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Tabula rasa: Maps

Posted by joeabbott on March 18, 2012

imageWell, it snowed in Seattle again today and I’m trying to remind myself both that I live in the Pacific Northwest and that Spring is just around the corner! The snow didn’t stick but it speaks volumes to the temps being low and working outdoors being a challenge. Even working in the shop (the third bay of our garage) is hard: glues don’t setup right (or at least not quickly), finishing takes forever, and being out there is akin to spending time in a meat locker! While I do have a space heater, it just heats the space in front of my workbench and not the entire garage bay. A bit chilly for me. And the cool temps and freezing are keeping Suzy from starting her Spring planting.

So, while the late-season snow and home details have kept us in, I’ve been doing a bit of reading.

Last week I finished up Maphead by Ken Jennings. I received the book as a Christmas gift from my mother this past year and very much enjoyed my time with it. So much so, that I believe I’ll earmark it for a second read. An unusual step for me, as I normally won’t reread a book I’ve already read! But Maphead is different.

First, it’s by Ken Jennings, who won fame as the game show Jeopardy! champion: in 2004 he had a 74 game undefeated run, losing on his 75th appearance. Pretty impressive showcase of his trivia acumen. And it comes through in the book. Many pages have footnotes, most stories have tangents, and both his vocabulary and breadth of knowledge are impressive. In all, it makes for an entertaining as well as educational diversion.

Additionally, I’m a bit of a map geek and so the book hit close to one of my interests. I’m more of a casual “maphead”, as I don’t know things like the smallest town in any of the 50 states, all the US state capitols, and never seriously pored over an atlas for hours on end. That said, I have boxes of maps, maps hanging on the walls of our home, I own several computer mapping programs, and a couple GPS units. I clearly like maps!

Finally, there’s just so much to the story that I couldn’t drink it all in in my first reading. So the special status of “reread this book” has been awarded to Maphead. In the spirit of having a lot of mapping resources at my disposal, a few notes in the book really caught my attention.

The Degree Confluence Project was something I’d never heard about. Ken introduced me to it in Chapter 12 (titled Relief) of his book. The Degree Confluence Project is explained on their homepage:

The goal of the project is to visit each of the latitude and longitude integer degree intersections in the world, and to take pictures at each location. The pictures, and stories about the visits, will then be posted here.

imageAnd what are “latitude and longitude integer degree intersections”?  As explained in their FAQ section: the exact spot where an integer degree of latitude and an integer degree of longitude meet, such as 43°00’00"N 72°00’00"W.

The fun part about degree intersections is that, by their definition, there are reasonably many of these around! In Washington state there are about two dozen!

Now, while I think the degree confluence project is cool, visiting one of these places really just puts you at a location that’s indistinguishable from most any other place you could be standing. These places have no geographical importance other than a place on a map as defined by some person somewhere. And it wasn’t even intentional to show up at that place! It just happens to work out that, there you are.

imageVisitors to the degree confluence locations are encouraged to snap a picture of the location and the image to the right s a very typical shot. Just a picture of some trees and an area pretty much like any other. Most visitors also take a picture of their GPS unit showing the integer degree confluence in all its glory.

A bit dry, somewhat nerdy, and if you like maps, just cool enough to make one wonder about finding a degree confluence location near your home. For my family back in MN, it looks like the closest integer degree confluence to you just just south of White Bear Township, near Maplewood Middle School (45° N, 93° W).

Another resource Ken called out is the Open Street Map project. The definition on the web site’s front page says:

OpenStreetMap is a free worldwide map, created by people like you.

The data is free to download and use under its open license.

The reason for Open Street Map is that alternatives are owned by companies (Google and Microsoft being two such companies) and involve proprietary information. In the spirit of wikis (the most famous being “Wikipedia”) and power-to-the-people, Open Street Map is created by every day people like you and me, however, those people are happy creating maps and giving away their efforts! It’s really great stuff. While I don’t have the time for another hobby, this is the sort of thing that I could get behind!

That said, a quick look at my neighborhood shows that those making the maps have been fairly active: there are no “great blank places” here for me to fill in. As a guy who does a lot of hiking, though, I bet I could add a little something to the storehouse of knowledge that’s Open Street Maps!

And that’s it. I am behind on a number of fronts but catching up on reading (I also finished What It’s Like by Jeff Belanger … another Christmas gift from my mother). My motivation is a bit low but the snowy/rainy days are accommodating me. Later today I’ll build some “cages” for that plants Suzy will be putting in this year … just enough of a wire barrier to chicken-proof them.

Thanks for stopping in to see what’s caught my eye this week!


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