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Freshman

This is quite a bit more disorienting than I expected: Yahoo circa 1995. Suddenly I’m nineteen years old again, in the consultant office of the Olin Hall computer lab, using Netscape 1.0, and I have a ponytail.

(Link via Jonas Luster)

Google does maps

I was going to make this a simple link, but played around with Google Maps for a few minutes and found it too cool for a one-liner. As the top-level page of Google Maps suggests, you can search for directions, businesses, and locations. Try searching for “sushi in Tucson”—bingo! There’s a map with locations plotted on it. Another click gives you directions to or from any location. Mapquest isn’t nearly this slick.

Enter “tucson to flagstaff” in the directions search, and up comes the map straightaway; there’s no tabbing between all the address/city/state fields. If you know airport codes, enter them directly, to get directions from TUS to Ventana Canyon (for your golf weekend), for example. Want more detail about that freeway on-ramp? Click on any of the numbered waypoints for a close-up.

But it gets cooler. Find your location, and then click-drag on the map. It moves. Finer control? Use the arrow keys. See more in the tour.

Update: Hublog weighs in, saying that while Google Maps is pretty cool, “it still doesn’t beat the flying, zooming Java beast that is map24.” Java beast indeed, but the zoom is way cool.

Cartography

I spent a good chunk of this last weekend at Heather’s office, where they have chairs and desks purchased within the last decade — quite a difference from my own bomb-shelter steel desk at school. While there, I watched Heather do some of her work, which this weekend mostly consisted of creating and analyzing some GIS data.

Let me say that I consider myself relatively computer-savvy. I pick up concepts pretty quickly, can do some programming of a few different types, and feel comfortable with lots of different software on several platforms. So, I like to think that, you know, I get computers. But watching Heather work in GIS, well, I see that I just don’t get GIS. At all.

GIS is powerful. If you’re someone like a grass and fire ecologist, you can use it to map historical fire activity and predict the scope of future fires by hooking your GIS data into a statistical package. You can plot presence points of invasive species and build models of its future distribution. You can make really bitchin’ maps. But you first have to get it.

GIS, first of all, has this immense and complex vocabulary descended from various ways of making and describing maps, which is then crossed with technological vocabulary for rendering data: Topologies, cartographic mapping, vector- and point-based data. After a long day of cranking GIS, Heather routinely comes home and — after telling me what is wrong with the swamp cooler — speaks this foreign mapping language for thirty or forty minutes at a stretch. On top of all this conceptual complexity is the fact that the software — all of it, as far as I can tell — basically defies intuition. You’re thinking, “Hey, I like maps. They’re neat.” Well just try downloading GRASS GIS, a mature, open source GIS package, and see if you can do something with it.

The same goes for the molto-expensive GIS packages made by folks like ESRI, who seem to own much of the commercial GIS market. For example, one problem (and this reminds me of the balkanization of various open source projects) is that the complex vocabulary that I referred to earlier changes with your software package. What ESRI’s ArcView calls “themes,” ESRI’s ArcInfo calls “layers.” The same company’s package calls something by two different names! Ack. It’s madness, and try as I might, I still can’t decipher just what Heather does all day. “Maps,” I tell people. “Ah, stuff with maps.”


About, the short version

I’m a sociologist-errant. This site is powered by Textpattern, Pair Networks and the sociological imagination. For more about me and this site, see the long version.

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