Monday, February 24, 2014

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

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 VII

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.

31. "Earth's Population by Longitude and Latitude"

Technical Merit: Not terrible, with one major caveat: if you're displaying two maps for side-by-side comparison, it only makes sense to use the same base map, or at least the same projection, for both.  In this instance, it doesn't really matter too much, but I had to stop and think about whether it mattered.  If I have to stop and wonder if the cartographer is screwing up a simple map, the cartographer is to a certain extent screwing up a simple map.

Artistic Merit: None attempted, none gained.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": This is our third map that uses an innovative approach to describing the world's population distribution.  None of these have been anywhere near as effective or revealing as a straightforward map of the world's population distribution.

32. "Map of Contiguous United States Overlaid on the Moon"

Technical Merit: "boredboarder8" clearly has intermediate or greater skill with image software.  

Artistic Merit: I like it.  It's silly but fun, and even a little bit grand.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": No, except in the very limited sense that it might help you visualize the size of the Moon.

33. "Frequency of Lightning Strikes Throughout the World"

Technical Merit: The color data scale on this map is both attractive and effective, so that's good.  The projection -- Robinson or something similar -- is an "equal-area" treatment, which is appropriate for a display of data per square mile.  After that, things go downhill.  Choosing a projection that puts the Pacific Ocean, a data hole, in such a dominant position, pushes most of the action out to the edges, where shape distortion is increasingly maxed out as you approach the sides of the map.  If you wanted to go with a shape-curving projection in this scenario, the best bet was to split the world on the international date line, getting as much buffer as possible between the high-distortion map edges and the meat of your data.

Artistic Merit: See above.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": I grew up in one of the least lightning-struck areas on my continent, and throughout my childhood thought that lightning bolts and forks were an artistic convention along the lines of the "Pow!" bubble where a comic book character threw a punch.  Consequently, I find the geography of lightning strikes kind of fascinating.  However, it is also a complicated pattern, and unless you know quite a bit about meteorology, a map of the pattern in and of itself isn't going to help you make sense of anything.  Also, it is not especially important.

34. "Overall Water Risk Around the World"

Technical Merit: The scale of pale yellow to dark red is a good, visually intuitive one.  The choice of an unalloyed Mercator Projection will not make everyone happy.  Me, I'm more concerned about the egregious cropping and especially the complete failure to define terms.  For instance, what the hell is "water risk," let alone the difference between "Medium to high risk" and "High risk"?  Are we talking about water quality, water availability, trends in water availability, water availability per capita population, aquifer depletion, siltification, chemical contamination, a heady cocktail of some or all of these things, or something else entirely?  I devoutly hope that the World Resources Institute has a short essay's worth of text explaining what it is they are trying to show here, and if so I've got no beef with them.

What's my beef, again?  It is with the idiotic practice of chopping a map like this out of any context, and then offering it to us as helping us make sense of the world.  This map can't help us make sense of the world.  As it stands, it can not even convey meaning.

Artistic Merit: None attempted, none gained.

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

35. The Most Dangerous Area in the World to Ship Due to Pirates

Technical Merit: Looking at this map embarrasses me.  It has a base map, it has symbols, but its dominant elements are big blocks of texts attached to clumsy arrows and saying things like "Black, Caspian seas remain problmeatic."  Well, problmeatic is certainly the word for it; if your map is focused on textual headlines that are not supported by map data, you shouldn't be making a map.  You should be writing a paragraph.  Duh.

I would further argue that a "hotspot" that comprises half the Indian Ocean has outgrown the concept of a "spot," as has Indonesia.

The regional inset maps are poorly rendered, but the inset world map is just bizarre.  What is it even doing up there?

Artistic Merit: The stupidness of this map is rendered more obnoxious by the underlying serious-business aesthetic.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": One of several ways that I am habitually a killjoy is that I don't see why people think piracy is funny.  This map, for all of its egregious problmes, is a reminder that pirates are not just colorful people who dressed and talked in an amusing way while torturing, killing, and raping people in the distant past.  Recognizing this is a valid piece of making sense of the world.

Next Time Out: Maps 36 - 40


gl. said...

i love the moon map. it "helps one 'make sense of the world'" if you allow yourself to extend the concept of "world" to "the world i live in every day but often take for granted."

also +1000 for the piracy commentary.

pfly said...


31. "Earth’s Population by Latitude and Longitude": twistedshifter attributes this map to "mrgeng on Reddit", but really it was made by Bill Rankin of ...Bill has made a pile of interesting, sometimes amazing, sometimes weird maps and charts. He's pretty great and deserves proper credit. Screw "mrgeng on Reddit", the real source is: (which involves an odd mouseover thing to turn the map part of the charts on and off). Of all his maps and charts I'm not sure this one was the best to pick for "Forty Maps that Will Help You Make Sense of the World".

32. "Map of Contiguous United States Overlaid on the Moon": Some of the reddit comments are funny. "WE LANDED ON THE MOON! WE LANDED THE COUNTRY ON THE MOON!" It's "Moonifest Destiny". Or, "To put it another way: Think about when you're at the grocery store and trying to decide between a liter of milk and a gallon of milk. Now imagine the 2 milk bottles on the moon. I can now tell that the gallon jug is much larger, because of the moon's smaller circumference. Hope this helps."

34. "Overall Water Risk Around the World": "I devoutly hope that the World Resources Institute has a short essay's worth of text explaining what it is they are trying to show here". In fact, they do: and fact this map is just a screenshot from their rather in-depth and detailed interactive Water Risk Atlas web app. The screenshot sucks as an informative map. The web app appears to be very well done.

35. "The Most Dangerous Area in the World to Ship Due to Pirates": I think the company that made is a legitimate and useful maritime security consultancy kinda thing. Someone ripped this map out of some larger context, slapped a silly title on it and pasted the ugly blocks of text and clumsy arrows. fact, I just found the map in question on Control Risks' website (you have to enter some form info to get it in a popup) and put a copy here: ...still has the ridiculous inset map, but clearly the really bad stuff was added by someone else. Also, Control Risks provides a "Maritime Risk Analysis" report to go along with the map. And both the map and report are really just examples showing the kind of thing the company does. What they really want is "clients" who will pay for ongoing consulting on maritime security and such like (whether Control Risks is good at this and worth hiring is another question). In short, some yahoo took the map out of context and added a bunch of junk to it.

Michael5000 said...

pfly, you are doing a lot more legwork than I am. I enjoyed this installment of The User's Guide to the User's Guide so much as to think, ungratefully, "what? Nothing on the lightning map!?"

Kicking the maps themselves around is, on my part, both easy and in many cases really unfair. As you point out, the source material they've been ripped out of is perfectly respectable. What I'm really grouchy about is the list itself, and by extension the problmeatic genre of undigested infographic compilations.

pfly said...

Ha, thanks. And I agree about the list itself and the larger 'genre'. Of course I kinda enjoy being a consumer of the genre via things like reddit MapPorn and various blogs that regurgitate mostly out of context maps.

Anyway, I didn't do that much legwork. I already knew about Bill Rankin. The last two maps seemed like they *ought* be be good but were missing context. Most maps in this list are either plain bad or rather meh, but these two seemed like they had more behind them. The lightning one...well...I couldn't think of anything to say. I suppose the gradient is non-ideal. Everything seems to be basically blueish or reddish; it's almost like a two class map. I've heard that Florida has way more lightning than most of the US, but it's hard to tell in this map...