It’s All Just a Joke to You, Until The Economist Puts It in Print

The television series “The West Wing” plays a role on these pages something like a muse, if potato-shaped and more often sleepy than inspiring. For better or worse, there is something about that program that leads me to, now and then, filter life through its steadicam eyes and the fast-talking heavy-handedness of Aaron Sorkin’s social explication.

It has been a touchstone for me on such diverse topics as war crimes, environmentalism and even the “appalling strangeness” of God. And yet I have far from an encyclopedic understanding of the show, which went off the air in 2006, and which I did not even start watching until 2005, and which I still have not watched a moment past a few episodes from the end of Season 4.

And so here I go again.

The Economist two nights ago published an article about cartography that glances at a long-lived dispute about how to best map the Earth.

MAPS of the world have the impossible task

via The Economist explains: Why world maps are misleading | The Economist.

The story goes like this: The world map you are used to seeing was devised by a 16th-century busybody named Gerardus Mercator. His design draws latitude and longitude as straight lines, which at the time suited the sea-going public just fine.

Despite his lack of experience at sea, Mercator knew what mariners wanted.

via The history of maps: Squaring the circle | The Economist.

But what his design also does is distort the various land masses, making Greenland appear larger than Africa, for instance, when we all know that’s not remotely the case.

A sphere cannot be represented on a flat plane without distortion

via Cartography: The true true size of Africa | The Economist.

These distortions, some would have you believe, are the source of many of the world’s problems. Europe’s lingering cultural and political dominance, these people would say, can be ascribed, in part, to its position atop the Southern Hemisphere, you know, lording over all of its now-former colonies. And so on.

Mercator’s famous projection, which marginalises the Orient and establishes the Americas as the “commercially powerful, territorially meaningful place” by placing it in the top left-hand corner of the world.

via Map-making: Errors and omissions | The Economist.

In any case, there eventually were a number of people, Arno Peters, a German historian, to name one, who thought they had a better idea. For his part, Mr. Peters designed a much different map, which to be honest just distorts matters in a whole other direction.

Which is just a long way of my telling you that this dispute, between the Mercator people and the Peters-type people, had an informal airing on “The West Wing,” in Episode 16 of Season 2. In the show, the Peters-type people are depicted as mousey crackpots, which I suppose is what they really are.

What is not as clear is why The Economist is bringing all of this up, over and over.

“Perhaps the time has come,” The Economist says, “to abandon the universal reliance on the Mercator projection in favour of maps that” — blah, blah, blah, and then it just gets all wishy-washy. I am not even going to copy it out.

“What the hell is that?”
“It’s where you’ve been living this whole time. Should we continue?”

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