Renaming Michigan

This weekend, on a whim, I pursued a little side project that had been kicking around in my head for a while. Perhaps you’ve seen Marty Elmer’s very fine Laconic History of the World, in which each country is represented by the most common word from the Wikipedia article on its history.

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Click for a giant version!

It’s pretty fun, and I wanted to have a look at doing something similar myself. As per usual, I started in Michigan. Here’s a quick map with perfectly ordinary labels.

Ordinary.jpg

Perfectly unassuming.

And here’s a version in which every name has been replaced with a word that appears uncommonly often in that feature’s corresponding Wikipedia article.

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Rather weirder.

I ran these 38 Wikipedia articles through a Python script that calculated the TF-IDF score for each word in each article: basically, it tells me which words appear with unusual frequency in that particular article. So, if we’re talking about Grand Rapids, the word “furniture” appears a lot in that article, but not so much elsewhere, so it gets a high TF-IDF score. The word “city,” on the other hand, might appear a lot in that article, but it also appears a lot in other articles, so it gets a low score. So, TF-IDF is a neat way to figure out what words are unique in an article.

After running these articles through the TF-IDF script, I picked the highest-scoring word that wasn’t the name of the city/river/etc., or its enclosing county (or state).

SamplePython.jpg

Python script output for Saginaw.

Some interesting things to notice in the names that ended up on the map.

  • For many cities, the unique words ended up being the names of various locally important people. Titus Bronson founded Kalamazoo, and there’s a park and hospital named after him, so his name comes up often in the article. Likewise, James Jesse Strang founded a kingdom on Beaver island.
  • In other cases, nearby geographic/political features were the top score, such as the Georgian Bay for Lake Huron, or the nearby city of Saginaw for Bay City.
  • Local industries show up in a couple of cases. Grand Rapids has long been a furniture capital, while there’s many a winery around Traverse City.
  • Wikipedia article idiosyncrasies account for some of these. One dedicated Wikipedian listed all the churches in Ironwood. Sault Ste. Marie’s article lists its various TV/radio stations, many of which happen to offer rebroadcasts of various other stations.
  • Lake Superior, of course, gets renamed for the tragic loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

If you’re not as familiar with the names of nearby geographic features, or locally important families in some of these cities, this map might be less interesting. So, let’s make another pass, in which we skip over names of people, ships, or nearby geographic/political features (lakes, cities, counties, etc.).

NoProper.jpg

Fit for popular consumption.

This one is equally interesting, in a different way.

  • A few cities have unfortunately needed emergency financial managers.
  • The Muskegon article lists not only major companies, but what they were formerly called.
  • The river articles contain a lot of generic words that still get high TF-IDF scores because they don’t show up a lot in the other articles for cities and lakes. So, if we skip names of nearby cities/counties, we still end up with words like flows, or downstream sometimes. Though important of logging in the history of the Muskegon River now pops up.

Anyway, this was a fun little project that took me way longer than it should have. Mostly because I was trying to be too perfectionist. I was originally trying to control for word pluralization, parts of speech, etc., and eventually I gave up after a few hours of that and decided that this fun project clearly didn’t need that level of obsession.

Update: I decided to toss in Wisconsin, too!

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Just an ordinary Midwest state.

 

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Now with extra weirdness and fun!

Enjoy!

 

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A Collection of Round Islands

Several months ago I happened upon an island in Alaska called “Round Island.” I’d heard of other Round Islands elsewhere in the US, and I began to wonder just how many there were, and exactly how round they were. So, I decided to assemble them into a poster, for better appreciation of their numerousness and roundness (or lack thereof). I also expanded my search to include such islands in Canada, as well.

Round Islands.jpg


Detail.jpg

If you’re inclined, you can download a PDF, or head over to Zazzle and buy a print from them.

This is an exploration of geographic forms. The forces of nature have constructed a variety of intriguing shapes, the aesthetics of which are just as important to a map’s appearance as the cartographer’s choice of color, typography, etc. I have sometimes browsed (and made) maps mainly to appreciate the particular shape of a coastline, path of a river, or some other geographic form.

I love looking at the variety and contrasts in this collection. Some of the islands are quite smooth, some are undulating and interdigitated. Some are quite round, while others are very poorly named.

CompareIsles.jpg

This assemblage also highlights how inaccurate humans can be when naming features: many of these 131 islands are not very round. Maybe Long Island would be better for some of them. The lack of toponymic creativity is also noteworthy. In many cases, these identically named islands reside near each other within the same lake or harbor. I would be interested to see native names for these places, and whether they offer more interesting alternatives to the generic “(Sort of) Round Island.”

Each island is labeled with the coordinates of its center, as well as the body of water in which it is found.

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As is usual with my side projects, I offer you some notes and observations:

  • I began by grabbing data from the US Geographic Names Information System and from Canada’s CanVec 1:50,000 Toponymic Features file.
  • There are a few places named “Round Island” which do not appear to be islands. Perhaps some of them were at one time, but have since been filled in. Whatever the reason, I only made use of those islands which were actually surrounded by water on all sides.

    NotIsland.jpg

    Somewhat round, but certainly not an island anymore.

  • I traced these islands from aerial/satellite imagery. Given that we live in a world where coastline shapefiles exist, you may fairly ask why I might spend time doing something like that. The answer is that these islands vary a lot in size and in location, and I would have had to extract them one-by-one from a variety of different data sources. In many instances, the islands were too small to either appear in easily available shapefiles, or were far too simplified. So, it was probably faster to trace them, and it left me with the level of detail needed.
  • The shape and size of these islands varies based on tides. At low tide, more land may pop up out of the water. I had no consistent approach to this problem; I merely traced whatever it looked like whenever the image was taken. So, use this poster with caution if you are sailing in the vicinity of these islands. Shapefiles, I think, would not have helped much, since they’d be patched together from different scales and sources, so I would not have ended up with any consistency in approach.
  • Each of these islands is actually on its own projection, thanks to ArcMap’s Data-Driven Pages. I had it kick out a PDF, with one island per page. Each page was at the same scale, and each page was in a Lambert Azimuthal Equal Area projection with the standard point at the centroid of the island.
  • I did calculate the roundness of the various islands, but given the potential inconsistencies in tracing, tides, etc., I thought it best to avoid putting any such numbers on the map. I will leave it to the reader to judge just how round or not round any given island is.
  • The labels (set in Adobe Caslon) are all on a curve. I like it, but I can’t really say why I was inspired to do it. My colleague Nick Lally suggested that they give a sense of the movement of water around the islands. That explanation works for me, even if I can’t claim that it’s what I originally had in mind.
  • I played around with a different style for a while, involving various colors and hachures. I’m not sure why, but I initially felt like I shouldn’t make this grey. But getting the hachures to line up quite right caused me a bunch of trouble, and a highly scientific Twitter poll suggested that this style was the less-popular option. So, I decided to set them aside for now and go back to my standard grey waterlines.ColorHachure.jpg

This was a fun project to explore, and I hope you enjoy the fruits of my labor. Onward to the next random side project!

Creating Shaded Relief in Blender

Welcome! This is the long-awaited text version of my Blender relief tutorial, following on the video series I did a few years back. If you’ve already seen the videos and are returning for a refresher, note that I use a somewhat different method now, so don’t be surprised if you encounter unfamiliar settings.

This tutorial will take you an hour or two to get through — but I think the results are quite worth it. More importantly, note that your second relief will take much less time than this first one, since most of the work you’ll be doing can be saved and simply reloaded for future relief projects. Once you’ve invested the time to get comfortable with it, this technique can fit within ordinary production timelines.

Preamble

Why Blender? In short: Blender makes better-looking relief. Most of the cartographers I know do their shaded relief in ArcMap or another GIS program, or sometimes they use Photoshop or Natural Scene Designer. All of these programs use basically the same algorithm, and you get a pretty similar results, as seen below. This standard GIS hillshade looks OK, but it’s rather noisy and harsh.

Hillshade.jpg

As Leland Brown has put it, this looks sort of like wrinkled tinfoil; full of sharp edges.

Blender, on the other hand, is designed specifically for 3D modeling. People use it for CGI, animations, and plenty more cool stuff. It’s intended to simulate the complexities of how light really works: the way it scatters, the way it reflects from one mountain to the next, and the way its absence creates shadows. Here’s Blender’s version of the same area:

Blended.jpg

Notice how it’s softer and more natural. The peaks cast shadows, and then those shadowed areas are gently lit by light scattered off of nearby mountain faces. Notice also how the structure of the terrain becomes more apparent. In a standard hillshade, I think you lose the forest for the trees. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the two methods:

Compare.jpg

Blender’s result not only looks more attractive and realistic, it’s also more intelligible, I think. Certain features of the landscape become more apparent — look at the valley below, running northeast-southwest. It’s hard to tell how wide it is, or that it’s a valley at all, when looking at the standard hillshade. But the Blender relief makes its structure clear, thanks to the improved modeling of lighting.

Valley.jpg

Whereas the standard hillshade algorithm makes pixels lighter or darker based solely on which direction they’re facing, Blender looks at the scene’s context, and whether that pixel is in a mountain shadow or is in a position to catch scattered light. The result is a more attractive, more understandable relief.

Table of Contents

This is a fairly long tutorial, as I mentioned, so for your convenience I’ve split it up into multiple chapters.

  1. Getting Set Up: We begin by downloading Blender and preparing a heightmap
  2. Blender Basics: Here, we’ll learn to navigate the software
  3. The Plane: We shall set up a plane mesh and apply a heightmap texture
  4. The Camera: Let us prepare to image the plane correctly
  5. The Sun: In which we cast light upon the plane
  6. Final Adjustments: Here, lingering settings are finally adjusted
  7. Advanced Thoughts: For your consideration on future days

Please enjoy, and if you see any errors (either typographical or of fact), please do let me know. I hope that this tutorial empowers you to produce work you can be proud of!

The Colors of Mars

I can’t quite remember why I started, but for the past several weeks I’ve been thinking on and off about hypsometric tinting schemes for the planet Mars.

There are a wide variety of elevation coloring schemes that exist for the Earth; I won’t get into details here, but most of them start with some sort of green in the low areas and move through some combination of brown/yellow/orange/red until they reach white in high areas. It’s a visual proxy for land cover, though it’s a rather flawed one.

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Typical Earth hypsometric tints, from the Patterson & Jenny Cartographic Perspectives article linked above.

But what we use for the Earth doesn’t entirely make sense on Mars: its mountains are not snowy, nor are its valleys green (of course, we often tint desert valleys green on Earth maps). Setting aside the idea of these colors mimicking land cover, Mars is a vastly different place, and so it feels wrong to me if it doesn’t look different than Earth.

Unfortunately, the great majority of Mars maps (that I have seen) use a rainbow scheme for their hypsometric tints, which make a mess of everything (though they do certainly look different). They are garish and confusing, and also problematic for any readers who have color vision impairments.

MarsNASA

A rainbow of colors on Mars, by NASA/JPL/USGS

Some Alternatives

Fortunately, there are a (very) few maps out there that take a non-rainbow approach.

Gradients

Let’s meet our contestants!


Kenneth Field’s (Is There) Life on Mars? starts with deep purple in the basin of the Hellas Planitia, and then proceeds through some nice rusty oranges before settling on a sandy tan (though its context on the map makes it look more yellow).

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Kenneth Field


Henrik Hargitai’s Mars map for Country Movers takes an unusual approach, in that it is at its brightest in the low areas, starting with yellow and turning deep red as elevation increases, and finally finishing off with a little dark pink highlight on the tops of Olympus Mons and the Tharsis Montes.

Hargitai.jpg

Henrik Hargitai


My own scheme, which I’ve never actually used except for in this very blog post, is inspired by the colors on the surface of Mars. Due to atmospheric effects, the Red Planet is actually mostly red only if you’re looking at it from space. It’s more brown & tan on the surface, at least if the photos from Curiosity are any indication. I did make the low areas a little reddish just to contrast with the yellow highlands.

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Daniel Huffman


Finally, Daniel Macháček’s Topographic Map of Mars takes things in another direction; avoiding the Red Planet stereotype, he opts for blue (and a bit of purple) in the lowlands, moving through grey into a cool brown for the higher elevations.

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Daniel Macháček


Honorable mention goes to Eleanor Lutz’s Here There Be Robots. It’s a medieval-inspired map, and it uses a a tint scheme that looks to be based on an Earth hypsometric tint scheme. On that account, I didn’t include it above (though it’s a lovely work and you really should check it out).

Other Observations

  • All of these schemes do a good job of highlighting the Martian dichotomy — basically, the northern hemisphere is a few kilometers lower than the southern hemisphere.
  • One good thing about a typical Earth hypsometric scheme is that it includes a wide range of colors (greens, yellows, oranges, greys, etc.), which means it can show more detail. The schemes above all cover a narrower color range. But, if you’re going for a color scheme inspired by the actual look of Mars, which 3 of the 4 of them are, you’re kind of limited. Mars is much more uniform in color than the Earth.
  • Much of the Mars elevation range is taken up by four giant mountains. Notice in Ken Field’s scheme how little of the map area is tan, and yet that tan covers half of the elevation range of the scheme. Likewise, Hargitai uses a deep red to cover a pretty large chunk of the elevation range.

These are the only non-rainbow Mars schemes I’ve found. You might know of some others, but in any case I was a little surprised at A) how rare they were, and B) the degree of variation among them. By collecting them in one place, perhaps I’ve given any future Mars mappers some inspiration for their efforts.

A Cartographer’s Story

In the years since I wrote On Salvation, I have received a number of comments about how it’s resonated with other people in the field (and without). I’ve long felt we, as a community, need to hear more stories like this. In any creative field, including cartography, there’s a lot of emotional investment in the work, and learning about that is just as important as learning technical skills.

So, John Nelson and I are launching a new project: A Cartographer’s Story. Drop by and read stories from your fellow mapmakers about the personal & emotional relationships they have with their work. And please share yours: we could all befit from hearing about your own journeys.

An excerpt from the website:

Every act of creation is personal. Behind the cartographic theory, tools, and techniques, there is a human being who struggles, who triumphs, and who is driven by more than just a need to earn an income.

While our community has a rich culture of sharing project walkthroughs and clever tricks, our colleagues also need to hear about the personal and emotional relationships we have with our maps. We invest ourselves in creating works that are meant to stir the hearts and imaginations of others—and in return our works invest in us. What are your stories? How has mapping moved you or changed you? Did it encourage you through a tough time? Teach you something about yourself? Represent a significant relationship in your life?

None of us is alone in finding empowerment, redemption, or salvation in our work; this is the gift of working in a creative field. Please consider sharing that gift by telling us stories about the power your maps have had within your own life.

We’ll see you there.

Financial Transparency

As a freelancer, I often wonder how I am doing financially as compared to my colleagues. Not out of a sense of competition, but just to answer the persistent question: is this normal? Am I earning a “typical” living? Do I get an unusually small or large amount of money from selling prints? Things like that, born of curiosity. I can look at the great work of a colleague and think it’s valuable, but the big question is: does the rest of the world value their skills the way that I do?

I find the financial opacity of the freelance world a bit intimidating, and I suspect that some others do, too—particularly those who are interested in freelancing, but haven’t yet jumped in. So I’d like to do my part to lend transparency by laying out my financial picture for all of you. Maybe it’ll be valuable for someone, and if so, I’d be interested to hear about that in the comments.

Freelance Earnings

I have been freelancing since I took my Master’s degree from UW–Madison in May 2010. I pretty much exclusively make static maps. Perhaps someday I will become interested in making interactive maps, but for now I’ve focused on an ArcMap/QGIS and Illustrator/Photoshop workflow.

I had only a scant few projects before 2012, and in any case my pre-2012 records are a bit disorganized, so let’s start after that. My earnings from freelance cartography have been:

2012: $12,016.34
2013: $20,352.75
2014: $8,508.58
2015: $10,881.25
2016: $22,795.00

I have also earned money from some other non-mapping freelance work. I do editing and layout for Cartographic Perspectives, and I’ve done some bits of paid writing, other design work, etc. This income isn’t terribly relevant to those who are wondering about the mapmaking business, but I’ll include it here for the sake of completeness:

2012: $1,128.08
2013: $1,528.00
2014: $7,014.00
2015: $10,194.00
2016: $2,000.00

These bits of side work, as well as my teaching (below), have been very helpful in leaner years.

Teaching

I teach from time to time at UW–Madison, covering the Introductory Cartography course. Again, not too relevant to the subject of freelance earnings, but perhaps interesting if you’re curious about what adjunct teaching pays. My take-home pay for one semester of a 40% appointment is $6,954. This number seems to compare favorably with what I’ve seen posted at other institutions, or heard from colleagues elsewhere.

Sales of Prints

Finally, the last piece of the puzzle is sales of prints. Instead of making maps for clients, I sometimes (or often) spend time making maps for no one in particular. And then I’ll put them up on Zazzle in case anyone wants to buy them. I’ve also occasionally printed maps locally and sold them through an art store or by word of mouth. But Zazzle is where almost all of my sales happen.

My earnings from sales of prints:

2012: $772.39
2013: $678.68
2014: $270.19
2015: $116.52
2016: $797.54

I don’t usually do any sort of marketing other than a tweet or two, plus a link on the blog leading to the Zazzle item, so those figures could potentially be higher if I tried harder.

And, if you’re curious as to what sells and what doesn’t, here’s a breakdown of Zazzle sales:

Again, if I tried to market these, I might be able to push a few more. Getting them into local stores can be tough because printing costs are pretty high unless you want to order them in quantities of hundreds, and thus stores either have to accept a tiny margin or offer the posters at comparatively high prices.

Fame and exposure are generally free, and often much more plentiful than actual payment. It takes a lot of clicks before someone actually buys—I have also seen this behind the scenes with the Atlas of Design. I often see colleagues whose work gets a lot of attention, and who are offering cool prints, and wonder if they are receiving lots of praise with little money behind it.

Concluding Thoughts

I never really intended to be a freelancer, because I dislike instability, and the numbers above fluctuate wildly. But I fell into it accidentally anyway, and it’s been great, but it’s definitely not a life I would have been able to choose if I had to worry, for example, about dependents. I’ve also had the advantage of a safety net, in that my partner Kate earns much more than I do and, in the early years, carried well more than her fair share of our joint expenses.

I also haven’t been able to save for retirement very much these last few years, as I’ve been focused on more day-to-day expenses. Fortunately, a sizable recent contract has given me an extra boost that will soon let me finally put some money away.

I hope all this stuff above offers some useful insight as to one freelancer’s life. I’m sure some others earn more, and some others earn less. I’d encourage others who are comfortable doing so to share their own financial information, to make the picture a little broader.

An Arrangement of Islands

As per my usual modus operandi, here’s two versions of a little something I made for no other reason than love:

Classic Overview.png

“Classic” version — click to view a PDF

hip-overview

“Hip” version — click to view a PDF

It’s a very large poster — 24″ × 36″, in fact. So, I recommend clicking those images to browse around the PDF versions. Or just look at this quick pair of detail images, instead:

Details of the two styles

Details of the two styles

Notes on the Design

  • A few people have asked me if this poster shows all of the islands in the Great Lakes. The answer is no. There are roughly 35,000 others which I did not have space to include. I have shown the largest.
  • They’re not quite in order of size. I did a little shuffling within rows, to help things look a little more visually even.
  • There’s some room to quibble over what is an island in the Great Lakes. Wolfe Island is at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River as it enters Lake Ontario. Walpole Island is formed by the delta of the Saint Clair River, and in any case isn’t on one of the five Great Lakes proper. I erred on the side of inclusion.
  • Despite that inclusive stance, I did not include Copper Island, which owes its island-ness to a canal.
  • I love the three stages of waterline perception on the Classic version. From far enough away, it looks like a simple stroke around the islands. As you get closer, it looks like a shadow, instead. And closer still, you can see the parallel waterlines.
  • I started out with a very minimal design concept in my mind, then quickly started loading it up with unnecessary stuff. “Hey, what if I add towns, roads, parks, rivers, etc.?” Then I slowly, and thankfully, started dropping each of these elements, sometimes because it seemed like a big hassle, and sometimes because colleagues urged me to keep it simple and clean. Which was the entire point, as I had forgotten.
  • Lake Erie does have islands, but the largest, Pelee, was just a bit too small to make the cut. Perhaps I’ll someday do a “Part 2” poster, featuring the next group of islands in the size sequence.
  • I used Adobe Caslon for the Classy version because I knew it had great swashes.
  • I used Mostra Nuova for the Urban version because I paid too much for those fonts to not use them in every single project.
  • I used CanVec 250k data for Canada, and for the US I used TIGER/Line data that I simplified to match the Canada data.
  • Fun/annoying fact: I could not easily obtain land polygons, so I used waterbody polygons instead, then inverted everything to get land shapes.

As per usual, I’m putting these up on Zazzle, in case you are in the extremely small group of people who want to pay money for something like this (if you’re curious, I usually get zero sales from these projects, but I’m not really in it for the money so it doesn’t much matter). Or you can just go grab a PDF above and print one out yourself.