(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘maps

“There is no perfection. All maps lie. All maps distort.”*…


Your correspondent is off for his annual sojourn in the land of dunes and deep fried food; regular service should resume on or around August 16.  Meantime, in the hope of inspiring readers to serendipitous travels of their own…

The notion that maps provide an objective or scientific depiction of the world is a common myth. The graphic nature of maps simplifies reality, giving makers and users a sense of power without social and ecological responsibilities. Details like the coloring of areas or the different sizes in typography can have great political consequences. For example, when names of towns are omitted from a map, it can imply that the area is not of interest, while adding names, details, and other information suggests it is an area of importance.

Mapmaking is a very old trade, but modern cartography originated in the age of European colonialism. Maps were indispensable for ships to navigate the oceans, and they legitimized the conquest of territories. Sometimes just mapping a newly found territory was enough to conquer it, without having to step ashore or have any knowledge of the indigenous population and history.

Even the fact that we put north on the top of the map is a result of the economic dominance of Western Europe after 1500. A map does not have a privileged direction in space. After all, the Earth has no up or down, and no geographical center…

Ruben Pater analyzes four prominent maps, including the one Google, Apple, and Bing use—but shouldn’t: “All World Maps Lie. So Which One Should We Use?

Paula Scher


As we struggle to find our bearings, we might spare a topographical thought for Peter Hodgson; he died on this date in 1976.  An advertising and marketing consultant, Hodgson introduced Silly Putty to the world.  As The New York Times recounted in his obituary,

The stuff had been developed by General Electric scientists in the company’s New Haven laboratories several years earlier in a search for a viable synthetic rubber. It was obviously not satisfactory, and it found its way instead onto the local cocktail party circuit.

That’s where Mr. Hodgson, who was at the time writing a catalogue of toys for a local store, saw it, and an idea was born.

“Everybody kept saying there was no earthly use for the stuff” he later recalled. “But I watched them as they fooled with it. I couldn’t help noticing how people with busy schedules wasted as much as 15 minutes at a shot just fondling and stretching it”.

“I decided to take a chance and sell some. We put an ad in the catalogue on the adult page, along with such goodies as a spaghetti-making machine. We packaged the goop in a clear compact case and tagged it at $1.00”.

Having borrowed $147 for the venture, Mr. Hodgson ordered a batch from General Electric, hired a Yale student to separate the gob into one ounce dabs and began filling orders. At the same time he hurried to get some trademarks.

Silly Putty was an instant success, and Mr. Hodgson quickly geared up to take advantage of it…



Written by LW

August 6, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Here there be dragons”*…


xkcd (zoomable version here)

Notation on some ancient maps


As we muse on the ways in which the map is not the territory, we might recall that it was on this date in 1870 that America’s first asphalt pavement was laid in front of City Hall in Newark, N.J.  Edmund J. DeSmedt, the Belgian chemist who oversaw the work, had received a U.S. patent for this asphalt paving method two months earlier. Later that year, DeSmedt became the inspector of asphalt and cements for the District of Columbia, and oversaw wide application there.

DeSmedt’s crews at work in D.C. in 1876




Written by LW

July 29, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Geographers never get lost. They just do accidental field work.”*…


A Facebook friend recently noted that Turkey was “a remarkably rectangular country.” I wondered how it compared to other countries, and this post shows my answers (Turkey is 15th; Egypt is the most rectangular; full table below). I defined the rectangularness of a country as its maximum percentage overlap with a rectangle of the same area, working in the equirectangular projection (i.e., x = longitude, y = latitude). Ideally each country would get its own projection, but equirectangular rectangles feel at least linguistically thematic and are easier to code…

David Barry‘s ranking of “The rectangularness of countries.”

* Nicholas Chrisman, Professor of Geomatic Sciences, Université Laval


As we get square, we might send paradigm-shaping birthday greetings to a woman who enabled mapping of an altogether different– and world-changing– sort: Rosalind Franklin; she was born on this date in 1920. A biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer, Franklin captured the X-ray diffraction images of DNA that were, in the words of Francis Crick, “the data we actually used” when he and James Watson developed their “double helix” hypothesis for the structure of DNA. Indeed, it was Franklin who argued to Crick and Watson that the backbones of the molecule had to be on the outside (something that neither they nor their competitor in the race to understand DNA, Linus Pauling, had understood).  Franklin never received the recognition she deserved for her independent work– her paper was published in Nature after Crick and Watson’s, which barely mentioned her– and she died of cancer four years before Crick, Watson, and their lab director Maurice Wilkins won the Nobel Prize for the discovery.


Written by LW

July 25, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Without music to decorate it, time is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid”*…


On a theme we’ve visited before, an interactive map of the influences at play in the development of the musical genres we enjoy, from the general…

… to the specific…

… with navigational aids and background, to boot.

Explore at MusicMap. (And for a complementary take, try Every Noise at Once.)

* Frank Zappa


As we hum along, we might recall that it was on this date in 1966 that The Shangri-Las, Johnny Tillotson, and “Many More”– including a band called “the Castiles” (which featured vocalist Bruce Springsteen) performed at the Surf ‘n See Club in Seabright, New Jersey.

From the July 1966 issue of “Mod Magazine,” a Jersey Shore teen publication



Written by LW

July 10, 2016 at 1:01 am

“The map is not the territory”*…



Across the board, the Mercator projection of the Earth—which has been our baseline for world maps since the 16th century—skews the actual size of countries so they look bigger (and therefore, more important than they are) when they fall within the middle of the Northern Hemisphere. It’s not just bad design, it has real geopolitical implications. For example, in most people’s minds, Greenland is a much larger country than Australia. But the reality is that Australia dwarfs Greenland. Likewise, you probably think Africa and North America are roughly the same size, but Africa can swallow all of North America and Greenland with room for all of Western Europe to spare. And so on…  [To redress misperception] James Talmage and Damon Maneice created The True Size. The web app lets you drag-and-drop different countries on a world map and see how they shrink or grow on a standard Mercator Projection map. It’s a simple tool, but an eye-opening one that can be quickly used to show just how skewed our maps really are…

More at “This Interactive Proves Just How Wrong Our World Maps Really Are.”  Visit The True Size here.

Alfred Korzybski (and here)


As we ponder perspective, we might might spare a thought for Eratosthenes of Cyrene; he may have died on this date in 194 or 195 BC.  (His exact birth and death dates are lost, so this is as good a day as any to celebrate him.)  A mathematician, geographer, poet, astronomer, music theorist, and Chief Librarian at Alexandria, Eratosthenes is probably best remembered as the first person to calculate the circumference of the Earth (which he did remarkably accurately), to calculate the tilt of the Earth’s axis, and to calculate the distance from the Earth to the Sun (which, again, he did very accurately); and he created the Leap Day.

In his three-volume work Geography (Geographika), Eratosthenes described and mapped his entire known world, dividing the Earth into five climate zones: two freezing zones around the pole, two temperate zones, and a zone encompassing the equator and the tropics.  He placed grids of overlapping lines over the surface of the Earth, using parallels and meridians to link together every place in the world– in the process, coining terminology still in use… He had invented the discipline of Geography.



Written by LW

June 13, 2016 at 1:01 am

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”*…


This map of Canada shows the country’s familiar vastness. A single line drawn across its deep south adds a surprising layer of information.

The line runs well below the 49th parallel that constitutes that long straight stretch of U.S.-Canada border from Point Roberts, WA to Lake of the Woods, MN… Split in two by the U.S. state of Maine poking north, the line traverses four eastern provinces, cutting off the southern extremities of Ontario, Québec and New Brunswick. Nova Scotia is the only province that falls mostly below the line.

Amazingly, what the line does, is divide Canada in two perfect halves – demographically speaking: 50% of Canada’s 35 million inhabitants live south of the line, 50% north of it. Below the line is where you find Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Halifax and other major cities. The vast expanses north of the line are mainly empty…

Other compelling cartographic “curious dividers” at “One Half of Canada Is Smaller than the Other — Plus More Fascinating Inequalities.”

* Audre Lorde


As we conquer the divides, we might send adventurous birthday greetings to Hugh Clapperton; he was born on this date in 1788.  A British naval officer, Clapperton saw action in the Napoleonic Wars and in Canada before volunteering for an expedition to explore Africa.  He made several such journeys, helping to chart West and Central Africa, and was the first European to to make known from personal observation the Hausa states (in what we now call Nigeria).  Clapperton ended his career sailing in an action aimed at suppressing the slave trade.



Written by LW

May 18, 2016 at 1:01 am

“When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change”*…


Louise E. Jefferson, “Americans of Negro Lineage,” Friendship Press, 1946. (Used by permission of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. All rights reserved worldwide, 2016.) Larger version here.

Women have been making maps for centuries. They have developed and applied new technologies, data collection techniques, and visual presentations to their maps as they charted new terrain, illustrated historical narratives, and pushed political and social agendas. In the 20th century, women mapmakers continued this work in larger numbers than ever—and no short post can account sufficiently for all of their contributions over a century that saw technological and social revolutions, one after another.

Examining just a small sample of the many compelling maps made by North American women in the 20th century, a theme emerges: aesthetic mastery.

In the days before the women’s liberation movement (except for a brief moment during World War II), most women didn’t have access to technical training in cartography. “Civil engineering, where topographic drafting was taught, was not a ‘girls’ subject,” writes Judith Tyner, a professor emerita of geography at California State University, Long Beach, in a presentation given at mapping conference earlier this year. But this didn’t stop women from participating in cartography. It simply meant that many who did started with a background in the arts…

More of the story– and several beautiful examples– at “How 20th-Century Women Put the ‘Art’ in Cartography,” the third installment in a series on women and maps; see also Part 1 and Part 2.

* Ursula Le Guin


As we contemplate cartography, we might spare a thought for Francesco Petrarca– Petrarch:  on this date in 1341, he became the first poet laureate since antiquity, crowned by Roman Senatori Giordano Orsini and Orso dell’Anguillara on the holy grounds of Rome’s Capitol.  Considered by many to have been “the Father of Humanism,” and reputed to have coined the term “Renaissance,” Petrarch was famous for his paeans to his idealized lover “Laura” (modeled, many scholars believe, on the wife of Hugues de Sade, Laura de Noves, whom he met in Avignon in 1327, and who died in 1348).  But Petrarch’s more fundamental and lasting contribution to culture came via Pietro Bembo, who created the model for the modern Italian language in the 16th century based largely on the works of Petrarch (and to a lesser degree, those of Dante and Petrarch’s frequent correspondent, Boccaccio).


Written by LW

April 8, 2016 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: