Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Thursday, January 3, 2013 9:26 pm

What the next generation of maps is telling us that we don’t want to hear

As I think I’ve mentioned a time or three, I’m a map geek. Old, new, paper, digital, real, fictional, silent or talkative, I love ’em. (I do mute the talkative ones sometimes, but still.)

So I was tickled that James Fallows at The Atlantic did a Q&A with Michael Jones of Google, one of the people who helped create Google Earth (now installed on a billion computers worldwide). And he talked about how mapping apps on smartphones are becoming even more personal because they can use info the phone already has gathered about your locations, likes, and so on to craft maps that not only show how to get from here to there but also tell you potentially interesting things about some of the places you’ll pass along the way, or the places around where you are right now. (One manifestation is Google’s new Android app, Field Trip, coming soon for iOS as well.

Then Fallows asks what I think is both a creative and perceptive question. He points out that some of the first photos of the Earth from space, such as the iconic Christmas Eve 1968 photo shot by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders, “created a different kind of environmental consciousness.” (The American nature photographer Galen Rowell has described this image as “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” I was in the third grade at the time, and even now I can recall what that “different kind of environmental consciousness” meant: We — all of us — share one single planet, a planet that amounts to a speck in the vastness of space, and it’s the only planet we’re going to get. I think the first Earth Day and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, among other developments, are attributable in significant part to that photo.)

Could the current mapping revolution, Fallows asks Jones, have the same effect? Jones’s answer was both hopeful and heartbreaking:

My father is in his 80s. He wanted to know more about what I do, so I recently showed him Google’s underwater Street View. [This is an aspect of Google Earth that shows reefs, seamounts, and other underwater features in the oceans.] We dove in the water and we were basically swimming along. We stopped and zoomed in, looked at turtles, looked at fish. We went down under a big reef and we could see a tunnel in there, and there were fish resting in the tunnel.

After a while he said, “Son, this is so beautiful.” He’s never been scuba diving, but he said, “This is so beautiful. I just can’t believe how beautiful this is.” And I said, “Well, Dad, we chose beautiful places because most of the corals near islands around the world are already dead. They look like old concrete. No fish, just dead.”

He almost cried. He stared at me with a “What has the world come to?” kind of look, and we talked for a while about that. And so he was brought to an awareness of the grotesque damage that’s happening worldwide due to the ocean acidification that follows from the externalities of the way we live as a human race right now. It was powerful for him because he could personally experience the ocean in a way that, with his mobility challenges, he’s never going to see by scuba diving. Yet he felt what people who have experienced the sea know to be true and care about.

I believe that only this kind of understanding leads to activism, whether it’s a passive activism of a vote or an active activism of changing your lifestyle to protect the world.

The problem is that although this kind of activism is, as Jones observes, necessary, it is not sufficient. At current prices, there is something like $27 trillion worth of combustible carbon — coal, oil, gas and fuel wood — still in the ground. The industries that extract those resources will not willingly relinquish the opportunity to do so, and they have largely achieved a stranglehold on any other force that could force them to do so.

The way we live is killing the only planet we’ve got. The process has been proceeding even faster than we thought, so fast that my children, now adolescents, may well live to see global disruption and human suffering on a scale worse than that of World War II, with no country, no matter how geographically isolated or politically nonaligned, left unaffected.

No map, no matter how cool, is going to stop that. In fact, I don’t know that anything will.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009 8:08 pm

The Strange Maps blog

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 8:08 pm

Long have I spoken here of how I love mapgeekitudeiness. So how is it that never, until today, have I stumbled upon The Strange Maps Blog? I do not know. But stumbled upon it I have, and now, if you’ll excuse me, there are, as of this moment, 413 maps I must go revel in.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006 11:01 pm

Mapping the devastation

Filed under: Geek-related issues — Lex @ 11:01 pm

As a journalist who also is a computer geek, I’ve long been interested in the storytelling capabilities of computerized mapping programs or, as they are more formally known these days, Geographic Information Systems. (An example would be ArcView or ArcGIS, made by ESRI, which we use, albeit not nearly well or often enough, at the N&R.)

But the idea of turning information into graphics long predates the computer era. This link shows a graphic depicting the devastation visited upon Napoleon’s army during its 1812-1813 Moscow campaign. It predates GIS technology by more than a century, but it incorporates most of the basic ideas and principles by which such programs operate and are understood today. (Here are some geek notes on it.)

For me, what elevates it from illustration to art (I’m not really a graphics guy, so my “art threshold” for visuals may be considerably lower than yours) is that its particular dynamic — using the width of a band of black or gray to illustrate how many members of the army were still alive at a given point — evokes the starvation and consequent emaciation the individual soldiers underwent during that horrific campaign. Given the similarly horrific but less linear experience of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad during World War II, I’m trying to envision how that unit’s experience would graph, but I’ll spare you that bit of nerdiness unless/until I come up with something I can show you.

Sunday, February 29, 2004 11:03 am

Points on the map

Filed under: Geek-related issues — Lex @ 11:03 am

True confession: I’m a map geek. Always have been. When I was a little kid, I would draw up “treasure maps” and I never got disappointed when they invariably failed to lead to treasure; the map itself was the thing. As I got older and learned to read road maps, I wondered at how they imposed a sense of order, and even inevitability, on the long trips we would take to visit relatives scattered from the DC area to northern Florida. In my early teens, when we would frequently visit my grandfather’s cottage in Montreat, I would spend hours staring at the glass-encased papier-mache topographic map of the Montreat area, the product of two years of work by Montreat College geography classes. (I wish I knew what happened to that thing. I pray no one threw it away.) Even today, I gaze with envy on the topographic map of North Carolina that hangs in the reception area of the paper’s editorial office and have told our edit-page editor that if he ever decides to redecorate, I have first dibs on that map.

As fortune would have it, I now live in the era of computer-aided mapping, when geographic-information systems and desktop programs like ArcView make it possible for anyone with a fast computer and a little disposable income to create all manner of data-driven maps. We’ve used some of them at work, particularly to illustrate various stories we wrote based on data from the 2000 Census, but we’re only beginning to tap the potential.

I mention all this as background for why I find this site so cool: It uses mapping to represent not just space (distance), but time: Distances are represented visually according to how long a computer ping takes to travel from one particular point (in this example, Berlin) to other sites around the world, and back. Way cool.

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