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A good day begins with the NYTimes, NPR, Arts & Letters Daily, Sacred Space & good coffee; it ends with a Grand Marnier. A brilliant day would be spent in London, New York or San Francisco -- although Sydney would be right up there. Unwinding in Carmel or Antibbes. Daytime spent in library (the Morgan, LOC or Widener) or museum (the Frick, the Louvre, British) with a healthy walk (around Lake Annecey); evening -- theatre (West End), or music (Carnegie Hall). A nice last meal: Perhaps the French Laundry or Fredy Giardet or Quennelles de Brochet from Taillevent, Cassoulet from Cafe des Artistes, Peking Duck from le Tsé-Fung, Lobster Savannah from Locke-Ober, Sacher Torte from Demel and Café Brulot from Antoine. Sazerac as an apéritif, Le Môntrachet in the beginning, Stag's Leap Cabernet in the middle, Veuve Cliqûot to conclude. Desert Island: Imac, Ipod, (I know, generator and dish necessary) Johnnie Walker Blue Label, wife & Adler's Great Books.

30.9.14

Central Park

Photos from Architecture & Design's post - Architecture & Design

Hong Kong


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Thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators gathered in Hong Kong on Monday to continue calls for free and open elections for the city's chief executive in 2017. CreditChris Mcgrath/Getty Images
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Hong Kong belongs to China. But the grass-roots political movements responsible for the protests underway in the heart of the city’s financial district would never have taken root in any other Chinese city.
Freedom of speech, assembly and religion and a free press are all enshrined in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, drafted to govern the city of 7.2 million upon its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 after more than 150 years of British rule. Hong Kong residents are guaranteed those rights until 2047, and a legal system inherited from the British helps keep it intact.
It is a system called “one country, two systems” that the leaders in Beijing hope — or hoped — would someday also be applied to Taiwan to encourage its political reunion with the motherland. Taiwan has governed itself since 1949.
Lately, however, Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping, have been reminding Hong Kong that the first clause, “One country,” is in Beijing’s eyes more important than the second. Hong Kong is not an independent country. It doesn’t have ambassadors, and the People’s Liberation Army garrisons troops in the city, headquartered in a former British military building. Any changes to the Basic Law have to be ratified by the country’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, which is controlled by the Communist Party.
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Changes Proposed by China

In 2007, China promised that Hong Kong residents could vote for the chief executive in the 2017 election. On Aug. 31, China’s legislature proposed changes to the electoral process, prompting the recent protests.
Current Process
Beijing’s Proposal for 2017 Election
The chief executive, Hong Kong’s leader, is elected to a five-year term with a simple majority vote by an election committee of 1,200 people.
Each candidate must be endorsed by more than half of the members of the election committee, which will appoint up to three candidates. People can then cast their vote for the chief executive.
ELECTION COMMITTEE
CHIEF EXECUTIVE
ELECTION COMMITTEE
UP TO THREE CANDIDATES
POPULAR VOTE
It is the wording of the Basic Law, and the legislature’s interpretation of what it means, that set off the dramatic street protests in Hong Kong last week. Article 45 of the law, which was ratified in 1990, states that Hong Kong’s top leader, the chief executive, should eventually be chosen “by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.” The government in Beijing has to approve any decision made by Hong Kong voters, according to the Basic Law.
British colonial governors were picked by London, and, since the handover 17 years ago, Hong Kong’s chief executives have been chosen by a small group dominated by Beijing loyalists. The current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, was elected in 2012 with 689 votes from an election committee of fewer than 1,200 people. In 2007, the People’s Congress ruled that in 2017, the chief executive could be chosen by universal suffrage — one person, one vote.
The hitch: the “broadly representative nominating committee.” On Aug. 31, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee ruled that to appear on the ballot, candidates had to get more than half the votes of the nominating committee, which would be identical to the election committee that had picked previous chief executives. To Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists, this was unacceptable because it guaranteed that only candidates approved by Beijing would be nominated. One of the pro-democracy group’s leaders, Benny Tai, a professor at Hong Kong University, likens it to the way Iran picks its president.
For more than a year, an eclectic group of pro-democracy activists, encompassing university professors, Christian evangelicals, students and a set of lawmakers in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, had warned Beijing that if it set rules for the elections that did not comply with internationally accepted norms for free and fair elections, they would engage in nonviolent protests in the Central district of Hong Kong, the heart of Asia’s most important financial center. They drew on civil disobedience movements of the past,citing Henry David Thoreau and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Beijing didn’t blink. Now, the movement, called Occupy Central With Love and Peace, in coordination with student groups, is carrying out that threat.

New Stuff

A Dual Review of What’s New, Starring Malcolm Gladwell and Sarah Silverman

Photo
CreditGladwell: Caro/Alamy. Silverman: Jen Lowery/Splash News/Corbis
Malcolm Gladwell, longtime New Yorker scribe, counterintuitive theorist and entertaining public speaker whose best seller ‘‘David and Goliath’’ challenges the way we think about adversity and success, takes on Sarah Silverman, controversial comedian, actress and equal-opportunity offender who once sang “You’re Going to Die Soon” to a group of senior citizens. An album of her HBO comedy special, “We Are Miracles,” is out now.
The lazy susan has been unjustly forgotten. The idea that somebody would bring it back with a splash of style is fantastic. I’m lovin’ it.
LAZY SUSAN
Kelly Behun’s hypnotic rotating tray
($525, suiteny.com).
I live a very bachelor kind of life — I make toast and drink water out of coffee mugs. It would never occur to me to have a lazy susan. How lazy do you have to be not to just reach over and grab the salt?
This doesn’t even look like an egg — it looks like a cylindrical piece of cheap plastic. I can’t imagine what door would be enhanced by this little egglike protuberance abutting it.
MAISON MARTIN MARGIELA EGG

A silicone doorstop ($90 for
a set of 2, 212-989-7612).
It looks exactly like an egg, but it has this really heavy weight, which feels good. I don’t think I’d go to the store and be like, I need this. It’s not my thing.
I’m not sure about the problem it’s trying to solve. I already get aromas at the end of my fork. Until I’m convicted of some serious offense and end up in prison, it’s not going to be very useful.
SCENTED CUTLERY

The Aromafork, with 21 liquid smells
from wasabi to lychee ($59,
molecule-r.com).
Why do you need a smell with your food? Maybe I’m not sophisticated, but it screams “rich white people who need new things to buy.”
Tell me again why I want my ring to remind me about texts? I have a phone that does that. This is the technological version of iatrogenesis — it’s causing the problem, not resolving it.
SMART RING

Ringly, which vibrates and lights
up to notify you of texts and event
reminders (from $195, ringly.com).
Maybe I’ll eventually be like, I can’t believe I ever lived without this ring. Until then, I would rather carry my phone than be wearing something this flashy.
I wouldn’t eat a dog, but crickets? It turns a guilty pleasure into an even guiltier pleasure, with a little insecticide attached. Any time I can get fat and destroy nature in one go is kind of a win-win.
BUG TREAT

Cookies made from high-protein
cricket flour ($10, bittyfoods.com).
I knew I was going to smoke pot last night. I said, I’ll come back and I’ll eat these cookies. Thank God I read the bag and didn’t just tear into it — I’m just not a carnivore.

Copy

Saving Paris's Oldest Bookstore

Can a uniquely French dedication to culture triumph over Amazon and foreign landlords?
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Victoria Baena
PARIS—Nestled between cafés and tour shops on the busy Rue Saint-Honoré, the Librairie Delamain, the oldest bookstore in Paris, strikes an inconspicuous pose. Outside, tourists jostle their way through the stands and shelves on their way from the Louvre to the Comédie Française across the street, rarely pausing to glance under the gray-and-white awning.
The tempo inside the bookstore is slower, as patrons—almost all French—vie for browsing space among the cramped shelves. The president of the Constitutional Council, Jean-Louis Debré, is a regular visitor; so is Comédie-Française actor Denis Podalydès. Over the years, Michel Foucault, Colette, and Jean Cocteau have all passed through its doors.
But Librairie Delamain may now be coming to a close. This month, the Librairie Delamain’s lease is up for renewal by the Qatari company Constellation Hotel Holdings, which owns the block-wide property that also houses the soon-to-be-renovated Hôtel du Louvre. The company plans to double the bookstore's rent to 100,000 euros per year—nearly a tenth of their annual revenue. With already slim margins, the shop would be forced to shut down or abandon the storefront where it has been since 1906 (the business itself dates to 1700).
This tale is a familiar one to bibliophiles around the world, as the frail arsenals of independent bookstores surrender to the triple threat of Amazon, e-books, and competition from other media. Here in France, though, the story diverges from the script. Barely had the threat to Delamain been announced when author and journalist Angelo Rinaldi pledged to do all he could to prevent the bookstore’s closing. “It’s always when grandmother is sick that you realize how much you loved her,” he told Le Figaro last week. Rinaldi plans to spread the word among his colleagues at the Académie Française when it reconvenes on September 25.
Rinaldi was joined by the Minister of Culture herself, Fleur Pellerin, who visited the bookstore in person to assure the staff of her full support. The president of the Centre National du Livre, Vincent Monadé, demanded a meeting with Constellation Hotel Holdings. Several days later, the Hôtel du Louvre, feeling the pressure, released a statement saying that the Qatari holding company would take into consideration “the specific activity of its renter as well as the many years in which it has occupied the site.”
“I hope, now, that this is going to be translated into action,” said Monadé to LeFigaro.
It's difficult to imagine the shuttering of a bookstore causing a similar outcry anywhere else—not to mention direct government involvement in the matter of a private lease. This has something to do with what the French call l’exception culturelle. It doesn't just mean cultural exceptionalism; the phrase refers more precisely to the notion that cultural goods should not be subject to the whims of the free market—and should be protected from the homogenizing onslaught of global, and in particular American, cultural imperialism.
In the U.S., such a policy would smack of protectionism. The French prefer to justify it in terms of maintaining “cultural diversity.” L'exception culturelle is the source of production quotas for radio programs made in France. It’s the reason the initial arrival of Netflix executives in France was met with a letter from producers bemoaning the “implosion of our cultural model.” And in a more general sense, it is part of a conviction in France—albeit one increasingly debated—that cultural heritage is a good with its own internal logic and value system, one that the government has the duty not only to protect but to actively promote. France even entombs its most celebrated literary and cultural figures, among other “great men” (and now women), in the Panthéon in Paris.
In the publishing sphere, l'exception culturelle morphs from a committed ideal into concrete policy. It has allowed the French to mount a challenge to the digital revolution in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S.
As an independent bookstore, the Librairie Delamain already receives a partial merchandising subsidy—5,000 euros in 2013—from the Centre National du Livre. In 2013, the Ministry of Culture announced a further injection of 5 million euros into the independent bookstore industry, as well as the creation of a new bureaucratic position (the stereotypical solution to all French problems)—the “book arbitrator”—who could, in cases like this one, intervene in legal disputes without forcing the small businesses to involve themselves in expensive litigation. Booksellers like Delamain are also aided by the loi Langa 1981 law named after a former minister of culture, which limits discounts on books to 5 percent of their cover price. Earlier this summer, a so-called “anti-Amazon” amendment extended this limit to online booksellers and prohibits them from offering free shipping on reduced-price books.
In fact, France is far from the only country to require a fixed book price. Germany, Norway, Japan, Mexico, and South Korea all do as well. The U.K. used to require fixed book prices, but no longer does. Today, one can easily see the result: While independent booksellers make up 45 percent of the market in France, they are only 4 percent of the total in the U.K. In 2013, 23 percent of all trade books purchased in the U.S. were e-books (it's 25 percent in the U.K.) – in France the number was a fraction of that, at 3 percent.
Wandering through Paris, one can find large chain booksellers—FNAC and Gibert Joseph, for example—but a defining characteristic of the city continues to be its tiny independent shops. Up to dozens can be found in a single neighborhood, specializing in everything from Portuguese and Brazilian literature to rare books to the contemporary rentrée littéraire—an autumn tradition when the French publishing industry releases a batch of new books.
Meanwhile, the combination of sky-high rents and online competition have pushed independent bookstores out of their spaces. A gloomy headline in The New York Times this spring diagnosed Manhattan as a “Literary City, Bookstore Desert.” A similar piece in The Guardian reported that 500 British independent bookstores have closed since 2005.
Cultural exception aside, France is not entirely exempt from such shifts itself. Even in Delamain’s neighborhood, the Librairie del Duca recently shut down, while the Librairie le Divan relocated to the more affordable 15th arrondissement.
In fact, the Delamain’s threat may have less to do with the digital publishing landscape than with foreign competition of an entirely different sort. Average prices for Parisian apartments have skyrocketed in the last 15 years. A housing shortage that the government has called a “major crisis” can be attributed, in many cases, to foreign investment in Parisian properties—often by owners who never end up moving in.
The luxury market has been particularly impacted by foreign ownership, with owners from the U.S., Russia, and the Middle East finding Parisian property especially appealing.  In some ways the trend is an echo of Japanese companies'flooding of the U.S. real estate market in the 1980s; in this case, Qatari companies entered when nations were crippled by austerity and in many cases eager for an influx of foreign capital. Constellation Hotel Holdings itself, currently in negotiations with the Librairie Delamain, has been quietly buying up luxury properties from Nice to Cannes for years—no doubt exacerbating the sentiment that there are too many foreigners in France.
Of course, Paris is far from the only European city to witness such a trend. Last year, a piece in Vanity Fair about London's One Hyde Park, the most expensive residential building in the world, revealed that a majority of its apartments sit empty, owned by absentee billionaires like Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani of Qatar. Constellation Hotel Holdings itself made the news last year for investing 400 million pounds in another London hotel; it makes billion-dollar Qatari investment deals buying up European real estate.
The knowledge that a historic Parisian bookstore may now be subject to the whims of a Middle Eastern mega-company has been incorporated into the French media's narrative about Delamain. It is already commonplace to complain that Paris has become no more than a museum, an empty shell from which the locals have fled, to be picked over by foreigners and students. And the line between national pride and hostility to foreigners has always been thin in France, where the universalism of liberté, égalité, fraternité coexists uneasily with a racially-based understanding of what it means to be French. A touch of xenophobia has tinged the irony of some commentary, suggesting that Middle Eastern wealth is oblivious to broader cultural concerns. “If the Qataris hadn’t understood that this is an important place, in terms of its physical site as well as its patrons, now they should,” said one bookseller following a week of buzz in the French media. “But we’re talking about Qataris, after all; these are people who have time and money for themselves.” Monadé of Centre National du Livre noted that he hoped the Qataris, “mindful of their investments in terms of their image,” will not let the bookstore close.
Given the peculiarities of the French cultural system, it’s quite likely that the bookstore will in fact be saved. Other threats are not so quick to dissolve. On the same block of Rue Saint-Honoré, the revolving doors of the five-star Hôtel du Louvre welcome one set of patrons; the small streetside entrance of the Librairie Delamain beckons to another. The little bookshop and the international conglomerate are now intimately intertwined.

History of Philosophy

Bertrand Russell wrote a defining history of philosophy. © Topham/Topham Picturepoint/Press Association Images
Bertrand Russell wrote a defining history of philosophy. © Topham/Topham Picturepoint/Press Association Images
If you study philosophy at a British or American university, your education in the history of the subject will likely be modest. Most universities teach Plato and Aristotle, skip about two millennia to Descartes, zip through the highlights of Empiricism and Rationalism to Kant, and then drop things again until the 20th Century, where Frege and Russell arise from the mists of the previous centuries’ Idealism and call for a new kind of philosophy rooted in formal logic, science, and “common sense.” In most of your courses, you will probably be able to do well without reading a single paper written before the 20th century.
This is peculiar because, unlike science, philosophy is not a discipline in which new theories bury the old ones. Philosophers can resurface long after we think we’ve disposed of them. This tendency of old ideas to rise from the dead has led to some of the most interesting work in contemporary philosophy. The revival of virtue ethics owes much to figures such as Philippa Foot, whose re-evaluation of Plato, Aristotle and Nietzsche, helped her form a theory of normative ethics that offered an alternative to the two dominant schools, Kantian ethics and consequentialism. In epistemology, the celebrated American philosopher, Wilfrid Sellars, was deeply influenced by his close reading of Kant and Hegel. (Sellars also famously stated “philosophy without the history of philosophy is, if not blind, at least dumb.”) David Lewis’s reading of St Anselm and Leibniz led him to thinking about so-called “possible worlds;” now one can’t sit in a metaphysics seminar without talking about them.
Scholarship aimed at increasing our awareness of the history of philosophy is, in short, a good thing. That was my optimistic viewpoint as I began reading Peter Adamson’s Classical Philosophya history of philosophy without any gaps (OUP, £20), the first instalment of a series of books aimed at producing a more comprehensive history of philosophy. A professor at King’s College London, specialising in ancient and Arabic philosophy, Adamson laments the spotty education most students receive in the history of philosophy: “My goal in this series of books, then, is to tell the whole history of philosophy in an entertaining but not overly-simplified way,” he writes.
From these laudable beginnings, things soon start to go downhill. This book began life as a podcast, which might explain the presence of sentences like “Some listeners might be suspicious of the points I’ve been making this chapter.” It might also explain the constant repetitions, which are presumably aimed at those who missed a crucial detail: “I have already mentioned,” “As we discussed already,” “As I mentioned earlier.” There are also regular announcements of what’s to come: “Parmenides, as we’ll see, thought that unity is all there is,” and then one page later “He thinks this, as we’ll see’’ and, exactly one paragraph later, “as we’ll see” Plato also has something to say about matters.
Read more from our online philosophy section:
The puns are also a problem. Once Adamson has spotted a pun in the distance, he will hunt it down and pry it from whatever linguistic comforts it may have once enjoyed. At one point, he offers a caveat: “If you’ll pardon the pun. (If you won’t pardon the pun, this book may not be for you).” Such warnings are similar to a nun cautioning that she is going to strike you with a ruler; it only makes the pain worse. We can never prepare ourselves for “like a giraffe, Parmenides seems to be sticking his neck out too far.”
Painful prose, though rarely this wantonly sadistic, is something we are accustomed to suffer in philosophy. The better the philosopher, the greater allowance we give them to torture the language. The problem for Adamson’s book is that the quality of the philosophy does not excuse the deficiencies of the prose. If a chapter of a book like this is less comprehensive and less interesting than its corresponding Wikipedia article, then it is time to worry.
The chapter on Plato’s Theaetetus, Adamson’s personal favourite, comes perilously close to crumbling under the Wikipedia test. The Theaetetus is a somber, beautiful dialogue which contains some of Plato’s most striking images and metaphors. In the dialogue, Socrates engages a young man in pursuit of a definition of knowledge. Three definitions are offered, and rejected: knowledge as perception, knowledge as true belief/judgement, and knowledge as true belief/judgement plus logos (which means something like an account for why the true belief is true). Adamson has the upper hand over Wikipedia in covering Plato’s wax-tablet analogy and its relation to the topic of false belief, but Wikipedia goes into more detail about the caged-bird metaphor of mind (the human mind as a cage and birds as its contents) and outlines the distinction Socrates draws between having and possessing. Adamson looks as if he may best Wikipedia on one of Plato’s most enduring arguments—the argument that to say “All truths are relative” is a contradiction or self-defeating—but decides that “before we get any dizzier” we should leave the topic behind. Wikipedia maintains the stamina to devote six paragraphs to the most difficult passages of the dialogue: the transition from the discussion of a jury which, under the influence of sophistry, arrives at a true belief without having reasoned their own way to it, to Theaetetus’s revised proposal of knowledge as true belief plus logos. This is the moment for a philosopher to show his worth in comparison to the Wikipedia hive-mind. Adamson devotes one paragraph to the issue, and a sad little footnote announces “I will here pass over the final, difficult section of the dialogue…”
A more complete account of the history of philosophy is a noble goal. But it also puts more pressure on Adamson to explain his omissions. Hippocrates finds a place in Classical Philosophy because “medicine and philosophy in the Greek world went hand-in-hand.” Herodotus and Thucydides, who are widely regarded as the forefathers of the philosophy of history, war and politics, are left out. These omissions are to be expected in traditional histories that depend on brevity. But when the point of your book is a history without gaps, it is fatal to include some figures peripherally associated with philosophy and exclude others without explanation.
It’s instructive to compare Classical Philosophy, with all its failings, to a book that owns up to its gaps, such as Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. Haughty, narrow-minded, and ideological to a fault, the book is a masterpiece. Russell’s disdain for armchair philosophy and his fondness of empiricism made him blind to many of Plato’s deepest insights, a poor interpreter of Kant, and abusive towards Hegel. But it’s impossible not to marvel at his knowledge, wit and intelligence. The book begins like this: “Many histories of philosophy exist, and it has not been my purpose merely to add one to their number.” Russell never professes to write a complete history of philosophy (though he does an admirable job recounting Roman and medieval philosophy). What he does is something far better; he interprets the canon of philosophy in a way that is coherent, articulate and highly personal. His treatment of theTheaetetus contains an analysis of existential propositions and how they are related to the entities we are committed to saying are ultimately part of reality (this certainly passes the Wikipedia test). For the Cynics and Sceptics of ancient Greece and Rome—with whom he has little affinity—Russell offers his sympathy for their despair at living in a society where philosophy is seen as useless in politics and culture, a sentiment more familiar to us than to Russell. “They still think, because they cannot help thinking,” writes Russell, “but they scarcely hope that their thought will bear fruit in the world of affairs.”
It is Russell’s ability to reach back through the ages and treat his predecessors as peers—to resurrect the complexity and nuance of their arguments and evaluate them rigorously—that makes his history enduring. It is a quality that makes Bernard Williams’ Descartes remain one of the most insightful books on that philosopher. In fact, all of the best work in the history of philosophy shares the virtue of treating historical texts as interesting only to the extent that they are philosophically compelling: Stuart Hampshire’s Spinoza, PF Strawson’s Bounds of Sense, the scholarship of Anthony Kenny, Myles Burnyeat, Gregory Vlastos, to name a few.
Histories of ideas requires an uneasy balancing of competing obligations; between insight and accuracy, between being charitable and being critical, between breadth of scope and depth of vision. It is a difficult form to master. As Adamson tells us, “no one said this history-of-philosophy business was going to be busy.”

29.9.14

Maps


My 5 Favorite Maps: Bill Rankin

The first installment of a new series in conversation with mapmakers on the works that most inspire them.
In the great data deluge that has sent publications from the old vanguard to the digital fringe, scrambling to bolster their mapmaking capabilities and beef up their data-visualization departments, Bill Rankin has one foot in each competing camp. His maps reflect a staid academic tradition of in-depth research and rigorous analysis, but deliver the viral pop that the web has come to expect from its maps.
Indeed, Rankin leads a bit of a double life: By day, he's a historian and professor in the History of Science Department at Yale University. By night, he's the guiding force behind the addictive and sprawling site Radicalcartography.
"The Midwest," Bill Rankin (2013)
Rankin’s above map of the Midwest is a perfect example.  Featured in the forthcoming collection Best American Infographics, the map is clever and playful while touching on fascinating issues of authority and geographic familiarity. It takes the abstract (and oft-debated) region of “the Midwest” and attempts to crowdsource its boundaries. In the map, a flowing, plastic border becomes articulated in layers transparencies, letting you see a hundred different opinions on exactly where “the Midwest” is. Rankin created the map by “using Google to find a hundred different maps of the Midwest (with a preference for those with some official organizational status), [and simply overlaying] them all.” Interestingly, he found that no area was included on every single map. In Rankin’s words, this is “a map of the Midwest as we might imagine it to be; […the] sum of all possible Midwests.”
This map is a visual representation of the kinds of debates that happen in barrooms and chat-rooms the world over. But ultimately, who can we really trust to tell us where the Midwest is? I will be forever grateful to him for bringing to my attention to one of the more interesting forums for these discussions: this page and other pages like it on Wikipedia, where Wiki-administrators carry on heated (but polite) debates on how to classify the Corn Belt, the South, and every other abstract geographic area on the globe. These are the behind-the-scenes parlor rooms where the definition-writers quibble just like the rest us (albeit with citations).
Rankin describes his work as a “reimagining of everyday urban and territorial geographies as complex landscapes of statistics, law, and history"; his maps deal with topics ranging from race and ethnicity to etymology and territoriality. Making maps since the early 2000s, he has been a pioneering presence as journalists have fallen in love with maps as tools for storytelling and representing data. His work has been featured in publications including The AtlanticThe Washington PostNational Geographic, as well as in academic articles and museum exhibitions. His forthcoming book is tentatively titledAfter The Map: Cartography, Navigation and the Transformation of Territory in The 20th Century.
He recently agreed to share with me a few of his favorite maps from history:
Map of Yamashiro Province, Author Unknown (19th Century)
Set afloat in a sea of empty paper, this map of Yamashiro Province, including the city of Kyoto, has a subtlety that belies a profound depth. Rankin explains, “Part of the enjoyment of the map is the skill and clarity with which it was drawn. It allows viewers to decipher its meaning without knowing Japanese; you can begin to decode the map using only the design language.”
Indeed, on first glance it seems hard to decipher: “Viewing the map, we experience a radical displacement from both our own visual language and our own understanding of how space is represented.” But on closer examination, it starts to open itself up to you. The green organ-looking shapes that surround the map reveal themselves as mountains—but mountains that are not bound by a single point of view, like most Western maps. They dangle upside-down or rest on their sides on the far shores of rivers. Rankin explains, “Unlike the detached ‘god’s-eye view’ that you see in many European maps at this time, this map is not a flat view from above and it has no natural orientation. Instead, it puts the viewer in the center of the map looking out; in every direction, the mountains in front of you appear right-side up. This means that the map is very much an object to be handled, and you’re being invited to rotate the paper as you shift your attention between different rivers, towns, and districts.”
Fremont Island SW Quadrangle, by the United States Geological Survey (1968)

Bellman’s Ocean Chart from "The Hunting of the Snark," by Henry Holiday for Lewis Carrol
Although these maps have an almost identical appearance, their origins could not be more different. The first was created by the U.S. government as part of an exhaustive mapping project undertaken by the U.S. Geological Survey. The second image, from 1876, is from Lewis Carrol’s poem "The Hunting of the Snark." Side by side, the maps make a kind of joke about the entire enterprise of mapmaking and sometimes-overzealous attempts to use maps to wrestle the heavens and earth into a rationalized system of representation and understanding. Rankin adds, “The USGS map gives a terrifying sense of the power of mapping—you see these hyper-rational borders imposed over a blank nothingness. Perhaps these exacting county lines in the middle of the Great Salt Lake would be useful if someone was murdered at sea or if there was some lucrative mining discovery and you needed to sort out jurisdictional responsibility. But these are relatively distant possibilities; if anything, they just make the whole enterprise seem that much more bizarre. Which is more absurd—making a map that shows only water, or actually finding a use for a featureless map?”
From Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River, by W. O. Dement for Harold Fisk (1944)
This is one in a series of maps that accompanied a 170-page government report by the Army Corps of Engineers detailing Harold Fisk’s geological investigation of the Mississippi River Valley. That these gorgeous maps were simply appendices to a rather dry government report makes their existence all the more amazing. Equally pieces of art and careful scholarship, Dement’s stunningly beautiful maps have far outlived the report they were created for, becoming shining examples of data as visual art. The complexity and depth of data represented by Fisk and his team ripples out across the length of the Mississippi like multi-colored musculature. Rankin says, “Fisk’s maps offer a real sense of fragility. They collapse natural and human time in a way that is rather poetic, as the cities and small towns overlaid on the river’s historic meanders remind you that everything is wiped away when you think at a geological scale. Like Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias,’ it reminds us of our hubris and that everything we spend our lives creating will eventually fall victim to the ravages of time.”
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
—Percy Bysshe Shelley
Map of the World, ~1450 (Fra Mauro)

Italy’s iconic coastline (Fra Mauro)

Egypt, The Nile, and The Great Pyramids (Fra Mauro)

Floating debris and a sea monster below the waves (Fra Mauro)

Here begins the dark sea… (Fra Mauro)
Despite the importance of this map (one of the first in the western world to show the existence of Japan and Java), little is known about Fra Mauro, the monk who created it. The map is a beautiful time capsule of European knowledge of the world in the mid-1440s, when the existence the Americas and Australia were as of yet unknown. A tiny inscription on the southern tip of Africa (which is at the top of the map, labeled Diab) reads “qui comenza el mar scuro” or “here begins the dark sea,” a subtle hint to the end of Fra Mauro’s information, but perhaps not the end of the world.
Rankin says of the map, “It is a complete diagram of the world in all its complexity, combining travelers’ reports and mariners’ portolan charts with classical, religious, and astrological knowledge —genres that we today regard as quite distinct. I love this map because every square inch is full of exquisite detail, and it operates at multiple scales at once. It shows rivers, mountains, and major cities, but it also includes views of the pyramids, curious wagons and ships, even individual trees and waves in the ocean. And everything is accompanied by text—little stories written by Mauro explaining his information and why we should trust him. The result is that the map is striking both when you’re 20 feet away and when you have your nose right up against it, for completely different reasons. This is definitely something I strive for with my own maps.”