Friday, April 24, 2015

Maps are visual thinking

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, maps, mapping, diagrams

For much of my childhood my parents took us on numerous road trips, frequently of the night-on-the-road variety. Dad or Mom would often pick up a current road map of the state or states we were passing through; gas stations used to hand them out free. We wound up with boxes of them. When I was a teen there was a large shed in the back yard we used for various kinds of "club house", including a place for my folk band to practice. We hung up some of the old maps for decoration, and were thinking of papering all its walls with them, but never did so. As a geology student, maps became ever more important to me, and I learned a great variety of concepts I could tag to geography.

Imagine my surprise upon encountering the first map in an "Alternative Atlas", in which the Unites States and some other countries have gone missing! Titled Surrealist Map of the World and attributed to Paul Eluard, I suppose it shows what was important to him in 1929 when the Left everywhere had such hopes for Communism and Socialism (Alaska was part of Russia at the time).

This map is found on page 8 in the introduction to Mapping it Out: An Alternative Atlas of Contemporary Cartographers, edited by Hans Ulrich Obrist. While many of the diagrams in the book, in its near-coffee-table format, are based on geography or some distortion thereof, not all are. However, a great many of the "artistic" items are so abstract they have meaning only for the artist. Thus, I'll do my usual blather about a few that I could at least comprehend.

Here, from page 29, is a political map of the USA by James Croak, showing the relative clout of Senators relative to the population of their home states. Each state has 2 Senators, regardless of population. I detect a somewhat different political agenda, however. Mr. Croak seems to be trying to mobilize the Democrats or even to scare them, by squeezing them into the corners. Why else make Delaware, which has a population no more than double that of Wyoming, appear around 1/100th that state's size? By the rules he set up, it ought to be closer to half the size shown for Wyoming. Also, California and New York, with 70 and 40 times Wyoming's population respectively, should appear as tiny is Delaware is shown. Of course, those are blue states, so it's hard to discern what's really going on. Maybe he factored in the years of experience of the Senators? or their clout on important committees?

Here is another geographical map, also with political intent, that is much better conceived and executed. From page 45, it is an educational diagram by Kai Krause, showing that Africa is a lot larger than most of us realize. Of course, the area of Asia is 50% greater than Africa, but half of that is the frozen wastes of Siberia.

Try this out for your next bar bet: "The land area of Africa is about equal to that of the USA, Europe, China, and India, combined." Be sure to scope out the actual figures beforehand and have them handy! A good wi-fi connection in the bar will also help.

The era of Big Data has enabled scientists and artists and everyone alike to gather and collate and chart almost anything, whether related to geography or on any other basis. I particularly liked a map of the U.S. and nearby parts in North America, created by Aaron Koblin, found on page 110, showing the density of air traffic based on public data on daily flights.

The editor writes that this shows something about working life in America. It also shows how most of the country west of the 97th Meridian is "flyover country". Leave out the big hubs in Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, and there are nearly no landings in that half of the country until you get to California.

I sometimes wonder what a map would look like based not in physical distance but on travel time, using the database found in a GPS navigator. Let's gather the parameters for making such a map. I live on a street about 0.4 mile long that connects to a 6-lane road at its west end and a "2-lane blacktop" suburban road at the other, one that is crossed by a road-ditch for rainwater at each intersection. My road and 8 others run east-west between the two. These 9 roads have a speed limit of 25 mph and speed bumps that slow most cars to 20 mph. The road to the east is hard to traverse at greater than 25 mph. The big road to west has a 45 mph speed limit but most traffic goes at least 50 mph. There is also a north-south road that crosses all 9 east-west roads about midway along with stop signs at every intersection, some 2-way, some 4-way. Practical travel along it seldom exceeds 15 mph. The N-S length of the three roads in that direction is about 0.5 mile.

Nest, turn these numbers upside-down, using a unit of tenths of a minute (6 sec) per mile:
  • Big road to the west: 600/50 = 12
  • 2-lane east-side road: 600/25 = 24
  • Road up the middle: 600/15 = 40
  • 9 E-W roads: 600/20 = 30
Those are the numbers to multiply by the length of each road segment. A time map for getting around in this neighborhood would be 6 units high on the left, 12 units high on the right, and a puffy 20 units high down the middle. The right-left size would be 12 units. In this illustration, the upper time map shows an attempt to use straight lines as much as possible. The wiggly sections at top and bottom became necessary when straight lines could no longer connect properly. That gave me an idea, which I sketched out as seen below. I set the middle road a little longer in total extent compared to the one on the right, but used wiggly lines to show that each block is really even longer. They also convey the start-stop feel of that road.

The geographic neighborhood is quite close to being a rectangle, but either of these time maps gives a better feel for what it is like to navigate. With all of this buried in the database of my GPS, it can determine the fastest route between two points. The upper map in particular shows how it is almost equally fast to go from the top center intersection to the bottom center intersection, whether you go "straight down" the middle road, or go first to the highway, then down, then back in! The only wild card is how long it takes to make the two left turns in the latter case. But going the other direction, those are right turns, and the physically longer way is probably the fastest.

In a more conceptual section of the book, some of the map creators brought in more dimensions. This example by Toyo Ito, from page 202, is an attempt to give a feel for the many-layered structure of a city's infrastructure. To me it resembles the solid substrate of bone, with its many voids in which separate systems for blood, lymph and nerves can pass with minimal interference. Whichever metaphor pleases you, it is a powerful concept.

If we generalize the concept "dimension" into the physicist's term "degree of freedom", we can use conceptual maps to show several variables together. A favorite example of mine is the chromaticity diagram, which represents human color vision, at least for most folks. Various kinds of color blindness require very different charts, as do the rare cases of female tetrachromaticity (4-color vision).

The chromaticity diagram shows "color coordinates" of the colors a normal human eye can see. The outer edge of the horseshoe shape follows the pure, or saturated, colors of the rainbow. The numbers around the shape are the wavelength in nanometers (nm). All colors inside the shape, and along the flat base, are produced by mixing two or more spectral colors.

The creator of this version of the diagram has superimposed generic color names on various regions of the color space. The central sort-of-oval part encompasses colors typically called "white" and "off-white".

The curved line from near the "600" point on the edge at the right, through the middle, is called the "black body locus", and represents the colors of anything hot enough to glow. Point "A" near the "yellow" area is the nearly-white color of an incandescent light bulb. Letters "B" through "E" show other standard light sources originally produced by filtering out some of the red and orange colors of an incandescent lamp. Black body colors closely match the colors of stars of different temperatures. The noontime Sun has a color at point "D". Cooler stars have redder colors toward the right, and hotter stars are bluer. The tip of the black body locus is the limit of incandescent blueness for a nearly infinitely hot star.

Thus, I would generalize: any diagram is a map of some kind. The book helps to broaden our understanding of mapping from a more-or-less explicit exercise, to a conceptual and recreational activity in which we all engage. Though "cartography" as a discipline began with geography, we can also map not only color but all the senses, plus relationships, processes, functional planning and, really, anything we can think of. To Think is to Map.

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