Monday, February 14, 2011

In which I observe at length that some things are bigger than other things

So there's something about me that's going to emerge pretty quickly on this blog, and it's that I am obsessed with scale. Simply put, human beings aren't nearly as good at understanding it as they think they are. Things that are important to us, and things we're familiar with, become large. Things we don't know much about, or don't care much about, become small. We put things in categories, and then we assume everything in those categories is similar. Our intuition constantly leads us astray. This is bad, and it's pervasive.

Want an example? Try ranking Egypt, Somalia, Uruguay, Vietnam and Nigeria by population. When I did, my results had very little to do with the actual populations of those countries and quite a bit more to do with the mental groups I put them in.

Quite separately, I'm also obsessed with is the national deficit.

So without further ado, courtesy of the New York Times, here's an updated version of what might be my all-time favorite infographic. Go play with it! It's pretty much the logical culmination of my twin fixations. It's also amazing. Twenty minutes messing around with this thing would probably help Americans understand deficit issues more than ten years watching CNN. Turns out, you can't balance the budget by cutting foreign aid. Or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Or the Census. Who knew?

By the way, Vietnam, at 86 million, barely edges out Egypt, at 80 million. Somalia, with 9 million, is smaller than the Chicago metropolitan area. Uruguay, with 3.3 million, is smaller than Seattle. And Nigeria, with 158 million, is the world's seventh most populous country and over half the size of the United States. Gold star if you got it -- I most definitely did not.

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