Book Review: The Maze Runner


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The Maze Runner, by James Dashner, at first glance looks like just another of the young adult dystopian action novels to come out in the past few years.  Like The Hunger Games and Divergent before it, it is being made into a movie, due to be released in theaters on September 19, 2014, which means that in a few months, tv stations and entertainment websites will be deluged with Maze Runner trailers and other promotional material.  It is also the first part of a trilogy, and if it succeeds at the box office, you can guarantee that The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure will soon follow on the big screen.  But the question remains: Is this book any good? Or are we just saturating the market with predictable, derivative Hunger Games clones?

In my opinion, The Maze Runner is a solid, enjoyable read, and I am really looking forward to seeing the film.  It does have its flaws, which I will get to below, but the story is compelling and suspenseful, and teenagers and adults alike should find it engrossing.  More importantly, it is entirely unique from The Hunger Games, and filmgoers would be wise not to dismiss it as another dystopian clone.  At its core, The Maze Runner is a story enveloped in mystery, which is as much about figuring out the situation the characters are in as it is about basic survival.

The cover for The Maze Runner, by James Dashner, published 2009 by Delacorte Press.

The story follows a teenage boy named Thomas, who has no memory of his past, as he awakens in an elevator.  The elevator brings him into the middle of a large open area, enclosed on four sides by tall stone walls, and he is immediately surrounded by a group of dozens of boys who inform him that he has entered a place called The Glade.  It grows more and more confusing from there, and the novel conveys this confusion well by not answering Thomas’s questions at first, and only revealing bits of information at a time.  Without giving too much away, Thomas soon learns that a giant maze surrounds the Glade, and doors open every morning so that the Gladers can explore, map the pathways, and try to find a way out.  They are careful to return to the Glade by the time the doors close for the day, because strange, vicious creatures roam the maze at night.  Thomas has entered a very bleak world indeed.

In some sense, it is a similar premise to The Hunger Games.  A bunch of teenagers are placed in a dangerous, closed-off area together.  The Gladers believe that they are, similar to the contestants in The Hunger Games, being observed by some unseen Creators.  But the similarities soon end.  The Hunger Games offers an extensive explanation for why boys and girls are chosen to fight in these games, and much of the plot of the book and movie occurs before they even enter the games.  Plus, there is lot of information on the political background and the nature of the larger dystopian reality.  By contrast, there is no background to the events of the The Maze Runner until the very end.  The vast majority of the action occurs in the Glade and the maze surrounding it, shrouded in the mystery of why these teens have been placed in such a precarious place.  This provides a cerebral element which was lacking in The Hunger Games, as the Gladers try to understand their situation and find a way home.

Although I did enjoy The Maze Runner greatly, I do have a few complaints. First, I understand why the Gladers could not reveal everything to Thomas at first, from a narrative perspective, because this allows a sense of tension and mystery to build.  But it still felt contrived.  The other boys basically had no good reason to keep Thomas in the dark, other than the fact that they were tired of answering questions.  Secondly, the emotional reactions of the characters were not as nuanced as they could be.  Everyone was either angry or scared half the time, and they switched between the two seemingly at random.  Thirdly, Thomas was not always the most realistic protagonist.  It annoyed me how his ideas always turned out right, and his main obstacle was just trying to get others to listen to him.  I’m much more interested in protagonists who are occasionally wrong and have to admit as much.

The book succeeds in keeping many of its secrets hidden until the final chapters, which made me desperate to keep turning the page as the action raced towards the end.  However, a few questions are still left unanswered.  That, combined with a brilliant twist ending, has me eager to start reading the sequel, The Scorch Trials.

But first, I’m taking a detour into fantasy with The Color of Magic, which I will cover in a future blog post.

Until next time… happy reading and happy mapping!

JRPG Cartography: Ni No Kuni


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Japanese Role Playing Games (JRPGs) are known for having large, immersive fantasy worlds.  It is easy for a gamer to become truly captivated in these worlds while guiding his heroes throughout various terrains to explore, hunt treasure, and battle monsters.  And a map is essential for anyone trying to make it through these worlds and avoid becoming hopelessly lost.  Fortunately, most JRPGs include a map of the overworld within the game, although it is often not completely revealed until partway through.

One of the best JRPGs to come out in recent years is Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, which was released for Playstation 3 in the US last year.  It’s quite a long game; I have spent over 60 hours on it and still have not finished it.  But I’m not complaining, because it’s incredibly fun to play.  In particular, the visual style is very appealing.  It was animated by Studio Ghibli, which has also animated the films made by famed Japanese director Hiyao Miyazaki, such as Spirited Away.

The game takes place in an alternate world into which an American boy, Oliver, from a typical small town has suddenly been transported.  Marveling at the strangeness of it all, he quickly begins learning magic and gaining allies in order to save the habitants of this world from a powerful evil wizard.  Oliver begins in the kingdom of Ding Dong Dell, but from there he travels to every corner of the map, encountering every type of climate and terrain imaginable.

What is especially charming about the game is how every city Oliver visits has its own particular character.  Ding Dong Dell is like a medieval European town, the desert city of Al Mamoon has an Arabic flair, Yule is an homage to Inuit culture with its igloo buildings, and Perdida, sitting on the top of a mountain, feels like it was inspired by Machu Picchu, with the residents using the occasional Spanish word in their dialogue and the local pack animals being named llapacas (alpaca +llama).  After visiting all of these cities, each with their own unique flavor, one gets the impression this truly is a fully-formed world much like ours.

Like many other JRPGs, Ni No Kuni recognizes the large scale of the world it has created, and it gives the player the ability to traverse it more quickly.  First, the heroes get a ship at Castaway Cove which lets them sail from the Summerlands to Autumnia in the East.  With the ship, gamers can also start visiting all the little islands peppered throughout the ocean, although some of the enemies there will swiftly defeat them until they have gained more experience. Secondly, later on in the game, the crew gains access to a dragon. That’s right, a dragon! Now you can reach all sorts of places you could not before, such as high hills that cannot be climbed, or islands where the ship cannot dock.  Additionally, you can learn a spell which lets you instantly transport to important areas you have visited before… but it’s not nearly as much fun as riding a dragon.

And now if you’re gazing at the map above with its seasonally-named continents and various minor islands, you may be wondering about the fairly large island in the bottom left corner.  What’s going on there?  Why doesn’t it have a name?  Well… this location does not open up until nearly the end of the game.  To find out why, you’ll just have to play for yourself!

Happy mapping and happy gaming!

20 Ways to Split Europe


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For a relatively tiny continent, Europe has an abundance of divisions.  Ethnicity, religion, weather, and even food have divided Europe along common fault lines throughout its history.  The chart below, taken from Yanko Tsveltkov’s Atlas of Prejudice 2, is a satirically over-broad depiction of some of the most salient of divisions.  It is meant to be overly simplified to the point of absurdity, poking fun at those who hold such blunt prejudices about large swaths of territory, so please do not take offense.

20 Ways to Slice Europe (From “Atlas of Prejudice 2″, by Yanko Tsvetkov, via

For many of these maps, however, there is a kernel of truth.  My mother’s ancestors hail from Greece, and my father’s from England, which are two countries which could not be more diametrically opposed within Europe.  Indeed, in the chart below, Greece and England are on different sides in 19 of the 20 maps.  From my personal life, I can attest that these divisions are based partly in fact.  Greeks, on the whole, are much louder in conversation than Englishmen, and when walking down the street in Athens, one can be forgiven for assuming that two people screaming at each other are locked in a heated argument when in fact they are just saying hello.  As for butter vs. olive oil, I do think the English enjoy cooking with butter and, especially, buttering their bread with dinner, while Greek restaurants often do not even provide butter, and people simply mop up the bread in the juices of whatever they were eating (which inevitably has some olive oil in it).

Take the prejudice maps with a grain of salt, because obviously not everyone living within these zones hold the characteristics of those around them.  But it is fun sometimes to look at what people in one zone think of people in the other, if only to confront our differences and seek to better understand each other.

For more on the Atlas of Prejudice, check out Tsvetkov’s website, and you can order the Atlas on Amazon as well.

The World in the Shape of a Clover Leaf


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What better way to honor your homeland than to create the whole world in its image?  That is essentially what 16th century German cartographer Heinrich Bünting did.  In this 1581 map, “Die gantze Welt in ein Kleberblat”,  Bünting arranged the world in the shape of a clover leaf, which is the emblem for his home city of Hanover.  Sure you can’t use the map to guide you from Point A to Point B, but that’s not the point of it.  The Clover Leaf map exists as symbolization, reflecting both the city of Hanover and the devout Bünting’s theological beliefs.

“Die gantze Welt in einem Kleberblat”, by Heinrich Bünting, 1581 (via Wikipedia)

The original map was published in Bünting’s book of biblical woodcut maps, “Travel Through Holy Scripture”.  During an era when new lands were being discovered on an regular basis, and cartographic accuracy was improving at a rapid pace, Bünting looked not to the current world around him, but the world of the past.  He assembled the most complete collection of biblical geography at the time, showing the Holy Land at the time of Jesus and the routes taken by important figures in the Old and New Testament.  Bünting was a very popular Protestant pastor and theologian for a time, but controversy over some of his teachings forced him to retire early.

As for the Clover Leaf map, the three leaves of the clover double as symbolism for the three persons of God in the Holy Trinity (this is also how the clover came to be associated with St. Patrick, because he used it to explain the concept of the Trinity to the Irish when converting them to Christianity).  In the center of the clover leaf is the city of Jerusalem, which has always held a special importance for members of all three Abrahamic religions.  World maps throughout the middle ages usually placed Jerusalem at the center of the world, but by the time Bünting was mapping, this had largely fallen out of favor, as new maps were shifting focus to a more objective viewpoint.  Note how Bünting includes America as a little blob in the lower left-hand corner almost as an afterthought, a pesky continent that did not fit into his three-pronged view of the world.  In retrospect, this map symbolizes not just the city of Hanover, or the Trinity, but the last gasp of the outsized importance placed on the three continents of the Old World, even as the shift of geopolitical power toward the New World was already underway.

For more information on Bünting and his map, check out this link to the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center of the Boston Public Library:

Happy Mapping!

Happy One Year Anniversary to My Blog


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Tomorrow marks the one year anniversary of my blog!  So put on a party hat and join me in looking back on the past year.

It was a year full of posts about maps, writing, history, videogames, fiction, and everything in between.  We’ve had 84 posts and 125 comments in total, but the most stunning statistic of all is 21,413 pageviews, 17,455 of which have been generated in the past 6 months.  There has been pretty rapid growth in readership in the blog recently, but if you look at the statistics, it’s clear that the most significant factor in the increase in the blog’s popularity came from one source: The Hunger Games.

I didn’t anticipate how much my post on the map of Panem from the Hunger Games would dominate all other posts, with 8,461 total pageviews, which is over a third of the total pageviews.  By comparison, the next most popular post has just 574 pageviews.  I could also see that a major source of referral traffic was the google search for “map of panem”, and at one time, my blog was the top result for that search term (though I checked it just now, and it has fallen to the second page).  This goes to show what a massively popular book and movie franchise The Hunger Games is, such that the release of a new movie in the series, Catching Fire, could galvanize thousands of people to search for the map for the dystopian world of Panem.

And now, here are the top 15 most viewed posts (apart from the Home Page) from the past year, with “Mapping Panem” sitting at the top.

Top Page Views on from March 16, 2013 to March 16, 2014

Top Page Views on from March 16, 2013 to March 16, 2014

Along with The Hunger Games, videogames were a huge driver of web traffic.  The maps from Grand Theft Auto V, Civilization V, and to a lesser extent, Super Mario World, were all popular posts.  Beyond this, maps from works of fiction also attracted many readers, as maps from Narnia, 1984, Game of Thrones, and Neverland were all in the top ten.  But readers also enjoyed reading about historical curiosities as well, such as border irregularities and the world map of Al-Idrisi from the 12th century.  Astronomy was appealing too, with popular posts pertaining to the world of Star Trek and the stars in the Milky Way galaxy.

One of the major themes of the blog, writing fiction, has become less prominent over time, and none of the posts pertaining to writing ended up in the top fifteen.  I’m happy, though, with the shift towards cartography, because it is such a rich area for discussion and attracts interest from a diverse range of readers.  The danger with writing about writing is attracting only other writers, when I also want to be bringing in potential readers, those who are intrigued by the subject matter of my book but not particularly by the craft of writing itself.

Speaking of my book, The Map of Daggers, the pace has slowed but progress continues.  I’ve now written over 64,000 words, or 221 pages.  Plot-wise, I’d say I’m about 3/4 through the book.  But I know that once this draft is complete, it will be the beginning of the long process of editing and revision.  I’m trying to pick up the pace, but it is more important to let it flow organically than create a rushed product.  Hopefully by the end of year, the novel will be complete and ready to be enjoyed by fans of fantasy and cartography alike.  Stay tuned for updates.

And, as always, happy mapping!

Prerequisites for Writing Good Fiction?


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Theoretically, there are no actual prerequisites for writing fiction.  It’s not like practicing law, which requires three grueling years of school and passing the bar exam.  Anyone with a brain, a pen, and paper, is physically capable of writing.  And many people do want to write.  But few do.  Even fewer get published, and fewer still become best-selling authors.

So the question is: How does a wannabe writer become a bona fide one?  Are there certain “soft” prerequisites (not required, but greatly advantageous) which someone should achieve before they create compelling, popular fiction?  We like to think that absolutely anyone can sit down and write a best-seller, holding up examples like J.K. Rowling, who was subsisting on welfare when she began scribbling the first Harry Potter book on a napkin.  But when you look at the majority of the books on the best-seller lists, examples of industry outsiders who score literary success are few and far between.

My thinking on this began when I read a recent article by Sonia Saraiya at AV Club, titled “The Bleak State of American Fiction.”  In it, she reviews a new collection of essays edited by Chad Harbach titled MFA vs. NYC.  The review, as well as the hundreds of comments, are well worth a read, providing an eye-opening look into the publishing industry.  One gets the impression from the book review that the publishing world can be somewhat insular, with a pipeline of MFA students becoming professors or publishers, writing books that only future MFA students read.  I began to wonder while reading the article: What actually makes a good writer?  As a lawyer needs a law degree, does a literary writer need an MFA?  Does she need connections with the publishing industry?  Should she live in New York City and mingle with other writers at cocktail parties?  Or is the path to publishing (hopefully) more flexible and open than this?

Saraiya states:

MFA Vs. NYC details how the “program era,” as is called the period of time since World War II when creative-writing programs have flourished in the U.S., is a culturally mediated institution, borne from Cold War politics and what Elif Batuman describes as the shame of the American writer. It is a sharp critique, and a well-earned one—MFA programs seem to produce fiction that is less and less relevant to the lives of everyday Americans, even as their ranks swell with more and more aspiring writers.

I found this assessment especially interesting since I am not very familiar with MFA programs in general.  It would seem to me that good fiction should be relevant to the lives of a broad range of people, not just other writers.  Literature which is creative and truly novel should draw on different life experiences and areas of expertise.  If publishers rely too heavily on the MFA pipeline, they consign themselves to a rather narrow band of human beings: those with the time, money, and inclination to pursue an MFA.  Bear in mind that some of the greatest authors in history had non-literary careers before getting published.  One of my own personal favorite authors is Mark Twain (I’ve been to his house three times!), and he worked on a steamboat, among other places, in his early years.

Mark Twain in 1909 (via wikipedia)

John Grisham, author of countless legal thrillers, was a lawyer before he started writing.  This is especially encouraging for me, as a lawyer who wants to publish fiction.  However, my area of legal practice (estate and tax planning) is quite possibly the least exciting subject for a novel.

Anyway, what I have come to realize is that more important to the craft of successful fiction writing is actual lived experience, rather than a series of intensive workshops with other aspiring writers or a degree on the wall.  Get out in the world and try new things.  Travel.  Join groups.  Volunteer.  Above all, meet people.  Colorful characters in fiction are born from interactions with colorful real life people.

Call me risk-averse or whatever (I’ll gladly accept the label), but I also believe that it just makes practical sense to hold down a day job while working on getting published.  And probably even after getting published.  One of the essays in MFA vs. NYC, which has already gone viral, is about a woman who received a $200,000 advance for her first novel, which did not sell very well, and she ended up spending it all and going into bankruptcy because she only worked part-time as a yoga instructor.  The lesson here is that it is exceedingly difficult to actually make a living as a writer, and unless you are comfortable with a high amount of risk, don’t quit your day job (at least until you’re making J.K. Rowling amounts of money).  Writing is an activity that can be done entirely on your own time.

Flannery O’Connor one said, “Nothing needs to happen to a writer’s life after they are 20. By then they’ve experienced more than enough to last their creative life.”  I would extend that age to 30.  Finish your education and start a career.  Move in some unexpected directions.  Live on your own and rely on yourself.  Once you ground yourself and begin to struggle with how to order your life, then you will gain the perspective you need to write truly compelling fiction.

The prerequisite is your life.  Go live it.

Google Maps Gallery: Interactive digital atlas


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Per the History Tech blog, full post below, Google is now offering a Maps Gallery featuring hundreds of highly informative maps submitted by government agencies or private organizations. The maps are overload on top of Google Maps, allowing one to digitally explore how historical areas in the map correlate to the present day. For example, you can view a map of Washington, DC, from 1851, when the National Mall just had the Washington Monument and one Smithsonian building, and then toggle to present day DC to see how the Mall has filled up with more buildings and monuments. Pretty cool!

Originally posted on History Tech:

Google just keeps coming up with more cool stuff. And for all you map nerds , and history teachers, their new Maps Gallery is just the ticket.

Maps Gallery works like an interactive, digital atlas that lets you search for and find powerful, compelling maps. It’s much like the Gallery of tours you can find via the Google Earth tool. One of the biggest differences is that the Google Maps Gallery contains maps created by a variety of organizations, both public and private, and so you can find all sorts of maps, many mostly inaccessible to the public before now.

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Umberto Eco on our Fascination with Legendary Lands


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What is it that so intrigues us about worlds of myth and fiction?  Since at least as far back as antiquity, people have been drawn to imaginary lands, from the island of Atlantis to Lilliput to Westeros.  And every year, countless authors are creating more and more fictional worlds, from the fantastical to the mundane.  Readers and viewers gleefully jump into these new worlds, returning again and again.  Why do we do this?

Umberto Eco, in “The Book of Legendary Lands”, seeks to answer this question as he gives an illustrated tour of history’s most interesting lands of fiction and legend.  He looks at places inspired by scripture, bizarre locations from science fiction, and utopias dreamt up by idealist philosophers.  The book is chock full of colorful maps of these places.

If the thought of flipping through these pages of maps gets your heart racing, then you may be a nerd, but so am I, so it’s okay.  Eco is one of us.  He offers this explanation for why we are so intrigued by these fictional worlds:

The possible world of narrative is the only universe in which we can be absolutely certain about something, and it gives us a very strong sense of truth. The credulous believe that El Dorado and Lemuria exist or existed somewhere or other, and skeptics are convinced that they never existed, but we all know that it is undeniably certain that Superman is Clark Kent and that Dr. Watson was never Nero Wolfe’s right-hand man, while it is equally certain that Anna Karenina died under a train and that she never married Prince Charming.

Maria Popova at the site has put together a splendid summary of the book as well, with more quotations and several examples of the maps from inside.  I have included a few of my favorites below.  For more information, you can also find the book on Amazon. I may pick it up myself.

Map of Palmanova, from Franz Hogenberg and Georg Braun, ‘Civitates orbis terrarum’ (1572–1616), Nuremberg (via

‘Ulysses’ Journey Was Far from Home’ | M.O. MacCarthy, ‘Carte du monde d’Homère’ (1849), New York Public Library (via

Woodcut map of the island of Utopia on frontispiece of the 1st edition of Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ (1516), British Library (via

Happy mapping!


Sebastian Münster: Cartographic Rockstar with an Active Imagination


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Today we salute you, Sebastian Münster, 16th century German Cartographer.  Because of your many highly detailed and colorfully imaginative maps, you are truly a cartographic rockstar.

Portrait of Sebastian Munster, 1552 (via Wikipedia)

Münster is most well-known for publishing the Cosmographia, a collection of maps of the world, which went through several editions starting in 1544.  He mapped out cities, countries, continents, and the whole world, using the knowledge gained from the latest explorations by Magellan and others.  What is especially remarkable about the Cosmographia, though, is the amount of impressive woodcuts it included.  These so marveled the public at the time that it became one of the best-selling books of the 16th century.

First, let’s look at a woodcut of Münster’s Map of America, which was the most widely circulated one at the time. The eastern coastline of the Americas and Caribbean islands are drawn pretty well, but it is evident that knowledge of the western American coastline and beyond is still spotty.  That island to the west of Mexico is Japan, with India and Cathay (China) not too far away to the northwest.  Future editions would be more accurate.  However, I continue to be struck by the attractive colors of this map, and the ship in the Pacific Ocean seems to be beckoning the reader on an adventure on the High Seas.

Map of America by Sebastian Munster, 1561 (via Wikipedia)

Below, our Cartographic Rockstar became more creative with his depiction of the continent of Europe.  Flipping it 90 degrees, he portrayed it as a queen, with different countries and regions signifying different body parts.  It’s pretty fascinating, and he didn’t even have to distort the shape of the continent all that much.

Europe as a Queen by Sebastian Munster, printed in 1570 (via Wikipedia)

Now we have a map of the whole world, which Münster created in 1553.  As above in the Map of America, the Pacific Ocean is far too small, and it seems a mere hop from the West coast of America to Japan.  Africa is also not to scale, Asia is missing its Southeast peninsula, and the continent of Australia is still waiting to be found.   But I am once again drawn to all the other imaginative touches which Münster brings out.  Bright colors abound, sea dragons lurk beneath the waves, and heavenly beings blow winds from all sides.  I can almost see the gleam in his eye as he draws these features on the map.

Sebastian Munster’s World Map from the 1553 edition of Cosmographia (via

But Münster’s colorful imagination was not contained to the map itself.  His Cosmographia contained even more strange characters in the margins, such as the Blemmyes, a headless creature with his face in his chest, seen below.  Writers throughout the ages, such as Pliny the Elder, believed that the Blemmyes existed in remote parts of the earth, and so Munster suggested they could be living on one of those islands out there in those dangerous seas which were now being explored.

A Blemmyes from the 1544 woodcut of the Cosmographia by Munster (via Wikipedia)

Alas, the Bemmyes were never found.  It just goes to show that sometimes cartographers let their imaginations get the better of them.

But on the other hand, it certainly makes for a more entertaining map!  Bravo, Münster, the Cartographic Rockstar!

The 5 Best Maps Made from Lego


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I’m constantly amazed at what can be made out of Lego blocks. Towers, battleships, death stars, you name it, there’s a Lego version. And now we have a whole movie (The Lego Movie) where the characters and scenery are all made entirely of Lego. This got me thinking about maps made out of lego, and I began looking for the most massive, impressive lego maps I could find.

Below is the result of my search for the ultimate Lego maps, and a remarkable testament to the versatility of those tiny, humble blocks.

1. The United States

This gigantic map of the United States was created during the World Children’s Festival in Washington, DC, in 2007.

2. Europe

After months of planning and building, this massive map of Europe was completed in 2010.  It includes 44 points of interest form around the continent.  Check out the link in the picture caption for pictures of the building process and closeups of each point of interest.

3. The Philippines

Completed last year to commemorate 115 years of independence, this lego map of the Philippines is on display in a shopping center in Davao City.  It has 50,000 lego blocks and took 8 months to complete.

4. The world

More than a million lego blocks went into this world map which was displayed at the South Bank Centre in London in 2012. From far away, it looks like any normal map, but if you look more closely, it takes on a more pixelated quality due to the legos.

5. The world, as a globe.

Not quite a map, but it’s still really cool to see a globe of the earth made up of legos. A simple google search shows that lego globes are actually far more common than I imagined.  Below is one that’s hanging from the ceiling of the Lego Store in the Mall of America in Minneapolis, MN.

Lego Globe from the Mall of America (via Pat Nacke,


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