Tagged: geeking out

Three and a half hours in a single step, more at the pole

We all know that parallel lines never meet, and it’s convenient to think of the lines of longitude and timezones as parallel, but they really aren’t. The former because they’re inscribed on the (more or less) spherical Earth, and the latter because they’re entirely made up, a construct of how we measure time. This trippy insight, acquired whilst contemplating the stunning entirely of Bruce Myren’s 40th Parallel project at Gallery Kayafas, led me to some interesting trivia about time zones.

Also, I was trying to sort out lead assignment for various shifts of telesales reps, but that’s a lot less interesting.

Leaving aside the puzzlement that is the International Date Line, it turns out there are places where you can travel more than one timezone at once, and relatedly, places where three timezones converge at a single point.

Take for example the convergence of Norway, Finland, and Russia. At that point you can hop from UTC +1 in Norway, UTC +2 in Finland, and UTC +3 in Russia, if the border guards let you. There are some similar spots in the middle of Russia, if you want to do the Time Warp without crossing international boundaries. The CIA has an awesome timezone map available in PDF, from which these are clipped:

Three timezones in the North Lots of timezones to the West of China

China has just one time zone from end to end, even though in neighboring counties, that span covers several time zones. So when leaving China to the West, you can go jump back two hours to Kazakstan, three to Kyrgyz-, Tajiki- and/or Pakistan, or even three and a half hours, to Afghanistan via the treacherous Wakhjir Pass. The web of timezones that are more or less than a whole hour from their neighbors make South and Central Asia even more confusing.

I thought that 3.5 hours was the biggest jump possible, and wikipedia says it is in the above linked article, but I think it’s more complicated that that. Around the South pole, in Antarctica, in theory all time zones would converge on that point, but that would be very tricky on a practical level.

It turns out that various parts of Antarctica observe a range of time zones from UTC -6 through UTC +12, and the borders of these zones could cause some even bigger jumps in time for people there, if they were ever to traverse those frozen boundaries.

Time in Antarctica, via Wikipedia

I got a headache (and maybe brain freeze) looking at this, but I think you can gain or lose at least ten hours going in and out of the inland zone, which is oddly labeled “Vostok” which I’m pretty sure means “East” in Russian (Восток). Which way is East at the South pole?? Without even opening the can of worms that is Daylight Saving Time, let’s just say you’re going to need more watches than you wore back in the 80s.

Not confused enough? Check out the largest island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island. If you’re already there, please send me a postcard!

Rooting for an e-ink tablet

I’ve been a huge fan of E ink for ten years now.  I visited the company’s Cambridge office back when I was in business school and was very impressed with the technology.   So when the original Kindle hit the market a couple of years ago, I was very interested.  Not interested enough at that price, but soon enough competition and innovation brought us the Nook and touch screens and front-lights and more.  But they were still just ebook readers, and readers that locked you into their makers’ stores.  And that’s why their prices have fallen so far, too.

Recent versions of these devices have been based on the Android OS, and that has opened them up to rooting and other monkeying around.  So I figured with the release of the Kindle Paperwhite, I might catch a cast-off Nook GlowLight on the cheap and see what I could hack out of it.

An ebay auction, a few google searches, some downloads, a micro SD card and complete willingness to brick the gadget all added up to this:

Not bad, eh?  Well, there are some clear pros and cons I can see from using the device for just a couple of days:

Pro:

  • I’ve got a wifi tablet running Android for under $100
  • It’s nice and light, easy to hold, and the battery lasts a long long time
  • I can still use the native Nook software, including the GlowLight thing (it works during regular Android operation, not only when reading Nook books)
  • It was pretty easy to do, and if you didn’t ignore the bit about making a backup (I would certainly never do that!), pretty easy to undo if you change your mind

Con:

  • The Android OS is stuck at version 2.1 and not quite all the stuff works
  • Many apps are not available because of the old version, don’t work right for whatever reason, or are simply unusable because…
  • The display is really not good for tasks involving color, scrolling, animation… much of anything besides reading black text on white or vice versa – it’s pretty low-contrast and has a very slow refresh
  • Although it can run the Kindle software (ha!), it won’t run my killer app, Google Books (but you can export Google Books to epub files and pull them into the Nook)
  • Things you’ve come to expect in a phone/tablet – GPS, auto-rotation to landscape mode when you turn the device, sound, vibration for haptic feedback – are just not present

In short, it was a fun project, but it’s not really the ultra-light, battery-sipping, cool monochrome tablet I envisioned when I first got to see e-ink technology.  And I’m guessing that nobody really wants to build such a thing for a few weirdos like me.  After all, you can get a regular  7″ Android tablet with color, sound and an up to date OS for about $200.

Mappy diversion: the 40th parallel, Ana Ng’s Peruvian lover, and globe-spanning sandwiches

I’m back from a trip almost halfway around the world in terms of longitude, but a pretty short hop in latitude. A weather diversion on the way over brought me to Oklahoma City airport, what would have been my second time ever setting foot on Oklahoma soil, but as you may have the misfortune to know, a “diversion” means you don’t get off the plane, at least not until the passenger bill of rights two hour limit expires.

That’s the long way around to say, I thought perhaps I was near the 40th parallel, the subject of the estimable Bruce Myren’s photo project and kickstarter campaign, which is widgetized at right. I was off by at least five degrees of latitude, which shows my level of familiarity with the middle of this country.

Which brings us back to maps. (Bet you didn’t see that coming) Here’s another clip from the Great Circle Mapper, which I touted some time ago. They’ve made some spiffy improvements. I often think of flights to Asia from the central USA as going “over the pole” but it seems that this one didn’t even break the arctic circle. Of course, the great circles mapped are the most direct routes, not necessarily the actual flight paths.

That’s a good 15,000 miles and will likely leave me soulless for almost two weeks. Thoughts of global mapping also bring me back to a vintage limeduck post where I wondered about the places alluded to in TMBG’s Ana Ng:

Make a hole with a gun perpendicular
To the name of this town in a desktop globe
Exit wound in a foreign nation
Showing the home of the one this was written for

These places, I’ve learned, are called antipodes, and it turns out that it’s pretty unlikely that any town in the continental USA has a dry land antipode. If we assume that Ana Ng is in Vietnam, then the song’s narrator could be in Peru. Locating Ana in various other parts of Asia can put the singer in other parts of South America, but with more than 2/3 the globe covered in water, there just aren’t that many inhabitable antipodes. So you don’t have to shoot your globe. Kudos to the smarties at Free Map Tools and Antipode Map for making this sort of cutting-edge research so easy, and also to the ever-alert Strange Maps blog.

In case anybody is still reading, I’ve got to bring up one more map-related wonder, the Earth Sandwich. According to Ze Frank, the creator (discoverer?) of the Earth Sandwich, “An EARTH SANDWICH is created when two slices of bread are simultaneously placed on opposite sides of the EARTH.” An excellent bookend to TMBG’s ballistic approach to antipodes, I think. If you happen to be reading this on a boat in the Indian Ocean Southwest of Australia and have bread and cheese, I propose we create the first Earth Grilled Cheese Sandwich.

120,000 blocks to Samarkand

In places like New York City, you can easily measure distance in blocks and people generally know how far that is in miles or minutes. In New York City, everybody knows that Manhattan street blocks are about 20 to the mile, and most New Yorkers can walk about one such block per minute.  Tourists travel a fraction of that rate and really should have their own lanes.  Avenue blocks are less reliably spaced but they run about 1/4 mile each.

In less griddy places like London or Boston, a block is not always a block, so it’s less of a useful measure.

If you’re getting sick of my New York City centric pondering, you’re really going to hate this next bit.  The estimable Harold Cooper has created a marvelous map mashup that extends the Manhattan street grid to “every point on earth.” It’s called extendNY, of course, and I think it’s awesome. Of course.

Now I can always know how many blocks away something is, using my beloved standard Manhattan blocks, even when not in Manhattan.  I must say, I never thought I’d be spending so much time on the Upper East Side.  I shall henceforth refer to the MBTA 1 bus as the 3,524th street crosstown, or the M3524.

For extra cartogeeky credit, check out what happens to the grid in Uzbekistan, which I shall henceforth call the North Manhattan Pole.  That’ll teach you to slap a rectangular grid on a round thing.

My squabble with Typography Scrabble

I like Scrabble, I like the Oxford comma, and I like typography.  So why does the a new Scrabble set for Typographers (or at least people who like type) have me so out of sorts?   For those not hep enough to know, Typographer’s Scrabble is a redesigned Scrabble set getting some design blog love these days.  It’s got several great features and one terrible flaw that just plain ruins it for me.

The Typography Edition has a lot going for it that has nothing to do with typography, and honestly, not a lot to do with Scrabble either.  It comes in a birch-covered walnut box and the game board is made up of six magnetically-attached cork-bottomed sections. This is winning major points with me on materials – wood and especially cork are favorites.   The board itself is nice enough but I’m a little worried that the treatment of the grid and the double/triple score spots is a little too low-key and therefore harder to read and use than the orthodox version.  But I’m ok with all of that.

What I’m not ok with is the “typography” part.  It’s not clear to me if each of the 98 letter tiles is printed in a different font or if there’s a smaller number of fonts distributed across the letters. I can see that at least some letters come in different fonts.  What we have here is not typography, it’s ransom note.

Bear in mind that anybody trying to “do” typography on a Scrabble board has an uphill battle.  Typography is not just letterforms, it’s the way letterforms work together in words and paragraphs.  In Scrabble, you have  no paragraphs or even sentences.  You have only words, and only capital letters. The spacing between letters is defined by the grid of the board, which rules out ligatures and leads to some pretty awful keming.  About half of all Scrabble plays go vertically, and hardly any fonts look good doing that.  All of those characteristics of the Scrabble game board are pretty much barriers to good typography.

Does that mean you shouldn’t try?  Certainly not.  In fact, in what I believe to be the origin of this idea, designer Andrew Clifford Capener proposes that you could buy his Scrabble set with the font of your choice or that you might even buy additional font packs.  I think that would be a much better idea than this ransom note nonsense.  Unfortunately the edition being marketed for pre-ordering now has only the ransom note available.

So, if I ran the zoo what I would do here?  Well, as I’ve outlined above it might be a fool’s errand to do typography in the confines of a Scrabble board.  But if this blog isn’t about foolish quests, what is it about?  With that in mind, I have two semi-contradictory ideas for better Scrabble typography:

1. lowercase it. I like lowercase letters for the legibility.  I DO NOT MUCH LIKE UPPERCASE IN GREAT QUANTITY.  [On a total tangent, if you visit the grave of e e cummings at the Forest Hills Cemetery you’ll learn his full name and see that his family didn’t much care for the lowercasing.]  Since Scrabble word plays exist in a vacuum outside of sentences, who’s to say they should be capitalized or not?  I realize there are practical problems with the varying heights and ascenders/descenders in the lowercase world but it might be interesting to try lowercase, it certainly would be fresh and different.

2. Choose the right font for the job. As in any design project you need to pick what works, not your pet concept or what you think will win you an award.  Redesigning a Scrabble board includes making a playable game. Given the constraints of the board and how the game is played, I’d probably go as close to a monospaced font as possible although maybe not all the way.  (Designer Capener’s nice minimal website is done in Courier, a bold choice for a website if you ask me, but a fine candidate for a Scrabble set.) Maybe something with a slab serif.  Ideally the font would fill the almost square Scrabble tile well to reduce the uneven letter spacing, and work passably in vertical play.  Poster Bodoni could be a fun choice.

Will I pre-order typography scrabble for $200?  As of now, there’s only 39 sets left out of 1,200. Would I pay $200 for a set that addressed my issues above?  I’m thinking probably not, since I already own three scrabble sets that I don’t use enough.  Perhaps I’d buy a new set of typographically enhanced tiles for a lot less money.  In any case, I hope that board game makers will pay attention to the possibilities raised here for better design and better materials in game boards.