O, Canadian Cartography!


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Today we’ll take a look at maps of Canada.  Some might ask “why?”, but I think the better question is, “why not?”  I think Americans in general don’t pay enough attention to Canada, even though the U.S. and Canada share the longest continuous land border in the world.  As occupants of the same continent, possessing similar economic and political interests, it makes good sense for Americans to learn more about our neighbors to the North.  Canada has a long, rich history, from its colonization by France in the early 17th century, to its acquisition by the British Empire in the wake of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, and finally to self-governance as a constitutional monarchy while retaining Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.

Let’s check out just a few of the fascinating maps of Canada from its early days as a French colony.

Starting off, there is the first map with the name Canada on it.  This was made in 1566 by Italian cartographer Paolo Forlani, before France had set up any permanent settlements in the region.  Even at this early date, however, you can still see some familiar names, such as Florida, Bermuda, Nova Franza (New France), Larcadia (Arcadia), Laborador (Labrador), and of course, Canada Pro, or proper, written in the space underneath a mountain range to the east of “Nova Franza”.  It is remarkable how even in vast expanses of terrain where European colonizers had not yet established settlements, they still managed to fill up the land with placenames.

Paolo Forlani, Il designo del discoperto della Nova Franza by Paolo Forlani (created 1566) (via http://cdnhistorybits.wordpress.com/_

Second, there is one dating from 1613, shortly after Quebec City had been founded in 1608.  Produced by the explorer Samuel de Champlain, it features the latest geographical discoveries in the land that would become Canada.  The map serves partly as an advertisement to encourage settlement; it includes pictures of local flora and fauna, depicting the new territory as bursting with natural resources that are waiting to be enjoyed.  Notice how the map includes parts of the coastline of what would become upper New England, but it is difficult to recognize because there have not yet been any settlements.  We are still a few years ahead of Plymouth and the First Thanksgiving.

Samuel de Champlain’s Carte geographique de la Nouvelle Franse faictte par le sieur de Champlain Saint Tongois cappitaine ordinaire pour le Roy en la Marine (created in 1613) (via http://cdnhistorybits.wordpress.com/)

Finally, we have a map created by British cartographer John Barrow in 1759.  At this time, Britain and France were still fighting the Seven Years’ War, and Canada was still in French hands, though not for long.  The map shows the extent of Canadian possessions in the east, as well as some of the Northern territories of the thirteen American colonies, which would be shaking off British control a couple of decades in the future.  Barrow probably did not realize that the world he was depicting on the map would not last long, with the French lands turning British, and most of the British lands becoming independent.

John Barrow, Part of North America; containing Canada, the North Parts of New England and New York; with Nova Scotia and Newfound Land (1759) (via http://www.nfld.com/archive/)

Thanks for joining me on this brief cartography journey through early Canadian history.  For more on these maps, check out these sources: All About Canadian History Blog, The Newfoundland and Labrador Historic Map Archive, and Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.

Earth Sandwich: The Nerdiest Sandwich in the World


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Place one slice of bread on the ground.  Good!  Now, at the same time, ask someone at the exact opposite side of the planet to place another slide of bread on the ground where they stand.   Congratulations!  You have just created an Earth sandwich.

It may seem silly, but quite a lot of time and attention has been expended by people trying to create their own Earth sandwiches, ever since blogger Ze Frank issued the challenge in 2006.  For the adventurous cartography nerd, it’s just the sort of challenge to accept.

The key for anyone aspiring to fix an Earth sandwich is to determine the location of the antipode for their current location.  The antipode is the direct opposite of a certain coordinate on the earth’s surface.  If you drilled down into the center of the Earth and kept going until you reached the other side, you will have found your antipode.  Unfortunately, it’s much harder than it may seem to even find suitable locations, given the amount of ocean that covers the Earth’s surface.  Many of us who grew up in the US believed as kids that if we dug straight through the Earth we’d wind up in China (and Bugs Bunny cartoons did their part in reinforcing this).  In reality, though, the antipode of any location in the continental US is somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

The following map, courtesy of Mr. Reid’s blog, shows the earth flipped upside down and laid over itself, so you can see where land overlaps in green.  These are the only locations where an Earth sandwich can be successfully assembled.

Overlaid map of the world, showing locations where antipodes exist over land in green (via http://wordpress.mrreid.org/2013/12/20/earth-sandwich/)

A whole lot of the world is, sadly, out of luck when it comes to making their own Earth sandwich.  Residents of North America will have to travel to the Canadian Arctic to lay a slice of bread upon the ice, and have a friend in Antarctica do the same.  Or they can head down to South America, where significant areas of countries such as Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Peru overlap with Asian countries like China, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

There are a few other interesting antipodes as well.  Look at the Iberian peninsula in Europe and you will see a couple splotches of green.  These match up with the islands of New Zealand way in the South Pacific.  In fact, as Ze Frank reports, the very first Earth sandwich in the world was created at these locations, with one side near Madrid, Spain and the other near Aukland, New Zealand.  Pretty cool!

The mere existence of the Earth sandwich shows the depth of imagination which map nerds share.  Sure, the sandwich can’t be eaten, but to a geography obsessive, it satisfies a different kind of hunger.

For more on the Earth sandwich, check out Ze Frank’s page here: http://www.zefrank.com/sandwich/

Fantasy Maps of American Cities


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Compared to fantasy maps, maps of real world cities can be kinda boring.  Streets and highways criss-cross the land, and empty spaces are few and far between.  Points of interest are indicated by dots, and parks are represented by bland green rectangles.  There is not much majesty or wonder in the standard city map, let alone dragons or castles.

Fortunately for us fantasy map nerds, one cartographer on Etsy set out to change that.  His name is Stentor Danielson, and he sells fantasy maps of American cities along with hand-cut paper street maps and custom order maps on his Etsy store page: Mapsburgh.

See familiar cities in a whole new light, as they might look if Tolkein had used them for the setting for an epic fantasy journey.  Now buildings are represented by towers and castles, parks look like enchanted forests filled with trees, and every mountaintop looks dark and foreboding.  The mystery and sense of adventure that has all but disappeared from cartography in the modern era is back to add some spice to otherwise bland city maps.

Have a look at a few of Danielson’s most impressive creations below:



Washington, DC:

For more, check out Danielson’s Etsy page: https://www.etsy.com/ca/shop/Mapsburgh.  He also has maps of Cleveland and Philadelphia.  They sell for between $11 and $26, and for $69 you can order your own custom fantasy map, the perfect gift for any serious cartography nerd.

Happy mapping!

New Maps of the Unseen Ocean Floor


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There is no land left to discover on earth, and all the blank spaces on the map have been filled.  But the oceans still largely remain unexplored.  They are vast, deep, and darker than we can imagine at their deepest depths.  Light only travels so far, and water pressure makes it impossible for humans to descend much further.  This partially explains why it has been so difficult to locate the Malaysian Airlines flight that disappeared over the Indian Ocean earlier this year.

But now, satellites have once again come to the rescue, and researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego have used European and American satellite data to create maps of the entire ocean floor.  As Loren Gush at Popular Science reports, these new maps reveal never-before-seen mountains and valleys under the surface, and help to highlight the faults between tectonic plates.  Here is one image of the North Atlantic:

Marine gravity model of the North Atlantic Ocean. Red dots are earthquakes with magnitude above 5.5, showing the fault lines between the tectonic plates.  (By David Sandwell, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, via Popular Science, http://www.popsci.com/article/science/satellite-data-maps-sea-floors-hidden-depths?src=SOC&dom=tw)

These oceanographic maps also have a practical purpose beyond purely satisfying mankind’s curiosity.  For example, knowledge of the presence of underwater ridges helps to explain gravity fields, which influence the trajectory of submarine missiles.  One hopes that this also leads, eventually, to a fully mapped ocean floor in high definition, so that the next time a plane crashes in the ocean, it will be located and recovered quicker.

This is also a reminder to the explorer who looks up at the stars, yearning for new undiscovered mysteries, that the ocean on our humble planet Earth still contains an expansive, unseen world.

For more on this, here is the Popular Science Article: http://www.popsci.com/article/science/satellite-data-maps-sea-floors-hidden-depths?src=SOC&dom=tw

And for more on the results of the research, go here: http://topex.ucsd.edu/grav_outreach/


Cartographer’s Nightmare: The Strangest Borders in the World


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In previous posts, we’ve looked at the irregularities in the US-Canada international border, and celebrated the five most interesting exclaves in the world. The strangest border of them all, in my opinion, was the one running through the village of Baarle Nassau/Baarle Hertog, which sits between Belgium and the Netherlands and includes 22 Belgian enclaves and 8 Dutch enclaves (pieces of one country inside another).

Border between Belgium and the Netherlands at Baarle Nassau & Baarle Hertog (via wikipedia)

But there are many more complex borders between countries to explore, including the unclaimed land between Egypt and Sudan, and the bewildering system of dozens of enclaves and exclaves between India and Bangladesh. Trying to make sense of it all is enough to give a cartographer a headache, but these enclaves also cause a number of problems with regard to security and access to international aid.

The video below, created by YouTube channel WonderWhy, does a remarkable job of explaining the most complex international borders, including the historical reasons behind these cartographic curiosities.  You may still be rather confused by the end, but you might learn a couple interesting tidbits to bring up at cocktail parties.  Enjoy!

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)


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


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!


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