Archive for the 'Reference' Category


Finding the Cheese Factory

(Edit: See comments section for a note from the originator of this map).

Our very first reader submission comes from Robin, who suggested I look at the library of maps available from Moon Travel Guides. There are a lot to choose from, but this one stood out as I browsed through:

Monteverde and Vicinity

Click to see full size. Obtained from (c) Avalon Travel.

Your geography lesson for today: Monteverde is a small town in Costa Rica, popular with ecotourists (thanks Wikipedia).

Biggest problem: No legend. This may or may not be remedied in the context of the guide in which the map is published (perhaps there’s a master legend at the front of the book), but this map is provided on the website without a guide, and needs to work in that capacity. So, let’s figure out the legend.

There appear to me to be eight different point symbols used on the map. There are stars, circles, squares, triangles with the points up, triangles with the points down, and pictures of moons. There’s also an unmarked symbol for a gas station at one point, and one of a church that says, “Church.”

I am guessing the stars mean different points of interest? There’s the “Natural Valley Nature Trail,” the “Monteverde Nature Center and Butterfly Gardens,” and the “Cheese Factory.” I cannot fathom what these all have in common other than perhaps they’re places tourists like to go. If you’re into cheese factories.

Then there are squares. These are labeled with things like “Monteverde Institute,” and, my favorite, “Friend’s Meeting House.” I’m guessing they mean it’s a Quaker meeting house, but the badly misused apostrophe makes me wonder if it’s just a house owned by the mapmaker’s buddy. “Yeah, I know this guy who has a sweet house down in Monteverde. We should totally meet down there. It’s near the Cheese Factory.” Grammar aside, it’s hard to tell what all the things labeled with squares have in common, that they do not have in common with the stars. Let’s just call it “things less interesting than the Cheese Factory.” We’re talking internet cafes, bullrings, and a toll booth.

There are circles (more or less – they seem rather deformed at certain points, but not enough that I think they’re different symbols than the circles), too. The labels suggest these are all hotels or other lodgings.

The triangle, with point up, is on the far right edge of the map, marking Cerro Amigos (1,842m) – a mountain.

The triangles with points down, while looking dangerously like mountains seem like places to eat: Johnny’s Pizzeria, Cafe Monteverde. But there’s also an amphitheater? Maybe it serves food.

These triangles are problematic. A square is different from a circle – and so we look at the map and say, “these must be categorically different things!” If you see squares and circles, but two kinds of triangles, your brain starts thinking, “these triangles must be more closely related to each other than they are to the circles or squares!” But I’m pretty sure food and mountain are not too connected. So, a different shape is advisable here.

Finally, there are the moon symbols. These mark towns, I believe. This symbol is apparently the company logo, and using it to mark cities makes roughly no sense. They’re trying to be cute. Cute is one way bad maps happen. Also, I just noticed that the nature reserve on the far right of the  map, also uses a moon. I’m pretty sure that’s not a city. So, moon symbols in our theoretical legend should be marked as, “Towns, Cities, and Nature.”

This is why they make legends. So that I don’t have to spend several minutes figuring this out, with a chance of getting it wrong.

The author is rather inconsistent in how detailed a label they apply to symbols. One square is marked “Bank” and another “Massage.” But some list the specific business name: “Desafio Tours.” I am open to hearing an argument that there is a scheme behind this, but I’m not sure.

Also, most all the type on this map is in caps. Maybe they think everything in Monteverde is important. Caps are good for making things stand out. Unless everything is in caps, in which case nothing stands out. Good work. Setting a few letters in lowercase here and there will probably help the map look more professional, less…aggressive and in your face, for lack of a better description. Less like a five year old pulling on your arm and saying, “HEY LOOK AT THE POST OFFICE OVER HERE.”

One Nice Thing: They did use different shapes to represent categorically different things, so that’s a good use of shape. They could have used dot size, which would be a bad idea, because size is orderable, and “Points of Interest,” “Restaurants,” etc. are not. Shape is a good choice for these non-orderable things.

I’ve got to run, and I’ve run on too long, methinks. I’ll leave the rest to you, for this one. I’m on vacation at the moment (not in Monteverde – sadly, no Cheese Factory around here), so things may be slow around here for a week or so. Meanwhile, I hope you will all continue to send me bad maps you may find.


New Ice Cream Flavors

Yet another daily update. I’ll probably scale back the pace at some point in the near future. Meanwhile, I encourage you all to send me any cartastrophes you happen to encounter in your travels. Email address can be found in the About section.

Today’s effort comes from the Church of the Brethren Network, in an article on comparing Bible manuscripts and translations:

Obtained from No author given.

Obtained from No author given.

Click the link for context – it comes from an article written by a Mr. Ronald Gordon, though I cannot say for certain if he authored the map. In the article, Mr. Gordon explains the four major biblical manuscript families, and the regions in which they originate. The map is provided for the reader’s enlightenment and edification.

From the map, I gather that the Western family of manuscripts appears to originate somewhere off the coast of Sardinia, in the Mediterranean, whereas the Caesarean one is off of the Lebanese coast. Many people lived in the middle of the sea back then, you know.

If you read the accompanying text, you learn that the Western family in fact came out of Rome and Carthage. Both of which are, I suppose, kind of close to the big green oval (sure would be handy to have a map right about now to help me figure out where those two cities are). It’s rather hard to tell how far the oval’s sphere of influence extends, and there are a lot of places that are closer to the oval which are neither Rome nor Carthage. The alternative to placing cities vaguely near the oval would be what the author does to indicate the manuscripts originating out of Alexandria: completely cover the entire area so that you can’t see anything and can’t tell entirely where Alexandria is.

Rather than putting large shapes which, in fact, completely obscure much of the geography the author is trying to convey, it would probably have been better to just mark the locations of key cities, with much smaller dots.  In the article, the author in fact lists off several key cities, so it’s not as though he was trying to cover up an ignorance of which ones they were.

The shaded relief on the map seems so mismatched, giving the background an unnecessary level of detail that highlights all the more the fact that the ovals were quickly slapped on. Quick tip: Information content first, spiffy details second. To grind the point home even more, I will point out that the map has drop shadows. Drop shadows, I say! Yes, they do make the ovals slightly less dull (I caution you against trying to imagine what it looks like without the drop shadows), but they don’t stop them from being large, brightly colored-ovals which convey minimal information and take up a lot of space doing it. I repeat: Communicate first, add drop shadows second.

The map title is both oddly placed (about 30% of the way down…why?) and hard to read, on account of all that geography going on underneath it. When the background color on which your text sits changes, it becomes much harder to read. Especially if those background colors are very different from each other. Like, say, dark blue and tan. I don’t mean to say that you cannot read the text on this map. Just that it strains your eyes a lot to do so.

Unsatisfied with the eye stress induced by the map title, the author decides to make his or her next bit of text, the “Resources provided through Church of the Brethren Network” line, partly transparent, making the map title look perfectly clear by comparison. Also, in so doing, the author reveals his or her knowledge of how to change the transparency of objects on the map, leading me to wonder: why didn’t you do that for the ovals, so that I can see a bit of the land underneath?

One Nice Thing: The colors of the ovals are, at least, reasonably sensible. These data cannot be ordered (they’re categorical data)…you can’t put Western above or below Alexandrian, etc. There is no natural ranking. So, you want to use colors which likewise not orderable, and the ones chosen are, indeed, not orderable. Though, yellow might have been better than blue, to make Alexandrian stand out from the water.

Check out the part of the website which has the map, if you want to understand this post’s title. It’s worth it.


The Town Spreadsheet

The Town of Blooming Grove, Wisconsin. A magical, pixellated land full of jagged lakes and rambling, rustic acres:

Setting aside for a moment the fact that the map has about as much detail as a Pac-Man level, I want to point out that this map is actually provided by the town as a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. I am not kidding.

Look, the town population is only about 1700. That’s smaller than a lot of high schools. I can understand that they don’t have a trained cartographer on staff, and when someone decided to make a map, they were not going to be using the latest and most advanced tools that professional cartographers use. But if you want to make a map with giant pixels, try MS Paint (or your preferred equivalent). It is, in fact, significantly harder to make a blocky pixel map in Excel. It’s a spreadsheet program. It’s designed to crunch numbers and show you if the town can afford this year’s hayride. It takes some doing to get pictures out of it.

I have no idea what “Freeway Manor” is, but it sounds like it’s peaceful and has a great view. Is it a subdevelopment? A neighborhood? Not really clear on that. A legend of some sort might be handy, but all we get is “Anything in Green is the Town of Blooming Grove.” Anything. Any lush, verdant paradise you encounter? That’s Blooming Grove.

I think I’ll just stop right there, and leave the rest of the criticism and commentary to you, gentle reader.

One Nice Thing: Making a map in Excel is certainly an interesting challenge, and this person has managed to construct what is indeed, arguably, a map. For a first attempt, not bad. At, least I hope it’s his/her first attempt at maps ever. And that he or she hasn’t ever seen a map before. Please, please let that be true.

Thanks to my boss, Tanya, for pointing this one out to me.


What Have I Done?

It seems only fair for me to start this blog out with one of my own works, which still graces the Wikipedia page on the Kalamazoo River:

Kalamazoo River Map


The labeling is troubling, and the whole thing has this “I threw it together in MS Paint” look (which, actually, I didn’t), but the real problem is the inset in the lower left.  See, there’s a problem on a lot of maps called the island effect, where you just show one state or country in your map, and completely leave off the other geographic context. Look at the area to the immediate west of Michigan. It’s brown. That’s where Lake Michigan is. Also, Wisconsin. Apparently, Wisconsin (not to mention other bordering states) blends seamlessly and stealthily into the Great Lakes. So does Canada – they have, in fact, hidden their entire country in camouflage in preparation for the big invasion.

Also, in the inset, Michigan is surrounded by the same brown used for land on the main map…making it look more like a hole in the middle of the land rather than an island. And like there’s no water around it at all, only barren wasteland.

To be nice (to myself), I did make this some time before I actually had any cartographic training, or even access to the proper tools. I’ve been planning for years to replace this with a better effort. Someday, perhaps that will happen.

One Nice Thing: The city label size varies by city population. Though, you know, it would be nice if I indicated that in some way.