Nobel games

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Find out which countries are democracies and which ones are frauds!

The Nobel prize website is pretty cool; beyond having information about every laureate and prize ceremony, besides the compilation of facts (youngest and oldest winners, how many female laureates, etc), there’s also an entire page devoted to educational games. I just spent the last half hour trying to fight off bacteria as a macrophage, locate countries that claim to be democratic but aren’t, and take care of a diabetic dog. There’s also a Lord of the Flies game, a game about Pavlov’s dog which allows you to make a dog drool on demand, and a DNA-double helix game. Who knew learning could be so fun? I know what I’ll be doing the rest of the week…

Maps mashup


A collage made of old maps

Usually, at the end of a week, I’m grasping at straws to think of one final post for the topic at hand. Though I put off cartography week for a while, thinking that I would have no ideas for posts, I find the opposite is true: I’m left with random map facts, links, and assorted images on my desktop that have not yet found a home.

1. The Four Color Theorem: Back in 1940 at New York’s Columbia University, the best scientists of the day were focused on splitting uranium, isolating plutonium, and generally working on All Things Destructive. However, one Columbia mathematician was working on something much more important: a proof of why you only need four colors to create a map in which no contiguous colors are the same. Simple idea, ridiculously complicated theorem. It was finally proved in 1976, but only then by a computer.

2. Silly maps of Europe: I have a few maps of Europe, but nothing to rival Wednesday’s collection of American maps. The first one is an image of European countries all characterized by different demonic creatures:

And the second is an American’s perception of the different European countries’ identities:

They're all commies

3. Can I dig all the way to China from here?  This website will let you know where you’ll arrive if you start digging down, while this one will let you know where you’ll pass if you walk in a straight line. Those 1940s Columbia scientists might have benefited from the Google Maps mashup which lets you see what the fallout zone would be if you were to drop an atom bomb. Morbid.

4. Straight to my heart: Sometimes hearts are mapped out. Here’s Loveland:

And this is what a woman’s heart looks like inside:

Beware the Pyramids of Fashion and the Tenting Ground of Uncertainty

5. All around the world: The 360 Cities projects gives you full panoramic access to thousands of incredible locations throughout the world (and you can see on the embedded Google maps where you’re at). Want to see every inch of the Tomb of Shah Nimatullah Wali in Tehran? Now you can.

6. Hipster cities: These neighborhood maps of large American cities are all the rage. I’m a little jealous that we don’t have one yet for the Twin Cities:

7. Don’t mess with Texas: If you need more maps in your life, check out the now defunct Map Room Blog or The Big Think’s posts about Strange Maps. Just don’t mess with Texas.

Say my name, say my name

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London=Unfordable River Town; Wales=Land of Strangers

When I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude, I was struck by a sentence at the very beginning: “the world was so recent that many things lacked names.” How could that be? I wondered. Didn’t things always have names?

Many of the world’s origin stories include the naming of objects, such as the Bible’s Genesis, in which Adam names all the animals presented to him. And many stories were passed from generation to generation simply to remember these names. When the Vikings decided to make the unpopulated Iceland their new home, they quickly had to create legends that characterized the landscape–the Hill of Blood, the Coast of Betrayal. By following the linguistic map of the Norse sagas, a Viking could find his way around the entire island.

Can we move to Pit Dweller's Town? Or what about Curlyhead?

I started thinking about toponymy, the study of the origins of place names, after posting a map on Wednesday of the meanings of Native American names that have become standard in the United States–Chicago, Manhattan, and my very own Minnesota. While I have associations with each of these places, the associations are, of course, not based at all on the literal meanings. It’s interesting for me–an American with no correspondence between my ancestors and my birthplace–to think of those places in the world where names are still meaningful to the people who live in them.

A pair of Germans decided to create an Atlas of True Names, for which they tracked down meanings that had been previously lost to posterity. The English version is certainly interesting to look over, even comical in many places, but how do we agree upon a “true” name? Yes, the idea of the project was to find the translations of place names from their original languages. But conquerors change the names of their acquired lands, people decide to rename their own lands for political or religious purposes, stories and the names held therein are forgotten. I remember a stubborn friend asking why we couldn’t call countries by the names they call themselves–why must we English speakers say Germany instead of Deutschland, Spain instead of España? I agreed that he had a point, but would it be fair to use the Castilian España instead of the Basque Espainia or Catalan Espanya? And Spain has relatively few languages–for those countries with hundreds of languages, or a division between native language and colonizers’ language, how would we know which name to honor as “true”? Names may start out as descriptive, but they quickly become political.

A few interesting toponymic lists, all courtesy of Wikipedia: the origins of all country namesplace names in English with counterintuitive pronunciations (like the American towns with the name of Berlin that changed their pronunciations during WWI to BUR-lin so as to differentiate themselves from the Germans), and tautological place names in which the native language already describes a geographical landmark that is then repeated in another language. For instance, Tahoe means “lake” in Washo, so Lake Tahoe means Lake Lake.

I studied abroad in Navel of the Moon. Nice country, that.

Literary cartography


I had some pictures left over from Wednesday

My brother recently gave me volume 1 of George R. R. Martin’s hit series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Like any good fantasy series, the front pages were dedicated to maps of the imaginary kingdom in which the action takes place. It seems that if you were a budding cartographer, your best bet for a creative challenge would be to team up with a fantasy writer or create a series of your own.
As I tried to find more maps in literature I came across some other interesting projects, such as Google Lit Trip, in which educators chart the journeys of literary characters such as Odysseus and MacBeth; and an Italian’s attempt to document every quote in literature about maps.
But I wanted the maps themselves, so I went straight to the source, the fantasy series to end all fantasy series: Lord of the Rings. Who doesn’t love Middle Earth, with its idyllic Shire and terrifying Mordor?
Other fantasy cartographers create more unapologetically European landscapes, like those of my childhood heroine, Tamora Pierce. Many of her series are set in the kingdom of Tortall, with knights and forests in the north, and nomadic tribes wandering vast deserts in the south. Oh, and they’re separated by a narrow strait that leads into the “Great Inland Sea.” Hello, Mediterranean.
My other favorite childhood fantasy series was that of Brian Jacques’s Redwall. In the first book we are given a map of Redwall Abbey and the surrounding countryside, which covers no more than an acre. In each successive book, though, we are gifted more and more maps of the landscape beyond. It reminded me of a computer game my brother used to play in which you begin in a blackened territory, and only by moving around the countryside do you reveal the geographical features of the land and, often, the enemies awaiting you therein. Here’s Redwall:
And more of Mossflower County:
Back to George R. R. Martin. Though his books are similarly filled with knights and peasants and pirates, most of whom sport European-style names and traditions, his kingdom of Westeros is nothing like a known territory (check out a larger version of this map to see all the features):
Can you think of other good maps in literature?

The United Maps of America

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Relief map of the United States of America

The United States inspire some pretty good-lookin’ maps. Since the land mass is so enormous and the landscape so varied, our weather maps always end up a veritable rainbow of temperatures. And because each region and state have their own identities we can plot our differences in multifarious and beautiful ways.

Let’s start first with our history. This is what the fledgling country looked like in 1800 (I especially like the contrast of the named states to the pink “Claimed by Georgia” territory):

After spending so much time studying a modern highway map on my road trip two weeks ago, it’s fun to look back on the roads available to the early driver:

And let us not forget the origins of the place names of our country, most of which we don’t really understand. The following is a map of English translations of the Native American names that have stuck with us. Check out National Geographic’s interactive version to find out that Manhattan means “where one gathers wood for bows” and Chicago means “at the skunk place.”

Poor Chicago “Skunk Place,” Illinois. It’s easy to be embarrassed by one’s state, especially after looking at the following map that shows what each state is worst at (thankfully, my state, Minnesota, is only the worst place for tornadoes!):

And perhaps some of us would feel embarrassed–while others would be proud–of which country our state’s GDP most closely resembles:

The next map is as lovely as it is shameful–a rendering of the lower 48 through the locations of every McDonald’s:

Wash that burger and fries down with a nice soda…or is it pop? Obviously we disagree:

Ah forget it, let’s just crack open a beer instead. At least we can agree on the name, if not the brand:

It’s a good-looking country, really, as long as you don’t divide us up by political leanings. Then we end up looking like a constrained heart, just one McDonald’s vanilla shake short of a heart attack:

How to be a cartographer


What you’ll need: a location to map out, an artistic sensibility

Songlist: Maps by the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs

Further reading: Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky, Maphead by Ken Jennings (yes, THE Ken Jennings, aka Jeopardy millionaire)

Back during World Traveler week I was going to dedicate one post to maps. But then I started looking at maps and I remembered how much I frigging love maps. They deserve more than one day.

I don’t have a lot of experience in map-making. Sure, there were the occasional elementary school projects for which I had to create an economic map of Africa or label a map of the United States with the 32 American football teams (much like the baseball map above). And sure, I once created a map of a fictional town, about which I was going to write a YA series. But nothing like professional cartography.

A highway map of Wyoming

Maps astound me. When we were driving back from Wyoming to Minnesota a few weeks ago, I was constantly checking our atlas for the small towns we passed (an atlas that is so well-loved and well-travelled that both the Wyoming and Minnesota pages have fallen out). Yes, there were Wyoming’s descriptive towns Sundance and Tensleep, and there were South Dakota’s rather more unpleasant sounding Murdo and Pukwana. And every town was placed exactly in proportion to the next–a fact that I once took for granted but now amazes me. How do cartographers do it?

It’s not so much the technology that amazes me–GPS, lasers, and computers can make short work of a landscape–but the idea of every place on earth being documented. I remember hearing about the goal of Google’s Street View, which is, ultimately, to provide images from every street in the world (although not all countries yet have planned visits from Google’s Camera Cars). I immediately thought of the Borges-like short story possibilities: what if a single person decided to walk down every street in the world?

What I love most, though, is that for every map out there there is a person for whom it is unnecessary. Which is to say, every street in the world is known well by at least a small group of people. While we can feel proud of being familiar with the famous streets of the world–knowing, for instance the expanse of the Champs-Élysées or 5th Avenue gives one a certain cachet–isn’t it our unique knowledge that sets us apart? When we are able to associate memories and intimacies with the smallest names on a map, those maps come alive.