Thursday, September 25, 2008


While my parents were here visiting recently, we talked a lot about geography. In addition to mapping future travel routes and reminiscing about old ones, we spent a good deal of time discussing whether Americans have a poor sense of geography and whether or not it is okay if we do (which, sorry, we do). Even though there are some convincing reasons for why this is (we can't all see Alaska from our windows, after all), I happen to believe that this particular type of ignorance is diplomatically deleterious and puts us at a real disadvantage in understanding international politics and US foreign policy. If we care to understand (which we might not).

I really didn't meant to have a small rant about that, I just woke up cranky and didn't get to my lighthearted point fast enough. I always have a lighthearted point, you know.

As any American who has answered the question "Do you know my friend X in New York?" has realized, a poor sense of scale can really affect your understanding of a place. (For further evidence, please see SwissAir's map of the US). Americans tend to be a bit smug about this, but I think the misunderstanding works both ways. 

During one of our discussions, I mentioned seeing an interesting map somewhere which superimposed the US onto Brazil, where it fit quite nicely, or just about. I was caught off guard with the – what shall I call it? – extreme skepticism of my party. "No, no!" I responded. "I am not making this up! Brazil is huge. The world is huge! Africa can fit all of Europe, all of the US and all of India in it! Have you seen Kazakhstan? It's enormous!" But because I am never very confident, especially amid controversy, I added an weak "I think" to my Brazil claim the second time around and lost all credibility.

However, my mom sent me some interesting figures today:
USA area: 9,826,630 SQ KM
Brazil area: 8,511,965 SQ KM

Now, if you were an engineer, you might immediately say that I was completely wrong. But if you happened to be a liberal arts student, you might wish to consider these numbers a bit more. You might observe that the US has about 90% of the area of Brazil. And you might realize that, if you put the US inside of Brazil, it would fit quite nicely, except for maybe that awkward bit of Florida, which is falling off anyway. I may be wrong on paper, but I feel absolutely vindicated.

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