Below is a picture of of a map that hangs in my office; it shows an area in the Balkans and was created around 1790. I bought it in a dusty little bookstore in Juneau Alaska, but that's another story. It's inscribed in French, Polish, and Turkish (written pre-reform in Arabic script). Like many maps it's very beautiful, but it's more than a little weird, and carries an important lesson.

1790 map of the Balkans with too much legend

The weird thing is that there's not much map on the map, almost all of the area is filled with the legend; it seems like a dog is being wagged by a tail here. Is it merely that the cartographers were incompetent, or uncertain of their ability? Unlikely; a close look at the map part of the map reveals the excellence in lithography and typography that one comes to expect in old maps.

Detail: 1790 map of the Balkans with too much legend

Here's the problem: they're suffering for their lack of standardization: the legend has to give the scale of differences in 14 separate units, albeit all correlated relative to a degree of latitude with a precision of one part in 2,000.

Big legend on 1790 map of the Balkans

Even the names of the lands where the units of distance come from are more than a little exotic: Samogitia, Curland, Semigalia, Pokucia, Podolia, Volynia, Tartary, and Valakia, hardly household names today.

Looking at this, I'm reminded of two things. First, of the internals of many pieces of software I've written over the years, where a high proportion of the work, and of the customer's dollars, went into plumbing and data conversion and interfacing and a low proportion into the business logic they thought they were paying for. This is the kind of problem that XML helps with; buys you more map on your map.

Second, I'm reminded of the information density you can achieve with maps. Edward Tufte has a lot to say on this, but this map illustrates it really well. The maybe 30% of the map's real-estate that is primarily-graphical contains much more information than the 70% that is primarily-textual. And of course the 30% is still laden with text.

Obviously, this is the whole premise behind our work at Antarctica, and I like this map because it allows me to expound on both my main technical passions simultaneously.

Then there's that wonderful R.E.M. song, Maps and Legends.

author · Dad · software · colophon · rights

March 10, 2003
· Technology (85 fragments)
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