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!

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.


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: 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!

More Than Fifty States


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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: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC2C_jShtL725hvbm1arSV9w

Happy Mapping!

1931 Gangster Map of Chicago


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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: http://chicago.cbslocal.com/2014/06/26/1930s-chicago-gang-map-combines-history-humor-morality/

Mapping How Americans Spend Their Time


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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 Washingtonpost.com/wonkblog)

Average Time Americans Spend Commuting (via Washingtonpost.com/wonkblog)

Average Time Americans Spend on Housework (via Washingtonpost.com/wonkblog)

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!


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