Archive for the ‘Geography’ Category

Flight Tracking

December 15, 2013 Leave a comment


Ever since a certain family member (who prefers that I not tell the details of his life on Ron’s View, so I’m leaving him nameless) went away to college years back, I found myself tracking his flights when he headed to school or back home. I still do it, sometimes texting gate info or other advice as he lands at intermediate stops. This weekend offered the ultimate tracking experience, thanks to his three-flight itinerary from Seattle to JFK to London Heathrow to Cape Town. What a journey!

Nothing too exotic about Friday’s first segment, one we’ve all flown many times. I didn’t start tracking until he was already over western Michigan, having just crossed Lake Michigan. Next time I looked, he was above northern New Jersey. I watched the plane make the usual big turn out over the Atlantic before heading back north to the barrier beaches of Long Island and into JFK. All home turf to me as a native Long Islander.

After a brief overnight stopover, he was off to London. By the time I awoke yesterday morning and thought to start tracking, the plane was approaching the southern coast of Ireland. Next look and he was in the west of England. The plane continued east, straight to the south of Heathrow, then made a circle southwards and back to the north, in for a landing I thought, only to turn to the east and south again, at which point FlightAware stopped tracking. Where did he go? I never did find out. It took over half an hour before Virgin Atlantic recorded the flight as landing.

Two hours later, he was embarked on the overnight, twelve-hour flight to Cape Town. The plane was, anyway. I had to hope he was on it. When I first took a look, he was over southern France. We headed out for a while, the fun beginning on our return.

I thought I knew the location of the world’s countries pretty well. Eastern Europe, the old USSR, the Stans? No problem. Asia? Under control. But Africa not so much, as it turns out.

The big country in northern Africa that he was flying over? Algeria. I know that one. But what about the big country to its southeast?

I should explain, as you can see above, that FlightAware draws in boundaries of countries, but doesn’t identify them.

I know Egypt and Libya in the northeast. I know that Sudan and Chad lie below them. But, um, what is that country just west of Chad? I took the screenshot above a few minutes ago, tracking tonight’s flight, not last night’s. And the plane happens to be right where it was last night when I was stumped.

Mali? Not quite. It’s Niger. Mali is to the west. Oh well.

Next I looked, the plane was over Gabon, just past the bend there on the Atlantic, but I struck out on that one too. Angola, the big guy farther south, was no problem. I finally went to bed as the plane was nearing Angola’s southern border, heading toward Namibia. I never did see it enter South Africa’s airspace. I awoke to learn that the plane landed on time, the family member’s journey over.

I better study up before his return flights.

Categories: Family, Flying, Geography

Sports Geography

December 6, 2011 Leave a comment

[Jason Lara, from his blog Tom Fulery]

The geographic illogic of US sports conferences is hardly news. As a recent example, three weeks ago we learned that Major League Baseball’s Houston Astros would leave the the National League’s Central Division for the American League West. A little crazy, but at least they would be united with a natural geographic rival already in the American League West, the Texas Rangers. And today brings genuinely crazy news, with the Big East conference announcing, in the wake of the departure of Syracuse, Pitt, and West Virginia to the Atlantic Coast Conference, that they would add Central Florida (sure), Houston and SMU (huh?), and, in football only, Boise State (!) and San Diego State (!!!).

I should point out that the addition of Boise State has been rumored for weeks. It’s not news. And after their snub on Sunday, left out of any of the five BCS bowls despite being one of the top five or six teams in the country, who can blame them for joining whatever BCS conference will take them? But still, the Big East with a team from Idaho? And a team whose home city sits on the Pacific Ocean? I suppose it could be worse — what if SDSU joined the ACC, joining the Pacific to the Atlantic? We wouldn’t need the Panama Canal anymore.

Which brings me to some good news: the announcement yesterday of plans for a realignment of the National Hockey League into four geographically-based conferences, approved by the NHL’s Board of Governors. The NHL Players Union still needs to weigh in, so this isn’t a done deal, but I’m guessing it will happen.

The plan has some features I’m not sold on, such as matching up teams within conferences in the first two rounds of the playoffs. More often than not, this is likely to lead to the elimination of at least one of the best teams before the playoff semifinals through no fault of its own. Nonetheless, I admire the league’s effort to introduce geographic sense. And how about the cool map, above, depicting the conference alignments? (Hat tip: Stu Hackel in Sports Illustrated, who linked to it.)

The lone oddity is the placement of the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers. But the underlying problem is that there are hockey teams in Florida to begin with. I think I have a solution: move them to Québec and Hamilton. That would make for a wonderfully compact conference, wouldn’t it? Perhaps I should write Commissioner Bettman with my proposal.

Categories: Geography, Sports

The Box

July 2, 2011 Leave a comment

Three nights ago, I finished reading Marc Levinson’s The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. My interest in it stemmed from a short post Paul Krugman wrote at the end of January, a post I quoted before in explaining what led me to William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. Krugman:

some commenters argue that the really transformative change came in the 19th century. There’s a lot to that.

As it happens, I’m rereading William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West — yes, on my Kindle, which has made a serious improvement in my life. And everyone with any interest in economics should read his account of the rise of the Chicago Board of Trade. Railroads changed everything. It wasn’t just the fact that stuff could be shipped further, faster, cheaper; the railroad also led to the replacement of concrete with abstract forms of ownership (the farmer owned a receipt for a bushel of grain, not a particular sack), standard-setting, futures markets, and on and on. If you’ve read Marc Levinson’s The Box, about containerization (which you should), it’s startling to see how many of the themes were prefigured by the grain trade, as standard-sized rail cars replaced flatboats, as grain elevators essentially began treating grain as a fluid rather than a solid, as conveyor belts replaced stevedores toting sacks.

Cronon found himself unexpectedly in the national news in late March when he wrote about political developments in his home state of Wisconsin and found himself the target of a far-reaching freedom-of-information request by the state’s Republican party. I wrote about this at the time and was inspired to download Cronon’s book to my Kindle. A couple of weeks later, I wrote that “the book was a thrilling experience. It is the most astonishing blend of history, geography, economics, and ecology that I can imagine.”

The Box went on my list of books to read some day. Some day turned out to be Father’s Day, when Joel bought it for me. It doesn’t have the scope or the beauty of Cronon’s book, but it tells a great story nonetheless, of how containerization changed world trade. This is examined at many levels, with Levinson examining the impact on port authorities and local governments, unions, the US military, cities, trains, truckers, manufacturers, national economies, and so on. Typically, each major subject is discussed in its own chapter. Union negotiations. Shipping goods to Vietnam. Developments on the East and Gulf coasts of the US plus the West coast. Developments in Britain, the rest of Europe, and Asia.

Many of the key developments coincided with my youth, as the Manhattan and Brooklyn port collapsed, with most of the action moving to new container terminals in Newark and Elizabeth, and as the longshorement’s unions fought their final big battles against modernization and automation. I was vaguely aware of this from reading the local news growing up, but I didn’t understand just how dramatic and swift the changes were. By the time I moved to Boston, as the book explains, its life as a major port had ended. Because it didn’t invest quickly enough in containerization, shippers could truck containers to New Jersey and have them put on boats there at lower cost. Similarly, the relative roles of west coast ports underwent a dramatic shift, with Oakland taking from San Francisco the dominant position in the Bay Area, but the Bay Area as a whole losing out ultimately to LA and Long Beach.

I learned when I moved here that Seattle was growing as a port because of containers and its location closer to Japan. As the book explains, shipping wasn’t a matter of getting goods to a port to serve the port’s local region. Rather, the key was to make the ocean crossing and get the goods off the ship as quickly as possible, to be put on trains or trucks for distribution nationally. But, as the book mentions in passing, Seattle took a big hit when Tacoma opened a new container port and stole a large part of Seattle’s business. This kind of story was played out all over the world. How London and Liverpool lost out to Felixstowe is an especially interesting tale.

I found a couple of annoyances as I read the book. Basic facts are repeated time and again, as if the reader is assumed to be inattentive. Or maybe the author or editor was. And the Kindleization of the book is not well done, at least for the first half of the book, with frequent breaks in the middle of words and occasional concatenation of the second half of a split word with the subsequent word. There’s no loss of meaning when this happens, but it stops the reader every time, even if just momentarily. Annoyances aside, the book tells a fascinating tale. And as Krugman noted, after reading the Cronon book, I couldn’t help but notice the overlap in themes between the two books.

Alas, re-reading Krugman’s post, I realize I have yet another book to read. Following the passage I quoted above, he goes on to say, “Add in the telegraph — the Victorian Internet, as another must-read book puts it — and it was an incredible change.” That other must-read book is Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers. I’ll add it to my list.

Categories: Books, Economics, Geography, History

Geographic Ignorance

May 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Like many a native New Yorker, I grew up with the idea that Washington State was frontier territory. Maybe back then it was. However, after moving here thirty years ago, I quickly adjusted, and quickly tired of some of the odd ideas people in the northeast had about us. Such as imagining that we’re next to the Canadian Rockies. Or Alaska.

As Seattle and the state have grown, as Microsoft, Starbucks, and Costco have joined Boeing and Weyerhaueser in putting us in the nation’s business news, I had the notion that maybe we were a little better understood.

Until this morning, when I read Catherine Lutz’s review in today’s NYT of Janny Scott’s just-published biography A Singular Woman:
The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother
. In the second paragraph, I learned that

Ann Dunham … followed her peripatetic parents — a mother in banking and a father in furniture sales — through several states, to an island off Washington State, and finally on to Hawaii, where she met two husbands and got her B.A. and eventually her Ph.D. in anthropology.

Mention of “an island off Washington State” brought me to a stop. For a moment I was puzzled about whether islands “off” Washington are part of Washington. Would we say that Nantucket is off Massachusetts or Catalina is off California or the Keys are off Florida? That seemed odd. Maybe Nantucket is off the Massachusetts coast, and so on. But the larger puzzle was that I couldn’t think of any islands off the Washington coast. Sure, there must be the odd speck or two, but no one visits or lives on them. There are lots of islands within Puget Sound and the adjacent protected salt water inlets of the state. Bainbridge Island. Vashon Island. Whidbey Island. The San Juan Islands. Some are Seattle suburbs. Others are closer to Canada. But they are all some distance from the Pacific, not what one would call “off Washington State.”

Which of these islands, I wondered, did Ann Dunham live on? I suppose I must have read about it before, but I couldn’t remember. i went to the computer, looked her up, and my jaw dropped. Mercer Island! You see, the thing is, Mercer Island is not off the coast. Mercer Island is not in the state’s interior saltwater by-ways. Mercer Island is in freshwater Lake Washington, the lake that runs north-south along the eastern edge of Seattle, with such cities and suburbs as Bellevue, Kirkland, Medina (Bill Gates’ home), and Redmond to the east. (On the map above, you can see Lake Washington between Seattle and Bellevue, with Mercer Island the pink blob in the southern end of the lake.)

Two bridges cross the lake. One is just a stone’s throw or two from our house. (Okay, maybe three or four, and maybe with Aaron Rodgers doing the throwing.) The other is the I-90 bridge. Interstate 90 starts on the south edge of downtown, by Safeco Field, and ends 3000 miles later a little past Fenway Park in Boston. A long trip. But its first stop heading east out of Seattle is Mercer Island, just three miles away.

What this means is that Mercer Island is closer to downtown Seattle than any other suburb, and closer to downtown than most Seattle neighborhoods. In what universe, or what terminology, does that put Ann Dunham on “an island off Washington State”? Please, Professor Lutz, look at a map!

Note: I was so flabbergasted this morning that I wrote a letter to the NYT editor. I’ll spare you its text. This is essentially an expanded version.

Categories: Geography, Journalism

Al Knows US

July 13, 2009 Leave a comment

This week’s New Yorker has an article by staff writer John Colapinto on the newest US senator (and my college classmate), Al Franken. I haven’t read the article yet. It just appeared online today, and I’d rather wait to get the print version. But I’ve looked at an accompanying blog post by Colapinto in which he compiles video clips of Franken and of the senior senator from Minnesota, Amy Klobuchar.

The first clip, which I’ve provided above, is of an appearance by Franken and his comedy partner Tom Davis on Letterman in 1987. Colapinto notes that “Anyone who doubts Franken’s patriotism—and I suspect some people at Fox News do—should go to the 6:36 mark, where you can see Franken draw a map of the United States, freehand, in less than two minutes.” I’m not entirely sure what this has to do with patriotism, but I must say, I’m impressed. Do watch, starting at that 6:36 mark.

I know the layout of the 48 contiguous states as well as the next guy. Point to any one of them and I’ll tell you instantly what it is. But Franken does something more challenging. He draws them all from scratch. Even the blocky states of the west can be a little tricky. Take the 42nd parallel for instance. It’s the border between Oregon and California. But Oregon is wide (west to east) and California is narrow. What’s next? Nevada of course, on the south side. But just how far east does it run? Where does Idaho come in on the north. And Utah to the east of Nevada on the south. And how does Wyoming fit into Utah to the east of Idaho? When I see it on a map, it all makes sense, but I would have some trouble reproducing it freehand.

Not Al. Have a look.

Categories: Geography, Politics

An Essay Triptych

February 13, 2009 Leave a comment
Annunciation Triptych

Annunciation Triptych

Wednesday afternoon, during one of my periodic breaks from work to check the latest on the blogs, I learned from the New Yorker’s Rick Hertzberg of a fantastic essay by Zadie Smith in the latest issue of the competition, The New York Review of Books. He didn’t pull his punches, leading with “Please, I beg you: drop whatever you’re doing and read “Speaking In Tongues,” Zadie Smith’s brilliant meditation on Barack Obama.” Well, I sure was tempted, but you know, as many articles as I read now on my computer screen, it’s not the place where I want to read great writing. I decided to wait until the print issue arrived at home. And to my delight, it had already arrived. I just had to go home to find it.

Once I got home, I had to decide about the relative urgency of getting dinner organized, doing more blog catch-up, making more progress on grading the week’s course assignment, and dropping it all to read Zadie. Since Zadie’s piece comes in three convenient sections, I made the inane decision to read a section at a time, squeezing the rest of my life in between. I wouldn’t take this as evidence that I can no longer read more than a page or two at a sitting. I still can. Really. But not at the moment that I get home from school. There are too many other things to catch up on.

How great was Zadie Smith’s essay? You know how it is when someone tells you something is great. I knew she hadn’t just come down from Mt. Sinai with a third tablet, but I was ready for it. Instead, what I got was absolutely first rate. I’ll join Hertzberg in saying you should read her piece. Read his blog commentary on it too. Here’s a sample from the essay:
Read more…

Categories: Culture, Geography, Politics

Don’t Know Much About History

November 27, 2008 Leave a comment

With Joel’s return from Boston two nights ago, I had the pleasure of his company yesterday as we drove around the city doing assorted errands. Last night, as I recalled some of our day’s conversation, I thought about how I used to quiz him, 10 or 12 years ago, when we walked (or I walked and he rollerbladed) around the neighborhood. Here were some of my standard questions: Read more…