Jonathan Rauch explains why the internet is so hostile to the truth, and what we can do to change that.
- Disruptive technologies tend to regress humanity back to our default mode: deeply ingrained tribalism.
- Rather than using the internet to communicate, many people use it to display their colors or group affinity, like tribespeople wearing face paint. Fake news spreads faster than truth in these tribal environments.
- How can we solve this problem without censorship? Platforms like Facebook and Google are tilting the playing field to be more pro-truth by asking people to stop, think, and take responsibility.
Researchers use algorithms to find the longest straight-line distances on land and at sea
- What links a small town in Portugal and a huge port city in China?
- The answer may surprise even inhabitants of both places: the world's longest straight line over land
- That line and its maritime equivalent were determined not by exploration but by calculation
What connects the Chinese port of Quanzhou with Sagres, a tiny parish in southern Portugal? No, it's not the New Silk Route, the Sino-European rail link inaugurated in 2017 (1). The answer is so arcane that it will surprise most inhabitants of either place: they are the extreme points of the world's longest straight line over land (2).
Following the course of that line would require directional rectitude of the highest degree. Travellers would have to forgo the relative comfort of well-worn roads and mountain passes and traverse daunting peaks and inhospitable deserts – not to mention innumerable private houses and public buildings.
Longest sailable straight line on Earth, as suggested by Reddit user kepleronlyknows.
They would cross 15 countries; skirting Madrid and Switzerland's alpine highlands; cutting off a corner of Austria and passing just north of Auschwitz in Poland; barely touching Ukraine and slicing through Belarus; travelling through Russia and Kazakhstan before hitting China and reaching the Formosa Strait; but not before dipping into Mongolia twice.
Because the globe is round and this map is not, the world's longest straight line over land – like all others long enough – looks like a bendy one on this image. For anyone walking the line, though, it would have been straight as a ruler, and, at the end of that trip, close to 20,000 miles long.
Threading the needle
Algorithmically correct: the world's longest sailable straight line goes from Pakistan to Kamchatka
Image: Chabukswar & Mukherjee
The world's longest straight line on land was calculated by researchers Rohan Chabukswar of the United Technologies Research Centre (UTRC) in Cork (Ireland) and Kushal Mukherjee at IBM's Research Laboratory in New Delhi (India).
In a paper published earlier this year (and last updated on 25 December), they set out their solution to the question of finding the world's longest straight lines over land and at sea. That question sounds simple enough, but isn't: "This is an optimisation problem, rendered chaotic by the presence of islands and lakes, and indeed the fractal nature of the coasts".
They were prompted by a map that had raised a lot of discussion since its first publication on Reddit in 2012. Posted by user kepleronlyknows, it purports to show the longest possible straight-line sailing route in the world: from Pakistan to Kamchatka, threading the needle twice – through the Mozambique Strait separating Madagascar from the African mainland, and via the Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica.
Walk this way
A long walk indeed, but a straight one: Portugal to China
Image: Chabukswar & Mukherjee
Commenters have since sought to prove or disprove the longest straight-line sea route, and the analogous route over land. Suggested but disproved longer routes include two nautical ones: from Norway to Antarctica – a valid route, but not in fact as long as the Pakistan to Kamchatka one; and from Québec to British Columbia, which turns out not to be a perfectly straight line.
One suggested longer overland route leads from from Wenling in China to Greenville in Liberia. But this line crosses the Dead Sea and if, as the authors say, that qualifies as a 'major body of water', it disqualifies the route as being entirely over land.
Strangely enough, the direction from Portugal to China is due northeast
Image: Google Earth
So Messrs. Chabukswar and Mukherjee decided to put the issue through a scientific wrangler. Instead of conducting an exhaustive search of all possible routes – more than 233 million great circles (3), as the authors suggest - they calculated the two paths using a so-called branch-and-bound algorithm.
They found that the original poster on Reddit was right: the longest sailable straight-line path does connect Pakistan to Kamchatka. To be precise, it links Sonmiani (25°17′ N, 66°40′ E), a coastal town (4) approximately 90 miles (145 km) northwest of Karachi, with an unnamed location in the Karaginsky District (58°37′ N, 162°14′ E), a virtually uninhabited part in the north of the Kamchatka peninsula. The path is almost 20,000 miles long (to be precise: 19,939.8 miles, or 32,090 km).
Steppe by steppe...
Image: Google Earth
The same algorithm was let loose on the dry-land variety of the straight-line question. Here, the answer links a point near Sagres (37°2′ N 8°55′ W) to a point in the south of the greater Quanzhou metro area (24◦33′ N, 118◦38′ E). The distance covered is much smaller than the longest straight line at sea: just short of 7,000 miles (6,984.8 miles, or 11,241 km).
The researchers formulate a few theoretical caveats to their result, and one practical one: "The problem was approached as a purely mathematical exercise. The authors do not recommend sailing or driving along the found paths".
There is hope, however, for whoever had their heart set on long straight-line travels. Here are a few of the world's longest straight-line roads (5):
1. Highway 10 (Saudi Arabia): 159 miles (256 km)
There is little remarkable about either Haradh or Al Batha, two dusty towns in Saudi Arabia's Rub-al-Khali desert, or the featureless distance between them. Except that almost that entire stretch is traversed by a dead-straight road. Leaving the oil town of Haradh in the interior of the country, Saudi Highway 10 heads due east in a curveless line for 159 miles (256 km), bending slightly before entering Al Batha, near the Gulf coast and the Saudi border with the United Arab Emirates. That makes Highway 10 the longest straight stretch of road in the world.
2. US-54 (United States): 108 miles (173 km)
In its entirety, US Route 54 runs from Griggsville, Illinois to El Paso, Texas, covering 1,197 miles (2,115 km). For 108 miles, from Liberal, Kansas to Dalhart, Texas, US-54 runs in a virtually straight line (passing through Oklahoma as well). There are a few slight kinks in over the course of 54's 'straight' trajectory, though.
3. Eyre Highway, Australia (90 miles, 145.6 km)
The entire Eyre Highway is 1,030 miles (1,660 km) long, linking Norseman in Western Australia to Port Augusta in South Australia across the deserted Nullarbor Plain. It is part of Highway 1 that connects Perth to Adelaide, and the only 'sealed' road between both states. Between Balladonia and Caiguna, the road is completely straight for 90 miles – the longest stretch of straight road in Australia, commonly known as '90 Mile Straight'.
Strange Maps #954
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(1) A 7,500-mile (12,000-km) China Railway cargo service from Yiwu, calling on Hamburg, London and Madrid. The service could become part of China's wider Belt and Road Initiative: a massive infrastructure project connecting Chinese manufacturing to its markets in Europe and elsewhere.
(2) Perhaps the 1,000-odd inhabitants of Sagres, the westernmost point on the European road network, will be less surprised. Sagres also is a terminus of the longest (non-straight) driveable distance between two points on earth. The other one is Khasan, a Russian city on the North Korean border, and the eastern terminus of that country's road network. The route connecting both places is 8,726 miles (14,043 km) long.
(3) A great circle or orthodrome is the largest circle that can be drawn on a spherical object.
(4) Sonmiani is also notable as the northernmost point of the Arabian Sea, a seaside resort for Karachiites and a launch site for the Pakistani space agency.
(5) Most so-called straight roads have slight curves, hence the many differing lists.
Why do some smart folk spout such bad ideas? Marilynne Robinson says it's because we teach them "higher twaddle.” She's right, but the situation is worse than she fears.
1. We teach "higher twaddle” to our best minds, says the ever insightful Marilynne Robinson. I think she has a point—many smart folk are now educated into error—but the problem is worse than she fears.
2. Robinson’s complaint that colleges teach students to “master… twaddle” and thereby “to think... badly,” focus mainly on the humanities, but worse twaddle is taught in fields whose ideas are less ivory-tower quarantined.
3. STEM disciplines teach a dazzling faith in “the data” and the pretty precision their tools promise. But they also risk a method-level fall for the “McNamara Fallacy,” and much math-swaddled twaddle.
4. Named for Robert McNamara’s metrics-obsessed management of the Vietnam War, this disastrous recipe (aka the “Quantitative Fallacy”) goes as follows: measure what data you easily can, then to handle what you can't, arbitrarily estimate, or better, declare it minor, or nonexistent. And don’t adjust for exclusions, it fogs up the faux-clarity.
5. To see how far teaching and tech have spread McNamara’s number-struck folly, consider these cases.
6. Experts who excel at seeing only what can be “read on a spreadsheet” often skip other plainly important factors, to the point that great “companies can be wrecked by idiots with MBAs” (Rory Sutherland).
7. Business schools preach the same spreadsheet-blinder metric-mad mentality, which can sometimes encourage “immoral profit strategies" (Duff McDonald) and the ruthless “financialization” numbers game behind “how Wall Street destroyed Main Street” (Rana Foroohar).
8. Algorithms enact McNamara-on-steroids logic, vastly amplifying techno-twaddle’s reach (see Cathy O’Neil’s “Weapons of Math Destruction”).
9. Much economics (the world’s operating system) builds on textbook McNamara-moves. Paradoxically, preferring highly precise methods, but used in a way that ensures they’ll almost always be widely wrong. Economics “equation filters” away whatever won’t squeeze into its algebra, then fails to adjust for exclusions (see “Few Maximize. Most Muddle”)
10. Even babies know what many educated experts ignore: People aren’t biological billiard balls. Toddlers use different thinking tools for objects versus agents, but many math-manacled minds use the same treasured nerd tools (algebra, stats, and data) for all pattern types.
11. Amazingly, the well-educated are taught to characterize behaviors known to be collectively self-destructive as “rational,” to profit by preying on and damaging what they (and their communities) need to survive.
12. And many smart folk are educated into ignoring how communities work by “social contract” thinking, which, despite its shiny logic-like appeal, is self-evidently anthropologically incoherent. Hume called it “implausibly individualistic” (it’s really more an asocial contraction than a realistic contract).
15. It’ll take many emperor’s-new-clothes moments to reveal all the naked folly, math-wrapped myopia, and data-driven drivel that can parade as intelligence in these highly techno-twaddle-ridden times.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions
You mad, bro? The way that Facebook (and Twitter) manipulates your brain should be the very thing that outrages us the most.
Social media has been, without a doubt, one of the biggest explosions in connectivity in human history. That's the good part. The bad part is that the minds of the people within these companies have manipulated users into an addictive cycle. You're already familiar with it: post content, receive rewards (likes, comments, etc). But the staggering of the rewards is the habit-forming part, and the reason most moderately heavy social media users check their apps or newsfeeds some 10-to-50 times a day. And to add to the problem — these algorithms have been strengthend to show you more and more outrageous content. It genuinely depletes your ability to be outraged by things in real life (for instance, a sexual predator for a President). Molly Crockett posits that we should all be aware of the dangers of these algorithms... and that we might have to start using them a lot less if we want to have a normal society back.
Users don't need better media literacy to beat fake news. We need social media to be frank about its commercial interests.
Wikipedia has come a long, long way. Back when teachers and education institutions were banning it as an information source for students, did anyone think that by 2017 "the encyclopedia that anyone can edit" would gain global trust? Wikipedia had a rough start and some very public embarrassments, explains Katherine Maher, the executive director at the Wikimedia Foundation, but it has been a process of constant self-improvement. Maher attributes its success to the Wikimedia community who are doggedly committed to accuracy, and are genuinely thankful to find errors — both factual and systemic ones — so they can evolve away from them. So what has Wikimedia gotten right that social platforms like Facebook haven't yet? "The whole conversation around fake news is a bit perplexing to Wikimedians, because bad information has always existed," says Maher. The current public discourse focuses on the age-old problem of fake news, rather than the root cause: the commercial interests that create a space where misinformation doesn't just thrive — it's rewarded. Why doesn't Facebook provide transparency and context for its algorithms? An explanation for 'why am I seeing this news?' could allow users to make good decisions based on where that information comes from, and what its motive is. "We [at Wikimedia] hold ourselves up to scrutiny because we think that scrutiny and transparency creates accountability and that accountability creates trust," says Maher.