Review: Clock and Compass

Mark Monmonier’s latest book, Clock and Compass: How John Byron Plato Gave Farmers a Real Address—out today from the University of Iowa Press—is a spinoff of sorts. This relatively slim volume does a deep dive on one of the inventions featured in his previous book, Patents and Cartographic Inventions: the clock system invented and promoted by John Byron Plato (1867-1966).

Book cover: Clock and CompassThe 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.

Book cover: Clock and CompassClock and Compass: How John Byron Plato Gave Farmers a Real Address
by Mark Monmonier
University of Iowa Press, 12 Apr 2022
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TomTom Says Its Algorithms Avoid Potentially Dangerous Routes

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.

London Cabbies’ Unique Brains May Help Alzheimer’s Diagnosis

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]

Latitude, Longitude and Decimal Points

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.”

Four Articles on Navigating Outdoors

Outside’s Andrew Skurka has posted a four-part series on the skills and tools required to navigate outdoors (remember outdoors?), which in general means knowing how not to get lost. In part one, “A Backpacker’s Guide to Maps,” Skurka recommends what kind of maps to take with you: paper maps, mainly, of various scales, but with digital maps as a backup. Part two, “The Gear You Need to Navigate in the Backcountry,” looks at equipment: not just GPS, but also basics like a compass, altimeter and a watch. In part three, “How to Master Navigational Storytelling,” is about developing a narrative of the route you’re taking to avoid getting lost. Finally, Skurka offers a checklist of skills to test yourself against.

Previously: The Lost Art of Finding Our Way.

Wayfinding: A New Book about the Neuroscience of Navigation

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.

This is not the first book on the subject: Greg Milner published Pinpoint in 2016 (previously). See also: Satnavs and ‘Switching Off’ the Brain.

More on the Pros and Cons of Paper Maps

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.

Technochauvinism, Deep Knowledge and Paper Maps

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]

World Magnetic Model Being Updated a Year Early

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.

Old Phones, Old Maps and Old Tech

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.

Previously: Popular Mechanics Proselytizes Paper Maps.

Popular Mechanics Proselytizes Paper Maps

Popular Mechanics: “Even in 2019, there are good reasons to own a paper map, whether it’s the kind you can grab at the gas station or a sturdy road atlas […] that lives in your car.” This is a listicle, so six reasons are given, some of which are absolute rubbish: paper maps aren’t “nearly flawless” in terms of accuracy (they do go out of date), and they’re not inherently more comparative (checking vs. online maps) than checking one online map against another (e.g. Google vs. Apple vs. OpenStreetMap). Valid points about reliability and being able to plot out your own routes, though. [CCA]

How to Navigate the Seas of a Flat Fantasy World

How does navigation work on a flat world? Admittedly this is not a question that comes up outside flat earth societies, at least not in the real world, but fantasy worlds aren’t always spherical. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, for example, started off as a flat world, but became round during a cataclysmic event. Before that, the Númenóreans (Aragorn’s ancestors, for those not totally up on their Tolkien lore) were held to be the greatest seafarers in the world: “mariners whose like shall never be again since the world was diminished,” as The Silmarillion puts it. The problem is, a flat earth has implications for navigation: many known methods simply wouldn’t work.

“Mithlond” by Jordy Lakiere

In a piece I wrote for,The Dúnedain and the Deep Blue Sea: On Númenórean Navigation,” I try to puzzle out how they could have navigated the oceans of a flat world. I come up with a solution or two, within the limitations of my math abilities. (I’m sure readers who have more math than I do will be able to come up with something better.) It assumes a certain familiarity with Tolkien’s works, and it draws rather heavily on John Edward Huth’s Lost Art of Finding Our Way, which I reviewed here, not at all coincidentally, last month.

The Lost Art of Finding Our Way

Book Cover: The Lost Art of Finding Our WayIt’s become a commonplace that modern technology has eroded our ability to navigate: that relying on GPS and smartphones is destroying our brains’ abilities to form cognitive maps and that we’d be utterly lost without them.1 I’m not sure I subscribe to that point of view: plenty of people have been getting themselves lost for generations; relying on an iPhone to get home is not much different from nervously having to follow someone’s scribbled directions without really knowing where you’re going.

For my part, I can’t get lost. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible for me to get lost: that has, in fact, been known to happen. I mean that I can’t allow myself not to know where I am under any circumstances. I’ve got a pretty good cognitive map, but if I’m in a strange city without a map of said city, I’m deeply uncomfortable if not upset; provide me with a map to get my bearings with and I’m immediately at ease. In my case, having an iPhone—with multiple map applications—means I don’t have to get to the nearest map outlet as soon as freaking possible. It’s not, in other words, an either-or situation.

John Edward Huth is firmly in the former camp. He’s a particle physicist at Harvard who’s worked on the Higgs boson who for years has been running an interesting side gig: he teaches a course on what he has called “primitive navigation”—the ancient means of navigating the world that existed prior to the advent of some later technology. The course, and the accompanying book, The Lost Art of Finding Our Way (Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2013), are an exercise in recapturing those methods.

Continue reading “The Lost Art of Finding Our Way”

Are People with a Good Sense of Smell Better Navigators?

A recent study suggests that there’s a link between a good sense of smell and a good sense of direction, with the same brain areas being implicated in both abilities. As someone who has difficulty getting lost who also has a precise sense of smell, I resemble this study, which was published at Nature Communications. [Boing Boing]