Fourteen

Today marks The Map Room’s fourteenth anniversary: its first posts went live on 31 March 2003.

The general consensus is that the blog is finished as a medium, done in by the effective death of RSS (thanks to Google killing Reader), the collapse of online advertising (too many publishers chasing too few ads), and the shift in online attention from blogs to social media. Blogs aren’t as financially viable as they once were, if they ever were. Another portent: this week the blog advertising network The Deck announced it would be closing down.

In 2006, The Map Room was at what would turn out to be its peak in terms of attention and revenue, and I was looking forward to additional growth. Neither ended up occurring. Revenues stagnated, and I took a needed break in 2011. I returned in 2016, and over the past year this blog’s traffic has been stable at about a fifth of what it was at its peak. Google ad income is one-twentieth (Amazon income is more or less on par: you folks do like buying books).

(This is probably the point at which I ought to mention that you can support this blog by kicking a few dollars my way via Ko-Fi or towards my web hosting costs. Either way, appreciated.)

Looking back on it now, for all the bumph about the long tail and niche blogging, this was never going to be a bill-paying operation. I’d frankly have to work a lot harder and more consistently for that to happen, and I’m not capable of that: my poor health is one of the reasons why I’m available to do The Map Room in the first place. (For example, I spent most of the last two weeks flat on my back, which is why posts have been so sporadic this month.) I’m not comfortable soliciting sponsorships or setting up a Patreon page if I can’t guarantee that I’ll follow through.

But that’s not to say that I won’t keep at this. I’ll do what I can, when I can. Fourteen years after starting this project, I’m still not tired of it. I’m still learning new things about maps, and I’m still enjoying myself. That’s saying something.

Ms. Pac-Maps

Google tends to release wacky things around April 1st, as well as some more serious things (like Gmail). Ms. Pac-Maps is one of the former, and the latest strange thing to be added to Google Maps around this time. In the same vein as the Google Maps Pac-Man feature from 2015, it enables you to play Ms. Pac-Man on the road grid in Google Maps, and runs on the most recent Android and iOS apps as well as on the desktop until April 4th. [The Verge]

Mapping Great Lakes Pollution

President Trump’s budget proposes eliminating the EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. That fact is no doubt what’s behind two publications posting maps earlier this month, only a couple of days apart, showing the environmental stresses on the Great Lakes basin.

Canadian Geographic reposted a map from their July/August 2013 issue:

Canadian Geographic

And the Washington Post included the following map in an article on the  proposed elimination of two EPA programs (including the aforementioned Great Lakes Restoration Initiative):

The Washington Post

[CCA/Maps on the Web]

Scanning the Miranda Map

Speaking of scanning old maps. The State Library of New South Wales, Australia is scanning its copy of Jozeph da Costa e Miranda’s 1706 world map with a state-of-the-art high resolution scanner.

This digitisation process combines high resolution scanning, up to 1200 dpi, with precise lighting technique and incredibly accurate colour rendition. This process is ideal for scanning really large, long items like this map,  panoramas and items with high levels of fine detail.  The files captured at these resolutions allow up to 50× enlargement, making them excellent sources for detailed investigation into aspects of the physical substrate of the item and for innovative multimedia exhibition and display.

The map was scanned in 15cm sections and will be stitched together to create an exceptionally accurate and detailed high resolution file.

This short video (above) gives a close-up view of the process. [WMS]

Digital Map Restoration

To be honest, when I think of map restoration I think of the painstaking work of preserving and repairing damaged old maps; the Chimney Map is only one such example. What ABC News (Australia) describes in this profile of photographer Tony Sheffield is more like digital retouching: scanning in an original and correcting it in Photoshop. It gives us a corrected image, but the original object is untouched. It really comes down to what you’re aiming for. [WMS]

More on Boston Schools and the Peters Map

Atlas Obscura’s Cara Giaimo has an in-depth look at the reaction to the decision by Boston public schools to adopt the Peters projection in teaching materials. It’s well worth taking the time to read; the general gist from several cartographers and commentators is that swapping the Mercator for the Peters isn’t that much of an improvement. Though it includes comments from yours truly (I was in touch for this article), Giaimo talks to people who actually do know what they’re talking about, including Mark Monmonier (who, again, literally wrote the book on the Mercator projection) and Matthew Edney (who spoke to WZON 3 about this topic earlier).

Joshua Stevens, NASA’s data visualization and cartography lead:

Also on Twitter, and to emphasize how long this has been going on, Jeremy Crampton notes his 1994 paper, “Cartography’s Defining Moment: The Peters Projection Controversy, 1974–1990.” A sequel may be required.

Previously: The Peters Map Is Fighting the Last WarThe Peters Projection Comes to Boston’s Public SchoolsIn Defence of the Mercator ProjectionHow the Mercator Projection Won the Internet.

Satnavs and ‘Switching Off’ the Brain

More on the impact of GPS on our cognitive function. A new study identifies brain activity in the hippocampus and prefrontal lobes while navigating city streets—areas of the brain involving memory, planning and decision-making. There was no additional brain activity from the control group (using satnavs). The University College London news release on the study suggests that using a satnav “switches off” those parts of the brain, but it may be more fair to say that it fails to switch them on.

It’s hardly groundbreaking news to suggest that not having to think about where you’re going results in less activity in the areas of the brain that involve remembering things and deciding what to do next, but experimental research does need to establish such things. [The Truth About Cars]

Appraising the Eagle Map

Joseph and James Churchman, The Eagle Map of the United States, 1833. Map, 53 × 42 cm. David Rumsey Map Collection.

On a recent episode of the PBS version of the Antiques Roadshow, Chris Lane appraised a copy of the 1833 Churchman Eagle Map of the United States at $25,000. On the Antiques Print Blog Lane explains how he arrived at that number, which some have thought was a bit on the high side. [WMS]

The Peters Map Is Fighting the Last War

News of Boston public schools’ decision to go with the Peters projection has gone viral over the past week, and my teeth have not stopped itching. Largely because this is very much old news: Arno Peters began promoting “his” projection 44 years ago, and the Peters map has been making the rounds in certain circles ever since then. This is not new, and the media is showing its feckless streak in its lack of awareness of that fact. After all, the West Wing episode with the Peters map in it was broadcast 16 years ago.

The Gall-Peters projection is just one of several rectilinear equal-area projections; that Peters promoted it as a tool of social justice and anti-colonialism made it awfully appealing to people who are concerned with such issues. (They are not wrong to be concerned with such issues.) But cartographers have generally always been appalled by the projection, by Peters’s rhetoric and by his general ignorance of what had gone before. (Peters’s map had already been described by James Gall in 1885; the Mercator projection’s insufficiencies as a wall map had long been known; and there were many other projections, from the Van der Grinten to the Mollweide to the Goode homolosine, that were already being used in the Mercator’s stead.)

(The Mercator projection, for its part, makes a crap wall map: its virtue is that rhumb lines—compass headings—are straight lines, making the Mercator ideal for navigation. It’s worth emphasizing that Mercator himself died in 1594. Again, see Monmonier’s book on the subject.)

Cartographers’ response to the Peters projection is essentially, usually (and correctly) that every map projection is a compromise, because every map projection is an attempt to represent a round planet on a flat surface. All maps, in other words, lie; or at least no map is exempt from lying; or at least the Mercator is no more a liar than any other projection. It’s essentially an effort in debunking—the tedious repetition of “well, actually” to a credulous audience that doesn’t care enough to listen all the way through. (And besides: the company selling the Peters map thoroughly agrees with them!)

For the latest examples of this, see Caitlin Dempsey’s piece on teaching context, and Andy Woodruff’s response to the latest round of this. They’re good pieces, worth reading—but I can’t help wonder whether something different needs to be tried. But then again: what problem are we trying to solve? Media and public credulity? The fact that the Peters projection, bluntly, sucks? The campaign—and it is a campaign—behind it?

But the campaign for the Peters map is increasingly irrelevant. In late 2015 I argued that the debate over the right projection for wall maps was the cartographic equivalent of fighting the last war. The Peters map was a 20th-century response to a 19th-century problem (the Mercator on wall maps) that had already largely been solved earlier in the century. Sure, there are still wall maps out there that use the projection (I’m looking in your direction, IKEA), but by and large it’s not used nearly as much as the Peters defenders would have you think.

But 21st-century mapmaking is not about wall maps: it’s about web maps. As I said in 2015:

Every online map service uses a variant of the Mercator projection called Web Mercator. Whatever its shortcomings—and there are many, owing to the fact that its calculations use a spherical Mercator model to save computational cycles—Web Mercator has become the de facto standard. And the size distortions at small scales that have made the Mercator projection the target of so much ire over the decades are simply moot for most use cases.

In many ways the past debates over the Mercator are moot: arguing over the right projection for wall-sized world maps—Mercator vs. Peters vs. Robinson—is fighting the last war. Mercator has become the default option for online mapmaking, simply because so many data visualization maps rely on Google Maps or OpenStreetMap for their base map layer. Other projections will be reserved for the professionals, people with access to more sophisticated mapmaking tools and the skill to use them, but for the most part, when data is mapped on the Internet, it’ll be mapped according to Mercator.

Zoom out in Google Maps or OpenStreetMap, and what do you see? The Mercator projection, with Greenland in all its inappropriately giant glory. (Apple Maps turns into a globe when you zoom out far enough, but Apple Maps are app-only.) The reason why this isn’t generally seen as a problem is that hardly anyone uses Google Maps as a world map: like topographic maps that use UTM, at close range Mercator works just fine.

While there are efforts under way to use other projections in web maps, it’s unlikely that the Mercator-vs.-Peters battle—a false dichotomy if there ever was one—will migrate to the digital arena.

Previously: The Peters Projection Comes to Boston’s Public SchoolsIn Defence of the Mercator ProjectionHow the Mercator Projection Won the Internet.

Book Roundup for March 2017

Out this month: the English translation of Andrea Carandini’s massive two-volume, 1300-page Atlas of Ancient Rome (Princeton University Press), which “provides a comprehensive archaeological survey of the city of Rome from prehistory to the early medieval period.” See the book’s website. [Amazon]

Other books seeing publication this month: Picturing America: The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps by Stephen J. Hornsby (University of Chicago Press), a history of the pictorial map art form during the 20th century [Amazon]; and Zero Degrees: Geographies of the Prime Meridian by Charles W. J. Withers (Harvard University Press), a history of prime meridians and the standardization thereof [Amazon].

An update: Mapping the Holy Land (I. B. Tauris) which I originally understood to be coming out in January, is now slated for publication this week. [Amazon]

Related: Map Books of 2017.

Map Exhibitions Around the World

Mapping the Philippine Seas, an exhibition of 165 maps and sea charts of the Philippine archipelago from the 16th to the 19th century from the private collections of the Philippine Map Collectors Society. At the Metropolitan Museum of Manila. Opened 15 March, runs until 29 April. BusinessWorld. [WMS]

The Osher Map Library’s next exhibition, To Conquer or Submit? America Views the Great War, opens this Thursday (Facebook, Eventbrite). It “commemorates and explores American participation in the Great War—the ‘War to End All Wars’—with a sample of informative and propagandistic posters, maps, and atlases” from the Osher collections, which are based at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

The World According to Blaeu: Joan Blaeu’s 1648 map of the world, more than two by three metres in size, will be on display at the National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam from 14 April to 31 December. [WMS]

The Peters Projection Comes to Boston’s Public Schools

Gall-Peters projection (Wikimedia Commons)

In a development that just might make academic cartographers pull out their remaining hair in frustration, Boston’s public schools began using the Peters projection in social studies classes last week. The news coverage (see the Grauniad’s) is the usual straw man argument about the Mercator and the false dichotomy between it and the Peters, as though no other map projections have ever been used. (National Geographic has been using other projections since the 1920s, and currently uses the Winkel tripel. The last time I was at a map store, hardly any of the world maps for sale used the Mercator. See Mark Monmonier’s Rhumb Lines and Map Wars: A Social History of the Mercator Projection, which I reviewed in 2008.)