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Can you guess the legend to this map?

It shows Europe divided into two bafflingly unfamiliar blocs - what do red and blue stand for?

Image: Vivid Maps
  • Europe divided into two blocs? That's not unheard of in history.
  • However, this map of Red vs. Blue countries is indecipherable without its legend.
  • That key is both trivial and unexpected. Can you guess what it is?

Red vs. Blue

What do Iceland and Greece share that distinguishes them from what France and Poland have in common?

Image: Vivid Maps

What does this map show? Don't skip ahead. See if you can guess what it's about. We'd be pretty amazed if you could.

It shows Europe divided into two blocs. That's not unheard of in history. It's just that these two are bafflingly unfamiliar. It's not the EU versus the rest, nor NATO versus the Warsaw Pact. Not Triple Alliance vs. Triple Entente. Neither Napoleonic France and its satellites versus Britain and its allies. Rome vs. barbarians? Nope.

Let's have a look at who's actually in these two blocs.

  • In red: a contiguous slice of Europe, from up in Norway all the way down to Greece, anchored on Germany – the only one of Europe's Big Five (1) in the club. However, the red zone also includes outliers such as Iceland and Ireland.
  • In blue: everybody else, in two zones separated by the red one. In the south and west, we find the other four members of the Big Five, and some smaller countries. In the east and north, there's Russia, Turkey and places in between and nearby, including Poland and Ukraine.

These colours denote a difference that is intriguing because you probably never even realised it existed. After this, you won't be able to ever un-see it.

Distance sequencing

You may have never noticed, but you can't un-know it now: red means 'furthest first', blue means 'longest last'.

Image: Vivid Maps

  • In Red Europe, road signs show city distances from furthest on top to nearest at the bottom. As the example provided shows, if you're driving north on the E4 in southern Sweden, distant Stockholm (557 km away) is listed first, nearby Åstorp, just 13 km down the road, last.
  • In Blue Europe, it's the other way around: nearest cities on top, furthest ones at the bottom of the sign. On the E40 in Poland, nearby Kraków (58 km) comes before Jędrzychowice, far away on the German border, 465 km to the west.
It's quite likely you never gave a moment's thought to the sequencing of distances on road signs. But plenty of traffic experts must have – and as this map shows, they're divided in two diametrically opposed blocs. In the red one, 'Furthest is First'; in the blue one, 'Longest is Last'.Which option is better? That's an esoteric riddle on par with the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. To any but the most rabid exegetes of road signage, the answer is unimportant and trivial. And that's precisely why this map is so fascinating. It scratches the surface of the world to reveal a layer of reality slightly outside the realm of the expected – at least to the vast majority of us. The result is a map that is arrestingly unfamiliar. A few other examples come to mind.

Latin vs. Greek

Image: Strange Maps

Some involve mysterious lines on the map that divide the world into two wholly unexpected halves. Take for instance the Jireček Line, which divides the Balkan peninsula into areas of Roman and Greek influence, based on archeological finds (see #128).

Football vs. rugby

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Or the Barassi Line, which cuts across the east of Australia from the Northern Territories to New South Wales, demarcating the part of the country, west and south of the line, where Australian-rules football is more popular, from the part to the line's east and north, where rugby (league or union) sets more hearts racing.

The Hajnal Line

Image: Demography Resources

And then there's the Hajnal Line, roughly from St Petersburg to Trieste, that divides Europe into two distinct zones of 'nuptuality': west of the line, marriage rates and fertility are comparatively low, even before the 20th century; to the east, both are (or were) comparatively high. Prior to relatively modern times, the late marriage pattern in Western Europe was fairly unique in the world.

The Siktir League

Image: Reddit.com/r/MapPorn

Here's a map that fortuitously flashed up the screen a few days ago, showing a weird coalition of countries, from the western Balkans all the way to the borders of China.

Alexander the Great's empire? Not quite. It's a map of countries where the swear word 'siktir' ('get lost' or 'f*ck off') appears in the native language. Considering that these languages include members of the Romance, Slavic, Turkic families, that's quite a feat (2).


Do you have any other examples of lines, colours and coalitions on maps that show the world in a different light? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

Strange Maps #981

(1) The EU may consist of 28 (soon 27) members, but just five countries constitute around 80% of the bloc's population and GDP: Germany, France, the UK, Spain and Italy.

(2) Croatia may be one country too many included on this map: speakers of that language report never using or hearing the word.

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
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  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

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