True North and South; True East and West


This story goes back a few years. I work downtown, and was using the bus to commute back and forth from work (now I use both bike and bus). My bus stop was half a mile from my office, east to west.

In Kansas City, MO, all the numbered streets run east-west, the numbering starting at the river, and numbering up from there. Streets north of the river have north in their name; south of the river streets have no north or south, just a plain number name.

It was a hot summer day and I was walking along the south side of the street, east to west, to catch the shadows off the north sides of the buildings.

Except, the shadows were coming from the south sides of the buildings, covering the north sides of the streets.

I tried to figure out why that was, how it could be? I never resolved it at the time.

One of my conjectures was about the Tropic of Cancer. The earth moves on its axis through the seasons. The furthest north it moves is the Tropic of Cancer; the furthest south it moves is the Tropic of Capricorn. If we were below the tropic of Cancer, there would be a time when the sun could come from the north. But we are far north of the Tropic of Cancer, so it couldn’t be that.


It wasn’t until recently that I was looking at a map of downtown, and found one that was oriented so north-south was perfect up-down and east-west was side to side. That was when I noticed something: the streets don’t seem to run true east-west. The directions of the streets I was walking are off askew. Not that they seem to skew the right direction all the times to explain all the shadows I see, but it is finally a start.

But it does prove a point about assumptions and what we know to be true. The streets run east-west. That is a general rule, but it tells us nothing about any specific street.

I suppose the same thing could be true about any generalizations.Talk people. Gender, race, religion, etc., we “know” something about them, as groups, but it doesn’t guarantee we know anything about a particular individual. Generalizations are helpful, but most dangerous when we are most certain about what we know.

So the next time you see a shadow on the wrong side — remember the danger of assumptions — and confidence in the things you know are true.


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