Christopher Tolkien, the third son of J. R. R. Tolkien and the executor of his literary estate and editor of his posthumous works, died yesterday at the age of 95. But one of his legacies is likely to be overlooked: he drew the map of Middle-earth that appeared in the first edition of The Lord of the Rings. That map proved hugely influential. It helped set the norm for subsequent epic fantasy novels: they would come with maps, and those maps would look rather a lot like the one drawn by Christopher Tolkien.
Christopher Tolkien himself was self-deprecating about the execution of his map, and about the design choices he made. Regarding a new version of the map he drew for Unfinished Tales, he took pains to emphasize that
the exact preservation of the style and detail (other than nomenclature and lettering) of the map that I made in haste twenty-five years ago does not argue any belief in the excellence of its conception or execution. I have long regretted that my father never replaced it by one of his own making. However, as things turned out it became, for all its defects and oddities, “the Map,” and my father himself always used it as a basis afterwards (while frequently noticing its inadequacies).
However hastily it was drawn, it was pivotal all the same.
Yesterday Priore and Schulman pled guilty: Priore to one count of theft by unlawful taking and receiving stolen property, Schulman to a charge of forgery and another of theft by deception and receiving stolen property. (They were facing a total of 10 and 20 charges respectively, but the remaining charges were dismissed as part of a plea agreement.)
Sentencing is scheduled to take place on April 17; each man faces up to 20 years in prison (the plea deal does not include sentencing).
Whenever there’s a major news event, there will be an outbreak of fake, misattributed or misleading images that purport to be about that event. That goes for maps as well.
Take the serious situation with Australia’s bushfires at the moment. Social media is jammed with maps showing practically the whole damn continent on fire, or superimposed on another continent to let people there know just how big Australia is (and also on fire). It’s a profoundly serious situation, and as NASA’s Joshua Stevens points out, it’s possible to present an accurate map that shows its seriousness without resorting to hyperbole.
The trouble is, social media thrives on hyperbole, because it thrives on “engagement”—which means outrage and anger and, as Joshua Emmons notes, as we get inured to a certain level of outrage, even more outrage is needed just to get noticed.
Which brings me to this thing, which is showing up all over the social web:
The U.S. National Library of Medicine’s TOXNET, an interactive map that tracked pollution, chemical exposure, toxicology and other data, was shut down last month. The move has been criticized in the context of the Trump administration’s rollback of environmental protections, but the NLM insists that the decision was theirs. The data mapped by TOXNET is available from other sources, but, and this is the point, not as easily or centrally accessible. [The Hill, Newsweek]
China’s Beidou satellite navigation system—a competitor to GPS like Russia’s GLONASS and Europe’s Galileo—will be complete by June 2020, when the constellation’s final two satellites are launched, the Associated Press reports. Twenty-four satellites have already been orbited. Whereas the first two iterations of Beidou offered regional coverage, this third iteration will cover the globe when complete. [Engadget, TechCrunch]
In an article in the December 2019 issue of Scientific American, now available online, Paul Tullis looks at the problem of GPS hacking, or spoofing—how easy it is to do, how vulnerable GPS is to it, and the consequences we’d face if GPS was disrupted on a broad level. It’s essential but scary reading. The potential scenarios Tullis describes are far more serious than the instances of GPS spoofing we’ve seen so far. It’s not just about navigation: a lot of critical infrastructure relies on GPS timestamps.
Tullis points out that other GNSS systems have terrestrial-based backup systems; GPS does not, despite a 15-year-old directive to build an eLORAN backup that would put out a signal too strong to spoof.
If The Map Room’s 2019 Holiday Gift Guide still leaves you wanting for ideas, and the additional books in the Map Books of 2019 page don’t do it either—maybe you just don’t want a book—here are some other map-related gift guides curated by colleagues and reviewers:
Betsy Mason and Greg Miller started blogging about maps at Wired Map Lab (which ran from 2013 to 2015), then moved to National Geographic, where their blog, All Over the Map, provided first-rate coverage of all matters cartographic, and formed the core of their book, coincidentally also called All Over the Map, which came out at the end of last year (see my review). Unfortunately the blog seems to have come to a close at about the same time the book came out. But now it looks like Betsy and Greg have struck out on their own with a new website, Map Dragons, where they promise more map stories soon. Can’t wait.
Prince William Sound turned out being the most laborious map that I have ever made. The culprit: climate change. Although much of the data that went into making the map was of recent vintage, glaciers in the region have melted noticeably these last few years.
Updating physical features—glaciers, coastlines, rivers, and lakes—from recent satellite images took up ninety percent of my time. Nevertheless, the completed map is only a snapshot in time. Columbia Glacier, for example, lost another one kilometer of its length during the summer of 2019. Much of what the map depicts will be out-of-date again before too long.
It can be downloaded, printed (it’s 44 × 36 inches) and modified free of charge.
The New York Times does a deep dive into New York’s current subway map: its design choices, its history, its quirks. It’s more an animated slideshow than interactive map: each step takes us along a route, bouncing up and down (for example) where you’d expect to walk. It’s also completely devoid of any context, particularly the controversies around this very map’s design. People have been agitated about New York’s subway map, and have been reimagining and rethinking it, for decades.
Yes, I've seen this NY Times subway infographic piece. It's… odd. Seems to excuse bad design with some magical hand waves and expect us to believe this is really the best map that could be made.https://t.co/5xjiAK9EQz
That said, even a naïve look at the status quo isn’t without value, especially since the status quo is rarely looked at on its own terms, but rather in the context of tearing it up and coming up with something new and better.