Boundary Stones and Capital Magic

[Image: “Chart showing the original boundary milestones of the District of Columbia,” U.S. Library of Congress].

Washington D.C. is surrounded by a diamond of “boundary stones,” Tim St. Onge writes for the Library of Congress blog, Worlds Revealed.

“The oldest set of federally placed monuments in the United States are strewn along busy streets, hidden in dense forests, lying unassumingly in residential front yards and church parking lots,” he explains. “Many are fortified by small iron fences, and one resides in the sea wall of a Potomac River lighthouse. Lining the current and former boundaries of Washington, D.C., these are the boundary stones of our nation’s capital.”

[Image: “District of Columbia boundary stone,” U.S. Library of Congress].

Nearly all of them—36 out of 40—can still be found today, although they are not necessarily easy to identify. “Some stones legibly maintain their original inscriptions marking the ‘Jurisdiction of the United States,’ while others have been severely eroded or sunk into the ground so as to now resemble ordinary, naturally-occurring stones.” They have been hit by cars and obscured by poison ivy.

The question of who owns the stones—and thus has responsibility for preserving them—is complex, as the Washington Post pointed out back in 2014. “Those that sit on the D.C./Maryland line were deemed the property of the D.C. Department of Transportation. ‘But on the Virginia side, if you own the land, you own the stone,’ [Stephen Powers of boundarystones.org] says.”

[Image: Mapping the stones, via boundarystones.org].

Novelist Jeremy Bushnell joked on Twitter that, “if anyone knows the incantations that correctly activate these, now would be a good time to utter them,” and, indeed, there is something vaguely magical—in a Nicolas Cage sort of way—in this vision of the nation’s capital encaged by a protective geometry of aging obelisks. Whether “activating” them would have beneficial or nefarious ends, I suppose, is something that remains to be seen.

Of course, Boston also has its boundary stones, and the “original city limits” of Los Angeles apparently have a somewhat anticlimactic little marker that you can find driven into the concrete, as well.

Read much, much more over at Worlds Revealed and boundarystones.org.

(Related: Working the Line. Thanks to Nicola Twilley for the tip!)

chill.once.waddle

what3words[Image: Screen-grab from what3words].

Using the bizarre three-word addressing system known as what3words, the now-destroyed curb in Hayward, CA, mentioned in the previous post, is located at a site called “chill.once.waddle.”

As you can tell, of course, what3words is not a descriptive language, and these phrases are not intended to mean anything: they are simply randomly-generated sets of words used to give any location on earth a physical address.

As Quartz explained the system back in 2015, it is, at heart, “a simple idea”:

…a combination of three words, in any language, could specify any three meter by three meter square in the world—more than enough to designate a hut in Siberia or a building doorway in Tokyo. Altogether, 40,000 words combined in triplets label 57 trillion squares. Thus far, the system has been built in 10 languages: English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Swahili, Portuguese, Swedish, Turkish, and, starting next month, Arabic… All together, this lingua franca requires only five megabytes of data, small enough to reside in any smartphone and work offline. Each square has its identity in its own language that is not a translation of another. The dictionaries have been refined to avoid homophones or offensive terms, with short terms being reserved for the most populated areas

The addresses are poetically absurd—shaky.audit.detail, salsa.gangs.square, dozed.lamps.wing.

I mention this, however, because I meant to post last month that “Mongolia is changing all its addresses to three-word phrases.” Again, from Quartz:

Mongol Post is switching to the What3Words system because there are too few named streets in its territory. The mail network provides service over 1.5 million square km (580,000 square miles), an area that’s three times the size of Spain, though much of that area is uninhabited. Mongolia is among the world’s most sparsely populated countries, and about a quarter of its population is nomadic, according to the World Bank.

While, on one level, in an age of stacks and infinite addressability, this seems like a thrilling, almost science-fictional step forward for locating and mapping physical spaces, it also seems like an alarming example of national over-reliance on a proprietary address system, one that the state itself ultimately cannot control.

Imagine a nation-state losing influence over the physical coordinates of its own territory, or a population stuck living inside an outdated, even discontinued address network, and needing to start again, from scratch, renaming all its streets and buildings—not to mention all the lost local histories and significance of certain place names, from avenues to intersections, that need to be reclaimed.

Granted, in this particular case, the system is being adopted precisely because “there are too few named streets” in Mongolia, that does not change the fact that the country will soon be dependent upon the continued existence of what3words for its packages to be delivered, its services to run, and its spatial infrastructures to function. It will be interesting to see how the transition to the use of these peculiar place tags goes—but, even more so, how this decision looks in five or ten years’ time.

_applyChinaLocationShift

shanghaishift[Image: The same point in Shanghai, shifted between its map and satellite view; via Google Maps].

The slippage between map and territory is made unsettlingly clear by a mandatory geographic offset introduced into digital cartography products operating in China.

Variously known as “_applyChinaLocationShift,” eviltransform, the “China GPS Offset Problem,” and, most interestingly, as “Mars Coordinates,” this algorithmic shifting of GPS coordinates is related to China’s official mapping and survey rules, devised for national and economic security.

I’ve written much more about this in a new article for Travel + Leisure, where everything from trap streets to Jorge Luis Borges gets involved, as well as questions of technology, international borders, and geopolitics. Check it out, and let me know if you’ve had any experience with the issue yourself.

(Thanks to @0xdeadbabe for the tip!)

Comparative Astral Isochrones

[Image: Isochronic map of travel distances from London, from An Atlas of Economic Geography (1914) by John G. Bartholomew (via)].

“This is an isochronic map—isochrones being lines joining points accessible in the same amount of time—and it tells a story about how travel was changing,” Simon Willis explains over at Intelligent Life. The map shows you how long it would take to get somewhere, embarking from London:

You can get anywhere in the dark-pink section in the middle within five days–to the Azores in the west and the Russian city of Perm in the east. No surprises there: you’re just not going very far. Beyond that, things get a little more interesting. Within five to ten days, you can get as far as Winnipeg or the Blue Pearl of Siberia, Lake Baikal. It takes as much as 20 days to get to Tashkent, which is closer than either, or Honolulu, which is much farther away. In some places, a colour sweeps across a landmass, as pink sweeps across the eastern United States or orange across India. In others, you reach a barrier of blue not far inland, as in Africa and South America. What explains the difference? Railways.

Earlier this year, when a private spacecraft made it from the surface of the Earth to the International Space Station in less than six hours, the New York Times pointed out that “it is now quicker to go from Earth to the space station than it is to fly from New York to London.”

[Image: From Twitter].

In the context of Bartholomew’s map, it would be interesting to re-explore isochronal cartography in our own time, to visualize the strange spacetime we live within today, where the moon is closer than parts of Antarctica and the International Space Station is a shorter trip than flying to Heathrow.

(Map originally spotted via Francesco Sebregondi).

“It’s almost like he wanted to collect every map ever made”

Alec Earnest recently made an interesting documentary about a house in Los Angeles whose owner died, leaving behind a personal map collection so massive that, upon being acquisitioned by the city’s public library, “it doubled the LAPL’s collection in a single day.”

When LAPL map librarian Glen Creason, interviewed for the film, first entered the house, his jaw dropped; “everywhere I looked in the house, there’s maps,” he explains in the film, including an entire floor that was “absolutely wall to wall with street guides.”

[Image: From Living History: The John Feathers Map Collection by Alec Earnest].

As the Los Angeles Times described Feathers’s house upon its discovery back in 2012, it held “tens of thousands of maps. Fold-out street maps were stuffed in file cabinets, crammed into cardboard boxes, lined up on closet shelves and jammed into old dairy crates. Wall-size roll-up maps once familiar to schoolchildren were stacked in corners. Old globes were lined in rows atop bookshelves also filled with maps and atlases.”

It went on and on and on: “A giant plastic topographical map of the United States covered a bathroom wall and bookcases displaying Thomas Bros. map books and other street guides lined a small den.”

Urban atlases, motoring charts, pre-Thomas Guide local street maps—Feathers collected seemingly any cartographic ephemera he could get his hands on.

[Image: From Living History: The John Feathers Map Collection by Alec Earnest].

Earnest’s short film has more information about Feathers himself, and can seen in full either above or over on YouTube.

Although the story of the collection would lend itself well to longer journalistic exploration—and map librarian Glen Creason has actually written up some thoughts for Los Angeles Magazine—it feels like an amazing jumping off point for a piece of fiction, either cinematic or literary.

Perhaps some sort of Chinatown or True Detective-like property speculation noir, where parcels of land and off-books deals are being tracked by a lone collector through generations of local maps, marking boundaries, street names, omissions; or perhaps something more like “X Marks the Spot,” where an old Spanish-affiliated property from the pre-Los Angeles era is rumored to have once had vast brick vaults stocked high with gold, buried beneath the main ranch house, a property long since absorbed into the supergrid of Greater Los Angeles… but the vaults are still down there—along with the gold—if only you can dig up the right map to go find it.

[Image: From Living History: The John Feathers Map Collection by Alec Earnest].

In fact, there could be a whole genre based purely on the unexpected narrative side-effects of people attempting—and failing—to map Los Angeles.

Transecting Amsterdam

[Image: From Project 360º by Frank Dresmé].

Here’s an old project by Dutch graphic designer Frank Dresmé. Called Project 360º, it used the idea of the “transect” as a way to map and graphically depict pedestrian movement through urban space.

[Image: From Project 360º by Frank Dresmé].

As Dresmé explains, he found existing maps of Amsterdam both navigationally inadequate and conceptually boring, so he sought to find a new way to represent how the city really feels as a sequence of spatial opportunities and physical obstacles.

This meant, among other things, focusing on and highlighting the signs, paths, turns, landmarks, and other bits of the city that stand out to someone intent on moving through it.

[Image: From Project 360º by Frank Dresmé].

The results was “four psychogeographical maps,” as he described them, that unpeeled and restitched Amsterdam back together again.

“These maps are the routes between personal destinations in Amsterdam,” he explained. “Every destination in a different wind direction; north /east /south /west back to the north.”

While the final images are perhaps not navigationally useful for other pedestrians, they are certainly visually striking; what is more important, in any case, would not be the use-value you can extract from Dresmé’s project, but the methods and techniques it suggests for breaking down and understanding your own use of the city.

[Image: Exhibiting Project 360º by Frank Dresmé].

Given all of the spatial data now available about ourselves, whether we want it to be or not, it seems particularly timely to imagine new ways of engaging with, mapping, and representing that geographic information.

Part trail map, part daily diary, Dresmé’s transect offers as good an option as any. Download a PDF of the project over at his site.

[Note: Brent Milligan of Free Association Design used these and other graphic representations of urban space as a launching point for a long post back in 2009].

Buy a Map

[Image: Photo by Barney Peterson, courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle].

Something I meant to post three few weeks ago, before October became the Great Lost Month of constant busyness and over-commitment, is the story of a 70-ton relief map of California, unseen by the public for half a century, that has been re-discovered in San Francisco, sitting in “an undisclosed location on the city’s waterfront.”

[Image: Photo by Barney Peterson, courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle].

In its time, the map was considered far too marvelous for simply cutting up and storing—but that’s exactly what’s happened to it.

It was as long as two football fields and showed California in all its splendor, from Oregon to Mexico, with snow-capped mountains, national parks, redwood forests, a glorious coastline, orchards and miniature cities basking in the sun. It was made of plaster, wire, paint, and bits of rock and sand. In the summer of 1924, Scientific American magazine said it was the largest map in the world.

However, we read, “The problem with the map is simple: it is huge and would cost a lot of money to move, restore and display it. The last estimate was in the range of $500,000. And that was 30 years ago. It is a classic white elephant, too valuable to scrap, but too expensive to keep.”

And, today, it’s not going anywhere: “The Port of San Francisco has no plans to be anything but stewards of its storage, and no one else has come forward in half a century to rescue the map.” If you have half-a-million dollars or so, and heavy moving equipment at your disposal, then perhaps it could soon be yours.

(Thanks to Steve Silberman for the link. In the archives: San Francisco Bay Hydrological Model; Buy a Torpedo-Testing Facility, Buy a Fort, Buy a Church, and Buy a Silk Mill].

Trap Rooms

While finalizing my slides for tonight’s lecture at SCI-Arc, I was reading again about one of my favorite topics: trap streets, or deliberate cartographic errors introduced into a map so as to catch acts of copyright infringement by rival firms.

[Images: A “trap street” on Google Maps, documented by Luistxo eta Marije].

In other words, if a competitor’s map includes your “trap street”—a fictitious geographic feature that you’ve invented outright—then you (and your lawyers) will know that they’ve simply nicked your data, giving it a quick redesign and trying to pass it off as their own.

But this strategy of willful cartographic deception is not always limited to streets: there can be trap parks, trap ponds, trap buildings.

And trap rooms.

Earlier this week, I was reading about the rise of internal navigation apps for mobile phones, apps that will help you to find your way through otherwise bewildering internal environments. Large shopping malls, for instance, or unfamiliar subway stations.

From the New York Times:

A number of start-up companies are charting the interiors of shopping malls, convention centers and airports to keep mobile phone users from getting lost as they walk from the food court to the restroom. Some of their maps might even be able to locate cans of sardines in a sprawling grocery store.

Whichever company can upload the most floorplans before everyone else will, presumably, have quite an economic advantage. So how could you protect your proprietary map sets? What if you’re the only company in the world with access to maps of a certain convention center or sports stadium or new airport terminal—how could you keep a rival firm from simply jacking your cartography?

[Image: Photo by Laura Pedrick for The New York Times].

Introduce false information, perhaps: trap halls, trap stairs, trap attics, trap rooms. Nothing sinister—you don’t want people fleeing toward an emergency stairway that doesn’t exist in the event of a real-life fire—but why not an innocent janitorial closet somewhere or a freight elevator that no one could ever access in the first place? Why not a mysterious door to nowhere, or a small room that somehow appears to be within the very room you’re standing in?

It seems to be a mapping error—but it’s actually there for copyright protection. It’s a trap room.

On one level, I’m reminded of a minor detail from Joe Flood’s recent book The Fires, where we read that John O’Hagan, New York City’s Fire Commissioner, used to drive around town with blueprints of local buildings stored in the trunk of his car. If there was ever a fire in one of those structures, and his men would have to find their way through smoke-filled, confusing hallways, O’Hagan would have the maps. But is there a kind of Fire Department iPhone app? Could this be downloaded by everyday citizens and used in the event of emergency? What about a Seismic App for earthquake-prone cities like Los Angeles? Going into any building becomes a considerably safer thing to do, as your phone automagically downloads the relevant floorplans. Perhaps buildings known to be fire hazards, or known to be earthquake-unsafe, are somehow red-flagged as a warning before you step inside. (In such a context, the first person to become Mayor on foursquare of every earthquake-unsafe building in Los Angeles wins cult status amongst certain social groups).

But I’m also curious about less practical things, such as what cultural, even psychological, effects the presence of trap rooms might actually have. Games could be launched, the purpose of which is to find and occupy as many trap rooms as possible. New paranoias emerge, that the room featured above your apartment on the new app you just downloaded is not really there at all; it’s a trap room. You can’t sleep at night, worried that you actually have no neighbors, that you’re the last person on earth and every building around you is a dream. There are panic attacks and feelings of unreality, that no map can be trusted, that you’ve been living in a trap building all along. An Atlas of Trap Rooms is then released, with a foreword by Kevin Slavin.

These and other subtle geographies—trap architectures—awaiting detection all around us.

Speculative subways for landscapes with no need for them

I’m a big fan of these speculative subway maps in which underground transportation systems have been projected for landscapes in which their actual construction would be absurd.

[Image: A speculative future subway map by Transit Authority Figures].

Indeed, in many cases, constructing a subway in these sites—Acadia National Park, for instance, seen above, or Martha’s Vineyard—would not only be technically ridiculous, or simply surreal, it would be a disaster.

[Images: Maps by Transit Authority Figures].

Designed by Transit Authority Figures, there are currently nine posters to view (and purchase).

[Image: By Transit Authority Figures].

Hopefully more maps are forthcoming—and it would be great to see more sites outside of New England. A subway for Rocky Mountain National Park, say, or the Galapagos. How about the Greek island of Patmos, where St. John so famously experienced his revelation? Or mechanized travel beneath the Antarctic base at McMurdo. Marrakech. The Florida Keys.

Keep your eye on the Transit Authority Figures’ poster page to see what might come next.

(Via @stevesilberman).

Where does your taco come from?

Like a culinary version of Sourcemap, Rebar has teamed up with landscape architect David Fletcher and some students from the increasingly interesting California College of the Arts in San Francisco to explore the ingredients of your local taco—from pinto beans to the aluminum foil it all comes wrapped in.

Our premise was that a seemingly simple, familiar food like the taco truck taco could provide visceral insight into the connections between the systems we were exploring [in our studio’s investigation of the city]. By thoroughly learning the process of formation and lifecycle for what it takes to make a taco, we would be better able to propose and design a speculative model of a holistic and sustainable urban future. What resulted was a richly complex network of systems, flows and ecologies that we call the global Tacoshed.

This is a participatory undertaking; meet at the Studio for Urban Projects in San Francisco at 7pm on Thursday, February 25, to find out how you, too, can map a taco. Here’s a map.

The Studio for Urban Projects, meanwhile, has a pretty fascinating list of previous endeavors, including Foodshed, Strange Weather, and the awesome Unnatural History of Golden Gate Park. Large parts of what are now west San Francisco were once covered by nomadic sand dunes, a kind of peninsular erg; that granular presence is now only temporarily locked in place beneath the foundations of houses. Every grain you see blowing down a San Franciscan street is this lost geography attempting to reassert itself.

[Image: “There are two basic types of taco trucks,” we read; “the first and most common is the transient truck which is a truck that stops at approximately 20 different locations at 20-minute intervals during an 8-hour shift, typically beginning at 6am and ending at 2pm. The second type is the semi-permanent truck, which is a truck that has found a location that has a density of clientele to sustain it for an extended period of the day, creating a nearly fixed presence in a particular community.” From Polar Inertia].

And I can’t let this post end without calling attention to the excellent—in fact, extraordinary—Polar Inertia, specifically its photo-essay published more than four years ago tracing the taco-truck geography of greater Los Angeles. These dispersed infrastructures might now be quite trendy, but the functional networks things like taco trucks actually form on the streets of our cities are still worth mapping in full.

Nova Arctica

it is a false and feverous state for the Centre to live in the Circumference
(Coleridge)

[Image: “The first map dedicated to the North Pole, by the great Gerard Mercator,” titled Septentrionalium Terrarum descriptio, reprinted 1623].

The North Pole’s melting ice cap is apparently creating something of an Arctic real estate boom.

Or a shipping route boom, more specifically: new Arctic sea channels are opening up almost literally every season, and new – or revived – ports are being opened – or renovated – to serve them.

Pat Broe, for instance, “a Denver entrepreneur,” bought a “derelict Hudson Bay port from the Canadian government in 1997” – for $7. That $7 port, however, could eventually “bring in as much as $100 million a year as a port on Arctic shipping lanes [made] shorter by thousands of miles” due to thawing sea ice.

Such Arctic routes are predicted to grow in importance quite rapidly “as the retreat of ice in the region clears the way for a longer shipping season.”


But the world is full of Pat Broes. Accordingly, “the Arctic is undergoing nothing less than a great rush for virgin territory and natural resources worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Even before the polar ice began shrinking more each summer, countries were pushing into the frigid Barents Sea, lured by undersea oil and gas fields and emboldened by advances in technology. But now, as thinning ice stands to simplify construction of drilling rigs, exploration is likely to move even farther north.”

Aside from the inevitable and ecologically unfortunate discovery of new Arctic oil reserves (“it’s the next energy frontier,” a Russian energy worker says), the “polar thaw is also starting to unlock other treasures… perhaps even the storied Northwest Passage.”

[Image: A 1754 De Fonte Map of the Northwest Passage].

Something of a land grab – or sea grab – is now underway: “Under a treaty called the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, territory is determined by how far a nation’s continental shelf extends” offshore – adding a somewhat Freudian dimension to Arctic real estate. (Or perhaps we could call it the Arctic Real, where “the true coordinates are much better hidden than we realize.”)

In any case: “Under the treaty, countries have limited time after ratifying it to map the sea floor and make claims.” What kind of claims? “[C]laims of expanded territory.”

But it soon gets interesting. “In a 2002 report for the Navy on climate change and the Arctic Ocean, the Arctic Research Commission, a panel appointed by the president, concluded that species were moving north through the Bering Strait.” [Emphasis added]. Territorial alterations and geographic changes at the pole, in other words, are leading to unexpected seaborne migrations, repositionings of the planetary gene pool.

Surely there’s a James Cameron film in there, or at least some kind of Arctic pulp fiction thriller dying to be written?

In any case, as new territories, both aquatic and terrestrial, appear at the Earth’s poles, we might do well to reconsider what Victoria Nelson calls “the Polar gothic,” or “the literary genre of mystical geography,” part of a “psychotopography” of the Earth…

Either way I want to mention – as Nelson does – a text by H.P. Lovecraft. In his slightly goofy 1931 novella, At the Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft sends a group of geologists to the south pole where they’re meant to collect “deep-level specimens of rock and soil from the antarctic continent.” Under “great barren peaks of mystery” and “desolate summits” made of “Jurassic and Comanchian sandstones and Permian and Triassic schists, with now and then a glossy black outcropping suggesting a hard and slaty coal,” they go snowshoeing, dogsledding, and hiking some more – till, drilling through ice into the ancient metamorphic prehistory of a once-tropical antarctic mountain range, they begin “to discern new topographical features in areas unreached by previous explorers.”

Soon they find weird marine fossils.

Then ancient, apparently manmade artifacts turn up.

At night they hear things.

Then they find a city.


This antarctic city is “of no architecture known to man or to human imagination, with vast aggregations of night-black masonry embodying monstrous perversions of geometrical laws. (…) All of these febrile structures seemed knit together by tubular bridges crossing one to the other at dizzying heights,” including “various nightmare turrets,” crowding “the most utterly unknown stretches of the aeon-dead continent.” Etc.

Lovecraft’s polar gothic now continues apace, however, at the opposite end of the Earth, as the planet’s northernmost currents of melting ice bring new rivers, new migrations, and even new instant cities deep into the waters of thawing Arctic archipelagos.