Maphead

Word first came in early 2009 that Jeopardy whiz Ken Jennings was writing a book “exploring the world of map nuts and geography obsessives.” That book, Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks, came out in September, and now I’ve had a chance to read it.

Maphead isn’t really (or just) a book about maps; rather, it’s a book about the people who obsess about matters geographical, including maps. The subject is pretty broadly defined. He begins straightforwardly enough. After a chapter on spatial awareness, Jennings looks at the scandal that erupted when a University of Miami professor discovered his students couldn’t locate anything on a map, and at map literacy in general. There’s a chapter on borders and placenames. But things really get cooking when Jennings turns to things people do. A chapter on map collecting. On maps of imaginary places. The National Geographic Bee. Roadgeeking. Geocaching. Even the Degree Confluence Project.

In its cheerful enthusiasm for all things map, Maphead reads a lot like Mike Parker’s Map Addict (which I reviewed in 2009). This is a good thing. Like Map Addict, Maphead covers a lot of what for me is very familiar ground: I sometimes felt like I was reading my own blog archives, which is something I felt while reading Map Addict. But then Jennings goes and finds something I didn’t know, like the fact that Borges’s “On Exactitude in Science” was not the only work to play with the idea of a 1:1 scale map: Lewis Carroll and Umberto Eco did it too. Ken Jennings has managed to pull off a minor miracle: a profoundly erudite, well-researched book, written in a breezy, accessible and downright witty manner that is invariably entertaining. A pleasant book that you should look at, if you have any interest in maps.

Amazon | iBooks

Hubris and the Times Comprehensive Atlas

When the publishers of the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World announced that the newly released 13th edition showed that Greenland’s ice sheet had shrunk by 15 percent, climate scientists went ballistic. While Greenland’s ice is retreating, it’s not nearly by that much, and this is just the sort of error that encourages climate-change denialists.

How did Collins Geo allow this to happen? This is the question Mark Monmonier explores in a piece on the New Scientist website. Monmonier, the author of How to Lie with Maps and many other books, argues that hubris was behind the mistake: that the towering reputation of the Times Atlases led to overconfidence.

An explanation lies partly in Collins Geo’s apparent decision to produce the map in house. If that was the case, the firm might have avoided its embarrassment with the obvious quality-assurance step of sending page proofs to carefully chosen experts. Appropriate scientists seldom decline invitations to serve as reviewers. […]

It seems likely there was a belief that external review was unnecessary. Moreover, it seems that none of the publisher’s marketing mavens compared their provocative God’s-eye view with competing treatments on readily accessible scientific websites or Google Earth.

Hubris is not too strong a word to explain HarperCollins’s predicament. A press release promising “concrete evidence of how climate change is altering the face of the planet forever” invites critical scrutiny by mainstream climate scientists as well as the self-proclaimed sceptics who are ever eager to pounce on overreaching pronouncements by the former. In Atlasgate, the pro-warming community, which outnumbers naysayers by perhaps 50 to 1, wasted no time in trashing the HarperCollins map.

Previously: Map Books for Fall 2011.

The Farthing Party Map Panel

A Map of Every Fantasy World Ever

The Farthing Party map panel (see previous entry) came off surprisingly well. I was actually shocked to discover that what I thought were my controversial thoughts about maps were actually not that controversial: I knew it was going to be a good panel when both Lila and Emmet said in their opening remarks that they were opposed in principle to fantasy maps.

Continue reading “The Farthing Party Map Panel”

Maps in Science Fiction and Fantasy

I mentioned this on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter yesterday, but I didn’t mention it here: I’ve created a project page for my research into the use of maps in fantasy and science fiction, and it’s now more or less complete enough to share with you. So far all it has is an introduction and a reading list that includes many articles, blog posts and stories I’ve mentioned before. It will grow and change as I learn more things.

On a related note, I’ll be on a panel about maps at Farthing Party tomorrow (“Maps and territories: What’s good and bad about the maps in our fiction, and why are they there in the first place?”) which I’m hoping will generate all sorts of ideas and things to check out. I’ll probably talk too much, of course, but I want to take lots of notes, too.

Jerry’s Map

Jerry Gretzinger’s map began as a little doodle. Then it began to take on a life of its own. Jerry uses a deck of cards to determine how the map is revised, with near-mystical results. “Yes, it’s alive. It changes. My hand puts the paint on the paper and then I step back and say, ‘Wow, look at that,’ as though I was not the perpetrator. I’m just the observer.” I could see myself having this much fun. Via MetaFilter.

OpenStreetMap in Ottawa

I nearly forgot to mention that last Sunday I gave a presentation on the state of OpenStreetMap in Ottawa to the SummerCamp 2011 Mapping Party. It was a small group — five of us, the majority of whom knew more about the subject than I did — and, due to technical snafus with the meeting location, was held in a Bridgehead coffee shop on Bank Street. All the same, my spiel was well received. I made three points in the presentation: that OpenStreetMap was a lot less complete than some make it out to be; that the OSM map of Ottawa needs a lot of work; and here’s what to do about it.

I suppose that I could make the slideshow available if you’re really interested, but my presentations tend to be talks illustrated by slides, rather than read-the-slides, so without me talking it through it’d be kind of confusing. But here’s the penultimate slide, which shows a screencap of OSM’s map of downtown Ottawa, with things that need fixing helpfully labelled.

Ottawa Mapping Party Presentation

You’ll be happy to know that many of these things have since been fixed.

SF Signal on Fantasy Maps

The role of maps in fantasy is an ongoing interest of mine, one I’ve begun researching in earnest. (Watch this space: I’m up to something.) So I was naturally interested when SF Signal asked a number of authors, illustrators, other publishing professionals and readers, as part of their Mind Meld series of interviews, the following question: “What is the role and place of maps in Fantasy novels? Which are your favorites? Why?

Lots of answers ensued — here, for example, is an excerpt from Saladin Ahmed’s response:

Coming before the text of the novel as they often do, fantasy maps help to set a reader’s expectations. Prefacing a novel with a map is saying “An immersive made world is among my highest priorities here.” The map gives readers a panoramic view of the novel’s world — often a wider view than what is available to the characters – before zooming in on the local and personal details that are the building blocks of early chapters.

From Philip Athans:

I just hope that in the new era of austerity that’s descended upon the publishing business that the fantasy novel map will survive. Having a really good one drawn up by an artist who actually knows how to draw maps is not cheap.

From Mathew Cheney:

Maps in books are often more fascinating to me than the books themselves, because maps suggest possibilities. When I first learned to read, I tried hard to get through Treasure Island, but it defeated my skills and bored me. I didn’t care, though, because there was that gloriously undetailed map. That’s all I’d really wanted from the book, because with the map, I could make up whatever stories or characters I wanted.

Read the whole thing. For my earlier posts about maps in fantasy (and other literature), see The Map Room’s Fiction About Maps and Imaginary Places category archives.

When Mapping Gets You Arrested

Wired UK reports on how an OpenStreetMap contributor got arrested in Reading after “a paranoid guy called the police.” (Here’s the contributor’s own take.)

On-the-ground surveying with a GPS is a great way to contribute to OpenStreetMap, but it’s not hard to see how it might be construed as suspicious activity. The problem isn’t actually the GPS, which is inconspicuous enough unless you’re staring at it every five seconds, it’s the note-taking that goes along with it. Even here in Shawville, when we were surveying a couple of residential streets, one of Jennifer’s co-workers spotted us and later asked us what the hell we had been doing. We were writing down house numbers to add to the map — but stopping every few metres to write down the house number at each corner does look a bit odd. So does taking a photo of every street sign (to confirm road names independently of third-party mapping data). It helps to be as discreet and non-creepy as possible.

Fortunately, it’s a small town and we’re known, so we haven’t run into any serious trouble yet. If asked, I usually explain that I’m mapping the town for a website called OpenStreetMap, which is like Wikipedia for maps: everybody runs around with a GPS to create a map of the world. (At that point their eyes usually glaze over.)