Book Review: How to Lie with Maps

I read this book as part of my research for a forthcoming edition of my Bizarre Fact Files series. The book is a well-written, deep exploration into the techniques and politics of cartography. By the time I finished this technical exploration — learning about things I didn’t even know existed — my perspective on mapping was forever changed.

gordon meyer holding book

Yes, I said the politics of mapping. As this book makes clear, every map is a political statement. Maps represent reality, but are not of reality. And the power to define reality lies with the person holding the pen.

Although I didn’t see it referred to in the book, I feel obligated to also mention Alfred Korzybski’s meditations that “the map is not the territory.”

One of my favorite chapters, “Data Maps: A thicket of thorny choices” should be required reading for every social scientist, if not citizen voter, for its clear discussion of how aggregation, homogeneity, and other choices make it easy to distort “data.” Keep this in mind the next time you see a purported map of crime levels, real estate values, or other “facts” superimposed on an areal map. (The author’s book Mapping It Out: Expository Cartography for the Humanities and Social Sciences promises even more about this important topic.)

There were numerous tidbits that caught my attention. A few examples:

  • Deliberate blunders, “trap streets” are non-existent features placed on maps to catch copyists. But this common practice died off in 1997 after a court ruled that even imaginary streets are “facts” and can’t be copyrighted. (What the hell‽)
  • Souvenir, a typeface used for map labels by the US Geographic Survey, is an abomination in the context of mapping. The author makes a compelling case for how it ruins cartographic features with its heavy-handed and ugly typography.
  • Commercial placements on maps eschew important cartographic features (such as elevation, and topography) in favor of paid inclusions. This renders the maps useless for functions such as emergency management and national defense, but makes them handy for shopping.
  • Online mapping, covertly paid for by commercial placements, has forever changed the expectations, style, and quality of maps for the public. In Europe, bookstores still carry high-quality regional maps, but good luck finding them in the United States. (Younger readers might be surprised to learn that gas stations used to give away printed maps to customers!)
  • Placenames, those words which define a location or area, are often just accepted as being true, but in reality they can reflect bias and politics. Traditionally, mapmakers have accepted local vernacular, but that leads to codifying some odd, and often racist, stereotypes. The author has a separate book about this topic, From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim, and Inflame.

How to Lie with Maps, published by the venerable University of Chicago Press, is not a casual read. But for an outsider such as myself, it was fascinating and insightful. The author, Mark Monmonier, has several related titles, as well as a rich website that will take you deep into a delightful rabbit hole. To get your copy of this book, try the Amazon.


Hikers Suspenders are the real deal

A friend of mine sent me a pointer to the website for the Hikers Suspenders Company because he had read my review of trucker suspenders from a few weeks ago.

hikers suspender markting photo

I’m fairly certain he sent the link in jest because, let’s face it, these look like a parody, but damn, I bought a set, and they’re great.

If you’re the kind of guy who wants suspenders, but you’re also the kind of guy who doesn’t want to look like a guy who wears suspenders, these are for you.

As a bonus, the company has great customer service. I apparently misunderstood their sizing and bought a pair that was too big. They corrected the situation rapidly, and I couldn’t be happier with that.

Now, you might be wondering if they’re comfortable. Sure, the feel is very similar to wearing regular suspenders, but I think they’re less hassle when you need to intentionally drop your pants. It is a little unusual to feel them under your shirt and next to your skin, but I imagine it’s much like wearing a brassiere, and you soon get accustomed to it.

If you’re at all inclined to try them, go for it. They’re no joke. You can order them direct, or from the Amazon.



Book Review: The Missing Ink

This is a book about cursive handwriting. It was a gift from dear friends, which encouraged me to finish it, even though the middle going was rough, as I’ll discuss below.

Philip Hensher, the author, is clearly a geek for handwriting. While the middle third of this book is deep nerdery over how handwriting evolved and is taught, the first and last sections are passionate and compelling appreciations for what is quickly becoming a lost art.

gordon meyer with book

Among the obsessive details are analyses of notable handwriting (Royalty, Dickens, and Hitler, are among them), a thorough takedown of graphology, and a discussion of writing instruments and ink technology. (The ball in a ballpoint pen is made from Tungsten!)

A few of the tidbits that stood out for me:

  • The dot over a lowercase “i” is called a jot.
  • For centuries, the shaping of thought by scratching marks on paper has been fundamental to our existence as human beings.
  • As of 2012 (the date of publication) only eight US States still mandated the teaching of handwriting in schools.
  • Many of the typefaces in the Fonts menu of your computer are named for different styles of handwriting — such as Copperplate, Blackletter, Italic, and Chancery.
  • Related to the above, there are several styles of handwriting that have been fads or government mandates over the years. If you know how to write cursive, you learned a specific style. When other styles are encountered, you’re likely to consider them illegible, but they are just different than what you thought was “correct.”
  • Printing (non-connected) letters, which was taught as the precursor to cursive when I was a kid, was a controversial innovation.
  • Graphology came into favor when Sherlock Holmes referenced it in 1887. Until as recently as 1997, Merrill Lynch used handwriting analysis to screen the personality job applicants.
  • In France, neat and uniform handwriting is (was?) considered a civic duty, to ensure communication with fellow countrymen.
  • Biro and Bich (Bic) are the fathers of the ballpoint pen, but it was the R.A.F. that catapulted the instrument into success by buying 30,000 units for their pilots to use (instead of fountain pens!) in the cockpit!

Regarding graphology, which the author likens to astrology and palm reading, I particularly enjoyed this pseudo personality analysis that he offers. It’s for someone who freely mixes upper and lowercase letters in their printing, as I do:

Someone who has unexpected upper-case forms for lower-case letters, often R and W, would jump out of an aeroplane, fuck a pig, steal and drink the homebrewed absinthe of a Serbian warlord, just to see what the experience was like. Go for a drink with them. Just not in Serbia.

Well, two out of three’s not bad.

This book also brought back a number of forgotten childhood memories: My mother writing notes and shopping lists using shorthand. The feeling of being a sophisticated adult once I could read my grandmother’s cursive. A parent-teacher conference where my father defended my non-standard way of holding a pencil under criticism from Mrs. Bishop.

I was also reminded of this curious and interesting book by Professor Oddfellow, Cursive Numbers, which I now appreciate with a new perspective.

Of related a note, a friend of mine who works for the Internal Revenue Service tells me there are designated (older) employees who are called upon to read tax returns written in cursive. This is because many (younger) employees don’t know how to read the style of writing.

Intrigued? You can get a copy of The Missing Ink at the Amazon.



A system for aging in place

Since 2007, I’ve written several times about using home automation technology to support aging in place. And over the years I’ve heard from many folks about the peace of mind such techniques can bring to families with seniors who remain in their homes.

I’m really pleased to see that Amazon has introduced an easy and comprehensive service for this. It’s called “Alexa Together,” and for a small monthly fee, it brings together various useful techniques.

Although I’m definitely not a fan of the Alexa service overall, I like that Amazon only requires one Alexa device (placed at the senior’s home), and that the compelling nature of Alexa will help ensure it will work in this capacity. The service also seems to have some nice privacy and security features (if you’re willing to live with Alexa’s other serious flaws in this regard).

Although I haven’t tried it myself — I no longer have a use case for it — I like everything about it and encourage you to consider it when approaching the challenging and sensitive nature of this growing need.



Book Review: Bullet Lists

This book is:

  • Unique
  • Clever
  • Succinct
  • Astonishing

At first glance, this book is just what the title says — a collection of unordered lists. (Or, as regular people say, “bulleted lists.”) But, what exactly are these lists?

gordon meyer holding book

When you ask yourself that question, and pay close attention to the contents of this book, the breadth, and depth of research put into this publication takes your breath away.

Let’s back up. Google has an “autocomplete” feature that (often, hilariously) attempts to finish your query for you. It’s the Google AI guessing what you’re going to type next, based on what previous searchers have looked for. (And, thus, providing a disturbing glimpse into the soul of mankind.)

google autocomplete screenshot

Bullet Lists is sort of like that, except that the author, Professor Oddfellow, has collected, compiled, and collated these lists based on primary sources. The result is not what your idiot neighbors have wanted to know, it’s what your fellow writers have put into print. (To be fair, they might also be idiots.) But this is a big and important distinction, and much more interesting. (Sorry, Google.)

At the very least, you have to appreciate the organizational prowess and persistence it took to compile this book. However, if you give it a chance to sink in, there’s a lot to savor. Get your copy at the Amazon.