Strange Bedfellows

On September 9, 2012 · 9 Comments

This isn’t a guessing game specifically although I’ll start out that way to get some competitive juices flowing through the Twelve Mile Circle audience. I know everyone likes it when I post trivia questions.

What do the following nations have in common?: Afghanistan; Botswana; Burma; France; Somalia and Ukraine. Think about that for a moment.

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Let’s try another one: Ireland; Latvia and Sri Lanka.

And maybe one more just for fun: Fiji; Kuwait; Slovenia and Swaziland.

I’m sure that many of you were able to figure out that each set of nations covers approximately the same geographic area, including land and water territory. Consider yourself a winner if you figured it had to do with size. The more precise answer, and one that would be unreasonable to expect from anyone, is that the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States describes each set the same way in its CIA World Factbook. The CIA answers for the sets provided would be: slightly smaller than Texas; slightly larger than West Virginia and slightly smaller than New Jersey, respectively.

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Granted, that doesn’t do much for an audience outside of the United States. However, the CIA isn’t the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) either. Otherwise we’d see comparisons like the Czech Republic is "about the size of Scotland" rather than "slightly smaller than South Carolina." We’re dealing with a U.S.-based organization so an American-centric worldview prevails. Actually it might be interesting to retrofit these comparisons from the points of view of different nations ("Guatemala is slightly smaller than the Dornogovi Province of Mongolia?"). Note to self — file that away for future exploration. Other geo-oddity bloggers should feel free to elaborate on this theme likewise. I have no pride of ownership.

I’ve used the World Factbook as a handy reference for a number of years when I want a quick and easy answer. It’s a good source to balance or confirm what one finds in Wikipedia. The size comparisons have always been one of my favorite features. It’s so easy to get a mental image stuck in one’s mind and these comparisons help pull a notion back to reality that a single number may not convey adequately. The geographic significance of Chad, for example, looms larger when I’m reminded that it’s actually slightly more than three times the size of California instead of 1,284,000 km2. I’ve driven through sections of California. Three times California tells me a lot.

A rainy day in the Washington, DC area offered an opportunity for me to record the comparisons of every nation and territory listed in the World Factbook. I lined them all up in a spreadsheet. It involved some copy-and-pasting, although not too bad, and provided some interesting results once sorted. First, the book plays favorites. Some states appear numerous times while others never appear. Alaska and the District of Columbia are obvious choices because they bookend the largest and smallest areas bound within the United States. The middle is the interesting part with repeated references to California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.

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The rest of the states receive scant mention or maybe none at all. My beloved Commonwealth of Virginia fails to make the cut. The book could have said that any number of nations were approximately the same size as Virginia, however it chose to highlight Pennsylvania and Tennessee instead (inconsistently I might add). I think it may have more to do with where the authors lived. Couldn’t they throw a bone to the also-ran states? Lets cue up some faux Internet outrage. Actually it probably has more to do with their shape as I consider it further. It’s easier to compare something to a rectangle (Pennsylvania, Tennessee) than to a triangle (Virginia), although comparing something to freaky-shaped Maryland isn’t a picnic either and that is one of their absolute favorites.

Some comparisons with the District of Columbia seem truly bizarre even to someone who has lived nearby for most of his life. Envision "about 24 times the size of The Mall in Washington, DC" (Cocos (Keeling) Islands) and differentiate that with the next larger category, "less than an eighth of the size of Washington, DC" (Saint Barthelemy). Seriously? They expect me to compose a mental image of The Mall twenty-four times? Neither comparison resonated with me other than to suggest SMALL. Really small.

Any number of odd comparisons came to light when viewing and sorting the complete list. I had a lot of fun with it.

There’s no sense letting my copy-and-pasting effort go to waste either. I’ve compiled a Google spreadsheet file sorted from largest to smallest if you wish to take a look for yourself. It’s shared as a read-only document although you should be able to download it in a variety of file formats if you’d like to sort it differently. Any omissions or spelling errors are mine. If you have issues with the size comparisons (and errors — I think I spotted some) you should feel free to spark that conversation with the CIA. I understand the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base is about two-thirds the size of Washington, DC.

Please let me know if the spreadsheet works because I might try to share more source data this way in the future.

On September 9, 2012 · 9 Comments

9 Responses to “Strange Bedfellows”

  1. Nach says:

    Nice. Keep up the good work. My two favorite things combine: geography and lists.

  2. Nach says:

    One of the lists that I’ve tried to create since I haven’t seen it on the internet is the rank position of a US state capital’s population in a list of that states most populous cities. As a result I want to find what the true smallest US capital city is in comparison to the other cities in the state. For example, everyone knows Montpelier is the smallest state capital in population, but it’s only the 5th largest city in the state. But Frankfort is the 14th largest city in its state, so I consider it “smaller”. I think the answer will be Frankfort, but I have to go through every state first.

  3. Jon P says:

    My favorite part of the World Factbook is the list and length of each of the country’s international borders. Here’s the list for the country with the most neighbors, Russia:

    Azerbaijan 284 km, Belarus 959 km, China (southeast) 3,605 km, China (south) 40 km, Estonia 290 km, Finland 1,313 km, Georgia 723 km, Kazakhstan 6,846 km, North Korea 17.5 km, Latvia 292 km, Lithuania (Kaliningrad Oblast) 227 km, Mongolia 3,441 km, Norway 196 km, Poland (Kaliningrad Oblast) 432 km, Ukraine 1,576 km

    Think about it – to get from Norway to North Korea you need only pass through a single country.

  4. Rhodent says:

    Interesting. I once did a similar thing, but because of what I was using it for it was much narrower in scope, looking only at European countries (but also adding Canadian provinces and territories…forget this “twice the size of Oregon” stuff, Spain is slightly larger than the Yukon!).

    As far as overuse of Maryland goes, it’s probably because there’s nothing suitable near it in size. The next smaller state, Hawaii, isn’t any less unusual in shape, and its location away from the lower 48 makes it useless as a comparison for most Americans. The next smaller state after Hawaii is Massachusetts, which is regular in shape but also about 15% smaller than Maryland. By contrast, Virginia is in a group of several states which are very similar in size, with the others being more regularly-shaped. That being said, I’m not sure why Ohio, which is in the same size range and also fairly regular in shape, doesn’t get used.

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