Reviews: 2008

  1. Our Dumb World by The Onion (The Map Room)
  2. Longitude by Dava Sobel (The Map Room)
  3. Canada Back Road Atlas (The Map Room)
  4. Transit Maps of the World by Mark Ovenden (The Map Room)
  5. Seeing in the Dark by Timothy Ferris
  6. Smile When You’re Lying by Chuck Thompson
  7. Lost States by Michael J. Trinklein (The Map Room)
  8. Rhumb Lines and Map Wars by Mark Monmonier (The Map Room)
  9. Cartography Design Annual #1 edited by Nick Springer (The Map Room)
  10. Marsbound by Joe Haldeman
  11. Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi

Our Dumb World by The Onion

our-dumb-worldAs I mentioned before, Our Dumb World is The Onion’s take on the sort of atlas exemplified by the old National Geographic Picture Atlas of Our World, a book I grew up on and that did a lot to shape my perception of the world. Our Dumb World takes the same format: each country gets a map, a flag, an introduction and a list of geographical factoids.

This is an Onion book, so the similarities end there. In a nutshell, Our Dumb World takes the piss out of the planet, simultaneously riffing on the foibles of the nations of the world and on our stereotyped, blinkered perceptions of them. It relies to a certain extent on our perceptions of other countries: there are lots of jokes to be had at Brazil’s expense, so its entry is richer, longer and funnier than, say, Belgium’s, which is a one-note chocolate joke. (Incidentally, this means that Our Dumb World won’t translate well: Belgians are the butt of French jokes the way that Newfoundlanders are the butt of Canadian jokes — or, well, see Poland. Humour is local.) It also means that many countries get short shrift (such as most of Africa), and, at least in San Marino’s case, the writers seem to have given up altogether. (A few island nations are missing, but to be fair, how many jokes can be made about Nauru or Kiribati? Not that they’ll be around much longer anyway …)

That it’s an Onion book also means that each square inch of each page has value. If you’ve read their faux 20th-century retrospective, Our Dumb Century, even the bus-plunge two-liners had comedic value. So it is here, with each point on the map, each thumbnail photo and each entry on the history timeline played for keeps, if not always successfully for laughs. And that it’s an Onion book means that the sense of humour can at times draw blood — see, for example, Thailand’s entry. This is humour that makes you flinch. Now, I adore bad taste, but it’s worth mentioning that this book isn’t for everyone — especially not for children.

Don’t look for cartographic accuracy in this book — I shouldn’t need to mention that. We’re doing well when a country’s capital is placed within a thousand miles of its location. But cartophiles will enjoy at least one good laugh in Greenland’s entry: “As anyone who has seen a world map in the last 50 years knows, Greenland is larger than Africa and South America combined.” Somewhere in the underworld, the shade of Arno Peters just giggled.

There’s an audio version available [Amazon, iBooks]; I don’t know how that works.


The Map Room, January 14, 2008

Longitude by Dava Sobel

longitude-sobelLatitude and longitude are basics of accurate map-making and navigation. In an age of pervasive GPS signals, it’s easy to forget that determining your location was not at all straightforward until relatively recently. Calculating latitude has always been simpler than calculating longitude. Latitude can be determined observationally: by measuring the angle of Polaris above the horizon, or the altitude of the sun, moon or other celestial objects on known dates.

In the 18th century, an accurate method of determining longitude was a matter of some urgency. In Britain, a Board of Longitude was convened and a £20,000 prize announced for such a method. There were many crackpot ideas, but it was believed that astronomical observation could also be used to determine longitude, but at the time, the state of astronomical knowledge was not yet at a point where this could be done. Astronomers simply did not yet have accurate measurements of the stars.

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. While astronomers populated the Board of Longitude and looked for an astronomical solution, English clockmaker John Harrison worked on an alternative solution: a clock. The Earth rotates through 360 degrees in 24 hours — 15 degrees an hour, or a degree every four minutes. Longitude could be calculated from the difference between local noon (which could be observed) and noon at a known point: if noon came an hour earlier than it did at that known point, you were 15 degrees west of it.

But, as the state of astronomical knowledge was insufficient to the task, so too was the state of clock technology. While astronomers conducted their observations and compiled their tables, Harrison spent decades working on a series of timepieces that could handle the vicissitudes of sea travel and could continue to tick even while being wound. Two competing methods came to fruition at roughly the same time: Harrison’s timepiece, which was accurate, easy to use, but expensive; and astronomer royal Nevil Maskelyne’s lunar tables, which were complicated to use but inexpensive to reproduce. Intrigue ensued. Eventually, other clockmakers were able to reduce the cost of manufacturing chronometers — as they became known — to the point where they were in regular use in British ships by the early 19th century.

This, in a nutshell, is the story told in Dava Sobel’s Longitude, a fascinating look not only at a man and his timepieces, but also at an age where necessity truly was the mother of invention. Longitude was first published in 1995, became a bestseller, and spawned a TV movie in 2000 (which I haven’t seen). It’s a phenomenon, and rightly so. This little book is absolutely engaging; those with an interest in the history of navigation, cartography, astronomy and, yes, clockmaking will find something to enjoy. My readers told me a year ago to read this book, and boy were they right. Highly recommended.

(See also the History of longitude Wikipedia entry.)

Amazon | iBooks

The Map Room, January 22, 2008

Canada Back Road Atlas

MapArt is easily the largest publisher of road maps in Canada, publishing not only maps of cities and metropolitan areas (both as folded maps and as coil-bound and saddle-stitched atlases), but also large-scale maps of rural areas, providing information on back roads and recreational areas at a level of detail that official highway maps, single-sheet maps and, I suspect, navigational systems simply cannot match. I’ve almost always had a few with me when I travel — where else am I going to find maps of Ontario cities like Guelph or Pembroke?

back-road-atlasNow they’ve gone and done something outlandish, quite possibly simply because they could: they’ve published a giant, 700-page omnibus of their provincial back road atlases.

The Canada Back Road Atlas contains large-scale maps for all provinces, and small-scale maps for some. Map scales vary from region to region, due no doubt to the originating back roads atlases and to the relative sizes and densities of each province. Large-scale maps range from 1:250,000 for southern Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes, to 1:500,000 for Alberta, British Columbia and Newfoundland (Labrador and the territories get smaller-scale maps only) and 1:540,000 for Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The smaller scales do not feel particularly cramped, though the range lines can get in the way on the prairies; insets of city centres and high-density areas are provided for provinces that don’t get the 1:250,000 treatment. The 1:250,000 maps provide fantastic detail, but they also necessitate frequent page-turning. Small-scale maps provide coverage for sparsely populated areas as well, though not for southern Ontario or the Maritimes.

The atlas is broken into several discrete sections — Alberta and B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and the Atlantic provinces. It’s a little confusing at provincial borders between sections: my section of Quebec, for example, is covered by an Ontario map plate, which is not replicated in the Quebec section. Large-scale plates pan from north to south, west to east, except in Ontario, where it’s south to north, and they pan across provinces within sections, which is also hard to follow.

All the same, it’s an impressive effort, and one that I’ve been flipping through compulsively. I like it a lot. And it’s a bargain at $40. It is a little too unwieldy to keep in your car, though: it’s heavy, printed on a heavier, glossier paper than other atlases, and it eschews coil binding for perfect binding, which makes me worry that I’m going to crack the spine reading it. I think this will be best as a desk reference; road trips will still need smaller maps and atlases.

I received a review copy of this book.

The Map Room, February 15, 2008

Transit Maps of the World by Mark Ovenden

[This is a review of the first edition. A revised, expanded edition came out in 2015.]

Billed on its cover as “the world’s first collection of every urban train map on Earth,” this is, in fact, the second revised edition of this book, which first came out in 2003 as Metro Maps of the World. (Maybe that was the first collection.) Even so, Transit Maps of the World does live up to its billing in that it provides reproductions of every urban subway system map — I didn’t count them — on the planet. It would have been valuable enough if it had simply collected all the system maps, one to a page, but author Mark Ovenden is more ambitious than that.

Transit Maps of the World is interested in transit system maps from a design perspective: the focus is not on the development of transit systems, but on the evolution of their maps. The book is organized accordingly, split into six zones with decreasing levels of detail: Zone 1 covers those systems with long histories and several revisions in map style, with each city getting between two to four pages; Zone 6 collect those relatively new systems that have had no more than one system map, and these maps are reproduced as tiny images. Given the focus on map design, it may also come as no surprise to learn that Ovenden’s interest is in the change from topographical, geographically accurate map designs to angular, Beck-style diagrams: the text approves of such changes when they occur, and disapproves when they fail to do so or change back.

Those interested in transit systems for their own sake, or who have an interest in more recent systems, may well be disappointed by the focus on map design or the short shrift given to some systems, as will people looking for maps of other aspects of urban transit, such as suburban commuter rail networks bus systems, which are outside this book’s terms of reference. But, as usual, I’m quibbling. Map design is a fascinating subject, and the mere fact of being able to compare so many designs from so many cities is instructive. And, even through Ovenden’s design lens, this book offers a window on virtually every major city in the world through its urban train system; as travellers, these systems are frequently our first real encounter with these cities, so it’s a fitting starting point.

The Map Room, March 5, 2008

Seeing in the Dark by Timothy Ferris

seeing-in-the-darkI just finished reading Timothy Ferris’s Seeing in the Dark, a book about amateur contributions to astronomy. This is something I’ve been struck by the more I get into astronomy: it not only accepts amateur contributions, it relies on them. While professional astronomers compete for limited time on research telescopes, the sheer number of amateurs looking skyward allows them to do things that professionals simply can’t (because there are fewer of them looking through fewer telescopes). Such as long-term observations of single objects (like variable stars), and searching for asteroids, comets and supernovae. (The subsequent PBS documentary did not emphasize this point to the same extent.)

I’m struck by this partly because it’s not the same with herpetology, or at least the wildlife conservation part of it, where amateurs are frequently seen as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution — with the notable and important exception of frog monitoring. (On the other hand, you can’t poach a comet.)

But Ferris points out that amateur astronomy is a relatively recent phenomenon, a result of larger apertures and digital cameras passing into amateur hands; a half-century ago, amateurs were limited to long-focal-length, small-aperture refractors and reflectors, and planetary observations. A lot has happened to empower amateur astronomers since then. In the meantime, amateur herpetologists have been facing increasing regulations and sharp professionalization, both of which restrict the lay enthusiast from doing meaningful work in the wild, and send many of us to our basements to focus on exotics.

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March 10, 2008

Smile When You’re Lying by Chuck Thompson

smile-when-lyingLet’s face it: travel writing, for the most part, sucks. It’s vapid, junket-driven, cliché-laden dross in which anything remotely interesting is boiled away for fear of offending the travel industry whose ads pay for said junkets and for the travel sections of the weekend editions of newspapers in which this stuff appears. Chuck Thompson makes this point in his new book, Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer. Not even the Lonely Planet guides (“Lonely Planet is the only publisher I know of that seems to actively dislike its readers”) are exempt.

It’s an entertaining read, but it doesn’t quite make it. Attacking the clichés of the genre would make for a pretty slim volume; there are chapters sharing his experiences as a travel magazine editor, as a travel writer, and as a traveller, full stop. They seem like padding to me, but if nothing else, they explain how easy it is to become jaded by the travel industry. His realization that his dislike of the Caribbean is because of the juxtaposition of luxury resorts and endemic poverty resonates with my own ambivalence about the idea of vacationing there. His off-colour, disaster-laden travel stories are just the sort of thing that would be unlikely to appear in the travel section of a newspaper, but it’s hardly transgressive that they’re seeing print — Paul Theroux was writing stronger stuff 30 years ago.

And there’s a point there: there are two genres of travel writing, the literary sort (Chatwin, Naipaul, Theroux) and the advertorial sort; this book is about the latter (even if, in one telling passage, Thompson nails Theroux for writing the advertorial pabulum that his overall body of work seems to stand against).

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March 12, 2008

Lost States by Michael J. Trinklein

[This book was subsequently published in a trade edition from Quirk Books in 2010; what follows is a review of the original, self-published edition.]

Lost States: Real Quests for American Statehood chronicles 42 proposals for U.S. statehood that never went anywhere (though some very nearly did). I had no idea there were so many of them. They range from the nutty to the serious, from the Revolution to recently, and from the Atlantic (Iceland?) to the Pacific (the Philippines). They cover the whole gamut: alternative ways of dividing up the territory west of the Thirteen Colonies after the Revolution; partition movements within states (several for Texas and California, but even smaller states like Maine and Alaska — smaller by population, wiseass — have them); new states carved from several adjacent states (a refigured Idaho, statehood for the Navajo nation); more straightforward (and familiar) statehood movements; and annexation proposals.

This self-published little gem is beautifully laid out and engagingly written. Trinklein, a former university professor and PBS documentary maker, brings plenty of funny to the table; his prose is light, entertaining and accessible. While the maps are pretty good (with the boundaries and names superimposed on contemporary maps) the stories behind the proposals are what really make this book: stories of congressmen, adventurers, disgruntled corners of states, and other assorted whackjobs. Really, he should have a blog or something.

As a print-on-demand title, Lost States is a little pricier than regularly published books, I think, but if you’re a fan of the kind of material that appears on Strange Maps, you should grab it. Now.

I received a review copy of this book from the author.

The Map Room, July 15, 2008

Rhumb Lines and Map Wars by Mark Monmonier

rhumb-linesRhumb Lines and Map Wars: A Social History of the Mercator Projection is Mark Monmonier’s response to the controversy over the Mercator projection stirred up by Arno Peters and his map that purported to be fair to all peoples. Rather than retroactively mixing it up with Peters and his chief critic, Arthur Robinson, Monmonier has taken a step or two back to create a broader understanding of Mercator, his projection and its uses.

Most of us with some knowledge of map projections know that Mercator’s intent was to provide a map usable in sea navigation: angles on the map match constant compass lines. Monmonier reveals that Mercator was a little ahead of his time: it took centuries before the technology (such as chronometers) was developed to make his map one of several essential navigation tools. From the development of sailing charts to the development of Mercator variants such as the transverse and space oblique, Monmonier not only demonstrates the Mercator’s specific uses, but also that the projection was the result of divers hands. Mercator himself rates only a chapter; the map cannot be reduced to the mapmaker.

The source of the controversy over the Mercator projection was its use as a wall map; the Mercator’s dominance began during the 19th century, when ships were king. But by the 20th century its influence was beginning to wane. Other projections began making their appearance in atlases, such as Goode’s homolosine and the Mollweide. The National Geographic Society had been using the compromise Van der Grinten projection on its wall maps since 1922. And, with the advent of aviation and beacon-based navigation, great circles became more important than rhumb lines.

Peters’s attack on the Mercator projection in the 1970s seems a bit odd in this context, which I think is Monmonier’s point. Apart from honking off academic cartographers, Peters proferred a solution that was hardly novel — there are plenty of equal-area equatorial projections out there, which differ only in their secants. But he was able to engage the imaginations of a number of organizations who were receptive to his post-colonial critique.

Monmonier finishes by questioning whether scholars exaggerate the influence of the Mercator projection on social thought: “Did Europe’s rulers and merchants need wall maps or world atlases to justify their actions? Did maps that inflated the size of the British Empire stifle whatever remorse nineteenth-century Britons might have had about racism and economic slavery in Africa or India? More to the point, did anyone ever die because of the Mercator projection?” But critics of the Peters projection don’t get off easy: “Although superior projections abound, the evils of the Peters maps are easily exaggerated. Do its users really think Africa looks that way? Do they never look at a globe, or at other maps? Are map users complete idiots?” (pp. 174-75)

Worth reading for Monmonier’s take on the Peters controversy alone, Rhumb Lines is a fine look at an influential, useful and maligned projection.

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The Map Room, July 22, 2008

Cartographic Design Annual #1 edited by Nick Springer

cartography-design-annualBased on submissions from the Cartotalk community, this ambitious first iteration of the Cartographic Design Annual, edited by Nick Springer, is intended as a showcase of cartographic talent. A total of 36 maps, submitted by 29 contributors, are included in this volume.

The reproductions are beautiful, a testament to just how good a self-published book produced via print-on-demand (this time at But don’t expect an anthology of usable maps. The Annual only provides a sampling: one page shows the map in full, and usually considerably reduced; the facing page provides a readable excerpt. Don’t, in other words, plan on using this as an atlas.

The maps themselves are something of a mixed bag; some are better than the others. But comparing them to one another is very much an apple-and-oranges exercise: these are real maps designed for real purposes. Tom Patterson’s relief map of the U.S. is here, as is a map for National Geographic. But there are also park maps, city maps, tourist maps, and maps for specific purposes: energy in India, snowfall in Colorado, golf, wine. The selection is eclectic. Some are basic, some are functional, some are works of art; all, however, are maps made by working cartographers in the course of their jobs. (And I want to know where I can buy Hans van der Maarel’s globe chair.)

Of the 36 maps in this collection, 20 are maps of the U.S. or constituent part (a park, a city), and nearly three-quarters of the maps depict some part of North America. Compare this with three world maps and two maps from Europe. Hopefully, the focus in future volumes won’t be quite so lopsided.

Each map is accompanied by a list of the software used to make it and the data source; it’s revealing that more than two-thirds of the maps were made with Adobe Illustrator, more than half with Photoshop, more than a quarter with Avenza MAPublisher and ESRI ArcGIS, and more than a fifth with Manifold. (Most maps were made with several applications.) It’s a useful barometer of the state of the art; I would, however, like to see more information provided, such as the projection used (at least for larger-scale maps) and, perhaps, a short note from the cartographer explaining what went into the map.

All in all, Nick has put together a revealing snapshot of what the field is producing; I can only look forward to subsequent volumes, for which I hope he ends up having to turn down too many good maps. The more cartographers hear about this project, the more submissions Nick gets, the better this series will be. A bit pricey at $40 for a 78-page paperback, but that’s the economics of POD for you, especially in full colour.

I received a review copy of this book.

The Map Room, September 15, 2008

Marsbound by Joe Haldeman

marsboundMarsbound, Joe Haldeman’s latest novel, starts slowly and intimately: the first quarter of the novel is spent following his young protagonist, Carmen Dula, and her family on a weeks-long trip up a space elevator and thence on their journey to Mars. The second quarter unfolds like a Heinlein juvenile (except for the sex), with Carmen’s struggle to survive on Mars personified by a stern and bureaucratic authority figure with whom she comes into conflict. Once Carmen runs away and stumbles upon a colony of Martians, however, the similarities to, say, Red Planet end. The novel pivots, draws back in scope and dramatically accelerates its pace; years fly by in the same number of pages that described hours, as Carmen returns to Earth orbit with a posse of Martians — who turn out not to be indigenous to Mars and unsure of their own origins — as they try to figure out where they come from. Marsbound finishes as another iteration on a common Haldeman theme: human beings facing the judgment of overwhelmingly powerful aliens. The Martians and other aliens are wonderfully imagined in this otherwise spare novel, whose two halves never quite fuse into a satisfactory whole.

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October 4, 2008

Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi

zoes-taleJohn Scalzi’s aliens are sparsely described and unconvincingly Other (he’s no Larry Niven) and his characters are usually some variation on smartass. But his novels, with exciting plots and witty dialogue (see “some variation on smartass,” above), never fail to entertain. So it is with Zoe’s Tale, which is a retelling of the story of The Last Colony (which missed winning this year’s Hugo Award for Best Novel by a whisker) from the point of view of the protagonists’ adopted daughter, Zoë. (Why she loses the umlaut in the book’s title, I have no idea.)

The Last Colony suffered from a couple of plot holes (viz., where did those werewolves go, and how did Zoë get that deus-ex-machina technology?) that Zoe’s Tale fills fulsomely. In fact, it’s impossible to consider Zoe’s Tale absent The Last Colony: it’s very much a mirror image of that novel. The two novels are both case studies in limited first-person narration: neither John Perry, the protagonist of The Last Colony and Zoë’s stepfather, nor Zoë herself in Zoe’s Tale, knows exactly what the other is doing; essentially, these are two books trying to tell the same story. Two blind grabs at the same elephant. The end result is that Zoe’s Tale deals in detail with what The Last Colony mentioned in passing; unfortunately, the converse is also true: the grand plot of The Last Colony is given short shrift in Zoe’s Tale — key points are mentioned briefly, plot twists are telegraphed — and I’m not sure if Zoe’s Tale stands alone as a result.

The tension between the novel’s two ambitions — a retelling of the events of The Last Colony from Zoë’s perspective, and an attempt to explore Zoë’s tragic background and her role as an object of veneration for an entire alien species — is sometimes strained, and I think the latter suffers a little bit at the expense of the former. Despite Scalzi’s breezy and accessible prose and the book’s positioning as a young-adult novel, Zoe’s Tale is an ambitious book. Despite its flaws, it mostly succeeds, in that it’s got lots of good bits in it and is fun to read. Which, in the end, is really what matters, don’t you think?

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October 4, 2008