 1922) developed separately, but they also progressed together in ways that modified their experiences. In some regards, the parts have grown closer over time, but in important ways they remain different. All modern states are artifacts based on conquest and colonization, and laboriously created national solidarity (including Scottish, English, and British identity). Held together for centuries, the integrity of states everywhere is now maintained only precariously, their sovereignty and supposedly inviolable borders steadily eroded. Easy travel, immigration, trans-national crime, and global terrorism, capitalism, and environmental degradation are challenging and complicating our understandings of geography and politics. After 500 years of multi-national accretion, nation states, including Britain, are crumbling back into their component parts. Founded on centuries of uncertainty, experimentation, and compromise, the relations between Scotland and England remain open-ended.

    During that time, Scotland has not been a backward version of England waiting to catch up, but something quite distinct. Politically, Scots have known what it is to be both independent and semi-detached in a way that is less true of Wales (whose institutions, if not its language, culture, and habits, were more completely assimilated) and wholly untrue of English regions since the early Middle Ages. Naturally the past should not determine the future, or we should never have shaken off the multiple oppressions of race, class, and gender. But history can liberate as well as limit and attempts to make a destiny that works with rather than against it are likely to be easier, more successful, and longer lasting. If one day Scotland did take the path of independence, it would be as much in tune with its history as would a future within the United Kingdom.

    Image credit: Common Green, or ‘The Green’, Strathaven, South Lanarkshire, Scotland. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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    17. The lake ecosystems of the Antarctic

    Antarctica is a polar desert almost entirely covered by a vast ice sheet up to four km in thickness. The great white continent is a very apt description. The ice-free areas, often referred to as oases, carry obvious life in lakes and occasional small patches of lichen and mosses where there is sufficient seasonal melt water to support them. The majority of ice-free areas lie on the coastal margins of the continent, but there is a large inland ice-free region called the McMurdo Dry Valleys. 

    On the face of it Antarctica would appear to offer little in the way of excitement for anyone interested in the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of lakes. However, surprisingly Antarctica possesses the most diverse array of lakes types on the planet. The ice-free areas, which are bare rock, carry freshwater lakes and saline lakes, some as salty as the Dead Sea. Between land and ice shelves there are remarkable so-called epishelf freshwater lakes, that sit on seawater or are connected to the sea by a conduit and are consequently tidal. Underneath the vast ice sheet there are numerous subglacial lakes, around 380 at last count, of which Lakes Vostoc, Whillans, and Ellsworth are the best known. Ice shelves that occur around the edge of the continent overlying the sea, carry shallow lakes and ponds on their surface, and there are lakes on many of the glaciers. Some of these are short-lived and drain through holes called moulins to the glacier base, while others are several thousands of years old.

    Antarctic lakes are extreme environments where only the most robust and adaptable organisms survive. Temperatures are always close to freezing and in saline lakes can fall below zero. While there is 24-hour daylight in summer, in winter the sun does not rise above the horizon, so the Sun’s light energy that drives the growth of the phytoplankton through photosynthesis is much lower on an annual basis than at our latitudes. The food webs of these lakes are truncated; there are few zooplankton and no fish. They are systems dominated by microorganisms: microscopic algae, protozoa, bacteria, and viruses. All of the lakes apart from the most saline have ice covers, that can be up to five metres thick. Lakes on the coastal margins usually lose part or all of their ice covers for a few weeks each summer, but the inland more southerly lakes of the McMurdo Dry Valleys have thick perennial ice covers that contain rocks and dust that have blown off the surrounding hills. This ‘dirty’ ice allows very little light to penetrate to the underlying water column, so the photosynthetic organisms that live there are adapted to extreme shade.

    Miers Valley in the McMurdo Dry Valleys area. Photo by Saxphile. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

    It would be reasonable to assume that during the austral winter biological processes in lake waters shut down. However, that is not the case; life goes on even in the darkness of winter. Bacteria manage to grow at low temperatures and many of the photosynthetic microorganisms become heterotrophic. They eat bacteria or take up dissolved organic carbon and are described as mixotrophic (meaning mixed nutrition). In this way they can hit the deck running when the short austral summer arrives and they can resume photosynthesis. Even the few crustacean zooplankton stay active in winter and don’t exploit resting eggs or diapause. They are crammed full with fat globules, which together with any food they can exploit takes them through the winter. Their fecundity is very low compared to their temperate relatives, but with no fish predators they can sustain a population.

    Shallow lakes and ponds on ice shelves and glaciers freeze to their bases in winter. Thus their biotas have to be able to withstand freezing and in the case of saline ponds, increasing salinity as salts are excluded from the formation of ice.

    The most topical and currently exciting lakes are the subglacial lakes kilometres under the ice sheet. These represent the modern age of polar exploration because gaining entry to these lakes presents major logistic challenges. One of the major issues is ensuring that the collected samples are entirely sterile and not contaminated with microorganisms from the surface. Subglacial lakes have been separated from the atmosphere for millions of years and potentially harbour unique microorganisms. In the past few years the US Antarctic programme has successfully penetrated Lake Whillans and demonstrated that it contains a diverse assemblage of Bacteria and Archaea in a chemosynthetically driven ecosystem (Christner et al. 2014). The British attempt to penetrate Lake Ellsworth was unsuccessful, but there are plans to continue the exploration of this lake in the future. In the coming years these extraordinary aquatic ecosystems will reveal more of their secrets.

    The delicate surface lake ecosystems of Antarctica appear to respond rapidly to local climatic variations and where there are long-term data sets, as there are for the McMurdo Dry Valleys, to global climatic change. Unlike lakes at lower latitudes they are removed from the direct effects of Man’s activities that have changed catchment hydrology, and imposed industrial and agricultural pollution. Antarctic lakes are subject to the indirect anthropogenic effects of ozone depletion and climate warming. The impact of these factors can be seen without the superimposition of direct man-made effects. Consequently polar lakes, including those in the Arctic, can be regarded as sentinels of climate change.

    Headline image credit: Lake Fryxell in the Transantarctic Mountains. Photo by Joe Mastroianni, Antarctic Photo Library, National Science Foundation. CCO via Wikimedia Commons

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    18. Holiday traditions from around the world

    Here at Oxford University Press, we’re getting ready for the holiday season, and we were inspired by the new, twenty-first edition of the Atlas of the World to explore holiday traditions from around the world, including our 2014 Place of the Year, Scotland. Take a look at the map below to learn and see a little bit about the food, decorations, and other traditions of holiday celebrations taking place around the world at this time of year.

    Image credit: Christmas lights on the tree in front of the Capitol Building, Washington, DC by Jonathan McIntosh. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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    19. Countries of the World Cup: Germany

    Today is the conclusion of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and our highlights about the final four competing nations with information pulled right from the pages of the latest edition of Oxford’s Atlas of the World. The final two teams, Germany and Argentina, go head-to-head on Sunday, 13 July to determine the champion.

    Like many of its European neighbors, Germany is a country that loves football, and is one of the most competitive football-playing nations in the world. Attesting to that is their success in the semi-finals in this year’s Cup.  Here are eight interesting facts you might not have known about the country that bruised Brazil’s ego.


    1. Like FIFA host country Brazil, Germany also elected its first female leader in recent years when Angela Merkel became Chancellor in 2005.
    2. In addition to bringing mankind the likes of Albert Einstein and Johan Gutenberg, inventor of the first printing press in Europe, Germany provides 20.6% of the world’s motor vehicles and 17% of our pharmaceuticals.
    3. Uranium was first discovered by a German chemist, Markin Klaproth, in 1789 and boasts the fourth largest industrial output (from mining, manufacturing, construction, and energy) in the world.
    4. Germany had a rough go of things for a while after World War II with its division into East and West factions, as well as the Cold War. The two were reunited on 3 October 1990 and adopted West Germany’s official name, the Federal Republic of Germany.
    5. Deutschland is a leading member of the European Union as well as the 17-member Eurozone, the economic and monetary union of nations that utilize the Euro as their sole form of currency.
    6. In terms of religion, Germany is mostly a Protestant and Roman Catholic country with a representation of 34% of the population.
    7. Although a leading producer of nuclear power (Germany ranks sixth in the world for 4.1% of global production), following the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the country has begun phasing out its nuclear power production.
    8. Germany is a primary refugee destination, ranking first in Europe and fourth in the world after Pakistan, Iran, and Syria.

    Oxford’s Atlas of the World — the only world atlas updated annually, guaranteeing that users will find the most current geographic information — is the most authoritative resource on the market. The milestone Twentieth Edition is full of crisp, clear cartography of urban areas and virtually uninhabited landscapes around the globe, maps of cities and regions at carefully selected scales that give a striking view of the Earth’s surface, and the most up-to-date census information. The acclaimed resource is not only the best-selling volume of its size and price, but also the benchmark by which all other atlases are measured.

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    Image credit: Flag of Germany. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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    20. What is the role of governments in climate change adaptation?

    By Kai A. Konrad and Marcel Thum

    Adaptation to climate change is currently high on the agenda of EU bureaucrats exploring the regulatory scope of the topic. Climate change may potentially bring about changes in the frequency of extreme weather events such as heat waves, flooding or thunder storms, which in turn may require adaptation to changes in our living conditions. Adaptation to these conditions cannot stop climate change, but it can reduce the cost of climate change. Building dikes protects the landscape from an increase in sea level. New vaccines protect the population from diseases that may spread due to the change in the climate. Leading politicians, the media and prominent interest groups call for more efforts in adaptation.

    But who should be in charge? Do governments have to play a leading role in adaptation? Will firms and households make the right choices? Or do governments have to intervene to correct insufficient or false adaptation choices? If intervention is necessary, will the policy have to be decided on a local level or on a national or even supranational (EU) level? In a recent article we review the main arguments for government intervention in climate change adaptation. Overall, we find that the role of the state in adaptation policy is limited.

    In many cases, adaptation decisions can be left to private individuals or firms. This is true if private sector decision-makers both bear the cost and enjoy the benefits of their own decisions. Superior insulation of buildings is a good example. It shields the occupants of a building from extreme temperatures during cold winters and hot summers. The occupants – and only the occupants – benefit from the improved insulation. They also bear the costs of the new insulation. If the benefit exceeds the cost, they will invest in the superior insulation. If it does not pay off, they will refrain from the adaptation measure (and they should do so from an efficiency point of view). There is no need for government intervention in the form of building regulation or rehabilitation programmes.

    In some other cases, adaptation affects an entire community as in the case of dikes. A single household will hardly be able – nor have the incentive – to build a dike of the appropriate size. But the local municipality can and should be able to so. All inhabitants of the municipality can share the costs and appropriate the benefit from flood protection. The decision on the dike could be made on the state level if not at the municipal level. The local population will probably have a long-standing experience and superior knowledge about the flood events and its potential damages. The subsidiarity principle, which is a major principle of policy task assignment in the European Union, suggests that the decisions should be made on the most decentralized level for which there are no major externalities between the decision-makers. In the case of the dike, the appropriate level for the adaptation measure would be the municipality. Again there is no need for intervention from upper-level governments.


    So what role is left for the upper echelons of government in climate change adaptation? Firstly, the government has to help in improving our knowledge. Information about climate change and information about technical adaptation measures are typical public goods: the cost of generating the information has to be incurred once, whereas the information can be used at no additional cost. Without government intervention, too little information would be generated. Therefore, financing basic research in this area is one of the fundamental tasks for a central government.

    Secondly, the government has to provide the regulatory framework for insurance markets. The economic consequences of natural disasters can be cushioned through insurance markets. However, the incentives to buy insurance are insufficient for several reasons. For instance, whenever a major disaster threatens the economic existence of a larger group of citizens, the government is under social pressure and will typically provide help to all those in need. By anticipating government support in case of a disaster, there is little or no incentive to buy insurance in the market. Why should they pay the premium for private insurance, or invest in self-insurance or self-protection measures if they enjoy a similar amount of free protection from the government? If the government wants to avoid being pressured for disaster relief, it has to make disaster insurance mandatory. And to induce citizens to the appropriate amount of self-protection, insurance premiums have to be differentiated according to local disaster risks.

    Thirdly, fostering growth helps coping with the consequences of climate change and facilitates adaptation. Poor societies and population groups with low levels of education have the highest exposure to climate change, whereas richer societies have the means to cope with the implications of climate change. Hence, economic growth – properly measured – and education should not be dismissed easily as they act as powerful self-insurance devices against the uncertain future challenges of climate change.

    Kai A. Konrad is Director at the Max Planck Institute for Tax Law and Public Finance. Marcel Thum is Professor of Economics at TU Dresden and Director of ifo Dresden. They are the authors of the paper ‘The Role of Economic Policy in Climate Change Adaptation’ published in CESifo Economic Studies.

    CESifo Economic Studies publishes provocative, high-quality papers in economics, with a particular focus on policy issues. Papers by leading academics are written for a wide and global audience, including those in government, business, and academia. The journal combines theory and empirical research in a style accessible to economists across all specialisations.

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    Image credit: Flooding, July 2007, by Mat Fascoine. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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    21. Announcing Place of the Year 2014 longlist: Vote for your pick

    With the end of 2014 approaching and the publication of the 21st edition of Oxford’s Atlas of the World, we’re considering the most noteworthy places from the past year with our annual Place of the Year (POTY) campaign.

    We’ve compiled a long list of ten places that stood out to us in 2014, and you can vote for your favorite below. Additionally, we’d love to receive nominations that are not included on this long list, and those can be submitted via the comments section. Follow along with #POTY2014 until our announcement on 1 December.

    What do you think Place of the Year 2014 should be?

    As can be seen in the video we put together of a few  of our past winners, Places of the Year have been as geographically varied as Warming Island and Mars, so feel free to be as imaginative as you’d like with your nominations. We will post the short list on November 3, and the Place of the Year 2014 will be announced on December 1. In the interim, be on the lookout for more information on this year’s nominees as well as past winners with maps, videos, and more.

    Image credit: World map made with natural earth data, Eckert 4 projection, central meridian 10° east. CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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    22. Place of the Year 2014: behind the longlist

    Voting for the 2014 Atlas Place of the Year is now underway. However, you still be curious about the nominees. What makes them so special? Each year, we put the spotlight on the top locations in the world that make us go, “wow”. For good or for bad, this year’s longlist is quite the round-up.

    Just hover over the place-markers on the map to learn a bit more about this year’s nominations.

    Make sure to vote for your Place of the Year below. If you have another Place of the Year that you would like to nominate, we’d love to know about it in the comments section. Follow along with #POTY2014 until our announcement on 1 December.What do you think Place of the Year 2014 should be?

    Image Credits: Ferguson: “Cops Kill Kids”. Photo by Shawn Semmler. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr. Liberia: Ebola Virus Particles. Photo by NIAID. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr. Ukraine: Euromaiden in Kiev 2014-02-19 10-22. Photo by Amakuha. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Colorado: Grow House 105. Photo by Coleen Whitfield. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr. Nauru: In front of the Menen. Photo by Sean Kelleher. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr. Sochi: Olympic Park Flags (2). Photo by american_rugbler. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr. Mount Sinjar: Sinjar Karst. Photo by Cpl. Dean Davis. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Gaza: The home of the Kware family after it was bombed by the military. Photo by B’Tselem. CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Scotland: Vandalised no thanks sign. Photo by kay roxby. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr. Brazil: World Cup stuff, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (15). Photo by Jorge in Brazil. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

    Heading image: Old Globe by Petar Milošević. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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    23. Ripe for retirement?

    In 1958, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., the US ambassador to the United Nations, summarized the role of the world organization: “The primary, the fundamental, the essential purpose of the United Nations is to keep peace.  Everything which does not further that goal, either directly or indirectly, is at best superfluous.”  Some 30 years later another ambassador expressed a different view. “In the developing countries the United Nations… means environmental sanitation, agricultural production, telecommunications, the fight against illiteracy, the great struggle against poverty, ignorance and disease,” remarked Miguel Albornoz of Ecuador in 1985.

    These two citations sum up the basic dilemma of the United Nations.  It has always been burdened by high expectations: to keep peace, fix economic injustices, improve educational standards and combat various epidemics and pandemics. But inflated hopes have been tempered by harsh realities. There may not have been a World War III but neither has there been a day’s worth of peace on this quarrelsome globe since 1945. Despite all the efforts of the various UN Agencies (such as the United Nations Development Programme) and related organizations (like the World Bank), there exists a ‘bottom billion’ that survives on less than one dollar a day. The average lifespan in some countries barely exceeds thirty. According to UNESCO 774 million adults around the world lacked basic literacy skills in 2011.

    Given such a seemingly dismal record, it is worth asking whether the UN has outlived its usefulness. After all, the organization turns 69 today (October 24th, 2014), a time when many citizens in the industrialized world exchange the stress of daily jobs for leisurely early retirement. Has the UN not had enough of a chance to keep peace and fix the world’s problems? Isn’t the obvious conclusion that the organization is a failure and the earlier it is scrapped the better?

    The answer is no.  The UN may not have made the world a perfect place but it has improved it immensely. The UN provides no definite guarantees of peace but it has been – and remains – instrumental for pacifying conflicts and enabling mediation between adversaries. Its humanitarian work is indispensable and saves lives every day. In simple terms: if the UN – or the various subsidiary organization that make up the UN – suddenly disappeared, lives would be lost and livelihoods would be endangered.

    Henry Cabot, Jr. By Harris & Ewing. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

    In fact, the real question is not whether the UN has outlived its usefulness, but how can the UN perform better in addressing the many tasks it has been charged with?

    The answer is twofold. First, the UN needs to be empowered to do what it does best. Today, for example, one of the most pressing global challenges is the potential spread of the Ebola virus. Driven by irrational fear, politicians in a number of countries suggest closing borders in order to safeguard their populations. But the only realistic way of addressing a virus that does not know national borders is surely international collaboration. In practical terms this means additional support for the World Health Organization (WHO), the only truly global organization equipped to deal with infectious diseases. But the WHO, much like the UN itself, is essentially a shoestring operation with a global mandate. Its budget in 2013 was just under 4 billion dollars. The US military spent that amount of money in two days.

    Second, the UN must become better at ‘selling’ itself. Too much of what the UN and its specialized agencies do around the world is simply covered in fog. What about child survival and development (UNESCO)? Environmental protection (UNEP) and alleviation of poverty (UNDP)? Peaceful uses of atomic energy (IAEA)? Why do we hear so little about the UN’s (or the International Labour Organization’s) role in improving workers’ rights? Does anyone know that the UNHCR has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize twice (out of a total of 11 Nobel Peace Prizes awarded to the UN, its specialized agencies, related agencies, and staff)? It’s not a bad CV!

    We tend to hear, ad nauseam, that the 21st century is a globalized one, filled with global problems but apparently lacking in global solutions. What we tend to forget is the simple fact that there exists an organization that has been addressing such global challenges – with limited resources and without fanfare – for almost seven decades.

    Indeed, it seems that in today’s world the UN is more relevant than ever before. At 69 it is certainly not ripe for retirement.

     Featured image credit: United Nations Flags, by Tom Page. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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    24. Place of the Year 2014: the longlist, then and now

    As voting continues on the longlist for Place of the Year 2014, we decided to take a look at the past and present of each of the nominees. Check out the images in the slideshow to see, and make sure to vote for your Place of the Year below.

    If you have another ideas for what you think Place of the Year 2014 should be, please post it in the comments section. Keep following along with #POTY2014 until our announcement on 1 December to see which location will join previous winners.

    What do you think Place of the Year 2014 should be?

    Featured image credit: The Ortelius World Map by Abraham Ortelius, 1570. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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    25. Announcing the Place of the Year 2014 shortlist: Vote for your pick

    Thanks to everyone who voted over the few weeks as we considered our 2014 Place of the Year longlist. Now that the votes are in, we’ve narrowed the nominees down to a shortlist of five, and we’d love your thoughts on those as well. You can cast your vote using the buttons and read a bit about each place and why they made the list below.

    The Place of the Year 2014 shortlist


    • The highest peak in the United Kingdom is Ben Nevis, which is located in Scotland and measures 4,409 feet or 1,344 meters.
    • The Scottish referendum, held in September 2014, drew a staggeringly high percentage of the population and resulted in Scotland remaining part of the United Kingdom.


    • Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe.
    • Crimea, a peninsula in the south of Ukraine, was universally recognized as part of Ukraine until a referendum held in March 2014 resulted in Crimea voting to unite with Russia, a union that is not universally recognized and has caused controversy in Ukraine and the rest of the world.


    • Brazil is the world’s fifth largest country.
    • Brazil was the host of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and the 2016 Summer Olympics will be held in Rio de Janeiro.

    Ferguson, Missouri

    • Ferguson is part of St. Louis County in Missouri, about twelve miles away from the county’s namesake city.
    • The shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, and the protests that followed, sparked a worldwide conversation about race relations in summer 2014.


    • The Palestinian Authority was given control of the Gaza Strip by former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2001.
    • Gaza has been the site of a great many disputes between Israel and Hamas. Most recently, the region saw fifty days of violence stretch through July and August of 2014.

    Keep following along with #POTY2014 until our announcement on 1 December to see which location will join previous winners.

    Image credit: Old, historical map of the world by Guiljelmo Blaeuw. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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