Thursday, January 29, 2015

Maps and Memes and The Geography of Names

re-blogged from Geopolitics and Security

In a space between two books I find myself launching one while another takes shape.  Out now with McGill-Queen’s University Press, Maps and Memes: Redrawing Culture, Place and Identity in Indigenous Communities theorises the place-meme as a construct for talking about place and space across generations.  I focus specifically on Cree, Inuit, and Northwest Coast Canadian indigenous peoples, and how repetitive commemorative journeys shape intergenerational knowledge, landscape and language.  Place-memes are inscribed and performed, written and embodied spanning brains, bodies, maps, and tracks across the land.  I focus specifically on the northern Quebec Cree community of Wemindji, and their yearly commemorative return to an old dwelling site.  The annual return, kaachewaapechuu, means ‘going offshore’, and it has come to refer not only to a set of linked places through which one passes during the three day journey back; it also refers to a set of ongoing processes.  Land is rising in Wemindji, faster in James and Hudson Bays than anywhere else in the world.  Isostatic rebound, colonisation, the decline of the Hudson Bay company, and fluctuating fur and food stocks and prices all contributed to the re-settlement of Wemindji, and all are commemorated through the performance of the annual return journey.
Cover maps and memes
Place-memes are at base sets of linked names, and these names follow pathways as they are uttered by elders, heard by youth, internalised, performed and in turn passed on through generations.  Place names and the so-called causal theory of names, or communication theory of names drive the theoretical core of The Geography of Names: Indigenous to Post-Foundational.  At the same time, the nature of place-names is itself evolving and changing as emerging social media and mapping platforms allow for ‘geo-tagging’ and rapid re-uptake of new labels, tags, and place-name forms to proliferate.  For example, in London, the twitter hashtag #greatnames tracks how Chinese (and other) visitors to London create descriptive new names for prominent features such as the Thames River, Big Ben, or Tower Bridge.  Coordinate pairs attached to tweets that include the #greatnames tag can be automatically mapped to show new landscapes of names overlain upon older names that have themselves evolved since at least Roman times (when London was established in 43 AD).  This new work takes a global view of place-names, also looking at how maps and politics shape new geographies of names that nonetheless find origins in older times.  It covers British, North American, and Australian spatialities, indigeneities, and neogeographies of names.
These two books fit together quite naturally, with the latter (The Geography of Names) growing out of questions that the former (Maps and Memes) raised.  Whilst the earlier book grew out my work as researcher and consultant based in Canada, I am now a lecturer based at Royal Holloway University of London, with a wide range of world class libraries and colleagues at my doorstep.  The Institute of Historical Research, Senate House Library, British and London Libraries, not to mention the fourteen libraries found on McGill campus in Montreal, all have contributed space, ideas​, and resources towards both books.  An excellent and very engaged set of colleagues at Royal Holloway, and world class librarians at all the institutions mentioned are making the sometimes isolating or stressful process of structuring arguments and book sections much more bearable.  The research overall is moving from questions of indigenous identity and maps towards more fundamental questions of geographical reality and thought.  The Geography of Names is digging into place-names as tools for shaping reality through use in politics, cartography, religion, philosophy, and social media.  Watch this space as new themes emerge, and for sample sections of the ongoing work.
Part of what has made this work possible is the fact that along Hudson Strait, for example, oral histories are beginning to be taken seriously again.  Interviews with elders telling stories over maps in community halls in places like Kuujjuaq, Salluit, and Quaqtaq are becoming a regular occurrence as provincial and federal governments scramble to keep up with land claims after the successes of the Nunavut and Nisga’a territorial governments.
A book launch for Maps and Memes will take place at the Canadian Association of Geographers annual meeting at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver 1-5 June 2015; with another planned in the UK, probably in Canada House.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Counter-mapping Skin

Image source: The Independent

Kevin Pietersen probably did not intend for his new tattoo to be a counter-map.  Continents are shown in a mirror image of how they 'normally' appear, giving them the appearance of being viewed from inside the earth.  I had to think about this for a second, but it would seem to be a mistake, introduced into the representation through the process of transferring it from the stencil to the skin.  It really doesn't have the impact of the classic 'upside down' counter-map of the world though (in my opinion).

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

GIS Movie: Roman Britain from the Air

London is a Roman invention (43 AD)

Why did the Romans build (what we now know as London) here?

Oxford Street, Edgeware Road, and Marble Arch all speak to Roman spatial and planning sensibilities.

Roman walls edge down into the ground, running all the way around the old city, as seen in underground car parks.

Shots of helicopters cut to maps.  We have commentators narrating the entrenched Thames through radio, telling how bridges spanned the river and linked up the old Roman world.  A web of roads across what is now England.

[I saw a white Roman road marker today on my ride up towards St Ann's Hill and Chertsey, at a spot where the Founder's Building jumps up on the hill.  The white stone inscription is faded, fronting the old road bed, saplings folding into forest]

Staines, we know, was a Roman town, bulldozed to make commercial space.  Now Debenham's greets the visitor, calling out across the railway tracks.  Heading north from Chertsey, a cold front down for Christmas Eve, cycling amongst walkers on the Thames.

This is the edge, the way out, tunnelling under the M25 to go home.

GIS Movie: Soldier-Poets of the Somme

A GIS movie par excellence, much of the story is told through animated low elevation mapping of the fields, battlegrounds, and trenches of world war I.  This movie looks at the experiences of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and JRR Tolkien, and the way the war shaped their words and their spaces and came to haunt their lives later on.

French villages, shown on old photographs stitched together to give complete landscapes, tagged with 3D pointer-labels, look old and sepia-toned.  They look bleak, ashy, barren; then we suddenly see layered on top what the place looks like today: bright, green, sunny, a far cry from century ago.

Here's a link to BBC Two's player for Soldier-Poets of the Somme.

PostGIS predictions for the new year

One of the few times I get to do 'pure' GIS is around the Christmas break, after grant proposals, teaching, marking, reading, writing, and other activities finally wind down.  This holiday I've taken some time to explore the latest version of QGIS (version 2.6, 'Brighton').  There are no major changes to report, but I have come across a new OpenGeo plugin (by Boundless).  This promises true integration of PostGIS/Postgresql GIS databases and spatial querying with free and open-sourced GIS software.  It makes it really easy to do 'true' object-relational spatial/SQL queries from an 'easy to use' desktop interface.

This development will, I predict, start to see the eclipse of ESRI or even the toppling of the industry-leader from its hegemonic perch.  Preaching to the converted, perhaps, I think it is time to commit to QGIS.  While ESRI's ArcGIS suite of tools is nicely curated and can be demonstrated to have evolved from the very rigorous academic provenance of the Harvard Graphics Lab (including Dangermond, Chrisman, and others), QGIS will by pass the dinosaur in the new year, and race ahead to lead the pack into the future.  (Alongside doing GIS you'll often find me with Pixar movies playing in the background so that I have something to focus on when I look up from pondering spatial indices or maps).

I'm excited to report that, as director of Royal Holloway's new Geospatial and Visual Methods Lab, we are acquiring a full suite (19) of iMacs with QGIS and Google Earth Pro installations.  I believe this new lab will be 'on the ball' when it comes to cloud/server-side mapping and integration with mobile devices such as phones or GPS.  It will also be a 'traditional' GIS lab in the sense that the GVML will run desktop GIS tutorials for georeferencing, multiple data frames, database design, and LiDAR mapping.  We will have ESRI capabilities on the Windows side of these 'dual boot' machines, but the fact that these machines run slower in 'dual' mode gives a disincentive to do so (or put another way, it gives an incentive to use QGIS).

I believe GIS will become truly 'post', and that this is a good thing.  GIS may already be dead.  If so, then what we've moved into is a space of mapping that is becoming truly boundless, or at least unbound.  GIS 'unbound' is integrated, qualitative, mobile, distributed, geospatial, and web-oriented.  We still need the desktop to learn fundamentals of projection, framing, and joining but only as one site among many.  It is exciting to think about moving more into the field, about that 'opening of the field' that GIS can become, even as we realise that GIS itself sous rature, is ever-increasingly an 'absent-presence' in mapping worlds.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Refrains for the body of GIS

Inspired by Derek P. McCormack's book Refrains for Moving Bodies, and unable to attend to reading group devoted to discussing it (led by Harriet Hawkins), I devote a blog post to an area of productive overlap between performance/dance study and GIS/geoweb.

GIS (let's just call it that, everybody does anyway) is a moving target.  What's more, it dances.  GIS performs, it is performed on the geoweb, in mashups, overlays, and various trans-disciplinary foldings.

At first I thought no GIS and dance have nothing in common (at the same time as I thought, almost intuited that they must in some way be related).  Then overlays kept repeating themselves, differently each time.  And then I knew.

That GIS and dance overlap, overlay, and perform difference in their intermingling might not surprise.  The non-rep, more-than-rep crowd able to espouse such theories more freely than I certainly have the upper hand here.

But it's not about that is it?  It's about staying on top of the unfolding of metaphor, of difference, of repetitious ways of being and doing GIS that involve bodies, rhythms, and blocks of spacetime.  Lefebvre and Guattari.  Deleuze and Tarde.  Dewey, Dawkins, and Pierce.

The names keep repeating, the foldings keep happening, diagrams keep mapping themselves into this bodily thinking about GIS that happens when I walk, when McCormack reminds me about Montreal, Massumi, and Manning.

A Laurel and Hardy movie, the soundtrack of which is played overtop of OK Go's Nike video. Assorted quotes.  Here are some of my favorites so far (underlined, and starting from the last), all to my mind applicable to GIS/geoweb practices:

"the wager here is that the affective refrain of one register of experience and experiment can fold into and inflect the other as part of an ecology of practices composed of multiple refrains, some of which work, some of which don't; some of which cross a threshold of consistency, some of which don't" ( page 161)

"allying Bergson with Spinoza does not lead thinking out of this world, nor does it precipitate a privileging of the virtual over the actual.  Instead, it requires us to think of how bodies are composed through the transformative actualizations of virtualities" (page 146)

"moving images have a nonrepresentational quality: that is, to grasp their participation in the generation of experience means understanding them as more than merely symbols whose effect registers primarily through and within processes of cognitive sense making" (page 143)

"the tendency to proceed by going out into the world, reporting back, and then analyzing events is inadequate to the task of apprehending the affective and processual logics of the spacetimes in which moving bodies are generative participants" (page 118)

I only hope to walk this talk, to talk it through as a locating, imitating, map-made thing.

Where is the body of GIS?  Thinking it through.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Top Ten Books of 2014

The top ten lists are starting to show up in places like The Economist so I thought I'd weigh in a bit earlier than last year.  Here's my top ten list for the year, in some vague order.

1. The event of the year for books is without doubt Nancy Turner's magisterial Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge (McGill-Queen's University Press, @scholarmqup).  Turner's two-volume set is the result of a lifetime of work in coastal Northwestern North America.

2. Another great book in the same series as Turner's (MQUP's Native and Northern Series) is Shelley Wright's Our Ice Is Vanishing/Sikuvut Nunguliqtuq

3. Jennifer M. Groh's Making Space: How the Brain Knows Where Things Are is an event.  This book summarizes and pushes forward our understanding of the state of the art in brain-space-knowledge, from Harvard UP/Belknap.  This appears in the same year as former McGill student John O'Keefe wins the Nobel Prize alongside May-Britt and Edvard Moser for discovering the role of the hippocampus in human cognitive mapping (aka the brain's GPS). 

4. Benjamin Lytal's A Map of Tulsa made my list this year, one of only two novels to do so.  The link goes to a Guardian review of the book.  It helps, but is not required, to have been to Tulsa or any part of Oklahoma.

5. I believe Jeremy Black's The Power of Knowledge (Yale University Press) could be accurately described as his magnum opus.  It posits information as the historical driver of cartography, power, knowledge, and much else.

6. Maps: Their Untold Stories (London: Bloomsbury), edited by Mitchell and Janes, appeared in my pigeonhole this year for review in Journal of Historical Geography.  It is a fantastic introduction to maps selected from national archives near London.

7. Graham Robb, The Ancient Paths had to make my list for boldness and risk-taking.  The link goes, again, to a Guardian review that does justice, I think, to a book that is well worth reading.

8. Rob Kitchin, The Data Revolution: Big Data, Open Data, Data Infrastructures and Their Consequences (London: Sage) has that Ground Truth-level of impact feeling to it, and I strongly urge anyone with an interest in geospatial technologies, GIS, mapping, data, cartography, mashups, and related topics to read this book.  Could easily be justified as the #1 book for the year.

9. Royal Holloway professor Andrew Motion's The New World (Random House) makes my list due to the quality of the writing and the subject matter.

10.  Ballas, Dorling, and Hennig's The Social Atlas of Europe (Policy Press, distributed by U of Chicago Press) is a kind of event, relying upon cartograms to re-envision Europe using equal- and proportional-area cartographic sensibilities.