23 February 2009

22 February 2009

Old Atlases, Printed Maps

There is another book that I like to put on my music stand (see my previous post on old dictionaries): my old Times Atlas of the World, found in a used bookstore 10 years ago. It's old enough to show a divided Germany, Leningrad-in-the-USSR instead of St. Petersburg-in-Russia, and countless other geo-anachronisms, but oh, is it beautiful to look at. And really, do we care what the politicians say about where the borders are, or whose ego is institutionalized on the city masthead? Yes, ok, sometimes we do need to know such facts. But that's what Internet maps are good at. I am well aware of the other ways that computerized maps and atlases are superior to the soon-to-be obsolete printed variety: they are up-to-date (i.e. -to-the-minute), truly comprehensive, and augmented in infinite ways with personalized layers of meaning (see the history of natural disasters for the city you're visiting, or see where the coffee shops are).

Claims of comprehensiveness and currency in a printed atlas always assume you will buy the latest version, which, if you are buying a nice atlas, may run you a few hundred dollars. And why would you not buy a nice atlas? You can get ugly atlases online. So, my recommendation for the killer combination? A nice old Atlas (cheaper, probably prettier, and still 90% accurate) and the Internet to supplement your old beauty with the latest facts. The picture above, of Oban, in Scotland, is from my old Times atlas (be sure to click on the image to see a bigger version).

I love maps, and love studying maps of a place before, and after, visiting it for real. My introduction to maps was via the topographic maps produced by the United States Geological Survey, used by everyone from soldiers to miners to hikers for navigating in the wilderness. There was a USGS office in Menlo Park, a few miles from where I grew up, so we got to browse the beautiful, poster-sized, four-color maps whenever we wanted. On a trip to my wife's family home in Greece, I visited that country's equivalent of the USGS, the Greek Army Mapping Office. My brother-in-law and I were planning to climb Mt. Olympus, and I also had plans to camp out in the Peloponnese. When I asked for the maps that covered the westernmost finger of that peninsula, the army officer looked at me suspiciously. He fetched his commanding officer and they grilled me: "Why do you want to go there? There is no camping there! What is your business?" I tried to assure them (with the help of my Greek brother-in-law) that I was just going to find a place to put down my bag on the coast and enjoy the sea and stars. They never did give me that map. I forgot about the incident until I was awakened on my hillside perch near Koroni, overlooking the Mediterranean, by what sounded like bombs going off. What had sounded like bombs going off was in fact bombs going off .... Turns out the Greek Air Force likes to practice their aim on the little island of Skhiza, which was just about a mile south of my sleeping bag. I watched jets looping and dropping bombs for an hour. No wonder the army guy was suspicious.

Since I can't show the map with Skhiza on it (ahem) ... here is my Greek Army Map of Cape Tenaron, about 40 miles southeast of my camping spot near Koroni. Maybe nothing is as interesting as being woken up by jets dropping bombs at the foot of your sleeping bag, but the topo map below shows the tip of the Mani Peninsula, itself a very interesting place: in the cove near the southern end, surrounded by wind-torn, razor-sharp white rock and ancient ruins, is the cave of Tenaron, the mythical entrance to Hades.

Strangely, USGS topo maps were the thing that reignited my interest in computers, after many years of abstinence: in the mid-nineties, a San Francisco company, Wildflower Productions (now owned by National Geographic), was scanning all the topographic maps for the United States, in various scales, digitally stitching them together, and adding tools for searching and customizing. When I first got a look at their product on the shelves at REI where I worked, I called the company and asked them what I needed in my new computer (the one I didn't have yet) to run their product. At the time, I didn't care what else the computer could do.

I still have a soft spot for this product because it's based on pictures of real maps, made to be held in your hand. The computerized version allows me to look at topo maps for anywhere in the country, and of course you can't own that many printed maps. I understand how computers add value here. But I still say printed maps and atlases are so much more beautiful and satisfying to hold. And they provide much the same opportunity for serendipitous discovery that a printed dictionary does, as I detailed in my previous post. The maps in my world atlas are produced by the famous John Bartholomew & Son cartographers in the UK. Their maps, especially the old, hand-lettered ones, are so pretty to look at, and so clear. Am I repeating myself?

If you can afford the already-obsolete current edition of the Times World Atlas (obsolete, because world atlases go out-of-date about as fast as newspapers these days), here is a link to the Twelfth Edition of the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World. But my strong recommendation is to search your local used bookstore for an older version, if only for the joy of the maps.

Old Dictionaries, Old Meanings

This post moved to imby.net

09 February 2009

More Homemade Stuff - Not Just For Hippies

If Panasonic were to make a lens hood for my LX3 digital camera, it would probably cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $50. All the accessories for this camera are ridiculously expensive.

I wanted a way to protect my little camera from the rain and ended up with a perfect lens hood in the bargain, for about 2 dollars and a half-hour of work. The project was featured on instructables.com (where you can read about the benefits of the hood, and the process of customizing a $2 piece of plumbing for my high-end digicam):

Digital Lens Hood / Rain Hood on instructables.com

One of a number of clearing houses for the DIY set, instructables.com is a great place to find elegant (or funky) ways to solve any problem you can think of, usually for cheap or free, from recycled or otherwise lowtech stuff. Make Magazine (and their Web space and blog) also features daily projects for solving problems in ways that will save you lots of money and give you lots of low-tech satisfaction: solve a problem by making something and you are beating a socioeconomic system that only knows how to offer prepackaged, mass-produced solutions for high prices.

07 February 2009