Your leaking thatched hut during the restoration of a pre-Enlightenment state.


Hello, my name is Judas Gutenberg and this is my blaag (pronounced as you would the vomit noise "hyroop-bleuach").


decay & ruin
Biosphere II
dead malls
Irving housing

got that wrong

appropriate tech
Arduino μcontrollers
Backwoods Home
Fractal antenna

fun social media stuff

(nobody does!)

Like my brownhouse:
   evolution of the map communication idiom
Friday, August 1 2008
When I was a kid back in the late 1970s, I used to have a peg board (like a Lite Brite, but without the lights) that I set up at the end of the hallway in the barn as a "computer console." I'd imagine that I could interrogate this computer (using a stylus poking into a grid of holes) and that it would provide answers to any questions I might have. I imagined that these answers were stored inside it somehow, but in other respects the thing I was imagining was much like today's Google-cum-Wikipedia, though with more primitive graphics. Even to me back then, whenever I allowed the fantasy to dissolve, such a device, even if possible, seemed more like a powerful-but-obscure scientific instrument than a possible mass-market product. I would have never imagined the web becoming as mainstream as it has, particularly given its origins as such a no-nonsense tool.
Similar to my congenital affinity for the web has been an affinity for dynamic maps, though (due to difficulties with visualization) it's been a little later in coming. As a kid I was intrigued by radar displays, with their fleeting radial maps of metallic objects in a locale. But only with computer graphics has it been possible for me to imagine a world where a variety of things can be plotted on a map. Being animals and lacking roots, a human life is, on some level, nothing more than a plot on a map. Sometimes such a plot is the best way to explain some brief part of a life. But even with computer technology, it's not easy to dynamically plot trajectories on a map. My first attempts at doing so date back to 2003, taking advantage of the layers in Flash to manually draw various things on a static topographic map.
Later, in early 2004, client and friend Jon the Global Kayaker was about to embark on a kayak adventure along the coast of Gabon, and the plan was for him to use a satellite radio to send me dispatches, which I would geoblog for him, plotting his course and observations on a map. There was no Google Maps in those days, so I developed a system that would allow me to plot points on a JPEG map using XML coordinate data via Flash. It worked fairly well, since Gabon is near the equator, where simple Cartesian geometry gives a close enough approximation of geodesic geometry. (In the end National Geographic, demanding exclusivity on the adventure, nixed the idea of live blogging it.)
With the rise of Google Maps (and, more importantly, its published programming interface), a whole world of mapping possibilities has opened up. Now I can plot points on a piece of map from anywhere in the world (and even other planets), at any scale, and I can scale up or down, switch between a terrain view and a satellite view, and dynamically pan just by dragging my mouse. This morning I figured out how to plot "polylines" (paths) on a Google Map, developing a set of PHP tools to help me easily create embedded maps as I need them. Google provides a lot of functionality, far more than I would normally expect on what is, essentially, a mainstream website. But who knows, perhaps communication in maps is poised to go as mainstream as the global information network that underlies it.

A map I drew by hand for my father back in 1990 or 1991. I had a primitive Macintosh computer in those days, and I used it to make labels and the legend, which I pasted on manually (I didn't yet have a laser printer or good software for manipulating image scraps). I remember being in love with the Garamond font, which looked almost professional even on a 150 DPI dot matrix printer.

I composed this map entirely on a Macintosh using MacDraw in 1996. It has that severe look of early images drawn entirely on a computer.

An early attempt at mapping using Flash, from October 2003. I just drew the tracks and labels by hand atop the JPEG of the topographic map using a different layer.

For this map of the coast of Gabon (January, 2004), I'm plotting the points mathematically from XML data. The points don't land perfectly where they should because of the slight distortion of the map caused by the curvature of the Earth (and the fact that I didn't want to learn the complex math necessary to compensate for this distortion). Check out the crazy animation of Jon the Kayaker when you click on the points. (But don't expect them to take you to a valid page.)

This is my Google-Maps-enabled map of the nearby forest from the recent post about harvesting bluestone. The points (including the vertices of the paths) are all latitude-longitude pairs either passed to a PHP function or pulled from a delimited file. As with all Google Maps, you can drag it around and zoom in and out.

On her walk this morning, Sally was sprayed by a skunk, an event I deduced based entirely on olfactory evidence. This was the first time either of our dogs have ever been skunked. It wasn't an especially bad skunking, and I actually thought the smell wafting through the house was a pleasant one, much more appealing than the chemically old lady perfume worn by one of our friends.
We washed Sally with Ol' Roy dog shampoo, but it didn't really help.
This skunk must have been an outlier; I've never seen any skunk roadkill on Dug Hill Road. I suspect that there are a lot more skunks in the fertile Esopus Valley, down where the Horned Owls and Red Wing Blackbirds fly. Up here on the mountain, the soil is poor, there are no box turtles, and the main threat to dogs remains porcupines.

This afternoon Gretchen and I met Penny and David at the Quarry on the Esopus (described in yesterday's post). In addition to the inquisitive Canada Geese, friendly White Egret, and a pair of kingfishers, there were two groups of teenage humans there. Two of them were a heterosexual pair in continual makeout mode, and the others were some bikini-clad girls who ultimately photographed a series of pictures featuring them posing on the roof of their banana-colored truck. "It's for my MySpace page," I heard one explain to either Penny or David. We drank a few beers and relaxed in the water. At some point I made fun of David's overuse of the phrase "to be frank." When we finally left, we cleaned up some of the trash left by others.

For linking purposes this article's URL is:

previous | next