Monday, January 30, 2006

Why do people have to tell me these things?

One of my favorite episodes of the West Wing is the one that has the "The Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality." It's the episode about Big Block of Cheese Day (which, thanks to IMDB and Wikipedia, I now know is Episode # 216 Somebody's going to emergency, Somebody's going to jail), where key White House staffers meet with all sorts of fringe groups that, ordinarily, wouldn't rate a meeting with the Presidential Staff.

During one of those meetings, CJ meets with the members of that Organization, who are proposing legislation that leads to the use of a newer, more accurate map. You can read all about it by clicking
Here to check Wikipedia yourself.

But here (courtesy of is the relevant (and extremely humorous) dialogue:

The map enlarges areas at the poles to create straight lines of constant
bearing or geographic direction.

So, it makes it easier to cross an ocean.



It distorts the relative size of nations and continents.

Are you saying the map is wrong?

Oh, dear, yes.

Here we have Europe drawn considerably larger than South America when at
6.9 million square miles South America is almost double the size of Europe's 3.8 million.

Alaska appears three times as large as Mexico, when Mexico is larger by .1 million square miles.

Germany appears in the middle of the map when it's in the northernmost quarter of the Earth.

Wait, wait. Relative size is one thing, but you're telling me that Germany isn't where we think it is?

Nothing's where you think it is.

Where is it?

I'm glad you asked. [brings up a new map, which has its continents significally squished northward] The Peters Projection. (insert map here)

What the hell is that?

It's where you've been living this whole time. Should we continue?

Check out more maps here-----------------------------------------

later in the episode:

When Third World countries are misrepresented they're likely to be valued
less. When Mercator maps exaggerate the importance of Western civilization, when the
top of the map is given to the northern hemisphere and the bottom is given to the
southern... then people will tend to adopt top and bottom attitudes.

But... wait. How... Where else could you put the Northern Hemisphere but on the top?

On the bottom.


Like this.

The map is flipped over.

Yeah, but you can't do that.

Why not?

'Cause it's freaking me out.


I'm with CJ.... It freaks me out too.

Aside from making me laugh, the episode really gave me a lot to think about. Turns out, there really ARE issues with the map we all know and love. It isn't exactly... what's the word I'm searching for here... Accurate. If a map of the WORLD wasn't constant, wasn't exact, wasn't right, what else could be off?

So that's why I was particularly interested in an article in this week's
The Week

that talks about how "the world's timekeepers no longer can agree on an answer" on the best way to tell time. I didn't even know this was an issue, I thought time was a constant: that we all kind of agreed on a standard of time, and this was it.

Turns out, not so much. Time is "still based on the movements of the Earth, and the Earth is a poor timekeeper." THE EARTH IS A POOR TIMEKEEPER? How is that possible? Oh, but it got better - -

"The time it takes for our planet to make a complete revolution around the sun varies from year to year by a half-second or more. The precise length of a day varies too, because the rising and falling of ocean tides has a tiny, but measurable impact on how quickly the Earth revolves on it's axis. Our days, in fact, are getting longer by about two milliseconds a century."

They go on to explain that, while a millisecond here or there doesn't seem important right now, it can eventual cause disaster - perhaps the dreaded Y2K that never came could still be waiting for us at some random point in the future. Scientists are working to find a more accurate measure of time, they insist, but for right now, time isn't right either.


So, let's see - maps are biased, time is "holding it's breath" every couple of years, and white chocolate isn't considered actual chocolate (I'm still in denial here, so I won't look up the details, in the hopes that the world will change it's mind--- again).

Anything other foundations of civilization getting ready to crumble?

If there are, what do I have to pay you to keep it to yourself?

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