Falsehoods programmers believe about geography

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Computer science is a unique branch of engineering in the sense that programming by itself is not helping much. To actually to write useful programs, one needs to understand what the programs are about. One of dangers of programming is having an erroneous model, and it is very easy to base a system on falsehoods. There are two very interesting posts about this on this subject on the web:

Here are some falsehoods about geography I found in software, the list is, by far, not exhaustive.

Places have only one official name
Some places have multiple languages, so multiple names, which can be quite different: Genève, Genf, Ginevra.
Places have only one official name per language
That might be true in an ultra-centralized state which never changes its mind. The hill behind my flat has two different names, depending on the maps. On the topographic maps (used by the army) the name is “Äntlisberg”, while on the city map, the name is “Entlisberg”, both are official. In Taipei, the romanized street names used to use different romanisation rules depending on the quarter, so the official street name changes.
Place names follow the character rules of the language
Place names are usually old, often created before the language and their rules have been stabilised, so this does not hold. For instance, the rule says in german the sequence “ue” is equivalent to “ü”. This rule works because the “üe” sound has died out in german. The hill over Zürich is named “Üetliberg” (and pronounced as such).

Place names can be written with the usual character set of a country
One of the Kergelen islands (part of France) is called Île de Croÿ, most french persons have no clue how to type the “ÿ” character.
Place names can be written with the exhaustive character set of a country
That would be true if street where never named after foreigners with strange accents in their names. There is a Béla Bartók square in Paris. The “ó” is not valid in French.
Places have only one official address
There is a dam in Geneva than span the Rhône and therefore the border. The dam has two street addresses, one in Switzerland, one in France.
Countries have capitals
Switzerland does not. The government is currently in Bern, but the city is not the capital.
Buildings do not move
In Zürich, a 6200 ton building was moved by 60 meters to make way for railway tracks
Street adresses contain street names
In many remote places in Europe, the hamlet name is considered a sufficient address.
Language codes will match the country code of the country they are associated with
The country code for Japan is jp, the language code is ja.

Edit: an interesting article about Falsehoods programmers believe about addresses.

17 thoughts on “Falsehoods programmers believe about geography

  1. Moving buildings is definitely my favorite part. The first time you told me about, I was still very naive about Swiss ;-)

  2. I knew all of them except for Bern.
    Then again, I’m not a programmer (nor Swiss).

  3. “Street adresses contain street names”
    In Japan, the streets don’t even have a name. Buildings are referred to by block numbers.
    For instance, the address of Sony (HQ) is Tōkyō City, Minato ward, Kōnan district, 1-7-1.

    “Countries have capitals”
    Others have many. South Africa’s capitals are Pretoria, Bloemfontein and Cape Town.

  4. Programmers aren’t necessarily good at grammar, as evidenced by your first sentence…..G

  5. “Places have only one official address”

    This is even true within the same country. While the example given is a place with an address in two countries, in Switzerland (more Switzerland! :) there are bilingual cities/towns such as Biel/Bienne where every street has two different names (one French, one German) and therefore each location has two addresses. The street number and PLZ may be the same, but the street depends on which language you feel like using …

  6. - Countries are permanent.
    South Sudan was recently born. Netherland Antilles recently ceased to exist.
    - Your definition of a country will be the same as others.
    Is Taiwan a country? Kosovo? Puerto Rico?
    - Countries have well defined borders.
    Countries frequently dispute the location of their borders and the borders of other countries.
    - Taking into account disputes, countries have well defined borders.
    Treaties often define their borders in a way that makes it very difficult to figure out where it actually is. Borders are often defined by natural features that move (e.g. rivers).
    - It’s possible to render a single map of country borders that can be used anywhere in the world.
    Countries like China and India have laws that require maps in their country to render borders a certain way and those requirements are contradictory.
    - There exists some line you can use (disputed or otherwise) to mark the border between one country and another.
    Chile and Argentina have purposefully left a section of their border not surveyed and insist that that section not be drawn.
    - You can at least assume that areas within a country (states, provinces, etc.) have well defined borders.
    Borders defined by natural features (lake, river) often don’t specify where in the lake or river the border stands and what happens if the natural feature moves.
    - Countries are fully covered by administrative areas.
    - Administrative areas of the same level do not overlap.
    - Geographic divisions are contiguous or don’t have holes.
    - Names for administrative divisions have the same meaning in different countries.
    Nepal’s highest level of division is county while the US has counties as one of the smallest levels.
    - The administrative divisions within a country are consistent (i.e. all the top level divisions in the US are called States and those are divided by counties).
    The US has the District of Columbia and different states are divided differently. Many countries have “interesting” exceptions to their divisions, often around the capital (or largest) cities.
    - The administrative divisions of a country stay the same.
    - OK, the borders can change but the system/hierarchy stays the same.
    - Major changes in country divisions only happen every decade or so.
    - All the land in the world can be defined to be in some country.
    Antarctica
    - Antarctica can just be treated as a separate country.
    Several countries have claimed overlapping portions of Antarctica.
    - Postal codes are geographic features.
    Businesses love to assume that the world can be mapped by postal codes. They base many decisions around this and by the time they find out it doesn’t work they don’t care and insist that it work anyway. In fact, postal codes are almost never defined geographically but rather just consist of a set of addresses that fall within the given code. So it is technically meaningless to say that a point falls within a given postal code.
    - A postal code can be used to refer to a city.
    It is often the case that a postal code covers a city and a giant portion of neighboring rural land. This means that searching for a mechanic in your zip code can easily get you a result many many miles away.
    - There is an official definition for the international date line.
    - The date line doesn’t change.

  7. I grew upon a small island of the west coast of Ireland (pop. ~600) where my mother was post mistress. We regularly got mail addressed to some one on the Island with no other information. Because there are very common traditional names in use on the Island there may have been ten or more individuals sharing a name. A guessing game would ensue to try and identify the correct recipient (clues would be origin of letter, handwriting, asking P.O. customers etc).

  8. * Administrative divisions are always used in postal addresses
    * A level of division will never be created or removed from use

    Finland used to be divided into six provinces, purely for political and administrative reasons. A lot of foreign sites treat these like US states and include them in postal addresses. The system was abolished in 2010, but province selection still haunts many sites.

    This is also a great way of spotting bots and spam. No live human being would say “Are you also from Etelä-Suomen lääni?”

  9. 地理 in computation is complicated.

    I had to adjust a form for ordering a small set of products for multiple countries a few years ago. Although all these countries were European (most from the Eastern hemisphere) there were still plenty of differences among them. Some form fields had to be added/removed due to administrative differences, some of them because of legal issues.

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