Posts Tagged ‘america’

Less A Map Of Vinland, More A Map Of Fakeland

Some uses of maps have remained relatively unchanged through the ages. We still use them to find out where we are and how to get somewhere else. Governments still use them to say “this is mine, that is yours”. But as our planet has now been pretty comprehensively mapped, we don’t use them to say “I got here first” that much anymore.

Which makes maps that prove that someone really did get there first extremely coveted and extremely valuable in about equal measures. The combination of value, national pride and good old human greed also makes early maps a fertile breeding ground for trickery and fakery.

The discovery of the fourth continent, after Europe, Asia and Africa, seems to have had more than its fair share of controversy.

Popular opinion holds that Cristoforo Columbo, better known as the anglicised Christopher Columbus, got to America first in 1492. Of course first is a loaded term; Columbus may have been the first European to set foot in the Americas but he certainly wasn’t the first human on the continent. But did Columbus get there first?

Probably not; there’s now growing evidence that a Norse expedition, led by Leif Ericson, landed on what is now Newfoundland in the 11th Century after being blown off course by a storm when travelling from Norway to Greenland. According to the Book of Icelanders, compiled around 1122 by Ari The Wise, Ericson first landed on a rocky and desolute place he named Helluland or Flat Rock Land, which may have been Baffin Island and then sailed for a further two days before landing again in a place he named Vinland, often mistranslated literally as Wineland but more likely to mean Land with Great Grass Fields.

Of course it would help if there was a map of Vinland, to underscore the I got there first point.


Luckily in 1957 a map of Vinland came to light, as part of short medieval text called the Hystoria Tartaorum (The Tartar Relation). The Vinland map seemed to be dated from the 15th Century and in true mappa mundi tradition showed the world as it was known then, with Africa, Asia, Europe as well as a landmass labelled Vinland to the South West of Greenland. Coincidentally, three years after the Vinland map emerged, an archeological dig uncovered a Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Surely this proved the authenticity of the Vinland map?

In the years since, the Vinland map has attracted controversy with as many people believing its authenticity as those who thought it a fake.

Enter John Paul Floyd, a Glaswegian researcher who seems to have proved that the parchment the Vinland map is drawn on is a genuine 15th Century relic. That’s the parchment, not the map though. Floyd has discovered that the Hystoria Tartaorum was displayed at an event in 1892 and again in 1926 and on both occasions the document was conspicuously map free. Add to this the fact that the Vinland map uses textual idioms more consistent with the 17th Century than 200 years ealier and that the map includes characteristics found in 18th Century reproductions of a 1463 world map and all the evidence is pointing to the Vinland map being a fake created sometime between the 1920s and the 1950s.

Leif Ericson may have been the first European to visit and colonise the Americas, but there still seems to be no map known that says he did it first.

If you’re one of the people who have a Times and Sunday Times paywall account, there’s more coverage on the Sunday Times website; for the remaining 99.999% of the population, there’s additional coverage over at BoingBoing.

Photo Credits: Wikipedia.
Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Welcome To The United States; A Cold War Tourist Map For Soviet Visitors

Governments and authorities like maps. They’re a useful way of clearly saying this is mine, that is yours. They’re also useful for saying where you can and more importantly, where you can’t go. This is all too evident in a surprising map of where Russian visitors to the US were permitted to visit during the 1950s.

In the mid 1950s America and Russia were in the middle of the game of oneupmanship, with added nuclear weapons, that was the Cold War. Despite the uneasy detente between the two countries, if you were one of an elite group of Soviet citizens you were actually able to visit the United States. But not all of it. Large swathes of the US were closed to prospective Soviet tourists.


What makes this map interesting is not so much the slice of relatively recent world history that it portrays but more of the questions it poses. What were the criteria that were used to determine where a Cold War era Soviet visitor could and couldn’t go?

You can make some educated guesses. It’s not unreasonable to assume that major ports, coastlines, industrial areas and military and weapons areas were off limits. But that doesn’t cover the full scope of the open and closed areas.

Over at BoingBoing, there’s speculation that this was as much a tit-for-tat set of restrictions as it was a set of restrictions based on what the US Government didn’t want Soviets to see. As Cold War era historian Audra Wolfe, the author of the Slate article on this map, notes

The main premise is ‘strict reciprocity’. X% of Soviet coasts are off-limits, therefore X% of US coasts are off-limits, too.

Photo Credits: Rockefeller Archive Center, Item record: Rockefeller Family Archives (III) Record Group: 4 Nelson A. Rockefeller – Personal, Series: Washington D.C Files, Subseries: O.9 Special Assistant to the President Declassified Materials, 1954-1956, 1969 Box: 4 Folder 94.
Written and posted from the British Library, London (51.53004, -0.12765)

Organic Pigs Or Organic Pig Waste? Mapping The Pros And Cons Of Each US State

Where you choose to live is always a trade off between the pros and the cons, the good and the bad. It probably comes as no surprise that if you’re a resident of Iowa and you have the most organic pigs in the United States you will also have the highest amount of pig waste.


But who would have thought that the downside to having the most organic mushrooms is that your state has the most amount of dams in need of repair. Apparently, this is the case if you live in Pennsylvania.

And maybe the cause of the highest binge drinking rate that you’ll find in Wisconsin is all those acres of organic corn that’s grown in that state.


A lot of the statistics, from sources including the U.S. Geological Survey, NASA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, look like they’re issued by the Department Of Stating The Obvious and makes me wonder how much the residents of each U.S. State agree with how it’s seen that their home State excels or doesn’t.

Image Credits: Mother Nature Network.
Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Three Days. Three Cities. Three Continents

There’s a saying that travel broadens the mind. It’s a cliche but cliches generally come about because they’re true. This week my mind has been considerably broadened, visting the Tandale slum on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam and attending and judging the Sanitation Hackathon, but more about that in a later post.

The week started in Chicago, the Windy City, which lived up to its name, being cold, windy and with crystal clear skies. It’s a classic example of the American style of high rise architecture and the view from one of the meeting rooms in Nokia’s offices were spectacular.

Then I was at home for just under a day. Cold, clear skies and a typical suburban London street scene, surrounded by Victorian era terraced cottages.

Then I was under a blazing sun in the capital of Tanzania. The contrast between an American city, a British city and a Tanzanian one couldn’t have been more marked.

Three days, three cities, three continents and a well and truly broadened mind.

Written and posted from the Sanitation Hackathon, COSTECH, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (-6.77457, 39.24125)

Revisiting The Online Me (On A Plane)

Although I fly a lot these days, I don’t fly on internal routes in the US that much and so flying Virgin America, which has onboard wifi, is still something that brings out the childish geek in me. In homage to a certain Mr. Aaron Cope, once again I am in the sky as I write this and starting to think that maybe I will only write blog posts from airplanes from now on.

While sitting in a hotel room about a week or so back, I realised that while has been the home of my blog for years and the current incarnation may have 267 pieces of bloggage tucked away in the bowels of WordPress (that’s 268 with this post), the theme has been pretty much static since sometime in 2007. The same goes for my other web presence over at

But back to this blog for a moment. Like a lot of people I started out with a stock WordPress install and theme. Then I went through the discovery of the WordPress theme repository, installing and uninstalling too many plugins, before finally becoming confident enough to start hacking the PHP and CSS of an existing theme into something vaguely approaching what I wanted. And thereby hangs the problem. My theme, which started out as Chandra Maharzan’s rather wonderful Cleanr, suffered from the problem that each time the theme was updated I needed to go through the changes and manually apply them to my hacked version. Scalable and fun this is not. - Screen Grab

Enter the notion of WordPress child themes. These allow you to take an existing WordPress theme and build on top of that theme but without actually modifying or adding to the original theme. You start with just inheriting from the parent theme’s CSS and then you can add, adapt and otherwise hack as much or as little of the parent’s templates and PHP functions as you need. As you’re not actually touching the parent theme at all, any updates to that theme are automagically passed onto the child theme, so the need to keep a hacked theme in line with the original simply goes away.

I still rather liked the clean typography and colour scheme of my version of Cleanr so I was able to easily modify my child theme’s CSS to migrate this. I based the child theme on the WordPress Twenty Ten theme but changed the way in which post date formats were displayed, removed the built-in biography display so I could use my own WP Biographia plugin and modified the parent theme’s header image display to use my own imagery and to also rotate the images on page refresh.

Putting together a child theme to give my blog a long overdue facelift has been surprisingly easy; to see just how easy, the source code to the originally named Twenty Ten – Vicchi is over on GitHub to download, fork or otherwise hack around.

One web presence down, one to go. Next it was time to give my personal vanity page some facelift attention. The original design for this site was heavily influenced by Christian Heilmann’s approach to web technologies. Chris and I worked together at Yahoo! and he taught me so much about how web pages worked. The original version of this site was dynamically generated from RSS feeds fed through Yahoo’s YQL. Sadly, the YQL API got ever more flaky over the last few years and I ended up having to transition over to use the SimplePie PHP library just to keep the site up and running. It wasn’t the world’s fastest loading site but it was nice and dynamic and at the time, that was important, to me at least.

But in keeping with the clean and spare layout of my blog, I’d been intrigued by the less-is-more approach that had taken. But despite having my own page on’s site I wanted to host my own under my domain. - Screen Grab

A random browse through GitHub yielded The Personal Page, a clean, lightweight home page design that appealed to me. One GitHub fork later, plus a photo of me taken at last year’s Geo-Loco conference in San Francisco that I didn’t look too appalling in and the new, Personal Page’d version was up and running. Really, it took all of about half an hour and that’s including testing and finding a social media icon set that integrated nicely with the look and feel of the site. Of course, the web site’s code is also up on GitHub for the aforementioned hacking around.

All of the above verbiage can be boiled down to the simple fact that armed with a little knowledge of CSS, PHP and HTML it’s very, very easy to create a new and, I hope, effective web presence, all of which is powered by open source tools and techniques and that, utterly appeals to the grown up geek in me.

Written and posted on Virgin America flight VX837, between Chicago O’Hare and San Francisco International airports, roundabout overhead Maryville, MO (40.347, -94.873)

Curiously Cartographic Creations #3 – The Special Relationship

Odd map of the London Underground? Check. Maps of how Swedes and Hungarians see Europe? Check. Ah … but what about how our neighbours across the Atlantic see the world? You know, the country that has a special relationship with the United Kingdom? I have just the very thing for you. Let’s start with a nice simplified version of the world.

The World according to America

He may no longer be Mr. President but apparently George. W. Bush had a curious grasp of the world’s geography.

The World According to Dubya

Keeping with the theme of President of the United States, this highly colourful view of the world comes from the mind of a Mr. Reagan. Allegedly.

The World According to Ronald Reagan

Photo Credits: irobot00 on Flickr.
Written and posted from the Yahoo! London office (51.5141985, -0.1292006)