How many countries are there? More than 150 belong to the U.N., some 50 additional nations don't, and several others attend all the meetings but lack that sense of really belonging.
Many nations have changed their names. Sri Lanka used to be called Ceylon; Kampuchea was once Cambodia. Peru, Chile and Uruguay each briefly were known as "France" out of admiration for Napoleon. In the 1960s, as the last European colonies gained independence, there were nations named Free, Love Trip and Captain Flash. GREENLAND AND ICELAND Confusing neighbors in the North Atlantic; Greenland isn't really green, and Iceland is not all that icy. The former is a miserable, desolate place deceptively named to trick people into settling there. (At least Death Valley comes right out and says it.) The latter has a climate like that of Miami Beach, except that there are active volcanoes and all the blonds are natupears to be on a flat map, but not nearly as small as it deserves to be. THE BENELUX NATIONS Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg are actually three distinct places, but it's nearly impossible to tell when driving through. The Netherlands is, in fact, Holland. They call it the Netherlands to avoid being the Beluxho nations and sounding like a detergent. Holland has many canals and is frequently below sea level, making it a good place to avoid in the future when the greenhouse effect warms the earth, melts the polar ice caps and raises the sea level. Much of Holland is not real land, but another sort of turf claimed from the sea through the efforts of a good lawyer, so be careful what you sign. CANADA All of Canada, even the southernmost part, is northern, making it a good place to avoid in the distant future when the greenhouse effect cools the earth, expanding the polar ice caps and stimulating glacial activity, thus bringing on a new ice age. When Canadians go "down south," they go to places like New Hampshire and Vermont. Canadians are often spotted wandering around Buffalo in bathing suits, trying to order grits. Inhabitants of Canada's west coast are warmed by the Japan Current, while eastern Canadians look to the temperate influence of the Gulf Stream and are constantly disappointed. Canada is the second largest country in the world, for all the good it does them. RUSSIA A vast nation, even bigger than Canada, the USSR sprawls across two continents despite the efforts of her western neighbors to make her sit up straight. Much of the USSR is covered with steppes, which, for all practical purposes, are just like prairies and savannas: pampas without gauchos. In Siberia, the steppes give way to tundra, much to everyone's misfortune. A frozen landscape inhabited by mink, sable and taiga, Siberia is about as inhospitable a place as you can find outside of Greenland. THE EARTH Both the Greeks and the Romans knew the earth to be round, but by the Middle Ages this information had been lost; everybody just forgot. Actually, the earth is not truly round, but is pear- shaped and looks like this: from outer space, except that they doctor the photographs to avoid a panic. The spot where the stem is is Greenland -- cold, grim, depressing. At the equator, the circumference of the earth is 25,000 miles. To put that figure into human terms, if the earth wore a hat, its size would be 25 x 52 x 10 to the 11th power and three-eighths, and it would have order special. THE POLE There are two distinct north poles, the magnetic north pole and the real one. Both are located amid the frozen wastes above the Arctic Circle at the top of the world. If you hold your compass directly above the magnetic north pole, it will act strangely, move erratically, grow sullen and withdrawn, and refuse to return calls. And all of that goes double for the south pole continents counting Antarctica, a frigid slag-pile where nobody wants to live, resembling, as it does, Greenland. In years to come, this number will alter as the continents shift position. The theory of continental drift holds that the surface of the earth is composed of tectonic plates drifting aimlessly with no realistic goals. Eventually Africa will collide with Europe, making many people wish they'd been a little nicer to the Mediterranean Sea when they had the chance, but it will be too late. Australia will merge with New Zealand, its stock splitting two for one, yielding enormous profits for investors who got in early. THE GREAT LAKES How great are they, really? You'll have to decide for yourself. We share the Great Lakes with Canada, except for Lake Michigan which we keep for ourselves because it's the good one. Some say the lakes were carved from the earth by glaciers, but that doesn't explain where the fish came from. Others say the lakes are the result of vandalism. Here is an acronym to help you remember the names of the five Great Lakes: HOMES. Here are a few more: SHMOE, MOSHE, SHEMO, M-SHOE. THE NILE This mighty river is more than 4,000 miles long and carries valuable silt, to the extent that one can place great value on silt. No really good songs have been written about the Nile, unlike: "Oh, the moonlight's fair tonight along the Wabash / From the fields there comes the scent of new-mown hay . . ." Now that's a river song. And: "Hey, hey, Uncle Bud / It's a treat to beat your feet on the Mississippi mud . . ." And say, do you remember this old favorite: "Far above Cayuga's waters . . ." Attempts to improve the Nile have resulted in the Aswan High Dam, Lake Nasser, and epizootic bilharzia. TRADE ROUTES Although an anagram for "A Seder trout," trade routes have no significance in Jewish ritual. THE GREAT CIRCLE ROUTE Distances on a Mercator Projection can be deceiving, what with all those lines drawn on it -- parallels of latitude, meridians of longitude -- it's hard to tell what's a border and what's a river and what's just a thread dangling from your cuff. Consider this: the shortest route from Washington to Tokyo is not east but north, over the pole in a "great circle" route. Other surprises: the most direct route from Los Angeles to Lima -- south! The cheapest way to travel: bus! The most direct route to Greenland -- who cares? EXPORTS A major export is often bauxite, as the "products map" will confirm. Bauxite is used in the smelting of aluminum or perhaps in the manufacture of concrete or maybe as fertilizer. Another export is guano, although it's hard to imagine anybody wanting it enough to send away for it. It's hard enough just trying to picture a guano mine (farm? ranch?). Other major exports: coffee, cocoa, iron ore and tin. In tin-exporting countries, people wear derby hats and chew narcotic leaves. Tin continues to be a major export despite the fact that nothing has been made from it for decades, neither tin cans nor tin foil. The tin workers don't have the slightest idea what it's used for and, as long as they have a steady supply of narcotic leaves and derby hats, they don't care.