My Visit to Walden Pond

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Ever since I was introduced to American writer Henry David Thoreau in junior year of high school, Walden Pond has always held a special place in my imagination.  As Thoreau’s home for two years, it represented, in my mind, his dream of an escape from the vanities of the material world, and his pursuit of freedom and autonomy through reconnecting with nature.  These ideas were deeply influential to me throughout the rest of high school and college, so that Walden Pond had come to exist not as a place, but as an idea.  It was almost like it could never actually be visited by real human beings.  But recently, I finally did just that.

Walden Pond (viewed from the North side)

Walden Pond (viewed from the North side)

Walden Pond still retains much of its natural beauty from the time that Thoreau resided there in the 1840s.  He chose that location, in Concord, Massachusetts, because it was relatively removed from civilization (although the town was just a few miles away).  He built his tiny one-room cabin on the north side of the pond, lived off the land, and spent a great deal of time reading, writing, and contemplating philosophy.  Eventually he would publish the book Walden; or, a Life in the Woods, which reads as equal parts philosophy and practical guide for self-reliance.  Thoreau’s purpose for living alone in nature was to live simply and attain a greater understanding of society from the outside.  The philosophy he espoused is known as transcendentalism, which defies a simple definition, but generally promotes idealism, the inherent goodness of the individual, and the importance of nature.

Thoreau’s credo can easily be summed up in this quote from his book, which appears on a sign not far from where his cabin originally stood:

A quote from Thoreau, located near the original cabin site.

A quote from Thoreau, located near the original cabin site.

I was strongly pulled to Thoreau when I first read about him in my American Literature class in high school.  As we moved through each literary period, I found the rationalists were too dull, and the Gothics too morbid, but the transcendentalists were just right.  They were spiritual, principled, and in some ways, quite radical.  Thoreau spent a night a jail for refusing to pay his taxes when the U.S. declared war on Mexico in 1846.  As I read this in 2003, the U.S. was gearing up to invade Iraq, and Thoreau’s commitment to his pacifism struck a chord with me. In college, when I started reading Walden one summer, I found myself nodding my head in agreement at his ideas on civilization, economy, and human nature.  It was like he was writing in the present day.

When my girlfriend and I stepped foot in Walden Pond for the first time, just a few weeks ago, I felt some of that kinship with Thoreau once more.  Sure, it was a state park now, with a parking lot, a bookstore, and a swimming area, but I was heartened to find that it had not been too heavily developed.  In fact, most of the wooded areas were preserved, and the trails winding through the park were not very crowded.  You can no longer find complete isolation at Walden Pond, of course.  But that’s okay.  We’re not all transcendentalists, after all.

We walked up the path and found the site of the original cabin, which was sadly destroyed many years ago.

Site of Thoreau's Cabin

Site of Thoreau’s Cabin

But fear not, fellow Thoreau fans, because an accurate replica of the cabin was created based on the detailed description Thoreau himself provided in his book.  The size is quite small, smaller than a modern bedroom, and yet he spent two years of his life within these walls:

Replica of Thoreau's Cabin

Replica of Thoreau’s Cabin

As I reflect on my experience at Walden Pond, I realize that my own life, and philosophy, has shifted since first getting acquainted with Thoreau years ago.  My idealism of the college years has softened considerably as I’ve gotten older and entered the working world.  Since I graduated during a down economy, I’ve had to become much more practical in my thinking.  Now when I gaze at Thoreau’s former home, I consider that we can’t all up and move to a cabin in the woods to commune with nature when there are bills to be paid and responsibilities to keep up.  Would that my wood-fire stove could pay my student loans back for me.  In addition, if someone does not agree with a government policy, I wouldn’t find them particularly heroic if they stopped paying their taxes.  Principles are important, but so is a well-functioning society, and in a society we can’t all get exactly what we want.

Thoreau also represents the pleasures of solitude and going it alone, a common American trope.  His book begins with a scathing takedown of modern society, putting himself in the role of “last sane man on earth”. In my younger days, with my own disillusionment with government and the frivolousness of popular culture, I often felt this way too.  But again, my thoughts have shifted over time.  Even if we desire isolation and self-sufficiency, is this the right way to live? I’ve found that we fare better in the end when we’re in a group, even though we have to give up some of our autonomy and make compromises. But it also forces us to be less stubborn and judgmental. One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn is the fact that I don’t know everything, and never will.  In other words, I’m just as crazy and flawed as the rest of them.  If we live in isolation, we may become very content with ourselves and never learn this lesson, growing ever smugger in our own self-satisfaction. I’ve come to believe that, despite Thoreau’s and my own dissatisfactions with certain aspects of modern society, it is ultimately better to remain a part of it.

And now, because no post would be complete without some cartography, here is a map of the trails at Walden Pond State Reservation in the present day.  I highly recommend a visit for anyone in the area.

Meet Laniakea, Newest Addition to the Map of the Universe

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Time to update your address forms, because scientists just named a new galaxy supercluster, of which Earth is a teeny tiny part.  Its name is Laniakea, which means “immeasurable heaven”, although it can be approximately measured to contain 100,000 galaxies, one of which is our own familiar Milky Way.  Previously the Virgo Supercluster was considered to be the main local supercluster, but now it was discovered that this is merely one appendage of Laniakea.

The Guardian has a pretty good visual summation of how this all fits together, along with an update on our cosmic address:

As the map above shows, our Milky Way galaxy sits on the outskirts of the Laniakea Supercluster, near the Cosmic void, which is a relatively empty space in between Laniakea and the neighboring supercluster of Perseus-Pisces.  Other superclusters in the neighborhood are Coma and Shapley, but “neighborhood” is a relative term; the distance across just the Laniakea Supercluster is 520,000,000 light years.

Superclusters are the largest cosmic groups below the level of Universe, so Lanikea occupies a prized position in our cosmic address, unless it is later discovered that Lanikea is just an appendage of an even bigger supersupercluster.  The march of scientific discovery continues on, and there’s no telling what we might learn about our universe in the future.  I just marvel at what astronomers have been able to deduce just from taking measurements of other galaxies from earth or within our own solar system.  According to The Guardian, the astronomer Brent Tully and his team “gathered measurements on the positions and movement of more than 8,000 galaxies and, after discounting the expansion of the universe, worked out which were being pulled towards us and which were being pulled away.”  Once they knew which galaxies were moving in the same direction, they named that group a supercluster.

This clip from Nature also explains the Lanikea Supercluster well:

It is exciting to know that even in an age when every place on earth has been found and mapped, there are still wonders to be discovered in the stars.  From our minuscule position on earth in the tiny Milky Way, we may never fully understand our exact place in the universe.  But that’s what makes it so exciting.  There is always more to see, and our cosmic map of the universe is always subject to revision.

Keep on mapping, and keep looking at the stars.

Canada and Russia: Diplomacy Through Cartography

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Last week, Canada and Russia engaged in a terse diplomatic back-and-forth through an unlikely medium: cartography.  With tensions over Ukraine reaching a fever pitch in these final days of summer, Canada’s NATO delegation saw fit to say what we in the west were all thinking.  Its official twitter account posted the following cheeky reminder to Russian troops who keep “accidentally” finding themselves in parts of Ukraine:

Much has already been written on what a brilliant, ballsy move this was for Canada, typically the more polite of the western powers.  Russia has denied sending soldiers to join separatists in Ukraine’s eastern provinces, even though it’s quite obvious that’s what it’s doing.  In fact, Russia’s defense to these claims is that the border is unclear, and their soldiers just got lost.  Canada’s response is clever in putting down Russia’s facetious response while also affirming that Ukraine’s national sovereignty is to be respected.   The map is just one simple image, and yet it says so much, breaking down the issue into an unambiguous, core message.

But Russia still took issue with the clear borders above, and its NATO delegation tweeted the following map in response, asserting control over the Crimea, which was “annexed” by them in March:

Two competing maps, from Canada and Russia, showing competing viewpoints for how the same part of the world is structured.  Most of the international community is behind the Canadian viewpoint, but Russia is still not showing signs of backing down, and has been increasing its pressure on Ukraine in recent days, causing Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to warn that the two countries were inching toward the “point of no return” for all-out war.

If we put the question to Twitter, though, the consensus is clear.  Canada’s tweet has been retweeted over 40,000 times, while Russia’s tweet has been retweeted only 2,000 times.  In the court of social media, Canada prevails, and Russian troops need to keep a map on them the next time they go wandering near the border with Ukraine.

Springfield, USA: A Part of us All

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Now that FXX is showing an unprecedented 12 day marathon of every episode of the Simpsons ever, it feels like the fictional town of Springfield is truly, in the echoing words of Marge Simpson, a part of us all. A part of us all. A part of us all!

But what is Springfield, and what makes it so special?

The writers have never definitively placed Springfield in any state.  Fans have studied the show for clues to guess where it might be located, but I think it’s more fun that it could be anywhere in the United States.  That gives much greater flexibility for storylines, as the geography of the town can be changed as needed.  The terrain includes mountains, badlands, a national forest, and a harbor to either the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean, depending on the episode.  Springfield is a small, suburban town, but it also somehow seems to have everything: a university, a prison, an airport, a nuclear power plant, and even a giant SPRINGFIELD on the hills overlooking the town.  It’s everything for everyone, and that’s what makes it so inviting for the viewer.

Panoramic screenshot of Springfield from The Simpsons Movie (released 2007, by 20th Century Fox, via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Springfield_(The_Simpsons).png)

There are so many unique places that put the spring in Springfield, and it’s difficult to fit them all in one view.  But two ambitious fans, Jerry Lerma and Terry Hogan, set out to do just that by creating a Map of Springfield.  Completed in 2004, this seems like a fairly accurate depiction, including both regular settings (like the Kwik-E-Mart and Springfield Elementary) and locations that only appeared in one episode (like Bart’s loft, from when he temporarily emancipated himself from his parents).  Look up and down the streets and each block provides a memory from the show, from the Escalator to Nowhere where people got on only to unwittingly fall off at the top, to Dead Weasel Road out in the badlands where Marge had a run-in with some of Springfield’s gangsters (yes, this town even has a mafia).  Check out the map for yourselves:

Map of Springfield, by Jerry Lerma and Terry Hogan (via http://helpasneeded-cleaning.com/?attachment_id=5)

I’ve spent so much time watching episodes of the Simpsons growing up, that Springfield almost feels like a second hometown.  I’m proud of all the landmarks, and even the failures.  If those Shelbyvillians come to steal our Lemon Tree again, I’ll be the first one over the border to take it back from the car impound lot, that impenetrable fortress of suburbia. (I think you can tell by now that “Lemon of Troy” is one of my all-time favorite episodes.)

For more on the marathon, you can go here: http://www.fxx.com/thesimpsons.  If you, like me, don’t get the channel FXX, they are also launching a site in the fall called Simpsons World, where every episode will be available for streaming.  It’s a great time to be a Simpsons fan!

Maps that Bring Out the Worst in Us

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In an earlier post, we looked at the Atlas of Prejudice, which portrays the countries of the world according to the broad stereotypes people have about them.  One of the most hilarious examples is how the relatively tiny, compact continent of Europe can be split up in so many ways according to its cultural, culinary, and religious differences.  The Atlas of Prejudice tumblr contains many more examples from the book, such as how Americans view other countries, using the most ignorant stereotypes as a way of calling attention to that ignorance for gentle mocking.

Another tumblr, Judgmental Maps, goes one step deeper and features maps of individual cities.  It turns out that even our cities are full of divisions, and positive and negative prejudices abound for the various neighborhoods within them.  Once again, try to take these with a grain of salt, as no offense is intended.

Here’s one of New York City:

Judgmental Map of New York City (by RBD Enterprises, via http://judgmentalmaps.com/post/82796288692/nyc)

London:

Judgmental Map of London (by Tim @fingertrouble, via http://judgmentalmaps.com/post/87298548495/london2)

Philadelphia:

Judgmental Map of Philadelphia (vy @rscottfallon, via http://judgmentalmaps.com/post/91965518360/philadelphia)

San Francisco:

Judgmental Map of San Francisco (by Dan Steiner @hararuk, via http://judgmentalmaps.com/post/83644463249/sanfrancisco)

Viewed on its surface, these maps can bring out the worst in us, solidifying the fears many of us have for unfamiliar places.  But these fears are often borne of ignorance, and perhaps, like the Atlas of Prejudice, facing these fears head on will lead us to greater understanding of the world around us.

Happy mapping!

Remembering Myst

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You find yourself on an empty dock.  Walking up the stairs, you encounter a gorgeous mausoleum, and beyond that, a temple.  You continue exploring, finding more strange structures and few answers.  Soon you have traversed the whole island, dismayed to discover that it is completely abandoned.  And you still have no clue why you are there.

Welcome to the island of Myst, the setting for the 1993 computer game of the same name.  When it came out on CD-ROM, the game intrigued and confounded players.  Unlike most computer games, there were no enemies to kill or people to talk to.  The setting was beautiful, but eerie in its emptiness.  It was a world that called you to it, even if you did not understand your purpose there.

The Island of Myst (via io9.com)

The island was more than just beautiful buildings, though.  It had puzzles to be solved, books to be opened, and stories to be revealed.  The island also held portals to other worlds, called “ages”, each with its own theme.  By traveling to each age, all with the same atmosphere of unsettling isolation, players could begin to solve the mystery of Myst.

Map of the Island of Myst (via http://www.initial-team.com/sucre/?p=2477)

Here is the one of the ages, the “Selenitic Age”:

Twenty years after Myst first came out, and several sequels later, the original game still stands out as a unique treasure of computer gaming.  Just a glance at the image of the island is enough to instill a sense of yearning within me, a yearning felt strongly by my 8-year-old self.  I think it is this same sense of yearning that drives fantasy writers to create their own worlds to escape into, and lead others to follow them into exotic lands and hidden puzzles.  Myst, the game of many ages, is timeless in its spirit of adventure and discovery, and more games could use some of that spirit to remind us of that boundless wonder we used to feel as children.

Myst is now available for iOS and is also for sale on steam, so you can still experience that sense of wonder for yourself: http://cyan.com/games/myst/

How World War I Redrew Europe’s Borders

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This past week, one hundred years ago, World War I began as Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and drew the other nations and empires of Europe into the conflict.  The war drastically changed the course of the twentieth century, and the peace that was negotiated at the end unwittingly set the stage for World War II just two decades later.  In particular, it radically changed the borders of Europe, such that the map of Europe in 1919, after the Treaty of Versailles, was vastly different from the map in 1914.

The Economist recently published an article commemorating the anniversary of the start of the war, including a fascinating graphic that lets you “slide” between the maps and see just how each corner of the continent changed from the start of the war until the peace treaties had been signed.  You can check out the slider for yourself here: http://infographics.economist.com/2014/1914-19Swiper/1914.19.html

I took screenshots from the Economist post and have reproduced them below:

Border changes over the space of those five years were both great and small.  France and Denmark gained some territory at the expense of Germany.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire disappeared completely, succeeded by various smaller states (some of which would break up further later on in the century).  States which had previously not been independent, such as Poland, were able to reassert their independence.

The map shows how Germany in particular was punished by the allied powers at the end of the war.  What it does not show, of course, is the level of economic reparations levied against Germany, and the level of wounded pride the nation suffered, which laid the seeds for the rise of Hitler in the 1930s.

For more background on this, check out the source of these maps at the Economist magazine’s website: http://www.economist.com/news/international/21610243-redrawing-map

 

The Most Detailed Map of Mars Yet

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Are you angling for a seat aboard Elon Musk’s first mission to Mars?  Or are you content to admire the red planet from the comfort of your home on Earth?  Either way, it couldn’t hurt to have a map.  And scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey have just completed the most comprehensive one yet.  While it may not prove very helpful as a road map, it does contain a wealth of topological, thermal, and geological information which will be incredibly useful for researchers in the future.

(Via USGS and The Washington Post)

The USGS has also released the following clip on Youtube which shows a rotating globe of Martian geology:

How did they accomplish this feat, when no one has yet stepped foot on Mars?  According to the blogpost on the Washington Post website, the information that helped to create this map was culled from images taken by several spacecraft that have been orbiting the planet since the late 1990s.  Recent advances in imaging technology have allowed this data to come to life in detailed cartographic form.  And now, would-be Martian adventurers will have a better idea of potential landing sites for missions in the future.

We sure have come a long way from the days when our only knowledge of Mars came from telescopes here on Earth.  Just to grasp the scope of progress, take a look at the below map by Giovanni Schiaparelli, completed in 1886.  Note also how often he named places on Mars after places on earth (such as Arabia) or from classical geography or mythology (Eysium).  If you browse the newest map carefully, you can see that some of these names are still used today.

Giovanni Schiaparelli’s Map of Mars, compiled over the period 1877 to 1886. (via Wikipedia)

Happy mapping, fellow cosmic travelers!

No Idea is Completely Original, But That’s Okay

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When it comes to art, we crave originality and newness.  No artist or writer or musician wants to be written off as derivative.  Even worse is the fear of being accused of stealing another’s work.  After all, the written tradition spans thousands of years, and it seems nearly impossible that every story hasn’t been told already.  As I work on my novel and struggle to avoid many of the tired tropes of the fantasy genre, I wonder if it is even possible to create a completely original story.

Put simply, the answer is no.  But that’s okay!

On NPR recently, the TED Radio Hour show featured four podcasts centered on the topic of “What is Original?”, which examined the originality of ideas in music, film, fashion, and technology.  The show stated the simple fact that nothing, no idea or work of art, is completely original.  Perhaps the last original thing to have happened was The Big Bang.

Put another way, everything is a remix.

I was not able to embed the NPR player in my post, but you can follow the link below to listen.  I encourage you all to listen to the full show when you have time (it’s 48 minutes in total), but if nothing else, I recommend the fourth podcast, “Where Do Good Ideas Come From?”

TED Radio Hour: What is Original?

The host states toward the end that we all have an aversion to copying when it comes to art.  But at the same time, we all copy.  To be human is to copy.  Even the most original stories are not really as original as we think.  An example from the show is Star Wars, which was hugely successful when it came out and has enjoyed enduring critical praise.  But even Star Wars copied ideas from other sources, including old samurai films.  This is not to condemn Star Wars, but to celebrate its application of old ideas into a new and exciting form.  In other words, samurai + space = awesome.

One of the speakers makes the great point that those who seek out complete originality are doomed to fail, and this might end up backfiring and hurting the final product.  He goes on state that it is better to consider how you can combine different things in new ways, or give a new perspective on a familiar story, taking something which has come before and building on it. That is, in reality, the story of human existence.

For a writer in the fantasy genre, the danger is being thought too derivative of J.R.R. Tolkein or George R.R. Martin.  However, borrowing some of the ideas that have worked well in the past, combining them with other ideas, and providing your own distinct spin, is not the same thing is merely copying.  Indeed, this is the only way new ideas are born.

Go forth and remix!

Meet the Colorful Cast of Characters We Call Europe

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Who ever said the Victorians didn’t have a sense of humor? These colorful depictions of European powers from the 19th century show that even then artists were having fun with cartography and poking fun at national stereotypes.  The Englishman William Harvey published these maps, among many others, under the pseudonym “Aleph” in 1868.  His purpose behind creating the atlas, titled “Geographical Fun: Being Humourous Outlines of Various Countries”, was to excite the minds of children who would otherwise be bored by geography, perhaps inciting an interest in foreign lands.  Now the atlas has been digitized by the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, and you can view them on flickr here.  A few of my favorites are below:

Italy: “Thou model chieftain – born in modern days – Well may thy gallant acts claim classic praise.”  Italy is dressed a revolutionary figure, as this map was drawn right after the Third War of Independence and right before the final unification of the peninsula.

Italy

Germany: “Lo! studious Germany, in her delight, At coming glories, shown by second sight…”  Germany is an unfamiliar shape here, because Prussia occupied a great deal of land that would eventually become part of Germany. As such, Germany looks squeezed at the middle, much like a woman in Victorian dress squeezed at the waist by a corset.

Germany

Russia: “Peter, and Catherine, and Alexander, Mad Paul, and Nicholas, poor shadows wander out in the cold; while Emperor A. the Second in Eagles, Priests, and Bears supreme is reckoned.”  It looks like the czar and the classic Russian symbol of the bear are tied together. But what about all of Russia’s land in Asia?  Surely there’s more room to stretch out?

Russia

England: “Beautiful England, – on her Island throne, – grandly she rules, – with half the world her own…”  England, in the visage of Queen Victoria, appears stoic and assured.  After all, the sun never set on the British Empire at the time.

England

Scotland: “A gallant piper, struggling through the bogs. His wind bag broken, wearing his clay clogs. Yet, strong of heart, a fitting emblem makes for Scotland – land of heroes and of cakes.” Dressed in the traditional kilt, Scotland looks cold and anxious.  Maybe he’s planning to seek his independence?

Scotland

For more of these maps, check out the flickr page here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/normanbleventhalmapcenter/sets/72157632187636362, and for more on the atlas, go here: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gmdhtml/geofun.html.

Happy mapping!

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