Category Archives: Linked List

How Google and Apple's digital mapping is mapping us

Oliver Burkeman, writing for The Guardian:

“I honestly think we’re seeing a more profound change, for mapmaking, than the switch from manuscript to print in the Renaissance,” says the University of London cartographic historian Jerry Brotton. “That was huge. But this is bigger.”

If you have any experience with geography or cartography, you know we live in a truly remarkable era. Digital maps of everything make it easier to “go” anywhere. They reduce what economists call “friction”. Touring a street in Tokyo used to require spending hours on a plane. Now all it takes is firing up your web browser. Reducing friction causes disruptions, which can be both good and bad. On balance, I think it’s a good thing.

But, as Burkeman points out, we should always be aware of who is making our maps:

“Every map,” the cartography curator Lucy Fellowes once said, “is someone’s way of getting you to look at the world his or her way.” What happens when we come to see the world, to a significant extent, through the eyes of a handful of big companies based in California?

(Via Jon Christensen.)

Infrastructure as art

Geoff Manaugh, on road painting crews in Los Angeles:

Nonetheless, it’s not those canvases but the project’s most basic conceptual move—putting the Caltrans striping crews into the same context as, say, Jackson Pollack or Marcel Duchamp—that interests me the most here, implying new possibilities for interpretation, even whole new futures for art history and landscape criticism, with this recognition of avant-garde projects going on disguised as the everyday environment.

Pushing this further, the transportation system itself becomes an earthworks project that dwarfs the—by contrast—embarrassingly unambitious Michael Heizer or Robert Smithson, revealing Caltrans, not Field Operations or any other white-collar design firm, as one of the most high-stakes landscape practitioners—a parallel civilization of mound builders hidden in plain sight—at work in the world today.

If we take it another step further, it’s not just Caltrans that’s responsible for these gargantuan works. It’s us. In the literal sense, we elect officials and fund departments of transportation like Caltrans with our tax dollars, making us both indirect designers and patrons.

But we’re also the real artists behind the works. Infrastructure is built to respond to our demands. We shape it through our actions, every single day. That would make cities and the networks that connect them perhaps the biggest earthworks project ever.

Interactive map of Gulf wave heights

Isaac wave map

As storms in the Gulf of Mexico go, Isaac isn’t particularly powerful—he peaked as a category 1 hurricane and was downgraded a few hours ago to a tropical storm. But as you may remember from Hurricane Katrina, the intensity of the storm isn’t always as important as it’s size, which affects how big the storm surge will be. And Isaac isn’t exactly small fry.

According to the U.S. Navy, wave heights are predicted to subside substantially in the next 24 hours and all but return to normal in 48 hours. The interactive map linked to above isn’t pretty, but it is informative.

The question is, will New Orleans new levee system hold long enough to ride out the storm?

(Thanks to Wayne Wagner.)

Drought forcing ranchers to find greener pastures

Way back when, cowboys used to drive their cattle from pasture to pasture throughout the West in search of the best fodder. Barbed wire and homesteaders did away with that, but cattle drives may return if ranchers find them to be their only option.

Reading your body clock with a molecular timetable, inspired by flowers

Ed Yong:

Takeya Kasukawa and Masahiro Sugimoto from the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology have a better way. Their team have developed a “metabolite timetable” that plots how dozens of molecules rise and fall in relation to one another. With this timetable, they could accurately read a person’s internal clock with just two blood samples, taken 12 hours apart.

It was inspired by flowers.

Urban wind flows deposit pollutants in repetitive patterns

Liat Clark, writing for

As wind weaves through the everyday fumes generated by a city, it gathers particles from car exhausts, dust and other minute pollutants. Using a mathematical dynamical systems formula dictated by Lagrangian mechanics, the Arizona State University and University of Notre Dame team plotted the random motion of these particles for the first time. The model, built to simulate the wind motion over long periods of time, found that the process was not random at all—a coherent pattern rapidly emerged, demonstrating that the particles were repeatedly deposited in the same area. 

In addition to reducing pollution at the source, I would think such a model could guide tree planting efforts.

(Thanks to Michael Kenny.)

Flyover of West Bend from the 1950s

I’m a sucker for old aerial photos, so you can imagine my delight when I found this video on YouTube. It’s a flyover of my hometown in the late-1950s. I can just barely make out the house I grew up in, which was on the edge of town back then.

Why I write

I was sitting, thinking the other day, what good does writing do? It happened while I was reading about the plight of the Aka language of Arunachal Pradesh, India—which was no doubt painstakingly reported and written by its author, Russ Rymer. I realized that no matter the effort Rymer put into his story, I was not about to drop what I was doing and go save an endangered language. Sure, a few people might. But what about the rest of us, who read the article and move on? I write because I’m convinced that good writing can make a difference in the world, but suddenly I wasn’t so sure.

So I thought it through, and in the end decided I was right all along—that good writing matters. It may not change our lives in a stereotypically life changing way. But it can in smaller, subtler ways. Everything I’ve learned—whether from school or reading or just plain observing—doesn’t mean much on its own. Only when you piece those bits together does knowledge add up to anything.

That’s what Per Square Mile is to me, and what I hope it means to you. Each of my articles and posts may not be a compendium, and their individual impact may not add up to much (though if I’m lucky, a few may), but neither do most articles, books, pamphlets, or posts. Yet when they’re put together, juxtaposed with other equally unassuming bits, they build on each other. Every piece of considered prose pushes humanity forward a fraction of a part of an infinitesimally small distance. Add it up, and you start to get somewhere.

That’s what I’m trying to do with Per Square Mile. I’m writing bits and pieces with an eye on the whole. It may seem like I’m wandering in an intellectual wilderness at times, turning over whatever stone happens to be underfoot. And sometimes that’s true. But it’s not all aimless wandering.

I firmly believe that the best and most interesting ideas are lurking at the intersections of disparate disciplines. When we smash together linguistics and urban design, economics and photogrammetry, psychology and demography, neuroscience and national parks, the tiny overlaps explode like subatomic particles in a linear accelerator. Individually, those fields are revealing and rewarding. But together, they’re downright provocative. Their collisions release thousands of tiny fragments of ideas, which we can expand and study and scrutinize. Then we can then take those ideas and crash them against each other and take their fragments and bash them together, over and over and over.

I would be kidding myself if I thought that one of my articles would singlehandedly change the world. But that sort of cynicism gets you nowhere in life. Instead, I subscribe to a difference sort of idealism. That my work here, when considered as a whole, can expand the body of knowledge—our understanding of the world—a fraction of a part of an infinitesimally small distance. So while each article, each post here may not amount to much, the site as a whole just might. That’s why I write, and that’s what I want to keep doing here at Per Square Mile, week after month after year.

Mapping 26 years of drought in the U.S.

The New York Times compiled drought conditions since 1986 for the lower 48 and overlaid the acreage of key crops, including corn, wheat, and soybeans. Scroll through the timeline to see where and when drought has struck and why some crops are more affected than others.

Are Our Transit Maps Tricking Us?

Jessica Gross, writing for the Atlantic Cities:

London’s city center takes up about two percent of the city. On the Tube map, it looks four times as big.

Over in New York City, Central Park—which is a skinny sliver, much longer than it is wide—was depicted in some 1960s and ‘70s IRT maps as a fat rectangle on its side.

So public transit maps are distorted, quite on purpose. All of them enlarge city centers. Many use a fixed distance between stations out in the boonies, even if, in reality, they’re spaced wildly differently. Curvy lines are made straight. Transfers are coded with dots, lines, and everything in between.

Part of that has to do with design, but I’d guess the other part has to do with the way we assign names to places. When population density increases—as it does in London’s city center—toponymic density also rises.

Last week of the Membership Drive

If you haven’t joined Per Square Mile as a member, now is the time. Just four days remain in the drive. For just $29, you’ll receive a t-shirt in addition to your membership. That’s just under $2.50 a week, which I think is a pretty darn good deal.

Plus, did I mention how good you’ll look in one?

Citizen scientists may beat the pros in identifying at-risk species

Kate Shaw, writing for Ars Technica:

A new study in Science used data from federal reports to determine whether listed species identified by the US Fish and Wildlife Service face greater biological threats than those listed as a result of citizen petitions or lawsuits. After examining the data for more than 900 species, the researchers found that species proposed via either petitions or lawsuits actually face greater biological threats than those identified by the federal agency.

The coming schism in ecology

At this year’s Aspen Environmental Forum, there was a dust-up between ecologist E.O. Wilson and writer Emma Marris. At the heart of their disagreement is how we define nature. Wilson prefers what I’ll call the pre-industrialized version, for lack of a better term (people have been modifying their environments for so long that we can’t say there’s a “pre-human” condition). Marris, author of Rambunctious Garden, is more inclusive, arguing that what Wilson calls degraded ecosystems should be considered for preservation.

Michelle Nijhuis, writing for The Last Word on Nothing, thinks this schism will eventually pass:

The deepest divide may be generational. Wilson, now in his 80s, has explored some of the most biodiverse places in the world. He knows, from long firsthand experience, how much effort it’s taken to protect and begin to restore just a handful of them. He may worry that Emma is leading younger conservationists into a kind of moral relativism, asking them to bestow equal value on vegetable gardens and old-growth forests. Emma, in her 30s, doesn’t want to do that — but neither does she want to simply inherit her predecessors’ endgame, and watch the few remaining places free of human footprints change, shrink, and disappear.

As an ecologist in my 30s, I feel torn between the two viewpoints and not altogether sure that ecology will ever place degraded systems on the same level as wilder ones. Still, I agree with Marris that “pristine” ecosystems don’t exist, and that those with humanity’s fingerprints on them should still be considered for conservation. But instead of debating the metaphysical definition of nature, I think applied conservation should focus on ecosystem function and stability.

New York City hoping to attract mussels to Pier 35

David W. Dunlap, writing for the New York Times:

Even if the bed at Pier 35 fails to attract mussels, officials envision it as an unusual abstract sculpture that can be used to study the extent and effect of tides. A little bridge will cross over the mouth of the habitat, which occupies a small cove. At high tide, the structure will be almost entirely under water. At low tide, it will be almost completely exposed. Maritime grasses will border it at one edge.

Neither state nor federal regulatory agencies required such a habitat, Mr. Kane said, adding, “This was about doing something new.”

This is a perfect example of how small changes can transform a harsh urban environment into a hospitable habitat for native plants and animals. And it’s further proof that cities don’t have to be ecological wastelands. We can have our city and our nature, too.

(Thanks to Charles Waldheim.)

Resource Rich, Cash Poor

Joseph Stiglitz, the noted economist, writing at Slate:

On average, resource-rich countries have done even more poorly than countries without resources. They have grown more slowly and with greater inequality—just the opposite of what one would expect. After all, taxing natural resources at high rates will not cause them to disappear, which means that countries whose major source of revenue is natural resources can use them to finance education, health care, development, and redistribution.

I would say the United States and Canada are two examples of resource-rich countries that have escaped this quandary. But there are lots more that haven’t.

Overshoot Day

We know not everyone can live like Americans and not overextend our resources. Well as of today, August 22, we can’t live like anyone without going into resource debt. Overshoot Day happens every year. It’s when we’ve exhausted our annual global budget. From now to the end of the year, we’re living on borrowed resources. Yes it’s an artificial construct, but it’s illustrative nonetheless. 

(Via Peter Aldhous.)