Monday, February 28, 2011

Quantum (GIS) Leap

So I'm typing this entry up on the Linux side of a dual-boot laptop, and for the last few months I've been experimenting with GRASS GIS.  At school we exclusively used ArcGIS which is still mostly a Windows-exclusive software suite, although I believe ESRI has been throwing the Linux users a bone or two lately.  The thing is, now that I'm not in school my access to ESRI software has been severely stymied by what might be considered cost-prohibitive software licensing. Thus I decided to experiment with open-source alternatives.
Maybe the Python-based GUI is a world better, but try as I might I can't seem to "jive" with GRASS.  I'm trying to break away from my dependence on GUI software and have been tinkering with it through the bash shell, but I find that in an inherently visual field like GIS, a GUI is amazingly beneficial.
So today I finally said "screw it, I'm trying QuantumGIS."
I'm so happy I did. I can just drop layers upon layers upon the screen, and they show up instantly! No turning on "monitors," which sounds somewhat archaic despite the growing trend of multi-monitor displays.  And guess what? QuantumGIS doesn't care if those layers have completely different projections! (even if I do)
I will be off to the interwebs to pilfer some free and informative geodata. Maybe I will be able to conjure up some cool maps to post!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Snake Hill

As much as this blog is titled Maps in Pixels, I think it is important to feature material which may not have been published originally in digital form.  There is such a wealth of geographic information which lies outside of the digital realm, and what has been accomplished over the last few decades is but a drop in the bucket. Not to mention that the earth itself is inherently not in digital form!
If you have ever driven on the eastern spur of the New Jersey Turnpike, you have been on Snake Hill.  It is a big jagged rock sprouting out of the Meadowlands in Secaucus, and supposedly inspired the Prudential logo and slogan.  Today this geological oddity has been chipped away to half of its original size and covered with random graffiti.  Some folks, who think "Snake Hill" is a name with negative connotations, try to call it by the refreshingly original name of "Laurel Hill".
For folks interested in the history of the area, there's a few pages about it in this awesome book:
This book was published by the town for its 50th anniversary in 1950. It has some neat old pictures too, but only one of Snake Hill.
If you want to read the article detailing the area, here it is:
I have to admit, Slangenberg sounds a lot nicer than what it means. Could you imagine what would happen if there was a Slangenberg Airport? You know what that would obviously lead to (hint: slangen means snakes, and airport means planes).

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Misleading GPS Use

As someone who majored in geography and has some knowledge of computer science and graphics, I really admire the surge in popularity of GPS navigational tools.  What annoys me, however, is when they are misleadingly used in the context of something completely irrelevant to GPS.
One party guilty of such would be my college's career services department.  Last year they held two large career fairs, intended for all students in all academic programs.  My little geography-major self was so excited to see the cover of the handout:
Ooh a GPS! But with Career Services written where the manufacturer's name should be! Maybe Navteq's here, they have an office a few miles away for  Maybe Garmin, or Tomtom, or Google, or ESRI, or one of those big names, or heck maybe someone who wants geography majors to work with their awesome computerized geodata.  While there were a handful of representatives from companies willing to talk to geography majors for positions completely unrelated to geography, pretty much nobody was hiring for GIS.  Every engineering firm I met with either had a fully-staffed team or was planning to stick with paper maps. As far as the companies that showed up, there was definitely no Navteq, or Garmin, or Tomtom, or Google, or ESRI, or anything even close.  And definitely no company with anything to do with navigational software.  Well, maybe if you count the military, but I doubt they use devices intended for an ordinary car dashboard, like the one pictured above. False advertising, Career Services!
The other guilty party that comes to mind is this series of ads that began last year (and to my dismay have returned for this tax season):
What does tax preparation have in common with driving? Maybe they're both annoying and time-consuming? I guess it's because TurboTax is supposed to water down and simplify the tax preparation process, so you don't get "lost" in a maze of bureaucratic instructional paperwork, bizarre worksheets and random W-2 copies. But the "lost" sensation of "I'm so lost! This tax return form is confusing!" is a different kind of "lost" than "I'm so lost! I missed my exit!", neither of which of course is related to the ABC show Lost.  So while not false advertising, it is misleading use of the term GPS.  Do you think anyone at that ad agency even knows what GPS stands for or how it works? Or is there, in fact, a system of orbiting satellites which can complete my 1040? Can they triangulate?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Flighty Maps

A few months ago I visited someone down in Orlando, Florida.  My return flight was on Continental Airlines (which officially became United days before my departure), on a Boeing 757.  This plane was bigger than the 737 I took as my departing flight, but did not have the DirecTV option, which meant no live television for me. The back-of-seat monitors did have an interesting feature though:
Look at that! It's my intended flightpath, updating live! Well actually when I took the picture we were still on the ground.  The map didn't have as much user control as I would have liked, but it did shuffle between zoom levels:
It would have been nice to view the flight path at this zoom level by control throughout the flight, but if it was an option I couldn't figure it out.  I spent most of the flight watching whatever episode of The Office they had available. I wonder if they perhaps intentionally chose for this flight to have the episode with Kathy Bates as the CEO of Sabre, the fictional Florida company that buys Dunder Mifflin.
Anyway, I thought this was a neat little feature and I wish United would tweak it and keep it, unless United already has a better version that they can ship to the Continental fleet.