Monday, November 17, 2008

zoomy zoomy zoom

I've always loved "universal zoom" animations.

There's the opening sequence of the Carl Sagan-based movie Contact. And there's a sequence from the Imax movie Cosmic Voyage, in an extended and a vertiginously compressed version

The one I remember best was on a poster for the Carl Sagan TV series Cosmos, in the early 80's. This was essentially based on Charles and Ray Eames' 1977 short film, Powers of 10.

And this in turn has an inspiration in Kees Boeke's 1957 children's book Cosmic view; the universe in 40 jumps. Instead of using photographic imagery, Boeke uses cartographic, drawn images both when moving out beyond aerial photography and when moving in to the level of a mosquito.

This zoom in/zoom out idea makes continuous what in our everyday experience is a blurry line between familiar and unfamiliar. We are lifted (and compressed) from the familiar to the unfamiliar.

The scale we work in the "real world" at any given moment is at most a millimeter in precision (threading a needle), or a square kilometer in breadth (the view from a hillside). Beyond these distances (more or less), 1,000,000 times the other in order of magnitude, we can work but only with aids: microscopes on one hand, transport on the other. And in terms of geographic space, we can work over time across a larger area.

To push these natural limits of scale is and always has been a sort of magic. I've been working for some time on the bird's eye view artist John Bachmann [the paper will be published in the January issue of Imprint, but I'll set up a page with links to Bachmann's images available on line, sometime this year.] Bachmann's magic at his time was the creation of views from the point of view of a bird, at a time when no photographs had been taken from the air (the earliest surviving air photo is from 1860 of Boston). His views, and all nineteenth-century and earlier bird's eye views are works of imagination, carefully constructed from bits and pieces of ground-gathered evidence.

As zoom-in-zoom-out becomes the norm on line, it continues to blur the difference between a map that reflects our direct experience and a map that shows what is essentially alien to that experience. Sometimes (as with Google Earth) the experience mimics rising and falling from a (marked up) earth's surface. Sometimes the zoom is clearly like looking at an artificial picture (note how Google Maps zooms out to an infinitely repeating Mercator projection).

Multi-scale map systems were a subject of some discussion at NACIS this year, notably with Penn State's ScaleMaster project, which is really as much a project organizer as as anything; letting multi-scale project organizers set guidelines for when to reorganize what data. Making cartographically sophisticated map system at multiple zoom levels is a new thing, and a growing thing. We think of it as different than an animated map, becasue we are creating static images that users move around, but the experience of using the maps in effect is animation. And it would be good for us to bear that in mind as the field expands...

Sunday, November 16, 2008


OK, I'm plunging ahead with a new long-term project this month. I figure if I announce it, it may actually happen, so I've started a project blog (45°NE), and put in the following introduction:

I'm embarking on an experiment.

I've been ruminating for a long time about how to express sense of place in maps (I'm a cartographer).

For a few years I've been thinking about how to channel experience of place into a form true both to the objectivity-seeking values of cartography and the personal-expression values of the fine arts (I was a studio arts major in college).

And I've been trying to think of a way to use the 45° N latitude line that runs a block and a half south of my office, right across the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District.

After a thought provoking time at NACIS, I reached the conclusion that the way to open up that 45°N line to experience was through some combination of exploration (more mundanely, "fieldwork") and pilgrimage. In one, there is a specific subset of information one looks to gather; in the other, one is looking for an opening to (in religious terms) grace, the miraculous, the other... the unexpected.


I'm going to start regular monthly traverses of the line, beginning at Central Avenue, walking to the river. I'm going to record the results here. I hope to do the traverses with a variety of people, and in between to contact property owners to discuss with them how the line traverses their property.

Here's a crude GoogleMaps base of the traverse (the blue line shows the approximate actual line; the red shows my estimate of a walkable line on public right of way).

Anyone who wants to join me, drop me a line! Probably the easiest way is via my work email form. Or my cell phone (612-702-1333).
Any and all advice or commentary is welcome.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Tattoo-Rumba Man

This post has nothing whatsoever to do with maps.

I was a Studio Art major at Carleton College. I had a fascination with northern Renaissance painting, especially folks like Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, whose paintings are essentially visual texts: they are composed of symbolic elements posed to make a theological statement, within an illusionistic "window" into a sacred world.

My senior comps project was designed around this idea of art as text, based on texts and functioning as adjuncts to text. My problem: I didn't have a religious text I believed in as deeply as the painters of 500 years ago.

So I decided to write one. I had some examples of student-written stream-of-consciousness stuff I really liked, and some bits of text I was thinking of as kind of central to me, but it was my friend Adam sending me a scrap of text about the Tattoo-Rumba Man that got me going. I took it and ran (with his permission).

I still like the character, twenty years on, and I recently pulled out the text I wrote (it was edited somewhat over the following three years and then it lay fallow on various hard drives after 1991). It needed some tweaking, but I kinda like it, so I put it up on the web. Enjoy!

[After the fact, there was a scene in Strictly Ballroom that to me is the Tattoo-Rumba Man. See here and go to 8:20 on the timer]

Sunday, November 9, 2008


Around my house we refer to reading ads for houses we would never actually want to live in as "real estate porn." Then there's catalogs for stuff we frankly find appalling in a voyeuristic sense (gold-plated doggy dishes...). The root of "pornography" (Wikipedia: The word derives from the Greek πορνογραφία (pornographia), which derives from the Greek words πόρνη (pornē, "prostitute"), γράφω (graphō, "to write or record"), and the suffix -ία (-ia, meaning "state of", "property of", or "place of"), thus meaning "a place to record prostitutes".) has to do with prostitution, the selling of that which should not (in most conventional moral codes) be sold.

Frankly I find sexual pornography and such really really weird. Never understood the appeal except for the obvious: a source of stimulus. It looks from here like a kind of dead end of expression.

But it occurs to me that some of the early discussion about the experience of scale in cartography may have some bearing here, in terms of the size of the group one is working within. What I mean is, the social context of porn is not that of a long-term monogamous relationship, but of a larger social group. The characters typically do not know each other well, but are not totally anonymous (that would be rape). They are interacting sexually within a larger but identifiable social context.

[The following is probably all deeply covered in Sociology 101 textbooks, but I took Anthropology 101 instead, so I'm making it up out of whole cloth]

I'm going to theorize a scale of social interaction, starting at "nucleus," which is long-term partnerships of 2-5 people, or maybe a couple more (Well, actually we should start with "personal" where the social group is one). The next step up would be "clan" or "team", for groups of 6-20, which work together for a year or three. Next would be "village" or "congregation," groups of 30-200 centered around a physical location but with widely varying sensibilities, but with no members (unless there is a professional leader) actually knowing everyone in the group. Somewhere on up the scale is "nation," a group of 100,000 or more where the members share some basic common cultural facet of identity but little common social activity. Still further up the scale would be "species" and "planet."

The point is, scale determines what kind of interaction is expected. And a lot of this expectation is culturally driven: I expect sex to be at the nucleus level, and it seems alien to me when it is part of a clan structure or (as with porn) at the village level, with no intimacy and no deep knowledge between the partners. But certainly there are those for whom this is satisfying.

Cartography is about the experience of space at (minimally) a village level, more likely a national or planet level. What I and Steven and Margaret and Mike have been talking about is using the language of cartography at clan or nucleus level. But the social expectations surrounding this sort of land-talk are going to be as big as the porn divide. Steven's experience in trying to talk from an arts/experiential point of view to cartographers over the long haul has, I think been alien in this way, but I see his point of view slowly making its way into the sensibility of the cartographic community.

In religious terms, I think something similar goes on in the difference between individual mystical experience, small-group worship, and large-scale corporate worship. If we've grown into one scale of experience, it requires a difficult sort of open-mindedness to accept the validity of experience at another scale, particularly a scale that is orders of magnitude different.

I admit to bringing porn into the discussion partly for shock value, but I think the visceral discomfort many of us feel around porn is precisely the sort of conceptual dislocation we've run into here, in talking about the grid, and in talking in general about cartography.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day 2008

This is not a blog about politics, but it is my blog and I say Halle-flippin-lujah!
That's all. Over and out.