Saturday, March 29, 2008


Been thinking some about arbitrariness, re Joe's recent comments:
I used the arbitrary exactly because it implies a judgement, on somebody's part, as to how one will divide one's representation of reality by marking it. That's really important!
To me "arbitrary" also implies decisions not really based in the subject at hand. The decision to use the equator and the poles as a basis for a global grid has a different level of arbitrariness than the decision to use the pole-to-pole meridian that goes through Greenwich, England. The four cardinal directions aren't arbitrary; they're based on the direction of earth's rotations and appear to be nearly universal. On the other hand, north as up is arbitrary.

I argued in one of my last posts that the decision to use 360° of longitude was somewhere between. It's of course because of the common idea of 360° in a circle, but my assumption was that 360 was the number of choice because it is such a great factorial number (360=2 x 2 x 2 x 3 x 3 x 5; factors are 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 12, 15, 18, 20, 24, 30, 36, 40, 45, 60, 72, 90, 120, 180). Well, the consensus seems to be the circle is 360° because the Babylonians had a base-60 number system, and that this in turn is due to the proportions of a circle inscribed into a hexagon. Which seems a little more arbitrary than I had thought.

Which brings up questions of the arbitrariness of any given counting system: we use decimal (base-10) for most of our everyday activities, but binary (base-1) and hexadecimal (base-16) are pretty universal in the world of computes. While base 10 is arbitrary in the sense that it "just happens" that we generally have 10 fingers and 10 toes, so that choice wasn't totally arbitrary to those who began counting on those fingers and toes.

So again, it's a question of perspective. One person's arbitrary is another's fundamental. From our modern, detached, viewpoint, the Greenwich meridian is truly arbitrary; all Longitudes are equal. The meridian was established was established in 1851 at the Royal Observatory and because Britain's Empire was approaching its peak, it quickly became a global commonplace. It was made the international standard in 1884 at an international convention. It surprised me how late this convention was set. But in the sense that the Royal Observatory really was the center of world standards at the time, it certainly isn't totally arbitrary.

There's an interesting history and a list of other meridians on Wikipedia.

This in turn leads to an interesting article on the Washington meridian(s). This in turn leads to a discussion of where those straight lines that form so much of the west actually come from. Most, interestingly, are not based on the modern longitude (being older than the Greenwich standard), but on degrees west of Washington. But which meridian in Washington? The Capitol or the Naval Observatory?

Arbitrary? Well, in a universal sense, yes, but in the sense that American national identity is centered on that most symmetric of capital cities, it's not arbitrary at all, any more than the circular arc boundary of Delaware and Pennsylvania, nominally centered on the steeple of the old state house at New Castle.

But then there are those boundaries based on rivers or mountain crests or other actual markings on the land. These seem less "arbitrary" yet.

And then there's the whole idea of boundaries. I still often bear in mind Matthew Edney's description of the early 17th-century boundary between the France and the Holy Roman Empire, where you would go riding east from Paris, and for a while every estate owed allegiance to the King of France. Then after a while, every now and then you'd have one who was loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor. Then as you approach the Rhine, the mix would be come pretty even, and then eventually as you crossed into what is now Germany, pretty much everyone was a Holy Roman by affiliation. So when you see a historic map of that era that shows a boundary line, this is a modern artifact (AND arbitrary!); national boundaries then were often soft.

I think it would be really cool to do a world political map that also reflected relative loyalty to the central government: Somalia as a very light color, Japan as quite vivid, and the regional variation: Tibet lighter than Shanghai. Maybe just eliminate national boundaries altogether, and do a dot-scatter map of populations and loyalties.

Then again, it'd be hard to keep up to date.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Good lord.

Yes, I've read about the eugenics movement before, here and there, but was still shaken by the exhibit we went to see at the Science Museum of Minnesota this past weekend. It's called "Deadly Science: Creating the Master Race." It's organized and circulated by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and not surprisingly, it does a really good job, as my wife Ingrid put it, of taking you on a guided tour through Hell.

The point of the show to my mind is to follow the slippery slope from genetics to genocide, which it does well. It's easy to put the label "monster" on the people involved in the events in Germany, but the exhibit is effective in keeping them very human as long as possible... criminal, yes, but still human.

Ouch. It reminded me of the sensation of watching The Talented Mr Ripley, as the title character keeps choosing the violent and brutal over the tender but painful, becoming action by action more of a monster in an effort to protect himself and the lies he began with.

I was talking with Ingrid afterwards, and asked her where she thought the eugenics people went wrong. It's not as easy a question as it sounds: we use genetics all the time, breeding apples and dogs and meat animals (and yes, I know vegetarians have a point here). But there are clearly also positive aspects to studying the human genome, in terms of dealing with human disease.

Ingrid's thought was that the emphasis on "use" was one of the eugenicists' biggest mistakes, the idea that Downs Syndrome people aren't "useful" and so should be (big euphemism here) discarded (full disclosure: she had a distant cousin who was one of the "discards"). The Third Reich's ideology came out of a very functionalist mindset—it's a German stereotype, but there is a strongly materialistically practical worldview that is part of German identity (when we were over last year we greatly enjoyed the Ritter Sport chocolate's motto, translated as "Square. Practical. Good.").

"Use" is about power; it applies to tools. Applying it to people makes them into tools—objects— and removes empathetic connection.

Which speaks I think to what Steven was saying about the grid: it removes empathetic connection to the earth.

Except of course there are plenty of cartographers and map users who still have that connection. When you go to NACIS and listen to people talking about doing the maps they love, its an exercise in opening up a connection they feel to the landscape to other people. I certainly feel that way about the urban maps I make. So where is the problem?

The problem comes, I think, in enforcement of abstract systems back onto the world as a way of not dealing with its complexities. It's so much easier to just put a graticule down on top of a continent, repeating six-by-six-mile townships over hill and dale, wetland and mesa, always the same. It's easier to just say "you're the wrong sort of person, so you go in that line there."

All of these knowledge structures—the graticule, genetics, or the Dewey Decimal System—have histories, and they have biases and cultural codes locked inside them. As platforms for communication, they also provide a truly open-source basis. Where they most egregiously fall down is when their structure is applied back onto the subject of the knowledge as an exercise of power: when genetics stops being a way of discussing and exploring hereditary characteristics and starts being a way of sorting people; when books are rejected for not fitting into a filing system; when graticule lines are physically cut into the earth.

Friday, March 14, 2008


That's Dewey Decimal for Cartography.

To the extent that the graticule (latitude/longitude, UTM, or whatever system you're using to grid out the earth and map it) is a "neutral" framework designed to hold whatever information you want to hang on it, it's a lot like other knowledge frameworks.

I immediately think of library shelving systems. You have books on any conceivable subject (and you need to leave space in the system for books based on subjects you haven't thought of yet). Dewey Decimal System, Library of Congress, or simple alphabetization... all these are meant to present a "neutral" framework.

Well, of course they are not neutral. Melvil Dewey had Big Ideas, and, well, he was a 19th-century American. A quick glance at the basic classifications of the system show all of the non-Christians shoved into 1/10 of the religion section, the non-European languages shoved into 1/10 of the language and literature sections, and so forth. Interestingly, the geographically-organized sections are the most democratic: a full section for every continent.

My qustion is: Does this structure cause users of the systems to become biased? If your library has as many books about Islam (297) as about Christianity (210-289 inclusive), will the reader be affected by the Islam's classifications having longer numbers than the Christianity's? I think the reader would look more at the numbers of books than the numbers on the books.

What bias does a rectangular grid provide? Well, it certainly has affected how the middle of the United States (and Western Canada) were developed, a vast sheet of graph paper laid out on the landscape. But this is a case of the graticule being applied to the land, like a library giving the exact number of shelf inches to each Dewey classification.

Jefferson's gridding of western territories is part of a longer tradition of rational development. Penn's Philadelphia, the nine squares of New Haven, the Mason-Dixon line, the Treaty of Tordesillas line: from the beginning of the European colonial era, people tried to impose their will (or God's will) on the landscape using lines and grids.

The problem any rational book-filing system runs into is the multiple-entry problem. If you have two authors, which do file it under? More importantly, if you have a book about religion and science, does it get filed in the science or religion section? Not just libraries have this problem. Why do some books get filed into genre fiction shelves in bookstores while others get filed under literature?

In geographic terms, a place can have multiple identites, which a map may not communicate. I've worked this over in the Neigborhoods of Minneapolis article on Wikipedia: Some major neighborhoods like Uptown are not officially defined by anyone, while others have primarily political significance, and still others (like Linden Hills) have both informal and formal recognition. On a more politically dangerous note, two warring nations may claim the same land as "homeland." Of course Kosovo and Israel/Palestine have more issue than "the map," but the absoluteness of boundaries on modern maps surely isn't helping.

But this is different than the underlying grid: territories are accurately mapped using the grid, but the two territories above are not defined by the grid. What would the same sort of problem cross-discipline books face loo like in geographic terms? I'm imagining a surveyor for some large construction project being told it has to follow a township line, come hell or high water. And there's this canyon in the way. It would be much simpler, cheaper, easier and less destructive to shift the project a mile west for a little while. And this is usually what happens in the real world, where dollars are more important than grid lines.

Even this doesn't work as an exact parallel. The classification of ideas and fields (like the my old favorite, the ontology of maps) occurs on a surface that is non-continous. Any given spot on a latitude-longitude grid is unique, just as a call number in a library is unique. But while a subject classification reflects a position on a conceptual framework which is non-absolute, the latitude and longitude are based on specific measurable attributes. Abstract attributes, but similar to (for example) title and date of purchase of a book.

But all this kind of puts what Steven and other cartographic critics have said into the realm of the ridiculous, which was not my initial intent. Clearly the grid represents a way of looking at the world that disturbs some folk. Heck, it disturbs me sometimes. What is it then that is disturbing us? I would argue it is not the grid itself, but its inappropriate intrusion into the physical world.

More next time.