The Harvard MBTA Station: Resolving a Failure of Geographic Intuition

The Harvard station is rather special among MBTA Red Line stations. It’s a double-decker station, and also much, much curvier than other stations. But most notable to me—and, as I’ve found out, not just me—is that the station manages to evade geographical sense. On the inbound platform, my navigational intuition tells me the train should be coming from the right, but instead the train comes from the left. There are also others among the geographically-inclined that agree that it really feels like the train should come from the right. And yet, this is not just a small discrepancy in intuition, where a direction is a mild angle off. This is a navigational intuition failure of 180 degrees.

The entrance I (and most of my friends) usually take to go down to the Harvard station platform starts right in the Harvard Square bend of Massachusetts Avenue (which the Red Line runs under), heading eastward, along the avenue. After going down an escalator or flight of stairs, the path turns sharply left, heading down another escalator or flight of stairs. Here, the path branches into two curved paths heading out: one to the left, heading to the 71 and 73 buses, and one to the right, arcing over to the platforms, along the way splitting into one path going to the outbound platform and one going to the inbound platform, which is under the outbound platform. So, like this:


Thus, one would expect, after mentally processing this path, that the train comes from the right. Yet the train actually comes from the left.

There aren’t floor plans of the station available online, at least as far as I can tell, so I returned to the station recently just to figure out what’s going on once and for all.

It turns out this is what actually happens.


That is, of the 180-degree discrepancy, only about 90 degrees are from miscalibration of angles and curves in the path: the first turn is sharper; the second turn is shallower. The rest of the discrepancy is due to where the platform actually is being only about 90 degrees offset from the mental model of where the platform is, specifically, before the bend in the route. And in fact, looking into the tunnel towards the right at the Harvard station platform, one can confirm that the path taken by the train turns left after entering.

Interestingly, once I entered the platform with my mind set on figuring out what’s really going on, the explanation unraveled itself without need of additional tools or a map. That one time, focused on the problem, was more useful to entangling this mystery than the entire 5 years prior during which the station just caught me off guard.

Understanding the Degree of Population of South and East Asia

Data and statistics are often presented in numbers, but looking at numbers themselves often doesn’t allow one to grasp the true scale of size differences. Below are several comparative attempts to help one grasp the true degree to which the population giants of South and East Asia are densely populated.

China is the world’s most populous country, with 1.39 billion people.
India is the world’s 2nd most populous country, with 1.33 billion people.
The United States is the world’s 3rd most populous country, with 327 million people.
If the United States suddenly had 1 billion more people, it would still be the world’s 3rd most populous country.

A common example of a trait assigned to ignorant Americans is the misconception that Africa is a country. Yet…
Africa has 1.23 billion people, so if Africa was a country, it would only be the world’s 3rd most populous country, after China and India.
At current rates of population growth, though, this probably won’t stay for long.

North America has 579 million people.
South America has 420 million people.
So, if the all of the Americas united into one country, it would have less population than China or India.
In fact, as shown above, the Americas together have less people than Africa.
And, as shown above above, the Americas would need more than another entire USA to catch up to China or India.

California is the most populous state of the United States, with 39 million people.
If California was moved to India, it would rank 12th in population among Indian states. If it was moved to China, it would rank 15th in population among Chinese provinces.
It’s also worth noting that while California would rank 12th in population in India, it would rank 1st in area.

India’s state of Uttar Pradesh has over 200 million people.
If Uttar Pradesh was a country, it would rank 7th in population in the world.
(And of course, India would still rank 2nd.)
How large is Uttar Pradesh? Smaller than Oregon.

Luzon has 53 million people.
Mindanao has 25 million people.
Australia has 23 million people.
The Philippines contain two islands each with more population than Australia.
So does Indonesia, of which in fact one of the islands is Jawa, with six times Australia’s population.

Phoenix’s population density is 1200 people/km².
Austin’s population density is 1170 people/km².
Charlotte’s population density is 1064 people/km²
Bangladesh’s population density is 1142 people/km².
Despite being cities, Phoenix, Austin, and Charlotte have population densities similar to that of the country of Bangladesh.

Here’s a bunch of US states that together have about as much population as Vietnam.
Here’s Vietnam juxtaposed over the US, for an area comparison.

Continue reading “Understanding the Degree of Population of South and East Asia”

Straight Borders

Every so often in life, I come to realize something that upon reflection I’m amazed I either haven’t thought about before or haven’t thought more about before.

A recent case: how the frequency of straight borders in the United States is very unusual in the world.

This case is a case of the latter sort of realization: I’ve many years prior looked at a provincial map of the People’s Republic of China and noted to myself a serious lack of straightness in borders, but I never thought anything beyond that there.

China’s provinces and autonomous regions, as well as next-level divisions, have borders that are overwhelmingly unstraight. Indian states and union territories are as well. This is also the case with Russia’s various administrative divisions. Also Germany. And France. And Thailand. And Turkey. A ridiculous amount of the world.

Whereas…this is how straight the United States’ state- and county-level divisions look. Three states have exclusively straight (lat-lon-wise) borders, and many others still have a large proportion of straightness in their borders. In the next level down, flocks of American counties are spherically rectangular.

The United States isn’t actually alone in this aspect. Consider Canada. Or Australia. Is straight borders an English-speaking thing? No.

Stack exchange has some thoughts. A substantial amount of the relevant theorizing (of which there’s not a lot of relevant theorizing) revolves around straight borders being easy choices when areas weren’t much inhabited by people yet. (There’s also an annoying comment claiming that a CGP Grey video “explains everything nicely”; yes, as a Grey fan, I’ve watched that video several times over; no, the stuff it explains isn’t this; did you even read what the question is?) This idea makes a lot of sense, but are not a complete picture to me. Why do we not see these straight borders in Eastern Russia? Why are there straight borders in the US as east as the east coast states? I guess this will remain a mystery.

What is no longer a mystery is various prior feelings while looking at maps I couldn’t exactly put my finger on. I’ve for quite a while found the Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan border to seem weird to me for no discernable reason, but viewing a map in light of this fact, there’s a clear oddity in a portion of this border being actually straight when one has to travel half the continent over for the nearest likewise straight country border. Or maybe I shouldn’t conclude this yet: why, after all, doesn’t Uzbekistan extend west to the Caspian Sea? This is rather odd too.

Maybe (better) answers will come later. But for now, I’ll be content with the realization that North America’s borders are unusually straight.