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The "Quad-Badwater" Run Is Insane

Finishing the 135-mile Badwater ultramarathon course is a grueling and impressive athletic feat. Finishing the "world's toughest footrace" course, and then turning around and finishing it again, and again, and again is just plain superhuman.

If any runner out there is superhuman, it's 54-year-old Lisa Smith-Batchen. She has competed in nine Badwater Ultramarathons, finishing as women's champion in 1997 and 1998. She has also finished the Marathon des Sables (across the Moroccan Sahara) twice, being the first and only female at the time to win the event in 1999. 

Smith-Batchen began her solo "quad-Badwater" race on July 1. On July 15, after braving flash flood warnings, hallucinations, and windstorms up to 50 mph, she finished. Park alerts for extreme summer heat are currently in affect. But when the going got tough—and by tough we mean steady temperatures in the 120s and a pack of coyotes following her with hungry eyes—Smith-Batchen got tougher.

Smith-Batchen, who is no stranger to running for a purpose, ran the 584 total miles to raise money for Badwater4GoodWater, an organization she founded to increase clean water around the world. She ran 40 to 50 miles per day during the two-week endeavor. "I had in my head that every mile run would help 1,000 people. I'd do three miles and think, 'Three thousand people. I can do this,'" she told Runner's World.

 Smith-Batchen raised enough money to build at least 10 wells in Africa.

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Shazam for Birds Is (Almost) Here

Birders and ornithologists, listen up. Using four large data sets of recorded bird calls, scientists at Queen Mary University in London have created a technology that matches real-life bird calls you record with previously recorded bird calls in its database. 

The researchers, who published their methods in the journal PeerJ, wanted to tap into the growing accuracy of feature learning—a computational input method that takes foreign raw data and compares it automatically to information already in a system, rather than using prelabeled data. Their technology enables birders, who before may have had to resort to tedious deductive research to identify birds in their area, to upload information of their own, much like popular music-identifying application Shazam

To test the idea, the researchers entered their creation in a public contest of identifying more than 500 Brazilian birds' calls from thousands of recordings. The tech placed second out of 10 programs, and it won the "audio only" category.

The researchers have higher hopes for this technology than just helping you avoid awkward call-and-response-style identification of backyard birds. Lead researcher Dr. Dan Stowell, who received a grant for this project, says it might give insight into the evolution of human language and social organization.

"Birdsong has a lot in common with human language, even though it evolved separately. For example, many songbirds go through similar stages of vocal learning as we do as they grow up, which makes them interesting to study," he said. "The attraction of fully automatic analysis is that we can create a really large evidence base to address these big questions."

Up next: Stowell is working on techniques to distill even more information from raw song recordings that could revolutionize our understanding of birds' social worlds. In addition to identifying birds, the tech might be able to analyze longer recordings of multiple birds in a scene, telling you which bird was talking when, which birds responded to it, what their relationship is like, and what that tells you about who's leading the conversation.

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Should the Kaufmans Blame the Phone Company?

A U.S. couple is suing Whenever Communications LLC after the satellite phone company cut off their service while they were at sea. Charlotte and Eric Kaufman's infant daughter became ill during the voyage, and when they were unable to use their phone due to deactivation, the Kaufmans had to seek an emergency rescue by the California Air National Guard and the U.S. Navy. The rescue, along with the now-scuttled boat, cost an estimated $660,000.

That's much more than the family's $240 monthly satellite phone service bill, which had been paid in full since August 2012, according to a KDAL report.

The Kaufmans—Eric, Charlotte, and their two young daughters—were on an extended sail from Mexico to French Polynesia and had stocked their 36-foot sailboat with a satellite phone, rescue beacons, plenty of food and water, and medicine for their youngest daughter, who had recently been ill. When the infant became lethargic, Eric called the U.S. Coast Guard. After he was told that a pediatrician would call them back, he found the line had gone dead.

As a result, an emergency rescue ensued, which meant the family's boat had to be sunk. Now the Kaufmans have sought legal compensation for their loss. They are also inviting the federal government to seek repayment for the expenses of the military rescue, according to ABC.

They say the ordeal could have been avoided had their cell service simply worked. "I think the evidence clearly represents that they did what they did and that was the action that ultimately started a chain of events," Eric Kaufman told ABC News.

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Earthquakes: Coming to a State Near You

On Thursday, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) announced updates to its U.S. National Seismic Hazard Maps, the first since 2008. Used by engineers and architects (among others) for building and bridge construction, these maps provide information on the likelihood, frequency, and severity of earthquakes throughout the nation.

These latest updates purport to be a significant improvement on previous findings. As the project's abstract states:

"The input models are improved from those implemented in 2008 by using new ground motion models that have incorporated about twice as many earthquake strong ground shaking data and by incorporating many additional scientific studies that indicate broader ranges of earthquake source and ground motion models."

The new maps indicate that 42 out of 50 U.S. states "have a reasonable chance of experiencing damaging ground shaking from an earthquake in 50 years," with 16 of these states having a "relatively high likelihood" of a more damaging quake.

The big takeaway from the most recent report might be the greater risk for states on the Eastern Seaboard, as West Coast locales have long known they are in a vulnerable geographical spot.

In case you're scouting for a place to fulfill your lifelong dream of opening the world's largest glass menagerie, here are the 16 states with the highest quake risk: Alaska, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

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The Land No Man Would Claim

"No man’s land" is a term that, to the modern ear, can sound like stepping onto a battlefield. In fact, the phrase refers back to the idea of unclaimed land (recorded as "namesmaneslande" in the Domesday survey of England of 1086) and still carries an echo of perennial hopes for free land, for places beyond the control of others. Ordinary places become extraordinary in no man’s land.

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Such in-between places remind us how dependent we are on borders—that our sense of order and certainty draws deeply from the knowledge that we are in governed territory. No man’s lands may be vast stretches of unclaimed land or tiny scraps left over from the planning of cities, though the uncertainty of the no man’s land is especially keenly felt in places that the outside world refuses to recognize or that appear to be between borders.

The notion that places might slip down between borders led me on a geographical quest. I went looking for the farthest possible distance between the border posts of two contiguous nations, to see how far they could be stretched apart.

Most border posts face each other. A change of signage, a different flag, a line on the road, all combine to signal that no sooner have you stepped out of one country than you have arrived in another. But what happens if you keep on opening up that space?A few years ago, with the help of hours spent blinking at the tiny fonts favored on travelers’ Internet chat forums, I found what I was looking for. Along a road between Senegal and Guinea in West Africa the distance between border posts is 27 kilometers.

It is not the world’s only attenuated border area. The Sani Pass, which runs up to the mountainous kingdom of Lesotho from South Africa, is the most famous. It’s a rough road, although much visited by tourists in 4x4s seeking out the highest pub in Africa, which sits near the top of the pass. The drama of the trip is heightened by the thrill that comes from learning that this is no man’s land. The South Africa border control, complete with "Welcome to South Africa" signs, is 5.6 kilometers away from the Lesotho border office.

Another specimen is to be found in the mountainous zone between border posts on the Torugart Pass that connects China and Kyrgyzstan. Central America also has a nice example in Paso Canoas, a town that can appear to be between Panama and Costa Rica. It is habitually described as no man’s land because, having left through one border post, you can go into the town without passing through immigration to enter the other country. Some visitors relish the impression that the town around them is beyond borders. Partly as a result, Paso Canoas has developed a darkly carnival atmosphere, as if it were some kind of escaped or twilight place.

What these gaps reflect back at us is our own desires, especially the wish to step outside, if only for a short time, the claustrophobic grid of nations. We probably already suspect that it’s an illusion. Shuffling forward in a queue and making it past the passport officer does not mean you are, at that exact moment, leaving or entering a country. Such points of control exist to verify that you are allowed to enter or leave. Their proximity to the borderline is a legal irrelevance.

Yet this legal interpretation fails to grasp either the symbolic importance of the border point or the pent-up urge to enter ungoverned territory.The fact that Paso Canoas is split by the Panama– Costa Rica border rather than actually being between borders doesn’t stop people from describing it as an "escaped zone."Similarly, the steep valley up the Sani Pass is nearly all in South Africa, and the road down from Senegal into Guinea is always in one nation or another, but that isn’t how travelers experience it or even what they want.

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The attraction of these in-between spaces has a lot to do with the fact that they are on land. Going through passport control at an airport provides no comparable thrill, even though international airspace is far more like a genuine no man’s land than any number of dusty miles on the ground. It seems that escaping the nation-state isn’t all that is going on here. There is a primal attraction to entering somewhere real, a place that can be walked on, gotten lost in, even built on, and that appears to be utterly unclaimed.

Some of the overland tourist trips that occasionally rumble along the Senegal–Guinea highway offer camping in the no man’s land as part of the package. Like other examples, it’s a zone that provokes people to muse on allegiance and belonging. In his essay Life Between Two Nations, the American travel writer Matt Brown describes encounters with villagers along the Senegal–Guinea road that provoke speculation on the nature of national identity:

I stopped my bike to chat with the woman pounding leaves. I asked in French (my Pular only goes so far), "Is this Guinea?" "Yes," she answered. Surprised that she even understood French, I posed a follow-up question. "Is this Senegal?" I asked. "Yes," came the reply.

A little later Brown sits on "a nationless rock" and imagines these villagers as freed from the "archaic, nonsensical national borders drawn up by greedy European leaders at the Conference of Berlin over 100 years ago." Stretching out border posts does seem to break the seal on the national unit. The resultant gap may not be of much legal import, but for travelers on the ground it creates a sense of openness and possibility.

Yet while travelers may relish this expansiveness, the consequences for those who have to live and work in such places can be less positive, such as heightened insecurity and a sense of abandonment. This is one of the reasons why African states have been trying to close the gap in such anomalous spaces. The African Development Fund, which supports economic infrastructure projects across the continent, has made "establishing juxtaposed checkpoints at the borders" of its member states a priority, including at the Guinea–Senegal border.

What most concerns the fund’s members is the impact that these distant border posts have on the flow of trade. Along the Guinea–Senegal route there are nightmare tales of vehicles being sent back and forth by officials who keep asking for new documentation or demanding new bribes. In-between land can easily turn into a place of bureaucratic limbo where both travelers and locals are uniquely vulnerable to tiresome and corrupt officialdom. Patches of ground "between" nations are places that can be thought of as free, but they are also places where we are reminded why people willingly give up freedoms for the order and security of being behind a border. 

Excerpt from Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies. Copyright © 2014 by Alastair Bonnett. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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