(Based on the presence of NASA tracking sites on the globe, Ken thinks this particular unit was meant for the Apollo-Soyuz program, but I kind of wonder whether that was a function of the 1967 Rescue Agreement between the U.S. and the USSR instead.)
It seems to be steam engine time for GPS alternatives. We’ve already seen two proposals that suggest using constellations of low-flying satellites to provide greater accuracy and more resilience against signal blocking than GPS and other orbital navigation systems can provide. Now a research team in the Netherlands is developing a project called SuperGPS, which promises decimetre-level (10 cm) accuracy through the use of terrestrial transmitters connected to a fibre-optic network. They’ve built a working prototype, and published the results in Nature. More at the TU Delft news release.
Rebecca Solnit points to a 2020 study that attempts to measure the impact of using GPS navigation devices on our spatial memory. After assessing 50 drivers, researchers found that drivers with more GPS experience had worse spatial memory when navigating without GPS. But more significantly, it’s a longitudinal study: 13 of the participants (admittedly a small sample) were retested three years later, and greater GPS use correlated with a steeper decline in spatial memory.
This is a single study, and a small sample, so I’m hesitant to draw firm conclusions. And in any case it’s not necessarily a surprising conclusion: the more you rely on a tool, the less able you are to do without it. Well, yes. When we talk about how GPS is destroying our ability to navigate or read a map, there is a presumption that this is an objectively bad thing. Except that I’ve encountered too many people who couldn’t navigate their way out of a bag before GPS. A lot of people who let their GPS receivers get them lost were, I think, pretty good at getting themselves lost without it.
The question isn’t whether GPS use atrophies an individual’s ability to navigate: that’s like worrying that a calculator reduces your ability to do sums in your head, or that a word processor excuses you from knowing how to spell. Of course it does. Those of us who are good at navigation (or sums, or spelling) and think an important skill is being lost will clutch our pearls, but making something easier also makes it more accessible. The question is whether people are, on balance, at a societal level, getting lost less often. That’s not a question neuroscience can solve, nor something you can test with an fMRI. I’m not sure how to measure it, or even if it can be measured. But I’d love to find out.
The clock system was an attempt to solve a specific problem: well into the 20th century, farmhouses in the United States lacked proper addresses. Without a street number or even a street name, navigating to a given farmhouse could be a real challenge. Plato’s solution, invented while he was trying his hand at farming in Colorado, was to assign each farmhouse an identifier based on its clock position, with the clock centred on the nearest town. The clock system saw its greatest uptake in upstate New York, where Plato relocated shortly thereafter and started his business selling the maps and directories based on his system. In a marketing turn worthy of Phyllis Pearsall, Plato cultivated his previous status as a farmer, citing as his inspiration a sale lost because his buyer couldn’t find his house.
It’s tempting to think of the clock system as the what3words of a century ago: a proprietary navigational aid promising to make wayfinding simpler. And apart from the considerable curiousity value of an obsolete but unusual (and therefore interesting) system, the story of Plato and his system is pure American hustle: the rise and fall of a business from patent to product to collapse in the face of the Great Depression, to an unsuccessful attempt at restarting in Ohio. The indefatigable Plato even persisted with his system while working for the federal government in various capacities during the 1930s. Meanwhile, after Plato’s patent had expired, a modified compass system—using compass points rather than hours on a clock face—persisted in upstate New York until 1940.
Apart from his system, and the maps and ephemera it produced, Plato left few traces in the historical record, which makes him a challenging subject for a biographer. Monmonier gamely reconstructs what he can from patent filings, tax rolls, employment records and news coverage. Lacking more verbose evidence, Monmonier even resorts to producing maps of Plato’s life from those records, which seems appropriate given the subject matter and even helps illuminate several points. The end result is necessarily fragmentary and inductive, but a portrait of Plato nevertheless manages to emerge: a restless man who after dabbling in many things, changing gears and relocating many times, hit upon an idea that was kind of neat and tried to ride it for all it was worth.
I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher.
It probably has nothing to do with Google redirecting traffic up poorly maintained mountain roads during a blizzard in California last month (previously), but TomTom has posted a piece explaining how its algorithms avoid sending drivers down potentially dangerous routes in Finland even though, on paper, they’re shorter.
TomTom’s routing and location technology recognizes that the shorter route to Koli National Park is on winding unpaved roads, made up of sand and gravel, and it takes that into consideration when computing a route for a driver. It places significant importance on this information. […] Even though the unpaved route is shorter, it’s still not considered “better” than the longer paved route when all things are considered. If map data didn’t include this contextual data about the specific road, the unpaved road would most likely be the default route suggestion.
The Taxi Brains Project explores whether London taxi drivers’ legendary ability to navigate could help diagnose dementia. London cabbies, who since 1865 start by spending three or four years memorizing the London road network in order to learn the Knowledge, have been found to have an enlarged hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in spatial memory. Meanwhile, the hippocampus shrinks in Alzhemier’s patients. Studying the cabbies’ enlarged hippocampi may offer insights that could improve early detection. The study is seeking drivers to take tests and get an MRI scan. See the Washington Post’s story for details. [WMS]
Vladimir Agafonkin’s post, which demonstrates just what latitude and longitude to x decimal places looks like, is a visual complement to xkcd’s comic about coordinate precision: both tell you that when it comes to latitude and longitude, more than a few decimal points is pointless. “As you’ve probably guessed, 6 digits should be enough for most digital cartography needs (spanning around 10 centimeters). Maybe 7 for LiDAR, but that’s it.”
M. R. O’Connor’s book Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World came out in April from St. Martin’s Press. Not coincidentally, she’s published a couple of pieces on the subject of that book, both of which focus on humans’ ability to pay attention to their surroundings, and the effect that relying on GPS directions might have on that ability. In a piece for Undark, O’Connor argues that “our unshakeable trust in GPS,” which traces itself back through hundreds of years of believing in the infallibility of maps, gets us lost because we’re relying on the device rather than our senses. Her piece for the Washington Post focuses on the role of the hippocampus in navigation and spatial awareness, and the need to exercise that part of the brain.
The flurry of articles defending paper maps continues, and it can be tricky to separate them from one another: some are in the context of the Standfords store move; others are reprints of Meredith Broussard’s Conversation piece. But Sidney Stevens’s essay for Mother Nature Network is its own thing. It acknowledges both the downsides of paper maps (they get damaged and outdated) and the advantages of digital maps (“GPS”) before looking at the advantages of paper maps. It’s well-researched and well-considered.
Paper maps continue to find their defenders. The latest is Meredith Broussard, author of Artificial Unintelligence. In a piece for The Conversation, she applies her argument against what she calls “technochauvinism”—the idea that the digital and the technological are always better—to mapmaking. “Technochauvinists may believe that all digital maps are good,” she writes, “but just as in the paper world, the accuracy of digital maps depends entirely on the level of detail and fact-checking invested by the company making the map.” Errors on paper maps are more forgivable because, she argues, we recognize that paper maps fall out of date.
She also distinguishes between surface and deep knowledge, and associates digital maps with the former and paper maps with the latter, but there’s a risk of getting cause and effect spun around. “A 2013 study showed that, as a person’s geographic skill increases, so does their preference for paper maps,” she writes; but it doesn’t follow that paper maps lead to geographic skill. Those with poor map-reading abilities may do the bare minimum required to navigate, and nowadays that means using your phone. [WMS]
The World Magnetic Model—the standard model of the Earth’s magnetic field and a crucial part of modern navigation systems—was last updated in 2015. That update was supposed to last until 2020, but problems with the model started within a year of the last update. As Nature reports, a geomagnetic pulse under South America in 2016 made the magnetic field “lurch”:
By early 2018, the World Magnetic Model was in trouble. Researchers from NOAA and the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh had been doing their annual check of how well the model was capturing all the variations in Earth’s magnetic field. They realized that it was so inaccurate that it was about to exceed the acceptable limit for navigational errors.
As a result, the WMM is being updated a year early—this month, in fact, though the U.S. government shutdown is pushing back the release of the updated model.
CNet’s Kent German asks people to stop tech-shaming over old phones and paper maps, though I’m not exactly sure who exactly does this (it’s not like he provides any examples). Anyway, one example he does use to bolster his argument is the time a paper map saved him from getting lost in France when his rental car’s GPS didn’t have updated maps; the graft to the larger argument in favour of not being so quick to abandon old tech in favour of the latest and greatest does leave some visible seams. (He also drags the post office into the argument. It’s Luddite potpourri.) [MAPS-L]
The argument for paper maps is getting ever more insistent, even shrill, but it seems to me to be mainly coming from the tech side of things. My impression is that the people who rely too much on mobile maps haven’t lost the ability to read maps; they never had it in the first place.
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