Tuesday, October 3 2006
I've always had cartographic proclivities. When I was a kid of about six or seven I used to make crude maps of the blocks of my Lanham, Maryland neighborhood, with boxes representing each house. I even did surveys where I counted the houses to make sure I had the proper number on my map. Later, after my family moved to rural Virginia, I would trace maps from an atlas, sometimes reassembling several contiguous detailed maps onto a large sheet of paper so I would have a complete map of, say, Australia. There was a flea infestation during one such map drawing phase and I remember the clicks of their tiny bloodthirsty bodies landing on the paper.
With Google Maps and other web-based cartographic services, specific geographic information has become a lot easier to obtain than it was back in my youth. Still, there are plenty of unmapped regions unattached to The Grid, and in cases where maps of these places are called for, it falls on the people in need to make the maps. But technology has made things easier here as well, with the Global Positioning System and increasingly inexpensive hardware to access it. GPS is a relatively new technology, with the first satellite having been shot into orbit in 1978 and the readings having been poisoned with deliberate inaccuracies until 1996. The most modern consumer-grade GPS receivers can resolve location to an accuracy of two or three meters, though (and this suggests that GPS systems are never open source) the software built into such systems must not allow resolving position when the GPS receiver is higher than a certain altitude or traveling faster than a certain speed. (Otherwise, the terrorists might win.)
My most recent cartographic projects has been the mapping of the Stick Trail, which I've been doing using a combination of Google Maps satellite photos (which are very poor for this region) and topographic maps. Today, though, I took delivery of a GPS gizmo, a Magellan Explorist 210. Normally I'd go for the bottom-of-the-line when buying a new toy like this, but in this case I opted for something whose internal memory can be accessed using a USB cable.
Having a precise idea of where you are on the planet at all times is like having another sense. It should enable all sorts of new activities. So this evening I was researching what people are doing with their GPS units. I knew about geocaching, which seems weak in a perpetual-nine-year-old-would-be-pirate kind of way. Other projects were intriguing, though, particularly the Degree Confluence Project, a mission to visit and photograph all the points on the globe where one integer degree intersects another. I wouldn't want to actually go through the bother of visiting these points in the real world, but it's fun to look at them online. Given how completely arbitrary their locations are, they give a good random sampling of landscape. Though most of the points are located in the middle of unremarkable empty fields, it was a relief to see how few were in front of McMansions (though one was) and that none were in Walmart parking lots. But it would have been nice to see more forest in the Eastern North American degree confluences.
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