Monday, February 3, 2014

A User's Guide to "Forty Maps that Will Help You Make Sense of the World," Volume IV

Michael5000 continues his grouchy exegesis of that ubiquitous internet atlas of our times, Forty Maps that Will Help You Make Sense of the World.

A User's Guide to "Forty Maps that Will Help You Make Sense of the World," Volume IV

Note: In cutting and pasting the images (at low resolution and for purposes of critique in a non-commercial forum, yo!) I included "Twisted Sifter's" own attribution.  They aren't live links here, so to see the original you would have to go to the original post and click through from there.

16. "Map of Rivers in the Contiguous United States"

Technical Merit: It is certainly a map of rivers in the contiguous United States.

Artistic Merit: I'm not sure if this map is irredeemably flawed by its inappropriate level of detail -- which is to say, the damn thing's too busy to be useful -- or if it is simply intended to be pretty.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": No.

17. "US Map of the Highest Paid Public Employees by State"

Technical Merit: Bland but serviceable.  It is another example of a map displaying a data set that doesn't need a map; unless you are trying to focus attention on the regional patterns of New England and the Upper Plains this information, such as it is, could be presented better in a graph form, or in a couple of sentences.

Artistic Merit: None attempted, none gained.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": Well, heck.  I suppose this map could be the gateway to someone making sense of the importance of collegiate athletics in the American landscape.  That's an awfully specialized slice of "the world," but whatever.

The map is cheerfully didactic, and wants you to laugh at or sputter with outrage at a crazy, messed-up system that pays coaches more than governors, heads of state agencies, top scientists, and other people charged with weighty responsibilities.  That's cool.  But, it also requires that you join "" in ignoring the obvious other side of the story.  College athletic coaches in the money sports of football and basketball are unique among state employees in that they are responsible for economic entities that are profit-generating.  They don't get paid out of the General Fund; they get paid out of the football or basketball program, which generally delivers revenue back to its home institution.  This map is presumably technically accurate, and it makes its point about the twisted values of American life or whatever, but it's fairy irrelevant in terms of making sense of state expenditure on high-end human resources.

18. "World Map of Earthquakes Since 1898"

Technical Merit: Unlike most of the maps on this list, the World Map of Earthquakes is actually a pretty solid piece of modern cartography.  It really shines at its full size, which is worth a look: here's a link.  I'm not crazy about the key; you need some pre-existing knowledge to figure out that the different colors and intensities indicate different quake magnitudes, and I think heating up the colors of the high-magnitude quakes a bit would have achieved more clarity without sacrificing subtlety.  But this map is to the football-coach graphic we were just looking at what an 8 on the Richter scale is to a 5 on the Richter scale: 1000 times more powerful.

Artistic Merit: I totally would have hung this on my wall, before I got into art.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": Absolutely.  You can't really understand the physical planet if you don't have a grip on tectonic theory.  If you understand tectonics, this is a great reference map to look at and say "yeah, there are lots here because this plate is riding up over this one, and over here....."  If you don't, it's a great map to make you think "hey, why do earthquakes all line up like that?  Maybe I should look into this!"

19. "Map of Where 29,000 Rubber Duckies Made Landfall After Falling off a Cargo Ship in the Middle of the Pacific Ocean"

Technical Merit: This map represents several minutes of basic proficiency with graphics software.

Artistic Merit: Aw, duckies!

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": Aw, duckies!

The way that wind and ocean currents work is actually kind of interesting and indisputably important, and if I remember correctly the distribution pattern of these toys actually gave oceanographers some surprises.  But having this map on the list is not an attempt to provoke your interest in these questions.  It's there because rubber duckies are cute, and somebody thought they would win back your attention after that complicated map about earthquakes!  Which is to say, the presence of this map is a subtle insult.

20. Map of Countries with the Most Violations of Bribery

Technical Merit: It's all right,although over-reliant on its software and somewhat lacking in common sense.  Slapping your title -- more about the title in a moment -- over the Arctic lands of the U.S. and Canada is one thing, but people live in New Zealand, man!

Artistic Merit: Eh.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": If a map has a subtitle, you always need to look at it.  The current example is a perfect case in point.  This is not a map of "Where the Bribes Are," it is a map of penalties in U.S. Government FCPA (Foreign Corrupt Practices Act) cases since 1977.  Hmm.  THERE IS SO MUCH WRONG HERE!!!  I hardly know where to start.

 Here are some of the most obviously problematic conclusions implied by the use of that data set:
  • "Where the Bribes Are" can, by definition, never include the United States.
  • Our opinion of Argentinian integrity in 2014 should account for the practices of the military junta that ruled that country in the late 1970s.
  • The corruption of the Soviet Union was (I'll bet) inherited by modern Russia, along with the Baltic Fleet and what-not.
  • Countries that don't engage commercially with the United States are pretty much corruption-free.  Take North Korea!
  • You're never going to encounter bribery in countries that are too small-fry for an FCPA case to be brought to bear.  Take Laos or the Central African Republic, for instance.
Which is to say, this is a map of a fairly ad-hoc data set that someone found and wanted to put on a map.  That is an absolutely cool thing to do.  It was only putting the title "Where the Bribes Are" onto the map that turned it to bullshit.  Subsequently putting that bullshit map on a list of "Forty Maps that Will Help You Make Sense of the World" was merely complacent ignorance.

Next Time Out: Maps 21 - 25


Morgan said...

I actually kind of liked the rivers one, in negative, because it does a decent job of showing where rivers aren't.

Michael5000 said...

I agree with you that that is its strong suit.

pfly said...

Yea, "where there aren't rivers" is a little interesting, but the map doesn't really help you make sense of that. I mean, okay, the High Plains have some sparse areas, but why are there so many in the Dakotas west of the Missouri River, especially in contrast to the mostly empty area to the south? Personally I know the empty area there is the Sand Hills of Nebraska, which probably explains it, but the map doesn't tell me that, or even that that area is Nebraska. Another empty area I see and know about it the Snake River Plain of southern Idaho. It's an interesting area where the ground is so permeable that streams just sink into the earth, joining a big aquifer, and emerging in the Snake River Canyon. I think the long empty area just east of the Missouri River in the Dakotas is the Coteau des Prairies. I admit I have a thing for rivers and river maps in general.

In any case, my main problem with the river map is how the data is obviously a patchwork with differing levels of detail. You can clearly see how there are "tiles" of data, some with a greater density of streams, some with less. The map creator points out on Flickr, where it comes from, this issue, saying it probably has to do with how the National Hydrology Database (NHD) was digitized from USGS topo quads. Also, as the creator points out, it is not a map of "rivers" per se, but hydrology "flowlines", which means it includes usually dry streams like arroyos but does not include "places like the Everglades where specific flowlines haven't been defined". Anyway, it's a kinda fun map, especially at larger sizes, but it doesn't really "help you make sense of the world".

Yes, the earthquake map is a good one. The rubber duckie one needs context—there's an interesting story behind it, but by itself the map doesn't really do much. It does make Tacoma stand out though, yay Tacoma!