Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The North Circumpolar Maps

NRCan, 1990 "North Circumpolar Region" MCR 198
An interesting pair of maps that recently came to my attention (through an article in Cartographica) are the 1990 and 2008 versions of the Canadian government's "North Circumpolar Region." High-resolution images for both are available online free from Natural Resource Canada (NRCan), so I'll just post some thumbnails here and details.

NRCan, 2008 "North Circumpolar Region" MCR 0001
The original map, MCR 198, was a tremendous success in 1990, and MCR 0001 (2008) is an attempt to revise, update, and of course improve it. It is at a slightly smaller scale (1:9,000,000 instead of 1:7,500,000) but many things have been added: international date line, additional arctic ocean floor detail, current pack ice limits, and so on.

But, which would I rather have hanging on my wall? Hands down it's the older version. It looks better. So what can we learn here?

What's striking about the more recent version is the difference in the shaded relief. The first map was done with conventional cartographic tools, and an artist rendered the shaded relief. The second map was done with current GIS technology, the shaded relief being computed.

According to the article by the authors (Mapping The North, R. Eric Kramers and Andrew Murray, Cartographica, vol 45, No. 3,  p.201), the new  shaded relief was generated from a DEM using GIS software. However, it didn't look right until it was "tempered  with the less-detailed, manually-drawn, 1990 relief." The two were blended in Photoshop to give the right balance of the high-resolution (computer generated) and low-resolution (hand-painted) components.

It's not the first time I've read this: computer-generated shaded relief is too accurate for the big view: although each peak and ridge is there, the overall impression of a mountain chain is lacking something. Tom Patterson (DEM Manipulation and 3-D Terrain Visualization, Catographica vol. 38, # 1&2 Spring/Summer 2001, p.92) wrote that high-resolution DEMs give the wrong effect at small scales.
Especially problematic are glaciated northern mountains comprising tightly packed ridges and valleys...which often appear as an irregular texture rather than a recognizable topography.
And here are Anna Leonowicz, Bernhard Jenny and Lorenz Hurni (Automated Reduction of Visual Complexity In Small-Scale Relief Shading, Cartographica vol. 45, No. 1, Spring 2010, p.73) pointing out that, at present, hand-painted relief is simply better:
Cartographers currently lack advanced methods for using [DEMs] to produce relief visualizations at a level of quality comparable to traditional, manually-executed relief representations.
Patterson recommended that you could at least get closer to a hand-painted  result by manufacturing a low-resolution DEM (i.e., down-sampling the original), and merging a shaded relief version of that with the  shaded relief from the high-resolution data. In a sense this is just what the authors of the 2008 map did.

Nonetheless the hand-painted relief, for my money, on the original 1990 map still looks better. A circumpolar map is a very grand overview. No one is going to refer to it for details, and it is designed to hang on a wall or adorn a floor. It gives an overall impression of planetary scale; so here I prefer the old style of shaded relief, where the mountain ranges stand out so strongly.

Western Canada, 2008-style
Western Canada, 1990-style
Compare Western Canada: the bold and well-muscled 1990 version, and the wrinkly (and pink!) 2008 version.

Yes, I'm not fond of the colour fill introduced on the more recent version to show national boundaries. It just seems distracting to me and I have a sense that they added it because the GIS software made it easy to do so. I want this to be a map of the physical landscape, not political landscape. The brightly coloured Scandinavian countries are like confetti over in the corner of the map, whereas in the former verison they were deliciously dark and complex entity.

Scandinavia, 1990-style
Scandinavia,  2008-style
I do appreciate the extension, below the 55 degrees north, of basemap features in the 2008 edition. On the 1990 edition nothing was shown south of that latitude but the water/land division. Now, the highway I live near, at 54º 40', is actually there, on the map.

However, something was thrown away! Kamchatka, the Sakhalin Islands and the Aleutian Islands, which the artist gave shaded relief to in 1990 throughout their full extents, now have it cut off! Russia needs the full extent of Kamchatka, to emphasize Siberia's size and the way it overhangs the Pacific Ocean. Rendered this way, it just looks silly.

Kamchatka, 1990-style
Kamchatka, 2008-style
And, as you can see in these details, the blues that represent ocean depth were deeper and darker in 1990, which also provided a better overall effect.

I don't want to go on ranting here, because I'm not that great a map designer myself. But for GIS people designing maps, the 2008 map is a good lesson. Sometimes it's harder to achieve the effect you want using the latest tools.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Searching for Lareipel

This is an image of a portion of the 1550 Desceliers map, courtesy of the Library and Archives Canada through the Historical Atlas of Canada site.

Pretty quickly you can recognize what's being depicted: with Florida and the Gulf of Mexico at the top, and “Canada” at the bottom, this is an upside down map of North America, drawn to the best of their knowledge mid-sixteenth century. Various places are recognizable. There's Newfoundland out at the mouth of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, labelled something like Terre Nevfve, and the St. Lawrence River itself coming from a big lake inland.

It's intriguing to see if you can find, on old maps, landmarks with recognizable place names that we use today. For example, Cape Race, at the southeast corner of Newfoundland, is there in the Desceliers map as C: de Raz. Just west of it along Newfoundland's south shore is Cape St. Mary, as C: St Me.

But some of the place names on this map are different. For example Prince Edward Island, the bright red island west of Newfoundland in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, easily recognizable by its crescent shape, is Ye des avenes (Île des avenes, meaning Isle of the Birds?). It's a common story in eastern Canada that names given by the French when it was Nouvelle France were overwritten later by the British when they expelled the French in the eighteenth century. So seeing these early French names is like peeling back the wallpaper to uncover how the room was decorated by the previous owners.

However, this replacement of names is generally not the case in Quebec, which retains most of the original French names. And in fact, looking over at the area up the St. Lawrence, you can see a red island where the river narrows, labelled Ye dorle, probably today's Île d'Orleans, next to the city of Quebec. The big river flowing into the St. Lawrence just downstream, labelled R. de saqnay, and coming from a region labelled Sagne must be the Saguenay River. These are easy connections to make, but they are satisfying.

What really sticks out like a sore thumb here is that big gold island at the mouth of the St. Lawrence. That can only be the Île d'Anticosti, but it's labelled Ye de Taveipel, or Laveipel. What is that? And the lake upstream , perhaps Lake Ontario, or even the smaller Lac de St. Pierre (which his halfway between Montreal and Quebec City) seems to be labelled Le Lac daugonlusme. What is that?

As I started to look further afield for some record of these old names, my interest was sharpened by the discovery that Google returns no results for Taveipel, Laveipel or daugonlusme. I have still not found the answers of what these names meant, but I have learned more.

The Desceliers map, in the St. Lawrence area, had to have been based on information gathered during the voyages of Jacques Cartier. Cartier travelled to New France in 1534, 1535 and 1536. Although he was a successor to Columbus, Cabot, Verrazano, Gomez and others, he was the first European explorer to push up a big river in North America. All of the others had noted rivers, and named them, but had sailed past them, looking only for the large sea passage that would lead to the Orient. Cartier's exploration around the Gulf of St. Lawrence (the water between Newfoundland and the mouth of the St. Lawrence) and up the St. Lawrence River itself marks, in effect, Europeans finally letting go of the dream of a shortcut to China, and taking a closer look at the new world they had on their hands. Exploration of the St. Lawrence, then, predates exploration up the Hudson, or into Chesapeake Bay.

When Cartier went up the St. Lawrence he found two native Iroquois communities: the Stadaconans, who lived near present day Quebec (the narrowing of the river above the red island) , and the Hochlagans, who lived on the island where today's city of Montreal sits. He wintered with the Stadaconans. Both Stadacona and Hochelaga appear on the map repeatedly around the St. Lawrence as ochelaga and estadacone, but not in any one specific place. What seems to read Totunagi, deep inland where another big river joins the St. Lawrence, could be Tutonaguy, which was one of two villages Cartier mentions at Hochelaga. (The Ottawa River joins the St. Lawrence at Montreal.)

A couple days after I began studying this map, I noticed that, on the Desceliers map, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence, across from the gold island, there is a R: de Lareipel. This has to be the same name as the island, but being printed more clearly reveals that I had been reading the island's name wrong: it is Île de Lareipel. Still no Google results though.

The lake up the St. Lawrence (Le Lac daugonlusme) is most likely Lac Saint-Pierre for several reasons. Cartier never made it to Lake Ontario. The splitting of the river at Totunagi corresponds to the way the Ottawa river comes in from the northwest at Montreal. Lac Saint-Pierre is the only lake along the river downstream from Montreal, and, just as on the Desceliers map, there is a major river entering the lake from the south: we call it now the Saint Francois.

Other named features along the St. Lawrence to Saguenay include R[ivier]: de toues and B[aie]: de Lisler. R: de toues must be today's Rivier Saint Maurice. (Toues appear to be a kind of boat.) But Lisler, like Lareipel, does not show up on an internet search.

In the end, this map gives up some names, but others it withholds. It's an intriguing and ongoing puzzle.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Collective Nouns

I saw these enjoyable examples of collective nouns with plural verbs in England:

We are an agency that become excitable when... (an ad for an advertising agency)

When England win, you win.... (a billboard ad for some kind of deal whereby when England would win a game in the World Cup, you'd win a ...?)

So what is the deal with collective nouns and plural verbs? Why do these sound so wrong to us, yet, find their way past proofreaders and editors in the UK?

In North American we tend to use a singular verb with collective nouns. We would write, “The school board says...” or “Parliament is sitting.” However in England the preference is to use plural verbs, as in the examples above.

Alan Garner is, as always, pithy on this subject:

The main consideration in handling [collective nouns] skillfuly is consistency in the use of a singlular or plural verb. If, in the beginning of an essay, the phrasing is the faculty was, then every reference to faculty as a noun should be singluar throughout the whole. On the other hand, a writer who wishes to emphasize the individual persons more than the body of persons may decide to write the faculty were, although members of the faculty were is prefereable because it's more accurate. [A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, p. 133]

Monday, May 17, 2010

Letter to the Safety Committee: Speedwell Cavern

Dear Safety Committee;

I had the pleasure today of visiting Speedwell Cavern. Despite its name it is not a cavern at all, but rather an old mine: its claim to fame is that you travel through it by boat in a flooded mining tunnel. Quite exotic. But what was really interesting about it in the end (for the tunnel was monotonous and the small cavern at its end offered nothing to write about) was how the tour was done. It was, if you will, Safety, The Old Way.

This was a lead mine in the late eighteenth century, and the method devised to get the ore out was to flood one of the tunnels and hand a boat along it. Dry, the tunnel was about 6 feet high; flooded its arched, uneven roof of stone is about four feet high in the centre. The modern boat (four feet wide in a five foot wide tunnel) has an electric motor at each end, and seats for the tourists.

Before you descend to the underground artificial river, they pass out hard hats. I have to say I have been jaded by the Corporate Safety Culture, which makes unnecessary gestures to lull the visitor into a sense of security. I thought, "Oh, yes, the usual safety equipment: probably overkill, but it protects the odd visitor who's accident prone." But no! As I descended the 106 wet, slippery stairs, I found myself, like an idiot, checking with my head the contours of the remarkably low ceiling many times. Gee, I thought, I can't believe the ceiling is this low... this is like going down in the real thing.

At the bottom our young guide, James, straddled the boat and held it in place by leaning against the tunnel wall while we boarded. Then he walked deftly up the edge of the boat to the bow, and, after telling us some good jokes and warning us to keep our hands inside the gunwales, switched on the motor. Then he, with no hard hat on, sat facing backwards in the bow talking to us. It was truly an impressive feat of skill: using his hands against the tunnel walls to steer the boat in a direction that was behind him, he kept up a steady patter of facts and stories while the tunnel roof whizzed over our protected (and his unprotected) heads.

And this was when I realized I had left the realm of Corporate Safety. Because, as you know, safe operations are never based on the skill and bravado of the guide, nor on common sense. I had found a gem that has somehow survived from the past. Safe operations are today always based on redundant systems. Instead of one guide there are two. Everyone wears safety equipment, especially the guides. In the even of engine failure, a second engine stands by or a handline along the tunnel walls provides a way to get back. It was quite apparent that in this case, engine failure would mean we all simply hand-pushed the boat back. I felt valued.

As we motored along through the tunnel a direct hit from one of the outcrops whizzing my head would have knocked me out without that hat. Furthermore, as I looked at James in the front of the boat there, jovially regaling us with tales, and the uneven tunnel roof zooming over his head from behind, I realized that he pretty much knew exactly how high he could raise his head. But there was no overhead hoop on the boat to cue him, no safety system in place. I was watching skill at work, not a well-designed system.

At various points of interest he would reach down and switch off the electric motor. As the boat glided quietly along he'd tell us the tale of some mining mishap or another, and that done, he'd reach down and turn the switch on again. Oh-ho, I though: no deadman switch! Had the Corporate Safety philosophy been at work here, the motor would only be on only as long as he was there to hold down a spring-loaded switch; if he miscalculated and was whacked by an overhead outcrop, if he tumbled over backwards and fell out in front of the oncoming boat, the motor would cut out. But not in this case. It was a case of safety being based on someone's strength, balance and grace. Don't our analysts always see that as a safety weakness?

And it just got better. We reached the far cavern and all got out to view it. After five minutes it was time to reload. James got into the boat first, and launched off when when we had all got in. Yep, you guessed it: whether we left someone behind was dependent on his good counting, or the good shouting of the forgotten passenger--not on having a sweep person, or a rule that the guide is the last one off the wharf.

The bottom line here is that I so admire his employers because they trust him. It is evident that if something goes wrong , they trust he'll be able to figure out what to do, and the passengers might be involved in solving it too. In fact they trust people in general: not to stick their heads up too high in the boat, not to stick their hands out where they can be chopped off.

Just thought you guys should know: your reach is mighty, but it does not yet go everywhere.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The laying of a nickel on the train track

The laying of a nickel on the train track has its origins in me, as a
five year-old, standing with my mom in Pasadena, California, where my
grandmother lived, watching the "Santa Fe Super Chief" roll in to the

The Super Chief was one of these iconic American trains with a
special paint job, and I can just imagine my mom thinking, "Oh, I'll take
my little boy down to see the train come in [it would roll right through
town and cross several streets]: he'll like that." She puts a penny on
the tracks, which are right at street level and I watch with delight as
it gets squashed by the giant engine into an oval, coppery smear. I keep
it for years after.

So it actually has nothing to do with good luck or a safe journey.

The last few years, when I would suggest to Galen and Will that we put a
penny on the tracks they would howl at me with horror: something about
not squashing the queen. Anyway, it was forbidden. So it was with
surprise this week that I heard them say, "Sure!" and then proceed to
contend over who would get to KEEP the squashed nickel.

Well, a nickel, it turns out, does not squash as well as an old, soft,
copper penny. What you get is more of a "bent nickel," the result of
it being churned and flipped by the engine wheels.

We're looking now for older, all-copper pennies. The current issue
Canadian penny is a steel blank with copper electroplating. We have to go back to 1996 for real copper pennies.