kottke.org posts about geography
Among the requirements that all immigrants must meet to become a naturalized US citizen is a civics test covering US history and government. The test contains 100 questions, 10 of which are verbally posed by a Citizenship and Immigration Services officer…no multiple choice. Applicants must answer 6 out of 10 correctly to pass. The questions include:
What is the supreme law of the land?
What is freedom of religion?
What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?
The House of Representatives has how many voting members?
What is the name of the President of the United States now?
Under our Constitution, some powers belong to the states. What is one power of the states?
What are two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy?
The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the U.S. Constitution. Name one of the writers.
When must all men register for the Selective Service?
Name one war fought by the United States in the 1800s.
What was one important thing that Abraham Lincoln did?
Why does the flag have 13 stripes?
Before he was President, Eisenhower was a general. What war was he in?
Name one of the two longest rivers in the United States.
Name two national U.S. holidays.
You can take a 20-question multiple choice test on the USCIS website or if you want to see how many you can answer out of 100 with no multiple choice, I knocked up a Google Sheets version here — access is read-only but you can make a copy and take the test by choosing File / Make a copy… from the menu. Here’s a full list of the questions and suggested answers to check your work. Without studying, some of the questions are more difficult than you’d think, particularly if your last political science and American history classes were 25 years ago in high school.
And like all tests, this one is imperfect.1 In 2001, Dafna Linzer wrote about her test-taking experience.
Then there is Question 12: What is the “rule of law”?
I showed it to lawyers and law professors. They were stumped.
There are four acceptable answers: “Everyone must follow the law”; “Leaders must obey the law”; “Government must obey the law”; “No one is above the law.”
Judge Richard Posner, the constitutional scholar who serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago, was unhappy. “These are all incorrect,” he wrote me. “The rule of law means that judges decide cases ‘without respect of persons,’ that is, without considering the social status, attractiveness, etc. of the parties or their lawyers.”
The Simpsons lampooned this aspect of the test in 1996 when Apu answered a question about the Civil War2 during his civics test.
Examiner: “Alright, here’s your last question: What was the cause of the Civil War?”
Apu: “Actually there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, economic factors both domestic and international…”
Examiner: “Hey, hey…”
Examiner: “Just… just say ‘slavery’”.
Apu: “Slavery it is, sir.”
This would never happen in a million years, but I would love for someone to sit down with Donald Trump to see how many of these he could answer. Like I said, if you haven’t studied, some of the questions are not that easy. But surely the President of the United States should be able to get almost all of them correct…
It makes sense that villages and towns would develop a short distance away from each other so that people living nearby wouldn’t have to travel far to sell their goods, bank, or go to school. But what about cities? Geography has a lot ot do with where cities are located.
If you enjoy this video but haven’t read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel yet, you probably should.
Google has updated their Timelapse feature on Google Earth, allowing you to scrub satellite imagery from all over the globe back in forth in time.
This interactive experience enabled people to explore these changes like never before — to watch the sprouting of Dubai’s artificial Palm Islands, the retreat of Alaska’s Columbia Glacier, and the impressive urban expansion of Las Vegas, Nevada. Today, we’re making our largest update to Timelapse yet, with four additional years of imagery, petabytes of new data, and a sharper view of the Earth from 1984 to 2016.
A good way to experience some of the most compelling locations is through the YouTube playlist embedded above…just let it run for a few minutes. Some favorite videos are the circular farmland in Al Jowf, Saudi Arabia, the disappearing Aral Sea, the erosion of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana, the urban growth of Chongqing, China, the alarmingly quick retreat of Alaska’s Columbia Glacier, and this meandering river in Tibet.
The New York Times took a map of the US and split it in two based on areas that voted for Clinton and Trump in the 2016 election. (Clinton’s map is pictured above.)
Mrs. Clinton’s island nation has large atolls and small island chains with liberal cores, like college towns, Native American reservations and areas with black and Hispanic majorities. While the land area is small, the residents here voted for Mrs. Clinton in large enough numbers to make her the winner of the overall popular vote.
That’s fun, but it’s another reminder of how strictly geographical maps distort election results.
P.S. They missed a real opportunity to call the chain of islands in the southern states The Cretaceous Atoll.
Alan Taylor has compiled a bunch of satellite photography showing how humans have altered the landscape of the American Southwest.
Humans have lived in what we now call the American Southwest for centuries, making a wide impact on the land, much of it visible from aerial and satellite photography. Nuclear detonations, housing subdivisions, oil exploration, hydroelectric facilities, solar power facilities, roads, mines, farms, ranches, cities, and towns have altered much of the land over the years.
The photos, from top to bottom: a road cuts through White Sands, NM, a former nuclear testing site in NV (those are craters left from nuclear explosions), and a housing development south of Denver.
In his film Best of Luck With the Wall, director Josh Begley takes us on a journey across the entire US/Mexico border. It’s a simple premise — a continuous display of 200,000 satellite images of the border from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico — but one that delivers a powerful feeling of how large the world is and how meaningless borders are from a certain perspective.
The project started from a really simple place. It was about looking. It was about the pure desire to understand the visual landscape that we are talking about when we are talking about the southern border of the United States. What does the southern border of the United States actually look like? And in that sense it was a very simple gesture to try to see the border in aggregate. If you were to compile all 2000 miles and try to see it in a short space — what would that look like? In another sense it grew out of the discourses as you suggested. The way migration is talked about in our contemporary moment and in particular the way migration is talked about in terms of the southern border of the U.S. So part of this piece is a response to the way migrants and borders are talked about in our politics. And it’s also just a way of looking at landscape as a way to think about some of those things.
The online version of the film is 6 minutes long, but Begley states that longer versions might make their way into galleries and such.
From Neil Freeman, proprietor of the excellent Fake is the New Real, a map of the continental United States with the 50 states reorganized into concentric circles of equal population.
See also the map accompanying Parag Khanna’s recent piece, A New Map for America, which calls for the creation of seven mega-regions centered around metropolitan clusters in place of the lower 48 states: the Pacific Coast, the Inland West, the Great Plains, the Gulf Coast, the Great Lakes, the Southeast Manufacturing Belt, and the Great Northeast.
These days, in the thick of the American presidential primaries, it’s easy to see how the 50 states continue to drive the political system. But increasingly, that’s all they drive — socially and economically, America is reorganizing itself around regional infrastructure lines and metropolitan clusters that ignore state and even national borders. The problem is, the political system hasn’t caught up.
America faces a two-part problem. It’s no secret that the country has fallen behind on infrastructure spending. But it’s not just a matter of how much is spent on catching up, but how and where it is spent. Advanced economies in Western Europe and Asia are reorienting themselves around robust urban clusters of advanced industry. Unfortunately, American policy making remains wedded to an antiquated political structure of 50 distinct states.
To an extent, America is already headed toward a metropolis-first arrangement. The states aren’t about to go away, but economically and socially, the country is drifting toward looser metropolitan and regional formations, anchored by the great cities and urban archipelagos that already lead global economic circuits.
Holy shit, could you imagine? Most of America would have a fit over this.
Rivers change course as they flow through the years. This is an animation of the fast-changing Ucayali River in Peru built from satellite imagery over the past 30 years.
See also meander maps of the Mississippi River, available as prints from 20x200.
Beyond the Sea is a neat project by Andy Woodruff that visualizes what lies across the ocean from the world’s coastlines. For instance, standing on the coast in North America looking straight out, you might see Brazil or the west coast of Africa, but also the east coast of Africa, India, and even Iran.
In the northern reaches of Newfoundland, near the town of St. Anthony, is the Fox Point Lighthouse. I’ve never been there, but I know it has one of the most impressive ocean views in the world. If you face perpendicular to the right bit of rocky coastline there and gaze straight across the ocean, your mind’s eye peering well beyond the horizon, you can see all the way to Australia.
What’s really across the ocean from you when you look straight out? It’s not always the place you think.
If you measure the contours of a river valley with Lidar (like radar with lasers), you get a beautiful map of all the historical river channels. The image above was taken from a poster of the historical channels of the Willamette River…click through to see the whole thing. See also Harold Fisk’s meander maps of the Mississippi River.
Using Neil Freeman’s maps at Fake is the New Real, the Guardian created a quiz: Can you identify the world cities from their ‘naked’ metro maps? As interested as I am in both maps and subways, I did shockingly bad on this quiz. (via @daveg)
Update: Here’s a similar quiz using unlabeled street maps. See also Smarty Pins and GeoGuessr for more geography quiz fun.
Smarty Pins is a Google Maps-based geography quiz…you drop pins on the map to answer questions. You start with a total of 1000 miles and the game subtracts the number of miles you’re off by for each answer.
I just spent far too long playing this. Can you beat my score of 39? Also, this reminds me of GeoGuessr, which is a lot more difficult.
What’s your best guess without looking: How many US states are at least partially north of the southernmost part of Canada?
(It’s probably way more than you think.)
Ok, I’ll give you two hints…
1. Wyoming is almost *entirely* north of the southernmost point in Canada.
2. Part of a state that borders Mexico is north of the southernmost point in Canada.
One more big hint: more than 25% of US states are entirely north of Canada’s southernmost point.
So, here’s the answer:
27 US states, more than half, are at least partially north of Canada’s southernmost point. (via @stevenstrogatz)
Ian Silva is a Australian commuter train driver who spends his spare time mapping an invented country called the Koana Islands.
People in the Koana Islands love baseball. The first league play started in 1882, barely six years after the MLB. Between the top-tier, Triple- and Double-A leagues, there are over 180 teams spanning the island nation. Fans are so rabid that there’s even talk of expanding to a Single-A league, adding even more teams. If you’re a baseball fan, you might be surprised you’ve never heard of this. You’ll be even more surprised when you try to find the Koana Islands. That’s because the 32-island chain, with its nine major cities, 11 national parks, 93 million residents and a landmass that is equal to Spain and Sweden combined does not really exist.
Alan Taylor recently investigated where Google Maps’ Street View coverage ends — “whether blocked by geographic features, international borders, or simply the lack of any further road” — and compiled a photographic look at the ends of the road.
This is like CSI for geography dorks: you’re plopped into a random location on Google Street View and you have to guess where in the world you are. So much fun…you get to say “wait, zoom in, enhance, whoa, back up” to yourself while playing. My top score is 14103…what’d you get? p.s. Using Google in another tab is cheating! (thx, nick)
A list of the northernmost, southernmost, easternmost and westernmost cities/towns/villages in all 50 US states.
Vermont — Northernmost: Derby Line. Southernmost: Vernon (specifically South Vernon area). Easternmost: Beecher Falls. Westernmost: Chimney Point.
California — Northernmost: Tulelake (note: Fairport is more northerly but is considered a “former settlement”) Southernmost: San Diego (San Ysidro District). Easternmost: Parker Dam. Westernmost: Ferndale.
New York — Northernmost: Rouses Point. Southernmost: Staten Island-New York City (Tottenville Neighborhood) Easternmost: Montauk. Westernmost: Findley Lake.
The British Board of Film Classification was said to have an informal rule called the Mull of Kintyre test about the erectness of penises shown in films and videos. If a man’s penis was at an angle greater than Scotland’s Kintyre peninsula, you couldn’t show it.
The BBFC would not permit the general release of a film or video if it depicted a phallus erect to the point that the angle it made from the vertical (the “angle of the dangle”, as it was often known) was larger than that of the Mull of Kintyre, Argyll and Bute, on maps of Scotland.
The BBFC has denied the test was ever applied. Sometimes a Scottish peninsula is just a Scottish peninsula. (via @josueblanco)
A group of Australian scientists sailing to research plate tectonics discovered more than they were expecting. Well, less. They sailed right through where an island should have been.
Dr. Maria Seton, our cheif scientist, noticed that on the path that we were taking there was this very unusal island. Essentially it was on all the Google Earth maps and it was on all the weather charts. But when you zoom in on it it was just a black blob. Google had no photos from it. It was just this sort of slit in the Earth.
Starting with a blank map of the US, the object is to place each state in its proper place.
My average error was 8 miles. A better test would be to start each state with the blank map…placing Colorado in the western part of the country without any guide is much tougher than doing it last. (via @notrobwalker)
Using computer modeling, it’s possible to take a crack at answering that question.
If the earth stood still, the oceans would gradually migrate toward the poles and cause land in the equatorial region to emerge. This would eventually result in a huge equatorial megacontinent and two large polar oceans.
I like these Alphaposters by Happycentro, especially the gorgeous Lowercase F Island:
Because of fences, differing policies, or different cultures, national borders also mark habitat boundaries for animals and plants. More at Edible Geography.
For example, the antlion surplus in Israel can be traced back to the fact that the Dorcas gazelle is a protected species there, while across the border in Jordan, it can legally be hunted. Jordanian antlions are thus disadvantaged, with fewer gazelles available to serve “as ‘environmental engineers’ of a sort” and to “break the earth’s dry surface,” enabling antlions to dig their funnels.
Meanwhile, the more industrial form of agriculture practised on the Israeli side has encouraged the growth of a red fox population, which makes local gerbils nervous; across the border, Jordan’s nomadic shepherding and traditional farming techniques mean that the red fox is far less common, “so that Jordanian gerbils can allow themselves to be more carefree.”
Update: As this satellite view shows, the US-Canada border quite literally forms a line that cuts through the landscape. I had no idea this fenceless border was so visible. (thx, jonathan)
To get to a McDonald’s in the lower 48 United States, it’s never more than 145 miles by car. And the McFarthest Spot in the US is in South Dakota.
For maximum McSparseness, we look westward, towards the deepest, darkest holes in our map: the barren deserts of central Nevada, the arid hills of southeastern Oregon, the rugged wilderness of Idaho’s Salmon River Mountains, and the conspicuous well of blackness on the high plains of northwestern South Dakota.
See also maximum Starbucks density and Starbucks center of gravity of Manhattan.
Update: The distribution of McDonald’s in Australia is a bit more uneven. (thx, kit)
Though not as well known as the US version, Europe has a continental divide located between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. It doesn’t run along the Alps as much as I thought it would.
BibliOdyssey has collected a number of charts which compare the heights of mountains and lengths of rivers by laying them all out next to each other. (Ok, kinda difficult to explain…just go take a look.) I had a chance to buy a copy of one of these maps a few years ago (not sure if it was an original print or what; it looked old) but passed it up because I didn’t have the money. Wish I would have bought it anyway. (via quips)
Forget the Red State / Blue State labels; the real question is Wal-Mart State or Starbucks State.
Click on world cities on a map to test your traveler IQ. Africa = nearly random clicking for me although I would have done better had I not misread Swaziland as Switzerland.