Sunday, December 29, 2019

World of Facts

All the flags!  Getty image by way of Far & Wide
"Interesting if true" is a phrase that became common in our household as my co-favorite librarian and I would read the daily trivia column of the late L.M. Boyd. We found almost everything in his syndicated column to be interesting, even surprising. And most of it was true. We detected errors in one of two ways -- either a claim was so outlandish that we decided to look it up (most of the decades in which his column ran were pre-Google) or -- more likely -- the claim was in an area in which one or both of us had some expertise.

We were reminded of the phrase as I read -- and partly shared aloud Max DeNike's wide-ranging listicle on Far & Wide, entitled Fascinating Facts About Every Single Country on Earth. Each country 

The facts are indeed fascinating, and I have no reason to doubt most of them. In many cases, the facts chosen point to some broader truths about the country in question -- most notably the underwater cabinet meeting in the Maldives, a protest stunt that has become a well-known metaphor for the plight of low-lying islands worldwide.

Several positive characteristics distinguish DeNike's work from most listicles of its kind. First, it is just one long page, with no ads (pop-up or otherwise), no jumping from page to page, no silly teasers, and a clear organization scheme: one fact per country, in decreasing order of population, with "country" used as defined by the United Nations. Moreover, each entry includes the national flag, most have a high-quality photo that is related to the featured fact, and the current name (as of late 2019) is used. Each item also includes a link to a more detailed article for those interested in further research (as students in my Advanced Global Thinking course will be, even if they don't realize it yet!) It was from such a link that I learned the full story of Dylan's Mozambique
The Pyramids at Cholula are much taller than the Washington Monument,
starting at over 7,000 feet above sea level. Pam and I climbed these
almost every day during the summer 1989.
Getty Images by way of Far & Wide 

In some cases, the chosen fact is one that I find interesting and broadly relevant -- such as the discussion of Cholula for Mexico. I have been inside the pyramid he describes (which local people call "las piramides" because it is really seven pyramids, three superimposed on four smaller ones). I know that it was the most significant structure in the Americas when the Spanish landed, and the site of significant (if brutal) encounters between the Cortés and the Aztecs. I did not know -- or did not remember -- that it is the largest pyramid in the world. Again, interesting if true.

Other facts are interesting in their own right, but not broadly revealing about the country. I am not sure why I found it fascinating when I learned from Bohemian Rhapsody that Freddie Mercury was born in what is now part of Tanzania, but it tells us more about him than about the country itself. It is a reminder that no single story can represent an entire country. In this sense, I give DeNike credit for assiduously avoiding the temptation to pathologize places; in no instance does he focus on poverty or violence. Neither should be ignored, of course, but neither should be allowed to define a place or a people. We are, after all, more alike than different, a fact that is often obscured by a focus on the most negative stories. 

A couple more items merit specific comment. A fellow Latin Americanist geographer (yes, that is a thing, and there are a few of us) asked almost right away about the Brazil entry. Can there really be 100 uncontacted indigenous groups in the Amazon? We are both skeptical, and clicking through the links leads to a video claiming this number for the entire world; even that is doubtful in 2019, especially since a birds-eye photo purporting to represent such groups includes at least one person holding a machete.

Another problematic entry is for Costa Rica, which correctly points out that day length does not very much throughout the year there. This is hardly the most interesting thing about the country (which essentially invented ecotourism and is now a major center for agronomic research in coffee), nor is Costa Rica the best example. Day length varies even less in countries closer to the equator, notably Ecuador, which is actually named for the equator. More important, though, is the "explanation" having to do with distance from the sun. This is a common error among people who do not understand seasons or the basics of earth's orbit around the sun -- such as many graduates of Harvard.

Bottom line: this article provides plenty of exercise for a geographer's mind, and I look forward to using it to inspire further explorations with my students in the new year.

Lagniappe

At the bottom of the screen is another entry comparing cities that are famous globally with counterparts in the United States that share their names -- Memphis, Paris, and so on.  

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