Flatten the world

Squaring the circle is hard, but it’s nothing compared to the problem of flattening the globe. We like flat maps, but any map of a sphere is going to cause major distortions one way or another. So the map you like tends to be the one that distorts the stuff you care about least. Maybe you want to preserve the areas of the land masses or the great circle distance between points. That’s all good so far as it goes. But there’s a problem: map projections are a drug. They induce obsessive behavior among their users. They multiply beyond necessity and fragment into a fetishistic and surreal cornucopia. Beware!

Oh sure, you start off with a well-intentioned disdain of the old-school Mercator. Then you roll a few of Bucky Fuller’s Dymaxion Icosohedrals and chase it with a Rhombicuboctahedral. No harm done. You could stop. But soon you’re into the heavy stuff. Wiechel’s Modified Azimuthal Projection is just a gateway to a Stabius-Werner Cordiform Pseudoconic. Your lust for exotic creatures like Peirce’s glorious Quincunx are matched only by your ability to end conversations and empty rooms with impromptu lectures on Mollweide’s wicked homolographic compromise. Where will it end?

Today it will end with a lovely movie courtesy of New Scientist on some recent research into algorithmically generated arbitrary interrupted maps. Behold van Wijk’s Myriahedral projection!


Oh Lord, keep me away from Carlos Furuti’s lovely cartography site.

A day in the life of FedEx

All roads lead to Rome, but all skyways lead to Memphis. Watch this video and you’ll see what I mean. I defy you not to think of ants crawling into an ant hill.

You’re watching 25 hours worth of FedEx flights, and there’s no better way to understand the hub-and-spoke nature of the business. Everything they ship (almost everything) gets routed through Memphis, regardless of its ultimate destination. As you watch this counterintuitive stroke of logistical legerdemain, remember that FedEx founder Fred Smith is the guy who invented the whole hub-and-spoke idea. It’s the same idea that was adopted by every airline and ultimately sent you through Minneapolis on your way from Schenectady to St. Louis. Fortunately, overnight packages don’t mind the layover in Memphis.

If you liked this video, watch the visualization of flight deviations around a Memphis thunderstorm.

Labels and authenticity: How true is a true name?

Have you ever been walking on Wall Street and realized you were walking on Wall Street?

When I was in college, I spent a few touristic days in Bruges, Belgium. While strolling along the old cobblestones one night, I suddenly realized that the street name “Langestraat,” which sounded so exotic to my American ears, simply meant Long Street. The idea hit me with great force. I stopped walking and looked it up and down. Long Street. Everything about that town was so ancient and lovely, dripping with medieval ornament like some Flemish Disneyland. But this street name was a fraud… why there was nothing to it. The street was long so they called it Long Street. The church was old, so they called it Old Church. Plain old names! I had paid good tourist money for my exotic artifice, and here it was evaporating before my eyes.

We want from names two things: meaning and magic. The first is a consequence and the second is a sound, but it’s easy to forget how tangled together these two things are. This entanglement puts me in mind of Häagen-Dazs, the ice cream brand with the fanciful and fabricated name. To their credit, they tell you right on their web site that company founder Reuben Mattus “called his new brand Häagen-Dazs, to convey an aura of the old-world traditions and craftsmanship.” It doesn’t mean anything. Or rather, it means what it sounds. And it has an unbreakable code: you’ll never find out that it means old cheese in Dutch, or that Messrs. Häagen and Dazs were Nazi collaborators. The name is a pure confection. But stack it up next next to a utilitarian name like Langestraat and it doesn’t fare well. The beauty of Langestraat, as I came to appreciate, is in its tough old bones, whereas Häagen-Dazs simply melts away.

One of my favorite blogs, Strange Maps, has a post on the Atlas of True Names. Some researchers in Germany have put together an atlas that dwells on the “deep etymology” of place names. Dublin becomes Blackpool, London becomes Hillfort, and so on. Even if some of the etymology is dubious, as is so often the case, it’s good fun. Back in North America, I have often wondered why we kept the transliterations of Indian place names but translated the names of many Native Americans. So we say Mississippi, not “Great River”, but we say Sitting Bull, not Ta-Tanka I-Yotank. Which version has more magic?

One final note before closing: from Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton beau de Marot, I learned about Anglish, the imagined modern language that might be spoken in England had William the Conqueror been merely William the Unsuccessful. Pluck out the Greek and Latin and you end up with a more “self-evident” language, or so goes the theory. Writer Poul Anderson even wrote a treatise on atomic theory in Anglish which he called Uncleftish Beholding. Unclefts are small motes that no knife can cut. Get it?

Election maps

The recent election, in a good example of counter-causal temporal wind, now seems far, far behind us. In fact, it might be called a hurricane-force temporal gust, blowing the effects of the election far back into last year. This “Hillary 2008” sign was found wedged deep in a palm tree from June 2007.

Now, in the still of the post-election calm, we’re starting to see some fascinating election maps analyzing what just happened. There is, of course, the familiar blue state/red state map in which, as of this writing, Missouri is still listed as undecided (according to the Wikipedia). You Show Me but I won’t show you?

Far more interesting are Mark Newman’s nifty election map equal area cartograms. These go a long way to explaining how those vast tracts of red territory don’t add up to a Republican majority.

Also enlightening is the county-by-county map, not of the voting in 2008, but of the voting differential between 2004 and 2008. I first learned of this from Ben Fry’s blog, but the map is on the NY Times site. What you see is an almost entirely blue map except for a region that is comprised of nearly the entire states of Tennessee and Arkansas, with a good chunk of Oklahoma. That’s the only part of the country that voted substantially more Republican than in the last election. What’s going on here?

Now look at this. On Pin the Tail I first came across this map. It was written up in much better detail by Strange Maps. It’s an overlay of 1860 cotton production and 2008 voting patterns. The alignment is uncanny.

This got me curious about Tennessee and Arkansas again. I went to the U.S. Census Fact Finder and looked up a map of the percent of people who give their race only as white. What you find is that Tennessee and Arkansas, in addition to being relatively poor, represent the southernmost boundary of the 90% contour line of people who describe themselves as strictly white. Which is to say, the whitest part of the Confederacy.

It seems appropriate to quote Faulkner: “The past is never dead, it is not even past.”

Flags of all nations

St. Frank called my attention to some fun flag sites in two of his recent posts. Inspired by Flag Day, he wrote about the drawing of flags by third-graders (and their like) around the world. The coolest flag, as seen through the eyes of a third grade boy: definitely Mozambique, on which we see an AK-47 vying with a hoe atop a chagrined and retiring book (or in heraldic terms, AK-47 rampant with hoe per saltire a gules). The hoe has a certain Stone-Age charm, but I think the AK-47 is winning.

St. Frank’s more recent link was to an online flag quiz. I’m a sucker for online flag quizzes (and their like). What’s your best score? I managed to get to 300 before I pooped out.

I was having so much fun a-flagging, I went looking for some material on my own. I reckoned (as I have learned to do) that there must be a Google Earth resource that places the flags of all nations above their respective countries. As there must be, indeed there is. Here is an image of the result, but you can also look at the same thing flattened out for Google Maps. Here is the Caribbean basin. Displayed in their geographical context, some patterns jump out at you, like the similarities of the Nordic countries, or Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Through this lens we see evidence of boundaries otherwise invisible, like the swaths of Pan-African and Pan-Arab color schemes, not to mention the offspring of the shockingly fertile Union Jack.

Print your landscape

Three-dimensional printing is a wonderful thing, and it keeps getting better. A few years ago, I bought a beautiful model of a transfer RNA molecule. All you had to do was tell them the Protein Data Bank ID, and your favorite molecule can be yours.

Of course not everybody gets excited by molecules. But other markets are opening up. Let’s suppose you’re really into World of Warcraft. For 20 hours or more every week, you are Sturmdrang the Pitiless. Now you can get a 3-D print of your online character from FigurePrints.com. That has to be a deep market. It’s brilliant!

And if Warcraft isn’t your thing, now you can get a nice 3-D topographical map of your favorite terrain from LandPrint, as described here: LandPrint.com Creates New Market for 3D Printing with 3D Physical Landscapes. I might have to get one of those. I’ve been thinking about a nice relief model of western Kansas.