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kottke.org posts about maps

The Most Populous Cities in the World, From 3000 BCE to Today

I’ve always been a little fascinated by the list of the largest cities throughout history, so this animated version from Ollie Bye is right up my alley. While watching, it’s interesting to think about what makes cities grow large at specific times: a mixture of economics, demography, social movements, empire/colonialism, technology, and the like.

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At the Intersection of Eggs and Omelet

a fake Google Maps screenshot showing an 'eggs' road being scrambled up into an interchange and coming out the other side as an 'omelet' road

Always a good day to highlight the creative work of designer/illustrator Christoph Niemann: a collection of map-based work, including a cheeky metaphorical recipe for an omelet. That intersection isn’t actually that outlandish: see A Bonkers Highway Interchange and Crazy Whirlpool Traffic Interchange in Dubai.

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McDonald’s Locations vs. Golf Courses

When I linked to a recent NY Times article about rewilding golf courses, I pulled out this startling fact: “The United States has more golf courses than McDonald’s locations.” Nathan Yau of FlowingData found that that is indeed true but wondered where all of the golf courses were actually located. (A: typically not in cities where the McDonald’s are concentrated).

a map of the distribution of golf courses and McDonald's in the US

This makes more sense now. You can have a golf course in an area where there aren’t that many people, because people will travel to play golf. Few people are going to travel specifically for McDonald’s.

If we compare the two, you see the McDonald’s city concentrations, and golf fills the in-between spaces.

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FAA Aviation Maps

FAA map of Chicago O'Hare airport

FAA map of an airport in Alaska

FAA map of the Houston airport

On Beautiful Public Data, Jon Keegan highlights the extremely information-rich flight maps produced by the Federal Aviation Administration that pilots use to find their way around the skies.

Among all of the visual information published by the U.S. government, there may be no product with a higher information density than the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) aviation maps. Intended for pilots, the FAA publishes free detailed maps of the entire U.S. airspace, and detailed maps of airports and their surroundings and updates them frequently. The density of the critical information layered on these maps is staggering, and it is a miracle that pilots can easily decipher these maps’ at a glance.

Oh wow, this takes me back. My dad was a pilot when I was a kid and he had a bunch of FAA maps in the house, in his planes, and even on the walls of his office. I remember finding these maps both oddly beautiful and almost completely inscrutable. What a treat to be able to finally figure out how to read them, at least a little bit. And the waypoint names are fun too:

Orlando, FL has many Disney themed waypoints such as JAFAR, PIGLT, JAZMN, TTIGR, MINEE, HKUNA and MTATA. Flying into Orlando, your plane might use the SNFLD arrival path, taking you past NOOMN, FORYU, SNFLD, JRRYY and GTOUT.

Based on the waypoints near Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International, this airport must be home to some of the nerdiest air traffic controllers. There’s a crazy number of Lord of the Rings waypoints: HOBTT, SHYRE, FRDDO, BLLBO, BGGNS, NZGUL, RAETH, ORRKK, GOLLM, ROHUN, GONDR, GIMLY, STRDR, SMAWG and GNDLF.

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An Animated Timelapse of 200 Million Years of Continental Drift, From Pangea to Today

Millions of years ago, the supercontinent of Pangea slowly started to break apart into the continents we all live on today. In this video from the makers of ArcGIS mapping software, you can watch as the reconfiguration of the Earth’s land happens over 200 million years.

Damn, India slammed into Asia like the Kool-aid Man — no wonder the Himalayas are so tall!

Once, the craggy limestone peaks that skim the sky of Everest were on the ocean floor. Scientists believe it all began to change about 200 million years ago — at around the time the Jurassic dinosaurs were beginning to emerge — when the supercontinent of Pangea cracked into pieces. The Indian continent eventually broke free, journeying north across the vast swathe of Tethys Ocean for 150 million years until it smacked into a fellow continent — the one we now know as Asia — around 45 million years ago.

The crushing force of one continent hitting another caused the plate beneath the Tethys Ocean, made of oceanic crust, to slide under the Eurasian plate. This created what is known as a subduction zone. Then the oceanic plate slipped deeper and deeper into the Earth’s mantle, scraping off folds limestone as it did so, until the Indian and Eurasian plates started compressing together. India began sliding under Asia, but because it’s made of tougher stuff than the oceanic plate it didn’t just descend. The surface started to buckle, pushing the crust and crumples of limestone upwards.

And so the Himalayan mountain range began to rise skyward. By around 15-17 million years ago, the summit of Everest had reached about 5,000m (16,404ft) and it continued to grow. The collision between the two continental plates is still happening today. India continues to creep north by 5cm (2in) a year, causing Everest to grow by about 4mm (0.16in) per year (although other parts of the Himalayas are rising at around 10mm per year [0.4in]).

See also Map of Pangaea with Modern-Day Borders, How the Earth’s Continents Will Look 250 Million Years From Now, and Locate Modern Addresses on Earth 240 Million Years Ago. (via open culture)

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A Stranger Quest: David Rumsey’s Marvelous Map Collection

The David Rumsey Map Collection is one of the true gems of the web: a massive trove of maps & related images from over 40 years of collecting.

Rumsey began building a collection of North and South American historical maps and related cartographic materials in 1980. Eventually the collection expanded to include historical maps of the entire world, from the 16th to the 21st centuries. His collection, with more than 200,000 maps, is one of the largest private map collections in the United States.

Italian filmmaker Andrea Gatopoulos has made a documentary film called A Stranger Quest about Rumsey’s passion for maps. Here’s the trailer:

And because I can’t resist, a few maps from the collection:

a map of the world from the 1450s

a world map from 1492

a data visualization of the length of rivers and the height of mountains

snippets of maps that say the word 'lighthouse'

That last one is a screenshot of the results for “lighthouse” from their new Text-On-Maps search capability.

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Do You Say “Tennis Shoes”, “Gym Shoes”, or “Sneakers”?

This is a map of how people in different geographic regions of the US refer to athletic footwear, courtesy of Josh Katz, author of Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk and co-creator of that NY Times dialect quiz that went viral 10 years ago.

a map of the USA indicating which terms people use for athletic shoes

Growing up in northern Wisconsin, we said “tennis shoes” or “tennies” most of the time (even though very little actual tennis was being played) and “gym shoes” less often. I hadn’t really heard of “sneakers” as a kid and never used it. (Shoes for sneaking? Huh?) My kids were born in NYC and they give me shit every time I tell them to put their tennies on. 🤷‍♂️

What do you call athletic shoes? Tennies? Sneakers? Kicks? Trainers? Gym shoes? Some other weird thing? (via @dens)

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An Extremely Detailed Map of New York City Neighborhoods

a section of a map of NYC neighborhoods

Using survey data, responses from community boards & city council members, and over 37,000 responses from NYC residents, a team at the NY Times has made a detailed map of the 350+ distinct neighborhoods in NYC. From a companion article:

It’s a New York pastime to gripe that neighborhoods are invented and defined by real estate brokers, developers and other city gatekeepers. But the more interesting truth may be that they are also reinvented and reinforced, refracted through race and class, by us: by the air traffic controller who lives in Little Yemen, by the Manhattan community manager who’s sure his constituents live in East Harlem — and not “Upper Carnegie Hill” — and by the Brooklyn residents who decided to name a relatively flat piece of land Boerum Hill.

A name has power. It can foreshadow who will be moving in. By itself, it can conjure so much: gentrification, displacement, inequality, status. When we argue over names, or even invent new ones, we may be trying to exert some of that power — or lamenting that others have more power than we do.

We asked New Yorkers themselves to map their neighborhoods and to tell us what they call them. The result, while imperfect, is probably the most detailed map of the city’s neighborhoods ever compiled.

The article is interesting throughout:

Our map reveals two main kinds of divisions: sharp ones and fuzzy ones.

The fuzzy ones often reflect areas in transition or dispute, where there’s no consensus or where gentrification is rewriting boundaries in real time.

The sharp ones often reflect features of the landscape itself: wide avenues, highways, remnants of canals. When you cross the street, you know you’re in another neighborhood.

Next time I’m in NYC, I’m definitely going to Little Yemen for lunch.

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The Bird Migration Explorer

a map of North and South Americas with thinly drawn lines representing the migratory patterns of hundreds of species of birds

I loved playing around with the National Audubon Society’s Bird Migration Explorer, which is a beautifully designed interactive map of the Western hemisphere that shows the seasonal migration patterns of more than 450 species of birds. What a resource…so much information to explore here. (via marco c. in the comments)

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The Eye of the Universe Looking Back at Us

a circular map of the universe

From illustrator Pablo Carlos Budassi, this is a circular map of the universe.

The solar system is located in the center. Towards the edges, the scale is progressively reduced to show in detail the most distant and biggest structures of the observable universe sphere.

There are several other representations of the universe on Budassi’s site, including links to prints, posters, and other products.

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The Layers of the Earth

a humorous 3D cutaway map of the many (absurd) layers of the Earth

From XKCD, a 3D cutaway map of the many layers of the Earth, from the familiar crust around the outside to the more mysterious layers like nougat, vitreous humor, guacamole, and cork.


The 2023 Fall Foliage Prediction Map

a map of the United States that shows where the leaves are going to start changing colors and when

Well, it is that time of year again when the leaves in the northern hemisphere change colors. As usual, SmokyMountains.com has published their best guess as to when the leaves will be changing in various parts of the country. At the end of September and beginning of October here in Vermont, it’ll start looking like this.


Very Expensive Maps

Very Expensive Maps is, well, I can’t say it much plainer than host Evan Applegate: “Very Expensive Maps is a podcast by cartographer Evan Applegate in which he interviews better cartographers.” A podcast about a visual medium like maps is maybe a tiny bit like dancing about architecture, but Applegate makes it work. The archives are a key part of the show…lots of links to the maps discussed during each episode. Here’s a sampling of some of the visuals from recent shows:

map of a fictional island surrounded by a circular sea

a hand drawing a black and white map of the Moon

a blue and green representation of LIDAR data of a river and its former paths

detail of a black and white drawing of a fictional city

drawing of a large formal garden


The Supreme Court Just Made This Gerrymandered Map Illegal

This short video from Vox takes a look at the recent Supreme Court decision that struck down a gerrymandered congressional map in Alabama.

In 2013, a divided Supreme Court gutted one of the major pillars of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In the 10 years since then, the court has moved even farther to the right. So when the Voting Rights Act came before the Supreme Court again in 2022, it didn’t look good for the law. But then something completely unexpected happened: in a 5-4 decision, two of the conservative justices voted with the 3 liberal justices to preserve the Voting Rights Act. And the effects could be huge.

At stake in the case was the way that Alabama divides up its Congressional districts. Alabama has seven districts, one of which is what’s called a “majority-minority district” in which Black Americans are the majority of the population. In 2022, a group of Black voters sued the state, saying that under the law, Alabama should actually have two majority-minority districts. And the Supreme Court agreed.

The decision could affect recently redrawn district maps in other states, which could in turn affect the balance of power in the House of Representatives. You can read more about these gerrymandering cases at the Brennan Center for Justice: Allen v. Milligan: Gerrymandering at the Supreme Court (Formerly Merrill v. Milligan) and Redistricting Litigation Roundup.


How to Design an (Unofficial) Transit Map

In this short video, Norwegian creative director Torger Jansen explains how he designed an unofficial transit map that combines all three of Oslo’s public transportation networks (tram, metro, train) into a single diagram. His four main goals:

1. Showing all the lines on every network, thus making it easier to understand the service patterns.
2. Making it recognisable with the official line colours.
3. Compressing unnaturally long distances between stations.
4. Balancing aesthetics and accessibility. The diagram is clear and easy to read with minimal fuss.

As Jansen notes, this is not how a design process would work in the real world — there’s no user testing or competing stakeholders to please — but from a purely aesthetic and functional standpoint, it’s still an interesting challenge and puzzle to attempt to solve. (thx, david)


Flip Off Symbolically Powerful Places With Ai Weiwei’s Middle Finger

Ai Weiwei's middle finger flipping off the Kremlin

Ai Weiwei's middle finger flipping off Trump Tower

Ai Weiwei's middle finger flipping off the stock exchange

For his project Study of Perspective, artist and activist Ai Weiwei took photos of himself flipping off “significant institutions, landmarks and monuments from around the world”, notably Tiananmen Square in 1995. Using this Google Street View-enabled web tool, you can use Ai’s middle finger to flip off anything you’d like, anywhere in the world.

I’ve included a few examples above from the site’s archive. In a brief review of what folks have done with the site recently, I observed several shots of the Kremlin, the Eiffel Tower, churches, and various Trump buildings, but I also saw the Stonewall Inn and other gay landmarks.


Detailed Martian Geologic Maps from the USGS

geologic map of the Olympus Mons caldera on Mars

geologic map of the Aeolis Dorsa region of Mars

The USGS Astrogeology Science Center recently released a series of detailed geological maps of Mars that detail features from the red planet’s past like volcanos and flowing water. If you’re thinking, “hey that looks a lot like a river in that second image”, you’re not far off.

One particularly interesting feature that hints at Mars’ watery past is the sinuous ridge, which is a winding, narrow ridge that looks like an inverted river channel. These ridges are interpreted to be aqueous (formed by water), making them possible clues about the history of water on Mars.

The scale of the maps is useful for identifying geologic changes over time:

The new map of Aeolis Dorsa adds to the hypothesis that Mars was once wet and had abundant active river systems in the past before aqueous activity decreased over time. This change caused the primary depositional methods in the region to shift from rivers (fluvial) to sediment fans with intermittent deposition (alluvial) and eventually to a dry and wind-driven (aeolian) system. This local pattern mimics our current understanding of the global environmental history of Mars.

Lovely aesthetics as well. (via @geoffmanaugh)


The Topologist’s Map of the World

The Topologist's Map of the World

After seeing an abstract US map where the borders between the states were preserved but the shapes of the individual states were not, Tom Comerford was inspired to design what he calls The Topologist’s Map of the World.

I describe this a a topologist’s map because topology is a branch of mathematics concerned with the way that space is connected. In topology it’s common to think of stretchy, distortable surfaces that can be moved around without being punctured or torn.

With many connections to other countries and bodies of water, countries like Russia, India, Brazil, and China are prominent on the map while the US, which only borders two other countries, is a tiny box in the corner. (via hacker news)


How Were the First World Maps Created?

The first maps of the world were created without satellite imagery but with the compass, mathematics and geometry, reports from explorers, and a healthy dose of imagination & creativity. Jeremy Shuback briskly runs us through a history of early world maps, from perhaps the first map of the world by Anaximander (circa 610-546 BCE) to the Catalan Atlas, created in 1375.

The Catalan Atlas is worth a closer look — here’s a high-res image courtesy of Wikipedia and a 22-minute explainer/appreciation from Flash Point History.


The New York City Sub-Culinary Map

The New York City Sub-Culinary Map

In the early 2000s, Rick Meyerowitz and Maira Kalman made a version of the NYC subway map where names of all the stations and landmarks were replaced with food. Here’s a detailed view of lower Manhattan and part of Brooklyn:

detail of The New York City Sub-Culinary Map

See also Simon Patterson’s The Great Bear and the City of Women NYC subway map.


Rarely Published Maps and Paintings by J.R.R. Tolkien Go Online

painting by J.R.R. Tolkien of Hobbiton

map by J.R.R. Tolkien from The Hobbit

calligraphy by J.R.R. Tolkien

map by J.R.R. Tolkien from The Hobbit

drawing by J.R.R. Tolkien of a coiled dragon

The Tolkien Estate has built a new website dedicated to J.R.R. Tolkien and it includes dozens of hard-drawn maps, illustrations, paintings, and calligraphic works done by the author in the course of writing his books. Tolkien was a talented artist and his maps and visual art were an integral part of his work. From Artnet:

Tolkien’s art and writings went hand and hand, with illustrations serving as an an integral part of his creative process. Sometimes the words would inspire the artwork, and sometimes drawing a scene would move the narrative in new directions.

The author meticulously mapped out the world of Middle Earth to ensure the accurate movements of his large cast of characters.

I was lucky enough to see some of these maps and drawings in person at this 2019 exhibition at the Morgan Library — great stuff. (via @tedgioia)


An Explanation of the US Interstate Numbering System

From CGP Grey, here’s an explanation of the numbering system used by the US Interstate Highway System. Here’s the basic deal, from Wikipedia:

Primary Interstates are assigned one- or two-digit numbers, while shorter routes (such as spurs, loops, and short connecting roads) are assigned three-digit numbers where the last two digits match the parent route (thus, I-294 is a loop that connects at both ends to I-94, while I-787 is a short spur route attached to I-87). In the numbering scheme for the primary routes, east-west highways are assigned even numbers and north-south highways are assigned odd numbers. Odd route numbers increase from west to east, and even-numbered routes increase from south to north (to avoid confusion with the U.S. Highways, which increase from east to west and north to south).

In-car and on-phone GPS systems have made knowing this system largely irrelevant for most drivers. I spent a lot of time in the car as a kid — summer roadtrips around the country and frequent local travel out of our rural area — and loved maps & atlases even at that age, so this was pure nostalgia for me. The video covers some of the numbering exceptions at the end (like the 35E/35W split in the Twin Cities I used to drive on often), but I would easily have sat through 10 more minutes of them.


Man Kidnapped as a Kid Finds Family with Hand-Drawn Map of His Village

a map hand-drawn from memory of a childhood village

A Chinese man who was abducted from his family when he was four years old recently found his mother by drawing a map of his village from memory and posting it online. From The Guardian:

Thirty years ago, when Li Jingwei was four years old, a neighbour abducted him from his home village in China’s Yunnan province and sold him to a child trafficking ring.

Now he has been reunited with his mother after drawing a map of his home village from his memories of three decades ago and sharing it on a popular video-sharing app in the hope that someone might be able to identify it.

“I’m a child who’s looking for his home,” Li said in the video. Unable to recall the name of his village or his address, Li’s recollection and reconstruction of the village’s key features - including a school, a bamboo forest and a pond - proved crucial.

“I knew the trees, stones, cows and even which roads turn and where the water flows,” Li said in an interview with the Paper, a Chinese media outlet.

When I first read this story, I was interested in the incredible drawn-from-memory map but now I’m wondering about what kind of relationship Li has with the people who arranged to have him abducted (which the article calls his “adoptive parents”??!?) (via the morning news)


A Walking Tour of Slavery & Resistance in NYC

a map of a walking tour of slavery & resistance in NYC

Activist and educator Mariame Kaba has created a walking tour of NYC (alternate version digitized by Claire Goldberg, Anna Wu, and Fatima Koli) that focuses on activities around slavery and resistance from 1626 to 1865.

The Atlantic Slave Trade was the largest forced migration in world history. Twelve million Africans were captured and enslaved in the Americas. More than 90 per day for 400 years. Over 40,000 ships brought enslaved Africans across the ocean. Though New York Passed an act to gradually abolish slavery in 1799 and manumitted the last enslaved people in 1827, it remained an intrinsic part of city life until after the civil war, as businesspeople continued to profit off of the products of the slave trade like sugar and molasses imported from the Caribbean.

I’m doing this walk the next time I’m back in NYC. I’ve been to some of the places on the tour before, but haven’t considered them through the lens of slavery.


Exposing the Slavers of New York

sticker that says 'John van Nostrand was a slave owner'

map of New York City places named for slave owners

A group of activists called Slavers Of New York is working to educate people about the prominent New Yorkers who lent their names to the city’s geography (Nostrand, Bergen, Rivington, Stuyvesant, Lefferts, Boerum) and were also slave owners or traffickers. From the NY Times:

Just a few months before, while scrolling through social media, Mx. Waithe had stumbled upon records from the nation’s first census in 1790, which listed well-known New York families like the Leffertses, the Boerums and the Nostrands. To the right of those names was another category: “slaves.”

According to the census, the Lefferts family enslaved 87 Black people throughout New York City (Prospect Lefferts Gardens and an avenue in that Brooklyn neighborhood were named after them). The Boerums owned 14 slaves (the neighborhood Boerum Hill is named for them). And the Nostrands (of the eight-mile-long Nostrand Avenue), enslaved 23 people (this number would nearly double by the beginning of the 19th century).

The discovery sparked Slavers of New York, a sticker campaign and education initiative dedicated to calling out — and eventually mapping — the history of slavery in New York City.

The group detailed how they started where the project is headed in an interview in Guernica:

Mainly, our goal is to just educate people about the legacy of slavery and how it persists in the present day. We don’t advocate for changing the names in any way. We hope that, if people feel so inclined to change names, they create their own groups and engage in political action. I definitely think there should be more context available in public places. When Maria and I went to Stuyvesant Square in Manhattan, a statue of Peter Stuyvesant was there in the middle of the park, glorified, and there’s no information about his slave-owning history.

What’s really interesting is that some of the naming of places for slavers happened more recently than you would imagine. Boerum Hill wasn’t called “Boerum Hill” until 1964 or so, when that name was resurrected as part of the gentrification of Brooklyn. You can see, directly, the entanglement of the history of slavery and gentrification. Bringing this man’s name back into the neighborhood is a symbol of violence. The persistence of these names and links carry this space through history.

You can keep up with the group’s efforts on Twitter and Instagram and support their mission on GoFundMe. (Map above courtesy of The Decolonial Atlas.)


Decoding Manhattan: Island of Diagrams, Maps, and Graphics

pages of a book called Decoding Manhattan with maps, charts, and other graphic representations of the city

Well, I’m not sure this book could be any further up my alley; I mean:

The life and legend of New York City, from the size of its skyscrapers to the ways of its inhabitants, is vividly captured in this lively collection of more than 250 maps, cross sections, flowcharts, tables, board games, cartoons and infographics, and other unique diagrams spanning 150 years. Superstars such as Saul Steinberg, Maira Kalman, Christoph Niemann, Roz Chast, and Milton Glaser butt up against the unsung heroes of the popular press in a book that is made not only for lovers of New York but also for anyone who enjoys or works with information design.


Time Lapse Map of Covid-19’s Spread Across the US, 2/2020 to 9/2021

Using data from Johns Hopkins, this time lapse video shows the spread of Covid-19 across the US from Feb 2020 to Sept 2021. This looks so much like small fires exploding into raging infernos and then dying down before flaring up all over again. Indeed, forest fire metaphors seem to be particularly useful in describing pandemics like this.

Think of COVID-19 as a fire burning in a forest. All of us are trees. The R0 is the wind speed. The higher it is, the faster the fire tears through the forest. But just like a forest fire, COVID-19 needs fuel to keep going. We’re the fuel.

In other forest fire metaphorical scenarios, people are ‘kindling’, ‘sparks being thrown off’ (when infecting others) and ‘fuel’ (when becoming infected). In these cases, fire metaphors convey the dangers posed by people being in close proximity to one another, but without directly attributing blame: people are described as inanimate entities (trees, kindling, fuel) that are consumed by the fire they contribute to spread.

See also A Time Lapse World Map of Every Covid-19 Death (from July 2020).


The 2021 Fall Foliage Prediction Map

Fall Foliage 2021

Well, the leaves are starting to change up here in ol’ Vermont,1 so it’s time to take a peek at the 2021 Fall Foliage Map from smokymountains.com. Apple pie is just around the corner!

  1. One fucker of a tree near my house has turned completely bright red already. Like, slow down mate.↩


From Text Adventures to Modern Interactive Fiction

Curses Map, 1993, showing: Out on the Spire<br />
adamantine hand<br />
     Potting Room yellow rubber<br />
gloves<br />
Aunt Jemima's Lair<br />
Old<br />
Winery<br />
demijohn, nasty-looking red battery, tourist map<br />
Storage Room (1) (6)<br />
steel wrench, wishbone<br />
Battlements<br />
Bell Tower<br />
        End Game: Missed the Point<br />
Airing Cupboard<br />
Attic<br />
Servant's Room (7) (10)<br />
classical dictionary, scarf<br />
Priest's Hole (3)<br />
iron gothic-looking key, ancient prayer book, old sooty stick<br />
Roof<br />
West Side Chapel<br />
Parish Church<br />
East Side Chapel<br />
     End Game: Missed the Point<br />
Old<br />
Furniture<br />
cupboard, medicine bottle, gift-wrapped parcel, bird whistle<br />
Chimney<br />
Inside<br />
Cupboard<br />
painting, skylight, gas mask<br />
Stone Cross<br />
     Dark<br />
Room<br />
sepia photograph, cord, flash<br />
Over the East Wing<br />
East Annexe<br />
cupboard<br />
Hollow (2)<br />
nuts<br />
Public Footpath<br />
    Library<br />
Storage<br />
romantic novel, book of Twenties poetry<br />
Disused Observatory<br />
glass ball<br />
Souvenirs Room (12)<br />
projector<br />
Dead End<br />
canvas rucksack<br />
Beside the Drive<br />
  Alison's Writing Room (11)<br />
window, mirror<br />
 Tiny Balcon

50 Years of Text Games by Aaron Reed is a favorite newsletter of mine. (It’s a hard newsletter to read in your email right away, but a rewarding one to pile up and save.) It specializes in in-depth explorations, typically at a single game per newsletter, but also takes a wider view to try to understand why this game at that moment was particularly significant or representative.

Here’s an example of a great newsletter about a game I do not know well: Graham Nelson’s Curses, from 1993. Curses, Reed, argues, emerges at an unlikely moment (surrounded by emerging CD-ROM games and exploding console popularity) to bring about an equally unlikely renaissance of interactive fiction.

Curses is scavenger hunt meets Dante’s Inferno, “an allegorical rite of passage,” adventure game by way of historical footnote. It certainly owes a great debt to Infocom, recreating the company’s signature style even while literally resurrecting its technical bones…

But Nelson also took much inspiration from history and classics. When asked once about his favorite games and authors, he gave much more space to the latter, listing “Auden, Eliot, Donne, Browning, Elizabeth Bishop… For plays, Tom Stoppard, Christopher Hampton, David Hare.” Curses is steeped in antiquities, from the abandoned odds and ends squirreled away in the Meldrew attics—an old wireless radio, for instance, which seems to do nothing when turned on until you realize it just takes a few turns to warm up—to its detailed time travel excursions to lovingly researched long-ago eras. It’s a game very much about odd corners and margins: interstitial places…

Nelson’s game would take over the IF newsgroups as players who thought they’d seen the last of the great text adventures discovered a worthy modern successor. “Congratulations,” wrote one poster: “Its almost like having Infocom back.” It helped that the game had so many nooks and crannies and puzzles, endless puzzles, that at least some of them were bound to be stumpers for any given player. Hint requests and discussion of the game proliferated, and dominated the newsgroups through the rest of 1993 and 1994: so much so there was a half-hearted proposal to split it all off into a dedicated new group, rec.games.curses, just so there’d be enough oxygen to talk about anything else.

The other big thing Nelson did with Curses is build a compiler for the Infocom virtual machine so that players and designers could create their own text adventures. Kind of like Dante importing the classic epic into the vernacular. Everybody could now do it themselves.

That juncture — a compelling world, an obsessed and supportive community, and (there’s no better way to put this) the means of creative production — have proved over and over again to be the secret formula for building something beautiful and new in art.


When a Raindrop Falls in the US, Where Does It End Up?

map showing the path of a raindrop that fell in Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico

a satellite fly-through view of the path of a raindrop that fell in Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico

Using data from the United States Geological Survey, River Runner visualizes the path taken by a raindrop from its landing spot to its eventual endpoint. Just click on any spot in the US and it maps out the path the drop would take, complete with a satellite fly-through of the route. I spent many happy minutes playing with this, although the endpoint of “Canada” for a raindrop that lands in my Vermont yard was somewhat unsatisfying.

See also The Marvelous Mississippi River Meander Maps and a map of all of the rivers in the US. (via waxy)