Imperialist Geography

People ask me what it means to be a geographer. Most people think of memorizing state capitals. I tell them I make and study maps, I also tell them about Tobler’s law : everything is related, closer things are more related than distant things. For my thesis, I wrote about Afghanistan, a country whose fate is determined by its physical and cultural geography.

Saying your’e a geographer or a cartographer makes you sound like a British Orientalist from the 19th century, but until American stops behaving like 19th century Britain in its foreign policy we’ll still need cartographers:

Apple Maps – Old News

*I’ve decided to change my blogpost day to Monday and shorten the posts while I’m in school.

It’s been a few months since Apple announced it would they would create their own map app, no longer relying on google maps. I’ve linked to a few articles below. I read somewhere (I can’t remember where) that apple has hired real cartographers to run their maps department while google hired computer programmers. I’m curious to see how this turns out.

With the advent of GoogleMaps everyone became an amateur cartographer. But in order to make maps that display more specific information you need to be able to use a program like ArcGIS and you need some rudimentary knowledge of programming. Is this a problem? In my Human Computer Interaction (HCI) class we’re learning that it is never the User’s fault if they can’t get something to work. Is it okay for some fields to require specialist knowledge? Why/Why not?

On a personal level I’m trying to figure out if it’s worth it to learn enough about computers and programming to write my own programs or whether I just need to learn how to use the crappy existing ones well enough for my needs.

Power Dynamics

This week I started taking some programming and math classes as pre-requisites for my Comp. Sci. Degree and, as I suspected, they’re really difficult. Why am I working so hard (and spending so much money) to get a degree in Computer Science anyway? Well there are a few reasons:

I need a marketable skill in order to compete in this job market. The job market for recent college grads in the US is DIRE. I was really lucky to find a job when I first graduated from college, finding another one has been truly challenging. I was unemployed then underemployed then unemployed again, accruing debt the whole time. With this degree at least I’ll be accruing debt with a purpose. Even if I can’t get a job that is different from one I’ve had before, I’ll probably be able to automate it somehow. Do it faster and more efficiently with the help of computers.

I think women and minorities are underrepresented in technology which affects the products we have the world we live in. Women and minorities have always been underrepresented in technology, what’s most worrisome to me now, is that our numbers are actually going down. There are half as many women in tech now than there were in the 80s. I don’t know how technology would be different if it were designed by women, but if I don’t participate in it, I never will.

I’m really uncomfortable with not knowing how computers work. More and more, we spend most our time on computers and dealing with technology. If knowledge is power, I am not comfortable giving that power and control to someone (or something) else. It’s MY computer, it should do what I tell it to. It’s not a person, it doesn’t have free will, if it isn’t doing what I tell it to it’s because I’m not saying it correctly. Computers have astounding potential, but if I’m not using it, what the point?

I need the knowledge to work on the (geography) problems I care about. In high school I fell in love with Calculus, in particular, I remember spending hours working on one problem, how best to display a sphere (3D) on a page (2D), a problem of map projection. I was (and am) convinced that there is a way to minimize distortion with the magic of calculus. Taking more math classes now I am getting excited about different problems that I can use computers to solve. Problems with access to information (geography/IT/translation), women’s issues, 1st world problems, 3rd world problems etc. Computers can help.

These (compelling) reasons aside, I’m not a computer scientist and I’m not really interested in becoming a programmer (unless I can make a lot of money doing it, which is possible). Partly I’m using computer science to help me figure out what I really want to do with my life. It’s hard going through all these math and programming classes, and to be honest, I might not last. But I think every minute is worth it, each class is one more computer skill that most people don’t have, a leg up on the competition. Plus, the harder it is to accomplish something, the more pride I feel when it’s done. With math and computer science it’s more than pride, there’s a power in mastery, when you can take a tool that almost everyone uses in a general way to do something specific and helpful to you, you make it your own.

“Between the ages of 20 and 40 we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity.”

-W.  H. Auden via Gretchen Rubin


I try to write a new post every week, to keep me in the habit, but I don’t really like writing blogposts, what I really like writing are letters. Today, instead of writing this post (or working on my personal essay for grad school) I wrote 4 postcards using my new christmas gift from the Russian (Pantone postcards) and a letter using stationary I made in a workshop taught by Barbara.

Here is a piece from the notes for my personal statement:

I once got into a debate with a friend at the University of Chicago, he was a couple years younger than i was and deciding on a major. He said he had decided on economics because it helped ‘explain the world’, I laughed and said, George, everyone says that about their major, you talk to a French lit major and they’ll say, ‘I really think French literature is the best way to help explain my world’. My mom used to say ‘it all comes down to Geography,’ but after studying it, I disagree. You can’t tell everything about a person by where they come from (I’m not a huge believer in the idea that Californians are lazy and dumb), but it does explain a lot. Tobler’s first law of geography, that everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things does still seem to have many applications.

Can someone tell me if there is a second law of geography?


A friend of a friend refers to her ‘islands of knowledge’ in the ‘sea of my ignorance.’ Unlike our physical oceans, my sea is actually infinite. Here is a short list of things I don’t understand, to help define the borders of my islands. Perhaps I will make a sidebar and add to it as time goes on.

    global warming denial
    drinking alcohol to excess
    children’s menus
    why women tend to prefer fiction and men prefer non
    why people have sex/babies
    loud people
    work-appropriate clothes for women

Maybe you can help me understand some of these things?

12/19 My brother has added:

1) men prefer nonfiction because it is better.
2) people drink boozahol to excess b/c it is super funzos.