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.


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