Helensville to Greymouth

This post explores familiarity, maps and geographies of names. It might not make much sense if you are unfamiliar with New Zealand places. You can play with a fullscreen map or scroll to the bottom of this post for an embedded version.

Last week I looked through some old Strange Maps posts and revisited a wonderful 2007 map, US States Renamed For Countries With Similar GDPs. As its title suggests, it depicts US state boundaries with the twist that state names are substituted for countries with similar gross domestic products at the time of production. In the 2007 global economy, California became France (#1 at $2.15 trillion), Australia replaced Ohio (#16 at $645 billion), Iran was roughly equivalent to Alabama (#36 at $195 billion) and Washington D.C. was substituted for New Zealand (#49 at $99 billion).

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In his 1995 book Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds David Toop devotes extended passages to examining Brian Eno’s thoughts and works. The following Eno anecdote has been firmly lodged in the back of my brain for more than a decade.

“There’s an experiment I did. Since I did it, I started to think it was quite a good exercise that I would recommend to other people. I had taken a DAT recorder to Hyde Park and near Bayswater Road I recorded a period of whatever sound was there: cars going by, dogs, people. I thought nothing much of it and I was sitting at home listening to it on my player. I suddenly had this idea. What about if I take a section of this—a 3½ minute section, the length of a single—and I tried to learn it? So that’s what I did. I put it in SoundTools and I made a fade-up, let it run for 3½ minutes and faded it out. I started listening to this thing over and over. Whenever I was there working, I would have this thing on. I printed it on a DAT twenty times or something, so it just kept running over and over. I tried to learn it, exactly as one would a piece of music: ‘Oh yeah, that car, accelerates the engine, the revs in the engine go up and then that dog barks, and then you hear that pigeon off to the side there.’ This was an extremely interesting exercise to do, first of all because I found that you can learn it. Something that is as completely arbitrary and disconnected as that, with sufficient listens, becomes highly connected. You can really imagine that this thing was constructed somehow: ‘Right, then he puts this bit there and that pattern’s just at the exact same moment as this happening. Brilliant!’ Since I’ve done that, I can listen to lots of things in quite a different way. It’s like putting oneself in the role of an art perceiver, just deciding, now I am playing that role.”


Mosgiel and Dunedin, Otago

I close my eyes and see a flock of birds. The vision lasts a second or perhaps less; I don’t know how many birds I saw. Were they a definite or an indefinite number? This problem involves the question of the existence of God. If God exists, the number is definite, because how many birds I saw is known to God. If God does not exist, the number is indefinite, because nobody was able to take count. In this case, I saw fewer than ten birds (let’s say) and more than one; but I did not see nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, or two birds. I saw a number between ten and one, but not nine, eight, seven, six, five, etc. That number, as a whole number, is inconceivable; ergo, God exists.

Argumentum Ornithologicum, Jorge Luis Borges

I spent years staring at maps. At my previous job, roughly half of any of given day was devoted to working with ink and pixel landscapes. I remember mapping skinks in Sinbad Gully, soils of the Wairau Valley, possum habitats in the Tararua Ranges, Māori freehold land suitability in the Wairarapa and hydrological networks in the Canterbury Plains. All those hours spent creating and poring over cartographic representations of New Zealand honed and deepened my understanding of this country’s physical landscapes and urban forms. They may even have changed the way I think.

(Some nights I dream in shaded relief.)

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This post is the background to an image-colour-photograph-gallery-thing I made. I encourage you to turn the lights out and view it in fullscreen. Read on for details.

Days and colours

“Tūhonohono means to bring together – to weave or join. Here, it is the joining of a daily moment in time as captured on my phone; and a (tangentially related) image from the past.

Virginia Gow.

Since the beginning of 2013, I’ve curiously followed Virginia Gow’s Tūhonohono project. I think it’s marvellous. Each day she photographs something she encounters in the world and presents it alongside a corresponding image from a heritage collection—usually a photograph from the Alexander Turnbull Library—and a few words. The pairing is often a literal; almost identical subjects, separated by time and space.

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Three years ago I wrote a small Python script as a bit of fun. The code combines Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with the Tao Te Ching using a Markov chain algorithm to generate pseudo-profound snippets of nonsense. These get tweeted to the world through the @WonderTao account.

Markov chains are kind of amazing. The underlying principle is straightforward, but it can be hard to wrap your head around at first. From Wikipedia:

Markov chain […] is a mathematical system that undergoes transitions from one state to another, between a finite or countable number of possible states. It is a random process usually characterized as memoryless: the next state depends only on the current state and not on the sequence of events that preceded it. This specific kind of ‘memorylessness’ is called the Markov property. Markov chains have many applications as statistical models of real-world processes.

The key to understanding how Markov chains work is the line, “the next state depends only on the current state and not on the sequence of events that preceded it.” The basic idea is that you pull in a whole bunch of sequence data, split it into a series of small components, examine the likelihood of each part preceding every other part and then store the results in a sort of frequency dictionary.

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So, here’s the thing you need to understand about constellations…

Every year the International Association of Astronomers assemble for their annual conference. On the final night, always timed to coincide with the new moon, there is a grand feast with much drinking and merriment. Shortly before 11pm, a hush gathers over the crowd and the youngest astronomer hands a pencil and an unlabelled map of the night sky to each of the gathered scholars.

The Astronomer Royal takes the stage and recites an ancient poem — words that I am not allowed to repeat here. He opens a time-worn wooden box and removes a pewter 20-sided dice. The Astronomer Royal holds the instrument of chance briefly above his head, so all the heavens can see it, before tossing the dice into the air. If it results in a natural 20, the ritual begins.

In complete silence each astronomer redraws the map of the heavens from memory. Most reproduce the existing constellations perfectly. Some make small mistakes. The occasional trickster will ignore all convention and reinvent the sky. As the clocks strike midnight, the youngest astronomer gathers the maps and delivers them to the Astronomer Royal. A single map is selected at random and immediately becomes the authoritative representation of the night sky.


Constellations of the Southern Cross and Centaur, Photographed with a fixed camera. (Progress, 01 May 1908). Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/2827656

Last year Ashleigh Young wrote a thoughtful piece about omission and the mundane. Her post closes with a set of contemplation prompts that Perec poses in ‘L’infra-ordinaire.’

“Describe your street. Describe another street. Compare.

Make an inventory of your pockets, of your bag. Ask yourself about the provenance, the use, what will become of each of the objects you take out.

Question your teaspoons.

What is there under your wallpaper?

[…] It matters little to me that these questions should be fragmentary, barely indicative of a method, at most of a project. It matters a lot to me that they should seem trivial and futile: that’s exactly what makes them just as essential, if not more so, as all the other questions by which we’ve tried in vain to lay hold on our truth.”

Perec’s suggestion to describe and compare two places sends me running through the streets of my youth. Sandringham Road is where the men in my family have motor vehicle accidents. Parata Street is a 1950s time warp stuffed into twin cul-de-sacs. Truro Road is haunted by cats. Newhaven Terrace hides a path so thick with trees that it feels like walking through a giant green caterpillar. Valley Road is an in-between space where suburbia collapses into a bush trail leading to a glowworm grotto. You can get lost in memories.

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Some days you think, “You know what I need? A Twitter account that reproduces the complete nucleotide sequence of a viral RNA-genome.” This was one such day. An occasional chunk of cryptic genetic code punctuating my social stream.

After a short exchange with David Winter I opted for Bacteriophage MS2 — the first genome to be completely sequenced. Over the next couple of weeks I will tweet the sequence’s 3569 nucleotides, 140 at a time, at @PhageMS2. Good times.

Bacteriophage MS2

Ms2capsid by Naranson (CC-BY-SA)

Once upon a time, on a blog that has since vanished from the web (but remains available through the good graces of the Internet Archive), I wrote a short poem called The Zen of Open Data. Occasionally people ask me what happened to these words, so I am reproducing them here for posterity.

The Zen of Open Data, by Chris McDowall

Open is better than closed.
Transparent is better than opaque.
Simple is better than complex.
Accessible is better than inaccessible.
Sharing is better than hoarding.
Linked is more useful than isolated.
Fine grained is preferable to aggregated.
(Although there are legitimate privacy and security limitations.)
Optimise for machine readability — they can translate for humans.
Barriers prevent worthwhile things from happening.
'Flawed, but out there' is a million times better than 'perfect, but unattainable'.
Opening data up to thousands of eyes makes the data better.
Iterate in response to demand.
There is no one true feed for all eternity — people need to maintain this stuff.


Many people inadvertently contributed to this text. One particularly strong influence was a panel discussion between Nat TorkingtonAdrian HolovatyToby Segaran and Fiona Romeo at Webstock, 2009. Licensed under CC-BY.

Regarding the origins of the poem, here is the introduction from the original post:

“This morning I was writing code in a programming language called Python. I hit a sticky problem and turned to an arcane feature of the language known as the “The Zen of Python” for guidance. There I read the words, “In the face of ambiguity, refuse the temptation to guess,” and I was enlightened.”

“Open data has been on my mind lately. Open data is a philosophy and practice advocating that data should be freely available to everyone, without restrictions. Following the experience I related above, I began to wonder what “The Zen of Open Data” might look like. I wrote something over morning tea that tries to boil down all the stuff I have heard and read on the topic over the past two years and posted it to the New Zealand Open Government Ninjas forum.”

Map of Wikipedia articles in Manukau, New Zealand  (June 2, 2013)

Last week, over a cup of coffee, I had a long talk with Mike Dickison about Wikipedia. Toward the end of our conversation we started wondering about how to map New Zealand Wikipedia articles and what such a map might reveal. We were especially interested in revealing hotspots and holes — what places are well-represented and which neighbourhoods are neglected?

There are several projects, such as Mapping Wikipedia, which map the distribution of Wikipedia articles. But sometimes you need to make your own version of something to get a feel for it. On Sunday morning I sat in the cafe at Te Papa and wrote a simple Leaflet + Flask app to fetch nearby Wikipedia articles from Geonames and plot them on a map.

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