The Most Detailed Map of Mars Yet


, , , , ,

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


, , , , ,

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


, , , , , , , , ,

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.


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.


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?


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.


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?


For more of these maps, check out the flickr page here:, and for more on the atlas, go here:

Happy mapping!

More Than Fifty States


, , , , ,

This past Friday, the United States of America celebrated its 238th birthday.  Across the fifty states, Americans celebrated with parties and parades, waving flags with pride and reflecting on how much we’ve grown from just thirteen original colonies.  We often forget, though, that the United States is more than just fifty states.  The US possesses a great deal of territory which is not considered part of any state, and some of these areas have their own unique legal classifications.  We have the District of Columbia, numerous Native American reservations, organized territories like Puerto Rico, and several more unorganized territories scattered throughout the ocean.  As this concise but highly informative video from CGP Grey illustrates, the collection of parts that make up the country we call America is much more complex than we usually realize:


The legal distinctions between some of these territories can be confusing, but the video does its best to explain.  Certain islands, including Puerto Rico and Guam, are considered unincorporated organized territories.  In these places, some parts of the US Constitution do not apply, and the residents do not have the right to vote for President. (They can, however, elect a representative to Congress, but the representative cannot vote on any legislation).  The unorganized territories, composed of various islands mostly in the Pacific Ocean, have it even worse, though.  They have no local government, but also no one living there.  Many of these are just tiny stretches of sand that were used for nuclear bomb testing.  But the strangest arrangement of all is that of Palmyra Atoll, an uninhabited island which is incorporated, meaning that the entire US Constitution applies there even though the whole island is just a nature preserve.  If a non-American citizen gave birth there, for example, the baby would be an American citizen.

Here is a map of all the US outlying islands in the Pacific Ocean, with Palmyra Atoll in the lower middle:

US Minor Outlying Islands in the Pacific Ocean (via Wikipedia)

So the next time you salute the American flag, remember all these other territories that are part of our country, even if they don’t have their own star.

For more from CGP Grey, check out his YouTube page here:

Happy Mapping!

1931 Gangster Map of Chicago


, , , , , ,

Chicago in 1931 was a gangster’s paradise, full of illegal speakeasies, corruption, violence, and all other sorts of vice.  At least, that’s what this map of Chicago from 1931 wants to make very clear, in the hopes of dissuading young people from falling into sinful activities.  This explicit purpose is spelled out in the legend below, which floats authoritatively over Lake Michigan on the map.

The map itself, shown below, looks like it was lifted right out of the Middle Ages, when cartographers placed more importance on the moral and theological dimensions of reality than geographical accuracy.  But instead, it was the product of the 1930s, when prohibition allowed organized crime to become an extremely profitable and powerful force in the city.  This was the era of Al Capone and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, both of which are mentioned on the map.  Liquor bottles and skulls and crossbones are scattered abundantly throughout the city, emphasizing the dangers that lurk in every corner.

Zoom in to the map and see what else you can find.  For example, even the giant fish in Lake Michigan is gulping beer that runs over the side of a huge mug.  It’s funny to see such a moralistic map today, but it makes sense that they took these issues very seriously back then.  It really did seem like violence and corruption were tearing the city apart, and the map’s creators wanted to influence the reader to help turn the city around.  It’s not just a map, but a powerful argumentative tool.

For more on this, see here:

Mapping How Americans Spend Their Time


, , ,

The fifty states that make up the U.S. are different in so many ways that they sometimes seem like different countries.  These differences are most clearly seen in how residents of New York, Mississippi, Utah, North Dakota, and all the others spend their hours in the day.  Indeed, the amount of time we spend on activities say so much about our interests and values.

The American Time Use Survey, conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, measured the amount to time Americans  spent on different activities and compiled averages for each state.  How long do we spend commuting to work?  Reading?  On religious activities?   The Survey answered these and many other questions to give us a deeper understanding of how habits vary across states.  And the Washington Post’s Wonkblog took it one step further by translating the data into maps, which you can find here: 10 Maps That Show How Much Time Americans Spend Grooming, Eating, Thinking and Praying.

Here are a few of them:

Average daily sleep of Americans (via

Average Time Americans Spend Commuting (via

Average Time Americans Spend on Housework (via

We can glean a few interesting conclusions from these.  It’s not much surprise that New Yorkers and New Jerseyans have long commutes into NYC.  But did you know that North Dakotans apparently really like to clean?  And Mississippians somehow get an average of 9 hours of sleep?  The other maps on the post reveal that West Virginians watch the most TV on average, and folks in Louisiana spend the most time thinking and relaxing.  Vermonters also spend the least amount of time grooming.  Sadly, my home state of Connecticut is not very distinctive on any of these maps, appearing towards the middle on all measures.  But perhaps that just means we’re really good at balancing our time.

Happy mapping!

A Game of Thrones Conundrum: Should you Read the Books after Watching the TV Show?


, ,

Popular books are often adapted into movies and TV shows, but rarely are movies and shows turned into books.  Consumers typically move in the same direction– It is much more common for people to read the book before rather than after seeing its film or TV adaptation.  But is this necessarily the best way to enjoy a story?  What if, in fact, there are benefits to reading a book after watching the movie or show?

This question came to me this past week after watching the Season Four finale of Game of Thrones. (Don’t worry, no spoilers ahead.)  It was a riveting season, filled with murders, deceptions, and mysterious magic.  The end of the season left me wanting more, and aggrieved at having to wait ten months for the next season to start.  I do not feel ready to say goodbye to the terrifying yet intoxicating world of Westeros just yet.  At the same time, I began to realize, from snippets in various pieces of internet commentary, that I had only really seen part of the story, for the simple reason that I have not yet read any of the books upon which the show is based.

The box set of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin (via

George R. R. Martin’s series, titled A Song of Ice and Fire, consists of five books (a total of at least seven are expected), the first three of which have been adapted into seasons 1-4 of the Game of Thrones series on HBO.  The first thing that jumped out at me when I started researching this was the sheer size of these volumes.  The paperback edition of the five-book box set clocks in at 4,272 pages.  My heart sank as I wondered how anyone with a busy life could make it through the series.  I often struggle to find time to read for more than a few minutes a day, and at that rate, it would take me years to finish these books.  Luckily, G.R.R. Martin is writing slowly enough that even I might catch up with him before he finishes the last books…

Despite their long length, these books have thousands of dedicated fans, some of them with busy lives, and many of whom can breeze through each of these books in a matter of days or weeks.  Could the books be not as difficult as they seem?  I definitely know the feeling of becoming so lost in a gripping story that the pages just fly by.  Based on the volume of praise that I’ve seen for this series from critics and readers alike, this seems like the case with Martin’s prose as well.

So let’s say I decided to read the books, and I had the time.  The question then becomes: Since I already have seen the adaptations of the first three books on the small screen, is it worth it to go back and read them?

I think that answer could be yes, and here’s why:

Books can delve deeper than film into characters’ thoughts, feelings, and motivations.  Rather than merely showing what happens, the words on a page work more seamlessly to guide you into a new world, bringing you inside someone’s head, and making you identify with a protagonist’s struggles.  Well-chosen words can recreate a fantastical setting in vivid detail in the reader’s imagination and convey the exact blend of emotions the author hopes to elicit.  A movie or TV show can certainly immerse the viewer as well, but a book allows you to linger longer and ponder further as you move through the story at your own pace.

Once you have already seen the story on film, going back to the book is not at all the same experience.  Rather, it is an opportunity to engage more deeply with the material and gain greater insight into the characters.  The plot may have been spoiled for you, but I think you can still appreciate it anew, from a different perspective.  In the ASoIaF books, for example, each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, which intrigues me very much.  On the show, each character is followed in their own storylines, but we never really know what’s going on in their heads.

Books also have more time to tell a story and pursue various side plots which are not exactly relevant to the main storyline.  Many times, these plots have to be removed from the adaptation to cut down the running time, and although the editing might create a more focused product, it can be disappointing for fans who want to see more.  The problem is that movies generally have to keep it to two hours, and books, especially epic fantasy novels, take much longer to be told in full.

Each season of Game of Thrones is 10 hours in length, and even then, book readers howl about plotlines and characters getting cut.  This is one of the reasons I want to read the books, to see what other plots I’ve been missing, and to avoid worrying about spoilers from book readers.  It makes sense to cut out the less important material for the show, especially because they are trying to reach a mass audience, but I also wonder why the season must be limited to ten hours.  After all, HBO does not follow the normal conventions of TV, and if they wanted to air 20 hours per season, they could.  Then again, even with all the time in the world to reproduce the entire canon of the books, it might not necessarily be a good thing to do so.  After all, TV shows and books have different missions and rhythms, and show watchers who want to know more about Westeros can always dive into the books for all the parts of the story they’ve missed.

For people who have read a book before watching the movie or TV show, a common reaction is disappointment.  “How could they leave that part out?”, “Why did they change this?”, “I didn’t picture her looking like THAT!”, etc.  Bookreaders go into the theater with an image of the story already in their minds, and they are bound to be let down.

Now imagine doing the reverse.  You’ve seen the movie or show, you know how the characters look, you’ve seen the loud explosions, the dragons, the tears running down cheeks.  And you know the story, but probably not the full story.  Now when you pick up the book, you can picture what’s happening more easily, learn new things about the story, and get a fuller understanding of the characters.  Sounds like it could work, eh?

Has anyone tried reading the book second?  I have, sort of, but my memory of the movie adaptation was not fresh in my mind.  I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas several years after watching the movie, and I definitely got a lot more out of it.  To my teenage mind, the movie seemed like a black comedy about eccentric people acting silly on drugs, but the book had a much deeper recurrent theme about disillusionment with the idealism of the 1960s.  Had this failed to translate to the movie, or did I just fail to pick up on it?  Either way, I did feel that my reading of the book was enhanced by having seen the movie first.  This makes me wonder what other kinds of themes and messages I may be missing from other books that I skipped in lieu of watching the movie.

In conclusion, I think it could be worth it to read A Song of Ice and Fire for curious fans of the TV series who are itching for more.  And I also think I may have just talked myself into a 4,272 page summer project.

Until next time… Keep reading, keep mapping!


Mapping Gotham


, , , , , ,

Gotham City is the home of Batman and the setting for most of his crime fighting adventures.  It was first introduced in one of the very first Batman comic books from 1940, but not officially mapped until 1998.  Illustrator Eliot R. Brown took on the difficult task of mapping Gotham for the “No Man’s Land” arc, and he explains the process beyond his creation in an illuminating blog post here:

Gotham is a dark city with a fierce criminal element lurking beneath the surface (often right on the surface itself).  The seediest, most sinister elements of New York and Chicago inspired Gotham’s design and atmosphere, and the Batman films were shot in these cities as well.  Therefore, Brown wisely chose Manhattan, where he himself grew up, as a template when creating his map of Gotham.  Certain elements in Batman storylines (for example, “The Dark Knight Rises”) also indicate that Gotham has to be an island with bridges to the mainland.

Here Brown describes some of the guidelines he had to work within during the early planning process:

The DC Comics editors made it clear that Gotham City was an idealized version of Manhattan. Like most comic book constructs, it had to do a lot of things. It needed sophistication and a seamy side. A business district and fine residences. Entertainment, meat packing, garment district, docks and their dockside business. In short all of Manhattan and Brooklyn stuffed into a … well, a nice page layout

Brown then began sketching out the city, and received a list of place names to insert.  Just imagine- the comic books had been running for nearly 6 decades by this point.  He had to take every significant location which was mentioned and insert it into the map in a logical place.  Anxious fans were waiting to see if he got it right, ready to pounce if a street name seemed misplaced. It must have been a great deal of pressure to be under for the ambitious cartographer.

But ultimately, he pulled it off! Below you can see Brown’s final product, the Map of Gotham:

Map of Gotham City by Eliot R. Brown, from “No Man’s Land”, 1998 (via

Brown’s map was featured in “No Man’s Land” and would go on to be used in subsequent comics and films.  Brown says that he is ultimately pleased with his creation, concluding that he would feel right at home in Gotham.  For me personally, I would wait until all those pesky villains had been vanquished before visiting.

For those curious, you can find more information about the map at Brown’s website and

Cartographic Controversies in Subway Design: A Tribute to Massimo Vignelli


, , , ,

This past week, accomplished designer Massimo Vignelli passed away at the age of 83.  Among his diverse accomplishments, his most well-known is probably the 1972 map of the New York City subway system.  It was a radical departure from previous designs, and attracted a great deal of controversy.  After only 7 years, it was discontinued and replaced by a different design.  It is still remembered, though, as an example of modernist design and shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  Perhaps it also an example of how big changes in cartographic design can incite intense backlash, especially when the subject in question is a space as public and personal as the New York City subway system.

Below is Vignelli’s 1972 subway map design, followed by the current design as used by the MTA:

New York City Transit Authority Subway Map, designed by Massimo Vignelli, 1972 (via

Current New York City Subway map (via

Vignelli’s design is a little jarring to our eyes.  He set out to make it easier for riders to see the stops on the subway lines, with straighter routes and bigger fonts.  But he also made some huge changes that are disorienting to people who were used to seeing things a certain way.

For one thing, he did not use green for parks and blue for water, as we are accustomed to seeing.  Rather, he drew parks like grey blobs and used a bland tan-like color for rivers and ocean.  Secondly, he distorted the shape of the city and its above-ground features.  Central Park, for example, looks more like a square than a tall rectangle on Vignelli’s map.  The whole island of Manhattan has lost its distinctive shape and taken a simplified angular shape.  In essence, the city has lost its New York feel, and has become more of a Platonic form of itself.

The design was scrapped in 1979, seeming to confirm that modernist design and subway maps do not mix (at least not in New York City).  The largely negative response to Vignelli’s map showed that it does not matter if the subway lines are easier to read if the larger geography is too abstract and non-intuitive.  Subway riders like to be able to glance at a map and immediately locate themselves to find their way.  Unfamiliar color schemes and shapes only hinder that process.

The Vignelli map does live on in digital form, though.  It was recently used as the basis for the online weekend subway service map called The Weekender, which is also available as an app for iOS and Android.  It is faithful to Vignelli’s spirit, but somehow the color scheme is even less obvious than before (white is land, grey is water).  But perhaps in the age of apps, it does not matter anymore how the surrounding geography appears, as long as riders are efficiently directed from one station to the next.

Source: Washington Post.

The Strange Cosmography of Discworld


, , , , , ,

We can’t talk about fantasy worlds without talking about Discworld, the setting for the tongue-in-cheek book series of the same name by British author Terry Pratchett.  Pratchett initially set out to parody fantasy writers like Tolkien, comically referencing and subverting many well-worn tropes of the genre.  But over the course of three decades and forty novels, he has also developed a deep, intriguing world which embraces the truly strange.  And that strangeness extends all the way to Discworld’s very cosmography.

You see, Discworld is quite literally a disc.  It is held up by four elephants who stand atop a gigantic turtle named the Great A’Tun.  The turtle swims on and on through space, carrying Discworld with him (or her, since the turtle’s gender is a matter of scientific debate).

Discworld, as seen from space (via

As for the cartography of the surface of Discworld itself, Pratchett has declined to include a map with his books.  In fact, he had this to say in the Foreword for the 1989 reprinting of the first book in the series, The Colour of Magic:

The Discworld is not a coherent fantasy world. Its geography is fuzzy, its chronology unreliable. A small traveling circle of firelight in a chilly infinity has turned out to be the home of defiant jokes and last chances.

There are no maps. You can’t map a sense of humor. Anyway, what is a fantasy map but a space beyond which There Be Dragons? On the Discworld we know that There Be Dragons Everywhere. They might not all have scales and forked tongues, but they Be Here all right, grinning and jostling and trying to sell you souvenirs.

I see Pratchett’s point, but with all due respect, I think everything is better with maps.  And Pratchett’s cartographic prohibition has not stopped fans from creating their own maps.  Below is one of the most detailed and delightful creations I was able to come across online, complete with fantastical creatures frolicking in the oceans and floating in the margins:

One of many fan-created maps of Discworld (via

Personally, I have been thoroughly enjoying The Colour of Magic, and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for fun, escapist reading.  Pratchett does a wonderful job with melding the comic and the serious, such that even the zaniest plots have an undercurrent of real dramatic stakes.  I’m a little overwhelmed by the fact that there are 39 other books in the series, and I feel that I couldn’t possibly read them all.  So if anyone has a recommendation for which installments are the most worthwhile, please feel free to leave a comment.

Happy Mapping!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,015 other followers