Safe and Sound: a Carolinian Salamander!

The last few weeks I’ve devoted my time to a new geographic and cartographic project.

The project’s objective is to identify characteristics of “safe” districts for the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States. There are two sub-questions: where are these safe districts located (if they exist at all) and; what are their significant characteristics? In terms of parameters for the study. I shall only be using results from the 2010 Congressional election (for the 112th Congress, 2010-2012), though I’d prefer a longitudinal approach – digitizing the necessary data from the one election took some time. Within that election, I will be examining results for the House of Representatives, since this body (theoretically) rolls over every two years and the seats are proportional representations of population. My hope is that the results are more applicable to district characteristics than a similar study of the Senate, since that chamber’s seats are tied to perspectives and politics at a state-level rather than a more local level. To be explicit this is the previous Congress, which sat from 2010 to 2012.


Results for the 2010 election to the House of Representatives (via ME!)

The map above is one depiction of the House results from the 2010 election. It shows potentially “safe” districts (which I defined as over 70% of the available votes going to either the Republican or Democratic party) in the darkest colors, green for Republican, purple for Democratic. It also shows “strong” districts (defined as over 60% of the vote) in a lighter tone of the same colors. By the numbers: 51 districts were “safe” Democratic and 51 were “strong” Democratic. 56 were “safe” Republican and 94 were “strong” Republican. Before you get too excited, keep in mind that the House of Representatives is a proportional body based on population. Though the Republican safe districts are geographically larger, the districts more (or less) contain the same numbers of people. Thus giving rise to the common observation that urban areas vote Democratic and more rural locales (with their more diffuse across geographic space populations) vote Republican. That is common knowledge… right?

No? Well, a cursory map analysis elicits a few observations. First, the Democratic Party is hardly a “coastal” phenomenon and Republican strongholds are hardly limited to the American South and Midwest. While this isn’t news to anyone who 1) lives in these areas, 2) has a brain, 3) is a Geographer, one would be surprised by the number generalities made by U.S. media outlets, so-called pundits, and others. Second, some of us thought (myself included) that gerrymandering was dead. I’m happy (because it gives me something to write about) and sad (for the same reason) that its not.

Political Geography in North Carolina (via ME!)

Political Geography in North Carolina (via ME!)

Meet North Carolina’s 12th Congressional district or the Carolinian Salamander (Caroliander?). Over 60% of the voters in this Congressional district voted for the Democratic Party candidate in the 2010 election. Without a map this statistics does not mean much. We see that four strongly Republican districts on the border (two of which voted over 70% for Republican candidates) and the, rather odd, shape of the district itself is… telling.

Initially I was going to report some demographic characteristics of these districts but since I’ve only done a very limited, cursory analysis (commonly referred to as “eye-balling”) I shall spare you my musings. Suffice to say though, with the appropriate caveats, that there is likely to be some interaction between race/ethnicity and income with the House of Representative electoral outcomes (in North Carolina) in 2010. More explicitly, I think that these districts are shaped to promote these electoral outcomes. Of course, much more research needs to be done on the method and manner in which electoral districts are demarcated in North Carolina.

The above should serve to dispel some misconceptions about U.S. politics. First, there’s really no red-state/blue-state binary. Most states include areas considered strong or safe Democratic or Republican holds, with the notable exceptions of the states with only one representative (Vermont, Montana, and so on). Second, gerrymandering! Taken together, these observations give credence to the idea that the potential spatial concentration of safe districts, say the safe and sound Republican Congressional districts of North Carolina, or Texas, deserve closer scrutiny.

Book Review: No Dig, No Fly, No Go (Mark Monmonier)

Feeling under the weather (aren’t we always?) so I offer you a book review written in 2012 for an assigned reading:


Monmonier, Mark. No Dig, No Fly, No Go: How maps restrict and control. 2010. Chicago, U.S.: University of Chicago Press.

In No Dig, No Fly, No Go, Mark Monmonier builds on his earlier 1996 work, How to Lie with Maps, by providing an in-depth look at one aspect of cartography the realm of so-called “prohibitive cartography.” In the book, Monmonier critically examines maps from the perspective of how they restrict and control, but provides his analysis in a language that is accessible to the layperson (in this case the non-academic Geographer). While I find Monmonier’s book refreshing and occasionally insightful, I remain wanting.

At the most basic level, Mark Monmonier explores how maps influence human behavior. More specifically, he seeks to answer how maps restrict access, mobility, and the use of spaces and places. From this standpoint alone, Monmonier’s work should be required reading for cartographers and political geographers from the undergraduate level. If we (partially) define Geography as the study of human interaction with the environment than Monmonier’s book becomes immediately important, for its subject is how maps, or rather authorities, attempt to regulate humans’ interactions with their environment. Primarily, Monmonier’s sources include news articles, legal cases, and maps (naturally). The first two provide historical and contemporary context for the various aspects of prohibitive cartography. For the most part, these sources work well for his overall purpose, which is to weave a narrative of how maps influence, and influenced, our lives at various times and at a variety of scales.

Monmonier loosely organizes the book around the concepts of theme, scale, and time. Each chapter examines a different theme of “prohibitive cartography.” Monmonier, after an introduction as to why boundaries “matter,” begins with a historical look at how maps played a role in delineating plots of land in the United States. He then takes a smaller scale look at this same theme with a look at how international states maintain their territorial integrity through maps and how maps affect governments’ view of their integrity. The following chapter takes this point to the colonial period, examining how maps justified the creation of colonies or partitions during peace. Likewise, Monmonier than examines the affects maps had on delineating maritime boundaries and exclusive economic zones. Moving back to the intra-state scale, Monmonier first examines how boundaries are set at the local and provincial (state) levels in the United States. In “Divide and Govern,” Monmonier also introduces political gerrymandering, which then forms the basis of the next chapter. An interesting discussion in this chapter is Monmonier’s suggestion of improvements to U.S. congressional districting. Following this deeper look at how politicians can utilizes maps to influence voting outcomes, Monmonier then examines how map-makers can utilize maps to influence where we do business, through the processes of redlining and greenlining. The next two chapters follow the theme of economics at the local level through discussions of zoning and rezoning plans and how maps influence changes (or not) in the built landscape, whether by rezoning industrial areas as commercial or by banishing red light districts to the far corners of a county. The first of the last two chapters focuses on the title and offers observations on how maps impact these aspects, digging, flying, going, of human activity. The last chapter examines relatively new developments in technology and how it integrates with “prohibitive cartography.” As we can see from this cursory summary of Monmonier’s book, the impact that maps have had on spatial restrictions span time from colonialism to the 2000s, scale form the parcel to international level, and in a variety of subtle and overt ways. In essence, Monmonier seems to suggest that states and governments crush us on all sides with maps attempting to regulate our existence. Offered not as a value judgment but as an objective observation, Monmonier’s book provides a valuable discussion on the impacts that maps have had but there are limitations.

The first, and most significant limitation, is the book’s scope. The limitation is immediately apparent to a critical eye examining the book’s sub-title; Monmonier purports to show us “how maps restrict and control.” However, this isn’t the case. Maps do not restrict or control access, they influence human actions. In this context, maps attempt to restrict and control. This nuance is more than a semantic argument or request for clarification; it strikes at the heart of the book. I contend that maps do not restrict at all, how could they? Maps are on paper, on a screen, or on a disk, it is impossible for it to prohibit anything. Maps are only prohibitive if individuals and communities accept them as such. Monmonier takes this basic assumption as an underlying fact throughout his book. For the most part, his examples support his thesis that maps restrict and control; however, he may be guilty of either cherry-picking his data, at worst, or unknowingly misleading his readers. Perhaps a more apt sub-title would be “how Western maps restrict and control.” For it is in the “West,” a gross and undefined generalization admittedly, that communities almost ubiquitously accept the power of the map. Monmonier provides ample evidence of this, particularly for the United States, throughout his book. Most of the evidence relates to court cases settled, in part, through the use of the map. Notable examples include a boundary dispute stemming from hydrological changes in Kansas’s Peuker v. Canter (27-29) or Florida’s right-of-way case in Enos v. Casey Mountain, Inc. (24-25). At the international level, comprised of states following the nation-state concept derived in Westphalia, Monmonier again shows how maps (or geographic phenomena) played an integral role throughout history from the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas that split the world between Spain and Portugal to the competing claims on Antarctica in the second half of the 20th century. At the local level in the U.S. context and the international context, Monmonier’s assumptions seems to hold, but does it at the local level elsewhere?

I contend that it does not. To take an extreme example, I would cite the Durrand Line that splits the Pashtun linguistic nation between Afghanistan and Pakistan. While the British certainly attempted to police this border during the height of European imperialism, at best their activities were a nuisance. In the 2000s, we find that the line is all but nonexistent as various groups, including violent ones, routinely violate it. Monmonier acknowledges that newly independent states from European imperialists “could not unify dissimilar peoples lumped together by artificial boundaries” (58). However, I find that he does not go far enough. Not only do these states not unify dissimilar communities, they could not enforce the state’s view of its territoriality, i.e. that Pakistan ends at the Durrand line. For their part, the Pashtuns, who the British had split across the border, probably perceived the world in much the same way as they had prior to the split; the Durrand Line was merely a line on a piece of paper. Referring back to the title of the introductory chapter, the boundary doesn’t matter. In addition to this significant lapse in analysis, Monmonier would also benefit from additional technical information to contextualize his comments.

Monmonier’s view on GPS devices should include additional nuance from a technical aspect. As Monmonier is attempting to steer a middle course between providing a jargon-free work accessible to cartographic newcomers and professionals, he may have inadvertently cut some useful detail. For instance, the lay person (particularly homeowner) would want to know that the “highly precise handheld GPS” that Monmonier is referring to still has quite a bit of room for error (something between 10 and 15 feet). While that circle of error may be small enough for most applications, I would hesitate on relying on a GPS to “quickly determine whether a fencepost or rosebush is on [my] property or a neighbor’s” (22). Monmonier should also have considered additional details on non-technical items in order to balance the message of the book. One possibility is how cartography played a role in the decision taken by the military commander responsible for Hawaii to not to implement the order for the relocation of Japanese Americans located in the state to the mainland (as discussed in 174-175).

A final discussion point that I believe Monmonier missed was with the issue of “greenlining” found in chapter 8. While Monmonier provides an in-depth discussion at the beginning of the chapter on “redlining,” or the process of cartographically demarcating “dangerous” areas to preclude them from various services, he provides only one half of the available discussion on “greenlining.” While Monmonier acknowledges that this process involves “mapping out areas within which firms that create jobs receive tax breaks or outright grants” in areas that he describes as “a city’s green, A-list neighborhoods,” he doesn’t discuss some of the other implications of this practice (124-125). One worth discussing at length, is the implication that this practice concentrates additional financial resources in sections of a place that already enjoy substantial financial clout. It seems puzzling, and Monmonier doesn’t discuss this apparent contradiction, that governments are utilizing public resources to combat “unemployment, underemployment, or out-migration” in areas that don’t traditionally experience these phenomena (124). This contradiction might be the source of the lukewarm outcome where these programs result in neither success nor failure.

As I noted at the beginning of this review, we should consider Monmonier’s book an important part of the political geographic and cartographic literature. However, as this review has pointed out, there is at least one glaring omission, which is a discussion of how people decide, or choose to, follow a map’s suggestions. This omission notwithstanding, Monmonier’s examination of the role maps play in delineating ownership at a variety or scales and the overt and subtle messages transmitted by maps to suggest where to go and what to do are important discussion and research points. Any work that causes us to pause and reexamine what we take for granted at a most basic level, in Mark Monmonier’s case the veracity and objectivity of a map, will always have a timeless quality to them.

In conclusion, Mark Monmonier’s exploration of how maps influence human behavior fills a gap in cartographic and political geographic literature. Drawing on historical and contemporary events and court cases, Monmonier discusses the various ways in which maps can restrict our movement, our ownership, and how they impact our worldview at a variety of scales. Despite the wide scope of the book it is incomplete. In the future, I hope to read Monmonier’s thoughts on how people prescribe importance and validity to maps and how maps can be simultaneously important or not in delineating the same area.

Geography as (Nationalist) Art

This weekend I had the pleasure of taking some time to visit the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (its mission is to be the leading voice for contemporary art and culture). Of course, cartography offers plenty of avenues for artistry within the field of Geography. Most recently, Map Monkey at random notes published a post entitled “Maps as Art, Art as Maps.” At Hirshhorn I accidentally stumbled (almost literally) onto geographic art. I had completely forgotten (or was it buried deep in my subconscious map?) that Ai Weiwei’s exhibition is still there. For those not in the known, Ai Weiwei is an artist formerly of the People’s Republic of China. I say “formerly” because sometime last year (or the year before?) he got in trouble with the PRC’s government, escaped house arrest, hid in the United States embassy, and then was brought to the U.S. (presumably as an aslyee). The exhibit is well worth the price of admission (there isn’t any) and all you have to do is get yourself there (easier for my D.C. readers). I did take some photographs of relevant discussion points for this blog post, and yes, my flash was off!

Generally, the exhibit focused around one of the more tired modern artist’s theme of sticking it to the State. There are a couple of amusing photos (which I didn’t take a picture of) showing Ai Weiwei (presumably) giving the bird/flipping off/sticking up his middle finger to the Summer Palace (at Tian’anmen Square) and the U.S. White House. Whether senior Chinese Communists actually live in that palace is another story, but I guess not since there’s a museum attached to it. I suppose there’s a definite safety consideration with finding the Chinese Communist equivalent to the White House and giving it the finger but still its a bit odd.

By way of introducing (what I’m going to call) Ai Weiwei’s nationalist geography, I offer you this quote from the exhibit: “I make the useful become not useful; these objects combine the practical with change and illusion. They open a perspective so that we can have an understanding of the material or an understanding of space. It is a basis for dealing with perception, and when you think about how people use an object, you’re also using so-called knowledge in the sense that “useful” has a meaning. The meaning is the use. And that plays a great role in human understanding and culture.” Here I’m mostly focused on the “understanding of space” as Ai Weiwei is showing us in his art, his perception in other words.

The first picture below introduces the medium. In “Kippe,” “Tieli wood (iron wood) from dismantled temples of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and iron parallel bars).” In this we see Ai use dismantled temples as art, re-purposing Qing Dynasty spaces for a new artistic space. Using Tieli wood (from the Qing dynasty, the last great dynasty in China) is an important motif.

Kippe, 2006 (via Hirshhorn)

Kippe, 2006. (me, via Hirshhorn)

The second picture below is a “Map of China,” its rather tall and I had to stand on my tippity-toes to take this picture (hence why its at an angle). Its constructed from tieli wood. “The work can be interpreted in a variety of ways. As a map of China, it can be understood as symbolizing the political unity of a country made up of many different cultural and historical factors. The monumental scale of the work suggests the long history of the Chinese nation.” Oh boy. First, there’s the island of Taiwan, off the east coast. Of course, that is where the Republic of China is located and which the People’s Republic continues to claim is simply a wayward province. Also present are the Tibetan Autonomous Region and Uighur Autonomous Region (both in the west). I’m not sure I believe “political unity,” under who’s policies? A poor choice of words to be sure, maybe social unity? But even that’s saying quite a bit, I’m not sure if the Uighurs and Tibetans feel socially unified. And then the caption let’s us know: THIS IS CHINA. The nation-state myth continues, and whoever wrote the placard bought it hook, line, and sinker.

Map of China, 2008. (via Hirshhorn)

Map of China, 2008. (me, via Hirshhorn)

The next picture is called “China Log,” again composed of tieli wood, this is the one that a gawking museum-goer (like myself) has the potential for falling over. Here again, Ai Weiwei shows us his perception of what constitutes China’s “space.” The island of Taiwan, Tibet, Uighurstan are all included. Its a bit harder to tell Ai’s potential stance on the disputed areas with India however (see next map). Based on the log, it looks like Ai doesn’t see believe in China’s claims over Arunachal Pradesh and administration over the Siachen glacier.

China Log, 2005 (me, via Hirshhorn)

China Log, 2005. (me, via Hirshhorn)

India, China Disputed Borders (via Asian Defense)

The last picture is political, but only from a domestic (that is internal China) standpoint. In “Straight” Ai used “rebar recovered from the rubble of collapsed schoolhouses in Sichuan following the 2008 earthquake. The work serves as a reminder of the repercussions of the earthquake and expresses the artist’s concern over society’s ability to start afresh ‘almost as if nothing had happened.’ The orderly arrangement of rebar evokes a Minimalist artistic aesthetic, but the large divide in the piece is reminiscent of both a ground fissure and of a gulf between values. It is a massive, physical work, designed to remind audiences of the individuals in danger of being forgotten.” This was 38 tons of steel, laid out on the floor and this picture hardly does it justice. However, we can clearly see the fault in the ground, symbolizing the earthquake. The 2008 Sichuan disaster was a common theme at the exhibit and there was a lot more art that dealt with that tragedy. This is by far my favorite piece, it memorializes the sad tragedy by using pieces from the schools and sits in your mind as a gigantic map of an earthquake and the destruction it wrought. I wonder if this was one of the piece’s that got Ai in trouble with the government? Did the regime interpret it as critical of the response?

Straight, 2008-2012. (me, via Hirshhorn)

Straight, 2008-2012. (me, via Hirshhorn)

Today we critically examined four pieces of geographic art from Ai Weiwei. While there’s nothing wrong nationalism within art, understanding the artist’s potential perspective and biases are always worthwhile. To me, Ai Weiwei may take issue with the government in mainland China and disagree on certain points in its foreign policy, but the vision of a unified China, including Tibet, Uighurstan, and Taiwan, is plain to see.

Happy Valentine’s Day, from the District of Columbia

Map projections are fascinating areas of geographic study, we’re all intimately familiar with the Mercator projection, all of us having seen it for years in schools around the world. The primary problem is that the Mercator map was not designed for use as a political or physical map on the world. It was designed for navigation. Map projections are coerced compromise, the coercion comes when cartographers and geographers attempt to display the three dimensional form of our planet onto a two dimensional surface (like a computer screen or piece of paper). The compromise is in one of several areas: area, shape, direction, bearing, distance, and scale. It is impossible to preserve each of these components, although very large scale maps (meaning maps of very small areas) come the closest to reality. Maps of the entire world, on the other hand, have significant compromises. In Mercator’s map, direction and bearing is maximized so you could pick a heading in your boat from New York, follow it on Mercator’s map, and know exactly where in Europe you would land. As a political map, its horrible. Area, shape, and scale are horribly distorted. Greenland looks big enough to be its own continent, as a kid I think I even asked my teacher why Australia was one but Greenland wasn’t.

Other maps make compromises between all of map’s components, distorting each one. While not totally accurate in any one area, they aren’t completely inaccurate either.

While the Bonne projection could have been made for Valentine’s Day, it was probably not meant to depict the entire world. The wikipedia page for Rigobert Bonne (1727-1795) notes that he worked as Royal Hydrographer in France. His occupation suggests that the projection was meant for depictions of coastal areas, indeed the projection itself preserves scale along latitude (which are concentric circles). In addition, shape is not distorted along the central meridian and the standard latitude, that is the north-south and east-west line on which the projection rests. These properties would make the projection effective for depicting coastlines where distance and shape are important to map accuracy. Bonne was not the original developer of this projection, as the wikipedia article explains.

the Sylvano, Honter, de I'Isle, Coronelli, Bonne, Bonne projection

the Sylvano, Honter, de I’Isle, Coronelli, Bonne, Bonne projection

I would have suggested that Sylvano’s map from 1511 was made in the (modern) spirit of Valentine’s Day, but I don’t think cannibalism is a part of the modern Valentine tradition. Don’t believe me? Go take a look, just above the equator in what would be “the New World.”