Monthly Archives: April 2013

Mapping Holes over Poles: Disappearing Stratospheric Ozone

Maps can make wonderful arguments to orient us to a variety of global processes whose scale could not otherwise by visualized or even adequately comprehended.  Maps of the relative size of the depletion of ozone over Antarctica over time, looking at the earth’s atmosphere from the South pole and mapping the threat of a monumental environmental shift to allow us to consider changes in the loss of stratospheric ozone that have recently occurred, in ways that are only adequately understood by few:  diachronic maps provide the best means to chart the emergence at the poles, due to the similar pocket of cold air, of the disappearance of the thin layer of ozone that encloses the earth’s atmosphere, and blocks 90% of UV rays of solar radiation:

Sept 2006-Sept 2012 ozone

These two maps centered on Antarctica highlight where weather conditions helped expand the largest ozone “hole” in the stratosphere–a region where ozone has been reduced from 300 to 100 Dobson units, or by two-thirds, and an unprecedented entrance way for UV radiation unveiled.  With the continent of Antarctica reduced to an exposed island in the bright green iris of a protective level of stratospheric ozone, they map provides both a visualization of the permanent gap through which UV radiation enters our atmosphere, and the stubborness with which a problem that first registered at the British Antarctic Research station in 1985, literally wasn’t accepted as genuine, so sudden and unthinkable was its appearance:  deep blue registers the diminution of high-level ozone to 220 Dobson Units, the lowest ever recorded up to 1979.

There’s a tension in using bright iridescent hues to represent a tenuous layer that, if not so widely dispersed, would be only just three cm. in width.  The fragility of this protective if thinly distributed layer may be impossible to visualize as a unit, and as difficult to map as the mechanics of its depletion is to grasp or predict.  The depletion of ozone in the “hole” –more of a relative absence of ozone that usually checks UV rays–lacks the sort of boundaries or objective parameters maps chart, and its gradations hard to ascertain from the ground:  the tenuousness of the dispersed level of ozone in other words challenges cartographical denotation; exactly how much radiation enters the earth’s atmosphere is harder to calculate or represent, so we are left with registering the diminution as an effective ‘hole,’ given the lack of objective criteria to map the diminution in spatial terms that narrate the scope of its effects.  Such obstacles or constraints in mapping has no doubt lead to well-warranted criticism of inadequate appreciation of its seriousness or persistence in media stories that champion its reduced relative size, as we try to grasp  a process we can’t control.  This seems tied to the difficulty of presenting an argument in recognizable graphic conventions, and the appropriation of the map above as an argument that the hole’s expansion reduced and is under control or no longer subject to further expansion.

The inability to map a relationship between the hole and the land in anything like a one-to-one fashion of meteorological maps creates a challenge in registering satellite readings of a thin layer spread across the upper reaches of the stratosphere as if it were an object or place.  The iridescent hues that render depletion of ozone map are both misleadingly and deceptively presented, Bruce Melton argues, as evidence of a “record low” ozone hole–since the reduction in size conceal the fragility of the tenuous ozone layer when increased stratospheric cooling will further deplete the failure of ozone, as Melton argues, and create an uphill struggle to ever block the entrance into our atmosphere of radioactive UV rays.  The map is in this case not the territory:  the territory is being irradiated, and is going to be irradiated for some time.  Climatologists predicted many narratives of the hole’s eventual shrinking in the early 1980s, or in 2006, when it was noted that “in Antarctica, we can say that the patient is not getting any sicker, either,” and 2006 led to the prediction tha reducing fluorocarbons would bring clear evidence of unambiguous improvement by 2016.

Yet the persistence of the hole is striking:  2011-12 saw the re-emergence of a similar ‘hole’ above the north pole, far closer to inhabited areas.

The evidence is difficult to interpret, and harder as a result to represent in maps.  Most maps effectively materialize or embody land and a relation to space, but the hole or gap records the depletion of a gas whose effects are far greater than its relative size, and not necessarily proportional to its size.  To be sure, after being warned of the eventual depletion of ozone, it does not seem so inevitable. Although naming a “hole” seems concrete–something is leaking or escaping from a delimited zone–the entrance of UV rays through this “hole” can’t be adequately mapped to reveal or represent what is happening climatically, and the scope of the dramatic increase of the ozone hole’s radius is difficult to imagine, for  it’s difficult to know what the size of the hole means.

The perspective above Antarctica shows an area about as large as the Antarctic continent itself to be entirely depleted of ozone.  This map of absence challenge us to chart something that resists most of the usual categories of maps.  Perhaps the process is better communicated by mapping the distribution of real-time ozone loss at an altitude of twenty kilometers, as the below visualization of the World Data Center for  Remote Sensing of the Atmosphere, using a vertically resolved distribution to  map variations in loss and depletion of ozone, showing a significant reduction above the north pole that becomes more urgent below the equator:




A similarly striking map of local variations from the normal density of 300 Dobson units, tells the difficult to grasp story of wide-ranging atmospheric shift over the southern hemisphere at a time of greatest ozone depletion, of which the hole over in the ozone layer over Antarctica is only a section:



Mapping the absence of ozone in the atmosphere is a difficult proposition as well as graphic, especially since most maps are static in nature. The first two visualizations of NASA’s Ozone Watch centered on the continent of Antarctica portray the region’s exposure to UV rays, as if one is somehow looking up the world’s skirts, in ways that work because they tweak or shake up the notion of a global map to show a vital or exposed place in the world’s atmosphere: the perspective from  from that of solar radiation entering our atmosphere suggests looking into something that one shouldn’t be able to see.

It’s a bit comforting that there was some contraction from the massively gaping hole of 2006,  but the slight apparent contraction doesn’t really offer any reassurances.  If purple and blue is where ozone is least present, and yellow toward the red end of the spectrum where it is most present, the hole is still gaping pretty large in April, 2013:  the ozone (O3) in the upper atmosphere is present in such trace amounts, that its absence from the stratospheric atmosphere allows ultraviolet radiation to seep in; while it can absorb the most dangerous and intense radiation before it reaches the earth’s surface, ozone depletion allows it to enter freely.

We can far more easily, of course, map the extent to which more and more ozone is itself trapped, as a greenhouse gas, in our atmosphere, but that is not where we want it–its benefits are nil and even adverse since it is a health hazard.  Its concentration as measured in our country roughly matches concentrations of smog:

National US Ozone Map

The above map registers ozone created from car and other industrial emissions lying below the stratosphere, and the rise of parts of ozone/billion from 10-15 in pre-industrial society to upwards of 80–a rise that has largely contributed to local smog or “ozone days,” and the “spare the air” days of the East Bay when folks are asked to take public transit.

The geographic centers of pollution documented from satellite photographs from 2006 to travel surprisingly wide distances, in ways that suggest we try to understand the local heights of ozone as a truly global crisis if it is also one of local creation:


This concentration of atmospheric ozone is a form of smog, that serves no protective function as a trapped greenhouse gas; the ozone layer in the stratosphere itself has little relation to global warming.  But we can perhaps develop a perspective of more global character to map or visualize the absence of ozone at stratospheric levels.

This was, after all, the primary effect when NASA compellingly created a map of the relative depletion of ozone concentration–and the potential disappearance of stratospheric ozone–from 1994 to 2060, should  further production of CFC’s not be banned.  This image of ecological disaster was not fleshed out, but is apparent in the deep blue hues that uniformly enveloped the familiar form of North America, as if to tell our future gone astray as a consequence of the increasing industrial production of fluorocarbons worldwide:



The mapping of more recent depletion of ozone over the pole is the consequence of its unique climate, mapped a sort of topography of ozone loss, in which blue and violet mark significant deviations in local ozone concentrations that were sensed in 2003, but were first detected as early as 1985:

And the resulting spottiness of the ‘ozone column’ prominent in this global map of 2006 suggest a broad depletion of ozone layers around the equatorial region, where the sunlight is also more unremitting and intense, outside of the polar regions:

Ozone Column 2006


What does this massive decline of a shield against radiation mean?  As of yesterday, the map was considerably expanded and not much more comforting, looking at online near real-time ozone maps:



NASA also continues to provide daily visualizations of the established gap in ozone over the Antarctic, based on satellite measurements, to register a daily changing picture of the hole that is not much more comforting:




Such snapshots tell half the story; stop-action photographic frames chart the hole’s growth form 1979 to 1991 shows the difficulty in pinpointing its size or shape, providing something of a narrative, as registered by satellite spectrometers:

The jerky seasonal variations seem to be always up for grabs! But a compilation of monthly averages in a suggestive sequence of time-lapse stills, also from Cambridge’s Centre for Atmospheric Science, reveals the expansion of the violet blotch almost appear from nowhere in about 1983, when it was first detected, in ways linked to how gasses emitted from CFC’s had dramatically depleted atmospheric ozone:


Cambridge Ozone Maps


These Cambridge Ozone Maps–a wonderful name–show an odd shifting of form, shifting due to polar meteorology, of how the gasses spewing out of factories, homes, and airplanes attach to stratospheric clouds that, in the polar vortex, introduce atomic chlorine over the pole which at such low temperatures, destroy ozone.

To map the loss of the layer over time, in animated form, is perhaps far more compelling than a static map is able to offer its viewer:

For the lack of better conventions to visualize the opening of ozone over the earth, its hard to remember the difficulty of turning back or reversing this depletion at all.  The challenges of mapping ozone are multiple, both because of the stories we impose on the maps and an inability to comprehend the costs of the opening hole hovering over the pole.  Is it that the map embodies a process that can be visually grasped, transforming a topic of debate into an entity that cannot be denied?  Indeed, there seems a relative poverty of words–what is a hole, actually?–that seems resolved when one looks at the maps of stratospheric ozone depletion over the poles, and sees where the ever-widening gap lies.

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Filed under Antarctica, Global Warming, Ozone Hole, Solar radiation, UV Radiation

Mapping Worldly Entrances to Hell

We often carry our very own hells with us, and know not only their maps but even the routes of access to them.   But if the location of Hell has been mapped and re-mapped as a personal experience since the Renaissance, defining fixed locations of Hell projects something of a state of mind to the world’s physical geography.  If, to quote Marlowe’s Mephistopheles, “Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib’d/ In one self place; but where we are is hell,/ And where hell is, there must we ever be,” the places Hell resides is almost a practice of mapping that reflects a culture’s cartographical imagination.  And, it’s perhaps not a surprise that every culture seems to have its own notion of Hell but of where the location of hell and its entrance is.  If one can pinpoint and map it in an image of the known world, perhaps one can escape its presence in one’s own mind.  Czeslaw Miłosz wondered, in a very late poem of 2003, “Have we really lost our faith in that other space?/ Have they vanished forever, Heaven and Hell?/ . . . And where will the damned find suitable quarters?” and bemoaned almost tearfully the unimaginable proportions of the “enormity of the loss,” but there is considerable existential comfort in being able to map Hell with security.

It’s also a good way of saying that you know the lay of the land, and the parts you want to avoid. One-upping Marlowe, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley imagined “Hell is a city much like London— A populous and a smoky city,” to comment on the transformation of England; his belief that “It is not necessary to consider Hell and the Devil as supernatural machinery” is uncannily similar to the many maps that pinpoint Hell’s multiple worldly entrances for those eager to read them.  It has long been far more satisfying if one can try to pinpoint the entrance points in informed fashion, using some sort of knowledge or evidence to buttress the choice.  The location of “Hell” or the underworld was, of course, pre-Christian, even if it is now colored by Christian sources; Hell is a pre-Christian mental geography that was mediated by Christianity and its own specific notions of suffering  and remorse, but also is a place that we all know exists, and are eager to find–although not to go there ourselves.

According scripture, Hell is located deep down in the earth, without either geographic specificity and far more figuratively evocative than precise.  Hell is  reality and state of mind for the Gospels and Apocalypse; it is not a precise location:  it is a place where in “outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30), whose inhabitants are “in agony in this fire” (Luke 16:24), surrounded by “the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).  The image of perpetual burning, self-consumed bodies has been embellished with extensive pictorial detail as a place of eternal punishment, and a site of the destruction of both body and soul and of unending separation from both; it was based on the Old Testament idea of  “Sheol” as an abode of the dead (Psalm 49:13-14)–or of those with no abode or place to be, but this place with no life was always seen as closely connected to our own.

Hell was deeply spiritual for Dante and in his age–the appeal that we had an informant who had in fact been their to survey its complex topography and descending rings of punishments bore the satisfying sense that we knew where we are in the moral compass of life.  The appeal of Dante’s map of hell is evident in the considerable care and detail which Sandro Botticelli and others used to delineate the space through which where Virgil led Dante and navigated among the inhabitants of hell’s circles–an image popular in the late fifteenth century–that could be examined with some recognition and even more amazement as a site of the afterlife.


Botticelli's Ms Map of Dante's Hell

When Dante’s Florentine editor Girolamo Benivieni’s prepared a printed edition including engraved maps, the portal to Hell was strikingly placed in explicitly modern geographic terms within the terraqueous sublunary world:

Benivieni 1506 Dante's Hell


The deep comfort of this clearly mapped ontology of the afterlife is to some extent preserved today.  Online, we can also navigate this image, thanks to digitization of manuscript images, on one’s very own, and explore the mind-blowing map that Sandro Botticelli drew as if confronting the page from inches away in all its gloriously imagined Dantesque details.  The mapping of Hell has taken off in ways that oddly reflects a pretty secular age; sites of anguish and suffering are, it turns out, still pretty compelling to map in a geographical lens.

Compelling woodcut maps described the topography of the realm of the Dantesque afterlife with exquisite geographic care:




Hell was long an individualized affair, and rightly so, the culmination to a balance of sins physical and of mind.  But the mapping of a public geography of hell–entrances to the underworld, now navigated not only but Virgil and Vulcan, or even Percy Jackson, but able to be pinpointed on a map.  There seems to be somewhat of a flourishing of the addition of “Hell”-sites on the web today, in fact, something of a response to the absence of this all-too-concrete state of mind from the reaches of Google Earth–not that some folks haven’t tried.  Perhaps the absence of hell’s location on Google Maps–or how Hell frustrates that portal promising ubiquitous coverage to any user–may have helped generate something like a proliferation  of on-line pseudo-erudition about Hell’s possible locations, and the curiosity that it could be in fact right around the corner in some pretty familiar sites.


The appeal of mapping hell–and at looking at the sites where others map hell–is a branch of the Googlish compulsion to provide a total mapping of humanity, as much as a religious ontology, and is reflected in the proliferation of models of Hell that circulate online and provide some sort of satisfaction that we known where we are.

Witness, for one, the popularity of the recent ‘discovery’ by Italian archeologists headed by Francesco d’Andria of the location of one “Gate to Hell” in the Phrygian city of Hieropolis, a place where few would have much interest.  D’Andria fond “Pluto’s Gate” marked the entrance to a cave whose abundant mephitic vapors and carbon dioxide fumes make it impossible to sustain life–which found some confirmation in the detailed description left by  the geographer Strabo of the place as “full of a vapour so misty and dense that one can scarcely see the ground” where “any animal that passes inside meets instant death,” adding “I threw in sparrows and they immediately breathed their last and fell.”

Italians acknowledge this specificity of one entrance to Hell since they are familiar–through the poems of Dante and Virgil–with the location of Hell in the field of active volcanic craters bubbling with outside  Naples in the Phlegraean Fields, which Dante  located it in the extinct volcanic crater of Lake Avernus, or the Lago d’Averno, where Aeneas met Charon to be ferried across the underworld, and Romans at the nearby bubbling at Solfatara, a dormant crater emitting sulfuric fumes, which ancient Romans considered  entrance to  the Underworld.  The region of the Phlegraean Fields, site of the Gods’ war against the Titans, some 25 km west of Vesuvius, a region of some 24 volcanic craters that was first settled by Greeks in 730 BC, who called it the “burning fields” and may have associated the seeping grey and white smoke billowing up from its rocky terrain with Vulcan’s land.

But if the site of the former prison in Robben Island in South Africa has its own entrance to Hell–a likely place for one– lists many more–more matrixes of caves from the Cave of the Chorreadero in Chiapas to the Sibun Caves of Belize, entrance to Xibalba according to the sacred Mayan Popul Vuh, were believed entrances to the underworld, or the bubbling Lake Begoria in Kenya, where sulphurous fumes similarly seep from a volcanic crater in central Kenya’s rift valley, as flamingos fly overhead.  Lake Naivasha, northwest of Nairobi in Kenya, land of the Massai, was named by explorers Fisher and Thompson “Hell’s Gate” in 1883, probably due to the heat of its rocks and release of geothermal steam near the Suswa volcanoes; the region’s hot springs and geysers not provide the first center for generating geothermal energy as well as a popular tourist destination.  My favorite portal to hell is in Feng Du, in the Chongqing municipality–an actual ghost city, built in a way modeled after the Buddhist notion of Diyu, as a sort of theme-park, built over 1800 years ago, modeled after Naraka and including a bridge to the underworld as well as dioramas, buildings, and statues, whose ghost city is soon to be in large part submerged by the Three Gorges Dam–the “Door of Hell” will remain.

In the United Kingdom, folks have been accumulating actual entrances to Hell since 2002, racking up some 120, all of great names (Tooky; Famras; Bammy; Banu; Quetty OrarnaBenidormoVowo mi; Wheatle; Oilyn; SlipknotCrizzleUnderlow; Trensilon; Abracadansler; or Braaashteeefunorvallishhtuuu) in a format that is easily viewable.  The progressive discovery of new entrances reflects a realization about this site–a “constantly updated catalogue to Hell in and around the UK,” a sort of epilogue to Thatcherism; “Wheatle is gentle, luxurious and oozing with street-cred. This is the entrance from which Satan dispatches millions of useless inanimate objects to the gift shops and furniture stores of the UK. Wheatle is closed all day Thursday and is acoustically connected to Mkpg.”  Some of these places are perhaps better to visit than others, all connected to an invisible topography of Hell that the site does well to trace based on crowd-sourced observations with compellingly diverting detail:  “Vowo mi is the delivery point for the devil’s honey supply. The beehives of England have for centuries organised thrice-monthly deposits of best honey here in return for being allowed to live without satanic interference. The connection to the core is a simple plastic tube, 12cm in diameter. Scientists working for the government of Harold Wilson released a tiny survey vehicle into Vowo mi in 1961 almost immediately losing radio contact with the probe’s passenger the spider-monkey Kiki. Kiki is now the devil’s osteopath and can speak fluent Karatakak. Vowo mi has a good vibe and a pleasing aspect.” (Each has, conveniently, its own streetmap, if one is patient enough to follow the fictional geographies to the rather drab streetmaps themselves.)

This sort of collective authorship of locations of potential entrances seem pretty ingenious, if somewhat reflecting  J.K. Rowling’s whimsy in its identification of several sites:  “Asananc connects, via a big brass pipe, to an enormous frozen lake, fifty seven miles directly below. The explorer Lady Louise Kenilbaker was last seen alive here in 1924 as she entered Asananc, against all advice, on a personal quest to make contact with deep level ice-children. Asananc is not recorded on any OS map, but there are pencil sketches by Rushmount in the British Museum.”

We can now obtain adequate warning signs to post with adequate visibility:


It’s not a surprise that in the past century, “the number of persons being chosen by God to witness the reality of Hell,” according to one website that compiles accounts of visitors to Hell’s “Reality, “is greater then all prior centuries combined.”  This site argues that it seems that “as our world moves further away from belief in sin and punishment for sin, God increases His Divine Mercy by granting us more and more confirmations of that reality.”  The horrors of the twentieth century has led, even for more secular surfers of the internet, to a greater interest in noting that Hell has some plausible location after all.

For Blanchot, Hell was more of a state of mind, which one entered easily without moving anywhere as one struggled with the act of writing itself and was surrounded by the shadows that it summoned.

Is there an interest in relocating Hell with the illusion of precision of Google Maps?  It at any rate seems that the location of Hell is being more vividly redefined online than it had in previous years, as the topic of Hell’s location has expanded to the History Channel and also to Huffington Posteven more vividly than previous years.  The recent hell-sightings on the internet are even more concrete.  Atlas Obscura notes the existence of a recently created “Gates of Hell,” located near the small village in Turkmenistan of Derweze, a gap of 328 feet in width which has been on fire that stands in the Karakum desert, casting an unearthly red illumination for some forty years–since a Soviet drilling rig collapsed into a cavern of natural gas in 1971, creating an unknown entrance to hell that attracts visitors on the Silk Road.  An unnatural natural glow that can be seen for miles around in a crater that gapes sixty meters wide and is some twenty deep–a sort of surrogate foot of Mt. Doom that Peter Jackson unfortunately missed when scouting film sights, but which has made its rounds on the internet.  (This was especially unfortunate for folks who felt the films went over budget; I’m sure the first elected president of Turkmenistan, who has made the extinction of the fire burning since 1971 a priority for his first term–but despite the mandate first voiced in 2010, it is still generating its golden glow in Derweze.)


The entire region sits on seeping natural gases, and many of the 350 or so local nomadic residents like to thrown their cigarettes on the ground to generate bursts of flame like small party-favors.  This photograph, which has made the rounds online with success, emanates otherworldly light that seems to migrate heavenward, inverting the origin of light from the sun, with an effect that is reverential or almost spiritual in tone.

But once we do locate hell on Google Earth, how can we plot its relation to ourselves?  or is locating the site only a moment of temporary relief from our daily grind?


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Filed under "Hell's Gate", "Pluto's Gate", Aeneas, Apocalypse, Biblical Geography, Charon, Christopher Marlowe, Dante, Google Earth, Hell, Hieropylus, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Phlegraean Fields, Robben Island

Environmentally-Induced ADD

The disorientation of “environmentally-induced” Attention Deficit Disorder is not the result only of a piling up of diagnostic categories:  it is a piling up of detailed sensory stimulation, a lack of filters for hedonistic pleasures, an assault on the senses that defies information overload but approximates a disorientation of sensory overstimulation:  if ADD hyperactivity made it into DSM IV, entering a Whole Foods store and not knowing which aisle to walk down, even though you have entered the pleasure palace only in search of a tooth brush or some strawberries, is a bit of an induced disorganizational phenomenon in itself.  You find yourself under some sort of assault in a land of such overwhelming abundance where objects cry out as if you really need them, and sales assistants, who have the right to give away up to $20.00 of goods per day if it will boost sales, beckon with potentially enticing trays of moist carrot cake or fresh juices, all of them hard to ignore.  The attention to accumulating all of these goods under one rooftop and in such an attractive display makes it difficult for one to sustain attention to the task of shopping, or getting what one needs for the menu in your hand, as the culinary details with which one is assaulted or to which one is invited to be privy lead to repeated careless mistakes about putting things into your shopping cart.  Being “often needlessly distracted by external stimuli” (criteria number 8 in DSM IV) become a way of life when cruising that supermarket aisle, not to mention difficulty organizing things necessary for tasks (number 7), in this case leaving the store.  (Perhaps one also encounters a difficulty awaiting its turn to enter DSM V.)

This is an odd permutation of the cult of self-identifying as a locavore, or circumscribing the terrain from which cultivated food will be consumed to a restrictive radius.  As we discover the American terroir in our kitchens with Rowan Jacobsen, indulging in the locality of geographically specific flavors, we’re apt to wonder where we are even as we fantasize about the benefits of living off the land.  It’s no doubt in part that we need to remedy this sense of dislocation–of remove from the sources of our food–that we rush headlong into sourced tastes.  But there is something odd about being offered a geographic pedigree of locally farmed food and not being able to process whether you really need to relocate it into your refrigerator, or  single origin beans on whose origins you can’t place a value.  The collection in our high-end supermarkets of vegetables of excellence provenance, identified by agrarian footnotes beside their price tags, often seems intentionally and oddly disorienting in itself. so culturally removed is our own map of the origin of eggplants, apples, cranberries or kiwi from our sense of where we are and the reasons why we entered into this store, anyways.  Is the scholarly apparatus on those placards informative or a nagging distraction?  It is hard or at least a challenge to hold in one’s head the map to which objects of fixed provenance in the supermarket correspond.

But the cost is one of extreme disorientation as one enters the brightly-lit floor of the local supermarket that caters to such high-end locovoric tastes.  It is one thing to have a map of terroir on the wall in a wine shop for customers; the map is a tool of identification and situation of the grape or the vine, and demand a degree of expertise (or map-literacy) to be read.  There was a clear identification of provenance in an ice-cream store that boasted to use only the milk of family farms in Vermont for its super-premium blends (as did, at first, and to some extent still, Ben & Jerry’s) or the ice-cream pleasure palace in Bologna, Italy, that claims to use only milk from the Romagna (the local region surrounding the city in north-central Italy) to make its highly saturated super-rich gelato (la Sorbetteria Castiglione)–but locovoraciousness looses focus as it is staged in a setting of consummate marketing and, its counterpart, hedonistic consumption.

As if response to the criteria of sourcing vegetables from a ten-mile radius at some local farmers’ markets in the region, the folks at Whole Foods have offered to clear this up for customers in an on-line local foods map that allows us to look at what local goodies stores offer across the country–even though this can help us sort the information overload of the aisles, as we look scour the country for the locally produced goods that might be available at our own Whole Foods outlet–or develop the sort of eco-lust of a committed locovore at the foods available to other Whole Foods customers around the country, leaving one only to gaze at the mapquest image to dream of purchasing foods in other supermarkets of brighter  aisles.  The idea is to think local, but market nationally.

Whole Foods Local Foods Map

One kind of looks only at the geography of the sort of foods one wants to eat, in other words, as much as the folks that live there.  A similar problem of mapping goes on in the supermarket.  The question is how to map the abundance, and how to map the variety of distinctly sourced goods.  That there is little seasonal variation to inform the vegetal abundance in the aisles of supermarkets increased the disorientation; one finds year-round tomatoes from Mexico or plums and berries from Chile that have organic claims.  Flourescent lighting doesn’t help, and the nicely lit fruits and vegetables, often under their own miniaturized rain-showers, beckon with a take-me-home sheen as the mute locally farmed sirens of the produce aisle.  A simple aisle-map won’t suffice since the sensory stimulation of the store makes it hard to not enter its labyrinth.  Perhaps we’ll all be better encouraged to take Ritalin before going shopping in the future, or acquire better filters to screen out beckoning samples and signage that boasts fidelity to locally farmed goods, if one adopts a generously restrictive meaning for the term.

The disorientation is not only geographic, but sociological.  Of course, when we are looking with lust at those avocados, red cabbages, plums, and apples with a sort of existential desire, it’s tempting to forget the rest of the world and its social geography, so much is the origin of the apple the prime focus of our ecological concern.  Not many folks even enter into this flood-lit arena of healthy and tasty treats.  Matt Iglesias’ retweet of Jarret Barrios’ division of the geography of Whole Foods v. Wal-Mart stores in the Bay Area maps a nice geography of consumption patterns, even if one allows that Wal-Mart is interested in buying cheaper real estate, in terms of the markets that each chain store caters:



At least one can see who might go into all those Whole Foods to be disoriented by their variety, or speculate on what their disposable incomes are likely to be.  And one wonders at the elite charmed circle that those organic veggies seem destined to feed.

It is a far more focussing experience to focus attentiveness on the eating of sourced foods; food does belong on the plate.  Now, a locally sourced hamburger from Marin farms of the sort sold at Super-Duper is a great  example of “sourcing the previously unsourced,” as it were, and turning back the tide of intentional geographic anonymity.  And who could resist eating beef under a map of the regions of cuts of beef?  What better image for a burger joint that featured grass-fed beef from Marin county?

Photograph by David Paul Morris

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Filed under Attention Deficit Disorder, DSM IV, Walmart, Whole Foods

Mapping Approaches to Airports: on the Social Production of Air-Space

The medallions that map the routes taken by airplanes to the world’s metropoles on the first floor of San Francisco’s International airport offer curious artifacts of the first Jet Age, when air travel provided something of a miracle of linking the world’s cities in a vision of post-war harmony, even if they were only included in 2000.  For without imagining their exhaust, fumes, or the inevitable aural disturbances that are created by flight paths in the urban spaces that they boast to connect, the eloquent maps including weather isobars of inlaid brass in the terrazzo of the International arrivals terminal show the locations and arrival routes at international airports worldwide, spanning some  12,000 square feet of floor space.

They promote a triumphal vision of global interconnection, and an image of air-space that airline companies have defined, tracing the approaches to individual airports from the air.




Today, the density of airplane flights across the world is so fantastic that the collective inscription of routes that now carry an estimated 77 million passengers a day, or a billion and half a year, placing a sizable portion of folks in the air at any given time.  The range fo flight paths that serve an estimated 3.6 billion passengers in commercial flights is so dense that, an open source logging, tracking, and mapping commercial airplane flights, map online, displace the inhabited world with a curiously organic constellations of densely overlapping paths:  the repo for storing flight informaiton offer ways to render flights on multiple projections, in ways that knit together space in fundamentally new ways.  Does the constellation of flight paths create a new organic mode of modeling spatial relations?


openflights.pngOpen Flights


It is quite conceptually challenging to map actual overhead flight traffic–and even to visualize routes of national air-traffic, given their complexity and difference from most forms of travel, but reliance on similar needs to correlate flight paths, heights, and plans.  It is hard (and unfamiliar) to map sonic disturbances, even if it is familiar to map supersonic flight.  But it is fascinating to map how flight-paths impact the ground in the course of take-offs and descents: the zones where airplanes descend over cities have only recently begun to be charted.  Indeed, the multiple interests in charting airspace have only begun to be evident as airspace threatens to encroach urban space.  Indeed, if it is more accurate to map the paths of flight by the distance between global airports, the distorting crutch of a Mercator projection seems to be more recognizable–even if the density between airports so intense from Europe to America as of 2012, shown below, so as to render the contours of continents illegible, and almost erase Europe from the map–but seems so much more immediately satisfying as a way to show spatial linkages on formal grounds–if only since its curves suggest the terrestrial globe’s curvature–perhaps even more when the routes are rendered is drawn without satellite imagery of earth cover–or indeed any base layer, and focussing on airports locations alone.


Mercator Fligths.pngOpen Flights


air_routes-1.pngCartoSkill/Open Flights


Both suggest the increasing warping and shrinkage of space, but do so in ways that are oddly abstracted, given the range of data that they marshal, from the interests at stake in mapping flight paths–or in rendering the unique perspective that being in flight offers.

The very terminology we use to map flight patterns in the liminal landing areas around air strips reveal competing interests at stake in their definition, and might expose the lack of clear terminology to express the different interests of mapping flight from the position of the ground:   “fly-over” areas precede landing paths near airports; “overlay zones” around airports try to regulate the relation buildings near airports, establishing limits for building inhabited space; “noise contour maps” map impact and impingement of sound;  “overflight zones” animal sanctuaries’ exposure to flight-paths. The “fly over zone” oddly suggests the remove of the airplane to lived space, even as such maps map the impact that flight landings have on residential areas.  We used to refer to the “fly-over zone” in dismissive tones as the area between the coasts led them to hop between New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle or Boston with little contact with those areas between–but also to conceal some anxiety at the limits of this constrained geographic awareness–increased density of air-traffic that threatens to max out runways make overlay zones  into potentially contested areas in need of mapping.

The interests are at stake in the commercial expansion of airports and the determining the criteria for the limits of acceptable levels of environmental noise and pollution.  While maps locate specific sites of population in a universal matrix, the impact of the descent and take-off of airplanes on urban space suggest a troubling overlap of navigable airspace, a wooly and capacious category that conceals its overcrowded nature, and inhabitable land, focussing on the grey zone on the margins of the airport.  To get our heads around airspace, whose considerable scale is almost unfathomable, let’s try to examine the impact of its contours on urban space in this post. The sociologist Henri Lefebvre drew a distinction between the production of representations of space, of social spaces, and of individual mental representations of space in The Production of Space, when he sought to capture the diversity of spatial production within the city’s everyday life:  Lefebvre argued relations between the production of social, the representation of space, and the space individuals represent to themselves demanded attention as distinct tools or “spatializing practices” in urban space, if not the political character of the social production of urban space.

But Lefebvre didn’t consider airspace within this constellation–a space that exists outside but on the margins of social space–but it is a qualitatively different image of a commercial space that has been increasingly imposed upon lived space or inhabited space without much planning or regulation–particularly when it comes to take-offs and descents, the main focus of this post.  The mapping of the incursion of airspace on lived space It’s perhaps not only a coincidence that since Lefebvre’s book appeared in the early 1970s, inter-city airline travel has boomed as a social sphere, if not a space in and of its own right, often removed from urban space but on its margins.

And paths of flight have only begun to be mapped in their diversity.  The density of air-traffic indeed may have even changed our perception of space in complicated ways, with both the rise of faster planes and long-distance flights and the common nature of air travel and of plane arrivals as common ways of entering cities or departing from them.  And landings and departures, from commercial airline travel or air transit to air transport to unmanned flights, has begun to impinge in increasingly perceptible ways on lived space.  The lived space below the webs of air travel, take-offs, and landings suggests a persistence of place in a geography of flight, as in places that are crisscrossed with air routes, airplane flight is too often naturalized as white noise.  “[The noise] bothered me until I realized that, when I hear the planes, it’s always a reminder that there is life out there, and people are traveling, and traveling is a big part of me,” noted a Turkish immigrant living by the San Diego International Airport with some stoicism in 2005, trying to look at the upside of this rumbling that then punctuated her day in 15 second interruptions, coming roughly often every minute and a half.  “So even if I can’t go home to Turkey and visit my family,” she reasoned, “I know that there’s this possibility that one of them could get on a plane or that I could get on a plane and go back.” Most flight travel in the United States are primarily supervised not by localities, but the Federal Aviation Administration.  The legal status of restriction to these paths is limited or constrained by the fact that no general policy seems to exist–indeed, the FAA is slightly compromised in its interested in fostering commerce, as much as protecting the safety of urban space or local rights, and has limited ability as a national organization to mediate between local residents’ desires as it negotiates the interests in maintaining commercial hubs to foster the expansion of commercial national airspace.

When I was in San Diego last weekend, the close proximity of the airport to the harbor and marina made me think of the huge growth in airspace in past decades, and difficulties of mapping airspace in American cities.  The huge expansion in air traffic since the initial growth of airports in the 1950s, combined with recent growth in belts around cities and in formerly extra-urban areas have led to a common phenomenon of living in or on the margins of an overlay zone, in cities like San Diego.  Although  issues of noise were not a problem in the early age of airports in the United States, dominated  by smaller-sized planes and far fewer flights, since the expansion of non-stop nation-wide flights in the 1960s,  commercial cargo services have created a new geography of air flights and air use, and an increased  intensity of air travel at hubs, as well as the consequent expansion of a huge web of air travel, with attendant plane landings and take-offs, that create a virtual web of crisscrossing flight-paths across the country. Mapping the navigation of individual routes is far more direct.




Yet the image of a nation bound by flight-paths of different carriers already seems to wrap itself in a serpentine fashion around the geographic map.  Basing his work on a mine of FAA data, Aaron Koblin’s “Flight Patterns” uses data to track flight-paths to map of our active airspace–an image of which we are rarely conscious and constitute a maze difficult to spatially comprehend, but whose ghostly network exists around nodes of airline hubs and links arcs of aerial paths.  (This is a hard balancing act:  NASA indeed predicted in 2007 that allowing computer software such as Terminal Sequencing and Spacing to remotely coordinate the flights of the aircraft that simultaneously course across the skies would not only increase the regularity of landings and take-offs at airports but allow airplane companies–perish the thought!–to be a blue to manage an increased density up to twenty percent by utterly banishing human controllers from the scene.

In a finding appealing to cost-cutters, NASA forecast that the combination of more autonomous planes and increasingly automizing traffic control would bring a significant savings to airplane companies; the prospect of switching to automated copilots alone might reduce labor costs in passenger aircraft by some billions of dollars every year.)  The wonderfully organic image of the flight paths across the country seem to render something like an Indonesian stick map.




Our awareness of the rapidly growing density of flight paths may be masked by the mental images we receive from personalized in-flight tracking maps, which perpetuate an illusion of navigating the airways or wile away hours by mapping progress to a destination one rarely registered consciousness of traveling toward, sitting in an isolated cocoon at 60,000 feet, as if we were pilgrims bravely undertaking a cross-country trek, accentuating our experience by wildly magnifying the plane out of any relation to the map on which it is super-imposed.


American 22 in flight map


This map has a wonderful ability to place us in a sort of  relation to a local environment:  we are the bright green moving icon, launched on a dotted line across the country, as we try to equate our perspective with the projected flight path over the screen of a static map. Contrast this, say, to the sort of snapshot that Anthony took at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington of the planes in flight above the country at a moment in 2006, that led him to “imagine the pressure of Airport control conductors . . . at major airports” as they managed flights’ course:


Airplane Flight Maps

  Of course, the icons of individual planes, which seem about the size only slightly smaller that seen by observers on the ground,  wildly out of scale in relation to the background map of the United States, so that they seem to crowd the skies  like buzzing flies.  It is somewhat reassuring that there are directional corridors of national travel across the country, we can see in a map of flight paths; the density of the lines boggle the mind even when we distinguish flight paths at over 30.00 feet, and we face only a ghostly spider’s web of blue and green streams that designate the arcs of inter-city flight paths:


Traffic avobe 30,000 feet


Even looking at the Bay Area alone, it’s hard to get one’s mind around the inhabitation of the sky above 30,000 feet, marked as they are by streaks, and contrary to the idea of inhabitation as well as covering a space greater than most can intellectually comprehend:




Given the need to maintain protection for wildlife sanctuaries, there is a considerable body of maps regulating overflight altitude above protected populations of marine species.



Such maps don’t address urban space, but they do suggest the problems of defining similar overflight regulations of areas human residents inhabit.

It’s less hard to comprehend crisscrossing paths of air-travel from outside the passenger seat.  We can imagine and track the divergence of commercial airspace from a ground-bound perspective as it impacts a city’s social space.   The government-sponsored expansion of airspace has in many ways created an odd and un-natural urban geography between pathways of flight and urban residences:   fly-over zones are mapped over and on top of social space, and airspace as mapped over lived space.  The relation of fly zones to personal  is not only figurative; fly-over zones impinge in concrete sensory ways on the mental space of the individual, which is now permeable to the  unnatural rumble of the turbines overhead.

What’s it like to live under a flight path?   The protection of airspace by the FAA makes it not the best government agency to represent how planes impinge on the ground:  the mapping and protection of flight paths creates a bit of a super-jurisdictional commercial space with limited attention to how flights permeate the mental space of nearby residents.  As if some would naturalize the rumble of a nearby volcano, a sandstorm, or the Santa Ana winds, there’s the knowing acknowledgement, with a shrug, at the convergence of the airplanes overhead.  (This is a soundscape that is worth recording in its entirety, of which the  YouTube video below offer a more condensed time-stop spliced condensation that doesn’t really capture the improbable regularity with which cruises intrude on the sunny street-scene.) Let’s examine the ways airspace is mapped.  Indeed, the FAA has recently been required to publish a set of “noise exposure maps” or NEMs for public notice, as the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act omits airplane noise.  They hope to provide an open forum or acknowledge public input to  the environmental impact of increased air traffic, responded to local resistance to the adverse environmental effects of expanding airports in WisconsinFlorida, Toronto, CharlotteArizona, Sacramento, and elsewhere, given the conflict of interest for the FAA in negotiating local noise regulations and  improve commerce through air traffic as they seek to prevent the expansion of commercial areas around airports that are increasingly becoming engulfed in extra-urban space. But it is the impacting of areas of inhabitation with air-space that creates perhaps the stickiest situation for mapping flight travel for the FAA, and poses the deepest problems of how we expand our airspace at the same time as curtail the impact of that airspace on something we might call quality of life, but has much larger consequences and implications than that numinous and intentionally generic term implies.  Fly-over zones near San Diego exemplify air-traffic appears about to max out , as expanding airspace impacts residential space. The frequent the flights at San Diego International Airport over residential space at a distance as close as 400 feet does not seem a great feat of modern urban planning:  nestled near the port of Coronado, right by Highway 5,  the airport is a stone’s thrown away from the city’s Marina and three miles from the Pacific.  Perhaps this relates to the fact that the city is a long-time base for the military, with it’s own frequent air-shows and culture of naval and air-force bases.  But the expansion of the city around the town of Coronado has paralleled a transformation of the former Lindberg Airport to a three-terminal sprawling cluster of buildings, maximizing its use in response to economic development of the city, apparently naturalized within the coursing freeways that surround it, while dealing with only two runway zones.


Airport Overlay--San Diego



Planes fly overhead at a distance that seems roughly equal to a football field.  In a manner that provides limited negotiation between local inhabitants and the regulation of airspace, we find only the most general stipulation in Part 91, Title 14 in the Code of Federal Regulations about maintaining a minimum altitude of 1,000 feet for air travel over “congested areas,” which is waived in the event of take-off or landing.  And any restriction on airport use or control of flight paths depend on the approval of the FAA, according to the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990 (ANCA), an approval that must rest on demonstrating that any restriction isn’t a curb or impediment to interstate commerce and is “not inconsistent” with “safe and efficient use” of “navigable” airspace:

The airport restricts or “disallows” take-offs in the wee hours of the night between 11:30 pm and 6:30 am but with over 600 departures and arrivals each day and growing, the distinctive combination of a rumble and high-pitched reedy whine from planes that literally fly over apartments at a distance of as close as 400 feet create an inescapable part of the aural environment of urban spaces–with noise levels averaging 150 dB at 100 feet.  The delineation of precise paths of approach airplanes must take to the runway creates the working framework to descend over six-lane freeways to enter the area ringed by palm trees right by San Diego Bay and the old Marina.  It all seems pretty disordered when one enters on commuter plane, but the pathways of arrival are mapped in detail, allowing one to enter along the following elevations, which seem designed to encourage a slow approach from the ocean or inland into the two runways, avoiding the City of San Diego or Mission Bay area, for which landing would require a far more precipitous route of descent, and would anyway be discouraged by the orientation of the field’s two major runways:


Airport Approach Overlay Zone


These points of entry overhead are in a sense defined.  But the dramatically rising number of flights that land or take off to the East create a sizable amount of traffic, rumbling as they do.  While the restriction of the heights of buildings in the pathways of flights are legislated to be no taller than forty feet, there seem to be a way to guarantee safety by not impinging on residential areas in region where 10,000 houses and over 20,000 residents are packed, in a combination of rental apartments and condos.  Of course, most residential areas in California are made up of houses of less than forty feet, anyways, so while this dedicated to the safety around airports and clear runway views for pilots, the restrictions on elevations in the above map–a sort of contour map of the minimum elevation of flight paths–try to map the boundaries that determine relations of airspace and lived space. Overlay zones protect the more verdant Mission Bay area, the more desirable ocean residence, the mid-century area around the city of Coronado–now a suburb whose harbor just getting its first restoration of buildings ringed by palms–creates the backdrop for approaching flights whose entry zones offers an eery aural backdrop oddly incongruous with a harbor populated with small boats sailing at full sail.  The approach of large airplanes over the bay is encouraged, with access from the west, over the Pacific, while restrictions limit flights over San Diego itself.   Guidelines of air travel encourage pilots to descend from the Pacific or over the harbor by two routes of approach, avoiding low travel over the protected Mission Bay area and making convenient two access lanes:


Airport Approach Overlay Zone


But Lindberg was expected to exceed its capacity for air travel by 2015, and there is now no clear alternative to remapping flight density or flight paths in sight. The mapping of air travel around the city, as it were, reflects the constitution of layover zones where flights are restricted over more inhabited areas.  In such maps, routes of flight are granted near-legal precedence over the priorities of folks who live under flight-paths, since commerce must be protected over all.  (This might include, for example, the importation of high-grade Sushi from Japan, on its way with JAL cargo jets for consumption in high-end restaurants in Las Vegas, or a slew of FedEx planes ready to depart, as well as all those commuter flights to Los Angeles.)  While privileging commercial needs seems reasonable, one would not of course expect landings or take-offs to occur in densely inhabited areas anyway, so the stipulation seems bureaucratic legalese, with limited ramifications.  Yet since “neither the City of San Diego nor the State of California can regulate the altitude, speed, location or direction of aircraft in flight,” the road is literally open to free market expansion of flight routes, especially if market forces dictate the creation of airstrips situated cheek by jowl beside residential areas. In much of the nation, the original sites of airports built and constructed some fifty to seventy years ago were planned in areas then outside of the city limits, outside of settled zones.

The expansion of the airport as a hub has led to further construction of buildings in the seventies and eighties, even as their location is increasingly taken over by urban sprawl to such a degree that they’ve been swallowed up in the city itself–if still not in what constitutes its most “congested areas.”  Since it was legally stipulated no buildings be constructed within fifty feet of FAA-established approach paths to the airport, with the exception of those less than 40 feet in height, a large number of relatively short buildings cluster around the flight approach paths at San Diego International Airport’s Lindberg Field.  In other areas of the country, the FAA has turned its attention to the impingement of “development creep” around airports formerly located at a remove from  populated areas, but now more ringed by malls and housing developments and residences, creating a need to impose overlay zones to protect  “public investment in airports,” as much as safety–several airports less economically important have been forced to be closed because of development creep. The FAA, meanwhile, has been legally required to make public  limits of permitted airport noise on the internet in a set of “sound contour maps,” to map the neighborhoods and residential areas impinged by airport noise, as this map of the area around LAX, which restricts approaches to from the east and west, in an attempt to reduce noise pollution in more affluent areas whose property value could be compromised, and only marginally create intrusive noise pollution from residential inhabitants, cast here as if the mitigation of noise exposure imitated the orientation of runways, and conveniently sidestepping issues of noise pollution below the approach corridors of most flights in poorer neighborhoods:


LAX Sound Contour Map



The desire to “make [available] noise exposure and land use information from such noise exposure maps [prepared under 14 CFR part 150] . . . in an appropriate format” created a neat set of contour maps for Oakland in 2006, which took advantage of the planning of the airport along the Bay over which it places the greatest square footage of noise, and effectively removes anything over 70 dB–the sound of a car engine from fifty feet away–from all but a few inhabitants:


Oakland Airport

Yet is the distribution of noise is difficult to steer from urban areas, mapping the impact of noise impingement has led to some dramatic improvements in levels of airline noise in some residential areas, as around Midway Airport, a small one to be sure, which suggests a considerable reduction over time of the level as of fly-over noise from planes in Chicago:

Midway International Airport Noise Contour Map


The selection of maps raise questions about the monitoring, measurement, and dissemination of models of noise-reduction, to be sure.  The FAA seems to clearly desire to project an image of making these maps available for easy download and consultation, as if to give a sense of transparency to the problem of noise pollution in overhead flights, and to convey a degree of public trust.  But there is a   countervailing tendency to naturalize the map, and to naturalize the overhead flight zone, which stacks the cards against any attempt to effectively monitor the impingement of flight zones in areas of urban life, or prevent an idea of the importance of reducing ambient sounds from the social space of urban areas.  Once the threshold is established, to be sure, acceptance is on the way.  Unclear local means of redress  exist, despite the availability of maps online, and we still haven’t assessed acceptable limits for airport noise or the elevation of overhead flights. Sure, in San Diego there’s a lot of pleasure in seeing the planes enter the urban airspace for some air shows– –that echoes how my mother was taken by her parents in the 1940s to watch the planes land and take off at La Guardia Airport on the Flushing Bay waterfront in Queens New York, then the New York Municipal Airfield.  But there’s a danger we naturalize airport noise not in the environment, among the quite variegated sound map of urban life from motorcycles to tow trucks and diesel trucks.


Sound Map of Missionjpg


And, more deeply, there’s the criteria question of whether one means sounds, or the potential other effects of airplanes flying close overhead, and entering inhabited residential areas that are filling up the areas around extra-urban areas.  Isolated motorcycle sounds are the greatest dB count on Saturday morning in the mission, and the neighborhood is spared the sonic intrusion of flight paths.  The effects of that much noise pollution around LAX or SAN have already been removed from the table, perhaps as demand for airspace remove public input for the design of a map of urban airspace off the map. Such planned flight paths that skirt the crowded or more affluent areas of urban residence doesn’t, of course, even start to take into account the density of a map of unmanned flights across the country.  At the risk of caving into the fears of the right wingers, the pleasure many CIA operatives took in their use of drone flights as a relatively error-free incursion into foreign airspace seems an odd extension of the resolution of problems of mapping air flights by legitimizing rising air traffic over residential areas.  There are, of course, entirely other way of raising questions about the pretty clouded ethical issues of occupation of airspace by unmanned objects–but the uses of attack planes to arrive at positions that cel phones or GPS locates suggest an expansion of their coverage of airspace.




Remotely piloted aircraft are so densely flown over the country, if this chart is to be believed, that one can’t but wonder about the ways that our current process of mapping flight “overlay” zones around airports relates to the bartering for access to foreign airspace–or the legal wrestling with the notion that a government can barter or grant off rights for sending unmanned drones into populated areas.  We have coerced the ISI into agreements that all drone flights over Pakistan operate under covert US authority, in other words, and silence be preserved over the invasive nature of their entry into foreign airspace with a mission to kill. In the process, we’ve ceased to defend or see as legitimate a process of open local negotiation about the organization of airspace, even though many of the casualties are nearby residents in the wrong place at the wrong time; the Central Intelligence Agency presumes or assumes airspace rights and flight zones as legitimate tools to target individual inhabitants, in ways that would have little legal justification fifteen years ago.  There seems some parallel in the trade-offs with which we’ve decided, rather than boost the local economy, to protect increased commercial traffic, and to legislate permissible zones of approach, and let the residential market take its own path.  To do so may map an inevitable collision course between airspace and lived space by affirming the exposure or vulnerability of our spatial situation in the face of air traffic above.


Filed under air travel, open data, over-fly maps, Overlay Zones, Santa Ana WInds

Proust Mapping Combray and the Mapping of Brains

Marcel Proust imagined that he accessed memories by chance encounters with sensations that conjured the associations of a specific moment identified with his childhood with a shudder that passed throughout his entire body.  In a precursor to the sensory cortex map, Proust–whose father Adrien Proust was not only a physician but had studied neurasthenia and diagnoses of stroke and hysteria, as well as being a professor of Hygiene, and introduced his son Marcel, after Marcel was diagnosed with neurasthenia, to the neurologist Edouard Brissot, in hopes to help his son’s conditions of asthma and poor sleep.  Proust opted on Bristol’s advice to seek the cure and clinic of Paul Solliers, whose expertise in emotional memory provided something of a model for Proust’s own exploration of the deep ties he felt to his mother, immediately after her death, in the cork-lined room where he withdrew to write what would become an early map of involuntary memories, and their ties to the sensory motor cortex, best known as À la recherche du temps perdu.

Proust’s detailed and vividly focussed explorations of the depth of his emotional memories offer a sort of counter-model to the diagnosis of neurasthenia, and to the neurological mapping of hysteria and neurasthenia on the ventricles or sectors of brain.  His extended meditation on the origins of memory and their sense-based nature of such deeply emotional and cognitive ties that he had developed–or failed to develop–with different members of his tightly-knit family, as a therapy of remapping of past emotions by found memories.   The Proustian shudder at the immediate recovery and recognition of the past from unexpected stimulation recalls how the neurologist Penfield later believed that a memory could be activated or stimulated electrically, based on his own stimulations of sites in the brain; for Proust,, the associations of a taste or smell would bring with them not only the object in question, but the emotionally rich quality of where it was first consumed, and the setting with which it was associated:  the primal memory of sharing tea was triggered by the madeleine once more, an argument that was so persuasive that Patricia Wells even sought to map the availability of these madeleines in Paris for readers of the New York Times, as if they would carry similar meanings even for those who didn’t eat them in childhood.  But Proust’s meditation on the sense-based nature of involuntary memories that suddenly unfolded for the mind proved less of a record of lived geography–or edible geography–than an introspective examination of the links of pathways in the brain.  Yet for Proust, the madeleine was most important, of course, as a key to keeping her memory alive.

Because Proust described with exquisite richness how he was flooded, upon that unmistakable taste, not only with the memory of eating them but the memories that the biscuit could produce, so that he was suddenly in contact with the “immense edifice” of the past, there must be some curiosity for just how specific that taste was.  The madeleine was not only a taste, but served as if a stand-in for conjuring scenes of his lost childhood on the page in the small cork-lined room where he retired to write each night.  Proust clearly theorized, as the son of a close associate of the neurologist Charcot, how memories opened reluctantly but almost spontaneously to the mind, prompted by connections to taste or smell, as if the senses provided an entrance to a sort of map to time past, able to well up and immerse oneself in recovered events of a lost time, as if ready to be once more witnessed, even though the same events long seemed dead.  Both Renaissance and Enlightenment physicians had long mapped the neurological stimuli that the brain processed through the ganglia and pathways that branched off of the spinal column, to affirm the importance of the brain as a site for processing how the soul inhabited the body, but for Proust, the triggering of the pathways that were evoked by recognizable sensations provided the pathways that his writing of the depths of memories traced.



Bartholomew Eustachi, Spinal Column, engraved by Giulio de’ Musi  (1552; rep. by Lancisi, 1714)


Proust famously took the sense-based nature of involuntary memories as the nervous stimuli to trace the deep emotional associations of a past that was in danger of fading in the years immediately following the death of his mother, Jeanne Clémence Weil, so deeply was he preoccupied by fears he would lose emotional touch with her or worse actually be complicit in allowing her love to fade or disappear.  Was there another map that we can trace of the excavation of these memories?  With the online publication of the manuscript pages of these notebooks, recently seen as evidence of an extensive editing of which future manuscripts may not bear traces, one can see the active construction of a sort of mental map by which his revisions, cancellations, and additions themselves constructed the chain of associations he described, amassing further details and memories on the page to better capture the mental images by which he reveled in being overpowered–and was so committed to rediscovering and keeping alive by allowing himself to map his memories of her through the recalling of sensations that transported him to his past.

The opening up of lost memories was, for Proust, almost natural–and almost physiological.  As befits describing a process that is almost natural, at the end of the opening chapter of Swann’s Way, Proust used the extended metaphor of the unfurling of life-like leaves and flowers in a parlor game of watching Japanese folded papers ineluctably expand in a bowl of water–an import of the late nineteenth century mode of Japonaiserie–to describe the embodied nature that his memories came to take in his mind and by extension on the page.  The device of paper flowers that expanded in a life-like way, as if in stop-action photography, was something like a microcosm of the materializing of Combray, the childhood home which the second chapter returns to in more topographically fleshed out detail, whose church, bakeries, city streets, former inhabitants and of gardens materialized before his eyes as if in spontaneous fashion, and on which he leads readers on the most privileged sort of tour.

The concrete metaphor of an expanding paper garden of folded flowers prepare readers for the unfolding of a map of associations that conjures up material beings and places for his mind’s eye, transporting Proust toward a chain of further associations tied to a sudden realization that he has returned to a specific place not available to “the memory of the intelligence,” but waiting to be born in a deeper region of his mind, rooted in instinctual familiarity with a privileged taste.

The taste of a madeleine with his tea becomes  a metaphor for how the act of writing opens a previously inaccessible perceptions of the past materialized in his mind that had seemed lost to memory, that are now recovered in exquisite detail:  even if “the information it gives about the past preserves nothing of the past itself,” leading him on a sort of mental road map of associations that opened concretely tactile forms that open which had been lost to his senses once again, in the manner the  Japanese folded papers that could not be seen to suggest forms expand to take form when immersed in sitting water; out of forgotten ghostly forms, figures and places “assume colors and distinctive shapes,” and a population emerges of the past as he suddenly acknowledges “flowers, houses, human figures, firm and recognizable” that previously seemed effectively unknown.  The evocation of the place seems the recovery of a mental map, a mysterious communion with oneself that re-creates tactile images of a lost Combray.  But when one looks at the pages of his notebooks, the illusion of such a passive unfolding–an idealistic image of something like a moment of grace or mystical communion–is shown as tightly bound up in the writing process of filling those notebooks with ideas and then fuller versions recollections that were augmented as he wrote them out.

Proust was of course engaged in the problem of summoning up that past every night as he entered his private cork-lined writing chamber in his quilted bathrobe, to immerse himself in a task of recalling “lost time” in his five-volume À la recherche du temps perdu.  In an isolated fashion, Proust dedicated himself to  the very processes of mental associations that he recorded for posterity in the manuscript notebooks that mapped his account of the past by revisions, additions and associations that might occur on a second glance.  The cork-lined quasi-monastic sound-proof cellula–a room he fashioned after a monastic cel, lined with cork as a site to eliminate the outside world–created a private space for expansively investigating memories, where he could dedicate himself to dilating upon them to follow them on a map of the past as it unfolded– and on which the past unfolded with material detail in the manner water saturated those paper flowers and led them to assume new  shape, color, and vivid detail.  This was a rhetorical trick.   But it depended on making a sort of map by which he allowed readers to enter into the past that was so vivid to him, so that they appeared to do so at the very time that he explored it.

The notebooks reveal the extent of associations that Proust followed as he wrote and re-read, as if adding new converging memories to those existing and actively revising descriptions of the first, and allowing, as it were, the flowers to unfold, as does the landscape around Combray and the town itself.  These are mental creations, but they unfolded on the page.



An inveterate archeologist of the emotions, Proust described how he hoped to recover the subjects of childhood that are almost alive, “palpitating deep inside me,” as a “visual memory which is attached to this taste and is trying to follow it to me,” but is “struggling” to “reach the clear surface of my consciousness” and “to rise up from the deepest part of me.”  The intensity of his writing is suggested in the pages stored in the Bibliothèque National de France‘s collections.  He described, more poetically, the mapping of associations, intense memories, and deep personal bonds as opening, almost passively, as the Japanese paper gardens unfolded in water, but were excavated with great care from his memories as he followed their associations to their end.

We now openly discuss mapping the neurology of the physical mind in far more concrete terms than Proust, and indeed use maps to clarify the sort of truth-claims we like to make about specific individual minds.  Mapping the mind is a felicitous phrase recent interest in neurological explanations and diagnoses.  The figure of the map both because suggests a new frontier, able to be charted and understood by new cartographers, and gives such clear epistemic or diagnostic powers to the brain-visualizations that MRI’s and other media produce.  This mind is less of a thing in which we are in control, but something that is more likely to control us in ways we can’t fully ever actually apprehend.  In place of the poetic “My mind to me a kingdome is/Such present joyes therein I find,” the question “Is it Me or My Mind?” dominates internet chatrooms and online discussion.  One of the classic images that maps the body onto its primary motor cortex has been recently called into question as brain maps have provided an increasingly complex maps of the motor cortex were drawn; even as it is abandoned, this textbook image suggests an initial map that modeled the mind’s motor cortex by the gross proportions  of motor nerves dedicated to sense-perceptions and motion:  the mind is concerned here not as being the site of memories, as for Penfield, but a site where we can map the nerve endings that go to our body parts, in a way that might tell us something about what it is to be human:  look not only at that prehensile thumb, but that huge gaping mouth, opening wide as if to expect a tongue depressor, that shows how refined are our abilities for speech, among other things.


Motor Homunculus



The efforts in the last two decades to create a far more detailed neurologically map of the brain have far surpassed the homunculus of the motor cortex, rendering it outdated and rudimentary.  Whereas the familiar homunculus was gloriously embodied, we now map by embodying the brain.  We are all increasingly familiar encountering images of brains that make claims of scientific description, brain-images that “make claims on us because they portray kinds of brains,” as Joseph Dumit has recently observed, that raise questions about the mapping the normality of a brain.  The brain image has come to offer an image of the “objective self,” indeed, against which we can fashion or shape new objective selves; while some of these afflictions definitely have biological origins, the mapped image becomes a bit of a objectified talisman of one’s identity.


Objective Selves

The essentialization of different kinds of brains is encouraged by the very imaging techniques that are used to distinguish one brain from another, and in an era that places a premium on neurological  meaning, the mapping of the mind by a PET scan or an MRI is readily believed to promise a diagnosis of schizophrenia, depression, ADD, Alzheimer’s or even normalcy.  We cannot tell exactly what is going on in these brains, but they do look different, or “map” differently. Objective truth lies, of course, in the map.  Images of the mind, Dumit argues, serve as forms that unconsciously persuade us of their rightness as facts, and then to move from the identification of a “categorical difference between two types of humans that corresponds naturally to the two different kinds of brains.”  For Dumit argues that the resulting brain image puts us face-to-face with the question of our own normalcy, in ways we wouldn’t have considered earlier, by inviting us to map our minds in relation to a mapped normal.

“How do we know,” Wittgenstein famously asked, “that we have a brain, if we have never seen it?”  Proust saw the mind and saw the process of recollection on the written page.  In our more neurologically obsessed culture, a culture also obsessed with mapping, an MRI will illuminate the ‘connective tracts’ in the brain and “the resulting map may allow a better understanding of what drives the disorder” and allow us to seek treatments from Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) as “needed to tweak this circuitry,” David Dobbs put it.  High-dimensional brain mapping of the hippocampus can offer new insights of the location of depression and of its state.   These visualizations of the brain itself provides a basis for identification that are, comfortingly or discomfortingly (your pick), readily available online:

Depressed:Not Depressed PET

(One may perhaps even map, with enough screening of brains, what states have more citizens who are depressed:

Depression Map


I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this reporting, though the map is perhaps more telling for what regions have no data available.)  But, cautions the Financial Times, “for anyone daunted by a map of the London underground, with nearly 300 stations on its maze of lines, it is probably best not to try to visualize a chart of the human brain” and its 100 billion neurons.  There is the attempt to do so, however, in the stupendous Brain Activity Map, which looks a lot like something that could have come from a 3D printer, and on which hopes have been pinned to inaugurate a “new golden age of brain research” to the tune of 3 billion dollars:


Brain Acess Map


Back to Combray.   Proust used notebooks to unearth his own memories in something like a material record of their  excavation, as he followed, intuitively and to some extent impulsively, memories that expands to reveal something like another map, or a record, if not of Combray– of which he was convinced nothing in fact “subsists”–his own personal experiences there; he is sure “all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water lilies of Vivonne, and the good people of the village and their little dwellings, and the church and all of Combray and its surroundings, all of this . . . is acquiring form and solidity,” and “emerged, town and garden alike, from my cup of tea.” If the familiarity of taste is able to bear  the “immense edifice of memory” as they “rejoined his consciousness” for his ready inspection and enjoyment and exploration, the act of recording these memories provide a map of his own explorations of the past.  Even if “everything had come apart” and “nothing survived” of these recollections that were “abandoned so long outside my memory,” he discovered a map of recollection, addition and associations.

Part of this map was in the practice of writing itself, we see, when the long, baroque, interminable sentences provided prompts to their own further and subsequent investigation of what could be elicited to rejoin his consciousness through the very act of their description:  the immersive act of writing seems a chase for images of “recollections abandoned so long outside my memory,” rematerializing them on the page, much as the material topographic prompts on maps can provide a sudden recognition of site and location, and place.




If smell and taste persist even “when nothing subsists of an old past,” “waiting, hoping upon the ruins of all the rest, like lost souls,” the recovery of the emotional map of where he lived under the neglectful eye of his aunt Léonie, and so longed for his mother, provided the tools to create a mental topography he could actively re-inhabit at night.  The topography was an emotional one, to be sure, rather than bearing the objective descriptive qualities of a “map.”  It was as if, Proust wrote, in his mind the family country house he described “consisted only of two floors connected by a slender staircase and as though it had always been seven o’clock in the evening there.” He knew that the place existed objectively. “But since what I recalled would have been supplied to me only by my voluntary memory, the memory of intelligence, and since the information it give about the past preserves nothing of the past itself, I would never have had any desire to think about the rest of Combray,” he allowed, before acknowledging that there might be some spark that an accidental encounter would expose to him again.

The fear of loss and disappearance was a source of trouble, he admitted: “Will [the past fragmented memory] reach the clear surface of my consciousness—this memory, this old moment which the attraction of an identical moment has come from so far to invite, to move, to raise up from the deepest part of me?” And then it appeared.  Bent over his own map of his mind–and of his memories–that he was remaking and refashioning by the process of his writing.

But the project of mapping such a newly comprehensive visualization of the brain just might jump-start the economy.



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Filed under Brain Activity Map, brain imaging, brain mapping, homunculus, mapping the brain, Marcel Proust, memory, neurasthenia, Sensory Cortex Map