Category Archives: geography

Look on the works, ye mighty

My recent trip to the west coast and back (see my photostream) didn’t disclose anything so glorious as what Doc Searls seems to capture effortlessly (well, probably not without considerable effort, in fact…) with his crisscrossings of the continent. Here’s one from his latest:


and you can read some exegesis here. This comes along, providentially, as I’m enjoying Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter The Long Earth . Doc is one of my Heroes, for sure. Wish I could be half so clear and consistent in my use of this medium, and he just has it right about photography and Ideas and, obviously, Cluetrain. Over the years his blog has educated me gently and surprisingly.

meteorological drama

It’s been like this for several hours: howling snowstorm outside, band of sleet just off shore, rain out to sea. Hard to say how much is on the ground, what with the drifting.
weather now

Nice big heaps of logs by the stoves, and the plow will arrive sometime in the morning. No worries.

Mapping Afghan Ethnicities

I have a long-running fascination with spatial distribution of, well, pretty much anything and everything. One of the slipperiest things to map is ethnic identity, but that hasn’t deterred legions of cartographers (though in fact the cartographers are mostly hired help, assisting anthropologists, demographers, census-takers, colonial masters, the military…). One of my favorite examples of the pitfalls of ethnic mapping is George Peter Murdock’s effort to define the territories of peoples in Africa:

[adapted from Africa: Its Peoples and Their Culture History (1959)]
Pretty much everything is wrong with this map, starting with the very notion of a clear boundary (a line) to define where a “tribe” (ooooh, hateful word…) starts and stops (ethnic plurality and complex interdigitation is much more common than ethnic homogeneity, for all sorts of very good and highly location-specific reasons). At best, one might say that ethnicities have foci (perhaps hearths would be a better characterization) and force-fields that (seem to) emanate from a sort-of cultural identity centroid… but then there’s the problem of defining an ethnicity (does a person get only ONE?) and comprehending what its earmarks and contents might be (just what is “culture” anyway? –a problem that vexes anthropologists permanently). Sort of a long runup to a pointer to Ghost of Alexander’s “Fun with Ethnic Maps”, which showcases 7 versions of the ethnic territories of Afghanistan. The message here isn’t that one shouldn’t attempt to map slippery concepts, but rather that any map is a starting point for discussion and elaboration, and not an authority, and especially not a permanent authority. Pretty much any phenomenon worth mapping is likely to squirm around over time, and we’re just beginning to have the wherewithal to construct and distribute dynamic maps. Fascinating times, these.

Gigabytes per second

Those with geospatial and visualization interests will nod their heads right off as they read Peter Brantley’s summary of “The Sensing Earth”, via O’Reilly Radar. Some bits:

Everywhere I look in the natural sciences, there is a sudden, significant maturing of large-scale distributed science projects that involve active real-time sensing of one of more aspects of the physical planet and its environs…

The insight that my friend Brian brought back from the ISDE conference [5th International Symposium on Digital Earth] is that there is an increasingly visible “bright line of digital information” that — like a great river — cuts between two wholly different ranges of data. On one side, there is already extant (either actively digitized, or digitally prepared) data gathered, harvested, and presented for discovery and use. This is the land of Google and other search engines, grabbing the world’s available online data, indexing it, mining it, integrating it with other data sources, and provide compelling windows into a comparatively static and viscous digitized world. That’s where a good measure of CS/EE and IR attention rests now.

The other side of the Bright Line are the data lying latent upon the earth, sky, and space, sleeping quietly until they are woken with sensing, and now flooding real-time like a sea, imminently bursting forth across our international network of high speed science grids.

There are tremendous opportunities here, new ways of thinking about data, about how to develop usable interfaces on a wide range of devices. GEOSS [Global Earth Observation System of Systems] requires us to rethink systems design from the ground up. Scales are refactored: hundreds of large-scale distributed systems, with thousands of sensors linked in community networks, each producing gigabytes or more per second, continuously delivered, and susceptible to combination.

GEOSS projects are seeking radically new forms of systems architectures for data management, on the very edge of science. All of these projects are a click away.

Let’s engage.