Starting Points

On March 23, 2014 · 8 Comments

Preparing for a quick out-of-town jaunt to visit with friends living in the Twelve Mile Circle, the actual geographic quirk in Delaware for which this site was named, prompted me to plot a course designed to avoid the dreaded Delaware Border Tax. I succeeded in that goal by the way although that wasn’t germane to the story. Rather, this was more about the starting point (singular) although in actuality it became a matter of starting points (plural).

For some odd reason I won’t type my home address into any of the online mapping programs, harboring an unrealistic expectation that somehow those all-powerful corporate or government entities can’t find me or track my movements if I take that one simple step. I know. Fit me for a tinfoil hat. I realize it’s completely delusional and irrational from an intellectual standpoint even though that doesn’t change my behavior. That’s why I found myself dropping a rather generic "Washington, DC" into several mapping programs to research an optimal route and noticing that each site defined that simple starting point differently.

It reminded me of a day many years ago during the infancy of online mapping applications, if I can go down a tangent for a moment. I was taking a walk and noticed a woman driving through the neighborhood visibly lost. Finally she stopped to ask for directions after passing me three or four times. She wanted to find a very specific apartment building several miles away and had simply designated "Arlington, Virginia" in (I think it was) Mapquest which directed her to a point two blocks due north of my house. First, I thought, what kind of idiot would put the name of a 26 square mile county into a map site and expect it to bring her to the exact spot she needed; and second, hey it was pretty cool that I lived so close to the value the map returned. Don’t bother attempting that trick today. Mapquest changed its starting point for Arlington to the more logical county courthouse site years ago.

Back to the present, either intellectual curiosity or boredom — it could have been both — led me to examine Washington, DC as defined by several mapping sites.


OpenStreetMap’s Washington, DC Epicenter

OpenStreetMap specified a point on the northern edge of the Ellipse just across from the White House.

Zero Milestone Marker
My Own Photo

This was a spot that fell near if not directly atop the Zero Milestone marker. It was an excellent choice. The marker itself read, "Point for the measurement of distances from Washington on highways of the United States." It was hard to argue with that. Well done, OpenStreetMap. You get the Gold Star today.

Bing Maps

Bing Maps’ Washington, DC Epicenter

I’m not sure what made 14th & Madison, NW so special. It fell just outside of the Smithsonian’s American History museum, had a nice view of the Washington Monument, and provided easy access to the National Mall. That was a pretty location among hundreds of other pretty locations nearby. Nothing indicated why Bing chose that particular intersection as the starting point for Washington, DC.


Mapquest’s Washington, DC Epicenter

Ditto for Mapquest at 6th St. & Constitution Ave., NW. I love the National Gallery of Art, and the tip of Federal Triangle seemed like a slightly more logical starting point although the Zero Milestone would have been better.

Google Maps

Google Map’s Washington, DC Epicenter

And then there was the wackiness of Google Maps which selected Scott Circle for some inexplicable reason. It got weirder. I’m certain this little trick will only work for a short time. It will be eliminated once Google learns of the glitch so if someone reading this article in the future tries this trick and it doesn’t work, then understand the situation.

Type "Washington, DC" into (old) Google Maps. Use the slide bar to zoom-in to the extreme street level, then take the peg man and drop him onto the red marker. This will take you to the Secret Bunker under Scott Circle. I’ve provided a direct link too; I wanted to show you how it could be found manually so you didn’t think I was nuts.

Secret Bunker
Nathan Rhoades’ Secret Bunker, Washington, DC
via Google Street View, January 2014

I also took a screen shot in case it disappeared someday. It was a single room with typical Google 360° imagery, although one can only look around in a circle and not move anywhere. What a weird room, too. I see a couch, a chair, three flat-screen televisions, what appears to be a bottle of Kahlua atop a wooden crate, and a billiard table. Otherwise it was spartan, almost sterile. Maybe this is where the President of the United States will hide during the next disaster. I think Dick Cheney may have used it on 9/11. I’m kidding!

I enjoy a good conspiracy theory as much as anyone, however it appeared to be a user error. Nathan Rhoades, whoever he may be, must have accidentally specified Washington, DC as the location of his awesome rec room, and Google dutifully posted the file where its algorithms thought Washington, DC should be. One can click on Nathan’s name in the online version and it will jump to his gallery. This included an additional image of the same room, this time located at a house in Taunton, Massachusetts.

Nice man cave, Nathan!

Completely Unrelated

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with reddit over the years, often reserving praise for the underlying premise with a heaping plate of scorn (if you must know the gory details) reserved for its MapPorn subreddit.

This weekend was an exception. I noticed quite a number of new visitors because of a user on the MapPort subreddit who demonstrated courtesy by taking an extra step. Redditor "CupBeEmpty" handled this exactly as it should be done in my opinion, respecting intellectual property and copyright. He went out of his way to acknowledge ownership by posting a prominent link to the original 12MC article that described the "borderlocking" phenomenon. Thank you CupBeEmpty.

Trap Streets

On November 24, 2013 · 8 Comments

I’ve wanted to feature Trap Streets on 12MC for the longest while. I began the initial research and started writing an opening paragraph probably a half-dozen times over the last five years. It remained on my topic list, surviving various purges in the vague hope that someday I might find an opportunity to discuss it. Inherently, how does a geo-oddity site dependent upon visual imagery begin to approach something that by definition does not exist?

Let me recap recent developments. I posted another installment of Odds and Ends a couple of days ago, mentioning reader Nigel’s curious discovery of Heterodox View Avenue in various locations throughout the United States. I conducted a basic search and I couldn’t provide an explanation. At the time I observed, "Heterodox View Avenue — and it was always Heterodox View Avenue; not street, not drive, not boulevard, only avenue" and I couldn’t understand why. Neither could I fathom a reasonable explanation for any avenue named "heterodox" in general, a term defined roughly as an unconventional opinion. It all seemed odd and vaguely out of sorts.

Three 12MC readers, Wangi, Craig, and Rhodent each posted comments in quick succession independently. Perhaps, they suggested, multiple appearance of Heterodox View Avenue were meant to serve as trap streets.

Trap streets don’t serve as literal traps — although those in fact do exist (primarily in Canada) — instead they serve as traps for copyright violators. Cartographers historically drew minor, insignificant errors into their maps to deter others from stealing their works. Often errors took the form of small, fictional one-block streets. Access roads through shopping center parking lots, as with several Google Maps’ appearances of Heterodox View Avenue, seemed to fit that definition rather nicely on a theoretical level.

Two of the comments focused specifically on Heterodox View Avenue in Lenexa, Kansas. That was the only example where one could clearly read actual signage in Street View, and cross-reference it to the underlying map. I took a screen print of the image:

Heterodox View Kansas
Heterodox View Avenue, Lenexa/Olathe, KS
via Google Street View, May 2012

Don’t be too concerned about the address being listed as Olathe in the image. The spot was Olathe albeit by about 500 feet from the border with Lenexa, so either may be possible from a postal service perspective. More importantly, compare the confluence of street names with the (blurry) image. Notice W. 112th Terrace.

Heterodox View Ave. – Google

Meanwhile, Google Maps displayed that exact same street as Heterodox View Avenue. Ground images completely contradicted that claim. It was not Heterodox View Avenue. Google Maps also got the western cross-street wrong. It’s actually W. 113th Street.

I compared the location with a couple of other online mapping tools.

W. 112th Ter. – Open Street Map

OpenStreeMap labeled W. 112th Terrace correctly, although paradoxically it also whiffed on the western cross-street.

Only Bing got it right, with W. 112th Terrace to the east, W. 113th Street to the west, and no sign of Heterodox View Avenue anywhere.

I turned to an overview of trap streets presented on OpenStreetMap where they were called Copyright Easter Eggs. OSM viewed them as unnecessary because the site incorporated "a very unique and distinct fingerprint evident in the data coverage and details included." Thus, for example, OSM was able to determine that Apple had lifted data without attribution in 2012 without having to resort to "introduced errors." Trap streets once had meaning in the paper mapping era although they’ve become quaint anachronisms in the digital age.

One must also consider that map inaccuracies can derive from many sources. Trap streets likely form an inconsequential percentage. I’ve noticed frequent innocent errors in every online mapping tool with nothing suspicious intended by the authors. Mistakes happen. I’ve also observed numerous cases of "paper streets," including entire subdivisions, which were planned at one time and never constructed. Let’s also not discount the possibility of pranks intended as harmless insertions by bored or playful cartographers.

Were the appearances of various Heterodox View Avenues sufficient evidence of genuine trap streets in Google Maps? It seemed more plausible than finding several unrelated, unintentional errors having the same exact name, or paper streets overlaid upon actual streets, or a not particularly clever prank. I doubt Google would ever admit to the existence of trap streets even if they were true so we will never know. It will be interesting to watch what happens now that Heterodox View Avenue has been outed.

Trap Street is also a movie!

Coca-Cola Plaza, Tallinn, Estonia

Search on trap street, and behold, one will stumble upon a 2013 Chinese movie with that title in its English version. The Internet Movie Database provided a brief description that sounded intriguing from a geo-geek perspective:

In a southern city of China, a digital mapping surveyor encounters a mysterious woman on an unmappable street… He learns that the data he collected of the street will not register in the mapping system. The street has disappeared as if it never existed. Desperate to reconnect with the mysterious woman he continues his investigation of the unmappable street only to discover something that will change his life forever.

While the movie has screened in Canada, Russia and the UK, it does not have a US release date as of the time I write this (Nov. 24, 2013). It will debut next at Coca-Cola Plaza in Tallinn, Estonia as part of the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, on November 26. Tickets were still available this morning. I’m half-tempted to buy one even though I’ll never be able to attend (road trip to Estonia, anyone?). Maybe the director, Vivian Qu, will stumble across this page while Googling herself and invite me to the US premier.

I guess I should start learning Mandarin. I hate subtitles.

Move Along, Nothing to See Here

On September 24, 2013 · 6 Comments

The signs claimed "On this site in 1897 nothing happened." It was mildly amusing, maybe even a tiny bit clever the first time — the first time! — I saw one of their ilk several years ago. They mimicked the look-and-feel of genuine historical markers with faux cast iron, bold font, adorned with a couple of official-looking stars, and appearing on random walls, rocks, pillars, and homes in places where, quite accurately, nothing much special ever happened. I’m sure many people in the 12MC audience have noticed these conversation pieces scattered around during their travels.

On This Site...
On This Site… by ilovememphis, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license

This one was spotted by the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau. The tag geolocated to a parking lot near the intersection of S. Front Street and Beale Street. I poked around in Street View for awhile, noticed a promising brick wall, and couldn’t find the actual sign in the wild, though.

The trend had likely run its course already by the time "nothing happened" signs appeared on Amazon for $29.99. Other sources priced them even lower.

Imitators delivered additional evidence of oversaturation. Variations from my very unscientific survey of photo sites included September 5, 1782 (second most common), 1832 (third most common), April 17, 1897 (adding even greater precision to 1897), March 13, 1893, June 12, 1761, April 1, 1780, and on-and-on, including one specifying that George Washington never slept there. They all held one thing in common; that on that date and in that spot, nothing happened. There’s even an entire group on Flickr devoted to nothing happening.

1782 ON THIS SITE SEPT 5, 1782 NOTHING HAPPENED by Leo Reynolds, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license

Interestingly, while 1897 seemed to be a preeminent date for historical non-occurrences in the United States, it was September 5, 1782 that dominated in the United Kingdom. I’m sure an enterprising scholar could frame an entire doctoral dissertation around the definition of historic age in the U.S. versus the U.K. It’s about a hundred years farther back in the Old Country, apparently.

The example, noted above, was discovered in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England. One person commenting on its page, observed:

I think whoever made this sign made a typo and used an 8 instead of a 5. It would be factually correct and even more amusing if it read Sept 5, 1752 because absolutely nothing happened on that day due to the date changes of the British Calendar Act of 1751.

That was so cool I had to look it up. Sure enough, the Parliament of Great Britain passed the Calendar (New Style) Act 1750 and amended it with the Calendar Act 1751. Thus, September 5, 1752 didn’t exist in Yarmouth because the calendar skipped from Wednesday September 2 straight over to Thursday September 14, 1752 during a transition from Julian dates to Gregorian.

Humorous signs like these have been around for at least a couple of decades. Multiple Internet sources said they’ve been around "since at least the 1980′s." The date seemed plausible. However, as is typical, they all quoted from each other in circular fashion and none of them reference a reliable primary source. The earliest definite reference I found traced to a November 1990 Chicago Tribune article, Unhistory – A suspiciously long prepositional phrase which highlighted a sign affixed to a rock at the Evanston, Illinois campus of Northwestern University. It’s still there, and it’s known colloquially as The Nothing Happened Rock. I can’t believe I found the actual rock on Street View (map). That’s nuts.

Simpsons Tiananmen Square Parody
The Simpsons, Episode 347, "Goo Goo Gai Pan," March 13, 2005
Fair Use screen grab

Nothing Happened signs have become a part of the collective consciousness. A parody sign debuted on the Goo Goo Gai Pan episode of The Simpsons, first aired on March 13, 2005. "On this site, in 1989, nothing happened," appeared as the family walked through Tiananmen Square, an obvious reference to the momentous events of that year and subsequent efforts to wipe it from Chinese memory.

The joke has grown a little threadbare over the years although people are still discovering Nothing Happened for the very first time, and expressing their amusement. I suspect that they’ll be around for awhile.

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