Category Archives: Geography

Impressions of “The Island of Lost Maps” by Miles Harvey

Today I finished The Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey. This book was loaned to me some time ago by a very close friend. In truth, I was hesitant to read it because of the ghastly nature of the crime. The description of taking an X-acto knife to library books to rip out maps made me physically ill.


However, the book was a great read. The meandering narrative gave it a hallucinogenic feel, as did the attempts by the author to understand the map thief, one Gilbert Bland. While Harvey can be quite opinionated on historical questions — his denunciation of cartographic “lies” could be tempered by reading Phantom Islands of the Atlantic or even Lands Beyond — I learned a lot about John C. Fremont, and many other characters besides. Harvey clearly enjoys the world of reading maps, and has a list of cool map links on his personal website.

I love maps, and this story of someone who destroyed them for profit was a fascinating read. Like anything with maps and the unknown, it leaves a sad feeling at the end, because after the last page there is no more of this book to read.


An important correction concerning mass transit and maps in Beijing

Earlier on this blog I complained that no good maps existed showing how the BRT lines intersected the Beijing Subway system. This comment was in error. The amazing website (available in Chinese and English) combines real-time traffic, dynamic bus route mapping, and subway and highway corridors.


While it is true that there is no map that simply adds BRT lines to the subway system, more than makes up for the gap.

Thanks, bjbus!

The View From…

The most recent edition of The Economist has, as its cover, the view from Beijing:


Which reminded of me the famous New Yorker‘s view from 9th avenue:


In the Beijinger map, you can clearly make out the Birdnest Stadium, the Imperial Palace, Beihai and Houhai (where Zhonghai and Nanhai should be), Tiananmen Square, Mao’s mauseleum, the Temple of Heaven, the Beijing Railway station and and its track to the south-east. More detail is available from Strange Maps.

Did Geographic Ignorance Accelerate Detroit’s Decline?

Obviously, geography matters. A recent post on Catholicgauze, and also at gnxp and Strange Maps, shows how the geographic borders of Imperial Russia and Imperial Germany still predict election outcomes in Poland, nearly a century later:


Yet incredibly, at least one form of geographical analysis actually illegal in the United States. “Redlining,” for instance, is an application of discriminant function analysis or logistic regression (or a pen-and-paper approximation of this) whereby information on geographical location is used to calculate a set of categorical dependent variables, one of which is “Do Not Offer Mortgage.” In a previous career Barack Obama scored political points by suing those who use geographic indicators of credit-worthiness.

The city of Detroit is in terminal decline, and conversation swirls around simply abandoning the city or turning it into a woodland. Certainly Detroit is on track to be Houghton, Michigan of our lifetimes (if you’ve never heard of Houghton, you will understand the reaction of those in a century who are confused when some town is compared to ‘Detroit.’) Yet the tragedy is compounded by the fact that laws designed to prevent the use of geography probably put Detroit in its current death spiral.

The Detroit News special series on the death of a city, block by block sheds some light on how geographic knowledge could have been used to stave off the decline of Detroit. As it is, it is a tragedy for both geographers and the citizens of Detroit that political ignorance of the study of how place matters helped destroy an American city.

Picture the Past

Over at Catholicgauze, I note this story on La Cartoteca about “HistoGrafica – Picture the Past.” HistoGrafica allows viewrs to look at photos of a place through time — kind of like a PhotoSynth of the Ages.

For one of the more depressing contrasts, compare the Omaha’s Kountze Park in 1898 with the ghetto firing range that it’s become.

For the deeper past, the genetic map of Europe is discussed in more detail by Razib at gnxp, who also notes that Henry Harpending points to similar work 20 years ago.