Talk Description to Me

Episode 81 - Maps and Tracking Systems

December 11, 2021 Christine Malec and JJ Hunt Season 3 Episode 81
Talk Description to Me
Episode 81 - Maps and Tracking Systems
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Ever wondered how the surface of a round planet translates into a flat map? Christine has! This week, JJ answers questions about the visuals of maps, and how those visuals line up with reality. Then, with maps on the mind, JJ and Christine discuss the look of online tracking and navigation, from deliveries to Uber rides, container ships to Santa's Christmas Eve run!

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JJ Hunt:

Talk description to me with Christine Malec and JJ Hunt.

Christine Malec:

Hi, I'm Christine Malec.

JJ Hunt:

And I'm JJ Hunt. This is talk description to me where the visuals of current events and the world around us get hashed out in description rich conversations today, We're gonna talk about a topic that rather bizarrely is dear to my heart, which is maps, and tracking and navigation. And this is kind of a bizarre rabbit hole that I love to go down a part of the reason is that I got the opportunity, I own two globes, and they all they have different features, why I love them, but one of them has the continents outlined in fabric paint. And this gave me as a blind person, a sense of geography, that will never leave me it's just become part of my internal sense of, of the world, and so valuable. So if you can, and you're totally blind, try to find a globe. And either with the continents outlined or someone to, to walk through it with you, because you'll it'll just never leave you. And when I remember being very small in school and learning about maps and thinking, Holy mackerel, this is so cool. And then the course the shocking moment where my teacher goes, no, no, no, no, the street you live on isn't that big, it's that big, and comparing it to streets around me in a big shift of like, Oh, I'm so insignificant. So maps, and globes and systems of tracking things have this endless fascination for me. And so we're going to talk today about large scale and sort of small scale iterations of this. And one of the questions that started this episode between JJ and I, as I said, How do you take a spherical representation of our globe and just splat it out into two dimensions? How on earth does that become a two dimensional representation? And the answer to that turns out to be even more complicated than I thought, and then we end up getting into lots of issues of who did it and why and what happened when they did that. So JJ, can we kind of start there with the big picture? Yeah, you're absolutely right. There's no way, it's physically impossible, mathematically impossible to turn the surface of a sphere into a flat representation. without distorting something, there's just no way to do it. I watched an interesting video by Vox one of these, you know, journalistic video makers. In this video, this guy takes an inflatable globe, basically a beach ball with a globe on it, and he cuts it open and tries to lay it flat on the floor. And he's gonna snip slits into the plastic, he stretches it out. It's a great illustration how it's impossible to get it to lay flat. And people have been trying to do this live since forever. Since about the 1500s. People, geographers, cartographers have been trying to come up with the best projection. That's what flat renderings of the globe are called projections. And in this Vox video, they actually explain projections with a demonstration, I thought it was a good one. So you take a globe, and then you take a long rectangular sheet of paper, you tape the ends of the paper together to create a tube or a cylinder that's the same diameter as the globe. And then you slide this cylinder or tube over the globe. And then you project the points that are on the globe. So the shapes of the landmasses, you project them straight out onto the inside of the tube. And then when you unroll that tube, you have a projection of the globe on a flat surface. That's a projection. The problem is every projection distorts something, it's got to it's just has to the projection that we just described. In that projection, the landmasses that are near the poles, the North Pole in the South Pole, they end up looking squished, that's just the way that translates from from the round surface onto the flat projections always distort either the shape or the size of the landmasses or distort the apparent distances between them, even the relative placement on the globe. That's what they do they distort so that's where a lot of the challenge comes from.

Christine Malec:

Now the question I always think about is what ends up being in the center map. So if you've got a map that is square or rectangular, yeah, who gets to decide What's in the middle?

JJ Hunt:

That's a very good question. And for most of us, it's Europe. For most of us who are who are listening to this podcast, if you grew up in a North American or European school system, the center of the world is Europe. So you kind of got to go back to which projection we're using. So in the early days, maps were needed mostly for navigation. So coming up with a projection that would make navigation easiest that was that was the key. And there was a cartographer named Mercator, and he was a Flemish geographer, cartographer, and he came up with this cylindrical projection in 1569. And that has been dominant ever since, like I said, especially North America and Europe. But also now with Google Maps. Google Maps uses a Mercator projection. And so it's really global. In this projection, north is up, South is down, so it preserves direction, and it maintains the shape of landmasses. The side effect is that it seriously alters the relative size of those landmasses. So landmass is and therefore countries that are close to the equator, they stay more or less the same size. But landmasses that are further away from the Create from the equator, they get stretched out or elongated. See Mercator needed the latitudinal and longitudinal lines to remain straight, he needed a grid. Because if you have a standard grid on a map, and you draw a straight direction line that cuts across it, the angle between the parallel grid lines and the direction line will always be the same. So it's great for navigating with the tools of the day, which basically a compass, so you need to keep that grid. In order to keep that grid something else has to be distorted. The vertical longitudinal lines that run north south are evenly spaced across the map on a Mercator projection. But the horizontal latitude and the lines that run east west, they are not evenly spaced near the equator there, those lines are closer together. As they move away from the equator, they move farther apart. And since the equator runs right through the top of South America, and right through the middle of Africa, and through Indonesia, those places don't get distorted. They are they are closest to true size. But when you move away from the equator, so Canada, Russia, we get stretched out, we get we get we grow. So we look bigger. And the real big winner from the Mercator boost is Greenland, visually when you look at Greenland on on a Mercator map, it looks massive Greenland and the continent of Africa on a on a Mercator projection look like they're about the same size. But on a globe, it's clear that Africa is 14 times larger than Greenland. So it's a real shift in size. Greenland and the rest of the far north and the far south have been elongated as a side effect of preserving this grid of lines. So the continent of Africa, India, Southeast Asia, South and Central America, they look relatively small compared to Canada, Russia, and most importantly, tiny Europe, tiny Europe looks quite a bit bigger, because of this, this boost. And you're absolutely right. The other thing that that this map does is it puts at the dead center, Europe. That's how they they arranged this now, doesn't have to be the case. And in fact, it's inaccurate. If you if you look at a globe, Europe is quite far North Germany, which is basically the center you know, where Mercator was was working from, which is basically the center of the of the Mercator projection. It's actually pretty far north, its latitude is actually, you know, comparable to Northern Ontario. But on the mana Mercator projection, it's the middle it's the center of the earth. Right? And I did, I was curious about this, I did a quick image search for early Chinese maps of the world just to see if other folks were doing the same thing --

Christine Malec:

See you know where my mind's going. That's what happens after a year and a half.

JJ Hunt:

Ha ha ha! Exactly. And not surprisingly, in early maps from China, China is the center of the world. So that puts America, the Americas, to the far right. And Europe and Africa to the left, which is very strange, it just doesn't look right. The other thing you can do with some map some projections, they actually flip it so that the northern hemisphere is on the bottom and the southern hemisphere is on top and really well. When you think about it, that makes as much sense as anything, you are on a marble floating in space, right. But when you're so used visually, I am very used to the Mercator projection I am very used to the north being on top, the South being on the bottom, that top and bottom understanding of the world is drilled right into most sighted people. And when you flip it upside down, and you look at a map that puts the northern hemisphere on the bottom and the southern hemisphere on top, whoa, it almost makes me look feel a little queasy, because it's so wrong. It's just so wrong, disorienting. It really is disorienting, it's just in my mind does not work that way I have an under It's hard enough to remember that we're on this marble floating through space.

Christine Malec:

Um hm.

JJ Hunt:

Without messing up my understanding of where on that marble I am standing. Right? So when you flip it around, oh, it just it feels feels so strange.

Christine Malec:

I'm thinking back to our episode on the ship caught in the Suez Canal, which is indelibly stuck in my mind, I don't know that episode, just I loved it. And I'm, I'm so I'm thinking about the satellite image of the ship and the geography that that it gave us. But it's also is has stimulated my interest in tracking ships and track in general, the things that we can have access to, to just watching. And so a good friend of mine has a an app, where he just he's a sailor, and so he can track cargo ships, he just picks you pick a ship and you get updates, like, oh, let's install the way he sees today are crazy around the world stuff. And tracking is something that we also sighted people use every day to track your package to track where you are in an Uber and that that's a pretty closed book. Like as much as I love those apps, I'll never bother because they're purely visual. So I don't know what JJ should we start small, like what are some of the small day to day applications that sighted people are using to to track their spot or their stuff around the globe or around the city.

JJ Hunt:

So tons of stuff to unpack there. And yeah, there's some really interesting, some of them are a little bit mundane, and some of them are really wild some of different ways to track. So the basic tracking packages, if you order something online, there's usually a built in track package option, right click this button, and you can track your package. And there's generally some sort of visual that's associated with online tracking. Sometimes, it's like the classic dotted line on a map. So you get like a snippet of map from you know, wherever the the package is leaving and wherever you are, wherever it's coming to. And there's like this old school adventure movie kind of like dotted line that did come moves its way from one part of the map to the other. Sometimes as even a little tiny icon of a plane with the dotted line starting with a package is being sent from it, you might get something like that. But often, the graphic that comes with a tracking of package is really just it's an infographic it's more of graphic that features a row of symbols or icons, or from our symbols and icons episode. These are like little silhouettes, very simple shapes, not a lot of detail. And there's a row of these symbols, maybe there's a box followed by a plane taking off and then a plane landing. And then beside it in the row is an icon perhaps of a silhouetted customs agent, if this package is crossing a border, and then maybe a truck with action lines behind it so that it indicates that the truck is moving. And maybe underneath that horizontal row of icons, there's maybe a line that will grow as the packages move from one phase to another to indicate what stage your shipment is at. Or maybe there's a series of checkmarks under the icon. So as you clear each stage, you get a nice green checkmark. And for those of us who are sighted, seeing movement, you know, a graphic representation of progress with this package moving is very reassuring and very satisfying. So they put a little bit of a graphic there to track your package, but there's no additional information there. It's just something to placate anxious people who are waiting for their packages, in terms of like tracking yourself. If you're in an Uber or a Lyft both Uber and Lyft use Google Maps or or the technology of Google Maps at least they certainly look like Google Maps. So when you're booking a ride, there's a map that's that's on your booking screen, and that has your current location kind of at the center of the map. The map has a like a pale gray background. Thin white lines indicate neighborhood streets slightly thicker white lines indicate mid size streets and then yellow lines indicate highways the colors might be a little bit different depending on the branding and depending on the on the app that using but it's more or less that concept where you've got thicker lines indicate bigger streets, drivers are marked by tiny little car icons that are moving around on this map, they might be a little dot. But I think mostly they're still using these tiny little icons that are moving around on a map. So when you go to book you can see are there like four or five little tiny cars driving around you or is there only one and you feel like, Oh, I got a snag that one tiny little car I need to make to make that my driver. And so when you then book the ride, you know, you've you've switched, you've chosen your yes, I'm going on booking this ride, then the maps, which is up a bit so that it highlights only the one car, the driver that's going to come pick you up that driver is now the only icon on the map that little car and a solid line marks the route that that driver needs to take in order to come and get you. And there's so there's a solid line that you know winds its way along these roads. And there's a little text box beside that, that that moving car that says they are seven minutes away, and the line disappears as they approach a kind of gobbles up the line as it comes towards you. So that's how the maps look like when you're ordering your your your ride. Once you're inside the Uber. After a bit, I love being in an Uber in the back seat and kind of looking over the drivers shoulder or looking into the front seat because the driver probably has most likely got at least one, maybe two screens on their dashboard. Sometimes there's the you know, just the built in screen on a modern car, or sometimes there's that screen plus a cell phone that's mounted on the dashboard. And these are almost always projecting some kind of map. These are these are showing maps that the driver uses to navigate. So there are slightly different aesthetics depending on which system they're using. If it's Waze, if it's Google Maps, if it's the built in Uber, but they all have the same kinds of points of view, and they give the same kind of information. So most drivers use an overhead view as a default. So if your phone is vertical, the map covers the entire screen. And the point of view is not directly overhead, but rather above and behind I think they call this the a head up mode. So there's actually a little car icon or maybe an arrow that's pointing forward. And that's about a third of the way up the screen. So it's near it's in the bottom third, and it's fixed, that icon or arrow stays fixed. And what happens is the map moves the map rotates to keep the car that you're in at the bottom always pointing ahead.

Christine Malec:

Whoa!

JJ Hunt:

Yeah. And then the suggested route is highlighted in like a thick purple or blue line on this, you know, this, whatever the map is in white lines. And it you know, turns that are up ahead are indicated by white arrows. So then as your car makes a turn, your little icon stays rooted in place, and the map pivots and turn all around.

Christine Malec:

Ok, now I'm sea sick. Seriously, is that messing with your head? Are you used to it?

JJ Hunt:

Well, it's interesting, it does take some getting used to. As a non Uber driver, just some someone who likes gazing at this, I find it a little bit disorienting. But I absolutely see how if I was driving, and I'm also not a regular driver, a lot of folks use this technology just to go to the grocery store. Anyone can use Waze and Google Maps. And you know, folks do so all the time. If you're used to it, I think it is really easy. It's much, much, much easier to always know, you know, you're pointing ahead, it just makes sense. Am I turning left? Yes. And it still looks like I'm turning left. As opposed to if you stay in place, and the map doesn't you know what I mean? It what it does is it lines your physical action up with the with the you know what I mean? That really helps. Now drivers can and do tap the screen change the point of view, they zoom in, they zoom out, they click on other route options. But generally they come back to this above and behind this ahead of point of view.

Christine Malec:

This is why I love working with you because now I have this piece of information that's so much part of the public conversation that I never even heard of it before. Now now I can say to my driver friends, "hey, this is what you're seeing. Right?" "Yeah, Chris. That's what everyone's been seeing for the last 15 years."

JJ Hunt:

Ha ha ha!

Christine Malec:

I know this, that is totally new information for me. That's amazing.

JJ Hunt:

Awesome.

Christine Malec:

So let's let's step this up a scale to, to shipping and what what can you if you're if you're a navigation geek or a geographer, your geek, what can you what kind of fun things can you do with technology that's in your hand.

JJ Hunt:

I've seen a couple of different global marine trackers that are available online. Some have some you know as a subscription or a buy in but a lot of them you can just log on to and tap in information. It's pretty easy to get hooked on this stuff. It's pretty cool. So I, there was one I saw a Marine traffic.com. This one has a default of showing all the ships that are at sea at any given point. So you open up the website, a map comes up a very simple map, where the I think the land masses are white and the and the oceans are gray. But as soon as you open it up, the oceans of the world are packed with these little icons these little, they look like tiny pencil nibs with a point at one end. Very, very, very small. And they're color coded green for cargo red for tanker blue, for passenger, orange for fishing. And what's really cool is you can zoom in, zoom out, and you can click on any ship, and an Information box pops up. And in that information box might be the ship's name, the speed that they're currently traveling the course and even a photo of that ship. That's some other fantastic marine shipping geek user has taken a picture and slapped on. It's amazing!

Christine Malec:

Oh I'm floating above my chair right now, this is so geeky cool.

JJ Hunt:

It's really cool. It's really interesting. And you know, the, what's neat about this is you can track patterns, the patterns of of shipping become clear. So a lot of arrows pointing in one direction or another, certain colors are clustered together. So for example, there's lots of orange fishing boats that are in the South Pacific, little tiny green cargo ships across the North Pacific, a lot of red tankers in the Gulf of Mexico. And there are shipping routes, like inland as well. So river shipping is also on this on this map. So there are tiny baby blue tugboats and specialty ships that are all along the Mississippi, mostly green cargo ships in the Great Lakes systems and moving along the St. Lawrence. I say moving but really these are fixed images, the movement is implied by the direction that the ships are pointing the ship's icons don't actually move in real time with marine traffic.com. They I think they take you know, snapshots every however long, but you don't see the movement. There are other online trackers that use dots. And the dots do move in real time as you're as you're watching this map. That's very cool. Did you ever when you were in school, did you ever play with metal filings and magnets? Was this a thing for you?

Christine Malec:

Yeah, they were kind of hard to they're so delicate that touching them kind of disrupted it though. So yeah, never not satisfying as it as it should have been.

JJ Hunt:

That makes sense. The reason I bring it up is because visually, that's what this really reminded me of the way all of these the fecks, these little tiny icons are on this map. So if you haven't played with this before you basically you take a sheet of paper, you sprinkle metal filings on it, and then you put a magnet under the sheet of paper. So as you move the magnet around, the metal filings will will shift and move and approach the magnet. And you can make different patterns and whatnot. And what it looks like visually is that someone took sprinkled colored filings through them onto the map, and then used magnets that primarily attract one color or another and then move them around the map. And so that's kind of why you get some clusters, and you get some lines where they're all pointing in the same direction. But some of them are still randomly scattered. You still get like, yes, there are a lot of green cargo ships in the Great Lakes, but they're also green cargo ships over here. And yes, a lot of reds tankers in the Gulf of Mexico. But there's also a one line of them that's going over in this dirt, you know what I mean? So there's something about the randomness of it. And the way that moves, some of the ships are pointing or lots of the ships are pointing in one direction. But some aren't. There are still outliers, they're still, you know, ships doing other things. It really visually reminded me of those metal filings on a sheet of paper.

Christine Malec:

I'm having this major fantasy of a sonification where someone's got like a iPad the size of my wall, and all the different colors are indicated by different tones. And I can just swoop around the oceans of the world, or the ships or just in case anyone doesn't know I've got this sea fantasy, I want to just go and leave and go to sea and just live on the ocean. Let's take all of this amazing technology and data and bring it back down to something many of us can understand Santa Claus. I remember how excited I was. I think I was even like, in my teens like I knew Santa Claus for what he was, but I when I found Note that you could Nora was going to track Santa on Christmas Eve. I've just my heart crinkled up and it's never on crinkled. So apparently there's more than one way to track the big guy. So can you run through how some of that works?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, there are two two different options. Two main options. I'm sure there are others. But Google has a Santa Tracker, and NORAD still has their Santa Tracker. So Google's, it's more of a playful, the imagery is more playful, it's more cartoony, they use a regular Google map. So baby blue water white landmasses, you might be able to change the satellite view, I honestly don't know. Last year, Santa was represented by a cartoon icon of a red sleigh, and you could see the back of a red hat with a white pom pom popping up over the top of the little icon and I think the icon would move so maybe you would get a front perspective sometimes. And essentially, this icon zigzags up and down the globe.

Christine Malec:

Tee hee!

JJ Hunt:

So zigzagging up an entire timezone it making stops at different dots on the map. Very, very brief pauses, and then once it would reach the top, it would then move over to the next timezone move west and then zigzag down the timezone pausing in various places, right. I think there are little games on the Google Santa Tracker where you can click on little games and play a little thing here and there. It's very cute. There's an info box that indicates how many gifts have been delivered.

Christine Malec:

Gasp!

JJ Hunt:

And when the big man's going to arrive at your hometown. Very fun. And so Google, my understanding is Google uses a cell tower and IP and Wi Fi data to track Santa. That's how they do it. But NORAD Noor heads a bit more serious.

Christine Malec:

Really!

JJ Hunt:

It's NORAD!

Christine Malec:

It's NORAD, come on.

JJ Hunt:

It's the North American Aerospace Defense Command, tracking Santa, no surprise, it's a little bit more official Come on, that's a no brainer. looking. So they use radar installations and infrared satellites to track Santas route. So they have an animated Santa and a sled team that you can watch. And in the same way that Waze uses that up ahead point of view that we talked about, you can lock in on Santa so that Santa and reindeer are always pointing up, and the world rotates and moves beneath them. Or you can unlock and you can turn Santa and his team in any direction and watch them travel through the night sky. The night is what one of the things that makes NORAD visually different than Google. Google looks like a little icon traveling on the Google Map in the daytime. Whereas with with NORAD it's got a darker palette, so it looks like Santa is It's really fun. And then so if you click to the to the map traveling at night, which I've always enjoyed. mode, so that it's a comparable experience to what I've just described with Google Maps, you get a little icon of Santa or a little icon of a Santa hat. That's, again, doing the same zipping up and zipping down timezones. The landmasses are from satellite images. So they're textured, you get full color land and greens and browns and grays, like we talked about earlier. And some of them the stop some of the towns on the map have little, little icons, I think it's a TV in the icon, and you can click on those. And you see a short animated and narrated video of Santa zipping past local landmarks in the naira. It's the same videos that have been up for 20 years or however long they've been doing it.

Christine Malec:

Ya, ya.

JJ Hunt:

And it's like "Santa has been visiting the North Pole..." and "Santa is now going past the Eiffel Tower. What will he.."

Christine Malec:

It's you, right? It's you.

JJ Hunt:

Oh I wish! Ha ha! Next to being the Movie Phone Guy being the NORAD Santa Tracker voice. Whew. That's a voice actors dream come true.

Christine Malec:

That's heady stuff.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, with NORAD it's not as smooth. It's not as well produced as Google. But for me anyway, that's kind of part of the charm.

Christine Malec:

Yeah.

JJ Hunt:

For me, it's easier to suspend disbelief and to buy into the tracker, because it looks and sounds official. So I'm like, I am right in and my kids who are teenagers are still very much like "Hey can we look up Santa!" And then we call relatives "Oh, he's coming your way, he's coming your way!"

Christine Malec:

Huck huck huck! We love making this podcast. If you love hearing it, perhaps you'll consider supporting its creation and development by becoming a patron. We've set up a Patreon page to help cover the costs of putting the show together. You can contribute as a listener or as a sponsor to help ensure that accessible and entertaining journalism continues to reach our community. Visit patreon.com/talk description to me, that's pa t ar e Oh n.com/talk description to me have feedback or suggestions of what you'd like to hear about here's how to get in touch with us. Our email address is talk description to me@gmail.com. Our Facebook page is called Talk description to me. Our website is talk description to me.com and you can follow us on Twitter at talk Description.

Map projections
Tracking packages
Tracking Uber
Marine tracking
Santa trackers