10 Places You Can’t See on Google Maps

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In a relatively short period of time, Google has achieved a remarkable feat of cartography: mapping the entire world.  Anyone with an internet connection can access Google Maps, find their location, zoom in, zoom out, and virtually explore anywhere else on the globe.

Well, almost anywhere.  A map is only as good as the data its creator has been given, and Google does not have the access or the authority to display certain locations, presumably for reasons of national security.  Of course, we don’t know for sure, because when you try searching for these places on Google Maps, they just appear as a blur or a black line.

The video below shows 10 of these hidden places on Google Maps.  They include military bases, power plants, nature reserves, and even some that are just plain mysteries.  In our hyper-connected information age, when anything can be googled, it is rare to encounter the un-googleable.  What do you think is being hidden, and why?

Has the Violence in Game of Thrones Become Gratuitous? A Look Back on Season 5

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Jon and Sam (Courtesy of HBO, via http://www.vox.com/2015/6/14/8780147/game-of-thrones-adaptation-jon-snow-dead/in/8156066)

Violence, vengeance, fire-breathing dragons, ice zombies, and lots and lots of death.   Season five of Game of Thrones really doubled down on the more shocking elements of the show, putting an exclamation point on its thesis statement that this is a cruel, unjust world.  The season was rife with scenes of abuse and terror, and the finale alone featured enough deaths (both certain and presumed) to fill an entire season.  It turned off many viewers, including Senator Claire McCaskill, who publicly renounced the show after one rape scene too many.

But violence in a TV show, in and of itself, is not a bad thing if it serves the plot.  The question this season was whether the violence was justified or gratuitous.

In reaching my own conclusion, I’m going to first examine several aspects of the season as a whole to see what worked and what didn’t.  I’ll be judging the season on its plot, characters, and cinematography.  From this assessment, I’ll determine whether the violence was a help or a hindrance towards the success of the season.

Spoilers follow from the TV show, but not the books.

Plot (5/10)

In general, the plot was very uneven.  For long stretches of time, especially in the early episodes, almost nothing of consequence would happen.  Then, suddenly, the pace picked up in the last few episodes.  By the time the finale hit, so many game-changing events happened in a row that they lost much of their impact.  I understand that the source material is even worse, but I think the directors could have done a better job of evening it out.

That said, some of the arcs worked very well.  In past seasons, the events at the Wall had put me to sleep, but now I was fully onboard.  The arrival of the White Walker army gave that storyline the sense of urgency it needed.  Jon Snow’s election as Lord Commander was a little implausible, but the chain of events leading up to his death I found to be logical, even though I was caught by surprise.  One caveat, though, is that if he truly remains dead, and does not come back to life as many predict, then his heroic arc didn’t have much of a point.  Unless, that is, the point was for him to die as a martyr for his righteous cause.  However, many avid watchers and book readers sound pretty confident that Jon is coming back, somehow, despite Kit Harrington’s claims to the contrary.

Other storylines I mostly enjoyed were Tyrion’s trip to Meeren, and the political power plays going on at King’s Landing.  It was fascinating to see Tyrion and Cersei follow opposite trajectories.  Tyrion began the season in a crate on a ship, and he finished the season as the de facto ruler of Meereen.  Tyrion is at his best when pulling strings and make deals behind the scenes, so I am intrigued to see where this goes next season.  Cersei, on the other hand, went from Queen to prisoner, forced to suffer a humiliating, public punishment.  That final shot of her in the arms of the reanimated Mountain makes me think that the pendulum will shift again next season, when she begins to take her revenge on all her enemies.

I actually thought Daenerys’s arc in Meereen was well-handled, even though some reviewers found it to be tedious.  Previously, I had been frustrated by Dany’s sidequests, eager for her to sail to Westeros and unleash her dragons already.  But her rule of Meereen served an important purpose in teaching her how to make difficult decisions, and it was useful to see her agonize over re-opening the slave pits.  I especially enjoyed the argument between Tyrion and Hizdahr and wish there had been more discussions of political philosophy as a backdrop to Dany’s decision-making.  Finally, dropping Dany in the middle of a Dothraki horde at the end of the season is a fascinating development, because Dany has rarely, if ever, been off on her own without her advisers, forced to rely purely on her wits.

I thought that the plotlines in Dorne and Winterfell were hastily constructed and poorly executed.  Dorne looks like a stunning location, but we see very little of it and the people who live there.  Half of the season was spent watching Bronn and Jamie riding to save Myrcella while the Sand Snakes plotted, only to have them all suddenly, coincidentally, arrived at the exact same time and all get captured.  Mycella’s poisoning at the very end of the season is a shocking development, but it also didn’t make sense.  Why would Ellaria and the Sand Snakes be standing at the dock saying goodbye to their enemies?  Why would Jamie let Ellaria kiss Myrcella, without suspecting that she might try to poison her?  After Myrcella is poisoned, what’s stopping Jamie and Bronn from turning the ship around and coming back to kill Ellaria?

As for Winterfell, plenty has been written elsewhere about Sansa’s terrible rape scene.  In terms of plot development, I think it could have worked, if they had not chosen to portray it the way they did.  But the larger issue is that Sansa seemed to regress significantly compared to the end of last season, when it looked like she had finally learned how to play the “game of thrones”.  Now she is back to being a victim, dependent on Theon to save her.  And depending on how she fares after that jump off the castle wall, she might be crawling around with two broken legs in season six.

A plotline that fell in the middle for me was Arya.  It was a cool concept to see her begin her assassin training, but the pacing was incredibly slow until the very end.  It was obvious from the start that the mission of the faceless men differed from Arya’s, but it is not clear if the show is pushing her towards them or towards her own path.  Will she forsake her kill list to become a faceless man, or will she acquire the skills she needs and then leave to attain her revenge? Arya’s dispatch of Meryn Trant, and her punishment by blinding, makes me think that she will have to stick around the House of Black and White for at least a little while longer.

A major theme of the season was the futility of revenge.  The desire for vengeance is powerful, but ultimately unsatisfying once it’s achieved.  We have been cheering on Arya as she recited her kill list, but when she finally killed one of her marks in cold blood, it felt more like sadism than justice.  Meanwhile, Brienne fulfilled one of her oaths by tracking down Renly’s killer, Stannis, and getting a confession out of him.  After Stannis told her, “Go on, do your duty”, Brienne raised her sword, but there’s a hesitation, because there is little satisfaction in enacting retribution on a broken man.  Similarly, Cercei’s suffering this season should have felt like just desserts for a woman who has done so much evil, but we took no pleasure in her pain when it came to pass.  In these cases and others, violence was used not to titillate, but to highlight the pointlessness of a continuing cycle of war and punishment that has been ongoing in Game of Thrones since the beginning.

In Westeros, it seems that bad things always happen to good people.  Indeed, many of our favorite characters hit rock bottom this season.  But some of the villains did too, and when you really think about it, some of the heroes are not in such bad shape.  The question that comes to mind, though, is why anyone would be a good person when the consequences of one’s actions, whether good or bad, are kind of random.  Here’s a well-written article that addressed that very question perfectly: http://www.vulture.com/2015/06/game-of-thrones-no-good-deed-go-unpunished.html

Characters (8/10)

The acting overall was superb this season, as we started to gain deeper insights into some of the characters which we had not previously had.  The writing at times was weak, but the actors delivered the lines with plenty of conviction to sell the material.  Even in silence, I thought that many of the characters expressed wide ranges of emotions with well-executed facial expressions for the given situation.

In particular, I was most impressed by Cersei, played by Lena Headey, who experienced the full gamut of emotions throughout her arc this season.  At the beginning, she was still the cartoonish villain, scheming wickedly and heaping condescension on all those around her.  After being locked up by the Faith Militant, she became indignant, then enraged, and finally broken, as she suffered one humiliation after another.  Cercei was completely stripped, literally and figuratively, and the audience couldn’t help but sympathize with a woman they had previously hated so much. That long, agonizing “walk of shame” to the Red Keep was so difficult to watch because Lena Heady showed so convincingly the level of physical and psychological pain that her character was undergoing at the hands of the sadistic septons and the crowd.  One could argue that this scene was just gratuitous violence, but I think it served the narrative purpose of humanizing Cercei’s struggle for legitimacy and power in a man’s world.

I also thought that there was tremendous character development for Jon Snow, Theon, Daenerys, and Jorah this season.  Jon Snow wrestling with his new role as Lord Commander, and Daenerys struggling with quelling an insurgency in Meereen, allowed for significant growth in both of their leadership skills.  However, I will note that Jon could be more compelling still if we saw more of his internal struggles.  His heroism and righteousness often feel out-of-place in a show filled with morally ambiguous characters.

Theon spent most of the season in a tortured stupor, which was frustrating for the plot, but he conveyed his inner turmoil well.  Jorah may seem like an unlikely choice, due to his generally wooden nature, but I think this is by design due to the kind of man he is.  I thought he had some very strong scenes on the road to Meereen, such as his subtle sadness at learning of his father’s death before having the chance to repair their relationship.  For so many characters, we saw a different side this season, and it is credit to the show that it knows how to develop fully three-dimensional characters from initially minor roles.

The low point, again, was everything that happened in Dorne.  Prince Doran seemed completely disinterested in everything going on around him.  The Sand Snakes were silly caricatures with odd accents.  Myrcella was a one-dimensional princess, and it was somewhat disconcerting that she would be not just tolerant but actually glad that her uncle was really her father.

Cinematography (9/10)

The cinematography was probably the strongest element of the show in a season of uneven pacing and character development.  With stunning set pieces, CGI creatures that are fantastical yet lifelike, and dramatic scores that perfectly evoke the mood of each scene, it is easy to forget that this is a television show, not a movie.

In particular, I was impressed by the long Hardhome battle scene in episode 8.  Unlike most blockbuster action movies these days, which are filled with quick cuts, monotonous clashes of weapons, and incongruous explosions, the Hardhome scenes was filmed deftly and fluidly, with choreography that could easily be followed.  With shots like a horde of White Walkers clambering over the side of a cliff, only to rise again and charge toward their prey, this scene captured their ferocious tenacity and proved beyond a doubt who the true threat is in Westeros.  The closing shots were especially haunting, after the White Walkers had raised the slain wildlings to join their ranks.  As the gravity of the situation sank in, the music turned down almost to silence, and Jon Snow stared at the Night’s King while the boats retreated.

One other powerful scene to highlight, again, is Cercei’s long walk, which I discussed above.  It is interesting how massive the scale of the scene was, even though the central character was just one person.

But the season was not just a collection of big, shocking moments.  In fact, the majority of the time was spent in quieter scenes of dialogue, or traveling on roads to new destinations, or lingering on a character’s face to reveal his or her inner turmoil.  Violence is the exception, not the rule, when you really get down to it, and even in violent scenes (such as Sansa’s rape or Myranda’s death), the directors avoided too much graphic content.  The composition of the scenes indicates that Game of Thrones is a drama with occasional violence, as it serves the story, rather than a violent show with occasional drama to justify the violence.

Conclusion

The strongest parts of the season were the acting, cinematography, and certain of its plotlines.  Overall, I would rate the season to be weaker than the previous ones, though it is still better than virtually every other drama on TV, and I am still excited to see where season six takes us.

But what about the question that started this discussion?  Has the violence become gratuitous?

Many would argue that the violence has been gratuitous on Game of Thrones since Season 1, Episode 1.  I suppose it depends on your individual comfort level.  But violence is part of GoT’s DNA, and there is no way around that.  To be a fan of the show, one has to have a certain level of tolerance for violence.

I believe that the show has, so far, maintained a good balance and avoided an excess of gore.  The violence employed has served a purpose, although it could, in some instances, be toned down or filmed more tactfully. Game of Thrones fans are not sociopaths, and they don’t tune in to delight in blood and guts flying across the screen.  They enjoy the show because it offers a window to another world, as well as a window to our own past.  This is a world of chivalry and moralistic crusades, but also cruelty and violence, especially directed towards women and the powerless.  That is one of the main points of the narrative, and to lose that element would be to lose some of the power and significance of George R.R. Martin’s world.

Say Hello to the World’s Newest Micronations

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One of the great quixotic dreams of adventuresome travelers and political idealists is to start one’s own micronation.  Virtually all of the land on the Earth has already been taken, but if you’re clever, you can find a slice of land that no nation bothers to claim or enforce their right to govern.  Even if the only land available to you is a tiny rock in the ocean, at least that land is all yours.  And as we know, it’s good to be the King.

Back in 2013, we looked at one charming example, Sealand, an abandoned naval fort off the coast of England which has claimed independence for nearly five decades.  The Wikipedia entry for micronations has several dozen examples, and that list continues to grow with each passing year.  Just this past April, two more nations declared their micro-independence: Liberland and Enclava.  Today let’s take a look at these two, which are both located along the contested border between Croatia and Serbia.  They both took advantage of the fact that these areas are terra nullis, i.e., land that neither Croatia nor Serbia actually claims.  Despite these similarities, though, these two upstarts are not affiliated with each other, and in fact have completely different origins.

Liberland

Liberland was the first micronation to declare its sovereignty this year, on April 13th.  It claims a 3 square mile triangular parcel of land along the Danube River.  As of yet, its territory is forested and completely uninhabited.  It is likely to remain so, because Croatia has blocked access to it, and individuals trying to reach the new nation have been detained by Croatian police.  That has not dissuaded the founder, Vit Jedicka, who recommends sailing a boat down the river from one of the neighboring countries to reach Liberland.

Jedicka, a Czech politician and activist, conceived of Liberland as a libertarian paradise.  According to its website, liberland.org, this constitutional republic “prides itself on personal and economic freedom”.  The nation is accepting applications for citizenship on its website (over 250,000 have already applied), and welcomes all people who are tolerant and respectful of private property.  The only bars to citizenship are certain political views (Communism, Nazism) and past criminal convictions.  Jedicka has drafted a constitution and even created a flag for his fledgling nation.

Flag of Liberland (via https://liberland.org/en/about/)

Liberland is not currently recognized by any other nation, but it has attracted some attention.  Croatia and Serbia mostly treat it as a joke, and given the fact that Liberland has claimed territory that neither country wanted, they do not seem too concerned, as long as Liberlandians don’t intrude upon their own territory.  The Czech Republic has distanced itself from Jedicka’s actions, calling them “inappropriate and potentially harmful.”  But positive responses have come in from political parties in Switzerland, Norway, and Spain, and at least one other micronation (the Kingdom of North Sudan) has officially recognized it.  Is it possible that Liberland could become an internationally recognized nation in the future?  Not likely, but considering that Liberland has only existed for less than two months, I would say it’s too early to count them out just yet.

Here is the map of the Croatian-Serbian border showing the location of Liberland, which is the green area toward the middle labeled “Siga”:

A Map of the Croatian-Serbian border. Lands in yellow are claimed by both Croatia and Serbia. Lands in green are not claimed by either. Liberland has seized this opportunity to claim the land marked “Siga”, and Enclava has claimed the tiny plot of land marked “pocket 1″ (via Wikipedia)

Enclava

On April 23, ten days after Liberland formed, Enclava declared its own sovereignty.  It currently claims a little glob of land upriver from Liberland.  If you thought Liberland was tiny, then take a look at “pocket 1″ in the map above.  That’s the Kingdom of Enclava, all 0.386 square miles of it.  Enclava also created all the trappings of a modern nation-state, including a currency, an anthem, and its own flag.

Flag of Enclava (via http://www.enclava.org/)

Enclava was initially founded on an unclaimed piece of land between Croatia and Solvenia by a group of Polish tourists who were traveling through that region.  However, Slovenia stepped in and asserted that a court of arbitration had yet to determine the actual land border, so the Enclavians, rather than incite an international incident, moved their claim to their current location on the Croatian-Serbian border.  Enclava has no constitution yet, but it does have a set of 24 principles, which have been adapted from the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Much like Liberland, Enclava’s guiding philosophy is personal freedom.  However, Enclava seems to lack Liberland’s overt libertarian bent.  It places great emphasis on “caring for others” in its mission statement and its principles contain many guarantees (such as free public education) common to modern welfare states.  Although it styles itself as a monarchy, it does have a parliament with ministers who are elected by its citizens.  Currently, 134 citizenships have been granted, and the website claims that it accepts requests (though they have yet to add an application form).

Where would you most like to live?  Liberland or Enclava?  You still have plenty of time to decide; it may be awhile before either one secures its territory and gains recognition from other countries.  In the meantime, you can always start your own micronation.

The YouTube clip below gives a quick primer, using the example of Liberland, on micronation-building, for all those ambitious self-styled kings and queens out there:

Maps and Data are Powerful Tools to Help People in Crisis

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In 2013, Nancy Lublin launched the world’s first crisis-intervention hotline that utilized text messaging.  The Crisis Text Line (or CTL) allows anyone to send a text about their situation (such as bullying, suicidal thoughts, or physical abuse) to the number (741741), and a trained volunteer counselor will respond and provide support.  This service has been so useful because many problems that people, and in particular teens, face are difficult to raise with a parent or authority figure, so texting provides a more discrete way to reach out for help.  After two years, and six million texts, Lublin and the CTL team have helped a lot of people and learned a lot about the types of crises that are being experienced across the United States.

Lublin took what she learned from all those texts and launched a sister site, CrisisTrends.com.  The site synthesizes the data from teens into charts and maps to show the prevalence of certain types of crises across time and geography.  The data are able to show the likelihood of a text concerning a certain issue being sent at a certain time of day or day of the week.  For example, suicidal thoughts tend to occur most frequently at 7pm and 8pm, followed closed by 12pm.  The site also features maps ranking the states by the prevalence of each type of crisis, indicating that, somewhat surprisingly, the most anxious states are New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Hawaii, in that order.  Lublin hopes that this information will lead to better services, as local support systems become better tuned into the specific problems facing their areas.

Below are a few maps from the Crisis Trends site.  The first is the map of Anxiety:

Map of Anxiety (via CrisisTrends.com)

Map of Anxiety (via CrisisTrends.com)

Next is the map of where teens are most affected by eating disorders.  According to the data, Arkansas is ranked first followed by Maine and Virginia.

Map of Eating Disorders (via CrisisTrends.com)

Map of Eating Disorders (via CrisisTrends.com)

Finally, here is the map of suicidal tendencies, ranking Montana first, Alaska second, and Colorado third:

Map of Suicidal Tendencies (via CrisisTrends.com)

Map of Suicidal Tendencies (via CrisisTrends.com)

Crisis Trends is a great reminder that maps are not just good for navigation or intellectual stimulation. They can also be a potent force for social good.  Spread the word about Crisis Trends so that policymakers and local officials can utilize this data to know where crises are more likely to occur and work more effectively to help those in need.

Source: http://www.wired.com/2015/05/texts-teens-build-real-time-maps-crisis-america/

The Oldest Surviving Map of the Holy Land

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In 1884, in the city of Madaba, Jordan, an ancient floor mosaic was discovered in the ruins of a long-abandoned Byzantine church.  Containing millions of tiny tesserae, the mosaic depicted important locations of the Middle East, including Jerusalem, the Jordan River, the Dead Sea, Mt. Sinai, and the Nile Delta.  Greek text fills the empty spaces, explaining the religious significance of various locations throughout the area.  Based on the buildings present in the map’s view of Jerusalem, it was determined that the mosaic was created some time between 542 and 570 A.D., which makes it the oldest surviving map of Jerusalem and the biblical Holy Land.

The mosaic was restored as well as it could be, but the original colors have faded and some of the pieces are missing.  There are, however, numerous colorful reproductions. Below is a section from one of these reproductions, which shows Jerusalem in a prominent central position, and the Jordan River flowing into the Dead Sea at the top.  This mosaic may have served as a guide for Christian pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem and other biblical sites during the early middle ages.

Photograph of a reproduction of the Madaba Mosaic Map.  Photograph taken by Lakshmi Sharath, via http://www.lakshmisharath.com/2014/05/27/souvenirs-jordan-madaba-mosaics-sand-art-petra/

Here is a reproduction of the full Madaba Mosaic:

Reproduction of the Madaba Mosiac Map, by Bernard Gagnon, via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madaba_Map)

The Madaba Mosaic can be a little disorienting at first.  The full view, shown above, has several large chunks missing, including most of the Mediterranean Sea.  In addition, we are used to maps having North at the top, but this mosaic, like so many from this era, has East at the top.  Even accounting for that, the orientation still does not quite make sense to me.  The Nile River delta is located in the bottom right corner of the mosaic, but Jerusalem is on the left side of the mosaic.  In real life, Jerusalem is East and a little North of the Nile River delta.  Shouldn’t the Nile be underneath Jerusalem on this mosaic?  Perhaps someone with more cartographic expertise could shed some light on this.

Today, the Madaba Mosaic is not useful for anything more than artistic appreciation.  When examining it, though, I do get the sense that it was a very impressive cartographic depiction at the time it was made. The locations included are rather extensive, and if I could read all the ancient Greek, I would probably be even more impressed with the biblical information cited.

The mosaic was not in use for very long, because Madaba was conquered by the Persians in 614 A.D., then the Muslims in the 8th century, and finally the city was destroyed in an earthquake and abandoned in 746 A.D.  But during the mosaic’s relatively brief life, I am sure that it helped many a traveler find his way to Jerusalem.

Sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madaba_Maphttp://www.lakshmisharath.com/2014/05/27/souvenirs-jordan-madaba-mosaics-sand-art-petra/

Wonderbook: Required Reading for Fantasy Writers

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I just finished reading “Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction” by Jeff Vandermeer, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.  Its 300 pages are filled with words and illustrations containing invaluable writing advice, as well as exercises, planning guides, and contributions from famous authors.  The book’s target audience is writers of genres like fantasy and science fiction, and it is clear that Vandermeer’s personal interests skew more towards the weird.  However, I think the lessons contained within are useful for every kind of fiction, because “Wonderbook” encourages the writer to think outside the box and develop full and meaningful characters and settings, whether those characters and settings are down to earth or completely off the wall.

From the front cover, I was immediately hooked by Vandermeer’s style.  The island city built on the back of a whale seems to say that nothing is quite as it seems in the fantasy world, and that sense of mystery and wonder is what a writer needs to harness in order to capture the reader.  From the illustrations and examples that Vandermeer employs, he seems to delight in the truly odd, often explaining a writing convention only to turn it on its head.  His first chapter, about inspiration fueling creativity, explains how the disparate identities and memories of the writer can combine in the writer’s mind to create the jolt of energy that gives rise to a creative idea.  The examples he offers confirm that stories can come from the most random and unexpected sources.

"Cognitive Transformation" by Ben Tolman, from page 26 of "Wonderbook" by Jeff Vandermeer.

“Cognitive Transformation” by Ben Tolman, from page 26 of “Wonderbook” by Jeff Vandermeer.

Vandermeer goes on to describe the process for outlining a story, using the analogy of a living, breathing creature.  The story-creature must be properly assembled (the muscles, bones, and organs need to be functioning together), much like a story is built on top of a plot which has an internal logic and consistency.  If the author nurtures and feeds the story-creature, it can become a healthy adult creature.  However, as Vandermeer, shows in the diagram below, this is far from the final step in the lifecycle of a story:

From page 70-71 of "Wonderbook"

From page 70-71 of “Wonderbook”

“Wonderbook” also extensively delves into character development, plotting, worldbuilding (and mapping!), and revision.  I especially enjoyed one section where Vandermeer produces a few different beginnings for one of his published novels, “Finch”, and explains why he decided to start the novel where he did.  This is very helpful, because the decision of which exact moment to use at the opening of a novel affects the level of tension that is infused in the first scene, which in turn sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Vandermeer also spends time talking about proper endings, and even middles, which is another topic that doesn’t usually receive much attention.  Here is one map from the book which depicts the perils that await in muddling through the middle:

Map of the Middle Zone, from page 118 of "Wonderbook"

Map of the Middle Zone, from page 118 of “Wonderbook”

Vandermeer’s “Wonderbook” is a rich and engaging guidebook for the creative writer.  Its advice is practical, its examples are colorful, and it is sure to inspire any aspiring author to start putting pen to paper (or hands to keyboard).  You can pick it up from Amazon here:  http://www.amazon.com/Wonderbook-Illustrated-Creating-Imaginative-Fiction/dp/1419704427

Five Fantasy Worlds Recreated in Minecraft

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Minecraft is an open-world computer game that lets users build their own environments completely out of pixellated 3-D bricks.  There are multiple ways of playing, but the most intriguing part of the game, to me, is that fact that you can create an entire world and share it with other players.  I’ve never played Minecraft myself, but from the looks of it, the only limit to what you can create is your own imagination.  You can spend a lifetime browsing through Minecraft user-generated maps online and never run out of impressive creations.

Here are a few of the most striking Minecraft creations I found, depicting some of the most popular fantasy worlds from books, videogames, and film.  Enjoy!

Thunder Bluff, from World of Warcraft:

Thunder Bluff, recreated in Minecraft, created by the user Rumsey on Minecraftforum.net (via http://www.cnet.com/news/massive-world-of-warcraft-map-in-minecraft/)

Koholint Island, from The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening:

Koholint Island, recreated in Minecraft, created by DemiuM666 on deviantart.com (via http://demium666.deviantart.com/art/The-Legend-of-Zelda-Minecraft-s-Awakening-317516376)

The Planet of Hoth, from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

The Battle of Hoth, recreated in Minecraft, created by user Aandolaf on Minecraftforum.net (via http://www.minecraftforum.net/forums/mapping-and-modding/maps/1495386-creation-battle-of-hoth)

Hogwarts, from Harry Potter:

King’s Landing, from Game of Thrones.  This link has several more maps and videos of scenes from Westeros:

King’s Landing, recreated in Minecraft, WesterosCraft server (via http://www.wired.com/2013/03/westeroscraft-game-thrones-minecraft/)

Connecting the World’s Most Interesting Places

Art comes from the most unexpected places sometimes.  For example, take a look at some of the urban maps below.  Upon a drab canvas of criss-crossing streets and empty spaces are a web of vibrant lines that resemble colored pencil marks, practically jumping off the page.  The deep red pathways are like the lifeblood of the city, pumping through its avenues as the city’s residents rush to work, or to dinner, or the theater.  We can see the cultural and economic activity of each city by these highlighted pathways, and we almost don’t need a tourist map.  These pathways are the ones we instinctively know we want to be on.

Manhattan (via http://gizmodo.com/these-maps-plot-the-most-interesting-places-and-the-pat-1701085711)

These maps were created by Eric Fischer over the past five years, and are assembled at his Geotaggers’ World Atlas site.  There, he explains how he used data to create such beautiful maps.  First, he scanned through Flickr to determine where people were taking interesting photos in the world’s cities.  If he saw a clusters of many photos in one place, that led him to believe that that place was worth seeing.  Then, he connected these popular sites, and colored the paths between them based on the speed. The red lines, for example, are faster than walking speed, and could be people on bikes or ferries.  You can zoom into the maps too, and see how what appear to be thick pencil lines are actually collections of many different smaller threads.

Here are a few more:

Los Angeles (via http://gizmodo.com/these-maps-plot-the-most-interesting-places-and-the-pat-1701085711)

Tokyo (via http://www.citylab.com/tech/2015/04/mapping-every-citys-most-scenic-routes-one-photo-at-a-time/391775/?utm_source=SFTwitter)

Istanbul (via http://www.citylab.com/tech/2015/04/mapping-every-citys-most-scenic-routes-one-photo-at-a-time/391775/?utm_source=SFTwitter)

Check out the Atlas yourself, there are a ton of cities from all over the world available on there: https://www.mapbox.com/blog/geotaggers-world-atlas/

Source: Gizmodo.

The Armenian Genocide, Explained by Maps

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April 24th marked the 100th anniversary of the start of the Armenian Genocide, the systematic killing of as many as 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire.  It remains a controversial topic, since Turkey, as the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, has refused to acknowledge that genocide occurred, and many of Turkey’s allies (including the U.S.), will not recognize it either, for fear of offending Turkey.  It is a shame that politics has gotten in the way of widespread recognition of what really happened, because only through recognition can we heal the wounds of the past and prevent such massive tragedies from recurring.  That is why I would like to take on a more serious topic than usual this week, and present a few maps which help to explain the situation in Armenia before, during, and after the genocide.

The Armenian nation stretches back to antiquity, although the size of its reach has shifted greatly over the millennia.  From 83 to 69 B.C., the Armenian Empire held its largest swath of territory under Emperor Tigranes the Great.  As the map below shows, Armenia stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean, including parts of modern-day Turkey and Syria.

Ancient Armenian Empire under Tigranes the Great (via Wikipedia, Robert H. Hewsen “Armenia: A Historical Atlas”. The University of Chicago Press, 2001)

However, the Armenian Empire soon lost territory to the expanding Roman Empire and never was able to regain it.  In later years, the Armenians were invaded by several other large empires, such as the Seljuk Turks in the eleventh century.  Great numbers of Armenians fled their homeland and settled in other countries of Europe, although many did stay, even though they were often not in control of their own land.  On the eve of World War I, the the Armenian homeland was controlled by the Ottomans, but the Armenians had begun fighting for their independence, just as the Greeks before them.  The Ottomans would not let them go easily.

This map shows the extent of the ancient Kingdom of Armenia (orange), areas where Armenians were living before the Genocide (shaded), the current nation of Armenia (red), and parts of neighboring countries where significant populations of Armenians live today (lighter red).  As you can see, large parts of the then-Ottoman empire had high percentages of Armenians living there, although this is no longer the case.

Distribution of Armenians in the Caucasus (via Wikipedia)

An ethnic group does not suddenly vanish off the map by accident.  Although Turkey claims that these Armenians died from a civil war, the evidence is clear that an organized, coordinated genocidal plan was enacted on the part of the government.  In a similar fashion to the Holocaust, Armenians were deported along specified routes in order to be executed together in designated areas.

Map of Armenian Genocide (via Wikipedia)

As a result of the genocide, the Armenian presence in the area known as “Western Armenia” in Central Anatolia was terminated after over two thousand years.  After World War I, in 1918, Armenia declared itself an independent nation, which the Ottoman Empire, defeated and on the verge of collapse, accepted.  The new nation’s territory, however, only included the smaller, Eastern section of Armenia’s historical homeland.  The map below, presented by the Armenian National Delegation to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, shows that Armenia was hoping to achieve much more.

A Map Presented by the Armenian National Delegation to the Peace Conference in Paris, 1919. (via Wikipedia; American Committee for the Independence of Armenia, New York, 1919)

Subsequent wars between Turkey, Armenia, and Soviet Russia changed the borders of the Armenian nation several more times during the 20th century.  Border disputes in the region are still ongoing, including one between Armenia and Azerbaijan.  Most significantly, though, Armenia is still claiming the Western Armenia region of Turkey.  Armenian activists believe that achieving recognition of the Genocide is one important step towards achieving this.  However, as I explained earlier, Turkey’s many important allies around the world have made greater recognition difficult.

Millions of Armenians, faced with violence and uncertainty in their homeland over the centuries, have created strong communities in other countries.  Below is a map showing the extent of the Armenian diaspora around the world:

Armenian Diaspora (via Wikipedia, http://geocurrents.info/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Armenian-Diaspora-map.jpg)

The genocide suffered by the Armenians was one of the first in modern times, but it was far from the last.  Each time a tragedy on this level occurs, we hear the refrain of “never again!”, and yet, such ethnic extermination has been a recurrent evil over the past century.  Rather than ignore or downplay what has happened, it is better to acknowledge it and move forward through peace and reparations, lest the cycle of violence continue.  It has been 100 years without Turkey’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide, but it is still not too late.

Consonant Battles

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Europe is divided in many ways, but one thing that most countries share is the Latin alphabet.  Dozens of languages across the continent all use the same script, and even languages that don’t, such as Greek and Russian, share many of the same characters. The common script, however, diverges wildly from place to place when spoken aloud.   Each European language has undergone its own unique evolution which affects how its letters are spoken, and it is fascinating to see how and why they diverge.

This post from Dina Rickman on i100.co.uk has 9 maps which show how selected consonants vary in sound across Europe, based on the research of post-doctoral researcher Alexander Young at the University of Washington.  Today I want to look at a few of the most interesting ones.

J:

Map of the Letter “J” across Europe (via http://i100.independent.co.uk/article/how-selected-consonants-sound-around-europe-in-9-maps–xJRqqkw2JZ)

Anyone who has studied another European language has seen how odd the letter “j” is.  It did not even exist in Latin, and only became a letter later on, initially taking on the sound of “y” as a consonant.  In German, it still has this sound (think “ja”).  In French, “j” sounds like the “s” in “vision”, or in the French word “je”, for “I”.  Spanish treats “j” just like an English “h”.  It is odd to think that if you ask an Englishman, Spaniard, Frenchman, and German to read the letter “j”, you will hear four different sounds.  Each one sounds right to speaker but wrong to the other listeners.

R:

The Letter “R” (via http://i100.independent.co.uk/article/how-selected-consonants-sound-around-europe-in-9-maps–xJRqqkw2JZ)

Who knew there was this much variation in how people say “r”?  There are three different “r”s, and the most popular, by far, is the rolled “r”, which is often a struggle for first-time Spanish students.  This is the first time that I’m learning about the “rough r” spoken in some areas of France and Germany, and I am curious to hear how it sounds.  Finally, there is the “r” that the English and Irish (but not the Welsh or Scottish) are most familiar with.

G:

The Letter “G” (via http://i100.independent.co.uk/article/how-selected-consonants-sound-around-europe-in-9-maps–xJRqqkw2JZ)

G is a really odd letter, because even within one language, it can be pronounced multiple ways.  In English, we have a hard “h” and a soft “g”, depending (usually) on which vowel follows the “g”.  As the map above explains, the type of “g” used also depends on where the word came from.  French loan words have a softer “g” (like “gem”), whereas German loan words have the harder “g” (think “gift”).  Meanwhile, the French do not pronounce “g” the way the English pronounce “g” words that come from French, instead using the same sound they use for the French “j”.  Go to Spain, and they say a soft “g” like an “h”, in Swedish they say it like a “y”, and in Finnish, they don’t say it at all (“g” only appears as part of “ng”).  This map does not include Greek, but I can attest that the Greek version of “g”, gamma, is famously hard to pronounce for non-Speakers, being a guttural combination of a hard “g” and an English “y”.  This is why the “gyro”, the Greek pita bread wrap, is chronically mispronounced.

For even more maps of consonant sounds across Europe, check out this link: http://i100.independent.co.uk/article/how-selected-consonants-sound-around-europe-in-9-maps–xJRqqkw2JZ

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