Even a chimp can write code

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Is North really on 'top' of the world?

Earlier this morning I asked Ashley a question on the Dakotas, the answer to which would have been one of 'North' or 'South'. With a mouthful of cereal and the common decency generally afforded only to strangers, she opted not to speak up but instead used her index finger, pointing upwards as if to gesture 'North'.

"I am sorry, I don't get it.", I said half in jest. She chewed for a couple seconds and then replied, "North", while still making that hand gesture.

"Okay... and why is North on 'top' of the world?".

She smiled but didn't answer.

The point I was trying to make was a simple one. Why do people equate the North to be on top and the South to be on the bottom? Is it because of how maps and globes are constructed? Is it because of our inherent bias as denizens of the Northern Hemisphere? I do believe so. And don't Australians take umbrage to the phrase "down under"? I would -- after a couple pitchers of Fosters -- even though I'm not Aussie. Stereotypes like "the stock market is going south" abound in modern parlance. Until a few centuries ago, maps were oriented to the East. Hence the word 'Orient', I daresay. The ancient Arabs and Chinese had maps oriented to the South (for different reasons). The Europeans turned that around and put Europe at the center.

Legend has it that Stuart McArthur of Melbourne, Australia drew his first South-Up map in 1970 when he was 12 years old. His geography teacher later told him to re-do his assignment with the correct way up if he wanted to pass. In 1979 he created and sold the popular 'Universal Corrective Map', the first South-Up map centered on Australia.

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